Mt 27:33-66; Mk 15:22-47; Lk 23:33-56; Jn 19:17-42
Darkness at Noon. This week’s study focuses on Jesus’ experience on the cross. Here we will look at the cross through the lens of Jesus’ seven sayings on the cross.
Discussion questions and themes.
- Father, forgive them (Lk 23:34). To what extent is Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness for His enemies the highest possible goal for a believer? How can we explain the teaching and example of Jesus in light of some of the vivid statements from psalmists and prophets:
- Ps 69:27: “Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living.”
- Ps 137:8-9: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back with what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
- Ps 139:21-22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
- Jr 18:22-23: “These people have dug pits and set traps for me, LORD. Make them scream in fear when you send enemy troops to attack their homes. You know they plan to kill me. So get angry and punish them! Don’t ever forgive their terrible crimes.” (CEV)
- You will be with me in Paradise (Lk 23:43). Two notable features stand out here:
- Value of a death-bed conversion. Can we, with confidence equal to that of Jesus, promise salvation through Jesus to those who are dying?
- Jesus’ confidence: renewed, but still shaky. In the Garden, Jesus begged that the cup be taken away from Him. Here He seems to be seeing through the tomb, but His most wrenching cry is yet to come. Is such a roller coaster experience typical for us, too, when we face great crises in our lives?
- Woman, here is your son (Jn 19:26). Jesus’ awareness of the needs of those around Him is truly striking. Should such an aspiration be shared by believers? Or would the ideal be too crushing for most?
- My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt 27:46) . This statement can be viewed from two quite different perspectives:
- Godforsakenness as essential to the plan of salvation. This cry is often linked with the concept of God’s wrath against sin:Jesus as our Sin Bearer took the full brunt of God’s wrath. If a person has not yet tumbled to the truth of the full divinity of Christ, how can this experience be seen from the Father’s perspective without distorting human understanding of God’s love?
- Godforsakenness as an essential mark of Jesus’ humanity . If both Jesus and the original psalmist (Ps. 22:1), prayed this prayer, shouldn’t it be available to us, too, when we face our moments of godforsakenness? Why are believers sometimes reluctant to pray this prayer?
- I am thirsty (Jn 19:28). Of all the evidences for Jesus’ humanity, where would this one be ranked in importance as evidence that Jesus was a real human being?
- It is finished (Jn 19:30) . From our later Christian perspective, we are likely to find a meaning in this cry which would not have been self-evident to the first disciples. What would have been the most likely understanding of this phrase by those who heard it at the time of the crucifixion?
- Into your hands (Lk 23:46). To what extent is it necessary to go through the agony in order to find peace and resolution? When is agony a necessary prelude to resolution and peace?
Overview Question: How many of Jesus’ seven statements would you see as near despair? How many would you see as distinctly hopeful? What is their meaning and application for us in our modern world? Can Jesus’ story be at the heart of our story?
Resource material: “Reflections on Jesus’ Seven Words” (by Alden Thompson):
The Seven Words from the Cross – Introduction (1 of 8)
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, August 1989
In His own day, Jesus was a hard man to avoid. The crowds pressed in to hear Him speak; the sick, the lame, and the sorrowing reached out to Him for healing; the temple authorities confronted him; playful children, ambitious disciples, even curious Roman soldiers were drawn to Him by some mysterious power.
I, too, am drawn by that mysterious power. But it’s more than that, for I find Him persistently taking the initiative, inviting Himself into my life. When I write, He slips to the center of the page; when I preach, shadows the pulpit; in the office, He lingers by my desk. I could conceive of times or circumstances when such a haunting presence might be oppressive. I am grateful that it is not.
The fact that I work for a Christian college certainly makes Jesus’ presence more natural in my work. But even then there are many mundane matters for which Jesus’ presence might seem unnecessary, irrelevant, or even cumbersome. Certainly much of the paper pushing in administration seems to be in a world not obviously religious: curriculum, budgets, schedules, government forms. That’s earthy stuff.
But when I try to separate my life into tidy categories of sacred and secular, I run into difficulties. Even if I were to become a monk and isolate myself in a monastery somewhere, I still would have to face the realities of an earthly and earthy existence. Monks eat. They wear clothes. They need a roof over their heads. That means at least some contact with the worldly enterprises of business and commerce. Growing, manufacturing, and building – earthy stuff. Is that Jesus’ business?
Over the years I have observed students under strong religious conviction attempting to focus more of their time and energies on their religious experience. Like Mary, they want more of Jesus and are willing to let Martha take care of the kitchen. A spiritual retreat may be essential at key points in life, but it cannot last forever. More than once I have seen students cut back one class so that they can spend more time with Jesus; then two classes; then three. Finally they drop out of college. Sometimes they come back after some months or years, but often they bring with them spouse and children. For them, the task of getting an education has become more difficult, more complex.
Paul retreated to Arabia soon after his conversion – but he came back. And his conversion certainly was no hindrance to his practicing the tentmaker’s trade. Taking time out for our souls is crucial. I believe that is part of the reason why God gave us a Sabbath. But just as the setting of the sun may mark the beginning of a sacred time with God, so the setting of the sun may also mark a return to the world – with God by our side.
Yes, Jesus has to touch our lives at our earthiest points. He is not just a man of religion; He is a man of the world. He is concerned about our bodies, our food, our clothes. And somehow I suspect His interests include cars and computers, cats and cleansers. Indeed, the full encyclopedia is His domain.
And that points us to the reason why Jesus is so important and why He persists in our lives. He took our flesh in order to understand our world and feel our pain. Now we know that He knows. And we know that because He knows, God knows. Through Him we glimpse a God who reaches down to help and to save. In the words of John’s first epistle, seeing with our eyes and touching with our hands reassures us of God’s presence. The apostles grasped that message and went out to share it with a hungry world.
Nowhere does Jesus’ earthiness become more vivid than in his experience on the cross. His seven words (or sayings) touch human life at crucial points. He is in touch with people, in touch with human needs. He enables us to see His place and ours in God’s great plan for the universe.
On the cross, Jesus was concerned for people. He prayed for his enemies; He reassured His fellow sufferer on the cross – a stranger; and through His conversation with Mary and John, Jesus showed tender concern for family and friends.
On the cross, Jesus tasted the physical and psychological pain which haunts human existence. Parched lips pled for something moist; a God-forsaken heart cried out for someone to understand.
On the cross, Jesus sealed with His own body and blood a plan of salvation for you and for me. He committed His life to God and then declared the great plan finished.
Our bitter world threatens to take us away from Jesus. But He comes again and again into our lives, showing that every human act, every human thought is part of His world, too.
Why is Jesus important? Because He is our link with God. Until we make our home with Him, God has promised to make His home with us. That was Jesus’ promise. And that’s a promise we can trust.
The Seven Words from the Cross – 1 (2 of 8)
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, September 1989
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, RSV)
The first thing Jesus did on the cross was to obey the toughest command He ever gave, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43, RSV).
Good for Jesus – but what does that mean for us?
In our sinful world, the “natural” human reaction is to hate our enemies. They hurt us? We’ll hurt them. They don’t like us? We don’t like them.
That’s “natural” for sinners. But how is it different for a Christian? A Christian is, after all, a sinner, too – a forgiven sinner. Do forgiven sinners “naturally” love their enemies?
No. Not easily, at least.
Perhaps the picture snaps clearer if we probe four possible reactions to the prospect of loving our enemies. At one end of the spectrum are those who follow Jesus’ example and obey His command, spontaneously “loving” their foes. At the other extreme are those who gladly hate their enemies, relishing their hatred in the same way, perhaps, that some people “enjoy” poor health.
In between are those who struggle, not only with hatred, but also with conscience and feelings of guilt. Some have discovered, to their horror, that they don’t want to love their enemies – but at least they are dismayed at their discovery. Others try to “love” their enemies, but can’t; they desperately want to love, but grieve over their lack of power to do so.
Could I be so bold as to suggest that three of these four reactions are found among forgiven Christian sinners? Indeed, I am inclined to make room for all four within the camp of the saints, even if it does require some fancy footwork to admit those who actually “relish” their hatred.
But let’s begin right there with the fancy footwork and at the point most distant from the cross – and work our way up to Jesus’ ideal prayer, “Father, forgive them.”
- Those who love to hate. I wouldn’t have given these folks half a chance if they hadn’t kept talking back to me from the Psalms. “Arise, O Lord! Confront them,” cries the psalmist. “Overthrow them!” (Ps. 17:13, RSV). Even more startling is the cry against the enemy’s children: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:9. RSV).Two questions tumble to the front: a) How could the Spirit possibly inspire such hatred in God’s writers? b) Is He here giving us license to hate?
No. An emphatic no. And in both cases.
God inspired the psalmist, but not the hatred. And the inspired message for us is not that we should hate, but that we can be open, even blunt, with God. Indeed, we must come clean before Him.
Knowing that Jesus’ ideal is “love” for our enemies, we are embarrassed at our hatred and seek to camouflage it behind a “Christian” smile. But it still bleeds from between our teeth and trickles down our face. Our polite words are laced with anger. We lash out, we wound, we destroy – all behind a smile.
God wills that we love our enemies. But we can’t pretend. And we cannot love before our heart is broken. Let us be honest and cry out, “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.” Let us fall at the foot of the cross and throw our anger down before the Lord. Then He begins to heal. Then love begins to grow.
So let’s make room in the camp for the honest sinner, indeed for the violent one. Honesty is the all-important first step.
- Those who feel guilty and ashamed because they don’t want to love. It is not “natural” to love the unlovely. But grace can help us begin. When forgiven sinners discover that they still enjoy hating their enemies, they can pray, “Father, change my desires. Make me want to ask You to forgive my enemies.” That is a thoroughly Christian prayer.
- Those who feel guilty and ashamed because they have tried to love, but can’t. Both expectations and performance need attention here. If we expect to feel warm and cozy toward our enemies, we are probably doomed to failure. A command can make a ten-year old boy kiss a gushing but stodgy aunt, but it can never make him like it. Love in the emotional sense does not respond to commands.But when Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and give away our cloak (Matt. 5:39-40), He was defining love as an act of the will, not as a pleasant emotion. The Greek words for love allow that important distinction. Even if we don’t feel good, we can choose to do good. Yes, “Father, forgive them,” even through clenched teeth, is still a Christian prayer.
- Those who spontaneously love their enemies without animosity. I find no evidence in Scripture that Jesus prayed for His enemies through clenched teeth. His prayer for them was spontaneous and natural, flowing from a heart free of anger or hatred.Must I pray like that, too?
But one thing I know – I long to pray like that. When Jesus commands me to love my enemies, it is for my good as much as theirs. Anger destroys the heart and embitters the life. His wish for us is that we prosper and be in health. How can that happen unless we pray for our enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”?
Lord, melt away my anger and bitterness. Grant me a heart to pray as You prayed.
The Seven Words from the Cross – 3 (4 of 8)
“Room in Paradise”
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, November 1989
Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43, RSV)
Jesus was on the cross. He had asked His Father to forgive those who brutalized Him. It hadn’t phased them. They kept it up – the taunts, the ridicule, the scorn.
Except for one of the two evil men crucified with Jesus.
Two men – both evil? Yes. Even the forgiven one.
We will not belabor the point here except to say that the traditional tag, “thief on the cross,” makes it too easy simply to pity the “good” thief as though he were some wayward, but actually quite decent, teenager gone astray. We ourselves could almost forgive someone like that.
But let’s make the story as vivid as the Gospels suggest. Luke calls both men “criminals”; even the “good” one admits he deserves his fate. Matthew and Mark actually depict both men “reviling” Jesus without a trace of repentance from either.
As the pieces fall together, the emerging scene finds two violent, angry men, writhing beside Jesus. They join in the general mayhem. They taunt. They ridicule. They scorn.
Then one of them breaks. “Jesus,” he pleads, “remember me in your kingdom.”
Two perspectives we want to explore in this scene. First, let’s hang on the bad man’s cross and hear Jesus talk to us. Then we’ll slip over and stand with Jesus. What would we say to a hardened criminal who suddenly turns soft?
First, to the bad man’s cross. What do we hear from Jesus’ lips?
Salvation. You will be with me in Paradise. Reservation confirmed. No questions asked.
If a criminal, wicked enough to suffer crucifixion for his sins, receives full benefits for a death-bed conversion, the door must be wide open for anyone.
A question of fairness – what about all those with a consistent, life-long record of careful discipline, those who sacrifice pleasure and wealth in the name of their Lord in order to be in His kingdom?
Jesus’ one-liner seems to give away the store with no strings attached. I feel like blurting out, “Yes, but . . .” And I wait for Jesus’ rejoinder, “Oh, by the way . . .” But none of that happens. All I hear is “Yes – there is room in Paradise for you. I’ll see you there.”
If we could probe Jesus for some kind of follow-up, we might hear Him say: “I do not promise my kingdom to those who work, but to those who believe. All who believe in me also work for me. But not everyone claiming to work for me believes. All things are possible to one who believes; then the work takes care of itself. But I have never said, “All things are possible to one who works. . . .”]
Repentance. I don’t have to say “I’m sorry”? Or “I repent”? Or “Forgive me”? Jesus didn’t even say “You are forgiven.” Was it all understood without being said?
Maybe Jesus really understands how hard it is to roll out all the sordid details of public and private life. If I had to tick off each specific sin and grovel just a bit in order to clear the record and enter in, it would take forever. . . .
Somehow, He must know that buried in the depths of my plea, “Remember me in your kingdom” is all the sorrow for sin, all the repentance, all the pleas for forgiveness, that God could ever want.
Assurance. Somehow I expected Jesus to say that He would have to check the record, to look in the books to see what kind of citizen of Paradise I might be, to follow up on a couple of character references. But no. “There’s a place for you. Reservation confirmed. I’ll see you there.”
Jesus seemed so confident, so clear. Maybe I really can close my eyes and know that I am His. That was what He said, wasn’t it?
Judgment. I’m still on the cross for my sins. He has promised me eternal life, a place in the kingdom. For that I am deeply grateful. But for right now in this life, this cross is terribly real. It hurts. The wages of sin is death. And whatever a man sows, he will reap.
I wish I had believed that earlier. Somehow I had the impression that I was supposed to obey to keep Him happy. That’s why I hated Him. Why did I never grasp the fact that He asked me to obey for my sake? The pain it would have saved. . . .
Now let’s slip over to Jesus’ cross and look at the criminal through His eyes as one of His disciples. We discover that our first impulses are not very helpful:
Salvation – To this brutal man? So late in the day and after all that hatred and bloodshed?
Repentance – Couldn’t he at least say “I’m sorry,” “Forgive me,” or “I repent”? How can someone just ask for a place in the kingdom – and get it, no questions asked?
Assurance – The rest of us have had to work hard to get there and we’re still not sure. Assurance comes only with full obedience. With your record . . . .
Judgment – God gives us what we deserve. If. . . .
Then I catch a glimpse of Jesus. Something breaks. I fall at the foot of the cross and cry, “Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom.”
And Jesus answers . . . .
The Seven Words from the Cross – 4 (5 of 8)
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, January 1990
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46, RSV).
At least two of Jesus’ words on the cross want to push us beyond our limits: one to a height we cannot reach, the other to a depth we dare not descend.
When He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” He seemingly was planting the standard beyond our grasp. Deep in our souls we ask, How could we reach that lofty height of Christian maturity?
And now His cry of godforsakenness plunges us to a depth to which we scarcely dare descend. Who could be so bold as to accuse the Maker of the Universe of forsaking the precious Work of His own hand?
How could you say it, Jesus? Will He not strike you down for blasphemy?
“My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” What did it mean for Him? What does it mean for us?
As we read the Gospels, we sense that Jesus knew full well what lay ahead of Him. Especially in Mark, we see Him moving relentlessly toward Jerusalem and death.
When and where had He learned to apply the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 to Himself? It certainly was not a popular Jewish tradition. Indeed, the Aramaic paraphrase (Targum) on Isaiah 53 turns the servant into a conquering hero, “harmonizing” it with the tradition of the warrior Messiah. From all that we can tell, Jesus was virtually a pioneer of the view that the Messiah must suffer and die for the sins of the people. Even the disciples refused to accept it – until after the resurrection.
It would be one thing to expect suffering and death. But to look forward to one’s own resurrection as well would be heady stuff indeed. Yet it happened.
Settling in to the conviction, keeping it alive, shaping it as part of the full conception of His ministry – all that happened before Jesus was thirty years of age. Then came the baptism, the voice, the demonic taunts in the wilderness, the miracles, the growing throngs, the diminishing throngs, the betrayal, the trial, the cross.
And the resurrection was not yet.
Maybe Jesus had expected a more powerful “sense” of His Father’s presence. But no. The heavens were as brass. There was a famine in the land. All was barren and dry.
If, however, we turn to the Old Testament passage where Jesus found His words, we discover a powerful impulse of hope. He was quoting the first words of Psalm 22. And if the first verse seems stark, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” the despair actually deepens from there. Let’s listen. Jesus surely would have known more than the first verse:
“Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
“O my God, I cry by day, but thou does not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
“Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
“In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
“To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
“But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people.
“All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
“`He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!'” (Ps. 22:1-8, RSV).
In other words, “Everyone else got help except me!” Such despair. Such loneliness.
The psalm continues with more somber words. But then the despair begins to lift, a glimmer of hope flickers; finally, confidence breaks out fresh and full: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Ps. 22:24, RSV).
Jesus had seen it all before. He was not the first of the godforsaken. He had good company in the Psalms. The prayer was not a declaration of abandonment, but one of faith and hope. Just as the Psalmist plunged to the depths and returned to the light, so Jesus took a Psalm on His lips that reflected His dire straits – but also promised to take Him where He needed to go.
Many of my students are reluctant to admit that Psalm 22 is a prayer for them. Why? Because they have been taught to be polite when they talk to God.
But that is a death-dealing politeness. Are there not times when we feel thoroughly alone and deserted? When the skies are as brass? When there is a famine in the land and all is barren and dry?
Then we may search out our soul mates in the Psalms and on the cross and cry out with them. “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”
And we will remember that the Psalmist first moves deeper into darkness, then back into twilight, and finally into the warm and reassuring rays of the sun. It is a prayer of faith, not of despair.
And it all began by asking God why on earth He had left us alone.
I’m grateful for the Psalmist and for Jesus. I don’t know yet how I will forgive my enemies, but I am no longer afraid to descend into the depths. I know I can tell Him exactly how it is down there. And that will be the first step back toward the light.
The Seven Words from the Cross – 5 (6 of 8)
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, February 1990
I thirst. (John 19:28, RSV)
A grueling day. Every bone and muscle cry out for relief. Now it is night, crisp and cold. A hot shower. A bed with a fluffy down quilt. . . .
A long road home. No place to eat. Then aroma. Fresh bread, garden peas, baked potato, corn on the cob, thick slices of juicy tomato, ice cold watermelon. . . .
Hours on a hot, dusty trail. Parched lips. A mouth full of cotton. Then a cascading mountain stream. Sparkling cold water.
Exhaustion. Hunger. Thirst. Then relief and deep, satisfying pleasure – I’m not sure which of the three I like best, for I have relished them all.
But what about the millions in our ravaged world who are weary, hungry, and thirsty, day after day?
On the cross, Jesus shared their world. When God stooped down to take human flesh, He reached all the way down. Bone-weary days, hunger pangs, parched lips – all that was God’s way of saying that He wants to understand, and that He wants us to understand that He understands.
All the Gospels tell us about the vinegar that touched Jesus’ lips, though only John records His cry. And we don’t know if the vinegar helped. But we do know that Jesus tasted enough of our bitter world to show us that God is not afraid to smudge His hands with the messy stuff of human existence. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
The modern tendency to push God away into some high and lofty corner of the universe is not faithful to Scripture. To adore a transcendent ideal is both admirable and awe-inspiring. But it is a half-truth. God pushes His way through the teeming masses to hang on one of our crosses, to cry out that He, too, feels godforsaken; and that He, too, is thirsty.
And from that thirsty cross we now look backward and forward with fresh insight. Truths emerge from the shadows into a blaze of light. Strange customs and violent deeds are touched with the Divine hand. Slavery, polygamy, and blood vengeance bring a shudder to gentle Western Christians as do the laws that God gave to guide in such practices.
Did He really give those laws? Yes. He meets people where they are. He is not afraid to get His hands dirty. When He reaches down into the world of humanity, He reaches all the way down. That is the message from the thirsty Man on the cross.
But that Man has another message for us. He did not slip into our world simply to help us grin and bear it. He asks us to do something about it.
Contrary to some austere views of the Christian life, Jesus’ way does not consist of doing without, of pummeling unmet desires into an unwilling submission. No, while the occasional fast may be appropriate and helpful, God expects the weary to rest, the hungry to eat, and the thirsty to drink. “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” said the Psalmist (Ps. 37:4, RSV). Or from the prophet, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1, RSV).
Jesus’ ministry reflects the same urge to bring relief to tormented bodies. He fed the five thousand, and again the four. And he declared, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28, RSV)
But that was not enough. He commissioned, indeed commanded, His followers to do what He had done. In the parable of the sheep and goats, He declared that the crucial element in the judgment was whether and how we helped human beings in need: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:35-36, RSV).
The thirsty Man on the cross knew about parched lips. He wants us to know about them, too – enough so that we will feel compelled to take our cups of sparkling cold water out into a world of parched lips.
Finally, the thirsty cry from the Man on the cross tells us another great truth: In the face of urgent need, it’s all right to get the message out. Gentle Christians often prefer the stiff upper lip to a clumsy “I thirst.” We are too shy, too proper, too embarrassed to let either the world or the Lord know about our parched lips.
I know about such reluctance, but am increasingly puzzled by it. The psalmists certainly would argue against it. They told the LORD where it hurt and how much. Jesus did the same. So can we.
Jesus descended into our world to touch our lives at the level of raw physical need. We may turn to Him and seek relief. Is it slow in coming? Then let us ponder during those moments of exhaustion, hunger, or thirst, what it would be like to live with lips forever parched, with stomachs forever empty, and bodies forever weary.
We just might be more willing to move out into a parched world with our cup of sparkling cold water.
The Seven Words from the Cross – 6 (7 of 8)
By Alden Thompson
Cf. Signs of the Times, March 1990
When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30, RSV)
I used to think You could have saved us a lot of trouble, Jesus, if You had told us what was finished at the cross. Did you leave the “it” dangling on purpose so that the cross can mean what we need it to mean?
Let’s explore that possibility.
On that Friday afternoon when the cross was planted in Golgotha’s rocky soil, it was a symbol of death. From all sides, the lonely center cross, jutting into the night sky, looked the same. One day it would be seen as a vital link between heaven and earth. If Jacob’s ladder was for angels, this one was for human beings.
But it was not yet so. For now, the disciples saw only a broken ladder, splintered off at the first step. And nailed firmly to that first step was their dying Leader.
Late that day He was taken down and laid in a tomb. The arms of His broken cross reached plaintively into the empty heavens. They appeared to have been groping for some mysterious goal, only to be frozen into place short of the mark.
But then the resurrection . . . .
No longer a broken ladder, the cross now reached all the way to heaven, solid, immoveable, eternal. And those who believed in the Man pondered what He meant when He said, “It is finished.”
Two ways of viewing the cross emerged, each powerful, each capable of transforming life. But neither perspective is equally persuasive with everyone.
If we try to grasp both views, however, we will enrich our understanding of God and of each other. So let’s look at the cross through the eyes of two men who wrote about it, John and Paul.
The Cross from Paul’s Perspective. Paul’s conversion to Jesus’ way was a violent one. Headed to Damascus for the express purpose of attacking Jesus’ followers, he was paralyzed by a flash of light and transformed into a believer.
His writings reveal a man whose strength melts into weakness in the presence of an almighty God. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men,” he writes to the church at Corinth, “and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25, RSV). Paul always gives God the benefit of the doubt. In his letter to the Romans, for example, while grappling with an argument that threatens to unravel in his own hands, he simply retorts: “Who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:20, RSV). God is great; man is small, weak, and insignificant.
But what impresses Paul most is the fact that this magnificent God not only took on human flesh, but also reached down and planted the cross on Golgotha to pay the price for our rebellion. In Jesus Christ, Paul finds meaning and greatness for humankind. Could any race be more precious in God’s eyes than the one purchased by the blood of God’s own Son?
Though overwhelmed with a sense of unworthiness, Paul is nevertheless awed by the gift of God in Jesus Christ. “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” he writes (Rom. 8:1, RSV). “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37, RSV).
For Paul, the cross points first of all towards heaven. Justice demands that the price be paid for sin. Jesus paid that price. Now, in Him, we may stand before a Holy God without fear.
The Cross from John’s Perspective. At first glance, John’s message seems to be a gentler one. God is not so much Judge as He is Father. Accordingly, the cross points first of all towards earth, not heaven. Jesus is less the Mediator presenting us to God (Paul’s perspective), and more the Mediator representing God to us. It is John who records Jesus’ words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8, RSV). The cross is less a payment for sin – a thrust heavenward – and more a revelation of God’s goodness – a thrust earthward. That is John’s story.
If Paul tells us that Jesus paid the price for our sin, settling accounts in heaven on our behalf, then John tells us that Jesus came to make Him believable on earth. John wrote his Gospel so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, RSV).
I have watched and pondered – but do not yet fully understand – why some of my friends find Paul’s presentation of the Gospel so deeply moving, while others respond with equal fervor to John. Sometimes the feelings are so strong that the “disciples” of both men forget that both are part of Scripture.
Jesus is the central figure for both, but each emphasizes a different aspect of His work. For Paul, Jesus takes us to heaven; He is the Mediator who presents us to the great and holy Deity, the Judge of all the universe. For John, Jesus brings God down to earth; He is the Mediator who reveals a kind and loving Father of us all.
I don’t know whether John or Paul might be the one who will touch your heart with their story of Jesus. In His great wisdom, God included both stories in Scripture, so that He could reach both your heart and mine.
In His kingdom, you and I can explore further what it means for Jesus’ work to be finished. Somehow, I think John, Paul, and Jesus would all like it that way. Don’t you?
The Seven Words from the Cross – 7 (8 of 8)
“Let Us Fall into the Hand of the Lord”
By Alden Thompson
Cf., Signs of the Times, April 1990
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46, RSV)
Recently (while the pieces for this column were still falling into place), I found myself in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Rumored to be the largest bookstore in the western half of the United States, Powell’s confronts the weak-willed booklover with a million temptations – literally. Whether new or used, serious or popular, bestseller or out-of-print, Powell’s has it. It is a treacherous place. . . .
Wandering through the maze of overgrown stacks, I began a mental list of books I wanted to read – and ones I should have read already, but hadn’t yet and didn’t know when I could. I felt a twinge of guilt.
Massive volumes on topics I didn’t even know existed frowned at me from their lofty perches. Surrounded and overwhelmed, I pondered the two books I have written, one popular, the other technical. Tiny slivers in a towering forest – how could anyone ever find them? I felt a bit helpless. The world was too big, too diverse. Could any one of us really make a difference?
Among the art books, however, I learned something special that day – something I already knew, I suppose. But this time it cast a new light on Jesus, His words on the cross, and those who passed the story on to us.
Authors describe the world with words. Artists and photographers give us pictures – with nuances words can never capture. But what struck me this time as I leafed through several art volumes, was the way in which the various artists reveal their favorite slice of the world. This one is intrigued by the city, that one is captivated by trees, another by landscapes, another by people. Each one opens a window on a small part of the world. No one attempts to do it all.
Something like that happened in the Gospels, too. When the four Gospel writers set about telling the story of Jesus, each one gave it a unique shape. That holds true even with something as crucial as the cross, for not one of them recorded all seven of Jesus’ “words.” In fact, no one Gospel includes more than three. And the only duplication comes from Matthew and Mark who record just one of Jesus’ sayings, His cry of godforsakenness.
If we ponder Golgotha as sketched by Matthew and Mark, the tone is distinctly somber. There, Jesus’ one cry from the cross stands out in all its wrenching terror: “My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken me?” And as Matthew and Mark tell the story, virtually everyone is hostile to Jesus: the Jewish rulers, the Roman soldiers, the crowd, the criminals on the other two crosses. The scene is one of violence and hatred – and yes, of godforsakenness.
John leads us in a different direction. In Jesus’ conversation with His mother and His cry of thirst we glimpse His humanity. But John’s narrative also reminds us that “I thirst” and “It is finished” come from the lips of one who fulfilled prophecy. This is the story of the great “I am” and John finds a myriad ways to tell us.
Finally, in Luke, the last of three “words” is the prayer, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” a fitting capstone to Luke’s efforts to blunt the jagged corners of the crucifixion narrative.
Luke has indeed given us a more gentle picture. In a macabre sort of way, even his statement that Herod and Pilate became friends because of Jesus (Luke 23:12) fits that mold. He also softens the sense of confrontation by distancing the “people” from the mockery at Golgotha: they stood by and watched; only the rulers and soldiers scoffed.
Luke’s other two “words,” both unique to his Gospel, serve in a similar way to tame the violence of the crucifixion scene. Not only does Jesus ask His Father to forgive His tormentors, He also grants acceptance to the penitent thief. In the other Gospels, Jesus’ cross mates, showing no sign of contrition, simply add to the general mayhem and ridicule.
It is quite appropriate, then, that we hear Jesus’ final prayer from Luke’s Gospel: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” For Luke, Jesus is the gentle, caring one, concerned for the welfare of enemy and fellow-sufferer. And through it all, He trusts.
Like the cry of godforsakenness in Matthew and Mark (a citation from Psalm 22), Jesus’ last prayer is also taken from a psalm, Psalm 31. It is a beautiful psalm, one that reflects hope and trust in the face of daunting circumstances. My appreciation of Jesus’ experience on the cross is enriched when I consider the possibility that He was reciting the whole of Psalm 31 as He breathed His last on Golgotha.
But do you hesitate to pray that prayer because Jesus was innocent and you are not? Then let me share another echo of Jesus’ prayer from the Old Testament, an echo that is especially meaningful for those of us who deserve an evil fate more than Jesus did. When King David numbered Israel, the Lord sent the prophet Gad to rebuke him and offer a choice of punishments. David chose the discipline of the Lord: “Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam. 24:14, RSV).
David the guilty and Jesus the innocent were both willing to leave matters with God. I like that – guilty or innocent, we are safe in His hands.