Thursday, March 28, 2013

Restraint and Rescue

Last week, a new friend asked me what I believed about the cross. I said I believe that Jesus died on the cross, was dead for three days, and then rose again. She said she believes that Allah replaced Jesus on the cross with someone else so that Jesus didn’t actually die, but was taken straight up to heaven.

Since then, I’ve been considering the other view of the cross.

What if God had intervened from heaven and provided a sacrifice in Jesus’ place? Like He did for Abraham on Mt. Moriah. So that Isaac didn’t have to die.

Or what if Jesus had chosen to unleash the divine power at his disposal in order to prove himself? In order to avoid the path of suffering and death marked out for him.

Instead, I believe that the cross reveals both God the Father and God the Son’s incredible restraint. Their unlimited power—so mercifully withheld—provided for all peoples of all generations a way to be rescued from the power of sin and darkness. A way to enter into the glory of God’s Kingdom. A way to receive light and life in this world and salvation for eternity.

Because there was no other way for God to rescue mankind from the deserved consequences of our sin.

It was the way that God determined and Jesus completed. Through Jesus’ obedient and sacrificial death on the cross.

At the River Jordan, as Jesus approached, John the Baptist cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

And Jesus said about himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Yesterday, Joshua, Jordan and I read in The Jesus I Never Knew about Satan’s temptations and Jesus’ ultimate victories of restraint in the desert, Gethsemane, and the cross.

Philip Yancey writes that in the desert, Satan “tempted Jesus toward the good parts of being human without the bad: to savor the taste of bread without being subject to the fixed rules of hunger and of agriculture, to confront risk with no real danger, to enjoy fame and power without the prospect of painful rejection—in short to wear a crown but not a cross. (The temptation that Jesus resisted, many of us, his followers, still long for.)”

Yancey quotes Malcolm Muggeridge, who said: “Jesus had but to give a nod of agreement and he could have constructed Christendom, not on four shaky Gospels and a defeated man nailed on a cross, but on a basis of sound socio-economic planning and principles...Every utopia could have been brought to pass, every hope have been realized and every dream been made to come true. What a benefactor, then, Jesus would have been. Acclaimed, equally, in the London School of Economics and the Harvard Business School; a statue in Parliament Square, and an even bigger one on Capitol Hill and in the Red Square...Instead, he turned down the offer on the ground that only God should be worshipped.”

He writes that “as Muggeridge sees it, the Temptation revolved around the question uppermost in the minds of Jesus’ countrymen: what should the Messiah look like? A People’s Messiah who could turn stones into bread to feed the multitudes? A Torah Messiah, standing tall at the lofty pinnacle of the temple? A King Messiah, ruling over not just Israel but all the kingdoms of earth? In short, Satan was offering Jesus the chance to be the thundering Messiah we think we want. Certainly, I recognize in Muggeridge’s description the Messiah I think I want. We want anything but a Suffering Messiah

Nailed to the cross, Jesus would hear the last temptation repeated as a taunt. A criminal scoffed, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.’ Spectators took up the cry: ‘Let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him...Let God rescue him now if he wants him.’ But there was no rescue, no miracle, no easy, painless path. For Jesus to save others, quite simply, he could not save himself.”

Yancey goes on to say, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more impressed I am by what Ivan Karamazov called ‘the miracle of restraint.’ The miracles Satan suggested, the signs and wonders the Pharisees demanded, the final proofs I yearn for—these would offer no serious obstacle to an omnipotent God. More amazing is his refusal to perform and to overwhelm. God’s terrible insistence on human freedom is so absolute that he granted us the power to live as though he did not exist, to spit in his face, to crucify him. All this Jesus must have known as he faced down the tempter in the desert, focusing his mighty power on the energy of restraint.

I believe God insists on such restraint because no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve the response he desires. Although power can force obedience, only love can summon a response of love, which is the one thing God wants from us and the reason he created us. ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,’ Jesus said. In case we miss the point John adds, ‘He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.’ God’s nature is self-giving; he bases his appeal on sacrificial love.”

About the struggle at Gethsemane, Yancey writes: “John Howard Yoder speculates on what might have happened if God had intervened to grant the request ‘Take this cup from me.’ Jesus was by no means powerless. If he had insisted on his will and not the Father’s, he could have called down 12 legions of angels (72,000) to fight a Holy War on his behalf. In Gethsemane, Jesus relived Satan’s temptation in the desert. Either time he could have solved the problem of evil by force, with a quick stab of the accuser in the desert or a fierce battle in the garden. There would be no church history—no church, for that matter—as all human history would come to a halt the present age would end. All this lay within Jesus’ power if he merely said the word, skipped the personal sacrifice, and traded away the messy future of redemption. No kingdom would advance like a mustard seed; the kingdom would rather descend like a hailstorm.

Yet, as Yoder reminds us, the cross, the ‘cup’ that now seemed so terrifying, was the very reason that Jesus had come to earth. ‘Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.’

After several hours of torturous prayer, Jesus came to a resolution. His will and the Father’s converged. ‘Did not the Christ have to suffer these things?’ is how he would later put it. He woke his slumberous friends one last time and marched boldly through the darkness toward the ones intent on killing him.”

Yancey confesses, “I have marveled at, and sometimes openly questioned, the self-restraint God has shown throughout history, allowing the Genghis Khans and the Hitlers and the Stalins to have their way. But nothing—nothing—compares to the self-restraint shown that dark Friday in Jerusalem. With every lash of the whip, every fibrous crunch of fist against flesh, Jesus must have mentally replayed the Temptation in the wilderness and in Gethsemane. Legions of angels awaited his command. One word, and the ordeal would end.”

Yancey comes to this conclusion about the cross: “Thieves crucified on either side of Jesus showed the two possible responses. One mocked Jesus’ powerlessness: A Messiah who can’t even save himself? The other recognized a different kind of power. Taking the risk of faith, he asked Jesus to ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ No one else, except in mockery, had addressed Jesus as king. The dying thief saw more clearly than anyone else the nature of Jesus’ kingdom.

In a sense, the paired thieves present the choice that all history has to decide about the cross. Do we look at Jesus’ powerlessness as an example of God’s impotence or as proof of God’s love?”

What do you believe about Jesus and the cross?

(Excerpts taken from The Jesus I Never Knew, published by Zondervan Press in Grand Rapids, MI, 1995:
p. 72, 73, 78, 195, 196, 200, 203, 204)

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