“In the Beginning…”*

“In the beginning God…”

These are the first four words in the Old Testament, the first four words of The Bible.

They are also the first four words of Chapter One of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity.

They indicate the beginning of creation, in this case making something out of nothing.  Some people enjoy the activity of creation: painting a scene or object on a canvas for instance, but God did not create as man does.  God created out of nothing, the Latin phrase for this is ex nihilo.  For example when a painter paints, he has canvas, paints, brushes etc., the tools of creation already exist; the painter does not create out of nothing.

God had nothing.

He created form out of chaos, a universe out of emptiness, light out of darkness. 

He spoke the world into existence, the Divine Imperative if you will.  Stott writes He made His first move when He said the words “In the beginning.” 

After the act of creation, “Many people visualize a God who sits comfortably on a distant throne, remote, aloof, uninterested, and indifferent to the needs of mortals, until, it may be, they can badger Him into taking action on their behalf” [Stott, 11].

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

God has always and will always continue to be involved with man, from that first day of man’s creation [Adam, the first homo divinus] to today.    The reason is that soon after man’s creation, it did not take long for him to get lost in the darkness of his sin, and God was not “remote, aloof, uninterested and indifferent” to the needs of man for redemption.  “[God] rises from His throne, lays aside His glory, and stoops to seek until He finds him.”

It is important to realize that the basic ideas of Christianity rest upon the idea that God made the first move.  For Christians, we know we would not be here without God taking that first step (creation) but God did more than that.  God spoke.  He revealed His nature and His will. 

In the Old Testament, God revealed His nature and His will to the prophets.   Also God spoke to Adam and Eve.  He made His presence known to Noah and his sons.   He communicated to Abraham and his wife Sarah.  In multiple instances, God tried to reveal Himself to man by expressing His nature and His will.  But for Christians, God spoke to us by giving us His Son.  Stott sums up the whole religion of the Bible in these three short sentences: “God has created, God has spoken. God has acted.”

Beyond the creation, let’s explore in greater detail the idea that God has spoken and God has acted. 

God has said something in the Gospel [many like to refer to the Gospel as “good news”].  The “good news” is God’s declaration that He has come to earth to save human beings.   Stott gives man high regard; we are indeed inquisitive creatures.  We always want to know what we don’t know: “He [man] is always questing, exploring, investigating, researching.”  The problem is that when man tries to understand God, man confronts an infinite supernatural Deity.  God is beyond our comprehension.    When God manifested Himself to Moses, all Moses could see was a burning bush.   Job was asked if he could understand the deep things of God.  Job said it is impossible.

The heavens and the “firmament” proclaim God’s handiwork.  Romans 1: 19-20 states “Since the creation of the world His invisible nature, His eternal power and deity have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”   What more does man need?  Here it is: man wants to know God personally.  That darkness of sin problem still exists and man has not figured out how to deal with it.  Man needs to know how to get God’s forgiveness; he needs a more extensive and practical revelation.  Stott writes “God’s self-disclosure must include His holiness, His love and His power to save us from sin” [Stott, 13].  God needed to send man an example for him to follow and that example was God himself in the form of His Son Jesus Christ.

This revelation is described in the Bible as God speaking.  That it totally appropriate because man accumulates a lot of knowledge through speech.  However Stott points to Isaiah who reckons that God’s infinite mind is much more complex than ours:  “His thoughts are much higher than our thoughts.”  So the word of God came to the prophets until at last Jesus Christ came and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1: 1, 14].  God “spoke” to us through His Son Jesus Christ.  In our world today, some would argue that God is not “tangible, visible and audible” yet there was a time when God was able to speak “clothe Himself with a body which could be seen and touched” [Stott, 14].  John in his first Epistle proclaims “That which was from the beginning, which you have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…we proclaim also to you.”

Why did God act in this manner, sending Himself to earth so man could understand His ways?  God knew that man needed this experience.  Just telling man what to do was not working, for just words alone were not adequate to explain how man could avoid sin.  God had called Abraham promising that his descendants would populate a great nation.  God delivered that nation from slavery in Egypt, created a covenant with them on Mount Sinai and finally lead them across the desert to the Promised Land.  All the time this was happening He was teaching them. 

But it was not enough.

Man needed to be delivered from his sin.  This slavery was the most significant type of slavery, more significant than the slavery endured in Egypt by the Israelites.  To rid man of the slavery of sin was the reason for the coming of the Christ.

It says in Matthew “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” [1: 21]  It says in First Timothy 1: 15 “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  It says in Luke 19: 10 “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

One of the most common images of Christianity is the shepherd who leaves the flock to search for the missing sheep.  God tried and tried to get man to understand His ways until He determined that speaking the word was not good enough; He had to live in the world and communicate by example. 

God created the world from nothing and He created man in His own image.  God gave man an inquisitive mind but a mind incapable of understanding God’s ways.  Speaking to man was not adequate.   God had to act.  God had to attempt to save man from himself, from his own desire to sin.  Stott describes the basics of Christianity in these words:  “Christianity is a religion of salvation, and there is nothing in the non-Christian religions to compare with this message of a God who loved, and came after, and died for, a world of lost sinners” [Stott, 15].

God has spoken

God has acted

God has saved

*My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross. I think readers may find this interesting. For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020. I have never worked on two books at the same time but I feel now is the time to do this.

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“Earthly and Divine…”

Why did Jesus Christ die?

In recent posts I have discussed John Stott’s positions on the responsibility of two individuals and one group for the death of Jesus*

As Stott finishes “Chapter 2” of The Cross of Christ , he returns to the question he posed at the beginning of the chapter:  “Why did Jesus Christ die?”   When one considers Pilate, the Jewish religious leaders and Judas, the answer to the question is a quick “Jesus did not die; He was killed.”

But we all know that the actions of the individuals already discussed do not tell the whole story.  Jesus did not have to die at the hands of Pilate and others.  He gave Himself up to those who sought to betray Him.  He gave Himself up voluntarily in order to do the will of His Father.

Here is where so many Christians are quick to conclude “He did it for us!” 

Here is where so many Christians are not willing to accept the idea that we should see Jesus going to the cross due to our sinning.  Parish priest Peter Green puts it succinctly: “Only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross may share in its grace.”

But how can we be responsible for the death of Jesus?

Too often, Christians point to Scripture to declare their innocence.  “Let His blood be on us and on our children!”  Is that not evidence or guilt coming out of the mouths of the Jewish leaders of the day?   When Peter declared on Pentecost “Let all Israel be assured of this:  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  His hearers were “cut to the heart” and they asked what they could do to make amends [Acts 2:36-37].  Stephen directly attacked the Sanhedrin with the words “you stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.”  He said they resisted the Holy Spirit just like their ancestors did.  This was a direct reference to their ancestors who persecuted the Prophets and killed those who predicted the coming of the Messiah.  This scripture seems to place a lot of blame on the Jewish leaders and today to place ultimate blame on the Jews is to encourage slander of the Jewish people and promote persecution of the Jewish people [anti-Semitism]. 

Stott writes “The way to avoid anti-Semitic prejudice, however, is not to pretend that the Jews were innocent, but, having admitted their guilt, to add that others shared in it” [Stott, 62-63].

Here is the hard question that spreads responsibility to Christians.  If we were in their place, would we have done what they did?  Are the sins of Pilate, the Jewish leaders and Judas that unique?

Stott is not making friends among his fellow Christians with what he writes next: “We [Christians] have done it.”

Their sins were not unique.  We commit them a lot.

Whenever we turn away from Jesus, we are crucifying the Son of God all over again and are subjecting Him to public disgrace.  Turn to Hebrews 6:6 and after reading it see if you can honestly say, “I have never turned away from Jesus.”   Whenever we get greedy, are we any better than Judas?  In society today, there are many examples of individuals who love the Lord but they also have an abiding love of money.  When we look at the fame that others have or the power they wield and we wish we had some of that, are we not experiencing some of the envy that the Jewish leaders experienced?  When we get so wrapped up in our ambitions and make horrible mistakes, we are feeling some of those same feelings that guided Pilate when he sent Jesus to his soldiers.  He wanted to look strong and in control.  One more “episode” that made him look weak would call into question his future as an administrator in the minds of his Roman superiors. He certainly did not want that.

Stott refers to an old Negro spiritual that asks “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Yes, we were there.  All those base emotions that underlie the actions of the guilty parties are felt by all of us.  In the minds of many, this makes us participants, not spectators.

Before we place total guilt on ourselves [which we may truly deserve], let’s also consider the power of Jesus Christ.  Did He have to go to His death?  The answer is no.  Jesus did not die as a martyr.  He went to the cross voluntarily.  He knew He had to suffer death on the cross.  Stott cites the Nineteenth Century evangelical pastor Octavius  Winslow who wrote “Who delivered up Jesus to die?  Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews for envy;–but the Father for love.”

It is important to think of responsibility for the death of Jesus on two levels: earthly and divine.  On the earthy level, Judas gave Jesus to the Roman soldiers and the priests, the priests gave Jesus up to Pilate declaring He was a blasphemous “pretender” and that He should be punished and Pilate gave Jesus up to his soldiers who actually crucified Him.   On the divine level, God gave up Jesus so Jesus could die for us.  “As we face the cross, then, we can say to ourselves both, ‘I did it, my sins sent Him there,’ and ‘He did it, His love took Him there” [Stott, 64].  God had a plan, which was to prove “I [Jesus] am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  The Apostle Peter brought the earthly and divine together so well in Acts 2: 23  “This man was handed over to you by God’s purpose and foreknowledge and that you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross.”

Truly the people of Jesus’ day bear great responsibility for His death.  Obviously Jesus was surrounded by wicked men who were instrumental in His death.  But also, one certainly can make the case that He would have never faced the cross if man had not sinned.  Finally, God intended for Jesus to go to the cross as a way to communicate to man that sins can be forgiven and better life can be anticipated if you follow Him.

It is this last reason for Jesus’ death that is the most intriguing; the death of Jesus was the Father’s will.

In upcoming posts, I will discuss Stott’s ideas about the death of Jesus on a deeper level, “looking below the surface” to discern what the Father’s will was. 

It is important for us to understand the reason for Jesus’ death, “He was not killed; He died, giving Himself up voluntarily to do His Father’s will.”

In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.”

Any insight we can have about the will of our Father is valuable…

For we all want to go to heaven…

Don’t we?

*from St. John Studies…

“The Loud Voices of Rationalization” December 29, 2020  [Pilate],   “The ‘Dark Passion’ of Envy” January 5, 2021 [the Jewish religious leaders],  “He Kissed Him” January 13, 2021 [Judas Iscariot].

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“He Kissed HIm…”

Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him…  [Matthew 10: 4].

After considering Pilate’s responsibility for the death of Christ in “The Loud Voices of Rationalization” on December 29 [St. John Studies] and then the Jewish leaders’ responsibility in “The ‘Dark Passion’ of Envy” on January 5[St. John Studies], we turn our attention to the one person who probably gets the most credit, Judas Iscariot.

His betrayal of Jesus was not unexpected; we all know that.  Jesus knew what was about to happen as we can read His response to Simon Peter’s question in John 13: 25-30: “Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, ‘LORD, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, He gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’  But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him.  Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.  As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.”

John Stott, in his book The Cross of Christ, writes that some don’t have such that much condemnation of Judas, for they feel he was the “tool of providence, the victim of predestination.”  Their idea is that someone had to betray Jesus, and it just happened to be Judas.

Yet is this exoneration for this man?  Just because his betrayal is predicted in Scripture does not mean that Judas lost all freedom of choice.  Jesus’ death was foretold in the Old Testament, but He went to His death voluntarily.  All of us have the push and pull of temptation to deal with, Godly influences and satanic influences.  It was Judas’ choice to give in to satan, to do his bidding and along with his choice comes consequences.

There is evidence that Jesus did not absolve Judas of responsibility.  The Passover meal had just started and Jesus knew His hour had come.  He also knew that the part that Judas was to play was underway; “Jesus knew that the hour had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father… The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power” [from John 13].  When Jesus identified Judas as His betrayer, Judas took the bread and he fled from the meal.  Stott points to similar Scripture in Psalm 41:9 when David laments betrayal: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.”  Others at the Passover meal may have been confused about Judas’ exit but Jesus was not.  Jesus says in Mark 14:21 “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about Him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”  Stott writes “Not only did Jesus condemn him, but Judas came in the end to condemn himself.  He acknowledged his crime in betraying innocent blood, returned the money for which he had sold Jesus and committed suicide.  Doubtless he was seized more with remorse than repentance, but a least he confessed his guilt” [Stott, 59].

This brings us to motive.  My spouse is fascinated with crime documentaries and in every show I have ever seen with her, there is always the big question “Why did they do it?”

Many have considered that Judas was deeply disappointed in Jesus.  He was a zealot and felt that the Jewish community needed a strong liberating leader instead of a man who preached love for one another.   Judas wanted to be part of a national liberation movement to remove his country from the colonial domination of Rome.  He really had no admiration for Jesus because His actions were not that significant.

Others point to the actions of Judas as a “moral fault.”   He was not politically motivated.  He was simply motivated by greed.  Judas was the treasurer of the Disciples, being entrusted with the common purse.  In well-known Scriptures [in Mark and John] Mary of Bethany brings expensive perfume to Jesus and anoints Him, filling the house with fragrant scent.  This was an expensive gesture, but Jesus thought it a beautiful thing.  Judas was a key spokesman who expressed the idea that the perfume could be sold and used to help the poor.  There is ample evidence that Judas was less outraged by this act than the idea that this was money that could go into his own pocket.  “Their comment was sick and insincere, as John goes on to say.  Judas ‘did not say things because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was in it’” [Stott, 60].

 Stott goes on to say that Judas may have been so outraged by this extravagance that he went straight to the priests to recoup some of the loss, choosing to sell Jesus for thirty silver coins, what Stott calls the “ransom of a slave.”  The disciple John points to the common problem that many have (the love of money) as the main motive for Judas’ action.  Paul declared in Luke and Timothy that the love of money is “a root of all kinds of evil.”  Every day we see human beings descend into deep depravity in the quest for riches.  Politicians use their power to give contracts to the highest bidder, spies sell their country’s secrets to the enemy, merchants enter into unscrupulous enterprises and yes, even today spiritual leaders turn religion into a money-generating business.

“Then one of the Twelve, the one called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?’ And they set out for him thirty pieces of silver” [Mark 26: 14].  Truly everybody has a price.

Maybe the motive was avarice.  Judas was not an exceptional man.  He did not take to heart Jesus’ admonition that is impossible to serve God and money.  Simply put, Judas chose money.  Many people do the same.

As we consider this third “factor” in the cause for Jesus’ death, we come to the acts of a man who was a key player in turning in Jesus to the Roman authorities.  Truly Pilate could have exerted his authority to save Jesus from crucifixion but instead he chose to wash his hands of the episode.  Truly the Pharisees could have been less insistent that Jesus the “uncredentialed” rabbi was committing dangerous blasphemy.  Truly Judas did not have to make the choice to pursue money over his dedication to Jesus, but he did. 

In one of the greatest ironies of all time, when the Roman guard came to the garden at Gethsemane, Judas chose to mark Jesus with one of the most sincere signs of friendship…

He kissed Him.

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The “Dark Passion” of Envy

Render Unto Caesar by Peter Paul Rubens

Epiphany Sunday is a Christian holiday primarily commemorating the Magi’s visit to the Baby Jesus.  As I sat in worship service listening to my pastor deliver a message from Matthew 2: 1-12, I did not realize these Scriptures would feed into my post this morning.  Herod played a large role in the early life of Baby Jesus.  He was envious of all the attention afforded to this Baby “King of the Jews” and His star.  He plotted to kill Jesus, trying to trick those around him into revealing the whereabouts of the Baby.  Eventually he resorted to killing all the male children of Bethlehem and that territory in order to eradicate Jesus.

John Stott writes that envy reared its ugly head again at the end of Jesus’ life, for the Jewish leaders were envious of Him and that led to His death on the cross.  Whereas “dark passions” led to Pilate’s decision to turn Jesus over for crucifixion [see Dec. 29 “The Loud Voices of Rationalization” St. John Studies], the Jewish leaders and the Jewish crowd had their own set of “dark passions” that led them to act as they did.

As I discussed on December 29, Pilate certainly bears some guilt in the death of Jesus, but the Jewish leaders of the day put Pilate in the “no win” situation.  The Jewish leaders committed Jesus for trial, they accused Him of subversion and they stirred up the crowd to call for His death.  Jesus acknowledges Pilate’s role but says in John 19: 11 “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” In Acts 3: 13-15 Peter makes the bold statement to the Jews “You handed Him over to be killed, and you disowned Him before Pilate, though he had decided to let Him go.  You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.  You killed the author of life.”

Why?

The short answer is envy.

But why would powerful Jewish priests who touted their nation’s special relationship with God, people who enjoyed their leadership role in governing their nation be envious of an “irregular” rabbi.  Stott says that Jesus “posed” as a rabbi, not entering by the “correct door” and not climbing up by the “right ladder.  He had no credentials, no proper authorization.”  To make matters worse, Jesus fraternized with the wrong people (e.g. prostitutes, tax collectors, the disease ridden).  When He was supposed to fast, He feasted; when He was supposed to celebrate the Sabbath, He healed people.  He cared more for people’s needs than the rules and regulation.  He made Himself available to those who needed Him for He knew “Healthy people don’t need a doctor — sick people do” [Matthew 9].

Again why would they be envious?

Jesus showed them the error of their ways.  His actions were a contrast to their behavior.  When people of this time saw a Pharisee exclaim his righteousness in Luke 18 [“God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”] they also saw Jesus doing the work of a real Messiah, teaching in a humble manner and healing the afflicted as the need arose.

Pilate saw what was going on.  He knew that an innocent Man was sent to him.  Did the Jewish leadership send Pilate Jesus because “they were concerned for political stability, doctrinal truth and moral purity?  Pilate did not think so” [Stott, 57].  Quoting H.B. Swete, Stott writes “He detected under their disguise the vulgar vice of envy.”  Matthew 27: 18 states “he [Pilate] knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.” 

As Jesus continued throughout His ministry, He became more condemning in His comments about Jewish leadership saying they cared more about their regulations than people in need.  He denounced them as “hypocrites” and called them “blind leaders of the blind.”  He likened them to “whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” [Matthew 23: 27].  These accusations did not foster good relations with the Jewish priests.

Added to this are the “outrageous” claims that Jesus made for Himself.  He claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath.”  He claimed to know God as His Father.  He claimed to be equal with God.

Were there good reasons for their hatred of Jesus?  The priests thought so.  In fact Stott writes they thought like Pilate “Their hands were clean” because it was clear that He was guilty.  They heard Him utter these blasphemous claims with their own ears.  “He was a self-confessed blasphemer.”  It was good for their political power, it was good for their theological standing in the community and it just made good ethical sense.  Jesus had to go.

Let’s turn to the Book of Mark to get to the basis of the dilemma the Pharisees found themselves in.  They wanted to kill a man who did little except to question their authority and in their minds they knew Jesus was speaking the truth.  Their authority should be questioned.  The Jewish leaders were also astute politicians and Jesus revealed their dark calculating nature when they questioned His authority in the Temple.  “They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to Him.  ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’  Jesus replied, ‘I will ask you one question. Answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!’    They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, From heaven, He will ask, Then why didn’t you believe him?  But if we say, Of human origin…’ (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)  So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’  Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’”

Stott comments “If they could not face the challenge of John’s authority, they certainly could not face the challenge of Christ’s.  He claimed authority to teach about God, to drive out demons, to forgive sins, to judge the world.  In all this, He was utterly unlike them…there was a self-evident genuineness about His authority.  It was real, effortless, transparent, from God” [Stott, 58].

The priests had their outward reasons to destroy Jesus, but their real reasons were inward.  Jesus did flaunt His disregard for their rigid rules from time to time.  He did not have the proper “credentials” to be a rabbi.  He even criticized their extremely “righteous” public behaviors, but underneath it all, He made them look bad.  His behavior was a contrast to theirs and the priests knew that the people preferred a man who was genuine to leaders who were fake.

Stott ends his discussion of the envious priests with words that can make us all uncomfortable. It is so easy to stand in judgement of the Pharisees, saying look at how those self-righteous leaders behaved…shameful!  But are we sometimes not far from their attitude in how we live our lives?  Maybe we should feel like those who were ready to stone the woman caught in adultery. Maybe we should admit that we cannot be that harsh with the Jewish priest and the Jewish crowd. Jesus interferes with us when we would rather have our privacy.  He demands homage when we really don’t want to be obedient.  Maybe we want to be left alone when Jesus says, no, I will never leave you alone.  Maybe we too “perceive Him as a threatening rival who disturbs our peace, upsets our status quo, undermines our authority and diminishes our self-respect” [58].

Yes…

We too want to get rid of Him.

“let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”

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The Loud Voices of Rationalization

It was 2004…

My wife and I were able to go watch the film with a group of people from our church.  The power of the movie was evident, especially the scenes depicting the Roman’s treatment of Jesus after they captured Him–His torture and His crucifixion.  However, I was viewing the film in a theatre with other people, in a public place.

The full impact of the film did not manifest itself until I was able to view it by myself at my home several years later.  That’s when the full impact struck me.  When Jesus’ Roman tormentors began to beat Him, I began to cry and I asked them to stop.  Crying uncontrollably is one thing but talking to the screen is another.  Of course I got even more emotional as I watched Jesus drag His cross to Golgotha and die upon the cross.

The film was Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

In this discussion, I will concentrate on responsibility for the death of Jesus and this first perspective will deal with those most immediately responsible, the Roman soldiers and Pilate.

R. W. Stott* feels that Jesus’ treatment came about due to “personal moral factors” which influenced the leaders who carried out Roman and Jewish law.  Pilate suffered a moral collapse due to his “dark passions” which overruled his sense of right and wrong.

One might turn to the Bible and read accounts of the crucifixion in the Gospels, but details of the gruesome death are vague.  We are told “They crucified Him” and Jesus kept praying out loud, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  One can turn to Gibson’s Passion and see a very accurate portrayal of what usually happened at a crucifixion.  “The prisoner would first be publicly humiliated by being stripped naked.  He was then laid on his back on the ground, while his hands were either nailed or roped to the horizontal wooden beam (the patibulum) and his feet to the vertical pole.  The cross was then hoisted to an upright position and dropped into a socket which had been dug for it in the ground.  Usually a peg or rudimentary seat was provided to take some of the weight of the victim’s body and prevent it from being torn loose.  But there it would hang, helplessly exposed to intense physical pain, public ridicule, daytime heat and nighttime cold” [Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion as quoted in Stott].

There are few if any details to suggest how the Roman soldiers felt about their duty.  Was crucifixion just normal duty for them to carry out?  Did they enjoy it?  Since this was Jesus, were they more cruel and sadistic than usual?  There was some information about the state of Jesus before He began His walk to Golgatha; He was dressed in a purple robe, given a crown of thorns, spat upon, struck on the head and slapped.  But when He arrived at Golgotha, there is no reference to a hammer, nails, pain or blood.

Pilate was in charge of the crucifixion; he ordered it and handed Jesus over to his soldiers to take charge of the task.  Stott points out that he certainly was culpable, even showing up in our Christian creed which declares that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate” but why did he do this to a Jewish rabbi?

Pilate had been appointed procurator (governor) of the border province of Judea by Tiberius, where he served for about ten years.  He had a reputation as an able administrator and was known as a man who had a sense of right and wrong. However, he had great contempt for the Jewish people as we will see later.  His overarching goal as governor was to maintain law and order and keep the troublesome Jews under control.

Was Jesus really a threat to his power?

Stott writes that “Pilate was convinced of Jesus’ innocence.”  Three times he declared publicly that he could find no grounds for charging Jesus of any crime.  Even Pilate’s wife stated that Pilate should leave Jesus alone because “I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of Him” [Matthew 27].

So why didn’t Pilate let Jesus go?  The short answer is that he did not want to exonerate Him because the Jewish leaders believed He was guilty. 

He shuffled responsibility off to Herod in order to get him to declare Jesus guilty of something.  That did not work.  Herod sent Jesus back unsentenced.

He tried “half-measures,” scourging or whipping Jesus with a leather whip with imbedded metal.  His hope was that the crowd would be happy that He was punished enough as soon as they saw His lacerated back.

Third, he tried to do the right thing (release Jesus) for the wrong reason.  It was his custom to grant amnesty to a prisoner on Passover and he hoped Jesus would be the one released.  He did not anticipate that the crowd would want to release Barabbas. 

Finally, he took water and washed his hands of the whole episode in front of the crowd.  In Matthew 27 it is recorded that he said “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

My pastor reads Scripture to our church every Sunday and a technique she often uses is asking this question about the Scripture: “Where are you in the story?”  Stott declares that we are in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; we are Pilate.  His devious behavior is something we can all relate to.  Too often we are anxious to avoid whole-hearted commitment to Christ, so we search for ways to avoid declaring our feelings.  We may have a half-hearted commitment.  We may think of Jesus as a wonderful teacher but don’t want to admit that He is Lord.  We have even been known to make public affirmations when we are really denying Him in our hearts.

What causes this man to cave into the crowd’s demands?  What caused him to ignore his instincts and let the Jews have their way?

John 19: 12: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.  Anyone who claims to be king opposes Caesar.”  This Scripture was Pilate’s turning point.

Pilate was an ambitious man and he did not want to be assigned to Judea all his life.  He wanted an assignment closer to Rome or he wanted to be in Rome itself.  He could have obeyed his sense of honor and let Jesus go, but he calculated that the best move for his future was to turn Him over to be killed.  The most expedient thing was just to let the crucifixion happen.  The more correct and principled thing to do was to let Jesus go.

Pilate had already drawn negative attention from Tiberius due to his posting of Roman standards for rule all over Jerusalem.  This was deemed a very provocative act by the Jewish leadership.  Historians also recount the misappropriation of Temple money for the building of an aqueduct.   Pilate also put down a rebellion of the Jews who did not want to pay Roman tribute.  Not only did he slay the rebels but he was said to have mixed their blood with the blood of the Passover lambs.  Was he concerned that more attention could ruin his career?  Possibly.

Pilate was a man who could have saved Jesus but he did not.  Many would argue that it was God’s plan for this man to be in charge.  His behavior allowed Jesus to die upon the cross which was God’s plan all along.   His “dark passions” overruled his sense of right and wrong and that triggered Jesus’ sentence.

Stott summarizes Pilate and his responsibility with these two sentences: “His conscience was drowned out by the loud voices of rationalization.  He compromised because he was a coward” [Stott, 56].

*author of The Cross of Christ

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Basic: What did Jesus Come to Do? What Do We Need to Do?

Ok, let’s just say that a “basic Christian” now believes one of the most fundamental thoughts about the faith [that Jesus Christ actually existed on this earth and He was God].  That is a big step forward for anyone who used to doubt Christianity.  I have an extensive discussion of this idea in my post on December 7th [“Basic: Jesus is the Son of God”]. 

But in the preface of his book Basic Christianity, John Stott brings up two additional fundamental questions that should be addressed if we believe that Jesus was God.

1.What did Jesus come to earth to do?

2.Do we have to do something in response?

For the first question, let’s start out with a short answer: He came to earth to save sinners (you and me).

Humanity in the form of Adam and Eve had already been created and soon after they arrived on this earth, sin entered the world and also death.  God did not prefer for life to turn out that way, in fact, He gave a pretty obvious warning in the book of Genesis that man had some serious restrictions, some things that he should avoid (you know, that apple thing).  But God left man with the option to sin and guess what?  Man took that option.

What is the upshot for us today?  We daily sin against God.  Adam and Eve got the “ball rolling” but we have continued their bent toward sinning.  Try as hard as we might, we are still “falling short of the glory of God” [Romans 3: 23].

The Bible is the story of how man has revolted against God our Creator and Lord and how God applies justice to man due to all those transgressions.  The book is also full of warnings that are delivered to man and we see man’s repeated failure to heed those warnings.  What is amazing is that God comes around to forgiving us so many times.  God expressed His love for us despite our rebellion; we deserve nothing but the hand of judgement but we don’t get that nearly as much as we deserve.

God does not give up on man because He has made a covenant [referred to as the Old Covenant].  He promised the patriarch Abraham that the Israelites would be His people and through them, He would bring all the nations of the world to Him.  He just wanted them to be faithful, to love justice, to show mercy and to walk humbly before their God.  The problem is, the Israelites often found God’s requests too hard to do.

God came up with another plan [a New Covenant if you will].  God gave man a Messiah, Jesus Christ, to live on earth and to explain what He expected of man.  Jesus lived among us [see that December 7th post] and He promised to bring us into the Kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness.  All we have to do is believe in Jesus’ Father.  All we have to do is believe that Jesus is also God.  The Israelites had Ten Commandments and many, many complex rules for devout living.  Jesus made things much simpler.  His New Covenant just said we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and all our mind.  The second commandment is love your neighbor as yourself.  He even stated that the basic New Commandment to go along with His New Covenant is we should love one another as He has loved us.

Under the Old Covenant, God knew man was not getting His message.  The history of mankind before Jesus was a history of repeated failure, but when Jesus came, God’s purpose for the saving of mankind changed.  He wanted to save man from sin by sacrificing His only Son.  “Jesus of Nazareth is the heaven-sent Savior we sinners need.  We need to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with the All-Holy God, from whom our sins have separated us.  We need to be set free from our selfishness and given strength to live up to our ideals.  We need to love one another, friend and foe alike” [Stott, 9].  This is what salvation means.  On a large scale, salvation is God’s effort to restore humankind. 

Remember, we broke the Old Covenant; God did not break it, yet He made the supreme effort to give us a Human Guide, someone who could tell us how to behave on earth.  And God’s Son is our advocate because He knows what it is like to be a human being.  He sits at the “right hand of God” pleading our case at judgement day.  He did not sin but He understands the temptations that we all face, for when He was on earth, He was tempted. 

When we become “born again” He promises a new life for us on this earth through His Spirit that resides in us.  We can live a life of righteousness, knowing we are forgiven of our sins.  We can grow in holiness as we maneuver through this world.  God will help us go from “childlike Christianity” to mature Christianity, if we listen to Him (His Holy Spirit).  God also promises that we will have eternal life. “Although God’s people have already in one sense been saved, in another, their salvation lies still in the future” [Stott].  We are given the promise that our bodies will be redeemed upon our death.  As Jesus suffered death and was resurrected to a new life with God, we can have that too.

In so many respects, Jesus Christ was our Scapegoat.  He died for us upon the cross.  People hear that all the time, but what does it really mean?  Jesus bore the punishment for all of man’s sins when He died so we could be saved.  We deserve to be punished and placed on the cross but we did not get what we deserved.  He suffered our death. 

What a revelation all this was for me in 1998.  When I read the preface of Basic Christianity, the book affirmed in clear English what I was learning in my life at that point. 

But what about that second question:  did I have to do something in response to Jesus’ call on my life?

Yes I did…

I needed to commit myself “heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and reservedly to Jesus Christ” [Stott, 9].

That sounds like a lot but I was ready.  I was humbled by my life circumstances at that point.  I had been chasing a dream that was not based on anything other than the exertion of my will.  I was not worshipping God; I was worshipping values of the world.  I was ready to submit to God.  I was ready to become His child.  I was ready to become a Christian living my life to further His kingdom.  I was ready to become a loyal member of His church.

It was not too much.  I had a life of misery, doing what I knew I should not do, not knowing what my purpose was in life and throwing away the important people in my life in pursuit of my own selfish goals.

I was not experiencing freedom.  I was experiencing the opposite.  My actions were putting me in a jail cell, where I was limited by my own sinful actions.  When I became “born again” Jesus Christ gave me the key to my cell and I unlocked the door and walked out.  I felt freedom for the first time in my life.

My approach in this post has been pretty simplistic and I have covered a lot of “territory,” but when I returned to John Stott’s book Basic Christianity and read his opening three questions I knew I had to write on them for anyone reading this blog who was not ready for the more complex discussion of The Cross of Christ.  Can you believe that Jesus was the Son of God and was God Himself?  What did He come to earth to accomplish?  What do we have to do in response to His efforts?

If we have some idea about how to answer those three questions, Stott’s book may get you on your way to living a life as a believer.  It served that purpose for me in 1998.

For the first time in my life, I realized that I had a God who was seeking me and I should spend the rest of my life seeking Him.

Basic Christianity…*

*My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross of Christ…  I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but I feel that now is the time to do that.

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Responsibility for the Death of Jesus

Who was responsible for the death of Jesus Christ?

Some believers don’t seem to be that concerned about this at all; their focus is mostly on the resurrection.  Their thought is that Jesus did not really die.  He was raised from the dead, so the responsibility for the death of Jesus does not matter that much.  But with theologian John Stott, he is not willing to gloss over the death of Jesus; his book is entitled The Cross of Christ.  Jesus’ death is front and center.

Stott’s view is that someone was responsible for killing Jesus; someone charged Him with being a felon.  Maybe we should stop and just say that Jesus’ behavior brought about His death.  Certainly Jesus appeared to be a revolutionary to both of the ruling parties in His culture.  The Jewish leadership was not happy with Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  They labeled that behavior as blasphemous and worked to find a way to eliminate Him.  The ruling invaders, the Romans, felt that Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews upset their balance of power.  Their concern was that Jesus was politically dangerous and if He declared Himself a king, He claimed power that was not rightfully His.  The power to rule belonged only to Caesar.

So John Stott states that the Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers entered into an “unholy alliance” in order to eliminate Jesus.  He was just too much of a threat to the status quo.  He was a law-breaker and his death was justified.

But was it?

The Gospel writers present a different story.  They present the idea that Jesus was not a law-breaker.  He was a martyr and was brought before the ruling bodies because they misunderstood His message. 

Why is all of this important?

People who are less focused on the divinity of Jesus and the fact that He was going to be resurrected all along are more focused on the assessment of guilt for this miscarriage of justice.  In short, they are obsessed with blaming someone for His death.

What is the significance of this?  Over the years, the Jews have born a lot of the blame for killing Jesus.  This of course has caused serious anti-Semitic feelings and has been one basis for persecution and violence of the Jews over the centuries. The idea is that Jesus was too much of a threat to the Pharisees; they wanted absolute spiritual authority over their people and Jesus broke their rules too often, doing what was needed rather than what was called for in the Jewish law.

Certainly there is evidence that Jewish leadership was unhappy with Jesus.  The Gospel writers write that Jesus claimed authority over the laws of Moses.  He often responded to obvious human needs with little regard to what day of the week it was, performing miraculous acts on the Sabbath.  Furthermore He declared that the Pharisees were hypocrites, an attitude that did little to endear Him to the Jews.  When He came to the Temple on His last visit to Jerusalem, the first thing He did was destroy the moneychangers’ tables in that Holy Place, very upsetting to the status quo.

In short, there were reasons that the Jewish leadership wanted Jesus eliminated.

With the Romans, the evidence is far less compelling.  Jesus was crucified and that was a Roman method of execution, not a Jewish method. This is evidence that there had to be some Roman influence on His death.  The Jews preferred to  stone people to death.  Also the Jewish authorities were not capable of bringing a capital punishment case forward in the courts; that was something that the Romans could do and only the Romans. 

Was Jesus a serious threat to the Romans?  Maybe not.  His words were probably not that revolutionary from a Roman point of view.  He did not come to preach violence; He came to preach love.  Many in Jewish society longed for a Messiah, but their concept was a Messiah who would lead the Jewish people into battle, a leader who was capable of overthrowing Roman rule.  Jesus was not that type of Messiah.  When asked about paying tax to Rome [a ploy to trap Jesus into uttering some seditious comment] He said “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  That type of language is hardly enough to seriously worry Roman authorities.

In upcoming posts, I will comment on Stott examining this issue from four different perspectives: the Roman view, the Jewish view, Judas Iscariot’s view and what he calls “their sins and ours.”

He does this because at the heart of what happened to Jesus is more than a “gross miscarriage of justice.”  Stott feels that the whole episode of Christ’s death on the cross came about because of “personal moral factors” which influence the course of law.  Caiaphas the Jewish high priest suffered a moral collapse.  He was influenced by dark passions which led him to lose his sense of morality.  Pilate was supposed to uphold Roman rule, not allow himself to be manipulated into exacting justice on a man who did not deserve a death sentence.  Stott describes these representative men as “fallen and fallible human beings, swayed by the dark passions which rule us all….behind their façade of rectitude of performing their public duty were violent and sinful emotions” [Stott, 52].

In everyday life I have known men to be concerned about two kinds of law: civil/criminal law and spiritual law.  One refers to behavior that is offensive to society or to a private party and the other refers to living and non-living ideas regarding emotions, thoughts and feelings [supernatural?].  Depending on the believer’s point of view, spiritual law can be seen as the higher power and personal moral behavior can alter the ruling of civil/criminal law.

Is this what happened to Jesus?

Did moral decay bring about His death on the cross?

Certainly the Gospel writers feel that the death of Jesus was brought about by a miscarriage of justice but rather than looking at civil/criminal law as the main reason Jesus was punished, the point to spiritual forces at play, spiritual forces working inside some important men of the day.

Stott writes that what leads to the death of Jesus is not so much a blame game for people who are trying to assess guilt.  The purpose of the narrative is more for “the moral instruction of converts” [Stott, 52].

Maybe Stott is right; it is not good to emphasize the resurrection completely, ignoring what brought about Jesus’ death on the cross.  Violent and sinful emotions really do exist and when they happen in the hearts of public officials,  great harm can occur.

Maybe they are the reason great harm came to Jesus.

We will see…

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Basic: Jesus Is The Son of God…

“I don’t fit in with those people in there.  They are perfect and I have my share of problems.  I am not sure I even want to get rid of my problems.  At least I can have a little fun out here in the real world.”   “I used to belong to that church but I got tired of them spreading gossip about each other.  They are so hypocritical.  Why would I want to attend services where people don’t practice what they preach?”  “Those people believe in God and they believe that ______ [some politician] is a good man.  How can that be?  There is very little about his positions that truly reflects Christianity, there is little about his character that reflects Christianity.  I can’t associate with people like that.”

Actual conversations I have had with people who have turned their back on the church…

Why all this discussion of not valuing the church?  That’s how John Stott begins his book Basic Christianity.  *

He describes the state of many people as “hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus.”  I would agree.  I have personally known many Christians who say they believe, yet they rarely go to church.  They may attend church one time per month and that is what they describe as “regular” or they may not go to church at all.  Many people don’t want to have anything to do with church.

What is going on?  Stott says too many people today see contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the current state of the church or the current behaviors of believers.  For many, Jesus has not lost His appeal.  His call to love one another is admirable.  He preached that it is important to try to live a sinless life and people who read the Bible know that Jesus was a person who acted out His faith.  He was not afraid to take a stand against convention; many times He did what was right and found Himself pitted against the strict religious leaders of His day.  Another problem with many people today is they just don’t find church appealing, with its institutionalized “rules.”  Add to that the idea that it is easy to denounce churches and church members for “corrupt” behaviors [falling short of the glory of God].

People still seem to need some spiritual guidance in their lives.  When times get tough as they can do, that is the time to turn to a higher power and ask for help. So what do they do?

They turn their back on the Christian church and turn to other faith worldviews.  Maybe they just get so busy with today’s values that there is no time to think about God.  [I am doing fine in my successful life, thank you very much].

Let’s say that belonging to a church is the problem, but there is still a fascination with Jesus Christ.  Stott addresses a basic question that some people may have.

Did Jesus really exist?

The answer is yes.  Multiple Christian writers attest to his life as well as pagan writers.  He was very much a human being, being born into this world, growing up as a child and then an adult, He worked as a carpenter, He slept, ate and drank, He suffered pain because He had a human body, He had human emotions and He died.** 

But according to Stott, the biggest stumbling block for many who are on the fringes of the church is the following question: Was Jesus God?

For one to be a believer, that is an essential.  Jesus was not some bizarre Christian superstition.  Jesus was the unique Son of God.

Stott comments: “This question is fundamental.  We cannot dodge it.  We must be honest.  If Jesus was not God in human flesh, Christianity is exploded.  We are left with just another religion with some beautiful ideas and noble ethics; its unique distinction has gone” [Stott, 8].

At earlier times in my life, I was not sure I was truly ready to accept this.  I found the Bible to be an interesting “book,” not really the “Word of God.”  It had lots of passages where I found problems [it says this here, and over here it says something else types of problems].  I was raised to go to church so it was a given that I continue that after I left home.  It was more of a duty than anything.  I was not sure that I was getting something valuable from church service.  I did not think deeply about my faith.  If someone asked me if Jesus was God I would have said “Yes!” without thinking because that was the proper response.  In those days I am not sure I could even explain the significance of the God-Jesus connection. 

Then I had a chapter of my life where I lost my moorings.  I was living as I wanted and then I was confronted with the fact that all I depended upon was taken away.  I needed help quickly and like many who find themselves in a foxhole in the middle of an artillery bombardment, I made a sincere overture to God Almighty. 

It was a simple one-word statement but it was the first time in my life I had ever said it. 

“Help!”

I asked God for help.

I asked Him for help, believing He could do something for me.  I asked Him for help, knowing deep in my heart that He would be there for me.  For the first time in my life, I truly wanted Him and needed Him.

He had already sent His Son to earth to help me, but as I said above, that God-Jesus connection was something I just accepted because I was told to accept it.  I could not explain it.  It did not seem that important to me.  Then in 1998 I was very interested in it.  When all that I believed in life was called into question, I needed a new “rulebook.”  That rulebook was the New Testament.

I turned to the New Testament and read it like a novel.  Page after page held clues for me about how to live a better life.  For much of it, the message was articulated by Jesus or His Apostles and it made so much sense.  Little did I know that when I asked God for help that I would find myself studying His word, but I had always been a Christian on the fringes, not serious about my beliefs, but someone who did go to church regardless.

One of the first books I read to supplement the Bible in 1998 was Basic Christianity by John Stott.  I loved the New Testament but I also loved John Stott’s writing.  He was clear in his message.  He challenged me with his declarations.  He instructed me about the basics that I missed somewhere along the line. 

He made me think about how it is essential that I accept Jesus as the Son of God and the more I went to church and actually listened to my pastor, attended adult Sunday school and took my teacher’s lessons to heart, the more I read the Bible and other good books, the more I formed a rock-solid belief that Jesus was Divine, the true Son of Almighty God.

I still had my problems as I began to attend church on a regular basis.  The people in my church did not condemn me about my problems; they loved me anyway.  I saw that many of them were struggling too, but they knew that God loved them and forgave them.  Some people misbehaved in church but I began to see that as normal.  We are all human beings and to be held to a perfect standard just because you walk into a church is a bit of a stretch.  Their behavior was regrettable but it was understandable. We are all human.  Over the years I have heard people express their political views in church [not pastors], but I tried not to do that.  I understand how non-believers can be upset about that.  I began to feel that taking politics of the world into a church somehow takes something away from the worship of God.  I don’t discuss politics in my adult Sunday school class and when I hear someone saying political things, I just don’t respond.

I won’t turn my back on church.  I need it.  I won’t turn my back on God.  I have to have Him.  I won’t turn my back on His Son.  He inspires me.

You see, God sent His Son Jesus to help me.  He is there to help you too.

There it is…

Basic Christianity

*My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…  I just finished chapter one of The Cross [November 30, 2020].  I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that. 

**See “Archaeologists Believe They’ve Unearthed Jesus’s Childhood Home”  Caroline Delbert,  Popular Mechanics Website, December 1, 2020 for recent discoveries.

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Two Books: One Author

I guess you can find images of just about anything on the internet. Here are images of the exact R.W. Stott book I read in 1989, when I gave my life to Christ. At a time when I needed to read about basic Christianity, Stott gave me clear information about the faith.

Beginning December 7, 2020, I will mix commentary about this book in with commentary about The Cross of Christ.

This is the first time I have ever blogged on two books at the same time, but my heart is telling me to do this.

Two books: one author. One book basic; another book quite complex.

I know I will enjoy this.

I hope you do too.

David Carter

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The Cross and Opposition

I daresay that many of us are searching for a faith, a worldview, an outlook that works for us.  Some of us may try on various “philosophies” like we try on clothes.  This one looks good.  This one feels right.  I can see value in this way of living.  We may adopt it for a while and then over time things happen: the faith is tested and we think it fails, the worldview crumbles as it confronts reality and what we consider to be a good outlook is no longer good any more.

Such was my life in college.  I dallied with a worldview that I thought was “cool”.  It seemed to explain a lot.  I had a mentor who believed it and he encouraged me to read literature that espoused it but in my heart I knew that something was lacking.  At the time I could not figure out what was wrong but I knew something was wrong.

It captivated my heart for awhile…

John Stott closes “Chapter One” of The Cross of Christ by pointing to several competing thoughts in the world that do not support the idea that the cross is the most important symbol for Christianity.  I have already discussed the Roman attitude toward crucifixion and the Jewish attitude toward crucifixion [see Nov. 1, 2020 post entitled “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”].  Romans felt the cross represented a horrific way to die and Jews felt that Jesus’ death was a curse from God.  Certainly culture in First Century A.D. did not think the cross a significant or worthy symbol.

Other examples come from religions like Hinduism which has been around for five thousand years.  Stott writes Hindus “repudiate the gospel of the cross” [47].  Gandhi was attracted to Christianity for a while but could not accept the divinity of Christ.  Writing in 1894, he said “I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born.  His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart would not accept.”  Hinduism was the worldview I was fascinated with but I remember feeling that it was a bit hollow, that it did not seem to go anywhere.  Maybe I wanted a faith that inspired people to grow.  As I said above, something about it was “lacking.”

The Muslim faith ranks second today with 2.22 billion followers and it is considered the fastest growing religion in the world.  Muslims feel that Jesus was a major prophet, a Messiah, but they don’t accept the Christian concept of the need for the sin-bearing death of a Savior.  They believe each man will reap the fruit of his own deed.  Allah is capable of being merciful and capable of forgiving those who repent, but they just don’t feel that Jesus’ death on the cross served any purpose.  Stott describes Muslim theories of Jesus’ death as “God cast a spell over the enemies of Jesus in order to rescue Him” and other people were substituted for Jesus on the cross at the last moment. Nothing miraculous occurred on the cross, certainly nothing so important that a large number of people should hold up a cross as a significant religious symbol.

Western cultural thinking has long been an enemy of the Christian cross.  Friedrich Nietzsche [considered a major influence on modern intellectual history] wrote that Jesus was weak and Christianity was a weak form of faith.  “What is more harmful than any vice is active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak Christianity.”   Darwinism emphasizes “survival of the fittest” and he found that conception much more attractive than a Messiah who found Himself sacrificed on the cross.

Other scholars like Sir Alfred Ayer wrote that “among religions of historical importance, there was quite a strong case for considering Christianity as the worst.”  He cites the “contemptible and morally outrageous” doctrine of original sin and Christ’s atonement on the cross.

One could go on and on citing example after example of opposition to the cross.  In fact, it is amazing that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith that it is today.

How did Christians persist in the face of opposition?  What happened to cause this symbol to be the central symbol of a faith with 2.3 billion followers, making Christianity the largest religion in the world?  Stott summarizes this phenomenon in a single word—“integrity.”   

What he means by integrity is personal loyalty to Jesus.  Stott has already written that he feels Jesus knew His life was leading to a death on the cross.  In my November 8 post entitled “Looking into the Mind of Jesus” I comment on the idea that Jesus was fixated on the saving cross as His significant last act as a human being.  Stott cites numerous Christian theologians that support his argument, P.T. Forsyth and Emil Brunner among them.  Forsyth writes “All that was in heaven or earth was put into what He did there [at the cross]…Christ, I repeat, is to us just what His cross is.  You do not understand Christ until you understand His cross.”  Brunner feels there is no other way to understand Christianity if one does not understand the significance of the cross, what he refers to as “revelation and atonement through the Mediator.”  “He who understands the Cross aright—this is the opinion of the Reformers—understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”*

Given this Christian theological emphasis, it is no wonder that Stott describes the cross as the center of Christian history and theology.  Christians “naturally perceive it [the cross] as the center of all reality.  So they see it everywhere, and have always done so” [Stott, 49].    Anglican theologian Stephen Neill writes “the death of Christ is the central point of history; here all the roads of the past converge; hence all the roads of the future diverge.”**

Why all this concern for the cross?  Why has Stott spent a whole chapter detailing the role of the cross in the history of the church?  Why has he argued that Jesus had every intention of going to the cross as His life unfolded?  Why does Stott turn to Scripture to make the case that Biblical writers knew that the cross was the central symbol of the faith?

The answer lies in the faith of the believer.  Jesus was the Son of God, God in human form.  Jesus came to save us sinners, to tear down the wall of sin that separates all of us from God.  Jesus did all this through His death on the cross.

We need to have that faith, that cornerstone of our belief, that the only authentic Jesus is the Jesus who died on the cross.

*From Emil Brunner,  The Mediator

**From Stephen Neill “Jesus in History” in Truth of God Incarnate

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