Paradise: A Good Friday Meditation

Crucifixion from Getty Museum #3 CroppedJesus was not received well by the Israelites of his day. Instead of listening to him and understanding his message of love, he was rejected. He was finally arrested and given show trials in which he stood no legitimate chance of acquittal. He was sentenced to death, execution using the Romans’ cruelest method, Crucifixion. He was nailed to a wooden cross that was then raised in a public place.

We often note the great pain that Jesus suffered, and it was indeed intense. But his humiliation was also devastating. Understand how crucifixion worked:

  • He had already been beaten severely, with his body bleeding from head to toe. He was dirty, bloody, and bruised.
  • He was stripped of his clothes and left naked or nearly so.
  • His cross was not a towering affair, 10 feet above the crowd, as is sometimes portrayed. The Romans liked to keep their crucifixion victims down at street level. This way the helpless crucified person was low enough to have people spit in his face, to poke him, even to slug him. What’s the harm? Afraid you might hurt him?
  • His beloved mother was there, and Jesus knew she had to watch all of this, and that must have been the most humiliating thing of all.

A further insult was given in the crucifixion companions of Jesus. Remember that Governor Pilate had offered to free Jesus, but the crowds had instead chosen a notorious murdering highway robber, Barabbas, to be freed. Jesus had been rejected in favor of a murderer! Consider also the two men who were crucified with Jesus. Luke uses the same term for them that John uses for Barabbas, lestes which is more than a common thief. A lestes is not the non-violent thief who operates by stealth and cunning. It is not the thief who steals your stuff while you are not at home. A lestes  is the mugger, the person who confronts you directly and threatens you with violence in order to rob you. A good translation is “bandit,” but there is nothing romantic or Robin-Hood-ish or Pancho-Villa-ish,  about it. These were violent thugs. These are the ones whom Jesus has for his final companions. It could not get much lower than that. He is being executed with the worst of the worst.

But is did get lower. One of these robbers, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, is so vile and bitter that he begins to make fun of Jesus: “Come on Dude, Yeshua, aren’t you supposed to be the Messiah? Aren’t you the all-powerful miracle worker? Aren’t you the toast of the town, the most popular man in Jerusalem? Work a little magic here, my friend. Get us down off these crosses and help us escape. What? Why? Can’t you do it? What’s wrong, ya big phony!”

And in this farce, this tragic circus of events, Jesus has a most unlikely defender: the other thief, the guy on his other side. This second thief says: “Shut up stupid. Have you no shame? Don’t you fear God? You should, because we are going to meet him in a few hours. We both deserve to be on these crosses, but this man, he did nothing wrong. He is innocent. He is holy. I’ve heard great things about him. So shut your mouth. I wish I could get off this cross and shut it for you.”

And then he turns and says to Jesus: “Sir, when this is all over, remember me. When you receive the power that God has promised you, remember me.”

And Jesus, even in his pain and his humiliation, even under great stress and untold agony, hears what this thief says, and recognizes the voice, for it is the voice of faith. It is, perhaps, the most remarkable expression of faith Jesus has ever heard, a dying man telling another dying man who is nailed to a wooden cross that he believes in him. So, in the midst of this great ugliness, Jesus says something beautiful: “Brother, trust me. Later today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This is the third word of Jesus from the cross.

“Paradise” is a metaphor for something greater. The word is actually from the ancient Persian language and was used for a splendid garden that might be part of the residence of a rich man. The Bible’s idea of Paradise, though, is like nothing on Earth. It is not a place whose location has been lost, a mythical but real location somewhere in a hidden corner of the world. Paradise is a rich metaphor for Heaven, the abode of God, the place of perfect fellowship and joy. In the book of Revelation, the Risen Christ has this to say to the church at Ephesus:

To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the Paradise of God.

Paradise, we learn, is a place for those who conquer, the spiritual victors. Paradise is a place for the faithful, for those who have placed their trust in Christ, just like this thief on the cross.

Our remaining time on earth may be long or short, we don’t know. We read every day of the death of someone who did not expect to die. For any of us, that day may be today or tomorrow. What do you want to hear Jesus say on that fateful day, on your last day? I know what I want to hear. I want to hear my Savior say, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Prayer

O Jesus, dear Lamb of God, you hung on a cross for our sins. May we have the faith of that humble thief as we ask, “Remember us, Lord. Remember us we pray.” Give us this assurance of salvation that you gave that wretched man when you promised, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” We ask these things in your holy name, AMEN.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Father Forgive: a Lenten Meditation

Ceramic Bust from GettyOne time, Jesus was invited to have a meal at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Jesus accepted the invitation even though he knew that Simon was more critic than friend, and that his every action and word would be monitored closely. While there, a woman boldly entered Simon’s house and came to Jesus. The woman was a person of very bad reputation, maybe a prostitute. Some think it might have been Mary Magdalene. It was a very emotional time for this woman. She had brought some very expensive, perfumed lotion in a priceless alabaster jar, a family heirloom and treasure. She intended to honor Jesus by anointing him with this lotion. She was surprised, though, to find that Jesus’ feet were dirty. Simon, the host, had not even provided clean water and a towel for his guest to wash and dry his sandaled feet. The woman was unprepared for this, but her deep emotion came to her rescue, for her eyes filled with tears at this shabby treatment of her Master combined with her great love for her. Her tears dropped on his feet, and she used her long hair as a towel to dry them. Then she rubbed on her precious lotion. Everyone watching this was scandalized. They were offended by the silent rebuke of the ungracious host. They were shocked that a religious teacher like Jesus would let this prostitute even touch him.

Then Jesus did a most audacious thing. He chastised Simon for his lack of hospitality. He saw far beyond the woman’s sordid reputation and into her heart. He knew that she was deeply ashamed of her sin, that she was reaching out to God through Jesus. And he said, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

And so it went throughout his ministry. Jesus prodded his disciples and the crowds to be forgiving. He taught: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

The word translated “forgive” or “forgiveness” is not indicative of a long process. Its base meaning is “release.” In classical Greek, this word was used for the act of “releasing an arrow.” Think of that! When an arrow is released, it is gone! Vamoose! Wiedersehen! Zip! Zoom! Now you see it, now you don’t! Gone and quickly far away. Forgiveness does not happen by accident or casually. It is a conscience decision. It goes against our natural instincts. We want to hold onto grudges, to enjoy playing the victim.

The second statement of Jesus from the cross is:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

There are two parts to this that strike home with me.

First, Jesus’ defense of his executioners. Even in the midst of monumental suffering, Jesus thinks of others. He is concerned for the souls of the hardened men who have brutalized him and nailed him to a cross. He cares about the souls of the crowd who mock him and makes sport of his dying. He even has compassion on the ruthless leaders, Caiaphas and his cronies, who orchestrated his arrest and condemnation. He pleads their case before God, saying that they acted in ignorance.

Second, Jesus’ intercession for his executioners. Jesus speaks to his Father, to God on his throne, pleading for the forgiveness of his tormenters. They need to be forgiven, for what they are doing is unthinkable, almost unspeakable. To kill an innocent man was bad. When that man happens to be the promised Messiah, the very Son of God, there are no words left to express the horror of the acts.

Is there a connection here between forgiving others and our forgiveness? I think so. Jesus was dying so that our sins could be forgiven, so that the sins of his executioners could be forgiven, so that the sins of Caiaphas and Pilate might be forgiven. Jesus was able to plead for their forgiveness because he had already forgiven them. He could not be the instrument of our forgiveness if he lacked forgiveness in his own heart! If our sins were to be forgiven, Jesus had to be ready and willing to forgive even the most heinous of criminals. Those callous, self-serving, hypocritical murderers! I forgive you! I ask that God forgive you!

When we see the pitiful condition of Jesus on the cross, maybe we can begin to understand why we, too, must forgive. You see, forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook. It’s not about forgetting and drifting into Christian senility. We need to be forgiven. We want to be forgiven. And we will never grasp this until we practice forgiveness ourselves. Forgiveness is as much about the forgiver as it is about the forgiven. We can never be whole until we are forgiven and forgiving. This is the great lesson of Jesus.

To forgive is to set a person free
and discover that the person was you.
Lewis Smedes

Prayer:

Forgiving Father, we look to Jesus just now. On the cross, his pain was beyond our understanding. He had been betrayed by those he loved. He had been beaten by mocking soldiers. He had nails pounded through his hands and feet. He had a crown of thorns shoved into his head. He didn’t deserve any of it. But he was not bitter. In his pain, he loved and he forgave. May you do a work of grace in our hearts, and may a powerful spirit of forgiveness consume us. We pray in Jesus’name, AMEN.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

He Is Our Peace: A Lenten Meditation

peacePeace is ever elusive in our world. When hostilities seem to die down in one region, they pop up somewhere else. We don’t see action from ground troops with guns so much, now we read of the potential of drone wars done by remote control joysticks. We even begin to fear the specter of cyber-warfare. This very morning analysts are trying to determine who hacked the computers of the banking system of South Korea, and whether or not this might be understood as an act of war. About 2,600 years ago, Jeremiah warned of those who claim, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” and these words ring true today.

As we approach Holy Week, I would like to ponder a profound statement in Ephesians 2:14. In discussion of the reconciliation and unity between Jews and Gentiles made possible by God’s plan and Jesus’ sacrifice, Paul says,

He is our peace.

The power of this declaration has been diluted and even distorted by the NIV2011’s rendering, “For Christ himself has brought peace to us.” Over-interpretation! Let Paul’s words ring loud and true: HE IS OUR PEACE. But what does he mean by this?

I am indebted to the great Belgian Catholic scholar Edward Schillebeeckx for giving me new insights into what this means in his massive volume, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. Schillebeeckx refers to the Jewish background of Paul’s statement, to the meaning of the Hebrew word for peace, shalom. Schillebeeckx points to the situations found in Scriptures like Exodus 21-33-34:

If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution (shalom), giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

In order to reconcile, to restore the relationship, the owner of the pit (the one at fault) shall “make restitution” for the dead animal. Literally this is “make peace” using the verb form of shalom. NLT: “pay in full.” This has the sense of “satisfaction.” In order for our relationship with God to be restored, to be made whole, “peace” must be made. In order for the division between Jews and Gentiles to be removed, “peace” must be made. When we have peace with God, we may have peace between any other human being who also recognizes this peace. So Christ does not simply bring peace. Christ is our peace.

Next week we will reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, the via dolorosa that changed everything in human history. There are many, many aspects to this, but may we not forget the sacrificial nature of his act, serving as our shalom for all time so that we might be reconciled to God.

You might want to refresh yourself today by listening to a simple song version of this that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s by clicking here.

Shalom,
Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Wrath of God and the Cross

Cross with LighteningIn the classes I have been teaching (Ephesians and Johannine Epistles), discussion has come up about the nature of Jesus’ act on the cross. This pot has been stirred with my recent blog attempt to explain the statement of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” My take on this is that Jesus is quoting Scripture in his great anguish and pain, and that we misunderstand if we believe that somehow God has turned his back on Jesus. To draw this conclusion is both unjustified by anything in the text and causes an intolerable strain on any coherent doctrine of the Trinity. It is a philosophical conclusion imposed on the text based on theological presuppositions.

A similar theological mistake is found in the common folk theological belief that somehow Jesus was an object of God’s wrath on the cross. This theory would say that God’s anger/wrath over human sin was diverted entirely to Jesus as he died on Calvary, and that with his death, this wrath of God was quenched or extinguished, leaving a loving and gracious God who accepts believers into a safe haven where they need not fear his wrath.

Some of this can be boiled down to the interpretation of a single Greek word found a few times in the New Testament. It is the word  ͑ιλασμός (hilasmos), translated in the NIV2011 as “atoning sacrifice.” This translation is fine with me, because it reflects the Old Testament usage of this word as the Greek equivalent of “atonement” in the Hebrew expression, “Day of Atonement.” It is the “kippur” in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 25:9). But controversy has raged for centuries over the exact implications of this word. We can simplify this controversy to say that it is a question of whether the word means “propitiation” or “expiation.” Before I explain this a little, it is worth noting that this word occurs only in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10, although a related term may be found in Romans 3:25. It does not occur in the Gospels or in any New Testament discussion of the crucifixion event.

Here is a basic way of understanding the difference between these two ways of understanding hilamos:

  • Expiation: This has the sense of wiping out sins. You “expiate” sins. This lies behind the translation “atoning sacrifice” we find in the NRSV and the NIV.
  • Propitiation: This has the sense of satisfying God, You “propitiate” God. This is the translation used in the KJV, the NASB, and the ESV.

A great lesson of biblical interpretation is the danger of doing theology based on the meaning of Greek words, so it seems unwise to me to let our interpretation of this little word, which occurs two or three times in the NT, to determine such a crucial theological point. Instead, let me wrap this up by making three points that are worth pondering concerning this matter.

1. If Jesus’ time on the cross is an occasion for the outpouring of God’s wrath, we are again at a point of intolerable tension within the Trinity. Are we to understand that the persons within the Godhead are angry with one another from time to time?

2. I think the whole idea of the wrath of God in this context is usually a very human concept unworthy of the Creator of the Universe. God’s wrath is much more substantial and comprehensive than any human analog. This mistaken concept of God’s wrath is more akin to a family who is expected to feel release when the murderer of their daughter is executed.

3. Reading the book of Revelation in particular and other NT books in general does not give the idea that the wrath of God has been quenched. In fact, Revelation 6:16 combines the wrath of God with the wrath of the Lamb, and makes the point that there is no human way to escape this judgmental wrath. Wrath still awaits those who are disobedient (Colossians 3:6).

So I do not think the time of Jesus’ crucifixion was a display of God’s wrath. I think, if anything, it was a time of sorrow and pain for the Father who watched sinful men crucify the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). God’s wrath was not quenched. If anything, his heart was broken. This is still “my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Redux)

Jesus on the CrossAbout a year ago I posted a blog on “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” It has been one of my most popular posts, having been viewed nearly two thousand times. It spiked in views after the Newtown Sandy Hook Massacre, and has been having daily views ever since.

My blog was partially based on a sermon I have for the Lenten season, a sermon I preached last Sunday at the Spirit of Faith Church in Omaha. Whenever I preach this, I am struck by the strong emotions it brings out. We all deal with certain abandonment issues. I remember well the week after my Mom was killed in 1988, and how I felt abandoned. The fact that she had no choice in the matter didn’t change my feelings at the time. I had lost my mother and it brought forth a lot of irrational emotions.

What if we were truly abandoned by God? This is the picture that Paul hints at in Romans 1, where he repeatedly mentions that “God gave them up,” a reference to men and women who have embraced idolatry and sexual immorality. God abandons us to depravity if that is the course we choose. But I don’t think this is the same as God turning his back on us, forgetting us forever (or even a short time).

Don McLean, American Pie, wrote about this unthinkable situation in relation to God:

But not a word was spoken,
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

Friends, you don’t ever have to fear that God will forsake you. You will not wake up one day and find that God has gone, that heaven is empty, that you are alone in the universe. The music has not died. The music will not die. God has not abandoned you, and he never will.

As I was with Moses, so I will be with you;
I will not fail you or forsake you.

In our Lenten season, may we experience the presence of God in new and powerful ways. May we practice the presence of God by recognizing his role in our daily lives as Sustainer, Comforter, and Encourager. May we pray the great three things: To see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly, each and every day. May we not yield to feelings of abandonment, but glory in God’s role in our lives.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Jesus in My Heart: A Lenten Meditation

We are half-way through the season of Lent as we prepare our hearts for Easterheart surgery. May this illustrative story give you food for thought and encouragement today. It is an illustration I found many years ago, and I don’t know its source (forgive me if it is yours!).

The story is told of a little boy, who, many years ago, was diagnosed with a severe heart defect. This was before MRIs or CT scans or other advanced technology. But his heartbeat was irregular, and he was not expected to live very long.

His family happened to live in a small city that was the home of one of the nation’s most respected heart surgeons. This doctor was a crusty old character, near retirement, and usually refused to work with children. After hearing the pleas of the boy’s mother and father, he finally conceded to take the youngster as a patient.

After the examination, the old doctor knew that surgery was required and that it would be very risky. There was something wrong with the boy’s heart. The old man told the boy, “Son, I’m going to try to fix your heart. I will have to cut it open, and I’m not sure what I will find there.” The boy brightened when he said this, and said, “Don’t worry, when you cut open my heart, you’ll find Jesus, ‘cause he lives there!” The surgeon was silent. Dealing with life and death on a daily basis had embittered him horribly, and he had long ago abandoned any pretense of faith.

As they prepared for the surgery, the doctor was determined that the little boy understand what was happening, so he repeatedly warned him of the risks involved in this surgery. Each time the boy smiled and said, “Don’t worry. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus, ’cause he lives there.”

In this process the bitter old doctor began to have his own heart touched by this little boy. He was so ill! But he was so happy! On the day of the operation, just before they wheeled the boy into the operating room, the doctor tried one last time, and said, “I want you to be brave, because when I cut your heart open, I’m not sure what I will find.” Again, the boy beamed at him and said, “Don’t worry. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus, ’cause he lives there.”

After the surgery, the doctor went to the waiting room to give some horrible news to the parents: the boy had died on the table; he had been unable to save him. They were people of great faith, but now they were extremely distraught. As the father grasped for something to explain what had happened, he asked the surgeon, “Doc, when you opened his heart, what did you find?” And the hardened, cynical old man gave the slightest of smiles and said, “I believe I found Jesus.” And for the first time in many years, his tears flowed, too.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Giant Theology: Confession of Sins

My class in Johannine Letters has been focusing on a promise passage from 1 John1:8-10:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.

Our class has examined several aspects of this. Should confession of sins be private or is there a place for public confession? If public, how should this be done? An accountability partner? Is there a place for group/congregational confession? Can this be done through worship songs or liturgy? If confession is merely private in prayer, will there be any change? Are there folks who actually claim to be without sin? Why is the claim to sinlessness both self-deception and insulting to God?

Many questions, and we had good discussion in class and through a reflective essay they all did. One thing I tried to bring out for them is the connection between confessing  sin and repenting of sin. For 1 John, these are essentially the same thing, but this is not necessarily so. To confess means to acknowledge, the opposite of denial. We can certainly confess a sin defiantly with no remorse or shame. I used a little clip from the 4th Harry Potter movie to illustrate this, the scene where Barty Crouch, Jr. is revealed to be a “death-eater” (a servant of the Dark Lord). This is a dramatic moment in the movie, because the judge at this hearing is Barty Crouch, Sr., apparently unknowing of his son’s guiltiness.

Although Junior’s confession is wordless (except for an ironic “Hello Father”), it is clear that he is not in denial mode. Yes, he is guilty of being a death eater, but there is no remorse or sorrow over this. There is no repentance. There is only defiance.

How do we deal with sin in our lives and the guilt it brings? Do we just deny it? Do we find a therapist who will tell us “You’re OK”? In the passage above, John links the denial of personal sin to a denial of God. Anyone who would call God a liar is denying the God who created the universe, the God of the Bible, the God who is the judge of the living and the dead, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Not a good idea. Much better that we admit, we acknowledge, we confess our sins to God with a spirit of repentance. Don’t pray a prayer of confession with a snarling “Hello, Father” and expect to be cleansed from all wickedness. Remember that Barty Crouch Sr. responds to this by saying, “You are no son of mine.”

Pray humbly, admitting your sin and asking for God’s help to overcome. Then you will be cleansed and restored. You will be freed from bondage. You will be more than a conqueror through him who loves you. And that, my friends, is Giant Theology.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College