Saturday, February 27, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 6

The Apostle Paul said, " ... Jews ask for signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach a Messiah who was hanged on a cross - to Jews a scandal and to Gentiles something stupid." - 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23 (my translation).

In my home as in many, we have crosses hanging on the wall. Silver crosses, wooden crosses, wrought iron crosses.  Some simple, some ornate.  We have crosses that hang from chains around our necks.  I have a small smooth wooden cross that I carry in my pocket.  Most of these crosses are pretty, some even beautiful.

We're Protestants; all our crosses are empty.  We are embarrassed by the crosses of our Roman Catholic friends; their crosses have a nearly naked man on them.  But their crosses are pretty too.

But the cross on which Jesus hung was not pretty; it was ugly.  Any instrument of death is!  We would be repulsed by someone who wore an image of an electric chair around his neck - or a gas chamber gurney, or a gallows.  Even if this image were gold-plated.

Under the Law of Moses, a particularly despicable criminal was hung on a pole or tree so that all could see his disgrace.  "He who is hanged is accursed of God."   Deuteronomy 21:22, 23.  The Romans who ruled the world in Jesus' day had found it to be not simply an instrument for executing condemned criminals, but a merciless torture device and the ultimate humiliation for the condemned.

The word "Christ" is not a surname or family name.  It is a title.  Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Meshiach" or "Messiah" - literally "Anointed One."  The Jews had been looking for that anointed descendant of David, the coming King who would deliver them from their oppressors and set up an eternal kingdom.

And so to the Jews of Jesus' day, of Paul's day, the idea of the most important figure in their history and their hope for the future hanging from the ugliest instrument of death was a skandalon, a trap-stick that caused them to stumble.

To the Greeks, the philosophers, the seekers of wisdom, the whole concept was moria stupidity.  We might even think of it as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

To "the Greeks" - the brilliant thinkers of our day and those who imagine themselves to be such, the whole idea of the cross is still that.  The idea of the need for One to suffer for all defies their reasoning.

And "the Jews" - not only the descendants of Abraham, but nice religious people of any ethnicity or persuasion, the need for a Crucified Messiah is still something to trip them up.  To some religionists morality is the issue; moral pronouncements are what they struggle over - the "culture wars."  To others religion is all about the self - self improvement, happy homes, prosperity.  To still others it is about acceptance of those who differ, not only ethnically but religiously and sexually.  And the Crucified Messiah is merely a means to an end - at times a rather uncomfortable one.

But Paul didn't stop with the words quoted above; he continues, "But to those who are the called ones, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [that Crucified Messiah], the power of God and the wisdom of God."  (1 Corinthians 1:24)

Those who embrace this Crucified One can see the power and wisdom - and also the beauty, of the cross.  Which of these three persons are you?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 5

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of the centurion in charge of Jesus' crucifixion, and of his reaction to Jesus' death and the accompanying earthquake; John simply speaks of "the soldiers."

Mark tells us, "When the centurion who was standing right in front of Him (Jesus) saw how He breathed His last, he said, 'Truly this Man was God's Son!'"  (15:39)

Matthew tells us, that not only the centurion, but also " ... those guarding Jesus with him ..." made these remarks and that they "became extremely afraid."  (27:54)

Luke tells us that the centurion " ... glorified God, saying 'certainly this was a righteous (or innocent) man!'"  (23:47)

We aren't told how many soldiers were there at Jesus' crucifixion.  Probably not a large number, although adequate enough to handle the three executions mentioned in all four Gospels.  The centurion was the NCO in charge of this contingent.

What caused these men to say these things about Jesus?

The soldiers were apparently those assigned to the service of Pontius Pilate, the Roman official then governing the province of Judea.  The centurion would probably have been a spectator at Jesus' trials before Pilate and had heard the dialogue between the two, as Jesus almost seemed to turn the tables and put Pilate on trial.  The other soldiers may have been there as well.

They may have heard the accusations made against Jesus, that He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and King.  They would undoubtedly have seen the irony in such an accusation being made against a haggard looking peasant who already showed bruises from his previous "trials" and accompanying mistreatment at the hands of His own religious leaders.

They may have heard His replies to Pilate's questions, and the fact that He did not deny the accusations, but claimed that His kingdom was "not of this world."  They may have heard the frustration in Pilate's voice.  They may have heard Pilate's thrice repeated verdict of innocence.

And yet having heard all these things, they simply followed orders and scourged Jesus.  These were not soft men; they were undoubtedly calloused by the cruelties they had inflicted on other men many times in the past.  They could make a game out of it, mocking Jesus' claims to royalty with a scarlet robe and a crown woven from thorns.  Was the robe dyed scarlet by the blood of countless other men now dead?

They would have heard screams and curses from those they tortured.  But this One was different.  We're told that " ... when He was reviled, He did not revile in return, when He suffered He did not threaten ... "  (1 Peter 2:23)

What went through their minds as they saw Pilate wash his hands of the blood of Jesus?  When they saw the notice they had to nail to the cross, written in three languages "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews"?

We're told that they took Him to a place called Skull and crucified Him along with two others.  And that they gambled for His clothing while these men hung there dying.  All in a day's work!

They would have heard Jesus saying, "Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing!"  Would they have understood these words as applying to them?  Perhaps they would not have thought of themselves as needing forgiveness.  Weren't they just following orders?

But then we have their confession at Jesus' death.  We might speculate that the centurion and some of the others had already had some knowledge of who Jesus was.  The gospels do mention some contacts of soldiers with Jesus.  So at this point it finally all comes together.  This Man is who He claimed to be!  He is innocent!  He really is the Son of God!

The soldiers then went about their business.  They broke the legs of the other two to hasten their death, but they did not do so to Jesus.  One soldier stabbed a spear in Jesus' side to make sure He was dead.  The centurion made his report to Pilate.

We're not told what happened to these soldiers after these things.  They were probably not the same as those later assigned to guard the tomb.  We may speculate, that the centurion himself was the source for much of this information.  After all, of the original twelve, only John was there at the cross.  But the Scriptures are silent.  Of course, Hollywood has attempted to fill in the details.

But the fact that this confession was recorded at all hints that we may see some of these men again.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 4

John tells us that after His trial and scourgings, Jesus:  "...bearing His own cross went out to the place called 'Skull Place'" (19:17).

The other three Gospel writers tell us, "...they compelled a passerby, a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, coming in from the field (the father of Alexander and Rufus) to carry His cross" (Mark 15:21; cf. Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26).

Most students of the Gospels have little problem reconciling these passages.  Knowing that Jesus had had no sleep the night before and that He had endured a Roman scourging with its accompanying physical and verbal abuse, we can imagine Him starting out on the road to His death carrying the cross but unable to finish.  [He was probably carrying not the entire cross, but the cross beam - heavy enough in itself.]  When He stumbles and falls, another man, a passerby is compelled into service.

Who was this Simon?  To the calloused Roman soldiers he was probably a nobody, just another faceless provincial who just happened to be available, and whom they had the authority to force into their service whenever they felt it necessary.  But the fact that three of the Gospel writers have something to say about him implies that he was important to them in some way.  They tell us his name and that he was from Cyrene, a Roman province in North Africa.  Mark also adds that he was the father of two men, Alexander and Rufus, probably men known to the original readers.  They also tell us that he was coming in from the field (or the country) which could imply that he was at that time a resident of Judea - a farm worker or small farmer.  Paul in his letter to the Romans mentions a man named Rufus who was at that (later) time a resident of Rome.  Since it is believed that Mark's Gospel was written in or to Rome, we can see a possible connection.  Another possibility is that this is the "Simeon called Niger" in the church at Antioch, who is mentioned along with a "Lucius of Cyrene" in the Book of Acts (13:1, 2).  The nickname "Niger" means "black" in Greek.  Was he possibly a black African?

He was probably not a follower of Jesus at this time.  Mark tells us that he was simply "a passerby."  But what impact did this task have on him?  He was more than simply a witness of Jesus' sufferings, he was compelled to take part in them - to carry the cross that the Savior was no longer able to bear.  Luke tells us that he carried the cross "behind Jesus" (28:26).

The beam would have been a heavy weight for even a muscular farm hand to carry any distance, but we can imagine that the sight of the bruised and bleeding Man stumbling along immediately in front of him was a greater burden.

Could this have been Simon's conversion experience?  Jesus had said many times, "If anyone wants to follow after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Mark 8:34).  Had Simon heard these words?  He was, in a very real sense carrying them out.  Did Simon see the connection between his actions and Jesus' demands?
But Simon is not at the center of this bloody, violent drama. It is the Man he is following.  Though we may find it difficult to imagine ourselves in Simon's place, it would seem impossible to understand the Savior's mind at this time.  He knew in some way that He was beginning to drink from the cup the Father had given to Him. Perhaps He felt the irony of His being physically incapable of following His own admonition. But He knew what lay ahead - the physical and mental sufferings He was yet to endure as He bore much more than a wooden beam.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 3

Three of the Gospel writers - Matthew, Mark and Luke - record the words of Jesus' agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, though in slightly different forms.  Matthew and Mark tell us that He prayed is prayer three times, but perhaps we can imagine that this was simply a way of telling us that He prayed it over and over.

Mark's record reads:  "Abba!  Father!  All things are possible for You; take away this cup from Me ..."

Luke adds the words:  " ... if You are willing ..."

All three record that He said:  " ... yet not My will, but Yours be done!"

What was this "cup" whose removal Jesus pleads for?  The Old Testament prophets often speak metaphorically of various "cups," but the cup most frequently mentioned in their writings is the cup of God's anger for sin, whether the sin of the nations or that of His own people Israel.  Even the Psalms speak of it.

"For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, with foaming wine fully mixed; He pours from this and all the wicked of the earth drink from it and drain it to its dregs" (Psalm 75:8).

"Drink and expose yourself; the cup in the right hand of the LORD will come around to you, and bring disgrace upon your glory" (Habakkuk 2:16).

Over and over the prophets speak of God's rage as "the cup," sometimes threatening, sometimes offering to withhold it.  (See in context, Isaiah 51:17ff, Jeremiah 25:15ff; 49:12; 51:7.)

So as Jesus lies on His face in the Garden and prays in agony for the cup to be removed, is that what is on His mind?  Is He contemplating facing the full force of God's wrath on Himself?  The fact that He is asking for it to be taken away would seem to imply that there in the Garden He was already beginning to feel its force.

Peter tells us, "He bore our sins in His own body on the tree" (2:24).  Paul says. "He (God) made the One who did not know sin to be sin (or a sin offering) for us" ( 2 Corinthians 5:21).

Was the God-Man in His human frailty recoiling from what in His divine knowledge He was repulsed by?  Was the cup Jesus speaks of, the full force of God's wrath on sin - the sin that He would bear?

It is impossible for us to understand the anguish - the emotional suffering through which He was only beginning to go at that point.

Friday, February 12, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 2

The Book of Hebrews has much to say regarding the sufferings of Jesus.  Much of it is, as its anonymous author tells us "difficult to interpret" (5:11).

One of its most "difficult to interpret" passages (at least for me) is 5:7-9:
"He in the days of his flesh offered up prayers and pleas with loud crying and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His piety.  Even though He was a son He learned obedience from the things He suffered.  And having been perfected, He became to all who obey Him a source of eternal salvation."

The picture painted here appears to be of Jesus' experience in the Garden of Gethsemane just a few hours before His arrest as He prayed to the Father while His closest disciples were sleeping.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us of His agonized prayers as He fell to His face and three times pleaded with the Father, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me!"

The passage in Hebrews tells us that He pleaded with "loud crying and tears."    Luke tells us He was "in agony," an agony so great that "His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground."

Within a short time Jesus would be arrested, endure a series of "trials," be scourged and finally crucified.  And yet our passage tells us His prayer "was heard."  How can it say this?  The Father doesn't "hear" as we often do - hear and ignore.  When we're told our prayers are heard, the implication is that they are answered.  Should we understand this to mean that the Father's answer was no?

And we read that "He learned obedience."  Again, we might ask how the omniscient Son of God could learn.  But we know that as a man he did learn.  At the incarnation He had in some way "emptied Himself (Philippians 2:7) of His divine prerogatives.  And we also could note that He learned through experience as we do.

And amazingly He continued in that learning process right to the end.  Even as He was suffering - in the garden, at His trials, during His scourging, and finally, on the cross, He was continuing to learn obedience.

And He was "perfected," through His sufferings.  The Greek word translated "perfected," is teleioo.  It does not mean, as our English word may suggest, flawlessness.  It has the idea rather of the attainment of a telos,  goal or purpose.

Jesus was born to die.  His death on the cross was the Telos - the final goal.  As He hung there, some of his final words were "It is finished!" - tetelesthai, the perfect tense of that same word translated "perfected" in Hebrews.

It is done!  It has been brought to its final goal!  The death of Christ on the cross has brought it to completion!  The task is finished for which the Son came into the world and to which His 30+ years on earth looked forward!  Might we sense the feeling of accomplishment even of relief in those words?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


 Meditations  on  the  Cross

[During the Lenten season - those 40 days preceding Easter - our thoughts turn toward the sufferings of our Savior.  I plan on writing down a few of my thoughts as they become clear in my mind.  There will be no attempt at chronological order.]

When we think of His sufferings we usually have a picture in our minds of Christ on the cross, though we know that they did not begin there.  And also we know that, as horrible as they were, His physical pains were only a small part of His suffering.

Among His words from the cross, perhaps the most moving - and the most troubling are these:  "Eli Eli, lema sabachtani?" which the Gospel writers tell us mean, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"  These words have troubled saints, scholars and theologians for 2,000 years.  What does Jesus mean by these?  How could the Second Person of the Trinity be "forsaken" by the First Person?

We know of course that Jesus on the cross was quoting from the 22nd Psalm, the words of David.  Perhaps Jesus on the cross was simply reciting Psalms that He had memorized as a child, in order to find comfort in His pain.  Perhaps; but I believe they have a greater meaning than that.

This Psalm was a lament of David's when he himself was apparently going through great suffering.  The first 2 verses tell of David's agony:
          "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
          Why are You so far from saving me
          and from the words of my groaning?
         My God, I cry by day and You do not answer;
          by night, and there is no rest for me."

David continues his agonized pleas in verse after verse.  We have no idea of the context from which David spoke.  Was he expressing his own agony?  Or was he, as many believe, speaking - 1,000 years beforehand - the very thoughts of Christ on the cross?  Whether we accept these words as prophetic or not, they certainly give us a glimpse of the suffering Savior.

But, back to my original questions, how can we understand this "forsaking"?  Can we actually conceive of some sort of schism between the Members of the Trinity?  Just the thought of taking these words literally is frightening.

And yet there they are - words of abandonment coming from the lips of the very human God-man.  And we can't explain them. 

But many of us can in some small way identify with them.  Some of us have suffered physical or emotional pains to - it would seem - their limits.  We may even have come to the conclusion that God has forsaken us.  We have felt, not the comfort of His presence, but the horrible dread of His absence.

Jesus was suffering in ways we have never - could never - experience.  Is it not conceivable that He felt the absence of His Father in proportion to these sufferings?  We can attempt to explain logically and theologically that in some way the Father had to turn away from the Son, that He could not even look on the sin that was borne by the Son. But the picture we're given is not given simply to touch the logical part of our brains, but to hit us in our deepest feelings, to draw us closer to the suffering Savior.

Whatever He was feeling as he uttered those words of despair, there were uttered out of His suffering for us.