Jesus, God, and the Cross [Uncertain Inferences Series]

If you have been following this series of posts, I hope you have noticed something. Most inferences, especially what I have labeled the “uncertain” ones, usually derive from the misinterpretation of one, or maybe two, passages of Scripture. That is particularly true of the inference that Jesus was separated from God on the cross. In my gentle, humble, and (undeniably) correct opinion, that is one of the most egregious, pernicious, and just flat-out wrong inferences that has been made about Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. In defense of this audacious claim, I present seven (7, what a wonderful, biblical number) pieces of evidence.

  1.  The quote from Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1. The entire point – the only point – of Psalm 22 is that the psalmist is not abandoned, is not forsaken, and indeed has been heard and delivered by his God. If Jesus wanted to quote a passage of Scripture that described his separation from God then he chose a really, really bad example.
  2. The context of Gethsemane and the cross. Consider Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 17:1-26. All the gospels have Jesus in close fellowship with his Father. Notice the seven statements we have recorded of Jesus from the cross: John 19:26 -30, Luke 23:34, 43, 46, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:35. Of the seven statements, three are specifically related to a time, “about the ninth hour,” or immediately before Jesus died. The last statement recorded in Luke clearly has Jesus in a close relationship with his Father. The quotation in Matthew and Mark (from Psalm 22) occurs at approximately the same time as the other last statements on the cross. Luke and John have Jesus in unity with God at the same time that Matthew and Mark supposedly have them separated. Either Jesus was separated from God, or he was not, but he could not be both at the same time.
  3. Consider Romans 6:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Colossians 1:15-23, Hebrews 2:9-18, 5:7-10, 9:11-10:18, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Revelation 5:9. These passages confirm that it was the death of Jesus which provided salvation. Some passages refer to the “suffering” of Jesus, but in context that suffering always refers to his death. As noted above, the gospel writers agree that Jesus was in unity with God at the point of his death. If God cannot be in the presence of sin (a false doctrine*, but I digress) then that means Jesus absolved our sins before his death – which means that Jesus’s death was totally unnecessary! How many really want to argue that point?
  4. The biblical doctrine of the unity of God and Jesus. Read Deuteronomy 6:4, John 1:1ff, 4:26, 8:24, 8:58, 9:35-37, 13:19, 17:1-26, Colossians 1:15-23. To say that Jesus was separated from God on the cross means that God was separated from God, the Son separated from the Father. God is indivisible. God and Jesus are indivisible. The supposed separation is an essential impossibility. To argue that Jesus and God were separated on the cross is to claim that Jesus was of a different essence than God. Thus, Jesus was only a mere human at some point on the cross. We are walking in tall cotton here, but does anyone really want to argue that a mere human died to save us from our sins?
  5. The chronology of the crucifixion simply does not allow for a separation. It is impossible to decipher exactly when Jesus could have been separated, and when he was reunited with his Father. If he was separated, it had to be for a very brief period of time after he was nailed to the cross and before he died. As noted above, this also bifurcates the suffering of Jesus from his death, something the gospels, and the later epistles, refuse to do.
  6. No other New Testament text teaches, suggests, implies, or even hints that Jesus was separated from God on the cross. You would think as passionately as this ghastly teaching is promoted today that there would be at least one reference in the New Testament of its truth. But – you just cannot find any reference to such a thought.
  7. The voice of history is unequivocal – to separate God from Jesus means two different essences, two different natures, of God and Jesus. This teaching has been rejected as heretical from the earliest centuries down to the modern day. The only groups who want to teach this error are those who want to minimize the role of Jesus, or those who want to elevate some other human to the level of Jesus.

The sum of the matter – you just cannot hold to the idea that Jesus and God were separated on the cross. It is an incorrect inference – and I believe a dangerous one – from one verse of a Psalm. No other teaching of Scripture supports the idea, and multiple passages refute it. It is illogical in the extreme – you just cannot fit a separation into the chronology of the crucifixion.

Why do we go to such lengths to believe and promote such obvious false teachings? Why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do we refuse to let go of such unscriptural notions?

I have a better idea. Instead of letting our emotions dictate what we think must have happened that day on the hill of crucifixion, let’s let the inspired authors of the Bible tell us what actually did happen, and then we can safely attach any legitimate applications at that point.

*The idea that God had to separate himself from Jesus, or “abandon” Jesus is inextricably connected to the equally false idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin. Since Jesus bore our sins on the cross, God had to reject him. It is suggested that the Bible supports this claim, but the only passage that even comes close to this idea is Habakkuk 1:13 – which is a complaint from the prophet Habakkuk that God is too good to do what he has told Habakkuk he will do. As the entire book makes clear, Habakkuk is dead wrong, and like Jonah, needs a little correction. Note how many times from Genesis to Revelation is it said that God saw, or remembered, or took note, of man’s sin. Note the times that God “dwelt” or “walked” on this earth, rubbing shoulders with sinful men. Note that Satan, the accuser of mankind, had a conversation with God! (Job 1, 2) Note finally that this is exactly what Jesus did for his entire ministry! I would agree that sin cannot be in the presence of God for long: it is burned up, annihilated, destroyed, or it is purified, atoned for,  covered up, forgiven – choose your verb. But the claim that God cannot be in the presence of sin, and therefore had to abandon Jesus, is simply a specious argument! It is compounding one erroneous inference to support another one. Yet, sadly, it is believed by countless Christians who have been duped so that an author can sell a few more books, or a preacher gets invited to a few more conferences.

Jeremiah 6:16 and Context (A Cautionary Tale)

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Very few Old Testament passages hold a position of honor among preachers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. That is due largely to the influence of Alexander Campbell and his “Sermon on the Law.” From Campbell’s day forward his heirs have solidly proclaimed the New Testament as the book of the church, and some would even narrow that to Acts – Jude (Revelation being much too dangerous to handle).

Very few, but not none. One passage that ranks in importance just slightly lower than Acts 2:38 and Romans 16:16 is Jeremiah 6:16. This verse is the bulwark that protects many favored traditions, and more distressingly, the failures of many in past generations. Whenever the discussion becomes too edgy or uncomfortable, Jeremiah 6:16 is a safe and constant refuge. I was reminded just recently of what a powerful hold this verse has on many. It should – but not perhaps for the reason that they think it should. I come this day not to bury Jeremiah 6:16, but to honor it for the powerful text that it truly is in its context.

This post could easily end up in the thousands of words long. For simplicity I will try to abbreviate as much as possible. To cut to the chase, in order to understand Jeremiah 6:16 we really need to back up to chapter 2. In a lengthy and sometimes dense argument, the LORD (through Jeremiah) accuses both Israel and Judah of gross idolatry and moral decay. In a plaintive cry that summarizes much of the entire book, the LORD asks,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13, ESV)

Central to the accusations that the LORD makes against his chosen people are two related actions. One, they repeatedly ally themselves with foreign nations instead of depending on God for protection and deliverance (2:17-18), and two, they participate in the worship of those nations’ idols, figuratively described as sexual fornication/adultery (3:6-10).

In spite of these transgressions, the LORD still holds out forgiveness to the people, if they will but return to him:

Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD. Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from every city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. (Jer. 3:12-14 ESV)

Pure and faithful worship, however, must be accompanied by pure and faithful behavior:

If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, ESV)

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1 ESV)

Particularly galling to the LORD is the behavior of his prophets and priests:

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 ESV, see also 1:8, 2:26-28, 5:30-31)

That leads us then to the verse in question, Jer. 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (ESV)

As should be clear by now, the LORD is not, and Jeremiah is not, urging the Israelites to return to some pristine time of their history. He is pleading with them to return to GOD. The “ancient paths” are the practices that demonstrate their allegiance to GOD – truthfulness, justice, righteousness (in Hebrew understanding – doing right). A major component of this “returning” involves confession of sin. And, not to be forgotten, another critical component is the faithfulness and righteousness of the spiritual leaders of the people.

I fear that too many times when I hear Jeremiah 6:16 being quoted, what is intended is a “return” to a “golden age” of the church, invariably the period when the Churches of Christ were growing at an exponential rate during the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. The “ancient paths” are not the rigorous moral and ethical demands of Sinai, but an almost mythical time in which every man “dwelt under the shade of his own vine.” We all want to sing with Archie Bunker, “Those were the days.”

The truth is – just as with Israel and Judah – there never has been this period of utopian perfection! Every text that we have in the New Testament is there as a testimony that someone, somewhere was NOT believing what Jesus taught, or was NOT doing what Jesus commanded. We simply do not have a picture of a perfect church for one simple reason – the church has never existed in perfection. The “ancient paths” do not refer to a time of pristine church practice – either in the first century or the 19th or the 20th. The ancient paths refer to God’s entire law and gospel – both religious (worship) and moral (ethics/behavior).

I most firmly believe that Jeremiah 6:16 needs to be preached from our pulpits and taught in our classes. But – it needs to be preached and taught in context! Applications that are drawn from that text need to be consistent with Jeremiah’s own purpose – as appropriately directed to the church in the 21st century.

Let’s preach it, brothers, – but let’s preach it straight!

Eating at the Garbage Dump

Even after all these years, my professor’s words still ring in my ears. “You can tell how hungry someone is,” he said, “by paying attention to the garbage they are willing to eat.”

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I think of those words often, but especially when I see and hear how popular some forms of diluted Christianity have become. I speak specifically of the numerous examples of the “I died and went to heaven and saw Jesus” books and movies and the inexplicable (and to me, disturbing) popularity of books like The Shack, which promote a heterodox, if not blatantly blasphemous, view of God and Christ.

The latter has now been made into a movie, and social media sites are all abuzz discussing whether a person should, or should not, see the movie. I have not read the book, and I steadfastly refuse to support the production of such works with my money – but I will make a few observations based on my review of those who have read the book and who discuss the movie.

First, serious theologians from all branches of Christianity denounce the movie. When you have bow-tie Baptists and rockin’ Pentecostals agreeing that this is bad stuff, well – I suggest you consider their words carefully. A number of reviews spare no words in describing the message of the book -pure heresy. Even those who suggest the book is worth exploring do so very cautiously, and stress that the content is a parable, and a bad one at that.

Second, most of the reviews that are unequivocally positive come from individuals that, in my estimation, are quacks who either produce or promote an equally shallow form of Christianity (Eugene Peterson comes to mind). I can tell a lot about a book by reading the names of those who endorse it. I was shocked, and to be quite honest, dismayed, to read someone who I have come to trust and admire who endorsed both the book and the movie. There is a back-story to his endorsement of the book, however, and I will give him a pass, at least on this one.

The book purports to be a parable, but the author clearly crosses a line between “parable” and “distorting Scripture.” If you want to read a quality parable, or better, allegory, read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis famously refused to go where the author of The Shack boldly went, because he was not willing to put words into the mouth of God. The Shack not only puts words into the mouth of God, those words directly contradict the words God revealed in his inspired book, the Bible.

The Shack was supposedly written to present a different view of God for those who are suffering and cannot understand the biblical God. I suggest rather that it is an all-too-common view of an entirely different god – the god of the author, an idol that is purely the creation of a human mind. As one reviewer put it, “If you find yourself being drawn closer to God by this book, I have to ask: what god are you being drawn closer to?”

I find it very interesting many authors who produce the “died and saw Jesus” books and books like “The Shack” have major issues with the images of God found in Scripture (read their histories and back-stories). These purported true stories and especially the fictional stories are designed to correct what the authors believe are mistaken understandings of God. That to me is a critical point. God revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture. God ultimately revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The God who many of these authors disparage and blaspheme became human so they could have a vision of the divine. Man has turned God’s greatest blessing into a curse – and all for a nice, tidy profit to boot.

I have to admit I just do not understand the process, and to be honest I do not want to. I do not want to understand that way of thinking. It just bothers me deeply when so many are feeding at the garbage dump when we have the messianic feast set before us.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (I)

For the most part Christians love to assert that they love the Bible. We buy Bibles, display Bibles, carry Bibles around so that others will know just how much we love the Bible. Occasionally we even read the Bible, but (because I am kind of a sceptic at heart) I wonder just how much of the Bible we actually read? And, beyond that, how much of the Bible that we read do we actually like?

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I think there are three passages in the Old Testament that we as Christians do not like very much, if we spend much time reading them at all. Today I will mention the first, and will discuss the other two in quick succession.

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, ESV)

Today there is almost a pathological interest in numbers among Christians. We like to point to Luke, our beloved church historian, for our emphasis on numbers and church growth. But Luke was not using numbers or the rate of church growth as proof that the early Christians were right about their politics or their theology. Luke recorded that when people were confronted about their sin and guilt, the Spirit acted to convert them and they were therefore added to the number of the redeemed.

Today we look at church growth/numbers with one of three responses: (a) “See how big we are! God is certainly blessing us! Come be with us!” (b) “Hey, that church over there is growing and we are not. Let’s do what they are doing so we can grow too!” or (c) “The fact that we are not growing is just proof that we are really the ‘righteous remnant,’ because everyone knows that ‘the way to life is hard and the gate is narrow, and few there are that find it.'”

Moses told the Israelites, “Don’t look at the numbers, whether they are big or small. God promised Abraham to make his descendants innumerable, and they will be. Let God fulfill his promise in his good time. Meanwhile, do not think you are special because you are many or few, but recognize your relationship with God because he loves you” (Okay, I paraphrased just a little.)

It is tempting to boast of our numbers when we are growing, or are the biggest. It is tempting to even boast when we are few in number because we are more spiritual than the masses (more on that in installment #3). Moses, and certainly Jesus many centuries later, forbade the practice of boasting of any size of numbers entirely.

We are who we are by the love of God exclusively. Let us revel in his love, not in our numbers.