Forsaken

crucifix stained glass

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Matthew 27:45-46, NIV).

Have you ever felt forsaken? Perhaps you’ve experienced abandonment by a loved one. Or maybe you’ve had a friend who betrayed a trust, some confidence that you had placed with them. Maybe you’ve even felt a time or two like God has forsaken you.

Jesus experienced each of these things. Pilate, an elected official, literally “washed his hands” of Jesus’ case before him. Judas a betrayer, sealed Jesus’ fate with an ill-intentioned kiss. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, denied ever knowing Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. Each of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him when things got really tough. And hanging to a Roman cross, barely hanging on to life, Jesus felt the most bitter form of rejection, that of his Heavenly Father.

But did the Father really turn his back on his Son during Jesus’ most excruciatingly painful moments? Do Jesus’ words, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’… ” (Matthew 27:46, NIV), suggest that his own Father turned a deaf ear to him? And if so, will God ever forsake us in our time of need?

I’ll answer that final question first, because it is likely the one that garners the most concern and attention. Let me assure everyone that God will never leave any of us, no matter what. We might run away, but God will passionately pursue us. We might reject God, but he will never stop claiming us. We might call God the most hurtful of names, but he will still call us “sons” and “daughters”. As the Apostle Paul states in his writing to the Church at Rome, nothing can “…separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39, NIV). Believe that!

But, there’s still the question of whether Jesus was forsaken by his Father in his final moments on the cross. Some will say that God the Father had to turn away from Jesus, because in those moments, Jesus became sin incarnate. They might point to the words of Paul, that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV), and further conclude that Jesus took the sin of the world in his dying flesh and, at seeing this, Jesus’ Father was appalled. That’s one way to look at Jesus’ words, but I think there’s another.

Perhaps Jesus was demonstrating his humanity with these final fleeting breaths. Maybe he was simply expressing his pain and his loneliness in these moments. Maybe he was going through what we would go through, and even have gone through, those instances where we too feel distant and isolated from God.

Regardless of how we might view these words of Jesus, I do know this. Jesus dealt with this idea of forsakenness on the cross some two-thousand years ago, so that we will never have to. He was crucified for us that we would stand justified before him. God loves each of us more than we can fathom. And he died for us to make us his own.

Mother and Son

crown of thorns and cross“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother’…” (John 19:26-27, NIV).

Even in the bloody brutality of the crucifixion, we find moments of tenderness and compassion. Suspended on the cross, Jesus pleads for the forgiveness of people, the men and women most immediately connected to his death, as well as each of us whose sin played a part in placing him in this most dire of situations.

Jesus gazes upon the two criminals hanging on either side of him, one who is berating and mocking him, and the other, who, with his dying breaths, asks for and receives Jesus’ forgiveness. Jesus’ compassion and kindness are not lost in these moments of anguish and suffering.

Then, Jesus glances through blood-crusted eyes at Mary, his mother. How much he longs to be with her, to hold her, to tell her that everything is okay. He is prevented, however, not only by the cross, but by the mission he must complete. He must accomplish this act for the forgiveness of the world’s sins, for the forgiveness of Mary’s sins also.

Mary, stricken with grief, stands in the shadows of her child’s cross. Memories of better days flash through her troubled mind. The hands that reached out to her as her son took his first steps as a toddler are the hands that now extend from east to west upon this cruel device of a Roman cross. Stumbling infant feet are now pierced with nails.

With the weight of the world’s sin upon his weakening shoulders, Jesus is thinking about the well-being of Mary. As he completes the monumental task of dying for the sins of all people, Jesus still has room in his heart for the bond between mother and child. So, from the cross Jesus arranges the informal adoption of his good friend, John to Mary. It’s John who will be the caregiver, a role that Jesus would have played if his life were extended.

On this day, a mother will lose her son in the most brutal fashion imaginable. They will be reunited, however. Jesus’ is making a way for that.

Paradise – Part 2 of 2

paradise 2

“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

We do not know much about the criminal who hung on the cross next to Jesus. Only a few of his words are recorded, culminating with his plea “ ‘…remember me’ ”(Luke 23:42, NIV). I suspect that this man had lived a life of crime. Likely, he was a repeat offender. Or maybe, he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of circumstance if you will.

Regardless of where his path had originated, he had arrived at this place called Calvary. And ironically, or more accurately, by divine appointment, this man was exactly where he needed to be to experience the mercy of God in the person of Jesus. Perhaps this was the only place where the man’s defenses could finally be broken down. Hanging on a cross, barely hanging on to life, this man experienced things he had likely never experienced before. Likely, for the first time in his life, he experienced an eternal hope, love without any sort of condition, and peace beyond anything he could understand. And in just a little while he would realize in their fullness Jesus’ words to him, “ ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

Despite a lifetime of not knowing one another, Jesus and this criminal were about to begin a relationship that would last for all of eternity. And in Heaven, they would have the opportunity to make up for lost time.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could experience joy while dying on a cross. But if ever there was such an occasion, I think it might have been during the exchange between this criminal and his new best friend, Jesus. At the criminal’s request “ ‘…remember me…’ ” (Luke 23:42, NIV), I imagine Jesus thinking to himself, “I thought you would never ask”. I even picture Jesus donning a subtle smile on his weathered face, a smile forced through the pain of the crucifixion. This moment must have brought a certain amount of joy to Jesus’ aching heart and suffering soul, however brief it may have been. Think about the encouragement Jesus would have felt over the criminal’s conversion. Imagine the validation he gained concerning the mission he was taking part in.

“ ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV ). Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Someday you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus doesn’t say “eventually” or “in the future” or “later this week you will be with me in paradise.” He says, “ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43, NIV). There’s an immediacy that is conveyed here and it gives followers of Christ great encouragement. As believers in Jesus, we do not need to fear death. The end of our life is the beginning of our time in Heaven. There is no line or waiting period to enter eternity. At the moment of our death, we are alive in paradise.

When a person comes to faith in Christ, Jesus claims that person as his own. The Gospel writer, John, records Jesus’ words, “ ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand’ ” (John 10:28, NIV). Picture this: Jesus’ nail-scarred hand holding you tightly in its grip, protecting you and securing your salvation. The world and Satan, try as they may, cannot loosen the grip that Jesus has on you, on your life, on your eternal hope and confidence. These things are true for you just as they were true for the criminal who accepted Jesus in his dying moments on the cross.

While I have no doubt that the account of the criminal on the cross is true, I would like to examine the story in a figurative manner. In that regard, each of us is the criminal suspended on the cross next to Jesus. After all, each of us is a thief. We have mismanaged the gifts and resources God has given us. We have stolen the joy from the lives of others. We have taken the benefits of grace without paying the cost of discipleship.

We are guilty of other crimes as well. We are murderers, evidenced by our words and actions that wound people’s hearts and kill their spirit. We are adulterers, lusting after the world and its many attractions. Furthermore, our hearts are spotted with hatred and pride and arrogance and deceit. And while we hang on our cross, so close in proximity to the Savior, our hearts are miles from him.

But Jesus looks from the neighboring cross into our eyes and observes something much different. Jesus sees someone he has formed in secret places and has known even before we were born. He studies us, his creation that he prizes, not as a possession, but as a person. He fixes his gaze upon us and remembers every moment of our lives, the good and the bad. Jesus would love nothing more than to hold us, but is momentarily prevented by the nails securing him to the cruel device of his own cross.

Jesus’ reply to the criminal, who simply asked to be remembered, is an amazing lesson in grace. Jesus, with no questions asked, with no expectations, with no reservations, gifted this man with an eternal home in Heaven. And he does the same for each of us when we reach out to him in faith. Our understanding may be lacking. I’m sure the criminal had questions, too. Our doubts may accuse us, reminding us of things we’d rather forget. The criminal certainly had his baggage as well. Still, no matter how feeble our faith is, Jesus uses it as an entry point into a relationship with him. That’s what he did for the criminal. That’s what he does for us.

“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV). These are the words of Jesus to a criminal undeserving of the gift Jesus was giving. These are the words of Jesus to us as well.

Paradise – Part 1 of 2

paradise 2

“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

I’m not for sure who first made the following statement, but it is one that has always stuck with me. “Grace is: God’s riches at Christ’s expense”. In other words, we gain forgiveness and salvation because of what Jesus accomplished for us through his death at Calvary.

The Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV). Just imagine, Jesus, the personification of holiness and perfection, becoming sin incarnate on the cross. Within his flesh, Jesus took the sins of the world and literally carried them to the grave. Because of this single act, each of us is declared righteous and holy regardless of the wrongs we have done. Theologians throughout history have referred to this truth as “The Great Exchange”. Jesus endured the consequence of our sin so that we could receive the undeserved reward of salvation.

In considerng this second phrase of Jesus from the cross, we need to look once again at the Biblical narrative of the crucifixion and Luke’s account of two men who were eyewitnesses of, and participants in, the horrific reality of the cross.

Luke writes, “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him (Jesus) to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left” (Luke 23:32-33, NIV).

The text continues a few verses later, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:39-43, NIV).
If Jesus’ words “ ‘Father, forgive them…’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV) applied to a global audience, then Jesus’ reply “ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV) was personal. As Jesus was interceding with the Father on behalf of the entire world, he took time to address, on a personal level, a criminal.

Perhaps Jesus fixed his gaze upon this man and saw someone worthy of salvation. More likely, however, Jesus recognized nothing in this man deserving of the gift he was about to offer, but gave it to him anyway. That is, after all, what grace is. Grace is not what is fair or what any of us deserve. It’s what is loving and merciful and compassionate. Jesus understood grace and thrived on extending it to others.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8, NIV).

“While we were still sinners…” (Romans 5:8, NIV) the text says. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to make ourselves approachable before him. He comes to us just as we are. Jesus doesn’t avoid us when we are unclean from the filth of sin. He reaches out to us. Jesus doesn’t ignore us while we struggle desperately to get our act together. Instead he acts on our behalf with love and mercy. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV).

Some of us struggle with this idea of grace. I will admit that it can be a difficult concept to accept. This is because it is so counterintuitive to the way we normally think.

Perhaps it would be easier to understand Jesus’ mercy toward this criminal if he were a more likeable character. Maybe we would find ourselves rooting for a good guy who had had some bad breaks in life. We might even overlook whatever past mistakes he had made, chalking them up to his upbringing or to circumstance. We would be all in favor of Jesus forgiving such an individual on Earth and preparing a place for him in Heaven.

Up to the time of his request for mercy, however, I picture this criminal joining right in with his cohort in crime, mocking Jesus, hurling insults like rocks at the Savior. This man did nothing deserving of forgiveness, nothing that should have stirred compassion in the heart of the Savior. But Jesus continued to extend love, even to this otherwise unlovable character.

And along the way something changed in the criminal’s heart. While the text does not indicate a lengthy exchange between this man and Jesus, I suspect that they may have had other words with one another. They were neighbors, after all, in the most unfamiliar and desperate setting of a crucifixion. They had been together for several hours. Perhaps a conversation between the two led to this criminal’s conversion. At the very least, this man would have had an extended opportunity to view Jesus’ tremendous suffering and unconceivable compassion. He would have heard Jesus’ curious words of mercy despite the merciless torture of the cross. He would have had the chance to experience Jesus’ grace under the extreme pressure of this unbearable situation.

(To be continued…)

Father, Forgive – Part 2 of 2

cross - father forgiveWhen Jesus said, “ ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV), he undoubtedly had in mind those most closely involved in his crucifixion. This would have included Pontius Pilate, who with a word could have spared Jesus’ life, but instead gave in to the demands of a raucous crowd. Jesus’ thoughts were on the people who cried out for his crucifixion, the same individuals who had welcomed him with palm branches and open arms just a few days earlier. Jesus considered the cruelty of the Roman soldiers. Their training in torture and efficiency made them experts at delivering suffering and bringing about death. Jesus requested that mercy be granted to all these individuals and to the many others who played a part in his execution.

If we, however, limit Jesus’ call to forgive to include only those found in the shadows of the cross, we falsely identify ourselves as unaccountable for the death of the Savior. Further, we find ourselves drowning in our sin. The notion that we had no responsibility in the death of the Messiah robs us of the forgiveness Jesus accomplished on the cross. We cannot, after all, be recipients of the grace and mercy of Christ without first being guilty of the sin that led him to Calvary.

The Apostle Paul says that, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV). There is not and has never been a person in all of creation, with the exception of Jesus, who measures up to God’s righteous demands. Each of us falls miles short of Jesus’ tenet to “ ‘Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect’ ” (Matthew 5:48, NIV). Our love waxes cold in light of Jesus’ great command to “…‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ ”(Matthew 22:37, NIV ) and to “ ‘…love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:39, NIV).

Furthermore, our sin carries with it an infinite debt. Again, Paul writes, “…the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23, NIV). For us, this death is not only physical, but spiritual. If not for the sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross, we would be forever lost in our sins.

I truly believe that we were all on the heart and mind of Jesus when he uttered the words, “ ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV). I believe that somehow Jesus’ words transcended all of history and reached the Father’s heart bearing our names along with those who have gone before us and those who will live after us. Just imagine Jesus’ words echoing throughout the chambers of Heaven as he intercedes on his children’s behalf. The Father is again and again reminded of his only son clinging to a cross, making amends for each of us.

“ ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV). This phrase demonstrates Jesus’ willingness to be gracious even in the most graceless of situations. And it’s these words that begin our look at Jesus’ final words from the cross.

Father, Forgive – Part 1 of 2

cross - father forgive

 

“ ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV).

Have you ever thought about what you would say if you only had a few moments to live? What would you wish to communicate to your family and friends, to those who have encouraged you, to those who have hurt you in life? Would you speak words that wound? Or would you speak words that give life, even in your dying moments?

Over the next several weeks I’ll be writing about some of Jesus’ final statements as he hung on the cross, giving his life for our sins.

The first of Jesus’ statements that we will look at is this: “ ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV). With this simple phrase, Jesus spoke life-filled words of compassion and mercy, healing and reconciliation. Even as his body hung, broken on a Roman cross, Jesus’ heart was intentionally and passionately focused on people.

Think, for a moment, of what Jesus was going through as he hung on the cross: the loneliness, the embarrassment, the temptation to quit. Each of these paled in comparison to the unbearable physical agony of suffering the brutality of the cross. If any of us were in Jesus’ position, I doubt that we would even be speaking to our father, let alone be praying to him on behalf of those who had so cruelly put us in this most desperate of situations. The weight of the world’s sin placed upon our shoulders would likely have torn us violently from the cross. But, in Jesus’ case, it was this enormous burden of transgression that held him there. Jesus had the courage and the compassion and the conviction to call upon his Father in Heaven to extend forgiveness. Jesus grasped the significance of the mission he was part of and was willing to obey his Father no matter what was asked of him. His thoughts were not on the extreme physical agony he was undoubtedly experiencing, but on the hurt in the hearts and souls of the people he was praying and dying for.

The suffering Jesus had every right to call down the wrath of God upon all of mankind, but he used his words instead to express unconditional love. Jesus could have summoned legions of angels to avenge him, yet he called upon his Father to forgive. Jesus could have easily stepped down from the cross and taught the folks there a lesson in justice and revenge, but he hung on the cross and taught them a lesson in grace. Jesus understood the importance of final words, of final lessons.

To be continued…

What Really Killed Jesus?

cross draped in whiteWas it the nails that pierced his wrists and feet, or maybe the spear that punctured his side? Was it the cruel words that echoed in his ears, their shouts to crucify, crucify? Maybe it was his gasping for breath, or his thirst, or his breaking heart. Whichever of these it may have been, I’m pretty certain that I played a part in why someone so innocent, so good, so young had to die? I am quite sure that I know why. They scourged him and mocked him and stripped this man. I looked away, only to see his blood on my hands. Naked and bleeding and paraded by men. He carried the cross. He buried my sin. As I look more closely, I finally see. It’s not what really killed Jesus, but who? It was me.

Isaiah 53 – Part 7

jesus statue“Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:10-11, NIV, emphasis added).

There’s a lot of talk these days about the will of God. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, for so many of us desire to live into God’s plan for our lives. For some, however, who scrupulously try to discern God’s will in every nuance of their being, the pursuit of God’s will can be, in the least, frustrating and, at most, downright dangerous to faith.

While it’s important to consider the extent of God’s will, here’s what I’ve come to understand in view of Scripture. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, his partner in the Gospel, these words, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4, NIV, emphasis added). This passage encapsulates what God’s will is, as well as what it’s not. Simply put, God’s will is that people would be saved by faith in the truth of Jesus.

Isaiah’s prophetic words above can and should be viewed in all of their severity. Still, I can’t imagine the Father taking any joy in the suffering of Jesus. God’s will was that Christ would die for the sins of the world, but I know that his heart was breaking as his only child’s body was broken on a Roman cross.

How do we fulfill God’s will in our lives? I believe that it begins with our faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there. Many people have no understanding of the forgiveness of God offered through the cross. So, let’s share it. May God bless us in endeavoring this.

 

Isaiah 53 – Part 6

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“By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:8-9, NIV).

Theologians talk about the “great exchange” that occurred at Calvary. It was there that Jesus took the sin of the world, even my sin and your sin, upon himself, and died a death he never deserved.

Paul says in his letter to the Corinthian Church, that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV). Just think about that. Jesus, who is perfection personified, took all the ugliness of our sin to the cross and to the grave, and, in exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness.

Jesus was crucified a criminal, even though he had done no wrong. And we are given eternity, even though we, on our own, have done nothing good. That is the good news of the Gospel message. Christ died for us so that we can live through him.

Isaiah 53 – Part 5

christ crucified

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, NIV).

Within just one verse of Scripture, the Prophet Isaiah changes his metaphor describing people as sheep “…gone astray…” (Isaiah 53:6, NIV), to Jesus as a sheep, “…the lamb (led) to the slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7, NIV). Why the quick shift in metaphor? Perhaps, it is to demonstrate God’s love, grace, and provision. God, the Shepherd of souls, doesn’t leave his sheep to wander aimlessly in barren pasture, where they can settle for a life outside the abundance of his mercy. Rather, God loves his sheep so much that he would rather become one of them than to see them perish. This is what is meant by the incarnation of God in Jesus, that God took on the flesh of his sheep so that he might save his sheep.

And here’s how God saves – in the silent submission of Jesus. The same God who spoke the universe into existence, who breathed life into humanity, remained silent while he was beaten, berated, and broken upon a cross. He made no objection to the unjust verdict of a jury of his peers, nor to the cruel command to carry the wooden instrument of his death. No, he remained silent. Jesus, who could have exercised his divine right to call down judgement from above, chose his words with unprecedented compassion as he pleaded for the forgiveness of people.

Jesus remained silent because his mission and message were greater than his own personal well-being. We can be thankful for that.