This is the message of Easter. These three words speak of another reality breaking in upon our world and transforming it forever. Death is overcome in God’s raising of Jesus Christ. Resurrection generates hope. At the most basic level, hope is that somehow the future will be better than the present. But Christian hope has a specific character.
The foundation of Christian hope is God himself.
God is utterly good. He is committed to his created world in a way we can barely grasp. The triune God – Father, Son and Spirit – act out of immeasurable love in history to effect its ultimate redemption. God is the “God of hope” (Rom 15:13). Christians dare not hope in anything or anyone else. Christian faith is trust and hope in God alone.
The future has stormed the gates of death
The incarnation, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals the true nature of reality itself. That reality is apocalyptic – one in which God has broken into this world, disrupting it forever. Easter tells us that God is God and we are not! The future has stormed the gates of death and smashed them down. The Spirit is the presence of God within his people. Those “in Christ” share in his resurrection life in the here and now. History is in God’s hands – it is moving towards a time when that future will become present – when God’s will will indeed be done on earth. This means that Christian hope
is a stance towards our future, which regards the incompleteness and imperfection and bleakness of history not with terror or resignation but with trust that, because God has made himself known as creator and reconciler, he will also demonstrate himself to be consummator. (John Webster)
The Character of Hope
How does hope shape the Christian believer? What difference does hope make? I love what John Webster says here
The Christian who hopes is not engaged in an act of self-formation; he or she makes history only because in a deep sense history has already been made, and because only on that basis is it possible to be a hopeful person and agent.
Because of Easter Sunday, Christians are to be the most hopeful people in the world. They are set free from the past, and look forward with joy to the future, and so are to be people who transform the present.
The transforming power of hope
Christians live in the “in between time” – the “now” is a reminder of mortality, sin, suffering and death. Christian hope is not naive optimism nor it is triumphalism. The “not yet” is a present experience of what can and will be. The Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing in the here and now that future.
Such hope is life-changing. Because of Easter Sunday, Christian hope is not resignation and a desire to escape creation. Nor is it despair at the reality of immeasurable suffering in this world. Authentic Christian hope will motivate and inspire and guide action in the present that anticipates the future.
Such action may be creation care; it may be pastoral care; it may be resisting evil and injustice; it may be empowering and liberating others. Whatever it is – it is somehow to foreshadow the kingdom come.
Faith, hope and Love
Above all, hopeful action in the world is to be characterised by love – for love transcends faith and hope. Love is eternal in a way that they are not. Love of God, love of others, love of God’s world – this is the greatest way that God’s people can demonstrate the power of the future to transform the present.
As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.
Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.
The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with“ would mean in practice.
So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:
– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect
– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.
This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.
The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.
Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.
Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,
Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.
Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.
How we are living them and who we are living them for?
If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.
And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.
Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.
Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.
For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.
John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.
The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?
1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.
2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.
3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.
4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.
Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?
Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.
Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.
If you believe in the resurrection of the Messiah, it changes everything. There is no middle ground.
Take some implications for Paul, who came to believe on the Damascus Road that Jesus was indeed God’s promised Messiah who had been raised from the dead.
1) His view of God is transformed:
The mystery of the gospel (which had NOT been revealed before the resurrection) is that God has chosen to effect salvation in and through the death and resurrection of his Son by the power of the Spirit. The cross is the supreme act of love by the Triune God. Paul’s Christology is as exalted as can be imagined. The saving purposes of God are centered in and through Jesus. Jesus is revealed to be the reigning Lord who alone is worthy of worship, love, and wholehearted obedience.
2) His view of God’s people is transformed.
Since Jesus the Christ is raised from the dead and is Lord of all, the saving significance of his death is relevant to ALL people. The entire story of Israel has reached its climax and fulfillment in Jesus, but he is not a Messiah only of the Jews but for the whole world. God’s people are now made up of all who believe in and follow Jesus – whether they are Jews who follow the Law or Gentiles who do not.
3) His view of the future is transformed
Since Jesus is raised from the dead, his resurrection proves God’s victory over sin and death. All who are ‘in Christ’ are guaranteed to follow the same path of resurrection to new life. Christian hope is of resurrection life in a new resurrection body within a renewed creation.
4) His view of his own life and identity is transformed
No longer does Paul the Pharisee seek to persecute the fledgling Christian movement but becomes its champion to the Gentiles. Whatever was dearest to him – his religious identity within Judaism – becomes of relatively zero importance in light of the resurrection. His life is changed forever, shaped around proclaiming, persuading, talking and writing about the glorious good news of the victory of God in Christ – whatever the cost to himself personally. Nothing is more important than sharing the gospel of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.
5) His view of a life pleasing to God is transformed
Rather than a life under Torah being the goal of a holy life, now, in light of the resurrection, the goal of life is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. The Torah can’t achieve this, only the Spirit of God can bring new resurrection life. It is through faith in Christ that sins are forgiven and new life entered into by the Spirit. It is life in the Spirit that fulfills the Law, pleases God and leads to a transformed life of love and joy, lived out of thankfulness and response to God’s redeeming love.
That’s a lot of transformation. Nothing for Paul was ever the same again. Nothing for any of the first disciples was ever the same again. The world changed on that first Easter Sunday.
It continues to call you and me to deeper worship of God, a transformed community of fellow believers, a transformed hope, a transformed identity and purpose, and a transformed life in the power of the Spirit ….
This Good Friday Christians remember, reflect upon and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Messiah.
Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).
Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.
But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.
A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.
If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.
The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary, brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.
And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event, but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.
No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).
The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.
This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.
But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.
Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.
But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14
11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ,14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.
All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.
As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.
This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.
The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.
But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?
The writers of the New Testament are falling over themselves to explain the saving work of God on the cross. All of these pictures or metaphors are ways to explain what happened at the cross.
And all of them would be meaningless if it were not for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The resurrection is the seal, the vindication, the visible triumph of God in Christ through the Spirit over sin and death and evil. We celebrate today Resurrection Day.
They are not, however, random pictures. They are creatively and imaginatively chosen in the midst of ‘flesh and blood’ letters and gospels consistently to interpret the cross of Jesus through the lens of the biblical story. In a very real sense, the entire New Testament is a theological reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in terms of fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. And these fulfilled promises now extend wider than Israel. The astonishing good news of Easter and Pentecost to come, is that this is a victory won by no localised Jewish Messiah, but a saviour for the world.
We can’t understand the depth and wonder of the cross without that OT framework. And even then, we will only scratch the surface. Such is the magnificence of saving work of God, there is no one picture that can possibly capture its scale and beauty.
To change the metaphor to a golfing one (from Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement – an excellent book ) we need to play with all the clubs in the bag if we are to play well. Each club is designed to do a particular job. If we play with one club all the time, our game will become one-dimensional and much less effective. And there are a lot of clubs in the Bible’s bag …
All of these pictures of the atonement are different ways of explaining HOW the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is good news (forgiveness, peace with God, right relationship with God, adopted as children into the promise, victory over sin and death etc).
God’s work of salvation is comprehensive and complete; it cannot be bettered.
They point to the COST of salvation. Jesus died for a purpose. The cross is necessary.
They show us WHY we need salvation. Enslaved, under judgement, captives who need releasing, facing death …
They point to the immeasurable LOVE of the triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit (1 John 4:9-10)
9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
With best wishes to you for a joyful Resurrection Day
Without the cross, Christians have nothing whatsoever distinctive to say.
The cross is at the heart of all truly Christian theology. The Christian life is a life lived under the shadow of the cross.
The gospels can be described as passion narratives with extended introductions. While you might be uneasy with this (does it not relegate Jesus’ birth, life and preaching of the kingdom to secondary importance?) the fact is that the birth, life and teaching of Jesus are all cross-directed. They lose all sense and coherence without the cross.
Matthew captures the developing conflict with the authorities which leads to his climatic abandonment and death. All happening to fulfil the words of the prophets.
Mark consistently talks of discipleship in terms of suffering and the way of the cross (8:34-8). Jesus’ own clear self-understanding of his mission is famously summed up in 10:45 where he comes not to be served but to give his life a ‘ransom for many’ – a reference to the servant of Isaiah in 52:13-53:12.
Matthew also links to Isaiah 53, a profoundly important framework for the mission of the Messiah (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21).
Luke describes Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, the place of his death and the focus of mission (9:51).
John opens with Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). His whole gospel is focused on the death (and glorification) of the Christ. His link to Passover is echoed by Paul who calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). Here is the cross as sacrifice for sin, a theme expanded on at length in the book of Hebrews.
Paul wants to know nothing but know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:1-2). He talks of Christ crucified being the power and wisdom of God. While Jews look for miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:18-25).
The foundational act of fellowship within the early Christian communities is a meal to remember and proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26). In terms of the gospel, it is of first importance that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). To be a Christian at all means to be ‘baptised into his death’ (Roms. 6:3). If Paul is to boast in anything, he will only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).
Take Colossians 2: 13-15. It is at the cross that sin is atoned for and forgiveness achieved. It is at the cross that condemnation and judgement are dealt with through Christ our substitute taking the penalty for sin. It is at the cross that a decisive victory is won over the powers and authorities opposed to the reconciling work of God.
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Or back to Corinthians: It is at the cross that the rulers of this age are ‘outsmarted’ – they did not comprehend the wisdom of God seen in the mystery of the cross, “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8?)
Take Romans 5:1-11: It is the cross which supremely reveals the depth of the love of God “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the cross which speaks of the immeasurable grace of God since we are powerless to save ourselves. It is the cross which leads to justification (being declared righteous) and reconciliation (peace with God). It is the death of Christ which saves us from God’s wrath.
Yes, yes, the cross must never be separated from the resurrection – otherwise it remains a brutal form of execution; a place of death and despair. Yes, the cross lead to Pentecost where the victory won at Golgotha leads to the outpouring of the promised Spirit.
But the Scriptures are insistent that something unique happened at the cross. The texts are packed full of images and stories and metaphors of what went on there – and quite rightly we should unpack and explore each one. But the very diversity of images should tell us something. No-one image or picture or theme can neatly capture the cross. We need so many of them because what happened at the cross is something that is profoundly mysterious and beyond easy explanation.
So let’s never get so wrapped up in debates about how the cross works, or what it achieves, that we miss what the cross of Christ calls us to.
It calls us to worship, to adoration, to thanksgiving, to humility, to self-giving lives lived to honour God. It calls us to die to ourselves and live for him. It calls us to be willing to suffer for our faith. It calls us to give up power and control and manipulation as routes to ‘success in ministry’. It certainly calls us to reject violence as followers of a crucified Messiah. It calls us to daily repentance and fresh seeking of the generous grace of God. It calls to wholehearted love of the one who first loved us.