Sunday, April 24, 2011

Has anyone ever stopped to ask, "Did it really have to be like that?" Jesus and the Cross

We are thankful. We all rejoice. 
But has anyone ever stopped to ask, "Did it really have to be like that?"

Religious holidays are always a time of growth for me.  And not so much in the typical "spiritual high" sense.  They are a struggle.  I am always in a tug-of-war between remorse, rejoicing, and my own pride.  In light of Easter/Resurrection Day,  i find myself working through this conflict.  Part of me wants to fall in to humility and embrace the day with simplicity and gratitude.  People love to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is incredible.  But another part of me knows that this emotional, and very real reaction is just not possible for me.  Probably a portion is my pride, but certainly a greater part is the loss I know I would experience in the raw, majesty of the whole story.  But I can't just talk about Jesus' blameless life, brutal death and miraculous resurrection without honestly addressing this one questions.

Really?  I mean--I am grateful.  If this is what needed to be done, I owe every breath and more to show my gratitude to Him.  But I must ask--Did he have to be perfect?  Did He have to die?  Did He have to die like that?  And what significance does the ascension really have?  

Basically,  God--Your story is  brutal.  When I look to the cross, I remember a blameless, righteous man hang there.  His life was so full of love and conviction, and You say love wins.  But why didn't Your perfect Love win then?  Couldn't He just have been perfect, and died loved by all?  How is this Your plan?

And this is where Easter brings me.  My soul mourns.  My thoughts break.  And my heart bleeds.  And I remain incredibly grateful--and grateful in a greater way than I could access when I thought I understood.   

But here is my point--do other people ask these questions?  Or is what I ask heresy?  (Although, David and Abram--and even Jesus--all asked God tough questions.)  But my greatest regret is, "How could we not ask this?"

Jesus hung on a cross--one of the most excrutiating and humiliating deaths--for us.  

His dying hours were horrific.  If he was at-all/any-ration human, his last breaths must have been miserable.

His death began early, as the soldiers mocked and whipped him the night before.  Then, he was made to carry the heavy timber that would serve as his tool of death through the winding streets, as he shamefully struggled under its weight.  When they were crucifying him, they did not break his bones, as they often would to accelerate death.  Jesus did not take wine to numb the pings that must have shot through His body as the nails were driven through his wrists.  

Was he even aware of what was happening, or did it all become a blur?  I don't honestly know if the body can really comprehend this level of pain.

And if he ever was aware, did he ever feel foolish as he hang on the cross--naked and bleeding.  Helpless.  And all who pledged their undying love, denied Him in the most profound sense.  Even His father turned his back on Jesus in His darkest hour.  Jesus dies with Psalm 22, the death Psalm, on His lips.  He was faithful.  But did He ever question why this was His plight, or even--if He had been mislead? 

I do not paint this dramatic picture to draw salty tears from heavy hearts, but almost the contrary.  Isn't this absurd!  Jesus did not deserve this.  Yet supposedly our sin convicted him.  But if God made the rules, couldn't he have slanted the game a little in His favor here?  

If love wins, why didn't it?

So there must be more.  And I believe there is.  Firstly--although we tend to believe that everything Jesus did was completely miraculous and unique, there had been a pattern in Judaism around the time of Jesus where a wise rabbi who led a Godly and righteous life would develop a following, heal the sick, spend time with the poor, and die a martyr to be raised after three days, then ascending to heaven promising to send another helper.  I don't say this to diminish anything that Jesus did.  He is the one True Messiah, but at least in the culture of Jesus' day. this pattern already existed--whether in truth or apparition.  I think we put so much emphasis on a few qualities of the Jesus story, focusing on how unique his healings and ascension were, but it seems that the gospels and following books highlight other aspects of the story.  

I know most of us probably stay in the gospels today, but perhaps taking a look at Genesis 15 could help us connect the stories.  In a rather obscure moment between God and Abram, I find the entire purpose for Jesus' death, and I get a sense of God's incredible love for his people.

God has just promised Abram offspring numbering the stars, and a land which he can live his life under God's authority and a seed which would bless the nations.  All if Abram could continue leading a life of righteousness.   Abram, displaying quite the dosage of Hebraic hutspuh, asks God how he will know that these things will be.  And then, God sends him to gather a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.  

And we miss this.  

Abram must have been shaking in his boots.  He asked God, more or less, to prove or promise that God would honor his word.  And God basically says, with words not recorded, "Okay, Abram. Then, let's make a covenant.  Go get the animals, and you will know that I am serious."  

But we do not understand the ancient tradition of covenant, so we read right past this is and miss the story that connects the entire Bible.  

In some parts of the near east Bedouin world, this form of covenant is still practiced.  It is called a blood covenant--between two parties, always a lesser and a greater.  The greater establishes the term, and the lesser can either agree, or pass on the covenant.  Then, the animals are gathered, cut i half, and placed across from each other creating a literal blood path where that blood runs in the middle.  The greater party walks first.  Barefoot though the blood, and without a word, he confirms that if he does not meet his end of the covenant, the other party may stomp through his blood like he walks through blood now.  Then it is the turn of the lesser party.  He does the same, without a word, committing the covenant and understanding that if he does not live up to his word, this will be his plight.  

Now we return to the Genesis story.  

This is the context of where Abram and God stand.  God says--being the greater party he gives the terms (not in Gen. 15, but from other contextual references), "I will give you, Abram, my righteouss servant, offspring numbering the stars, a land which to can live your life under my authority, and a seed which will bless the nations.  All you have to do is be perfect."   And this is the deal.  Perfect.  Abram must be perfect.

And as night falls, Abram falls into a deep slumber (thanks, Mom) and a smoking firepot passes through the blood path.  The Genesis account tells us of two images that travel the path.  Assumedly, God and Abram.  The first image--the smoke--is obviously God.  Many times before and after this story, God is symbolized as smoke (burning bush with Moses, coals in Galilee, etc.).  Plus, He is the greater party, so this correlation is largely undisputed.  

And in covenant tradition, next up is Abram.  

But curiously, the image that passes second is a torch.  There is no textual reference of a human ever being portrayed as a torch.  

Only God is ever fire or a flame.  

And I have to think--in this moment, as Abram--in his altered state of consciousness--is preparing to assume his role as the lesser party and step in the warm blood.  He considers the weight of his covenant with God--to be blameless so that he may receive receive God's promises.  Abram must have realized that he would fail.  And failure within this covenant is basically writing away any promise of offspring, and land to call his own, and most devastatingly,  the messiah.  

And in Abram's sure distress, God appears.  

With the symbolism of a torch, God walks the path for Abram as to say, "Abram, if you and your people are not blameless, you may do this to Me."  

And in this moment, God convicts Jesus to die on the cross.  

God even foreshadows His own sacrifice when he commands Abraham to offer up Isaac.  But God provides, just as he promised in His covenant.

In the later aftermath of this covenant, at Mount Sinai, as God gives an identity to the sons of Abraham, he calls them a royal priesthood and a holy nation.  God commands His people to confirm this covenant with Him that they will again live under the authority of the Lord, as he has brought them out from Egypt.  The children of Israel, are to make a sacrifice two times, every single day--once in the morning, and again at 3:00 pm before twilight "at the place where [His] name is" (the Tabernacle, then the Temple) to remind the people of this promise.  (Exodus 24-27)

Although the daily sacrifices had become quite elaborate by Jesus' day, the people understood the sacrifice to be an offering, begging God to keep his promise--to bring the messiah who would atone for their unrighteousness.  This is slightly different than our understanding of the ritual sacrifices.  We would tend to focus on sacrifice being atonement for our transgressions, which is certainly part of it.  But to miss the desperation in these sacrifices--the cry of the children of Israel to their God--to please bring about the blessing to the Nations.  

And for a thousand years, this practice was done twice a day, and the entire Jewish world would pause at 9:00 am and 3:00 pm, awaiting the sounding of the shofar which would signify the blood sacrifice.  And in the hour of their remembrance, they could take comfort in the covenant between their forefather and their God. 

Almost 2,000 years after the covenant between Abram and God.  It is Passover, and the Judaic world crowds in to Jerusalem to be a part of the feasts.  

On a Friday at 3:00 in the afternoon, just like thousands of Fridays before, the shofar resounds from within the city walls.  

But something is different.  Just outside the city gates, at the Place of the Skulls, a man hangs on a cross, and perhaps cries out his last words from Psalm 22 ("He has performed it," in our English translation.) 


And it is.  God did it.  

God became the blameless sacrifice.  God offered salvation to the world through the life of Jesus and the death he had promised.   

Jesus' death was absolutely necessary.  Abram failed.  We failed.  This is our consequence.  

The most loving, incredible, wise, Good man in the history of the world had to die at our hands.  And his salvation is, in a sense rooted in his death, but the way to eternal, or everlasting life, if found also in His life.  His life of love.  

So let us be somberly, gravely thankful for the death atonement, but let us celebrate the story.  Let us celebrate the breath of life within the narrative.  Let us praise a God so huge, and so loving, as to not only give us a way of salvation, but to actually become it.  

So, today, I celebrate God.  I love Jesus.  I look to His life, and I rejoice in the one and only Messiah Christ.  

Blessings, friends.  Stay dusty.

And if you are in a scandalous mood, another perspective on the Blood Sacrifice of Jesus.


Faith Lessons on the Life and Ministry of the Messiah (Home VHS Vol. 3) Home Pack/Bible Study Guides***much adapted from the teachings of Ray Vanderlaan.



  1. YES!!! I've asked that question to the point where it's caused me great anxiety! Why would Jesus have to die and how does that save me? I mean, this is the very core of our faith, isn't it? This is the first time I've had it explained to me this way and it was quite encouraging and thought-provoking. So, thank you!

    I still have a lingering question or two. For example, who wrote the rule/law that there must be a sacrifice made or that the consequence of sin is death? Why did Abraham and his people have to be perfect to be blessed?

    Thanks again!

  2. Comment was too long... whoops! I just made it another post...

    Be blessed, stay dusty ;)