Friday, March 27, 2015

God's Word -- and God's Love -- on the Cross

I'm continuing to study the question "Why Did Jesus Die?" I'm doing this as I prepare for Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on the way to the cross.

It's clear Jesus did not die by mistake. No, it's clear, from scripture, that Jesus came in order to lay down his life for us. That was God's plan.

But that doesn't answer the question "Why did Jesus die?" The mere fact that he purposefully walked and rode into the headquarters of his enemies doesn't answer the "why" question at all. I'm asking about the strategy. What was it about the spiritual situation of the world that required Jesus to give up his life, and how did Jesus' suffering and death (and subsequent resurrection) provide a remedy?

It seems to me that the Word of God gives at least two ways of looking at the how God works LOVE through the Cross. Scholars say there are more, but I think there are basically two.

I'll try to say some things about what I understand about each, but I know this will not be complete or even very well written. I think I've spent a hundred or more hours studying this over the last couple weeks and I'm just needing to get some things written down that will be hopefully helpful for me (in terms of organizing thoughts) and perhaps for others too. Not having to drive bus this week has let me get some of this done.

1. Some portions of scripture (as I read them) seem to look upon Jesus' death as an answer to the question: "How can God mercifully pardon sinners who have caused untold suffering to themselves and others without God also becoming an accomplice to their evil and without disregarding the cries of those who have suffered?"
That's the way I would ask the question. The Psalms, for example give voice to those who suffer--and they cry out for justice! And the prophets do the same.

But that's not the way most Christians would answer the "How can God..." question.
  They would ask "How can a Holy God excuse sin and evil?" highlighting a legal requirement for justice, saying God cannot save sinners without punishment. So, they would say, in an act of mercy, God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus, satisfying that legal requirement. There are scripture passages that say almost exactly that--for example, Romans 3:25.

What do I think? Leaving aside, for a moment, the impersonal justice issue, I can see how God pouring wrath upon sin and evil, Jesus having taken it all on himself, can picture the Gospel truthfully. What sweetness in knowing that Jesus died for me, that he took upon himself the consequences of the sin and evil I have done, including the sin and evil I have participated in and benefited from without intent... i.e. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. It's a horribly painful, though good, word from God. God shows love as, in Christ Jesus, he suffers and dies for us, in the place of sinners and all who have done evil or failed to do what is good.

It seems to me, however, that this idea of "substitutionary atonement" can imply a separation of God the Father from God the Son. It can make God the Father seem to be an enemy of God the Son, and an enemy of anyone who sins. That's a problem because Jesus states, for example, in the Gospel of John, that he and the Father are one. And it's a problem because God wants us to "flee for refuge to Him" instead of running away.

I'm thankful for scripture passages that make it clear that "GOD IS LOVE" and that there is and never has been any division or separation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I should look them up and add them here... maybe I'll do that later.

The words believers focus on when they think of God and Jesus being separate are the ones Jesus says on the Cross, "My God... why have you forsaken me." I think Jesus felt abandoned on the cross but I'm pretty much convinced that the Father never left him.

The words Jesus spoke about being forsaken on the cross are actually quoted from Psalm 22 verse 1, and a later verse in that Psalm declares that "he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him."

This interpretation leads to the second understanding of the atonement that I'll speak about below.

I can't reject this idea of Jesus' death being a sacrifice for us entirely, however, like others seem to do, because the scriptural evidence for it just seems to be so strong. And I don't think that the sacrificial language was only a way of "speaking in a way that religious humans can understand." There is real evil to be dealt with and the Cross somehow deals with it in a decisive way.

I'm drawn to some passages that I can't completely understand, where the Bible speaks of Jesus' blood has been shed and that our salvation (and a remedy for evil) has been provided for, not only on the Cross itself, which brought it out into the open, but in eternity past, before there was anything--before the creation of space and time and everything else, that is, "before the foundation of the world". See, for example, First Peter 1:19-20 and Revelation 13:8.  It's all been prepared and the Cross just brings it out.

I have a lot more to learn and study about this.
2. Though I don't think the Cross is ALL about God's reputation, but some Christians have come to that conclusion. They would say that the real problem is seen, for example, in the Garden of Eden where Satan lies to the woman about God. Then the woman and man disobey by eating the fruit from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (instead of the knowledge of God!). Then the man and woman both hide from God even though God is seeking them.

The question that the Cross answers in this case is, "How can God convince people that He is really for them and with them and not against them?" The answer is: In the Cross God demonstrates that there is NOTHING he would not do to gain their love, and he is willing to suffer the wrath and abandonment of every human being present in order to gain their trust. It's all about love. The only wrath is the wrath of the people--and of Satan--who pour out their venom on Jesus as they afflict him with injustice and cruelty and death.
In the passage from Genesis 3, where the man and woman are hiding from God, there's no reason to think God is hunting the couple to punish them after they sinned... no reason, that is except that the man and woman go and hide! There's no reason to think that God would not have forgiven them if they had confessed instead of blaming one another (and the snake). But because they believe God is now someone who should be avoided they become untrustworthy partners with God. So God decrees that they shall die--but that death was never to be permanent. God has had a plan, since before creation, to win the people's trust--and that's what happens when Jesus comes as he had already planned, and ends up suffering all the way to the death.

This view says that the real problem that Jesus' death solves is about God's reputation, about how to get people to go to him instead of running away. It is really important that we know God rightly, so we go to him and not away, that we don't avoid Him or His Word, because he is the only source of true life and love! The Bible has many examples of people who invent other "gods," that is, other ways of coping or living, ways that reject God's purposes for us here on earth. And all of them lead nowhere but into more evil, more suffering, and, eventually, to a very dead end.
So--what should we say about the Cross? How does God work love through it?

It seems to me that God the Son puts himself forward on the Cross to suffer the worst injustice and cruelty sinners could dish out, dying and then rising from the dead (!) so that all the world's oppressed can know where to find hope and help when all is lost. They can go to God and hope in Him! They never need to be afraid of his wrath or punishment! It's ALL about love!

That preaches! That's a message that truly speaks with the voice of Jesus, a voice that we need to make sure is speaking loud and clear. From what I read in scripture Jesus is much less concerned about a need to "fulfill a legalistic requirement" than just sharing LOVE! In the Holy Spirit, I believe God is at work in us to preach the Cross in a way that draws every sinful and broken human being to himself.

I should clean this up and look for other examples from scripture before I publish this blog post, but I really need to stop working on this. I'm thankful for the opportunity to serve as the pastor of a church where people really care about truth, and look forward to bringing some of this out on Sunday at Crossroads.

God's peace to you all in Jesus' name.

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