Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

Matthew 27:45-54

When Christianity was brought to the barbarian tribes of the North, they readily received most of the stories of the Bible.

There was one story, however, that the barbarians struggled with: the crucifixion.

How could the valiant and powerful God of the Old Testament leave his Son to die on the cross? Barbarians were so troubled by this that they often depicted Christ with a sword on the cross in their carvings. They reasoned that God would never allow his Son to be completely helpless!

The barbarians aren’t the only ones troubled by the cross. Even today, most Christians think of the cross as tragedy and the resurrection as victory.

But Jesus himself refers to the cross as the revelation of his glory. Paul says that he wants to know only Christ crucified. The crucifixion is understood by the New Testament writers and the early church fathers as the one full revelation of the character of God.

Jesus describes all of scripture as pointing to it.  In fact, after his resurrection, he “opens the scriptures” to his disciples, from the beginning to the end, in order to reveal that the Messiah must die in order to come into his glory.

In a way that confounds barbarians as well as modern day believers, God has chosen to make his image most fully seen in a dying Jewish man who was betrayed by all of his followers, condemned by the religious leaders of his people, and executed by the state in one of the most violent and shameful methods of death ever devised.

One of the most unusual (and confusing) aspects of this full revelation of God on the cross is Jesus’ cry in the midst of it, which Matthew records like this:

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)

Did God forsake Jesus on the cross? Did the Father actually turn his back on his Son?

Some Christians argue that God forsook Christ because God cannot bear to look upon sin, and Christ had become sin. They say that the Father poured out all his wrath and anger on the Son. Because of this, they say, God’s wrath is spent, and we are forgiven if we accept this by faith.

But the God described in this way is a very different God from the God that the early church, the Nicene Creed, and the scriptures profess. The Nicene Creed proclaims one God in three persons, not three gods. The Son is the visible image of the invisible Father. The idea that in the crucifixion, wrath is poured out within the Godhead from one person onto another, that one person in the Godhead forsakes another, that the persons in the Godhead do anything without complete collaboration, is a level of division and difference foreign to the witness of scripture and the church. It is also foreign to Jesus’ own witness of how he and his Father would collaborate in his crucifixion. In John 8:28-29, Jesus says:

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.

This is consistent with what Jesus says in John chapter 5: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” Likewise, in John 12, Jesus tells us, “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.

The crucifixion does not change this. Jesus does not say, “I only do what I see the Father doing, I only say what the Father gives me to say—well, until he abandons me, as he has to do in order to fulfill the scripture. At that point, I am basically on my own and will be freelancing on what I say.”

Jesus is not simply sin on a stick. He is a sin offering. This offering is met with his Father’s joy—not with pent-up wrath. Isaiah even says that this offering pleases the Lord.

But what is more important in this discussion is the character of the Father. The Father has never turned his back on any sinner:

  • When Adam sinned and plunged the whole human race for all time into sin, the Father (1) went looking for Adam, (2) spoke with him, and (3) clothed him with skin (signifying how God later covers our sin with the flesh of the Son).
  • When Cain performed the first murder in history, the Father (1) went looking for Cain, (2) spoke with him, and (3) placed a mark of protection upon him.
  • When humanity became so sinful that God regretted having ever creating them, the Father still (1) went looking for Noah, (2) spoke with him, and (3) saved he and his family from the oncoming flood.

If God has not turned his back on sinners, why would he turn his back on his Son?

Some might argue, “Actually, it is because God turned his back on Jesus that he does not have to turn his back to these sinners.”

But this would suggest that the problem Jesus is solving is a problem in God, not a problem in humanity.

If we read the full witness of scripture, however, we see a very different reason why Jesus shouts with a loud voice about forsakenness. First and foremost, consistent with the verses in the Gospel of John noted above, Jesus is shouting with a loud voice exactly what the Father has told him to say. Because that is what Jesus always says. Not almost always. Always.

And what the Father directs Jesus to say is a direct quote from Psalm 22. Actually, Jesus is doing more than quoting that psalm—he’s fulfilling it.

Psalm 22 begins with a question (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), not a statement (“My God, my God, you have forsaken me”). The Psalmist is not asserting that God has forsaken him. He is saying that it sure looks like it, if circumstances are any indication. As the Psalmist writes:

But I am a worm and not a man,

scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

All who see me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

“let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

since he delights in him.”

Does this description remind you of anything? This is the sight before Jesus’ eyes as he hangs upon the cross: people mock him; tell him that he should be able to remove himself from the cross if he is the true Son of God.

In previous posts, we learned that Christ fulfills every scripture and that Christ comes not to change the law. David wrote Psalm 22, but did not fulfill it—his hands and feet were never pierced, for example. Through his crucifixion, Christ is the only one to have ever fulfilled this scripture.

Psalm 22 continues to paint the picture of Jesus’ crucifixion: “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint”; “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth”; “they pierce my hands and my feet”; “they divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”

But what about the question of abandonment? Interestingly, Psalm 22 is not a psalm of abandonment. To the contrary, it is a psalm of God’s faithful presence to the sufferer:

For he has not despised or scorned

the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help.

The Father did not pour out wrath on the Son during the crucifixion, nor did he hide his face from him. Instead, the Father listened to his cry for help. That is exactly what Jesus knew would happen to him when he was crucified, in John 8:29: “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

The God revealed on the cross is neither vengeful or wrath-filled. The problem he comes to fulfill is with us, and it cannot be solved by an inter-Trinitarian boxing match. Instead, the cross reveals fully what the rest of the scripture also shows: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in perfect union and harmony to accomplish the purpose of God.

Posted in Lectionary Year A | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Difference Between Eternal Life And Eternal Breath

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

John 11:17-27

At first, John 11 seems to be a simple—but miraculous—passage that needs little explanation: Jesus visits an old friend whom he loves and raises him from the dead. What is there to be confused about?

Well, first, when Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that “the one [he] loves is sick,” he waits for two days before travelling to them. Why? The scripture tells us he waits because “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. But if Jesus loved them, why would he wait two days? Wouldn’t he go right away?

Then, in John 11:33 we are told that Jesus’ spirit was deeply troubled when he saw Mary and her comforters crying. Why would Jesus become troubled? The crowds believe Jesus is troubled because of his love for Lazarus.  But Jesus had told the disciples that Lazarus’ “sickness [would] not end in death.” So he knew that Lazarus would be raised from the dead. Yet as soon as they reached the tomb, Jesus began to weep. Why?

Next, Jesus tells Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life.” Typically each word means something in the gospel of John—Jesus doesn’t repeat himself. But what’s the difference between resurrection and life?

Finally, when Jesus orders the stone of Lazarus’ tomb to be rolled away, Martha resists. She worries that opening the tomb will release a terrible smell. Yet in this same chapter, Martha confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Given this faith, why would she doubt him after such a great show of faith?

Suddenly, we see that this story has become more complex. We know that Jesus loved Lazarus—the scripture tells us that—and we know that Jesus raised him from the dead—the scripture tells us that as well—but we do not know why. To learn the answer to this one question, we must answer the four other questions noted above. And to answer these four questions, we must first understand the context behind the story.

Lazarus’ resurrection is actually more than a miracle—it is a sign. What is the difference? A miracle draws attention to itself; a sign redirects attention to something greater and deeper than itself.

In John, there are seven signs:

[John 2:1-11] Jesus turns water into wine

[John 4:43-54] Jesus heals the son of an official

❸ [John 5:1-14] Jesus helps the paralyzed man walk

[John 6:1-14] Jesus feeds the 5,000

[John 6:16-21] Jesus walks on water

[John 9:1-12] Jesus restores the sight of a blind man

The seventh sign is Lazarus’ resurrection—a sign which foreshadows Christ’s own death and resurrection. Several of the phrases within this passage are shared with the scriptural account of Christ’s own death and resurrection. For example, Jesus asks Mary, “Where have you laid him?” This is echoed in Mary Magdalene’s question to Jesus on Easter morning: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Furthermore, the story of Lazarus rests in the very middle of John. The center of John would be verse 27: ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’” This is Martha’s response when Jesus says, in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Are you able to affirm with Martha that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world?” This is the ideal Christian response; a response that many of the characters in the gospel of John do not make due to their blindness.

Blindness is a common theme in the gospel of John. In John, everyone says what they think is true, but they are almost always wrong. Nicodemus, for example, tells Jesus that he and several other teachers of Israel have concluded that he must have come from God. Jesus rebukes him, saying essentially:

“You can’t know that! Only the one who has been reborn can know the kingdom of God!”

The disciples show that they are blind when they speak with Jesus about Lazarus.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up,” Jesus said.

Like something out of a comedy sketch, the disciples completely misunderstand.

“Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better,” the disciples say.

Jesus has to explain that Lazarus is dead. Even then, the disciples are confused. They mention that Jesus was recently almost stoned to death in Judea. Why would he wish to return? Does he wish to risk being stoned again? Thomas resolves, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Not only are the disciples deaf to Jesus’ words, but they are deaf to their own hearts: they do not know that they will abandon Christ when the time comes to die with him.

We are also blind; witness how Jesus’ decision to wait before visiting Mary and Martha puzzles us. We do not yet fully understand that love is not the decision to do what people ask of us as soon as they ask it! Love is to do the will of God in every situation rather than the will of human beings. God has created (and continuously supports) every human being; he knows what ails them and how to cure this ailment.

Jesus waits because he “only does what he sees his father doing.” If God tells him to wait, then Jesus waits. He knows that this will not end in death; it will end in glory.

Glory is another word that we don’t understand.

When we think about glory, we often think about people in a contemporary worship service with their eyes closed and their hands waving in the air as their bodies sway back and forth. But this isn’t glory. Glory is the character of God being revealed in Christ’s victory over death through death. Scripture does not say that Christ overcomes death by being resurrected; he overcomes it by dying.

Glory is not a worship session; it is Christ on the cross.

When we mirror Christ into the world by dying to ourselves in Christ; when we care in his name for those who can offer us nothing; when we share our bread with those who have none, with him as our host; when we visit those who are in prison because we long to see him; we are revealing the glory of God. We are performing the one duty God has created us to do.

God directs Jesus to visit Mary and Martha four days after Lazarus was buried—so he did.

He arrives on the fourth day. Any Jewish person in Jesus’ day could tell you that the soul leaves the body after three days. The fourth day would be the day of no hope. If Jesus returned even on the third day, Lazarus’ soul would still be in his body; a resuscitation, while miraculous, might be conceivable. Yet Jesus arrives on the day when any recovery is impossible.

“If you had been here,” Martha insists, “my brother would not have died!”

Jesus does not reply to her immediate question. Rather, he answers a deeper question that Martha had not even considered.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says.

“Resurrection” and “life.” Aren’t these words the same? Well, it depends on the speaker.

When we say “life”, we think of Genesis 2:7 (where “God forms man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”) or Ezekiel 37:9-10 (where God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy the restoration of breath to dry bones). Life, for us, is the ability to breathe: if we cannot breathe, then we are not alive. In other words, when we say “life,” then, we actually mean “breath”.

Most of us who come to Jesus are seeking eternal breath. The Roman Centurion asks Jesus to restore his slave’s breath. Mary and Martha beg Jesus to restore Lazarus’ breath. Even today, most of us turn to Jesus when we are faced with the possibility of no longer breathing.

But when Jesus says “life”, he means more than just “breath”.

Just as the restoration of the blind man’s sight pointed to something greater than seeing (spiritual sight) and the feeding of the 5,000 pointed to something greater than bread (Christ as the bread of life), the resurrection of Lazarus is intended to point to something greater than “breath”—but what?

Jesus says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

For Jesus, “life” always means his life—the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine life.

This is why Jesus refers to breathing people as already being dead. Although they have breath, they do not have life, and without life, they are already dead. The proof of this comes when we cease breathing: we die. If our life was in Christ, this wouldn’t be the case. After all, “whoever believes in [Jesus], though he die, yet shall he live.”

When Jesus cries, the crowd mistakenly believes he is crying over Lazarus’ loss of breath.

“See how he loved him!” The crowds exclaim. But, as we have already learned, the crowds in John are always mistaken. Jesus is not crying over the loss of Lazarus’ breath, but the spiritual blindness he sees in Mary and the wailing crowd.

Although Martha and Mary address Jesus exactly the same way (“Lord, if you had been here…”), Martha goes on to confesses that Christ is the resurrection and the life. But Mary gives herself over to sorrow immediately after her interaction with Christ. Despite being in the presence of the author of all life, Mary decides to worship death with her tears. Jesus is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” by this. So he weeps.

So far, we have answered the first three questions—but what about the fourth? Why does Martha doubt Jesus, despite admitting that he is the life and the resurrection a few passages before this? We also see this pattern in Peter who confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” but then tries to separate Christ from his cross—all in the same chapter of scripture. But why?

Until the Holy Spirit comes to live within us, we will always be blind. We might obtain occasional flashes of spiritual sight, but these often fade away quickly. Even after our baptism, the development of spiritual sight takes time. We must listen for his voice in order to learn to see the world around us as it actually is, as we learned in the lesson from last week [link to Fourth Sunday in Lent blogpost].

When we ascend from the waters of baptism, we are filled with new life—not new breath.

Posted in Lectionary Year A | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning To See As Well As A Blind Man

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

John 9:1-8

There is an old joke about a man walking through a park. He meets a stranger standing next to a dog.

“Does your dog bite?” The man asks.

“No,” says the stranger.

So the man reaches down to pet the dog.

Immediately the dog bites the man.

“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” the man shouts.

“That’s not my dog,” says the stranger.

Often we laugh at the joke, but we rarely notice what makes the joke funny, namely: The man asked the wrong question. Because the man asked the wrong question, he was bitten even though he received a correct answer.

This is also the case of the disciples in today’s scripture.

When the disciples see the blind man, they turn to Jesus and ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This is the wrong question. How do we know? If we continue to read the Bible, we will see that Jesus is crucified six months after this event. When Jesus says, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work,” he is referencing his own death. Jesus knows his time is limited, so he is finishing the work that must be done. The disciples, however, are blind to the events that lay ahead. They are busy asking idle theological questions that help no one.

When Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him,” he is saying, “You are asking the wrong question! This isn’t about the man or his parents! This is about God’s character!”

The problem with human beings is that we almost always focus on ourselves. One of the few times we think outside of ourselves is when we stop to judge someone else. Our questions are often about ourselves, or for our benefit.

Jesus reminds the disciples of the key reality that the man is blind. Jesus says that the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” This does not mean, “God made this man blind so that I can heal him and make a point or impress you.” Instead, it means that when God sees people who are suffering, he does not waste time by lecturing on philosophical or theological questions. He helps the person who suffers.

This is exactly what Jesus does.

After responding to the disciple’s question, he spits on the ground and makes mud. Then he rubs the mud on the man’s eyes and instructs him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man washes in the pool. His sight is restored. But in the gospel of John, events happen on multiple levels. Therefore, this story is not only about a blind man receiving physical sight, it is about spiritual blindness and spiritual sight, as well.

Everyone except Jesus in this story is spiritually blind. The disciples are spiritually blind, the neighbors are spiritually blind, and the Pharisees are spiritually blind. Just like Nicodemus, they have not been reborn and can know nothing about spiritual things. Jesus is the only person in this story who can see. This is why Jesus knows the right question to ask: How will God respond to this man’s blindness?

Jesus answers that essential but unasked question by spitting on the ground and making mud. Jesus does not need the mud to heal the man—he healed the Centurion’s servant with a single word—but he uses the mud to remind us of Genesis 2. In Genesis 2, God created mankind from “the dust of the ground” and breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life.” Jesus is recreating the man with earth and spit because Jesus is God. Even though Jesus’ own crucifixion is only six months away, he responds to the man with compassion. Through this, we see the true character of God.

Jesus commands the man to wash in the pool of Siloam. Like the mud, this action is as symbolic as it is practical. Washing in Siloam is intended to remind us of baptism. Through baptism, we receive spiritual sight.

In baptism, submersion represents dying to self and world. We accept Christ’s death as our own. When we surface, we are reborn, receiving Christ’s resurrection as our own. The Holy Spirit comes to live within us. He gives us spiritual sight and bring us into the knowledge of God.

Spiritual sight, however, is a sense that grows gradually. We do not immediately understand God fully after baptism, nor are we fully aware of spiritual realities. Like any other sense, spiritual sight requires time and experience to develop.

We can see this best through the example of the blind man in this passage. Recovering his physical sight must have been a surreal experience for the man. After all, he “had been blind from birth.” His world was primarily composed of sounds, smells, and textures. Now, an entirely new world was revealed to him. Like a child, the man would have to learn how to differentiate objects in the world. He would have to learn which sounds, smells, and textures belonged to which appearances.

This was also the case with his spiritual sight, for when neighbors asked him how he was healed, the man replies, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes.” Later, when the man was brought before the Pharisees, he refers to Jesus as “a Prophet”. Finally, when Jesus, himself, appears, the man confesses Jesus to be “the Son of Man”. He worships Christ. His spiritual awareness has grown even in a short time.

The blind man is different from everyone else in this passage; not because he is blind, but because he is the only person who realizes that he is blind. This makes the blind man much closer to sight than any of us, for we think we understand life on our own. The blind man, however, is willing to be led by Christ. He is willing to have mud spread on his eyes and willing to be sent to wash in the pool of Siloam. It is for this reason that his sight is healed—and not only his physical sight.

What must we do to grow spiritually?

First, we must stop asking the wrong questions! This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ask questions at all. However, like the man in the joke or the disciples in this passage, we often ask pointless questions that do not prevent harm from occurring. After all, knowing whether the man or his parents sin does not help the man’s situation in the slightest. Instead, we must learn to ask the right questions. To do this, we must watch, listen, and pray.

There is no reason to judge others—especially when we realize our own spiritual blindness. Instead, we should be quiet and do what Jesus instructs us to do: to do the works of him who sent Christ. Gradually, our eyes will open and we will be able to see.

Posted in Lectionary Year A | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment