Soul Search on Easter April 12, 1998
We are told these days that nothing has any meaning except as it has meaning to me. It is my experience of a work of art that matters and anything more than that is an act of oppression. We are told that languages acts (a poem, a play, a novel, even a newspaper article) are political acts. It is hard to tell whether we are more in bondage to our subjectivity, or to our politics these days. But both obsessions suggest that we are philosophical "flat worlders." What do I mean by that? I mean that we have cultivated an imagination which is predominantly horizontal. Our world view is earth-bound, lacking the vertical dimension. We have become materialistic in our outlook to the point where we are spiritually challenged, handicapped.
For example, it is meaningful to ask: Is anything of God, or is everything of man? Are we created in the image of God, or are we made in the shape of an ape? Are we indeed only earth-bound and limited creatures who have no hope of self-transcendence? Have we foolishly imagined that there is a God and that we are related to God in a significant manner? Or are we pitiful organisms, deluded and physiologically locked up in feeble bodies, saddled with a limited shelf life, and completely confined to the natural realm? Are we only protoplasm? Do we rebel against our natural limits of health, strength and aging (our biological limits, so to speak) futilely. And are we destined only to death and the dust bin of our environment? I donít raise these questions merely to tantalize, but in hopes of provoking some thought. I believe that these are real concerns for real people in real time. . .like here and now, like for some of you seated here today.
But, friends, you know, itís hard to get answers these days.
Part of us, I believe, wants to know that we are significantówhen we lose a loved one, we certainly sense the loss of something important and valuable. Nevertheless we do not normally live at such a heightened level of awareness. All too soon after a loss, we slip back into the routine, the taken-for-granted mode of living where we live as if we were insignificant, and as if life had no purpose, direction or meaning. We live the easy way, striving for little goals, smaller purposes and in a world that is familiar, but narrow and confined. Truthfully, some of us live there somewhat uneasily. For example, we are haunted by the fact that Princess Diana, and the horrific events in Jonesboro, Arkansas are sliding into oblivion. Her death which popularly overshadowed the loss of Mother Theresa now seems much less compelling. And if the great are so easily slighted in terms of fame and remembrance, what will be the course for those lesser lights, like ourselves? When we are dead will anyone remember us? And how long will they miss us?
Then, there is the other part of us which seems to surrender to the worldly philosophy that teaches us we are nothing. That people die and thatís the end. That there is no God, nor even heavens for God to reside in. This is all there is and so we are endlessly encouraged to "go for the gusto," to "do what feels good, " to accumulate the most toys, to look out for #1 and to win at all costs. The world we are offered by these philosophers is amoral at best and immoral for the most part. It is devoid of truth. Lacks purpose, meaning and direction. Is it any wonder that children are bailing out, by means of suicide, in unprecedented numbers.
Well, is there a way out of the hopelessness of the enlightened world view of practical atheism? And if there is, how do I find the door? Yes, there is. We can respond to educated skepticism about God, with skepticism about the skepticism. We can practice some philosophical jujitsuówe can, if youíre with the lingo, deconstruct the deconstructionists! Itís really easy to do.
Letís try it. Okay. Consider this statement: What God means by the cross is ever so much more important than what the cross means to me. Letís repeat that. What God means by the cross is every so much more important than what the cross means to me. That simple statement turns our world on its head! It suggests that my interpretation of the cross, even what the cross means personally to me, is not the real starting point of understanding. By saying this, we propose that there is meaning out there, outside my experience of something. We are saying that truth exists, that is accessible, and that it is in some important ways independent of my existence for its validity.
What God means by the cross is something that we can examine, look at, discuss because it is out there and is not dependent on me for its existence. The chief means of access, however, may cause some heart burn for flat-worlders. Why? Because that access is revelation. We are not left to our own imagination, or processes of reason, because God has chosen to reveal to us, in the Scriptures, what the cross means to Him.
Now we can receive that revelation and process it. We can think about its significance. We can also think about what the cross means to us, but we will be careful to keep that separate from what God means because we treat is as personal, subjective, or experiential. We go even farther. We would maintain that no matter how successful we are at penetrating the meaning of the cross, from Godís point of view, we will never master the whole of it! We will never completely understand, of exhaust its meaning. God alone has such knowledge of the cross. That way we do not presume, and we remain open to whatever else God may choose to disclose to us about the cross through the vehicle of His inspired word.
So, what does God mean by the cross? According to 1 Cor. 15:3 means to signal His judgment on sin in the body of Jesus Christ. The cross is that place, and that moment where and when, by divine initiative, sin was canceled. "Christ died for our sins." Godís holy justice was fully vindicated at the cross. So the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross occupies a pivotal place in the eternal purposes of God. Thatís where God answered, once for all, the problem of evil in this world. That answer was condemnation. God meant to cancel and to condemn sin in Christ Jesus. Our sins were fully and finally dealt with on the cross even though we werenít there to witness the event, in the flesh; even though the sacrifice took place without the fulfilled and experiential sins of our lives even being named. It doesnít matter that your particular sins werenít exposed then and there. It doesnít matter that they were not crucified visibly alongside Him as were the two thieves. We were there as it were by virtue of our sin being dealt with corporately, sovereignly, perfectly and finally. We were one in Adam in original sin, now we are one in Christ in canceled sin.
Jesus acted, as it were, outside the bounds of time, space and historical existence. These things are nothing to Him. Nothing. To us they appear to be everything, but they are not. God is able to act for us, in the body of Jesus, before any of us were enfleshed as well as after many had returned to the dust. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were less than bones when Christ died for them.
To think otherwise is to yield to some wacky thinking. For instance, according to the view that meaning is reduced to my experience of something, we cannot deal with meanings which are, as it were, out there between us. Your significant discussion at breakfast is excluded by this curious philosophy from the table, mine is the only one with reality. And, to make matters worse, there is no way, without oppressing you, that I could communicate my meaning to you. In these terms, the meaning of the cross would be limited to Jesusí own experience of it. He went through that suffering for Himself and it benefits no one else. Who wants such an isolated, uninviting world! Others, philosophical cousins to the post-modernists, would have us believe that Jesus died the martyr of a failed religious movement such as a spiritual revival, or restoration. They argue that His ideas of justice, mercy and truth were not attaining allegiance. Somehow, His ideals were so lofty that this world was not worthy of them so He went to the cross a broken failure. F. Nietzsche would have loved that interpretation of Jesusí life. What stuff and nonsense!
According to our paradigm, the death of Jesus on the cross was a blow from God delivered to the arrogant chin of this strutting world. It was a knock-out! From that moment on, evil has been toppling, its right to rule overthrown. Cut off from the tap roots of hell, the whole demonic rebellion is in the process of withering. Everyone and everything opposed to God has been answered alreadyóthat is Godís meaning of the cross. The cross establishes the triumph of obedience and faith, over disobedience and unbelief.
God meant for Jesus to bear our sins in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Again, we limit ourselves when we maintain that sin is exclusively a personal category. It is a corporate reality. It is its corporate reality that we can speak of sin being transferable. We may have preserved a bit of this sense of sin in the category of "consequence." We seem able to transcend individuality and privacy both when we reflect on the impact of sin for all those impacted by itófamilies are burdened by the sins of each member. Especially in the body of Christ, we openly acknowledge that there is no such thing as private sin. The account in Acts 5:1-11 records the incident regarding Ananias and Sapphira who in lying about their offering, died. Peter said," Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.."
God meant by Jesusí sacrifice to put the whole human race back on the right track.. By this event God intended to make the work of redemption the new foundation for human life. This means that now, because of what the cross means for God, we are free to knock and to enter the Fatherís house freely, as sons and heirs. So, we may say, that the cross did not happen to Jesus. It would be better to say that Jesus happened to the cross. He is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth" (Rev. 13:8) and He is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). The point of the incarnation is not the incarnation itself; rather it is the cross and what it means for God. On the cross God acted decisively for us.
Well, by now you must have realized that this theme is immense and much more could be said that must be left unsaid. For God the cross means:
Now I wish to turn to the proof of the truths I have just asserted which receives the sign, seal and approval of God through the resurrection. Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as the very impress of God saying, "Know ye this!" Know that Jesus is who He says He is, and that He has done what He said He would do. Peter proclaims (Acts 2:36): "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." God exalts those of whom He approves. And, again (1 Peter1:17-21), "If you call on the Father . . . conduct yourselves with fear, knowing you were not redeemed with corruptible things (v.19) but with the precious blood of Christ, as a lamb without blemish and without spot. (v.20) Indeed He was foreordained before the foundation of the world, revealed in these last times for you (v.21) (God) raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so your faith and your hope are in God." What could be clearer than the approval of ascribed glory for Christís work on the cross?!
Luke 24:25-26 is significant here: "Oh, foolish ones and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken." The proof of the prophecies about the Christ must lie in their fulfillment. "Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things to enter into His glory?" Good question. Of course!
Self-realization and self-fulfillment are 20th century goals, or pre-occupations that fall far short of Godís meaning for the cross. Jesus did not need the cross, we do. Furthermore, itís a divine cross and not primarily a man-made, or Roman cross. It is a historically specific exhibit of the love of God, a love that dares to present itself to history and to mankind saying, "Who are you? And do you have any idea what you were made for? Do you even know who loves you?" Godís decision to use the cross was simultaneously His decision to open a highway by which mankind may journey home fully, freely, and spiritually. Is the way dependable? Can we follow this pathway? The Risen Lord speaks yes to both queries. He has gone before us. He invites us to follow Him. Death could not hold Him, and, if you own Him as your Lord and Savior, it will not hold you either. Oh, yes, the resurrection hope is that we shall be raised up by Him personally on the Last Day and we shall live then forever in His company.