Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Cross

Christianity has been misunderstood since the beginning, and continues to be misunderstood today, often by Christians themselves. As a matter of fact, Jesus himself was misunderstood, as the Bible points out. To many, it is a complete mystery how one man’s death on a crude Roman cross can have such an impact on the world. This is not a new problem, as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:21-23 (New Living Translation paraphrased version):

Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

Despite the “foolishness” of the Cross it stands at the pinnacle of history: it’s that important.

Telling the Story

The Bible describes the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden, and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. We know about the various trials of Jesus as he is shuttled back and forth between the high priest, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, and back to Pilate again. We read about the crowd demanding his crucifixion, about his terrible scourging, and the agonizing walk to Calvary, carrying the heavy wooden cross-beam. The Gospels tell the story almost minute by minute, but they don’t go into much descriptive detail about some of the events.

We may wonder why, but in reality, they didn’t have to. The people of that day, reading these accounts, knew exactly what had happened. For example, it says in John 19:1: Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. Nothing more had to be said. Anybody reading this in the first or second centuries knew exactly what this entailed: 39 lashes with a whip that ripped the skin and flesh off the body. Often prisoners died from the flogging.

There is no lengthy description of the crucifixion either, because, again, there was no need for it. Most people in those days had witnessed crucifixions and knew what it involved – no need for gory details. However, the lack of detail doesn’t diminish the significance of the Cross. The significance isn’t in the details, but in the event itself: who it was who died, and why he came to die as part of God’s plan.

Significance of the Cross

The significance of these events lies not in the fact that some innocent man was the victim of a terrible injustice. Many people have suffered terrible injustices throughout history. It isn’t in the fact that some poor guy, trying to do some good, is rewarded by being executed by corrupt authorities who felt threatened by him. Many people have been caught up in power struggles, and have ended up dead. It isn’t in the fact that this was an excruciating death, because many people have suffered agonizing deaths. As a matter of fact, thousands of Jews were crucified after the insurrections of 68-70 and 133-135 against the Romans.

As I said before, the significance of the death of Jesus is not in the method, or who did it, or in any of the details. What makes the death of Jesus so important is that he is the Son of God, and he went voluntarily to his death in fulfillment of God’s plan. How do we know? We read in Philippians 2:8 that Jesus was obedient to God:

He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. NRSV

We also see his yielding to God the Father’s will in his prayer during his agony in the garden (Matthew 26:39b):

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” NRSV

Old Testament Prophecies

The New Testament explains why Jesus needed to suffer and die – it was God’s way of redeeming the human race. While we look to the New Testament for understanding of the death of Jesus, the Old Testament also clearly explains why the Messiah had to suffer and die. The Old Testament sacrificial system, with the shedding of animal’s blood, points to Jesus and his death (which is needed to get us back into right relationship with God). Isaiah chapter 53 lays out very clearly God’s new plan for the human race 500 years before the Cross.

This concept of a sacrificial death can be difficult to grasp, but we have to take on faith what Jesus accomplished by his suffering and death:

· It was to free us from the penalty of our own transgressions (“was crushed for our iniquities” and “pierced for our transgressions”),

· It was to reconcile us to God (“the punishment that brought us peace”), and it

· It was to give us victory over sin and death (“by his wounds we are healed”).

Therefore, when we put our faith in Christ and what he did on the Cross, it:
· brings us into a right relationship with God (for which we were created),
· transforms us into new creations in Christ, and
· guarantees us a place in heaven despite how rotten we’ve been.

That’s why the Cross and the shed blood of Jesus are so important, offensive as they might seem to those who don’t understand. Apparently there was no other way to effectively – once for all – free the human race from the penalty of our sins and restore us to what we were created to be. One of the best explanations of the death of Jesus is found in Hebrews 9:11-22. This passage links the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus with the Israelite sacrifices of animals, and tells why Jesus’ sacrifice is superior. I’ll read it from The Message, a highly paraphrased version, but one that is easy to follow and explains this in modern terms:

But when the Messiah arrived as high priest of the superior things of this new covenant, he bypassed the old [tabernacle] and its trappings in this created world, and went straight into heaven’s “[tabernacle]” — the true Holy Place — once and for all.

He also bypassed the sacrifices consisting of goat and calf blood, instead using his own blood as the price to set us free once and for all. If that animal blood and the other rituals of purification were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out. Through the Spirit, Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.

Like a will that takes effect when someone dies, the new covenant was put into action at Jesus’ death. His death marked the transition from the old plan to the new one, canceling the old obligations and accompanying sins, and summoning the heirs to receive the eternal inheritance that was promised them. He brought together God and his people in this new way.

Even the first plan required a death to set it in motion. After Moses had read out all the terms of the plan of the law — God’s “will” — he took the blood of sacrificed animals and, in a solemn ritual, sprinkled the document and the people who were its beneficiaries.

And then he attested its validity with the words, “This is the blood of the covenant commanded by God.” He did the same thing with the place of worship and its furniture. Moses said to the people, “This is the blood of the covenant God has established with you.” Practically everything in a will hinges on a death. That’s why blood, the evidence of death, is used so much in our tradition, especially regarding forgiveness of sins.

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