Sunday, February 15, 2015

Retouching the Cross


Matt.27: 28 And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
30 And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.
31 And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.

Jn.19: Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,
And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!

There have been millions of crucifixions, but no one crucifixion has been so detailed as the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ. We have a detailed narrative which begins at His arrest and follows Him all the way until His death on the cross. And in the natural it is a very gruesome scenario. And just in the natural we are aware that He was innocent of any charges to say nothing of the death penalty. But in order to understand and attempt embrace the totality of what we are witnessing through the written word we must be aware that this was God in the flesh. And this God man was completely holy and without sin so it is an understatement to say He deserved no punishment.
Jesus had washed the disciple’s feet a few days ago, and the night before He was arrested He instituted what we now call the Lord’s Supper or communion. That supper would present a redemptive picture for what He would endure and what He would pay for in His own body.
But now He willingly submitted Himself to the hands of wicked men. And these men spared nothing and showed no mercy. They stripped Him of His clothes and wrapped Him in a purple robe in order to mock Him as a king. They made a ring of very sharp thorns and crushed it down upon His head, and they put a reed in His right hand and bowed down and mocked Him. Now in the natural this was humiliation at is zenith, but to understand that Jesus was the Son of God then this humiliation becomes mind boggling. And to further understand that Jesus would soon give His life for the same men who were mocking Him is beyond anything we can understand.
It is difficult to imagine what a human figure would look like after such a beating and such savagery. The Scriptures declare He did not even resemble a human being. But His sufferings were far from just physical. It is my personal belief that the first slap or punch or mocking is where His redemptive sufferings began. In fact, it was when He sweat great drops of blood in the garden which began His redemptive sufferings. And they lasted until the last breath escaped from His lips. And within each slap and punch, or with the thorns or when they plucked out His beard, or when they lashed His back, within all of the abuse our sins were being placed upon Him. He was the sin bearer, the scapegoat, the bronze serpent, and He was the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.
And then after a world of savage torture He was laid down upon two Roman planks. It is fitting and metaphorical that it was carried out by Roman soldiers. This was an earthly kingdom that was consumed with power and violence and money and was pagan at its core. The Roman religion was practical and their gods in their view helped them and their country. Does it not have a modern day ring to it? Yes, you say, but we believe in one God? Do we? Visit a thousand Christian churches across America and you may well hear several hundred different gods being preached even though they all call them Jesus. And all those churches believe their god helps them achieve their own dreams. You see, we live in a modern day Roman Empire.
So they laid Him down and stretched out his arms. And they drove a nail through each hand or wrist. And they placed one foot on top of the other and drove a spike through them both. He was now impaled on a Roman cross just as many thousands of criminals had been before Him. He was now contemptible…a scourge and an object to be mocked. They raised up the cross which bore the Lamb and they placed it in the hole already dug with a thud! There He is. Earth has rejected Him and He is now temporarily separated from heaven as well. He alone must bear the awful pain and punishment for sins He never committed. And for six hours He would hang there. What a scene! What a spectacle! This is human brutality at its finest. And like hangings of old a crowd would gather and watch a human being bear an agony known only to those who experience it and about which none lived to tell. Beside all the wounds and the awful pain of the nails it was almost impossible to breathe. One would have to press hard on the nail which pierced the feet and lift up one’s body weight in order to gasp a short breath. It was an excruciating process.
But the pain of the flesh can never compare with the pain of sin. The crowd saw a Jew but God saw a Lamb. Who among us can know the pain of sin? We all can testify of the results of sin and how we paid on earth somehow because we had sinned, but to experience the pain of eternal divine judgment we cannot tell. But only the Spirit can illuminate a human understanding as to who this Jew was. Before we are born again we see a good teacher and a kind man and a victim of injustice. But when the Spirit of God reveals to your heart who Jesus is, was, and always will be then the eyes of your understanding are opened for the very first time. And please allow me to say from experience you will never, you can never, be the same again. To the world it is foolishness, but to us who are redeemed it is the power of God.
As is our custom we try and make anything uncomfortable smoother and more palatable. When we say Jesus died for our sins we seem to minimize two features of His sacrifice. We seem to gloss over His sufferings, and we seem to gloss over the depth of our sin. The way and extent of His sufferings are past finding out. He suffered eternal punishment for the sins of the world. Oh how that sounds like hyperbole and yet it is true for all eternity. I cannot fully understand how person can suffer for sins at all much less the sins of the entire world. He bore our pain. He bore our curse. He bore our guilt. He bore our blame. He bore our disgrace. He bore our punishment. He bore the eternal sentence about which we so richly deserved. And the word “bore” means a profound and indescribably suffering.
When a redeemed person looks at the cross he or she is filled with awe and wonder and gratefulness and pain and worship and a hundred other emotions and enlightenments. For forty years I have heard about the cross, I have read about the cross, and I have preached about the cross and yet I still am overwhelmed by its beauty and wonder and the redemption I have found in it. The sufferings were far above what is common to man. They can only be truly understood by the One who endured them, but we are graciously called to embrace and seek them in all their glory.
But is so many ways we say the word “sin” with a layer of safety. It is a catch all word, but let us unpack it a little and reveal the vileness of sin and what our Blessed Savior took upon Himself. Sometimes we like to equate sin with lying or stealing or cursing or even some sexual infidelity, and yes all those fall under that heading. But that is not all of what Jesus took upon Himself. Think about infant rape. Think about child murder. Think about beheading. Think about ripping a child from its mother’s womb. Think about purposely infecting a person with a deadly disease. Think about killing one hundred thousand people with one bomb. These and other more heinous sins were all placed upon the Scapegoat.
But please do not minimize your own sins just because you deem the sin of others greater. Your sins and mine are worthy of eternal punishment. The most commendable unregenerate sinner is vile beyond words when revealed in the light of a Holy God’s glory. Can you now just shake your head in awe and wonder when you think that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”? This event, this cross, is a selfless act of such magnitude that it stands alone not only as the only path to God, but what act of compassion can compare? That which we call the Incarnation represents that God came in the form of a man. That is a divine miracle worthy of our awe and worship.
I have presented all that and I hope you have been edified as I have in writing it. But I want to return to the title of my post. There are many, many, many, and many more preachers and teachers who have retouched the cross to make it more pleasant to the human taste and sensibilities. They wish to remove the blood or at least sanitize it. They will not reveal the gruesomeness of the cross. They much prefer it as jewelry than they do as a bloody vision filled with the smell of pain and sweat and fresh blood mingling with dried blood. That should not be articulated in mixed company. You can speak of success and prosperity and fulfilling your dreams but the cross needs some retouching lest it offends us. Just what kind of manmade religion is that which the church now embraces?
Yes there are heretics which deny that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, but I speak of the modern church which loves it professional praise and worship times but never hears about the viciousness of the cross. And if they do hear some of it then Easter is the “appropriate” time. That way we can spray fake blood on a man and let it entertain us before we leave church and fill our bellies once more. But a steady diet of the cross? Please, we have bigger fish to fry.
The word “cross” can be used as some redemptive talisman but to describe it with some morbid detail does not minister to the flesh. To the natural man it just relives history instead of looking forward to a prosperous earthly life. And that is why the colors need to be pastels, and the sounds need to be muffled, and the darkness needs to lifted, and the sin needs to be theological, and the entire event needs to be stuffed and placed upon the wall of doctrinal taxidermy. That way we can say we are orthodox without any personal introspection and without entering into the fellowship of His sufferings.
But the very worst and most sacrilegious thing the church can ever do is to soften the preaching of the cross. The word is commonplace but the vision is sacred. It is now served on a platter of humanism and theological hubris but without the spiritual pungency which can pierce the spirit and lead men to repentance and worship. The cross when preached in all its glory can set the captive free and bring the prodigal back home. It is our shelter and our refuge. It is where we see Jesus most clearly. It breaks the prideful heart and mends the broken heart. It is not just the symbol of our faith. It is the very center of our faith for if there was no cross there can never be eternal life.
But let us never avert our eyes form the startling reality of His sufferings and death. The wounds and the thorns and the blood and the death are used of the Spirit to make us whole. But if we retouch that sacred cross in order to pacify and buffer and protect us from the visceral realities of true spirituality then all we have left is human reasoning with Jesus pasted on top. And that, my friends, is spiritual death.

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