Why wasn’t Jesus sacrificed upon a mountain like his ancestor Isaac? Why did Jesus go through the torture and humiliation of crucifixion if his goal was just to pay a hefty price for sins? What was the reason for the Roman nails?
Should we be asking more questions about Jesus’ cross? And, if feel like we’re getting some solid answers, how does this change our view of his cross and how does a changed view make any difference in our liturgy and life?
One follower of Jesus commented about the weekly observation of the Lord’s Supper and more generally, the weekly assembly. He said, “It’s as if a soldier has returned from a war, victorious, and we simply come to say ‘Thanks!” each week, before returning to life as usual.” Reflecting on this statement caused me to imagine a soldier that returned from a war long before any of us who are reading this were born. Imagine how appreciative we may or may not be, especially when we’re not related to the soldier and the war he fought in was not even for the country we live in. I’m curious to know how many people experience a Sunday assembly with this kind of foggy perception of Jesus and his death on a Roman cross.
The Sunday assembly for many Christians, if reflected upon, can often resemble a go-through-the-motions habit. Part, if not all, of the assembly, is enjoyed. Yet, part, if any of the assembly, is mature. Baseball players spend countless hours swinging their bats. Yet, this exercise doesn’t guarantee that one of the players will be able to hit a pitch into play. Is this what many Christians are being taught? Are many being taught to practice swinging on Sunday instead of being taught to hit? Swinging a bat doesn’t make someone playing baseball successful at the game. Hitting with that bat consistently can make someone a Hall of Fame player. Are we “hitting the ball” in our assemblies (not to mention our daily lives)?
To me, hitting the ball in our assemblies means that we’re consistently developing the story of the Bible which centers on Jesus. Part of that story that many Christians rehearse is the Lord’s Supper. However, a typical impression seems to be given. We keep hearing that we are the center of the Biblical story. How? Let me know if you’ve heard these statements often: “It’s difficult for us to appreciate how much Jesus endured for us when he went to the cross.” “Do we often find ourselves thinking of the Lord’s Supper as something that’s mundane, and that we need to discover ways to allow it to have a greater impact on us?” “How many of us think of the Lord’s Supper as an item on a checklist that needs to be done so that we can feel like we’ve done what God wants?” “We cannot imagine the pain Jesus endured for us.” “We should be grateful for what Jesus has done for us because he suffered so much that it cost him his life.” Now ask yourself what each of these statements say and who is emphasized more. “For us.” “Ourselves.” “Impact on us.” “So that we can feel…” “Endured for us.” If you consistently hear statements like these during the Lord’s Supper do you think it’s likely that the focus of the Lord’s Supper is us and not Jesus? Even though Jesus accomplished something incredible for all of us we might tend to think that the Bible centers on us. How can we develop the story of the Bible with us at the center?
Many of those statements tend to convey a tone of pity for Jesus’ nails. If we’re using pity to motivate ourselves then we aren’t maturing. We’re regressing. Pity is sympathetic while compassion is empathetic and also motivates us to action. Just as many of us can only be sympathetic toward a soldier (especially an ancient soldier) none of us can truly be sympathetic toward the Jesus who suffered the nails. In other words, none of us who are reading this have died in the manner in which Jesus died. We can’t relate to his experience. We can only be compelled to have sympathy for Jesus which puts him at a distance. We can easily pity Jesus unless we’re able to put ourselves in his shoes? But that’s impossible….right?
The apostle Paul (and I’m sure countless others) put themselves in Jesus’ “shoes” all the time. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) Paul had other ways of saying this in his other letters. Peter, John, and other disciples echo similar statements. In fact, the New Testament is created out of a compassion for the world we live in because of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. The New Testament authors don’t seem to be short-sighted like many of us. They were all able to “put themselves in Jesus’ shoes.” Initially, none of them of them were able to be filled with the compassion you and I understand to be readily available to all people. They, too, were short-sighted. Luke 24 illustrates a scenario where two disciples on their way to Emmaus could only imagine a dead Messiah. However, once they realized who the stranger accompanying them actually was, they began to realize something greater than they ever would have imagined. The crucified Christ wasn’t the end of their story. The crucified Christ was their national story’s fulfillment and a new beginning.
We, too, can put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes but we must speak to one another in our assemblies with a common depth of the Bible’s vernacular. We rarely recognize that Jesus’ nail-scarred hands and feet were necessary for much more than mankind’s sin. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t merely for after-life insurance. If a human sacrifice was all that was needed to rescue the world from the consequences of sin then why wouldn’t Jesus’ death upon a remote mountain have done the job? When we make the Biblical story about us we tend to concern ourselves with….ummmm….us. We are used to making Jesus’ death mean merely rescue from damnation. We know one thing well. We don’t want to end up being punished by a God who can unleash severe wrath upon sinful people. So, we’re glad that Jesus paid an awful price but we really pity the fact that he had to. This kind of thinking has led us to miss the great breadth of the cross. We, too, like the disciples, have had difficulty imagining that God would make Jesus the ruler of the world by allowing him to submit to unjust capital punishment. Jesus was on the way to Emmaus and taught that Israel’s Messiah was supposed to suffer and then enter “his glory.” Jesus was crowned with honor and glory because he suffered death (Hebrews 2:9). Again, Jesus didn’t merely die a sacrificial death only to rise and disappear weeks later. He died in order to be raised from death as the King of a new world he began creating and will finish when he returns.
Jesus, in discussion with Pilate, articulated that the true God was actually establishing world governance through Israel’s Messiah. The mysterious segue into the topic of truth was within a context of who really had the power to rule. Were emperors from Rome the rightful rulers of the known world? Were brutality or merciless oppression the keys to creating idyllic human life? Should rulers of the earth resemble Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, or Nero, all living in opulence at the expense of slavery, or should rulers of the earth look like righteous judges who served their nations by caring for the elderly, the diseased and by dignifying the have-nots? Real power serves and loves out of its generosity. True power doesn’t inflate itself by abusing the weak. This is truth. God’s truth is redemptive because that’s what heavenly love seeks. Crucifixion was God’s chosen vehicle to demonstrate this truth. The iconic instrument used to intimidate and brutalize would become an iconic instrument for mercy and forgiveness. Empires use death to remain as kings on hills. God used the death of Jesus to overcome every empire’s greatest weapon. Every nation should recognize the limitations of its power. Jesus rules and death cannot overcome his kingdom. Death may be seen as a way to victory for some but we know that Jesus has risen. The weapon of death will always be defeated. “Pilate, do you want to see real power? Do you want to know who really rules this world?” Jesus, the real emperor of the world, had to be killed in public. Enemies had to watch. Jesus’ death wasn’t just for those who would find themselves in Sunday assemblies. These nails weren’t meant for pity. They were used to exalt a truly powerful throne.
“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” John 19:17-22
When we assemble to proclaim the Lord’s death, do we tend to pity Jesus and put him at a distance? “Poor Jesus, look at what he had to endure.” Or, do we tend to swell with compassion and bathe in the glory of an incredible cross-shaped throne? “For the message of the cross is stupid to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it’s the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18