1184) Reflections on the Death of Jesus (c)

     A man was explaining to his friend why he was not a Christian.  He said:  “Christians are always talking about Jesus dying on the cross.  Every church has big crosses on the wall or on the altar, and many people wear crosses as jewelry.  What’s that all about?  A cross was a instrument of one of the cruelest forms of killing every devised.  People were nailed to crosses and left hanging there until dead.  The nails caused the maximum amount of pain without killing the person outright.  Crosses were designed for a long, slow, and extremely painful death, and yet you talk about how God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save us.  But what that meant was that God was sending Jesus to die.  What kind of loving Father would arrange for his own Son to die that kind of death on a cross?”

     That objection goes to the very heart of the Christian message.  We even call the day we remember the cruel and painful execution of Jesus Good Friday.  And we, like that man who could not believe such a story, might also at times wonder about it.  The story is familiar, but the precise meaning has always been difficult to define and understand.

     Many explanations are given, all have been commonly used in preaching, and all are based on the Bible.  The Bible uses many images to get at the depth of the meaning of what happened on the cross, and the fact that there are many images does not mean that they are contradictory.  Rather, they are different facets of the same great truth.

     It is like the old illustration of six blind men trying to describe an elephant.  None of them can see or feel the whole elephant, but each describes that part they are able to feel.  So, one wraps his arms around the elephants great leg, and says, “An elephant must be just like a tree, because what I feel is like a great tree trunk coming out of the ground.”  A second blind man has a hold of the elephants tail, and says, “Oh no, that can’t be right at all; I can tell you for sure that an elephant is like a rope.”  The third blind man walked right into the side of the huge animal and then reach out and as far as he could reach it was a flat solid mass.  “No,” he said, “You are both wrong.  Elephant must just be another word for wall, because I just walked into it, and it is high and wide and flat like a wall.”  And the one who felt the ear thought it was like a fan, and the one who felt the trunk said the elephant was a type of snake, and so forth.  None of them was to see the whole animal, and each could describe only the part they could feel.

     In the same way none of us have enough wisdom and understanding to see into the heart and mind of God, and fully explain why it was that Jesus had to die on the cross.  It is too much for us to even comprehend, let alone describe.  Therefore, the Bible gives us various images, each of which presents a piece of the whole picture.  So, I Timothy 2:6, using an image that Jesus himself used, says, “at the right time, Jesus Christ gave himself as a ransom for all people.”  A ‘ransom’ presents the image of a price paid to win our freedom.   In Galatians 3:13 there is another, similar image.  There Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”  Redeem is a word that is used many times in the Bible, and Christ is often called our Redeemer.  The word ‘ransom’ brings to mind kidnapping, and the word redeemer is from the days of slavery.  If someone would buy a slave and then set them free, it was said that they had redeemed that person, just as a ransom is paid to set someone free.  On the cross, Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin, death, and the devil, says Luther’s catechism.  The images of ransom and redeemer both speak of giving freedom.

     Images like this are not complete explanations, but are illustrations, and illustrations give an incomplete picture.  If we start asking questions like to whom was the ransom paid, we won’t find an answer.  These images do not give complete descriptions.  And there are more.  Another very different image is that of Jesus as a sacrifice for sins.  John the Baptist called Jesus the ‘Lamb of God,’ and what did they do to lambs in the Old Testament?  They sacrificed them as an offering for the forgiveness of sins.  The New Testament book of Hebrews picks up on this image, saying in chapter 10 that Jesus was the perfect and complete and once and for all sacrifice for all sin.  Therefore, Christians did not continue the practice of animal sacrifice. There are other images of Jesus as the victor over death, Jesus as our substitute, and so on.

     When all is said and done, the approach I find most helpful is the one C. S. Lewis decided on for himself.  He said we cannot and do not have to know exactly all the reasons in the heart of God that sent Jesus to the cross.  But he said, what is clear in the Bible and what all Christians agree on, is that somehow, there on the cross, the sin that separated us from God was taken care of, and now, the doors to God’s home are opened wide for all who will believe it.  That is all we need to know for salvation, and that much is indeed made perfectly clear.  We are forgiven and saved because Jesus died on the cross.  (continued…)

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Mark 10:45  —  (Jesus said), “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

John 1:29  —  …John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

II Corinthians 5:19a  —  God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.

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Soul of Christ, sanctify me.  Body and Blood of Christ, save me.  Passion of Christ, strengthen me.  O good Jesus, hear me.  Hide me within your wounds and never allow me to be separated from you.  From the wicked enemy, defend me.  In the hour of my death, call me, and bid me to come to you.  Amen.

Anima Christi, 14th century