There is nothing more mysterious and yet more moving to me than Christ's death on the Cross for my sins. His death is the heart of that mystery expressing both the love and wisdom of God, making possible our salvation and eternal life with Him. I am more deeply conscious than ever of my need for all that Christ did for me, and I wish I could understand more deeply it's unfathomable meaning. I can only pray that the Holy Spirit who "searches all things even the depths of God" (I Cor. 2:10) will, as far as possible, help us to see and understand the mystery of Christ's loving sacrifice for us.
These two problems were solved by the Cross,
- How can God be just and justify the sinner?
- How can we live a righteous life when we are poisoned with sin from the inside out?
To restate the problems: Can a person be justified before God, and sanctified in his/her own actual experience? Can we have a conscience cleared of guilt and a life so changed it is actually approaching righteous living? These are the problems solved by the mystery of Christ's sufferings.
Each gospel gives a detailed account of the events leading to Jesus' death. Nothing remotely like it had happened before. How could it be that the Messiah should face defeat, that God get crucified? Nature itself convulsed at the deed: the ground shook, rocks cracked open, the sky went black. But no miraculous escape occurs, no supernatural rescue attempts.
The might of the world arrays itself against a solitary figure, the only perfect man who has ever lived. The most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire conspire together, and yet it is Jesus who is overseeing the whole process. He set his face for Jerusalem knowing the fate that awaits him. The cross has been his goal all along. Now as death nears, he calls the shots. Yet Jesus' defenselessness stands out.
- Not a single witness rose to his defense.
- No leader had the nerve to speak out against injustice.
- Not even Jesus tried to defend himself.
- No one seems willing to accept full responsibility for executing Jesus, yet everyone in power wants him disposed of.
Jesus explained it later to his disciples. "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things?" Luke 24:26. Jesus was overseeing the whole process, he was calling the shots, not the Roman Governor, Herod, or the Sandedrin.
We have in John 13-17 an intimate picture of Jesus' most anguished night on earth. Yet it was at this last supper he said, "I confer on you a kingdom." Luke 22:29 and "I have overcome the world." John 16:33. John tells us "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power." John 13:3. After this authoritative statement his incongruous action of taking off his out clothing, wrapping himself in a towel (the garb of a slave, not a king), and washing the grime off the disciples feet demonstrated dramatically Christ's kingdom and God's wisdom. Jesus symbolically overturned the world's social order. Hardly comprehending what was happening, his own disciples were almost horrified by his behavior.
Just before Jesus conferred on his disciples the kingdom they had been disputing among themselves which of them was the greatest. Jesus said "the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." Luke 22:26. The kingdom Christ conferred on us is based on service and humility. This act of foot washing was considered so degrading that a master could not require it of a Jewish slave. When Jesus finished washing the disciples' feet he asked, "Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so for that is what I am . . . I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." John 13:12-15. What kind of king was this? Riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey -- weeping. And now, down on his knees, washing the disciples feet! A self-sacrificing loving King.
Jesus lived in the present tense of the Father's love which was so real as to rob his life of all loneliness. In Gethsemane a great struggle was underway. Jesus was "overwhelmed with sorrow" to the point of death. "Stay here and keep watch with me." He needed his disciples in his depth of loneliness. When they failed him, Jesus did not try to conceal his hurt. "Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?" Jesus needed the comfort and presence of his friends in his hour of profound anguish, but they slept while he endured the crucible alone.
In Gethsemane, Jesus relived Satan's temptation in the wilderness. He could have solved the problem of evil by force; he could have called down twelve legions of angels (72,000) to fight a Holy War on his behalf (as he himself said). There would be no church as all human history would have come to a halt, and the present age would end. All this lay within Jesus' power if he merely said the word, skipped his personal sacrifice, and traded away the messy future of redemption.
Yet, the cross, the "cup" that now almost overwhelmed him, was the very reason Jesus had come to earth. Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies (us), the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom: it IS the kingdom to come. After several hours of tortuous prayer, his will and the Father's converged. He woke his slumbering friends and marched boldly through the darkness toward the ones intent on killing him.
The trial sequence has a "pass the buck" quality and Jesus' defenselessness stands out. Even God, the Father said not a word. So finally the high priest asked, "Tell us if you are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God." At last Jesus broke his silence: "Yes, it is as you say", and went on to speak of himself (the Son of Man) coming in the clouds of glory. Mt. 26:63-65. At that, the high priest tore his robes and cried, "blasphemy". How could Jesus be the King Messiah? He was the very picture of helplessness. Jesus looked the least Messiah-like figure in all of Israel.
This is the only time Jesus publicly proclaimed who he was, only when his claims would seem the height of absurdity. The "Son of God", he told the religious powers who had him in their grasp. "A King", he told a Roman governor who had the power to condemn him to death for sedition. Luke 23:3.
Weak, rejected, doomed, utterly alone -- only then did Jesus think it safe to reveal himself, and accept the title "Christ" when the danger of founding a "religion" was finally past. Paul would say later the cross was an offense, a stumbling block, but the rejected cornerstone became, with God's power, the cornerstone of God's new Kingdom.
Even after reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion, we cannot fathom the indignity, the shame endured by God's perfect Son on earth. Stripped naked, flogged, spat on, beard plucked out, struck in the face, crowned with thorns tearing his scalp open, and then crucified -- the cruelest death devised by humans! Even harder to understand is God's self-restraint on that day in Jerusalem. Legions of angels awaited Christ's command -- one word and his ordeal would end.
But, as always, Jesus was thinking about others. He forgave the men who had done the deed. He arranged care for his mother. He welcomed a condemned thief into paradise.
His cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:33 expresses his estrangement from God. Now he was truly alone and abandoned. C.S. Lewis states, "The 'hiddenness' of God is God Himself, made man, who will of all men be by God most forsaken."
It is the cry of One who has reached the final issue of sin. It is the cry of One who has fathomed the deepest depth of sorrow. It is the cry of One who is himself overwhelmed in the mystery of the silence of being God-abandoned.
SIN - SORROW - SILENCE
- "He who knew no sin was made sin." (II Cor. 5:21)
- He was "sorrowful unto death."
- He was forsaken of God.
Whose sin is this that he is made, and or which he is forsaken by God? My Sin! He was made my sin. "He bore my sin in his body on the tree." (I Peter 2:24).
No theologian can adequately explain the nature of what took place within the Trinity on that day at Calvary. We are not told what God, the Father, cried out at that moment. We can not imagine. The Son became "a curse for us", said Paul in Galatians, and "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us", he wrote the Corinthians. We know how God feels about sin; the sense of abandonment probably was felt both by God, the Father, and God, the Son.
Normally we think of someone who dies a criminal's death as a failure. Yet Paul declared, "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." Col. 2:15. The Cross redefines God as one who was willing to absorb evil, and relinquish power for the sake of love. It was God's unilateral disarmament -- Jesus disarmed Satan's power which is evil, and the world system's power which causes suffering. He did it by becoming powerless, absorbing all the world's evil as proof of God's love. God renounced his power by dying helplessly on the cross for the sake of his love. It was God's unilateral disarmament. Power tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. At the cross Christ renounced power for the sake of love. It is the greatest expression of God's wisdom in order to pour out his love on us without minimizing his justice.
Christ solved the two problems:
- By the Cross, God can be just, true to himself in nature, and justify the sinner making a person clear from guilt.
- The second problem is also solved by the mystery of the Cross, as we will see when we study Christ's resurrection. We have a new dynamic, a new power by which our lives can be transformed and victory over sin can be won.
Last month we focused on being a disciple of Christ - who walks in the fullness of the Spirit. This month by studying the Cross of Christ it seems appropriate to consider Jesus' call to discipleship. "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Mt. 16:24).
The sequence to Christ's call is important. --> "Deny yourself." Bonhoffer, "Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake."
In our world of peace, prosperity and comfort it is hard to envision "denying self" or "bearing a cross." Jesus spoke of the reality that suffering and discipleship are synonymous.
Quote: John 15:18-21, 16:1-4a
- A cross is the suffering, rejection and opposition that inevitably comes with making Christ Lord of our life. Our focus will not be on suffering, but on Christ; and with it comes his peace, his joy and the fulfillment of a meaningful, significant life. Christ is worthy of our whole existence as we willingly follow in good times as well as bad.
- Cross-bearing is a predisposition which no amount of trouble will change. There are no surprises which will derail the committed disciple. Missionaries have always experienced loneliness, often diseases and death of loved one, burdens which almost overwhelm and opposition from the evil one. But they persevere and cast their burdens on the Lord.
- Cross-bearing is an individual experience. Bonhoffer wrote just days before he was hung, "every committed disciple has his own cross waiting for him, a cross designed and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom. While others he does not allow to be tempted above that which they are able to bear."
- That leads to the conclusion that cross-bearing is inevitable when we follow Christ. The reality is that this world is hostile to Jesus - the rejection and ultimately the crucifixion where the direct result of Christ being a threat to the god of this world, and, of course, God's wisdom defeated and disarmed Satan through Christ's death and resurrection. So it is inevitable that as we live out the truth and principles of Christ before a watching world it will be uncomfortable and unsettling to them. If we do not live as counterculture disciples the world will not know there is an alternative. The world's response is likely to be intimidation, being maligned and taunted. Our life should express confidence, compassion and courage as we continue to speak the truth in love.
Jesus warned his disciples about this inevitable response in John 15 and 16.
Did you realize that more Christians are dying as martyrs in this season of Church history than in all the other seasons combined? Let me enumerate the countries I know about.
- Peru - Juecha Indian church killed by Shining Patrol guerrillas.
- Islamic countries: Sudan - 1,000s of boys kidnapped to be Islamised; 1,000s of Christians sold as slaves sent to Libya. 1,000s pushed into desert with no food. Many massacres, even crucifixion of Christians.
- In Vietnam - severe repression of Christians being denied education, food, medical aid. Pastors write, "We don't struggle with materialism because there are not materials for us to struggle with. We are poor and face may difficulties, but God is blessing and causing the church to grow."
- In Ethiopia 1994 - Officials raided the church, killed 1,000s, pastor tortured, eyes dug out.
- In Iran - Pastor killed in 1994 - very few Christians left there.
- In Pakistan - Christians are regularly sentenced to death.
- In China - House church leaders are beaten, tortured, imprisoned and churches forbidden to meet. But the church is growing even through suffering - now 50-60 million.
These fully devoted disciples remain faithful to the "fellowship of sharing in Christ's sufferings." (Phil. 3:10)
By contrast, the crosses we bear here are as light as balsa wood. We struggle with whether or not to raise our level of financial giving above the 5% required to be on the Servant Team. Or whether to let it be know at our work place that we are a Christian.
I think a real cross may consist of the struggle to extricate ourselves from the ungodly lifestyle we lived before we became Christians. Addictions and sins of all kinds cause great agony of heart, body and soul. Handout and go over some aspects of Sin & Temptation.
Fortunately, we know that God has planned a far better place where there is no suffering, sorrow or pain. The balance of a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ has its seasons of joy, great relationships and the experience of being in the Body of Christ. In addition, the satisfaction of knowing the certainty of glory and gain "for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35).