(The following is a continuation of the previous post.)
A Window into the Heart of God
As with all the acts of Jesus, the cross must be considered in terms of the oneness in being and agency of the Father and Son. We cannot understand what is happening at the cross if we fail to understand that the Father and Son are united in intent, purpose and will. In reflecting upon the meaning of the cross, we must always bear in mind that the heart of the Father is not different from the heart of the Son.
The cross of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of God's unfailing love for humanity. To know that God is love, we need only look at Jesus on the cross, for in that act, Jesus, who is of one being with the Father, reveals the heart of God. According to the great theologian, T. F. Torrance, the cross is a window into the innermost heart of God, wherein we see the exact nature of God's love for the whole world. In giving himself for us at the cross, God proves that he loves us more than he loves himself (1).
The Friend of Sinners
In order to understand that the cross is a window into the heart of God, we need only take a moment to picture what happened at Golgotha, the place of crucifixion. Jesus hung on a cruel, rough Roman cross, his hands and feet pierced with heavy spikes. His open wounds burned as stinging salty sweat poured into the raw gashes across his back. Only minutes before he had been brutalized at the hands of a garrison of soldiers who stripped him naked, beat him without mercy, and mocked him with a crown of thorns. As he hung on the cross, his lips parched with thirst, leering onlookers jeered him, mocking him to free himself from his horrible impalement. So obscene was his mistreatment that even the heavens revolted and the earth shuddered in revulsion (Matt 27:45, 51). As his blood oozed from his wounds, flowing downward toward the battle-hardened soldiers casting lots for his garments, he looked upon the taunting crowd. Yet his heart was not filled with hatred or righteous anger or thirst for revenge. Neither was he moved to avenge himself and execute terrible wrath upon those who had brutalized him. Rather, he looked upon his cruel tormentors with incomprehensible care, compassion, and love. While he could have called down heavenly legions to avenge him, instead, with unfathomable love for humanity, he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
Jesus has encountered humanity at its worst, yet he prays for forgiveness of the very ones who have brutalized and abused him. Perhaps we should not be surprised by Jesus unfailing compassion, for his care for sinners did not emerge only at the cross. Jesus' prayer for forgiveness springs from the compassionate heart that, even now, continually goes out to sinners (Heb 7:25). To be sure, the religious elite impugned Jesus because they knew that he was, indeed, the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). Jesus constantly aroused the ire of the religious leaders because he frequently sat at table fellowship with unsavory characters like tax collectors and others who failed to adhere to the burdensome rules and regulations heaped upon them by the religious authorities (Matt 9:10-12). Moreover, while at table with a prominent Pharisee, Jesus allowed a woman of ill repute to wash his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36ff). When he was alone and thirsty, he defied tradition by stopping at a well to converse with a woman of mixed race, a Samaritan whom most Jews would have regarded as worse than a dog, and even more so because she had been married five times and was presently living with yet another man (John 4:4ff).
On one memorable occasion, the religious authorities brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus for judgment. Yet not only did he refuse to stone her as the law required, but also he refused to condemn her. Instead, he told her to leave her life of sin (John 8:11). Yet, what would have happened had that same woman been brought before Jesus the next day, caught yet again in the act of adultery? The answer is not difficult. Jesus told his followers that if anyone sinned against them, they were to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times (Matt 18:21-22). Dare we think that Jesus offers any less forgiveness than he commands his disciples to render? Dare we think that the Father, whose heart is as equally compassionate as that of the Son, will do any less?
Often, however, we are unsure of the Father's intentions towards us, because we have failed to allow the Son to reveal the Father. Despite the apostle John's assertion that the Son has made the Father known (John 1:18), much "Christian" preaching and teaching splits apart the unity of God by pitting the merciful, compassionate Son against the bloodthirsty, vengeful Father, whose apparent sole delight is to dangle sinners over the mouth of hell, even in the face of Jesus' pleading on our behalf. How did this come about? Where did we get this split view of God that pits a loving Jesus against a bloodthirsty Father?
Sometime around 1,000 years after the time of Christ, theologians began to speak about the cross as something that was needed to "satisfy" God. They portrayed the Father as a "feudal Lord" or majestic King whose honor had been offended by the human race. These theologians argued that God's honor needed to be "satisfied." A few centuries later, during the Protestant Reformation, a slightly different spin was added to that view of the cross. The Reformers began to talk about the cross in terms of the payment of a penalty. Humanity has sinned and someone has to pay. The Father is angry; he is livid with rage, spitting nails in fury; he cannot stand the sight of sinful humanity; he's out for blood. According to this theory, Jesus the meek and mild Lamb of God enters the picture and volunteers to take our punishment upon himself. As Dr. Baxter Kruger says, Jesus comes in order to "take a whippin'" from the Father. This is the view that is commonly held by most conservative and fundamentalists Christians. This is the view that I held for many years. But no longer.
This wrong-headed view of the Father as vengeful Judge is contrary to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It creates a split or divide in the Godhead itself by pitting the compassionate Son against the vengeful Father. Yet Scripture tells us that Jesus came to do the works of the Father (John 5:19, 20). Jesus does nothing of his own; he does only what the Father wills. Therefore, there is no division between the will of the Father and the Son. Jesus came to show us that his own compassionate heart is the perfect reflection of the compassionate heart of the loving Father (cf. Luke 15:11ff). The hearts of the Father and Son are united in loving care for all humanity (cf. John 3:16; 17). We must not create a split in the heart of God by talking about a compassionate Jesus while, at the same time, talking about an angry vengeful Father. The Church's early assertion that Jesus and the Father are one in being will not allow us to do that. The Father and Son (and Spirit) are united in their loving purpose for humanity. To borrow a phrase from T.F. Torrance, there is no unknown God hidden behind the back of Jesus, for Jesus is the revelation of God. If you want to know the Father's heart, look at the heart of his Son, for the two hearts beat as one. This means that Jesus Christ, the Godman who walked this earth on two sandaled feet 2,000 years ago allows us to see into the very Being or nature of the eternal God. If we want to know what God is like, we must look at Jesus.
When we finally understand that the heart of the Father is not different from the heart of the Son, perhaps we can begin to think of the Father as Jesus did. Jesus called the Father "Abba," a term of endearment that means something like "daddy" or "papa," as used so effectively by Paul Young in his book, The Shack. One of my favorite analogies of the "papa-hood" of God comes from the Kennedy White House. The JFK presidency marked the first time in many decades that small children had lived in the White House. When President Kennedy, the most powerful man in the world, was meeting with heads of state in the Oval Office, he had a standing rule that his children were allowed to enter at any time. Often, during an important political discussion, President Kennedy's children would dash into the Oval Office and jump into their father's lap, climbing all over him and his great presidential chair. Nothing in world politics was so important that the Kennedy children were prevented from visiting their father. That is a great image of our heavenly Father. Papa's door is always open to us and he is never too busy to welcome his children who long to dash into the heavenly Oval Office in order to be embraced by their loving Father.
As we continue to think about Jesus and his oneness in being and agency with the Father, let us allow all images of a harsh, vengeful God to fall away, so that we may rest in the arms of "Pappa."
(To be continued)
1. T. F. Torrance, A Passion for Christ: The Vision That Ignites Ministry (Edinburgh: Handel Press, 1999), p. 14.