Keeping the Cross in View

According to Charles Dickens, after being visited by three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. Terrified by the specter of his death, Scrooge made this solemn promise to the ghost of Christmas yet to come: “I will honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year.” At the close of his tale, Dickens says that Ebenezer Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”

For some reason, we never talk this way about Easter. When Christmas comes around, we remind ourselves of the need to observe it all year like old Scrooge. We celebrate the Christmas spirit, but we seem to know nothing about the Spirit of Easter. Christmas is magical. But Easter is just a memory and a somber one at that. Christmas, even though it comes in winter, is all warmth and firelight. Easter arrives with spring, and like spring comes with a different quality of light. It is colder somehow.

If you doubt this, look at how artists have depicted each event down through the centuries. Their portraits of the nativity have a coziness that Easter lacks. We are charmed by the sight of the mother and babe, surrounded by animals and rough shepherds who bend their knees in adoration. The artistic vision of Easter is more spare somehow. Our observance of the two holidays also reflects the difference. Christmas announces its approach for weeks with colored lights, a mountain of gifts, and endless parties. We are sad to see it go. Contrast this with Easter, who arrives suddenly with a sheepish grin bearing only a ham and a few jellied candies.

Part of our problem is that we tend to separate the Nativity and Easter in our thinking. We know they are both moves in the larger story of Christ’s life. But to us, each has its own distinct atmosphere. In the church’s message, however, they are inseparably linked. Each was necessary to accomplish Christ’s purpose. If we remove one of them, they both cease to have meaning. Galatians 4:4–5 tells us that: “. . . when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. . . .” The birth of Christ sets the stage for Good Friday. Without the incarnation, the work of the cross would be impossible. To redeem, Christ must first die for our sins. And to die for our sins, He must first be made like us.

Christ’s true humanity was necessary to our salvation because Jesus came not merely as a role model but primarily as a replacement. He came to die on our behalf as the only sacrifice that God will accept for sin. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But Christ’s birth and death were not enough. The nativity did indeed set the stage for Good Friday. Yet Good Friday without Easter is as meaningless as Christmas without the cross. Paul describes the blunt necessity for Christ’s resurrection this way in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” The resurrection is proof of Christ’s divinity. It is also evidence that God has accepted Christ’s payment on our behalf.

Still, the cross has a unique place in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s life. Indeed, we might say that the key to living the Christian life is the secret of keeping the cross in view. Paul told the Corinthians that he had not come to them with eloquence or human wisdom as he proclaimed to them the testimony about God: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Even though Paul’s gospel included the birth of Christ and the resurrection, he labeled it “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The cross has a unique place in the believer’s life.

More than this, Paul assigned the cross of Christ a critical role in enabling believers to live the Christian life. He pointed to the cross as God’s solution for the guilt of sin and its practice. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin,” he explains in Romans 6:6–7. The cross is a historical event that exerts a kind of power in the believer’s life. But the power of the cross does not work on its own. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the cross to bear on our sinful nature. We do not overcome the pull of sin by relying on willpower but something far more potent. Those who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” also “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Through the cross and the Spirit’s enablement, we find a permanent solution to the problem of sin. It begins with forgiveness. The blood of Christ shed on the cross pays the penalty for all our sins. The word that we sometimes use to describe this is atonement. Atonement is a payment that satisfies God’s wrath, and the only price that God will accept for sin is the one He has made Himself. Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). The result is a change in our relationship with God and a change in our nature. Instead of being God’s enemies, we become His friends and children. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” We also become different people, or as Scripture puts it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:16). The Holy Spirit empowers those who receive Christ’s righteousness, enabling them to put that righteousness into practice. The word that we use to describe this aspect of the Christian life is sanctification. It is God’s work of making us holy.

How, then, do we keep the cross in view? It starts with something that the apostle Paul calls “reckoning” ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God (Rom. 6:11–12). This is an act of faith, where we take God at His word and accept as true all that He has said about our relationship to sin. Keeping the cross in view also calls for a response whenever we find ourselves drawn by the desire of sin. This response involves a conscious turning away from sin and a corresponding turn to Christ. Instead of allowing sin to rule over us as it once did, we offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). Paul describes this as a kind of death. He tells us to: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). This is simply the act of saying no to ourselves and our impulses where sin is concerned. It is an act that assumes that Christ’s death has made a difference in us. We really can say no.

The Dickensian world of Scrooge appeals to us because it suggests that all we need to deal with sin are good intentions and noble effort. This message appeals to our human vanity and spiritual pride. But painful experience has shown us otherwise. Such an approach only leads to the kind of seasonal change that Dickens envisions in his tale. It is not deliverance from sin, but at best, a brief holiday. The cross promises something more. Here is the great difference between Charles Dickens’ notion of “keeping Christmas” and the Bible’s message of new life in Christ. For Dickens, Jesus Christ was primarily a moral example. To “keep Christmas” was to remember His goodness and try to imitate it. The forces at work in Ebenezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation are mostly guilt and fear. But the change that comes through the gospel operates on a very different level. It is a real, not a fictional change, that works through faith and hope instead of guilt and fear.

Gospel transformation begins with faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as the basis for our hope that we can live a different kind of life. Nowhere in Scripture does Christ tell us to “keep Christmas.” He doesn’t tell us to “keep Easter” either. What He does tell us to do is to remember the cross. This is not something we only do on Good Friday. Nor is it limited to the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We keep the cross in view every time we say “yes” to God and “no” to sin.

Holy Week’s Trajectory of Hope

The seven days from Palm Sunday to Easter have a rhythm. It is one that moves from anticipation to fulfillment. The week begins with the crowd’s shout of acclamation for Jesus and culminates in His stunning victory over death on Easter morning. Between these two are the Last Supper (sometimes commemorated with foot washing on Maundy Thursday) and Christ’s suffering on Good Friday. These two events strike an entirely different note, providing a counterpoint to the upbeat mood of the two Sundays that bookend them. The difference in tone is often reflected in the church’s observance.

Yet even during those sober moments, there is still a trajectory of hope that mitigates what would otherwise be impossibly gloomy. This sense of direction enables believers to move through the awkwardness of Maundy Thursday and the gloom of Good Friday with a sense of expectation. We know how this story ends. That was also true for the original participants. Jesus told His disciples how it would all turn out. But their actions make it clear that they had either forgotten or had refused to believe what He had said. “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus would later say to them (Luke 24:25).

Our Interrupted Hope

In the Scriptures, the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is a day of silence. The Bible does not really say where the disciples were or what they were doing on that day. When Jesus appeared to them on Sunday evening, He found them behind locked doors and afraid (John 20:19). This description resonates, especially now that the spread of COVID-19 has disrupted the church’s normal rhythm of Holy Week observances. We too are huddled together in our homes. For many fear ear grows along with the body count.

To call Jesus the Lamb of God was

to say He was under

a death sentence.

When we pass through a crisis like this, we often feel a burst of energy at the outset. Maybe its adrenaline or just shock, but it propels us through an impossible situation. That drive empowers us to act, sometimes in heroic ways. This initial burst of energy generates a kind of optimism. You can hear it in the way people talk. They say things like, “We’re going to beat this thing!” or “I’m a fighter.” Spiritually oriented people talk about God doing a miracle. But if the crisis wears on, something changes. Those first heady days of optimism may give way to weariness and lethargy. What was once disorienting starts to feel like a new normal. The days become marked by silent waiting. Because we are busy with the work of survival, we are no longer as vocal about our expectation of coming out of it. God, for His part, also seems to be silent. The hope that God would resolve everything in short order is set aside, at least for a time. We are no longer sure what God is doing or even how things will turn out. For the moment, the trajectory of hope that we felt we were on has been interrupted.

Upon closer inspection, however, the comparison I am trying to make here seems to break down and in a rather spectacular way. For one thing, the disciples’ time “in-between” lasted only a day or two. At the most, they were confined from Friday to Sunday. Then they understood that what had seemed like a tragedy to them was actually something else. I’m not saying that they understood everything completely. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). When He was done, they still had questions.

Peace, Prosperity, & Safety

Our expectation during the COVID-19 crisis is also somewhat different from theirs. For the disciples, the expectation was the hope that Jesus would redeem Israel and usher in the Kingdom of God. Our aspirations are more modest. We would like to return to our jobs, our churches, and our friends. We aren’t looking for utopia. We just want everything to go back to normal. Yet such workaday ambitions may not be that far from the initial hope of Jesus’ followers as we might think. Before Jesus’ death, their vision of the kingdom had a decidedly earthly flavor. We sense it in the lament of the two who spoke with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” they said (Luke 24:21). But what did that mean to them? Before Jesus’ death and resurrection,  their understanding of Israel’s redemption was primarily a vision of peace, prosperity, and national safety.

This Messianic vision was roughly equivalent to an ambition to “Make Israel Great Again,” a view of the world with Israel on top and all its enemies subdued. The law would go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Everyone would sit under their own vine, and no one would be afraid anymore (Micah 4:1–5). None of these expectations was outside the realm of what Jesus promised to do. The disciples’ mistake was an error of timing. During the forty days between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In His reply, Jesus never said that they were wrong to expect such a thing. Instead, He told them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

Jesus’ disciples had also underestimated the scope of what Jesus came to do. They were right in thinking of Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. He was the Messiah. But from the very start of His ministry, Jesus gave indications that He had come to do more. John the Baptist captured the full extent when he called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1:36). John’s declaration, which Jesus later affirmed, contained two surprises. One was the expansion of this kingdom promise from Israel to the whole world. The other was the means by which its victory was to be accomplished. Unlike all others, this kingdom would come not by the sword but by sacrifice.

The Lamb of God

One can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for John’s disciples to hear him describe Jesus in such terms. To us, the lamb metaphor has a certain charm. Lambs are tame creatures. They are soft and cuddly. We think of lambs as pets. But for John and his contemporaries, lambs were for food and sacrifice. John’s contemporaries bred lambs for slaughter. Their presence on the temple altar was a continual reminder of a plague far more deadly than the coronavirus. To say that Jesus was the Lamb of God was to say that He was under a death sentence. To call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is to say that we too are under a death sentence and that He is the only remedy.

The last enemy to be destroyed

is death itself.

If there is a gift in the COVID-19 crisis, it is not in the heroic effort of nurses and doctors, as admirable as those are. Nor is it in those spontaneous acts of goodwill we see taking place between our neighbors. If there is a gift to be found in the current crisis, it is the stark gift of forcing us to face up to the collateral damage of the world’s greatest pandemic. Death always does this, though we are skilled at suppressing its message. Now it is as though the suffering of every nation on earth shouts the warning of Romans 5:12: “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”

The death of so many is a great tragedy. But perhaps it is not a mistake that such loss should also coincide with the week that many in the church commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The humility of Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and His suffering on Good Friday, are both in keeping with the redemptive trajectory of Christ’s final week. They are the pivot points that make the acclaim of Palm Sunday and Easter’s shout of victory meaningful. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” Hebrews 9:27–28 says, “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

This is the gospel. It reminds us that, in these days, as the death toll continues to rise, the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). It is a reminder that even though the normal rhythm of our Easter celebration has been interrupted, the trajectory of hope still holds. God’s message to us has not changed since that first morning when the disciples rushed back from the empty tomb to declare, “Christ has risen!” To which, we can only reply, “He has risen indeed!”

Easter and My Fear of Death

 

thedeadchrist2I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.

Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.

Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.

But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.

It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.

But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.

And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.

Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.

What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.