Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Beauty and Offense of Eastertide

I've been studying Christology in my systematic theology class these past few weeks--what sweet timing in light of Easter! And what a sweet study it has been, of both the beauty and the offense of the Cross.

As a teenager, I once heard a speaker insinuate that we make too much of the Cross and too little of the resurrection. It is true that the Gospel would not be complete without the resurrection--if Christ did not rise on the third day, then as Nitzche said, "God is dead." Resurrection Sunday is crucial. But there is nothing offensive about the resurrection. It is the Cross of Christ alone that provided the means for our final atonement, and it is the Cross that compels us, by its horrific offense, to lay down our sin and put on the new self. As singer/songwriter Derek Webb has said, "the Gospel is both beautiful and offensive. It must be both." Without the Cross, there is no offense, and therefore, a very limited beauty.

In The Cross of Christ, British thinker and evangelist John Stott explains the development of the cross as a Christian symbol. The Jews, of course, prohibited symbols because of the mandate from the Ten Words to refrain from making images of God (Exodus 20:4-5). As the Early Church developed its doctrines and creeds, the cross emerged as the defining symbol for followers of Christ. Stott writes that the cross was the most unlikely symbol for early Christians because the image was so very offensive to the Greco-Roman world. Crucifixion, a cruel punishment devised by Rome, is perhaps the most gruesome method of execution ever employed, as its victims suffered for hours before finally suffocating to death. And to a Jew, the cross was doubly offensive. The word "cross" in Hebrew is synonomus with the word for "tree," etz. Jews would have easily called to mind Deuteronomy 21:23 "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse." To a Jewish mindset, it was blasphemous to claim that God would become man, and even more so to say that the Messiah could actually die under God's curse!

As if the gruesome cruelty of crucifixion and the Jewish confusion were not enough, we read Peter's words to the men of Israel: "you handed [Jesus] over to be killed...You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life" (Acts 3:12-15), and we find that we are equally guilty of betraying Christ. Our dark, twisted, deceitful hearts have killed Him. And so, this post offends its author.

But as Webb and others have noted, therein lies the beauty!

It's precisely because we are offended so deeply that Christ's atoning sacrifice is so precious. The Messiah who wept over the city of Jerusalem at the wickedness of the people, the Christ who bled and died on the cross to satisfy the wrath of God, that very same Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father today...and He waits for us to be made co-heirs with Him for all eternity. I love the refrain from the old 19th century hymn:

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the Just was satisfied
To look on Him and Pardon me.

Behold him there, the risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I Am,
The King of Glory and of Grace!

As Stott writes, "As we face the cross, then, we can say to ourselves both 'I did it, my sins sent him there.'" (That's the offense.) Stott continues: "and 'he did it, his love took him there.'" (That's the beauty.) May we rejoice in the devastating offense and the sweet beauty of the Cross this Easter.

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open the seals because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation...
Revelation 5:9

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