TITLE: Precious Sorrow, Beautiful Catastrophe – 1) Prelude
By Bruce Paul
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Crosses surround us. In everyday life we can recognize the Blue Cross, the Green Cross and the Red Cross. Cemeteries are full of crosses and church spires thrust them into full view across our skyline. Our military rewards its most valiant soldiers with them and irreligious media stars wear a cross as part of their fashion statement. It is a symbol to be recognized throughout the world, yet few people, including Christians, have any idea of its significance. Most people do know that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross, but for many, the importance of the cross stops there.
And yet, the legitimacy of the world’s largest single faith stands or falls on there being a purpose for the crucifixion of Christ. If his death was just a product of unfortunate circumstances, his life and teaching could only be a lie. Jesus claimed to be, not just a teacher or a prophet, but Almighty God. If this claim of deity was a lie, Jesus would not only be excluded from being any kind of spokesman for God, his statements would relegate him to the position of a deceiver or a madman.
These contrasting positions were initially clarified in C.S. Lewis's book, "Mere Christianity", but I feel it would be helpful to redefine them here. If we are investigating the importance of Jesus' death, it would be encouraging to confirm that his life was not marked by treachery or delusion. On the other hand, affirmation of Christ's Lordship takes us to a whole new quantum level in understanding how significant his death on a cross really was.
Was Jesus a Liar?
You may have already chosen to classify Christ as a liar, but for many who have studied his teaching, Christian or not, this choice is a perplexing alternative. William Lecky, for instance, was a noted historian and dedicated opponent of organized Christianity. Yet he wrote, "This simple record of these three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists."4 An other antagonist of Christianity, philosopher J.S. Mill, said of Christ, "When this pre-eminent genius is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral reformer and martyr to that mission who ever existed on the earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching upon this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity."5
In fact, many who have studied the words of Jesus find it hard to disagree with the immense contribution his teaching has made to western civilizations' morality. This is interesting and presents a clear problem to this liar category, for if Jesus was a liar, it would contradict everything he had so passionately communicated to those who were close to him. Josh McDowell, a noted defender of the Christian faith, states the problem of this contradiction clearly in his book, 'Evidence that Demands a Verdict'. McDowell writes, "But, if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite because He told others to be honest, whatever the cost, while Himself teaching and living a colossal lie. And more than that, He was a demon, because He told others to trust in Him for their eternal destiny. . If He could not back up His claims and knew it, then He was unspeakably evil."6
Was Jesus a Lunatic?
Since calling Jesus a demon might seem a little harsh, perhaps we can categorize him as deluded, just a couple sandwiches short of a picnic, so to speak. If Jesus was mad, however, it seems amazing to think that He was able to overcome inconceivable odds to become the most influential man in the history of this planet.
Remember, Jesus was raised in a remote, small town in a country that was defeated and belittled by the great Roman Empire. He was from an insignificant family and was trained as a simple carpenter. He surrounded Himself with other simple and insignificant people and taught them from a large set of religious scriptures, of which He had no formal training. The political and scholarly powers of his own country openly opposed him and eventually conspired to kill him.
Their scheme worked and Jesus died on the cross. But the movement that followed swept across the world regardless of His apparent absence and the violent persecution of Christians. This was not a revolution fought with swords and spears. The battle that Christ started was a revolution of people's minds and hearts that continues to change people’s lives to this day. The beauty of Helen of Troy never set sail so many ships; the wisdom of Aristotle never filled so many minds with wonder; and the leadership of Alexander the Great never compelled so many to willingly give up all that they were, as the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Could the gospel of Christ possibly be the story of a madman? This does not resonate as true on any level. Even Napoleon, one of the extraordinary people of our planet's history, says this of Jesus, "Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and His will confounds me. Between Him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison." 7
Christ's teaching has had an astounding influence both on the masses and the lives of highly intelligent people like Napoleon Bonaparte. This brings serious question to the validity of this lunatic category, for if Jesus Christ was mad, His delusion should be detected and exposed in other facets of his life. Yet when Christianity is attacked, it is seldom based on problems people might have with Christ's supposed delusional tendencies. The historian Phillip Schaff once wrote, "Is such an intellect - clear as the sky, bracing as the mountain air, sharp and penetrating as a sword, thoroughly healthy and vigorous, always ready and always self-possessed - liable to a radical and most serious delusion concerning His own character and mission? Preposterous Imagination!"8
This leads us with the logical alternative, Jesus Christ is really God. An unacceptable view to many people! If you are one of those who cannot embrace this idea of Jesus Christ as Lord, humour me for a short while for there is mystery to be explored here. Think of it as posing a 'what if' argument in order to divulge its implications. If Christ really is Lord, it pours extraordinary significance into the fact that He allowed mortal men to strap Him to a tree.
Why would God die on a cross? This is a significant query, for it opens the door to comprehending the sum and substance of the Christian message. Why would you concern yourself with understanding the essence of the Christian message? For those who might struggle with answering this question in a positive light, I'll give a very pragmatic answer. Christianity is the most influential religion on the planet. It marshals almost double the adherents as the next largest religion of Islam. From the womb of the Christian worldview came modern representative democracy and the scientific method. The Christian scriptures known as the Bible continue to outsell every other best seller in the world, year after year. In fact, more people are becoming Christians today than in the history of the faith, and in countries like Russia and China which have traditionally persecuted Christians.
On a more personal and scriptural level, one should concern themselves with the essence of the Christian message because it "contains the embodiment of knowledge and truth". (Romans 2:20) I do not doubt that some of my readers may dismiss this last statement as the ranting of just another religious zealot. For how could any religion claim to have a monopoly on truth? Yet, this is the brazen claim of Jesus Christ. Speaking to his disciples at the last supper, Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me".(John 14:6)
Though this claim may seem outlandish, it is a very reasonable statement. It's possible that every religion in the world may be wrong. But though it may contradict our modern sensibilities, it's not rational to affirm every religion right, for each religion has beliefs contrary to the others. Yet it is both rational and possible for one faith to be true. Under the prospect of his Lordship, Jesus' exclusive claim to truth and access to the Father petitions his listeners to scrutinize the legitimacy of that claim.
Although the message of the cross does hold resplendent insight, you need not be an intellectual to understand it. I remember being struck by the simplicity of the Christian message on a camping trip I took shortly after becoming a Christian. The campsite to which we were assigned was next to a group from a school for the mentally disabled. Over the course of the weekend, we had the chance to meet some of these kids from the school and spend some time with them. One of the young girls stood out to us because of the kindness she showed her friends and the joy she seemed to exude. One of the people in my group asked her if she knew who Jesus was, and she quickly retorted, 'Jesus is in my heart.' She knew that Jesus loved her and would always forgive her for the bad things she did. This young and mentally disabled little girl was able to experience a relationship with the infinite God. Even she understood the simple message - 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'
The good news of Jesus Christ has a simpler side, so that the young and the simple can experience its benefits. But for those who wish to wade beyond the clichés they heard as a child in Sunday school, there is a body of wisdom even the greatest scholars could never plumb.
Just a Tree
The scriptures anticipate the crucifixion of Christ from the beginning of the first book of the Bible, when God stated that "the seed of the woman (Christ) would crush the serpent's head and the serpent would strike at his heel (crucifixion) (Gen. 3:15)". One such shadow of the cross found in the Old Testament is a helpful illustration here and an excellent springboard for the rest of the book. The example finds its setting in the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. After the people had crossed the Red Sea, they traveled for three days in the Desert of Shur without finding any water. "When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. . . So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What are we to drink'". (Exodus 15:23,24)
The Israelites predicament was interesting, as they believed they were stumbling from disaster into catastrophe, yet they didn't know it was all in God's plan to reveal His forerunner to the ages. After Moses had cried out to God, God showed him a tree and instructed him to cast it into the bitter water. "He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet". (Exodus 15:25)
The Israelites weren't looking for a tree. They could only contemplate the water they needed. In spite of the fact that they decided to grumble, rather than look to the one who had marvellously saved them from Pharaoh's army, God provided the people with what they really needed. And one man and one tree made the bitter waters sweet for everyone.
Do you have bitter waters in your life? Do you feel like you are stumbling from disaster to catastrophe? There is a tree that God wants to plunge deep into those bitter waters of your life and make it all sweet. The cross might not be what you were looking for, but in God's economy it's what He has deemed effective and pertinent.
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