Why Was Jesus Forsaken on the Cross?

There are so many facets to the events of Good Friday, the atonement for sin through the death of Jesus on the cross. I want to comment today on just one: the moment when God the Father turned away, leading to Jesus’ cry, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Theological interpretations of what exactly occurred at that moment are many, but only one resonates with me.

Consider: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit had been in constant communion throughout eternity past all the way to this crucial moment on the cross. Perfect love existed in this triune relationship, and it never had been disrupted. When God the Father, in essence, abandons Jesus to go through the agony of the atonement all alone, that would have been the only time the Son would have experienced what it means to be utterly lost, cut off from the loving, sustaining presence of the Father and the Spirit. Can you imagine the sense of “lostness” he must have felt? Without the presence of God the Father and the aid of the Spirit, He was left hanging there, both literally and spiritually.

Why was this necessary? I believe that in order for Jesus to be the perfect substitute for sinful humanity, he had to go through everything we do. The book of Hebrews makes it clear that He suffered as we do, and that He was subject to all the same types of temptations. He truly came to this earth to experience what it is like to be human. Each one of us knows what it means to be lost, cut off from the life of God. We are desolate, miserable creatures until we finally find our life in Him. And if we die without coming to grips with our sin and without receiving the forgiveness so abundantly provided through the atonement, we will then face eternal despair and regret, severed from the One who loves us supremely. Of all the descriptions of hell, the one that strikes me the most is the picture of a soul eternally without hope, eternally separated from the comfort and grace that was offered so freely, along with the agonizing knowledge that it didn’t have to turn out this way. Eternal regret.

Jesus, I believe, had to experience that same kind of separation to identify fully with us. God the Father did not turn away in disgust because Jesus represented sin; the Father looks upon sinful people constantly and continues to reach out to them. The cross, instead, was a demonstration of just how far the Trinity was willing to go to heal the brokenness of man. The book of Hebrews makes it clear:

Therefore, He had to be made like his brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. . . .

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

May we indeed. That’s why this is called Good Friday.

Sixty-two . . . and Still Learning

Add another year to the total. As startling as it was to turn sixty two years ago, I’m just as amazed by the undeniable fact that today I’ve reached the sixty-two mark. I have a tendency to get reflective at times like this. I hope you’ll excuse me for it today because I was thinking about what I’ve learned over the years, through the good and not-so-good times. Where was I each time my age ended with a two? Here’s my review.

Age 2: I thought I might skip this one. After all, who really remembers anything from when they were two years old? Yet I have a vivid memory of seeing my grandfather sitting on the couch. He had lost one leg and used crutches. I must have been two, or no older than barely three, because he died when I was three. We never got to know each other. What does this mean to me today? Just this: I want to be around to get to know my grandchildren and be a positive influence on their lives. Whatever I can do to point them to serving God and loving Him, I want to do. Currently, I have four grandsons and one granddaughter. Two more are on the way this year—a fifth grandson and one of unknown gender at this time. Seven grandchildren by about October. May my life be a blessing to them.

Age 12: This was about the time I reluctantly realized I wasn’t going to be a Major League baseball player. An .032 average in Little League can lead one to that conclusion. It was disappointing. The Yankees were my life; Mickey Mantle was my hero. But I learned I had to move on to other goals, and it wasn’t too difficult once I put away my childish dreams. I entered junior high that year, and life was changing. It was time for a new perspective. God already had His hand on me. I know this because I was probably the only guy who actually looked forward to Saturday morning confirmation classes at my Lutheran church. Yes, life was changing.

Age 22: Married less than a year. Getting ready to graduate from college and take on my first fulltime position. Shortly after this birthday, I arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia, and began working at the Christian Broadcasting Network. I started in the television studio, but moved up shortly afterward to radio, where I became the all-night “personality.” It was a time of maturing, even though I don’t think I matured as quickly as I needed to. I had great zeal, learning Greek and beginning my study of theology. Two years later, I would be a father for the first time. A year after that, headmaster of a Christian school. All seemed right with the world.

Age 32: All was not right with the world. Well, let me rephrase that: all was not right with me. I was completing my doctoral studies at American University in Washington, D.C., not knowing it would require another six years before that dissertation would be finished. Spiritually, I was in rebellion, but God hadn’t given up on me. He was beginning to show me how void of meaning a life of study and learning can be without Him. I would begin to take those first steps back to Him, but the process would be much slower than it ought to have been, and true repentance still lay in the future.

Age 42: Spiritual restoration was now in the past, and I was a professor in a Christian university. The students voted me Professor of the Year, yet my tenure at the university was not assured. I had to learn a greater depth of trust in the Lord’s provision. The struggles of that year led, ultimately, to a call to another university, where I could teach at the graduate level. I began to believe more than ever that the Lord does open and close doors, and all I had to do was rest in His leading.

Age 52: At my third institution of Christian higher education. The students were a joy to teach, but I was again undergoing a test. Had I missed God’s calling? Why did it have to be so hard? How many ways can I be misunderstood by those in authority over me? Lord, what am I supposed to do? Those were the constant questions that plagued my thoughts. At age 52, things were looking a little bleak. Yet, as I learned soon after, God hadn’t deserted me, no matter how I felt at times. He was still the God who opens new doors.

Age 62: It’s been a rough couple of years as my wife has gone through cancer treatments and surgery after surgery. I’ve been there with her all the way, and the Lord is teaching me what it means to love—in ways I never thought I would have to learn. The cancer storm has subsided for now; my position at my fourth Christian university seems secure; the joy of teaching has not abated. There is purpose in life through Him, and even if circumstances change for the worse, I would be the most dense student ever if I began to doubt His care now. He has proven Himself over and over with each succeeding decade. The lesson: rest in God’s love and draw strength from His seemingly endless supply of grace.

That’s my review. Those are the things I’ve learned at these various stages of life. Whether I have another decade of learning is in His hands. If not, I can say with the apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

The Bible Miniseries: Worth Our Support

I’ve been watching The Bible miniseries on the History Channel. The final installment will be, fittingly, on Easter Sunday. My preferred name for the day is Resurrection Sunday, since that’s a more accurate representation of what took place—the miracle of all miracles.

The series has been drawing astounding numbers. How do I know they’re astounding? Primarily because the critics are astounded. That’s a pretty good indication. They’re rather flabbergasted that such interest exists.

What about the quality of the series? Does it measure up? Is it worth the praise it has been receiving? Generally, I believe so. Yes, I have some quibbles: I would have preferred a Moses who didn’t look quite so wild-eyed—my image of him is far more mature; I don’t know how the producers could cast a black man to play Samson, unless there’s something about the ethnic makeup of the early Hebrews of which I am unaware; and it’s always difficult to manage the perfect portrayal of the Son of God, one that will satisfy everyone’s preconception of how Jesus would have acted and how his persona would have come across to the people of that time.

All that said, The Bible communicates the true message of the gospel, showing the grand overview from the Garden of Eden to the establishment of the church after Jesus’ ascension [although I haven’t seen the final episode, the previews seemed to indicate it would go that far]. Those who haven’t heard a solid Biblical perspective of God’s plans for the ages will see the big picture. The Jesus who is on the small screen is loving, yet One who calls sin for what it is. I await the last installment’s treatment of the path to salvation, but I have high hopes it will be acceptable.

The perfect cinematic presentation of the entire Biblical history and message probably doesn’t yet exist, but I honor those who, with sincere and genuine faith themselves, have painstakingly and lovingly created this latest attempt. I believe God can use it for His purposes, and I trust He has already. Our role is not to cast stones at our brothers and sisters who seek to spread the gospel, but to support them in every way we can. This miniseries deserves our support.

Holding to a Form of Godliness, but Denying Its Power

Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi will be present today in Rome for the celebratory mass to be held by the new pope, Francis I. They were chosen as part of the delegation because they are Catholic. Never mind that their beliefs are anything but Catholic. Both favor the pro-abortion stance and have come out in support of same-sex marriage. What I wouldn’t give to see the following scenario unfold:

Biden and Pelosi, like too many of their fellow Catholics, are Catholic in name only. It’s a cultural thing, brought up in the church believing that since they have more or less followed the outward rules and they go through the motions of religion, that they are accepted in the sight of God. Forgive the old cliché, but I must repeat: going to church makes one a Christian no more than going into a garage makes one a car.

We see the same thing in the Protestant world. The mainline denominations have pretty much abandoned Biblical truth. They maintain the name of Christian, but their doctrines have consistently strayed from orthodoxy. Being a Methodist, for instance, back in the early nineteenth century, meant you were a serious disciple of Christ. Now such denominational labels are worthless. They’re like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get when you enter a mainline Protestant church.

Evangelicals are supposed to be the torchbearers for scriptural fidelity, but modern evangelicalism has often succumbed to the latest trendiness, both theologically and culturally. Send your child to what you think is a conservative, evangelical college or university, and you may be surprised by the return on your money. All too frequently they are taught to question the authority of Scripture. Now, I believe in testing all things and I understand we are to lead students into critical thinking rather than simple indoctrination, but that should be carried out with a dependence on God’s leading and a basic trust in the integrity of His communications with man. There remains a framework within which we explore. The so-called “open mind” of secular education is often so open it accepts anything—similar to a sewer.

Some of our evangelicals are being lured by the siren song of social acceptability as basic Biblical beliefs are junked. Take the trendy author/pastor Rob Bell as an example. Last year he wrote a book that subtly, yet clearly, denied the doctrine of hell. Now we learn he believes in same-sex marriage. How many young people will he lead into a spiritual abyss, all in the name of the love of God?

I’m reminded of a passage in the book of 2 Timothy, as the apostle Paul writes about the characteristics of individuals who are to be shunned, noting they will be “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” He then instructs Timothy to “avoid such men as these.”

Why avoid? I’m not just talking about theological differences here; it goes much deeper. Outward forms of godliness are powerless against sin. Only through the genuine gospel message will a person be set free from the bondage of sin. When we water down that message—removing a thorough understanding of the absolute destructiveness of sin—no one is set free. Any gospel that omits teaching about sin and the necessity of heartfelt repentance is a false gospel that leaves people lost in their sins.

I am grieved by the prevalence of superficial spirituality. I am disturbed by those who have little concern for eradicating sin, both in ourselves and in society at large. Outward forms will never suffice. We must truly become new creations in Christ.

C. S. Lewis: Death Conquered

Death is bad, but death is also good. How can this be? Read what C. S. Lewis has to say about it:

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

The Narcissistic Personality in a Position of Power

In church last Sunday, my pastor spoke about people who are fundamentally narcissistic, which is just another way of saying people are principally self-centered, i.e., sinful. As he was going down a list of traits for the narcissistic personality, my wife and I immediately related it to our most prominent political figure. Here’s the list of the manifestations of narcissistic personality disorder. See if you can catch the drift to whom this might apply.

According to a medical encyclopedia, narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves. A person with this disorder may:

  • React to criticism with rage
  • Take advantage of other people to achieve his goals
  • Have excessive feelings of self-importance
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, and/or intelligence
  • Have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  • Need constant attention or admiration
  • Disregard the feelings of other and have little ability to feel empathy
  • Have obsessive self-interest
  • Pursue mainly selfish goals

While this list could probably apply to half of our society, it’s particularly dangerous when it is seen so clearly in the office of the president. I’ve watched and listened to Barack Obama very carefully over the past five years, and I’ve witnessed all these traits come to the forefront. He gets testy when anyone challenges him—he has a slow burn that shows contempt for anyone who disagrees with him—received special treatment to get into Columbia and Harvard, had the gall to accept the Nobel Peace Prize when he had done nothing to earn it, is infamously known as someone who doesn’t connect on a personal level with political opposition, or even those who are on his side in the Congress, and is dead set on doing what he thinks ought to be done [Obamacare, HHS mandates, etc.] with no regard for those who will be hurt in the process. He sets himself up as above the law, ignoring the Constitution, and seeking to rule by administrative fiat.

As for his sense of self-importance, his devoted followers have been ascribing godlike attributes to him from the start, and he has never really discouraged those attempts. Newsweek infamously had this “cover” for its online publication recently:

Can anyone really miss the allusion? Or should I say the illusion? Sadly, and blasphemously, there are those who view him as their version of Jesus. He is the messiah, the one who will lead us into our earthly utopia. Or perhaps he’s like Moses, leading us out of slavery into the Promised Land. The reality is somewhat different:

We’re a society that has been weaned on self-esteem teaching. The fruit of that emphasis has been to create monstrous egos, individuals with an inflated sense of their self-worth. None is more prominent than our current president.

Our response should be, first, to clearly point out this dangerous tendency, not only in him but in the society at large. The second response, though, is equally important: we must show by our lives the opposite of this. We must take heed of the Scriptural admonition in the book of James:

Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” . . . Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. . . . Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.

Having read widely in history, I am always struck by the temporariness of power. Those who dominate an age soon pass away, and they become footnotes known only by the experts, and largely forgotten by the masses. No matter how high a man may rise, eventually his influence will decline. Ultimately we all stand before God to give an account. It is good to remember the words of Jesus:

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

That’s a sobering statement. It was given to us in love as a warning. We need to take it seriously.

Les Miserables, Whittaker Chambers, & Delayed Revelation

One of the best movies I’ve seen in some time and one of my favorite historical subjects of study come together. First, the movie.

I saw Les Misérables a couple of weeks ago and have intended to write about it. Too many other pressing topics intervened. Yet it’s still around in theaters, so if I can encourage anyone else to see it who has neglected to do so, I will have performed a public service.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it, due to its graphic depiction of prostitution and the deeply seamy side of life. Yet even in the midst of all the depravity, it was clear the filmmakers were not glorifying that life. Anne Hathaway’s performance here was heartrending, particularly with her song. No one could come away from those scenes thinking this was the “high life.”

I concluded that it was essential to, in some way, make it clear how sin dehumanizes everyone involved with it. Only in that way could the real message of the movie—the wonder of God’s grace—be so starkly realized. The presentation of the good news always must begin with the problem, which is sin and its destructiveness. The contrast between the utter selfishness of the sinfulness portrayed in the film with the self-sacrificing love of Jean Valjean is breathtaking. For me, the high point of the movie was Valjean’s death, as we are led to understand he is being received into God’s presence through the love and mercy of Christ.

I also recall that the book itself by Victor Hugo made a deep impression on Whittaker Chambers, who grew up in a household with no genuine Christian influence. Chambers, for those who don’t know, later became a communist, then broke from communism to speak prophetically about the loss of the knowledge of God in Western civilization. He found the book in the attic when he was no more than nine years old, and it opened a new world for him.

I read and reread Les Misérables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things—Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent.

I agree completely. That is what stood out in the movie as well—the centrality of humility to counter all the pride of man. Chambers continued:

I scarcely knew that Les Misérables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world, in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.

My only quibble is that I don’t see the Christian worldview in the revolutionaries of the era; they were more incipient Marxists than Christians. But that is a quibble in comparison to the overall value of the dominant Christian theme. I always rejoice when the Christian message can be conveyed in a major production such as this, in a film that is not meant to be self-identified as a Christian movie, but one that reaches beyond to a much wider swath of the population. Chambers didn’t know he was being taught Christianity, and though that revelation was delayed many years, eventually he came to grips with the reality of God in his life. May the same happen to moviegoers today who are just seeking a good story. May the central message of that story—salvation through Jesus Christ—come as a revelation to them also, even if delayed.