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The One Who Bears God’s Wrath
Jesus died for our sins. As Christians we know this. We repeat this truth to each other each time we partake of our communion and Eucharist elements. We fix large crosses to our buildings to remind us of this central truth. But it’s in fixing our hearts and minds on this truth that sets the heart free.
More happened on the cross than merely the physical pain and the utter social humiliation.
One man, who stood near Jesus’ cross, watching each painful breath, wrote, “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). These are the words of John, the beloved disciple.
What does John mean by “propitiation”? This was a technical term used in both Jewish and pagan circles which refers to appeasing a god, turning away the wrath and anger of a god, and thus winning that god’s good will. Jesus literally bore God’s wrath for us.
Paul reflects this thought when he says that “he made him to be sin” for our sake (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath of His Holy Father, because placed upon Him were the sins of the people.
Peter, another eyewitness of Jesus’ sufferings, said it this way, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:22-24). In a clear allusion to the famous prophecy in Isaiah 53, Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in His body. He died in our place.
Each time we contemplate the death of Jesus, each time we see the blood and the sweat, the iron nails, the crown of thorns, His twisted and writhing body, we are meant to hear the still small voice of God saying, “Now you know how your sin looks to me.”
This is what John Calvin meant when he said, “When we behold the disfigurement of the Son of God, when we find ourselves appalled by His marred appearance, we need to reckon afresh that it is upon ourselves we gaze, for He stood in our place.”
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God of Wrath, God of Love
Often our privately held views of God emphasize either His wrath or His love, usually emphasizing one at the expense of the other.
Some see the cross as a story of Father vs. Son. The Father would rather smite us and wipe us off the planet, but the benevolent Son asks the Father to bear our guilt and shame. The Father reluctantly agrees. Because of Jesus the Father hesitantly adopts into His family, but behind it all is a Father still seething with anger for our sin. Jesus stands before His Father continually showing His wounds: “But wait! Don’t hurt ‘em Dad. Remember what I did.”
Some see the cross as a story of a Judge whose hands are tied by a legal standard. God, in His love, would be delighted to forgive us of our sin, but there is the problem of us being sinners and offending a moral code. He would forget it all if He could, but He is bound to uphold the justice the law demands. He sends Jesus who lovingly agrees to bear our guilt, so now we can stand before God unashamed.
Both of these pictures are deficient. The first depicts a schism in the Trinity that tries to reconcile two conflicting images of God in our minds: A God who is truly angered by our sin and a God who loves us and calls us into His family. Pitting Father against Son is not the answer to this supposed conflict. Rather, it was the Father who ordained the Son’s mission to go to the cross.
The second picture depicts God as personally not offended by our sin but rather upholding a law that is external to Him, outside of His design. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s wrath against sin is an extension of His holiness and justice. Our sins are a personal affront to Him. His law is an extension of His holy perfection. God is not a reluctant judge: His eyes are fire, He sees to the core of our being, and He is offended by the sin He sees.
God is always greater than even our most orthodox theologies speak about. He is the great I Am. His divine character, full of mercy and wrath, kindness and justice, tenderness and blinding glory, are always in perfect harmony no matter how paradoxical He seems to us.
In the cross we find a historical demonstration of His glorious character. In the light of the cross we are brought face to face with the ugliness of our sin and how it truly appears to a holy God. Our sin is not merely “I’m giving into temptation,” or “I’m struggling with my thoughts,” or “I need to re-prioritize my life.” Sin is ugly. Sin is offensive. Sin is rebellion. God hates it.
In the light of the cross we are also brought face to face with the amazing nature of grace. God does not merely tell us that He loves us, He demonstrates His love toward us. His love is heard in the plea from Christ’s lips from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” His love is seen in Jesus’ willingness to give up everything for His sheep.
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Abiding In His Wounds
“We have discovered that the cross accomplishes more than revealing the love of God. The blood of the Lamb points to the truth of grace: what we cannot do for ourselves, God has done for us. On the cross, somehow, someway, Christ bore our sins, took our place, and died for us. At the cross, Jesus unmasks the sinner not only as a beggar but as a criminal before God. Jesus Christ bore our sins and bore them away. We cannot wash away the stain of our sins, but He is the Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world. The sinner saved by grace is haunted by Calvary, by the cross, and especially by the question, Why did He die?” (Brennan Manning)
Picture Jesus walking from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane. His arrest is immanent. He is less than 24 hours away from having nails pierce his wrists. He is walking by the olive groves growing near the garden and says these words, “I am the true vine. My Father is the vinedresser. . . . Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).
The disciples knew well what was involved in grafting a new branch on to a vine. For the life-giving sap to enter the new branch, the vine would need to be pierced, and an incision needed be made. The new branch would be fed into that wound and the two, vine and branch, would grow together as one.
To abide in Christ we need to abide near His wounds, for it was there that a place was made for us; that is the point of our connection to Him. There we find the clearest demonstration of God’s hatred of our sin. There we will learn to hate our sin as well. There we also find the clearest demonstration of God’s love. There we will learn to rely on His love and never feel the weight of condemnation again.
CORRECTION: Propitiation never was and is not a technical term used in Jewish circles.
Thanks for the comment, Brett. By “technical” term I mean that it is a specialized term, having specific priestly implications. The word in Greek, ἱλασμός, is used in a variety of ancient documents, including the Septuagint, where the Jewish translators use it to translate the Hebrew term kippurim (the plural form of kippur). When I said that it was a Jewish term, I simply meant that it was used by Jewish people to describe the theological facets of their sacrifices and offerings (evidenced by the fact that many second-temple Jews did use the term, not at least the New Testament authors who mostly come from Jewish backgrounds).
Hi Luke, thanks for taking the time to write back. You are talking about a Greek translation of the Torah. It doesn’t matter if it was translated by Jews, pious or not, by force or not. If it’s not in the native language it loses all of its meaning. The meaning and means of Kippurim/Atonment varies immensely among religions especially Christianity and Judaism. Same for the word “sin”…very different meanings. The true reason why I wrote was because I felt a bit slighted by your grouping together Jewish and pagan circles and writing “a god” and “that god” in reference. Saving only the upper case spelling for your view of God. I think every religion has a right to connect with their loving God in their own way and should be respected for it. Let’s not pretend to limit God omnipotence by using caps or lower case in an effort to differentiate monotheistic religions. God Bless You. Brett
Thanks for your thoughts. I apologize if I was unclear. Certainly the concept of θεῖος, “divinity” or “divine nature” has been applied to a number of supernatural beings. First century Jews, including Jesus, could refer to the one they worshiped as “God” without a qualifier (like my god or the god) because they were implying the idea that Israel’s deity is God Most High, as Abraham called him; the only deity worthy of worship.
If “God” sounds exclusivist, it is. I make it my aim to only worship the Lord of Israel and believe that He is the only deity worthy of worship. This is not to say that people in other religions have no “right” to connect to their deity (or deities). We most certainly have that right and I completely agree that this right is to be respected. Various religions even have the right to capitalize “God” when they refer to the one they worship as supreme, and we may not be surprised to see them to do so out of a desire to differentiate the one they worship from other known deities. This is a right that Christians hold as well.
I hope I’m replying the heart of your statement. If you felt slighted because you felt that I was disrespecting the right others have to call their deities “God,” then that was not my intention. I apologize if I was unclear. But if you felt my language implied that I was speaking about other deities as inferior to the father of Jesus, then you are right. I accept that others may find this offensive, but if I am convinced that Jesus prophetically revealed his father as the true deity, the only one worthy of my worship, I would hate to offend him by implying that other deities are equally worthy. I wouldn’t dogmatically capitalize “God” to make a point or unnecessarily offend others, but I do as a matter of respect to him.
I think we’ll need to respectfully disagree on some of these points. I do not agree that translation means a loss of all meaning. That would imply that communication across languages is impossible. While some meaning can and is lost in translation, this does not therefore mean that translations equate to gibberish. No, meaning can be retained, especially when we consider that most of the Jewish people who followed Jesus in the first century were bilingual (meaning they could “think” in one language while communicating in another).
Back on the main point, I was talking about “propitiation” because I was trying to explain what the apostle John meant when he was talking about the death of Jesus. Few scholars who are fluent in both Greek and Hebrew would disagree about what John means (they may disagree with John’s thoughts or theology, but they are not likely to misunderstand John’s meaning). For those who believe John’s words, this has profound meaning for their life.