Today is the third day of Holy Week. Around the world, Christians are journeying again through the events of Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to his triumphant vindication as the King over all in his resurrection. But the event that holds the greatest prominence in the conscious and liturgy of the Church is the crucifixion. It is the cross that is most likely to come to mind when considering Holy Week—so much so that this week is also called Passion Week, identifying this week with Christ’s suffering. It is the cross that is the prevailing theme our hymnody. And it is the cross that has become the universal symbol for Christianity. This isn’t to downplay the resurrection. The New Testament makes it very clear that without the resurrection, the cross is, in the end, quite meaningless (1 Corinthians 15.17). It is to simply point out that we tend to set our focus on the cross. Yet for all the attention given the cross, I’m not sure we know exactly what to make of it.
It is strange. The cross was the means of Jesus’ death. Jesus is the eternal Son of God. We know that God, being eternal, cannot die. But Jesus did die. What makes sense of this? Typically, we make sense of the cross by leaning on Paul’s words in Philippians: “Though (Christ Jesus) was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2.6-7). Jesus, being God, couldn’t die, so he had to strip himself of his imperishable body that could not die and clothe himself in a perishable body that could die (1 Corinthians 15.53). This is all true and marvelous. That the eternal Son of God would forfeit and forgo his divine rights as God for the sake of undeserving sinful men is indeed worthy of our praise-filled attention and awe-inspired worship! But Jesus’ forfeiting his divine rights in order to take on flesh that could be nailed to a cross is not the same as his forfeiting his divine nature to do so. And I think we often confuse the latter for the former. This may seem unnecessarily theological, but if we fail to make the distinction correctly, we will end up missing the most glorious wonder of Jesus’ cross.
It is his willingness to take on human flesh and go to the cross that most clearly shows us the nature of God because God is love.
At the risk of offering an analogy that will quickly fall apart, consider this: I am a father to three children who are all three years old and younger. I am also a reasonably well-educated adult whose vocabulary and knowledge and subject interests far outreach my children’s. There is nothing inherently wrong that. In a real sense, I have a right to that vocabulary and knowledge and those interests. But my children could never know me if I tried to be a father to them by discussing the validity of atonement theories or the eternal subordination of the Son. My children’s ability to know me is limited to what they know and enjoy. So I get on the floor and have picnics and laugh at toddler-made jokes and read books about monkeys jumping on a bed. But just because I have forfeited my rights in order to make myself known to my children doesn’t mean I have forfeited my nature as their father. It is actually in forfeiting my rights that my children most clearly see that I am their father. In fact, my nature as their father will be veiled to my children unless I forfeit my rights. And this is where the analogy breaks down, but the amazing truth of God begins.
It is only in Jesus’ forfeiting his rights as God that we most clearly see the nature of God.
I am a sinful father, so I can (and often do) chose not to forfeit my rights and leave my nature as father beyond the grasp of my children. I can pass my days reading overly-footnoted books and speaking only in biblical Greek (I actually can’t do that), but my children would never know me. Or they would know me as a very poor father. But God is not a poor or sinful father. He is good and perfect. Even more so, God is love (1 John 4.8). His very nature is love. This is the wonder we are in danger of missing if we fail to distinguish between Jesus forfeiting his rights as God and forfeiting his nature of God. If we look at the cross of Jesus and see some hollowed out version of God, we’ve missed it. If we think that Jesus had to forfeit one ounce of his deity on the cross, we’ve missed it. Not only does this contradict basic orthodoxy that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, it looks blindly at the most amazing fact of all. It is his willingness to take on human flesh and go to the cross that most clearly shows us the nature of God because God is love—always giving of himself from before creation in the glad and happy fellowship of the Trinity and in the creation of the cosmos for the life and enjoyment of his image bearers and on the cross for the rescue and redemption of his church and in all eternity for the unending happiness of those who are in Christ. It is in gazing upon the humiliation of Jesus that a clear view of God is exalted before our eyes. But only if we have eyes to see. The infinite wonder of this paradox is veiled to us. Jesus was mocked by his executioners because they couldn’t conceive of a crucified king (Matthew 27.29). The cross was the shame of Jesus’ earliest followers who all deserted him but a band of 120 (Acts 1.15). Yet in his grace, though we are ignorant toddlers and he the infinitely wise Sovereign of the cosmos, God has desired to make himself known to us as Father. And the only way we could know and enjoy his loving nature as Father was for him to send his Son to take on flesh and suffer and die and on the third day be raised before ascending back to heaven and sending the Spirit.
No scene so clearly testifies to the nature of God as the cross of Jesus. It is there God’s nature as love radiates as a thousand burning suns.
“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1.18). And no scene so clearly testifies to the nature of God as the cross of Jesus. It is there God’s nature as love radiates as a thousand burning suns. “By this we know love,” John says, “that he laid down his life” (1 John 3.16). Because God is love, it is equally true that by this we know God, that Jesus laid down his life. It is only in Jesus’ forfeiting his rights as God that we most clearly see the nature of God. This is the wonder of the cross. Behold, your God!
(Footnote: It would make sense then that John would continue to say, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3.16). As those who have come to know God in the death of Jesus, we are now called by God to demonstrate his love to others. In the words of Jesus himself, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35). It is in this way, in loving one another, even to the point of giving up our lives (John 15.13), that the world will see God in us.)