The Wonderful Cross: The Scandal of the Cross, Part 4

[The following is adapted from the scholarship of Fleming Rutledge, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and others.]

One of the most degrading parts of crucifixion was the scourging. The Jews had precise rules regarding this form of punishment. Under the Law of Moses, no one could be lashed more than forty times, so they typically flogged people up to 39 times. But Jesus was flogged by Romans, not Jews. And the Romans were brutal when it came to the scourging.

Under Roman law, the number of times a person could be struck with the scourge was limitless. Roman flogging was so severe that people often died from this beating alone. Roman soldiers used whips with long lashes of leather which could wrap around the whole body. The ends of each lash often had fragments of nail or glass or metal attached to them.

Works of art always show Jesus wearing a loincloth when he was flogged, but that’s an addition to keep from offending our sensibilities. Scourging victims would have been completely naked. Jesus would have been tied to a post with his hands bound. After only a few strikes of the whip, His skin would have been torn away, exposing his back muscles. As the process continued, the whips would tear into the deeper skeletal muscles — which in turn would produce not only tremendous pain but also major blood loss.

The Romans were also especially fond of scourging the face. By the time a Roman flogging was over, often times even family members could no longer recognize the victim. The idea behind the scourging was to weaken the victim to something just short of total collapse or death. And of course, the victims were often taunted and ridiculed throughout the procedure.

The victim would then be paraded through the streets, subjecting him to further scorn from the crowds. Nails were never driven into the palms because that couldn’t support the full weight of a man’s body. Instead, they were driven through the wrists. Of course, this led to even greater blood loss.

Victims of crucifixion lived on their crosses for varying degrees of time, anywhere from a couple of hours to several days in some cases. Passively exhaling, which is something we do thousands of times a day without thinking about it, becomes impossible for someone hanging on a cross. The weight of a body hanging by its wrists would depress the muscles required for breathing out. Therefore, each exhaled breath would require tremendous effort to push oneself up by the feet or to pull oneself up with the arms.

Victims of crucifixion endured additional physical agony, including the loss of certain bodily functions; insects feasting on their wounds and orifices; extreme thirst and cramping muscles; shooting pain from the severed nerves in the wrists; not to mention the pain of a scourged back against the rough wood of the cross.

Crucifixions usually took place in heavily trafficked areas so passersby could mock those hanging on the crosses, spitting at them or throwing garbage at them. This would be the final touch of humiliation for one being crucified.

Eventually the crucified one gasps and heaves to the point that he is forced to become his own executioner as the weight of his own body kills him as it hangs, causing his own diaphragm to suffocate him.

Brutally beaten, naked, strategically situated for all to see, left to be eaten by birds and insects while they suffocate, victims of crucifixion were subject to unspeakable shame. The Gospel writers make it clear that this cross — scandalous and foolish in the eyes of some — is the most important event in human history. Jesus died a felon’s death, executed as a common criminal, bearing the weight of humanity’s curse as He hung upon the cross.

And He did this with us in mind.

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The Wonderful Cross: The Scandal of the Cross, Part 3

Paul also uses the word skandalon in the passage we looked at last week, 1 Corinthians 1:22-24.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Our word skandalon is translated here as “stumbling block.” The Jewish people would have considered crucifixion scandalous because, according to Deuteronomy 21:23, anyone who was hung on a tree was considered godforsaken. Crucifixion was a slave’s death. It was sort of the like the electric chair, reserved for executing the lowest class of criminal, never Roman citizens.

Roman crucifixion was an act of complete humiliation. The whole point was to dehumanize victims by stripping them of all dignity. It was intended to demonstrate that the crucified ones were not even of the same species as the executioners. One scholar notes that it was intentionally designed to carry out the most sadistic and brutal impulses that we have as human beings. No wonder some viewed it as a scandalous stumbling block. It surely seemed to be the most godless action in the world at the time.

But the grotesque nature of the cross corresponds to the grotesque nature of Sin. The Bible uses the language of “scandal” to describe the cross because there is a correspondingly scandalous nature to Sin. Sin always seeks to scandalize us. We’re talking here about “Sin” in the “capital S” sense of the word — Sin as an enslaving force, as a Power that holds us captive. That’s how Paul talks about Sin over in Romans 5-6. Sin is an inescapable force that keeps us held down — in that sense, it’s sort of like gravity.

Sin always seeks our destruction. To put it differently, Sin runs up quite a bill — and the bill always comes at the end.

  • Numbers 32:23, your sin will find you out. Some newer translations say, your sin will catch up with you. And most of us have lived long enough to know this to be true. Your sin will ALWAYS find you out.
  • Romans 6:23, For the wages of sin is death … That’s the tab that sin runs up in your life; and it’s a tab you’ll never be able to pay on your own. Sin enslaves us, chains us down, holds us back.

But the scandal of the cross is that Jesus absorbs all of this into himself. Look at the full verse of Romans 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23

Death accrues as a result of sin, but the gift of eternal life comes through Jesus. That’s the Good News! In his death, Jesus is giving himself over to Sin and the wages of Sin, which is Death. He does so as this great act of warfare in the spiritual realm. That leads Rutledge to make this powerful observation:

That is one of the most important reasons — perhaps the most important — that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

If the wages of sin is death, then in order for Jesus to die for the sins of the world, no other kind of death would have been commensurate with the enormity of such a debt. I think this is one of the keys to answering the “why” question: why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

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The Wonderful Cross: The Scandal of the Cross, Part 2

In the early years of Christianity, groups such as the Gnostics denied that Jesus physically died on the cross. They were scandalized by the idea of a suffering Messiah, considering such an image to be ill-fitting for their concept of religion. They liked Jesus, but the cross was too scandalous to accept.

In August 2003, the Church of the Holy Cross in New York City suffered two break-ins over a three week period. In the initial break-in, the thieves made off with a metal money box from the church. I guess they thought it might have some money inside or that it might net some easy cash at a local pawn shop. But three weeks later, the vandals came back and took something far more valuable: a statue of Jesus. The thieves unbolted this 4-foot-long, 200-pound plaster Jesus from the church’s meditation area. Strangely, they left the wooden cross fastened to the wall. The caretaker of the church expressed amazement that someone would try to take Jesus without also taking his cross. “They just decided, ‘We’re going to leave the cross and take Jesus,'” he said. “We don’t know why they just took [Jesus].”

Personally, I don’t find this to be strange in the least. Because I think most people would take Jesus without the cross every single time if they could. That’s what the Gnostics were trying to do two thousand years ago and that’s what plenty of people want to do today.

We like it when Jesus says, Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

We like it when Jesus says, I am with you always, or when He speaks of giving us the abundant life.

We like the way we feel when we hear Jesus say these things.

But the cross?

The cross is really, really messy. It’s a painful reminder of our sin — and we’d rather not be reminded of that. The cross is a reminder that God’s grace isn’t cheap. We’d much prefer the cheap grace of easy, bloodless forgiveness.

But that’s not what we find at the cross.

Like we said last week, we cannot pick and choose from among the great truths of the Bible to make our own little “spiritual smoothie” of verses that bring us comfort. No, we have to accept the whole story if we’re going to accept any of it — and that whole story includes a beaten and bloody and naked Savior hanging on a cross, enduring the curse brought about by OUR sin.

I think it would do us well to remember the scandal of the cross.

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The Wonderful Cross: The Scandal of the Cross, Part 1

Last week we kicked off this series entitled, “The Wonderful Cross: Understanding the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” We’re hoping to spend the next several weeks looking at what the Bible has to say about the cross.

Two questions are at the heart of this study:

  1. What is the meaning of the cross? What really happened when Jesus died? The biblical writers actually have quite a bit to say about this.
  2. What does the cross mean to you? That is really the critical question for each one of us.

I hope this series will be helpful to you as you think about how you would answer those two questions.

The Franciscan University of Steubenville is a Catholic university in Steubenville, Ohio. Not too long ago, the university posted a series of ads on Facebook to promote some of its online theology programs. But Facebook rejected one of the ads because it included a representation of the crucifixion. The monitors at Facebook rejected the ad because they said the depiction of the cross was “shocking, sensational, and excessively violent.”

The university responded in a way that probably surprised the people over at Facebook: they agreed with this assessment! The university made a post saying: “Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ was all of those things. It was the most sensational action in history [as] man executed his God. It was shocking, yes: God [took] on flesh and was ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). And it was certainly excessively violent: a man scourged to within an inch of his life, nailed naked to a cross and left to die.”

Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider for us to see things clearly. Our familiarity with the cross might cause us to lose sight of some things. But Facebook was correct: Roman crucifixion was engineered to be shocking and violent — the most shameful and degrading way for a person to die. And it is considered offensive in some circles even to this day. In addition to the Facebook story, I read an article this week about a Nigerian health care worker in the United Kingdom who was let go from her job — in the middle of a pandemic! — because her superiors deemed her gold cross necklace to be offensive.

Believe it or not, the Bible uses the same language to talk about the cross. As we continue this series, we turn our attention to what the Scriptures refer to as “the offense of the cross” or “the scandal of the cross.”

In the book of Galatians, Paul talks about the offense of the cross:

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

Galatians 5:11

The cross is offensive? According to the Bible, yes. What does that mean?

The cross was considered something scandalous in the first century world. In fact, that’s the Greek word translated as “offense” here in Galatians 5. The word is skandalon, from which we get our English word “scandal.” There’s a certain “scandal” to the cross, at least in the minds of some.

Specifically, Paul is addressing those who believed a person needed to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision in order to be saved. Now, there’s nothing necessarily scandalous to say, in religious terms, “If you do this, you will receive a blessing.” All the so-called “gods” of the religions in the ancient world operated according to this kind of system. It was very transactional: you make this sacrifice or pay this amount or sleep with this temple prostitute and the so-called “god” would be on the hook to bless you. That was conventional, transactional religion in the ancient world.

But Paul says the cross is “scandalous” in that it flies in the face of conventional, transactional religion. At the cross, we find God doing the most “irreligious” thing of all: taking our disobedience upon Himself. Yes, there is a transaction that occurs at the cross, but it is unlike the transactions in other religions. In the cross of Jesus, God is the one taking the initiative, making the blessing available apart from human initiative as He acts to make righteous the unrighteous through the atoning death of Jesus. This has become such a central feature of our faith that it might even sound strange to call it “irreligious” or “scandalous.” But this is what Paul means when he talks about the “offense” of the cross.

New Testament scholar Fleming Rutledge says it well: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God. The crucifixion is so familiar to us, and so moving, that it is hard to realize how unusual it is as an image of God.”

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2022 NFL Playoffs Picks: Wild Card Week

Every year, Sunny and Joshua and I make picks throughout the NFL playoffs. It’s a fun little family challenge and it always gives us a rooting interest in each game. Here are our picks for this week’s supersized wild card week.

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals

I think this could could be a really fun game with two gunslinging quarterbacks. I think Joe Burrow is an emerging elite-level quarterback. All three of us like the Bengals to end their playoff losing streak in this matchup.

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills

I think the “feels like” temperature is supposed to be something like 11 degrees in this one. The last time these two played in conditions like that, the Patriots ran the ball to victory. But since that game, the Bills are 4-1, a mark that includes a victory over those same Patriots a month ago. It’s hard to pick against Belichick but I like Buffalo at home in this one. Joshua is taking the Bills, too; Sunny has New England winning on the road.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Bucs

The first game on Sunday is probably the least interesting matchup of the six games this weekend. This expanded format inevitably leads to a few mediocre teams making cut and the 9-8 Eagles certainly fit the bill. All three of us have Tom Brady’s Bucs winning this home playoff game.

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys

This could be the best game of the weekend. What a matchup! All three of us are taking Dallas (that defense) but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the 49ers pulled the upset here. I can’t wait to see this game.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs

Every Bybee believes the Chiefs will roll.

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams

The Monday night game is a doozy. Which Cardinals team will show up for Kliff Kingsbury? Will the Rams “all in” play for this year pay dividends? This is another game that could probably go either way. Sunny’s taking the Cardinals while Joshua and I like the Rams.

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The Wonderful Cross: A Bibliography

For this series, we’ll be spending a lot of time in the gospels as well as the epistles in the New Testament. But I will also be interacting with a couple of key resources along the way, some scholarly works I’ve found to be especially helpful. Here are three in particular:

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

I wrote about Rutledge’s book in 2019 when I tapped it as the most important book I read that year. More recently, I included The Crucifixion in my post about the 20 most influential books I’ve ever read. Needless to say, this one has been critical to my thinking on atonement and the cross over the past couple of years. Rutledge helped flesh out the varied biblical motifs for atonement for me, pushing my thinking beyond the well worn substitutionary narrative. Jesus dies in our place, to be sure; but the biblical writers offer up a host of other images for explaining what happened on the cross. From the ransom model to the Christus Victor understanding to the recapitulation of Israel’s (and Adam’s) story, the Bible bears witness to a host of ways of answering the question, “What happened when Jesus died on the cross?” And I’m indebted to Rutledge for her careful and capable treatment of these views in this seminal work.

This is what I said in my 2019 post about this book:

In just a few sentences, [Rutledge] summarizes her primary thesis: “The Passover lamb, the goat driven into the wilderness, the ransom, the substitute, the victor on the field of battle, the representative man — each and all of these and more have their place, and the cross is diminished if any one of them is omitted. We need to make room for all the biblical images.” And she’s right. In fact, Rutledge argues that we diminish the biblical witness when we refer to these motifs as “theories.” Each image helps provide a composite view of the intricacy and the beauty of Christ’s cross. Rutledge threads the needle with aplomb: she writes with the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor. But unlike others who have attempted to tackle such theologically deep topics, Rutledge is imminently readable.

If you’re looking for a complimentary text to read as we make our way through this series, I recommend beginning with Rutledge. This book convicted me of the necessity of preaching / teaching this series in the first place.

N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.

I first read Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began back in 2017. In typical fashion, Wright casts the crucifixion of Jesus as the climax of the biblical narrative, the culmination of God’s promises to Abraham and Israel. In a church culture that is increasingly unfamiliar with the whole of the biblical narrative, this is a major step in the right direction. In addition, Wright helps to correct an understanding of the cross as simply God’s method to save us so we can “go to heaven when we die.” By framing the cross as the culmination of God’s covenant promises, we are able to see it as God’s means for delivering us into an entirely new realm, the new heavens and new earth promised through Israel’s prophets centuries before the birth of Jesus.

A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology by Scot McKnight

I’m not relying as heavily on this one, but McKnight’s scholarship and insights are always helpful. Interestingly, I found his “golf clubs” metaphor to be a really helpful way of thinking about the different atonement motifs we find in the Scriptures … and I’m not even a golfer!

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The Wonderful Cross: Christ Crucified, Part 3

Paul understands the cross as the answer to our most practical problems.

As we noted in the previous posts, Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians to correct some of the problems going on in this church. And boy, there are some serious problems in this church.

There are those petty divisions fueled by jealousy. Paul addresses this in the introduction and he revisits it again in chapter 3.

Sexual immorality is so rampant among them that this one guy is having sex with his stepmother (ch5).

Christians are suing one another in court (ch6).

Based on ch7, it appears that divorce was a major issue among these believers.

He talks to them about food sacrificed to idols in ch8; outright idolatry in ch10; how they’re messing up the Lord’s Supper in ch11; how they’re arguing about spiritual gifts in ch12.

It just goes on and on.

There are problems everywhere you look in this church — because it’s made up of PEOPLE. A church has as many problems as it has members — because we’re all kind of a mess, honestly.

But here’s the point I really want to make: before Paul gets into correcting ALL of that, he talks to them about having the mind of Christ:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

1 Corinthians 1:10

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:16

Paul brackets the first two chapters with an encouragement for the Corinthians to have the same mind — specifically the mind of Christ.

And the mind of Christ is focused on the cross.

Here is the big idea for this part of this series: the cross is not just the way to salvation; it is also a way of life.

Paul’s first response to all of these problems in Corinth is to remind these believers about Jesus. And right there at the heart of His story is the cross. There is this sacrificial act that not only takes away our sin; it is the sacrificial act we are called to emulate. We care called to participate in the cross. You cannot enjoy the benefits of the cross without being enlisted to imitate the cross.

Of course, you and I cannot die for someone else’s sins. But we can live sacrificially for the sake of those around us. You can put the needs of someone else ahead of your own needs. You can love your enemy. You can go the second mile and turn the other cheek. That is what it means to take up your cross and follow Him.

I like the way Eugene Peterson says it: “You cannot separate the truth of the gospel from the way of the gospel.” You can’t just pick and choose from the great truths of the Bible to create your own personal “comfort smoothie.” If that’s what you want, you’d be better off to read Chicken Soup for the Soul rather than the Bible. Because truthfully, we’d just as soon do without all of this cross business. We don’t like thinking about His death — because we know we’re responsible for putting Him there. And we’d rather not take up our cross either, because that’s just as personal. It requires a lot of sacrifice on our part.

But that’s why this word is so important for us. God’s Word calls us to a cruciform life, a cross-shaped life flowing from a cross-centered mind. This is where the Corinthians are deficient — and that’s why Paul goes to the cross first. Paul’s primary corrective to these SERIOUS problems in Corinth is to remind these believers about the primacy of the cross and the mind of Christ.

Because if the cross has a central place in your mind and heart, then you won’t be divisive and jealous.

If the cross has a central place in your mind and heart, you won’t argue about spiritual gifts.

You won’t sue your fellow Christians.

And you surely won’t sleep with your stepmother.

Paul sees the cross as the practical answer to all of these problems in Corinth … and a million more.

A cross-shaped life flowing from a cross-centered mind is the best thing you can do for your marriage, for your children, for your church, and for the world.

Keeping the cross before you will make you a better employee and employer. It will make you a better friend and mentor and colleague. It will transform your relationships, your fears. I just don’t think there’s a problem in your life that wouldn’t be made better by thinking about the cross, that wouldn’t be made better by living sacrificially because of the cross. This cross-shaped life flowing from a cross-centered mind culminates in the cross-based love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

The key to living in light of the cross is to think about the cross, to have the mind of Christ.

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The Wonderful Cross: Christ Crucified, Part 2

We’ll begin our series in 1 Corinthians. Paul begins this letter to the Christians in Corinth by mentioning the name of Jesus ten times in the first ten verses. His introduction goes back and forth between referring to “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus.” It’s all about King Jesus, Jesus the Messiah. And that’s important because everything he is about to write to these believers is grounded in the story of Jesus. And central to that story is the cross.

If you know anything about the church in Corinth, it’s a divided church. One of the main ways they divide themselves out is according to their favorite Christian celebrities. Paul gets into this at 1:11ff.

  • Some in Corinth brag about being followers of Paul.
  • Others cast their allegiance in favor of Apollos, a gifted Bible teacher and preacher.
  • Still others claim that Simon Peter is their favorite.
  • And yet a fourth group says, “We’re just wanting to follow Jesus.”

And Paul is writing to address this problem — and a TON of other problems that are going on in this church.

But his strategy for correcting all that’s wrong in the Corinthian church is to first draw their attention back to Jesus. So over and over, as he’s authoring this introduction, he’s talking about Jesus: we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, we call upon the name of Jesus Christ, and so on.

And then, this is what he says in verses 17-18.

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:17-18

The Corinthians were like many people in the ancient world; they loved philosophy and wisdom. They loved to engage in high-minded conversations about different topics. But Paul says that when he came to Corinth, he came preaching the gospel — the Good News of Jesus — and he specifically says that he didn’t use words of “eloquent wisdom” — because that would empty the cross of its power. He’s saying that the story of the cross has power of its own. It doesn’t need to be dressed up to be made more relevant or more trendy. God has made the gospel plenty powerful enough on its own, thank you very much. True Christian preaching doesn’t depend on rhetorical flourishes or eloquent words or funny stories or dazzling PowerPoint presentations or anything else to “doctor” it up. The power, Paul says, is in the cross, not in any of that other stuff.

As for divisions, Paul says there are only these two categories: those who are perishing because they see the cross as foolishness; or those who are being saved by its power.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both the Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24

If you asked Paul to summarize the gospel message, he wouldn’t say, “God loves you.” He wouldn’t say, “Obey the commandments.” The most concise way of summarizing the gospel is this: “Christ crucified.” The cross is shorthand for every message we find in the Scriptures. It is a word about God’s love; but it is also a word about God’s wrath. It is a word about grace and mercy; and at the same time, it is a word about justice and righteousness. The cross teaches us about the importance of obedience; but it also teaches us about the possibility of forgiveness. Every theme in the Scriptures comes together in the picture of Jesus on the cross.

Thus, Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified.

And Paul notes some of the typical responses to the story:

Some stumble over the story of the cross, as did the Jews Paul mentions in the first part of 1:23. In the previous post, I mentioned Justin Martyr. In one of his writings, he tells of how he attempted to convince a Jewish rabbi that Jesus was the Messiah with reference to Daniel 7. The rabbi responded, “Sir … your so-called Christ is without honor and glory, so that he has even fallen into the uttermost curse that is in the Law of God, for he was crucified.” For some, the idea of the hero dying is a stumbling block; they can’t quite get their minds wrapped around it.

Some laugh at the story of the cross, as did the Greeks Paul refers to in the second half of 1:23. As we mentioned earlier, Greeks were caught up in speculative philosophy. They revered the great thinkers and looked down on those who failed to appreciate their wisdom. So the idea that salvation would come about through the state-sanctioned execution of a condemned criminal would be laughable to many Greeks.

This picture is known as the “Alexamenos graffito.”

Alexamenos worships his god.

It is a piece of ancient graffiti dating back to around 200AD. The caption below the drawing reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.” It is a mocking portrayal of a Christian who is worshipping a crucified Messiah, depicted here as a donkey or an ass on the cross. Needless to say, this is not a very complimentary view of Christians dating back to the ancient world.

But some come to know the cross as the wisdom and the power of God.

People in the first century thought that the cross was a symbol of Roman power. But in actuality, the cross was the outworking of God’s power. Again, Jesus wasn’t simply “showing us something” at the cross. No, God was actively doing something when Jesus died.

Specifically, there are two big categories for understanding what happened at the cross. We will return to these themes repeatedly throughout this series:

  1. There was atonement for sin. Human guilt was in need of remission and God’s power effectively accomplished this at the cross.
  2. Simultaneously, the cross is the location of God’s cosmic defeat of the Powers who have enslaved us. This is understanding the cross at the level of spiritual warfare. The Bible is clear that we are in captivity requiring deliverance and God’s power accomplished this at the cross, too.
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The Wonderful Cross: Christ Crucified, Part 1

A few years ago, a 14-foot bronze cross was stolen from a cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas. The cross had stood at the entrance to that cemetery for more than 50 years. It was originally placed there in 1930 and at the time it had been valued at around $10,000. The thieves apparently cut it off at its base and hauled it off in a pick-up truck. Police speculated that the thieves were going to cut the cross into small pieces and sell it for scrap. According to the authorities, this 900-lb. cross probably brought them a little less than $500 or so in scrap metal.

These criminals clearly did not recognize the value of the cross, in more ways than one.

At Mayfair, we just started a new series entitled The Wonderful Cross: Understanding the Atonement of Jesus. And the aim of this series is really simple: unlike these cemetery thieves, we want to value and appreciate the cross of Christ.

Justin Martyr was a Christian philosopher who lived in the second century AD. He saw the cross as the key to everything because it is the central feature of the world. Justin said if you want to sail a ship, the mast will be in the shape of a cross; if you want to dig a ditch, your spade will need a cross-shaped handle. The cross and its meaning are woven into our world at every turn. And that’s what we want to reflect on over the next several weeks: the meaning of the cross.

The cross is a universally recognized symbol of the Christian faith. You can go anywhere in the world and the cross means the same thing. It transcends language and culture and time. Wherever you go, whenever you go, the cross represents the story of Jesus. And even more than universal recognition, there is also a universal identification with the cross. People around the world may recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s, but they don’t wear them around their necks every day! But people around the world identify with the cross because it is an enduring symbol of hope.

And yet, it wasn’t always this way. In the Roman world of the first century, the cross was understood as a symbol of power: Roman power. The cross was a sign of death. Someone from the first century would find it strange that we have crosses adorning the walls of our homes and churches. It would be as strange to them as it would be for us to see someone with an electric chair icon on their wall or necklace. The cross was something scandalous, not even to be discussed in polite company in the ancient world.

But that’s the power of God: He transforms this symbol of death and turns it into a symbol of life.

So what happened at the cross? Why did Jesus have to die?

How would you answer these questions? I think there are two popular answers:

  1. One popular answer would be something like, “Jesus died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.” And this is certainly true. But the Scriptures tell us that the cross is so much more than just “Jesus showing us something.” No, the biblical writers repeatedly affirm that something actually happened in the death of Jesus.
  2. Another popular way of answering this question would be to say, “Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins.” And that’s also true. But how exactly does this happen? And that’s the real question. How does the death of a Jewish preacher two thousand years ago take away our sins? And that’s one of the things we’ll be exploring at length in this series. We’ll look at some of the ways the biblical writers explain the death of Jesus. They show us that Jesus died as a substitute for us; they affirm that Jesus gave up his life as a ransom for many; and they also explain that Jesus died to defeat the enslaving Powers of Sin and Death.

I invite you to join us in this study. Get a notebook and take notes. Pray over the passages we’ll read together in these posts. Because Justin Martyr is right: the cross is the key to everything.

Posted in Devotional, Faith, Gospel, Jesus, Preaching, The Wonderful Cross, Theology | Leave a comment

2022: Moving Forward

I really love this time of year. Let me be clear: it has nothing to do with the weather. After a couple of nights with temperatures in the 20s around here, I can’t wait for spring to arrive! No, I love it because this is such a hopeful time of year. People tend to reflect on the past twelve months while also looking ahead to a fresh start in a new calendar year. Resolutions — so easy to dismiss — are at least hopeful attempts at intentional living. And that seems like it could be mostly a good thing, in my opinion.

I’ve done my fair share of looking back over the last few weeks. 2021 was a hard year — maybe not *quite* as much of a dumpster fire as 2020, but there were plenty of challenges nonetheless. I’ve had to remind myself that we’re all playing hurt right now.

Whatever 2020 was, it is a permanent part of who we are now — our experiences, our psyche, our collective identity, etc. For most of you who read this blog, you know I’m a minister / pastor. (My tradition doesn’t typically use the word “pastor” but that’s what I do.) In my line of work, 2020 was the year that disrupted so many of the rhythms in our faith communities. We couldn’t gather regularly for a period of time. We learned how to do Zoom / YouTube church. When we did gather, we had to practice social distancing. We had to encourage people to wear masks. And then people’s anxieties began to show. One member might assert that our social distancing requirements were too lax because we didn’t do enough to keep people separated to his satisfaction. And yet another member might proudly show up unmasked, claiming that Covid was nothing more than a socialist conspiracy hellbent on destroying everything we hold dear.

I suppose I was naive enough to hope that 2021 would hasten a return to more of a sense of normalcy in our church life but in reality, it was more of the same. I’ll always remember 2021 as the year I learned that some people weren’t really who I thought they were. Andy Stanley has said that the most painful part about Covid was that some people in his church — members he had counseled and loved and prayed over and cried with and baptized — they changed their entire opinion about him because of the decisions the church made in response to Covid. He talked about officiating the wedding for one young couple in his church; presiding over the funeral of the patriarch of another family in the church. These “holy ground” moments are common to ministry. But Stanley says these same families have been so outraged over the church’s response to the pandemic that they won’t even speak to him any more. And most ministers I know would say the same thing.

Church life is certainly made up of “holy ground” moments such as these. Weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, baptism … the pastor enters into these moments representing the church to a certain degree. And I believe this kind of intimate proximity naturally leads us to talk about the church in familial terms. But 2021 taught us some hard truths about this. We weren’t quite as close as we thought we were, not if a mask policy or an email about social distancing at church can prompt someone to completely terminate their fellowship with a church. If my daughter tells me to wear a mask when I come around her, even if I think the whole thing is absurd, I’m not going to cut her off. That’s because she’s my only daughter; I can’t just go out and get another one. But in American consumeristic church culture, leaving your church has never been easier. In reality, Covid only exposed some of the fault lines that were already present in our lives. No matter. It still hurts when you think people are with you — really, really with you — only to discover how little it would actually take for them to bail on you.

Those are pretty strong words, I know. But it’s a true reflection of what I’ve been feeling over the last several months. And I believe it helps to record this here, to name something as a way of gaining control over it. There’s a truth here that goes all the way back to Eden, to our earliest mandate to exercise dominion in the image and likeness of God. So there’s that.

And there’s also a new year before us, full of new possibility and opportunity. For me, I’ve committed myself to live in a better frame of mind moving forward. I’m not really big on having a “word” for the year, although I know others have found this to be a helpful practice. But if I were going to choose a word for the next twelve months, “forward” might be the one I’d select. God has put us in the midst of a thriving, growing city. Industries are moving here left and right. The other day I read that 5,000 people had moved here since the summer. Huntsville is now the largest city in the state of Alabama. And while that’s great for our city, it also creates an opportunity. There are more people living here today than at any other time in our city’s history. And that means there are more people living here who do not know Jesus than at any time in our city’s history.

So this year, I want to move forward — forward with sharing the gospel, forward with the same focus that Paul writes about in Philippians:

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14

It’s really important for me to forget all that lies behind and to strain forward toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Yes, the past few years have been difficult and it is important that we acknowledge this. But it’s time to turn the page and to focus on what lies ahead. God has a mission for His people, a purpose for us to expand the borders of the Kingdom by making much of the name of King Jesus. Our God goes before us; therefore may we strain forward to follow His lead into the new year.

To 2022, the year of moving forward.

Posted in Anxiety, Blessings, Church, COVID-19, Culture, Devotional, Disappointment, Discipleship, Faith, Family, God, Gospel, Hope, Huntsville, Imago Dei, Jesus, Kingdom Values, Scripture, Social Issues | 2 Comments