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

cropped-cross-and-landscape.jpg

“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.

Isaiah 53 – Part 4

sheep

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6, NIV).

I find it interesting that the Prophet Isaiah would use the metaphor of sheep to describe human beings. Certainly, shepherding was a common occupation in Bible times. Moses and David each spent their fair share of time tending their flocks. Likewise, it was a band of misfit shepherds who first heard the angelic proclamation of the Messiah’s birth. Still, the comparison of people to livestock may be one that makes some of us feel, well, a bit sheepish.

Behaviorally, sheep are unique creatures in the animal world. Unlike cattle, sheep are not wrangled, prodded along, forced to move from one place to another. Rather, sheep are coaxed in the direction of their shepherd’s voice, which they are adept at recognizing. They hear their shepherd’s call and somehow understand that he is leading them to better pasture.

With the words, “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19, NIV), Jesus invited his first disciples to experience his goodness. He does the same for each of us today. He never forces us into a relationship with himself. Rather, he simply calls us.

Like sheep, we have a tendency to stray. With so many voices offering so many “good” things, we sometimes wander from our Good Shepherd and the abundance he offers. Still, Jesus is never afraid to pursue us. For not only is he our Shepherd, but he is our Savior. Jesus took our sin upon himself and offered up his life to save us.

Isaiah 53 – Part 3

crown of thorns

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5, NIV).

Throughout human history, man has been unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions. We see this in the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who traded Paradise for a taste of forbidden fruit. Before their shamed exit from Eden, each placed the blame on another. “…‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree…’ ” (Genesis 3:12, NIV) were the excuse-laden words of Adam. Eve’s response to God was no better, that “…‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’ ” (Genesis 3:13, NIV).

In Isaiah 53:4-5 we witness further scapegoating and blame-placing. The prophet states that “…we considered (Jesus) punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4, NIV, emphasis added), as if God the Father was at fault for all that Jesus went through on the cross and that we were virtually blameless. But consider Isaiah’s words. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53;4-5, NIV, emphasis added). Clearly it was our sin that led Jesus to the cross, and any role that the Heavenly Father played in Jesus’ suffering and death was born only out of necessity.

I find it difficult to think of God as a wrathful, vengeance-filled Father, who would take any sort of pleasure or satisfaction in the bloodied execution of his beloved Son. Rather, I imagine the Father’s thoughts wrenched and his heart broken. Surely it offended him to see the sin of the world embodied in the sacrifice of his Son, but it pained him even more to see all that Jesus had to experience to redeem mankind.

Truly, God’s love is great, and it’s aimed directly at our hearts. Jesus died momentarily that we would live eternally. Let’s honor the sacrifice he made.

Isaiah 53 – Part 2

isaiah 53“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3, NIV).

Jesus was God’s great offering to mankind, gift-wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. He forfeited his Heavenly home to take on the flesh of man, to live a life of example, and to die a criminal’s death. Through it all, Jesus would bring salvation to the world, eternity to humanity. Yet collectively we despised and rejected him.

Such behavior was evidenced within the first years of Jesus’ life, yes, even before his birth. From the Bethlehem innkeeper’s proclamation of “no room in the inn” to King Herod’s attempt to eliminate Jesus and any perceived threat he posed, rejection, time and again, would be Jesus’ lot in life. As an adult, Jesus would face harassment from the supposed religious leaders of the time. His message would often fall upon spiritually deaf ears and hardened hearts. Even his closest of allies would leave him to fend for himself in his dark and final days. “Crucify him” would be the rallying cry of humanity, and Jesus would suffer the ultimate fate of death on a cross.

Yes, Jesus was, as the words of Isaiah proclaim, “a man of suffering” who was “familiar with pain”. And certainly, such suffering and pain was brought about by the cruelty of the crucifixion – the lashings and beatings, the nails that were driven, and the crown that was worn. But perhaps Jesus’ greatest suffering and pain was brought about by our rejection of who he was and what he came to do.

It would be inaccurate to say that such dismissal and rejection, such disdain and hatred directed at Jesus are merely something of the past. For whenever we fail to recognize the gift he offers, salvation and life, it’s as if we are crucifying him anew. Whenever we yield willingly to sin, or when we reason that we can somehow earn our way without him, the proverbial nails are driven over and again.

Jesus came to Earth so that we could attain Heaven. He died so that we could live. Let’s therefore accept the gift and so honor the giver.