Do We Need the Cross to Be Forgiven?

A Lenten Reflection

Why would God need the cross to forgive us? Isn’t he powerful and merciful enough that he could just have declared us forgiven and reconciled? Why would Jesus have to die?

This is a point Muslims sometimes make. In fact, they say the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 backs their claim. The father (clearly a stand-in for God) did not die. We have no cross, no incarnation, no Son of God, no savior, no resurrection. In fact, the father doesn’t even pronounce forgiveness. The father simply wills their reconciliation and demonstrates that by restoring the son’s standing through clothing him in the best robe (which would be the father’s best robe) and putting the family signet ring on his finger.

No, they say, Jesus is clearly a good Muslim who affirms Muslim teaching. Christians, they say, have perverted his message.

This challenge was key in driving Kenneth Bailey deeply into this famous story. The result was his book, The Cross and the Prodigal. As he notes there, he found, to the contrary, that the cross, that sacrifice is profoundly embedded in this parable.

Long the father suffers. Devastated by the abrupt and painful rupture with his son, daily he waits, looking in the distance, hoping to see his son return, his son whom he misses dearly.

When he does spot him, the father sacrifices his dignity by running to meet his son. Nothing is more sacred to a Middle Eastern patriarch than his honor. Such men of his age and stature do not run in excitement like school boys. They float. They move with slow decorum, befitting their place in the community.

In addition, for such a man to run would require him to gather up his robes so he could move quickly and easily. This would shame him even more by exposing his legs in public. This may seem a minor point to those of us who do not live in honor-shame cultures. But for the father it was a very costly act.

The children of the town, “amazed at seeing this respected village elder shaming himself publicly,” would no doubt race after the man to see what the to-do was all about. Others would follow, including his servants who are present to receive instructions from the father regarding his son. In this way, openly for all to see, the father covers the son’s shame and humiliation, and takes it all on himself (p. 67).

Further, he acts as his own intermediary. Mediators are common in such cultures. Two people who are at odds do not confront each other directly lest one loose face. The father took this risk of rejection. Indeed, having been the grievously injured party, custom would require that the father wait and aloofly receive his groveling son—which is exactly what the son expects. The father again sets aside his honor for the prospect of joyful reconciliation.

I already mentioned the robe and the ring, costly gifts in themselves. The father also sponsors a lavish feast for the whole community. The son, you see, has not only alienated himself from the whole family but from everyone who knew of his despicable behavior—and in a small, tightly-woven village, everyone would know. They would all have felt shamed by the son. If the patriarch of their community is dishonored, they are all dishonored. The father must publicly demonstrate the son’s restored standing (restored honor) so others will do the same out of respect for the father.

During Lent, as through the whole year, we marvel at the God who surrendered his honor and his wealth to make forgiveness and reconciliation possible for we who wandered off.

Forgiveness comes with a cost. Our forgiveness comes with the cross.


Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

Christmas in a Minor Key

Maybe you’ve noticed that a lot of Christmas music is in a minor key. Even many of our favorites.

  • What Child Is This?
  • O Come, O Come Immanuel
  • I Wonder as I Wander
  • Mary Did You Know

Every key has its own distinct color and mood. But since Christmas is a joyful time of year, we would think it calls for a solid, all-is-right-with-the-world major key, which it often does. Then why do so many carols make use of the sometimes mournful or uncertain tones of a minor key? Even something as cheery as “Carol of the Bells” is minor!

We can understand it for “O Come, O Come Immanuel” which focuses on the centuries that the people of Israel waited for a Messiah to come and rescue them from the oppression of other nations. A minor key can also convey a sense of mystery, which the story of God becoming human certainly contains.

But why does “We Three Kings” mix the minor-like Aeolian key with a chorus that is major? Is it to give the carol a Middle Eastern flavor in light of the magi coming from the east? Perhaps.

The text of this carol by John Henry Hopkins Jr. may also give us a clue. The five tightly constructed standard five verses include an introductory and closing verse. The three verses in the middle are each devoted to one of the three gifts, each in the voice of a different wise man.

“Gold I bring to crown him again,” declares this first. This verse is appropriately upbeat, noting how gold is associated with kingship and, in this case, a king whose reign will last forever.

The second gift, frankincense, is burned in worship, giving a pungent odor that reminds us both of God’s presence and of our prayers rising to God. As the second wise man says:

Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

It’s when we get to myrrh that the minor key truly comes in to play. This spice was commonly used when burying the dead, including Jesus’ burial (John 19:39). Thus:

. . . its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Here we find the reason a minor key is sometimes employed. Christmas carols often point out that the Incarnation is a necessary prelude to the cross. “I Wonder As I Wander,” for example, explicitly opens with the question of why the Savior was born only to die.

The last verse of “We Three Kings” doesn’t stop at the cross, however. It completes the story by looking forward to the resurrection even as it summarizes the previous three:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King [gold] and God [frankincense] and sacrifice [myrrh].

We rightly celebrate the joy of Christmas and the promise brought by the Prince of Peace. Yet it is a story that is deeply human as well as deeply divine, mixing both sorrow and joy. The mixture makes the joy much more than a superficial happiness, but something that is deep and lasting.

John Through Old Testament Eyes

The Old Testament presents true Judaism as tenaciously monotheistic. No god compares to the One God who is in a category by himself. In fact, the gods of other nations are actually no gods at all. Worship of them is absolutely forbidden.

Then how could the Jews who first followed Jesus believe he was the divine Son of the Father, and still defend the monotheism that is so strongly proclaimed in the Old Testament? That was the challenge John took up in his gospel.

Karen Jobes keys in on this central question in John Through Old Testament Eyes, the second in a set I am the series editor for—the Through Old Testament Eyes New Testament Commentaries. One way John presents Jesus as divine is by using Old Testament metaphors, images, and symbols that are said to be characteristic of God (such as judge, king, and shepherd). But John does not collapse the divine Father and Son, suggesting these are simply two names for the same person. After all, he (and Jesus) say clearly that the Son was sent by the Father.

How then does John maintain his monotheism? One way, as Jobes writes, is by redefining what monotheism means—as the unity of the divine Father and the Son. They are, for example, one in will and one in glory.

This is not the only question Jobes addresses. She ably covers the entire gospel, its structure, and various themes. All the while she emphasizes the richness of Old Testament background, motifs, and literary patterns that illuminate the fourth gospel.

Personally, I have found this approach most rewarding. When puzzling through difficult passages in the New Testament, I often find that the Old Testament roots of those sections provide the “aha” moments that resolve the mystery.

The gospel of John is often the first encounter that people have with the Bible. As a college student, like so many others, Karen Jobes was transformed by it. That love for the book is wonderfully married with the skills of a seasoned scholar, resulting in this readable and enlightening book.

Seeing the Bible with New Eyes

I have a one-question survey that will reveal with near perfect accuracy whether or not you are an individualist. Set? Here it is: Would you readily consider allowing your parents to arrange a marriage for you?

Those of us from a Western culture would never give this the slightest bit of serious consideration. But in collectivist cultures (which make up the majority of the world), people answer yes to this all the time.

Or perhaps slightly less dramatically, what about this? Would you expect your extended family to decide where you go to college? Maybe your nuclear family but definitely not your extended family. Right? Yet this is common in Latino/a and Asian societies.

For individualists, a collective culture is, well, like being in a foreign country. And that’s why, as the authors of Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eye contend, we so often misunderstand the Bible which comes out of collective cultures. We persistently read it through the lens of our own individualistic mindset.

With many stories of their own experiences in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere, the authors unpack how kinship, patronage, brokering, honor, shame, and boundaries are all hidden in plain sight in the Bible. A few examples.

Why does Matthew spend all that time laying out Jesus’ genealogy? Because honor often comes from your family, your family’s history, who you are related to. To be descended from Abraham and David brings great honor (Mt 1:1).

Why does Nicodemus come alone at night to talk with Jesus? Not because he feared the other Pharisees. Rather he didn’t want to inadvertently shame Jesus publicly by asking a question that might be seen as a challenge to a teacher he clearly respected (Jn 3:2).

When Jacob gives Rachel’s son, Joseph, the multicolored coat, the other sons aren’t jealous because he got a better Christmas gift? No. It was much more serious. They realized this meant Joseph was going to be treated as the first-born and get their father’s inheritance. They were angry that their side of the family (all being sons of Leah) would be dependent on Joseph’s generosity, which seemed unlikely from this arrogant kid. This is not an individual’s rags-to-riches story. It is a story of kinship and family reconciliation. Both sides forgive the other for the wrongs they did.

The discussion on shame is especially illuminating because we often only have one definition of shame, and it’s bad—something to always be avoided. But in Scripture and much of the world, there is also a good kind of shame that seeks to nudge people in the community back into proper behavior. It’s kind of like our conscience. Having a sense of shame beforehand can keep us from acting wrongly, not just feel bad after acting wrongly. The book offers multiple examples of when shame creates a path for restoration—which is good shame. When it seeks to exclude and cut others off, that is bad shame.

From a Western perspective, we might see patronage as creating unhealthy dependence, even being oppressive. But those inside see it as providing protection, meeting needs, giving security. Yes, it can be abused, but the problem then is not the system but the people in it.

Our lack of a corporate sense can minimize our commitment to the church and even to family that the Old and New Testaments assume. I am not just saved, you see. The Bible says I am also saved into a community.

The point of the book is not to expunge our individualism. That wouldn’t be possible in any case. Rather, we have much to learn about what the Bible is really saying by putting on collectivist glasses. And we have much to learn about living biblically from our brothers and sisters in the faith who come from such backgrounds.

I received a prepublication complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions here are my own.

credit: Joseph Redfield Nino from Pixabay

Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes

For those like me who are steeped in Western individualism, the honor-shame dynamics of the Bible are hiding in plain sight.

Honor abounds in the Bible as seen in words like glory, name, blessing, praise, clean, renown, glorify, beloved. Shame words are equally plentiful—ashamed, accursed, humiliation, wretched, forgotten, reproach, despised, mocking, crushed, reviled, cursed.

The dynamic of corporate identity comes to the fore in Scripture far more than many of us imagine. Jackson W.’s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes (a series of essays that move through the letter chapter by chapter rather than a verse-by-verse commentary) does not seek to undo centuries of analysis in the Western tradition that emphasizes sin and guilt. Rather it seeks to place alongside that viewpoint another dimension that deepens our understanding of Paul’s most theological letter.

The author defines honor as “one’s perceived worth according to the agreed standards of a particular social context” (14) As such, honor can be achieved or ascribed. In the West we lay greater emphasis on the first. The East emphasizes the second. But we still see a number of honor/shame-oriented subgroups still thriving in Western culture—the military, street gangs, teenagers, sports teams, and rural communities. The fear of shame can effectively control the behavior of these members.

God’s glory gets particular emphasis in this book. As the author says in his discussion of Romans 4:20-21, “Genuine faith in God magnifies his worth. By faith, we honor him” (48). In this vein Romans often focuses on how God deals with Jews and non-Jews, bringing them both into his family, to glorify him. A Jewish sense of superiority relegates God to a tribal deity. Therefore, “Romans contradicts the idea that ethnic conflict is a second-tier concern for the church” (65).

Just a couple other highlights. The author’s analysis of Romans 7 (famous for Paul’s use of first person—“What I want to do I do not do,” etc.) is of particular interest. He makes a strong case that this seemingly quintessential discussion of the individual instead “refers collectively to Israel during the exodus” (132).

Later the author critiques ancestor worship but also helps us sympathize with it by quoting Chesterton: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around.” Tradition can be good, but it does not eclipse God. He is the “Lord both of the living and the dead” (Rom 14:9).

This book does not dismantle everything we ever thought we knew about Romans. Rather it enriches our understanding of the letter by getting behind the honor-shame culture that infused the Bible’s world.

photo: Pixabay zgmorris13

Crazy Jesus . . . or Crazy Like a Fox?

Sometimes Jesus made statements that sound just plain crazy.

Once he was explaining why he taught in parables. The reason he gives in Mark 4:12 is this—so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” In quoting here from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes it sound like he doesn’t want people to repent, to turn to God, to be saved. What in the world could he possibly be talking about?

Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship helps us untangle this mess while walking us through an important theme that spans both Testaments. The book of Isaiah condemns Israel for its idolatry, for worshiping statues that can’t speak or hear. Israel’s punishment? She was sentenced to become like the idols she worshiped—deaf and blind.

That theme is found also in Exodus, the Psalms, the Gospels, the writings of Paul and elsewhere. As Beale often summarizes in his book, we become like what we worship whether for ruin or renewal.

His analysis of the golden calf episode in Exodus is especially instructive. The rebellious people were described as being like a stubborn, “stiff-necked” heifer. The use of “stiff-necked” in Deuteronomy, Hosea and elsewhere is particularly connected with idolatry, not just general disobedience. They turned into what they worshiped.

Yet our ruined state need not be permanent. Isaiah also tells us this condition will be reversed. A day is coming when “the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see” (Is 29:18). This theme is echoed through the New Testament as well. Yes, the punishment is intentional but not eternal. Its purpose is to get the attention of sinners so they do turn to God.

The whole of Isaiah is the context of Jesus’ statement about the people experiencing the same punishment of being blind and deaf that their ancestors suffered for their idolatry. The blindness caused by using parables was likewise intended to be temporary, not perpetual–a shock treatment to push his hearers back to their Lord.

Beale’s book makes the case that God created us essentially to be image bearers. If we do not reflect God, then we will inevitably reflect something else in creation (305).

What might even God’s people today be worshiping besides the true God? To find out, we can ask what we (individually or corporately) are like today. Are we focused on methods or message, on tradition or truth, on character or success, on winning or being winsome, on justice for the world or justice for me? What we give priority to matters. We’re choosing who we will be today and tomorrow.

image credit: Pixabay kryzoxstv

Christ’s Victory on Our Behalf

The center of Christianity is the cross. But how are we to understand the crucifixion? How is it that in the death of Christ we find salvation, forgiveness, new creation, justice, victory over the powers, and hope for the future? And why in particular was such a gruesome, publicly humiliating execution required?

This Lent, to assist me with such questions, I have been reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, a book providing what she sees as the first substantive book on the cross for pastors since John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Overall in her view Christ’s crucifixion is God’s victory over Sin, Death, and the Devil. The Powers are vanquished as the Apostle Paul so often gives testimony. But Christ’s substitutionary work—in our place and on our behalf—is the necessary partner to this cosmic rectification, a theme that arises out of the biblical narrative rather than a theological scheme.

She offers a robust defense of substitution throughout. In particular she thoroughly rehabilitates the eleventh-century archbishop Anslem when today it is popular to denigrate the person credited with bringing substitution to the fore of church teaching. She also finds much to admire in Calvin, though not necessarily in his successors. Rutledge believes both have been misunderstood because scholars fail to see that these two are not working primarily in the realm of academia. Their purpose is pastoral—as is hers.

Rutledge’s sword cuts both ways. She finds much to praise and criticize in both mainline and evangelical circles. For example, she has no patience for evangelicals who see penal substitutionary atonement as the only true way to understand the cross. The Bible offers a wide range of images, metaphors, and teachings on Christ’s death, and we do it much injustice by diminishing or ignoring these. Nonetheless, she also has words of praise for figures like Billy Graham and F. F. Bruce.

At the same time she upends superficial aphorisms such as “God accepts us just as you are” or “Forgive and forget” or declarations of radical inclusiveness. None of us can achieve this no matter how open we are. Our congregation may accept those with Downs but may give up on someone with narcissistic personality disorder. We may welcome a transgender person but find we cannot include an unwashed, unmedicated street person. Then there are times conservative evangelicals are disdained or discriminated against. All fall short, you see.

Another major theme throughout the book is the equivalence of justification and righteousness which derive from the same Greek word. Further, we should not see this as a static condition, says Rutledge, but as God’s activity of setting things right. God rectifies the wrong, the sin, the evil in us and in the cosmos. Rectify better emphasizes what is going on than justification or righteousness which have become encumbered with centuries of debate and misunderstanding.

She is right that the manner of Christ’s death is significant. Dying in his sleep or having the dignity of being beheaded like a Roman citizen would have meant entirely different things. I found her case unconvincing, however, that the crucifixion was the most horrific and humiliating death of all since she would have to survey every other possible form of death to prove her point, clearly an unachievable task.

This and a few others are quibbles however in a stellar work that deserves (as it is getting) a wide readership among pastors, scholars, and those in the pew. She fully achieves the goal of searching the depths of this core of our faith, leading us to praise, worship, and renewed hearts.

Blessing All

A Lenten Reflection

In AD 165, a terrible plague hit the Roman Empire that lasted for fifteen years. Some historians think it was smallpox, but whatever the cause it was devastating. Perhaps a quarter or more of the population died. A hundred years later another plague hit Rome, with similar results. Bodies were piled up in the streets, some being thrown there before people actually died. Thousands abandoned the cities for the countryside in an attempt to escape the pestilence.

But there was one minority group that responded very differently to both plagues. They stayed in the cities. Rather than avoiding the sick, they cared for them. As a result of receiving simple food and water when the ill were too weak to look after themselves, many survived when others who were forsaken by their friends and families died at a much higher rate. Some of those in this special group of caretakers also contracted the disease, however, and died. Why did they do this, knowing the danger? Why did they act so differently than many of their neighbors?

Largely, those that stayed to help the sick were Christians. They believed Christ’s call to love their neighbors, their pagan neighbors, even if it meant possible death. As a result, not only did Christians survive at a higher rate than pagans, but many of the pagans who were cared for by Christians—and who saw their sacrificial love for others—turned to Christ themselves. The reaction of Christians to these two plagues was one of the most significant factors in the conversion of half the Roman Empire to Christianity by about AD 350.*

Israel was chosen by God to be a blessing to all nations. That was the original promise and call God gave Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), which Jesus and the prophets reiterated. We likewise have no right to turn inward and keep our blessings to ourselves, as the Jewish leaders had done. Our focus is to be outward and welcoming, even toward those who may bring us harm.

Israel was to openly accept people of every ethnic group and nation to Jerusalem as Jesus reminded them: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). We as Christians should also gladly receive people from all nations to our churches, our communities, and our countries. We can fulfill the Great Commission not only by going to all nations but also by encouraging people of all nations to come to us. In this way they can hear and see and experience the gospel in ways that may not be possible in their home nations, where Christianity is illegal or suppressed. This is what Christians do—what mission-minded Christians do.

Might it be dangerous to do this? Might some people take advantage of us? Might some of those who come from other countries actually be looking for ways to do us harm? Yes, there may be some. But we can say two things in response. First, the vast majority of people who take the risk to travel from one country to another are simply looking for a better life. The Bible clearly calls us to assist those who are seeking to escape poverty or oppression. Second, Jesus never told the disciples that following him would be safe, or that telling others about him would be safe. In fact, he told them quite the opposite.

    “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).


Excerpted from Andrew T. Le Peau, Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017), 206-08.

*Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 114-19; and Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 73-94.

Images: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Reproduction of a wood engraving by P. Noël after J. Delaunay. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0); Jesus healing–falco pixabay

Who Killed Jesus?

A Lenten Reflection

Who killed Jesus? This question (and some unfortunate answers) have led to malicious, deadly attitudes and actions.

The Jewish leaders, who had been anxious to do away with Jesus for a long time, finally had the opportunity to put him on trial—even if it was in the dead of night in a kangaroo court. But because they had no authority under Roman rule to enact capital punishment on the charge of blasphemy, they instigated a mob to pressure Pontius Pilate. He then had his solders execute Jesus by crucifixion.

Though it was the Romans who hoisted Jesus on a cross, many Christians down the centuries have harbored anti-Jewish sentiment, labeling them Christ killers. Pogroms, persecution, cruelty, and the holocaust have been the terrible results.

All this comes not from a misunderstanding but from willful blindness. Did the Jews kill Jesus? Paul makes it clear this is completely wrongheaded.

“Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin,” he tells us in Romans 3:9. Jews and Gentiles killed Jesus. No one can claim moral superiority. None is guiltless. “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). Both groups have rejected God and his Son. Nonetheless, because of God’s love, “Christ died for the ungodly. . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8).

Who killed Jesus? We did. We, sinful Jews and Gentiles, put him on the cross. Those first-century Jews and those Gentiles who condemned and crucified Jesus stood in our place, symbolically representing us and our sin. At the same time Christ stood in the place of all of us who were not just bystanders but who were his executioners.

Thank God that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive us. We didn’t know what we were doing.

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He Died for Me, and More

A Lenten Reflection

Christ died for me. That is a wonderful, miraculous truth. The creator of the universe thought I and my relationship with God were of such importance, that it was worth his death to restore a broken relationship and turn an enemy into a friend.

As amazing as this is, there is more. The New Testament often speaks of supernatural powers, rulers, and authorities of this dark world that are opposed to Christ. (Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 6:12).

At the cross Christ defeated these, disarming them and bringing them into submission (Colossians 2:13-15). He destroyed Death (2 Timothy 1:9-10). He broke the power of the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8).

During Lent we consider the cost of our salvation. At the same time, we dare not neglect that the cross reshaped the cosmos. We are part of that reshaping. Without this larger perspective, however, we diminish the cross. We fail to appreciate its full significance. The power of Sin, Death, and Hell are broken.

The cross was about us, but not just about us. We magnify Christ even more when we extol the universe-shaking story that lays low the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

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