3-3 Constrained by the Love of Christ
The love of Christ in the cross is to have a continual inspiration upon us- endless love, countless moments of re-inspiration, are to come to us daily because of the cross. This is how central it is to daily life. We are to love each in on ongoing way, as Christ loved us in His death in that once-off act (Jn. 15:12,17). The combination of the present and aorist tenses of agapan [‘to love’] in these verses proves the point. Thus our obedience to Christ in loving each other is exemplified by the obedience of Christ (Jn. 15:10). Quite simply, something done 2000 years ago really does affect us now. There is a powerful link across the centuries, from the darkness of the cross to the lives we live today in the 21st century. “By his knowledge", by knowing Christ as He was there, we are made righteous (Is. 53:11). As Israel stood before Moses, they promised: “All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do". When Moses then sprinkled the blood of the covenant upon them- and this incident is quoted in Hebrews as prophetic of the Lord’s blood- they said the same but more strongly: “All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do and be obedient" (Ex. 24:3,7). It was as if their connection with the blood inspired obedience. Likewise the communication of God’s requirements was made from over the blood sprinkled mercy seat (Ex. 25:22)- another foretaste of the blood of Christ. Quite simply, we can’t face the cross of Christ and not feel impelled towards obedience to that which God asks of us.
The image of soldiers in their time of dying has often been used afterwards as a motivation for a nation: “Earn this" is the message their faces give. And it is no more true than in the death of the Lord. “The love of Christ", an idea elsewhere used of His death (Jn. 13:1; 2 Cor. 5:14,15; Rom. 8:32,34,35; Eph. 5:2,25; Gal. 2:20; Rev. 1:5 cp. 1 Jn. 4:10), constrains us; it doesn’t force us, but rather shuts us up unto one way, as in a narrow, walled path. We cannot sit passively before the cross of the Lord. That “love of Christ" there passes our human knowledge, and yet our hearts can be opened, as Paul prayed, that we might know the length, breadth and height of it. The crucified Son of God was the full representation of God. The love of Christ was shown in His cross; and through the Spirit's enlightenment we can know the height, length, breadth of that love (Eph. 3:18,19). But this passage in Ephesians is building on Job 11:7-9: " Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is high as heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea" . The purpose of the connection is to show that through appreciating the love of Christ, unknowable to the unenlightened mind, we see the Almighty unto perfection, in a way which the Old Testament believers were unable to do. It was as high as Heaven, and what could they do? And yet it must be confessed that we do not in practice attain to such fullness of knowledge and vision. We look to the Kingdom, one of the excellencies of which will be the full grasp of the Almighty unto perfection, as manifest in the death of His Son. All we now know is that that cross was the fullness of God, it was " the Almighty unto perfection" . But then, we shall know, we shall find it out. And yet, paradoxically, in some sense even now we can know “the love of Christ" [a phrase often used about the cross] that passes human knowledge. Speaking of His upcoming death, the Lord warned that where he was going, the disciples could not then follow; but they would, afterwards. This doesn’t necessarily mean they too were to die the death of the cross. Rather could it mean that they later would enter into what His death really meant; then they would see with some understanding, rather than run away from the vision of the cross. And for us, one of the Kingdom’s riches will likewise be that we shall then understand that final climactic act the more fully. Yet we begin that discovery now.
Nothing, whatever, can separate us from the love of Christ towards us in His death (Rom. 8:35). His cross is therefore the constant rallying point of our faith, in whatever difficulty we live through. The resolve and strength we so need in our spiritual path can come only through a personal contemplation of the cross. Do we seek strength to endure unjust treatment and the grace to submit cheerfully to the loss of what we feel is rightfully ours? Be it discrimination in the workplace, persecution from the Government, perceived abuse or degradation by our partner or family...? Let the cross be our endless inspiration: “For it is better, if the will of Go be so [a reference to the Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane being our struggle], that ye suffer for well doing...for Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" (1 Pet. 3:17,18). Remember how under persecution, the faithful love not their lives unto death because of their experience of the blood of the lamb shed for them (Rev. 12:11).
Or do we live in the loneliness of old age or serious illness, fearing death and the uncertainty of our brief future? Again, the cross of Jesus is our rallying point. “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him" (1 Thess. 5:8-10). Because we are in Christ, His death was not an isolated historical event. We also are weak with Him (2 Cor. 13:4 RV), such is the identity between us and Him. When Paul reflected upon his own sickness [which the RVmg. calls his stake / cross in the flesh], he could say in all sober truth that he gloried in his weakness, because his identity with the weakness of Christ crucified also thereby identified him with the strength and power of the risen Lord (2 Cor. 11:9).
Do we feel that life is just pointless, an endless round of childcare, working all day doing in essence the same job for 30 years, a trudging through an endless tunnel until our mortality catches up on us? We were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ from the “vain way of life handed down from the fathers" (1 Pet. 1:18), from the frustration of this present life . The word used for “vain" is that used by the LXX for the ‘vanity’ of life as described in Ecclesiastes, and for idol worship in Lev. 17:7 and Jer. 8:19. We have been redeemed from it all! Not for us the life of endlessly chasing the rainbow’s end, slavishly worshipping the idols of ever bigger homes, smarter technology...we were redeemed from the vanity of life “under the sun" by the precious blood of Christ. We were bought out of this slavery, even if in the flesh we go through its motions. Knowing this, we the redeemed, the bought out from vanity, shouldn’t spend our hours in front of the television or doing endless crosswords, or frittering away the time of life as the world does. James foresaw that a man could appear to be religious, and yet have a religion that was “vain" (James 1:26)- because he didn’t appreciate that the cross has bought him out of vanity. His death was so that He might deliver us from this present evil world (Gal. 1:4); because of the Lord’s crucifixion, Paul saw himself as crucified unto the world, and the world unto him (Gal. 6:14). The Lord Jesus looked out across the no man’s land between the stake and the crowd; He faced the world which crucified Him. We simply cannot side with them. To not separate from them is to make the cross in vain for us; for He died to deliver us out of this present world. The pull of the world is insidious; and only sober reflection upon the cross will finally deliver us from it. It’s a terrifying thought, that we can make the power of the cross invalid. It really is so, for Paul warned that preaching the Gospel with wisdom of words would make “the cross of Christ...of none effect" (1 Cor. 1:17). The effect of the cross, the power of it to save, is limited in its extent by our manner of preaching of it. And we can make “Christ", i.e. His cross, of “none effect" by trusting to our works rather than accepting the gracious salvation which He achieved (Gal. 5:4).
Do we feel simply not appreciated? As a hassled and harried mother, as a hard working dad who toils to provide for the family he rarely sees, as the person who feels their ideas and abilities are always trashed…? The tragedy of the Lord’s death was that when He died, there was nobody to recount His life, as there usually was at a funeral (Is. 53:8 RVmg.). The greatest life that was ever lived was so misunderstood and unappreciated and hated and hurriedly buried, that there was nobody even to give Him an appreciative funeral speech. In our struggle to feel appreciated, we share both His and His Father’s sufferings and pain. The cross was the ultimate example of a Man being misjudged and misunderstood and condemned unjustly. When we feel like that, and the nature of our high speed, superficially judging society means that it seems to happen more in this generation than any other [and with deeper consequences]… then we know we are sharing the sufferings of the Lord.
Are we just caught up in our daily work, slave to the corporations who employ us? 1 Cor. 7:23 begs us not to become the slaves of men, because Christ bought us with His blood. Young people especially need to be influenced by this as they chose their career path and employers. Through the cross of Christ, the world is crucified to us (Gal. 6:14 RV).
Do we struggle to live the life of true love, to endure people, even our brethren; are we simply tired of people, and living the life of love towards them? Does the past exist within us as a constant fountain of bitterness and regret? “Let all bitterness, and wrath and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake [the sake of His cross] hath forgiven you...walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us" (Eph. 4:31-5:2). His cross affects our whole life, our deepest thought and action, to the extent that we can say with Paul, in the silence of our own deepest and most personal reflection: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
Do we find a true unity with our brethren impossible? He died that He might gather together into one all God’s children (Jn. 11:52). Before His cross, before serious and extended personal meditation upon it, all our personal differences will disappear. A divided ecclesia is therefore one which is not centred upon the cross. Whether or not we must live our ecclesial experience in such a context, the barriers which exist within us personally really can be brought down by the humbling experience of the cross, and the way in which we are forced to see how that death was not only for us personally. The wonder of it was and is in its universal and so widely-inclusive nature.
Is humility almost impossible for us, lifted up as we may be by our own sense of worth and achievement? Is a true service of all our brethren almost impossible for us to contemplate? Consider Mt. 20:26-28: “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister...your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many". This is our pattern- to give out, with no expectation of appreciation or response. And the cross of Christ alone can inspire us in this.
Do we struggle with some secret vice, in the grip of habitual sin? The cross convicts of sin, for we are impelled by it to follow Christ in going forth “without the camp" (Heb. 13:13), following the path of the leper who had to go forth without the camp (Lev. 13:46). He “his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we might die to sin [Gk.] and live to righteousness" (1 Pet. 2:24). He died for our sins, there all our weakness met their death in His death- so close was the association between Him and our sins. Our response to that is to put those sins to death in our bodies, as He put them to death in His on the tree. Speaking of the cross, the Lord said that for our sakes He sanctified Himself [as a priest making an offering], that we might be sanctified in truth (Jn. 17:19). Quite simply, if we behold and believe the cross, we will respond. He mused that if He didn’t allow Himself to fall to the ground and die, no fruit could be brought forth (Jn. 12:24). The fact He did means that we will bring forth fruit. It could be that the reference in Jn. 7 to the Holy Spirit being given at the Lord’s death (His ‘glory’), as symbolized by the water flowing from His side, means that due to the cross we have the inspiration to a holy, spiritual way of life. It is not so that His death released some mystical influence which would change men and women whether or not they will it; rather is it that His example there inspires those who are open to it. We have been reconciled to God through the cross of Jesus, and yet therefore we must be reconciled to God, and take the message of reconciliation to others. What has been achieved there in prospect we have to make real for us, by appropriating it to ourselves in repentance, baptism and a life of ongoing repentance (2 Cor. 5:18-20 cp. Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:14,15).
Perhaps we feel that our preaching somehow lacks a sense of power and compulsion of others. Try explicitly telling them about the cross. The apostles recounted the fact of the cross and on this basis appealed for people to be baptized into that death and resurrection. There is an impelling power, an imperative, in the wonder and shame of it all. Joseph saw the Lord’s dead body and was compelled to offer for that body to be laid where his dead body should have laid. In essence, he lived out the message of baptism. He wanted to identify his body with that of the Lord. He realized that the man Christ Jesus was truly his representative. And so he wanted to identify with Him. And properly presented, this will be the power of response to the preaching of the cross today. “Through one act of righteousness [the cross] the free gift came unto all men to justification of life" (Rom. 5:18)- yet “all men" only receive that justification if they hear this good news and believe it. This is why we must take the Gospel “unto all men" (surely an allusion to the great commission)- so that, in that sense, the wondrous cross of Christ will have been the more ‘worthwhile’. Through our preaching, yet more of those “all men" who were potentially enabled to live for ever will indeed do so. This is why the Acts record so frequently connects the preaching of the cross with men’s belief. Negatively, men do not believe if they reject the “report" of the crucifixion (Jn. 12:38,39).
Do we struggle to be truly generous to the Lord’s cause, and to turn our words an vague feelings of commitment into action? Corinth too were talkers, boasting of their plans to give material support to the poor brethren in Jerusalem, but doing nothing concrete. Paul sought to shake them into action by reminding them of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor" on the cross (2 Cor. 8:9). Corinth had few wealthy members, but Paul knew that the cross of Christ would inspire in them a generous spirit to those even poorer than they. The richer should be made poor by what the Lord did, Paul is saying- not harmlessly giving of their pocket money. For He gave in ways that hurt Him, ways that were real, meaningful and thereby effective and powerful.
Do we struggle with the ultimate fairness of God? For all we have written about the problem of suffering, it seems to me that no intellectual answer is enough when one personally experiences real tragedy. The sending of Jesus to die in the way that He did was surely one form of God’s response to it. In the death of the cross, God showed His entering into our suffering and sense of loss and hurt.
Do we fear that we lack a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus? Do we read of Him, but rarely if ever feel Him? Reflection upon His cross should elicit in us an up welling of pure gratitude towards Him, an awkwardness as we realize that this Man loved us more than we love Him...and yet within our sense of debt to Him, of ineffable, unpayable debt, of real debt, a debt infinite and never to be forgotten, we will have the basis for personal response to Him as a person, to a knowing of Him and a loving of Him, and a serving of Him in response. If we feel and know this, we cannot but preach the cross of Christ.
But do we feel ashamed that we just don’t witness as we ought to? There is no doubt that the cross and baptism into that death was central to the preaching message of the early brethren. Knowing it, believing it, meant that it just had to be preached. The completeness and reality of the redemption achieved is expressed in Hebrews with a sense of finality, and we ought not to let that slip from our presentation of the Gospel either. There in the cross, the justice and mercy of God are brought together in the ultimate way. There in the cross is the appeal. Paul spoke of “the preaching of the cross", the word / message which is the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). Some of the early missionaries reported how they could never get any response to their message until they explained the cross; and so, with our true doctrinal understanding of it, it is my belief that the cross is what has the power of conversion. A man cannot face it and not have a deep impression of the absoluteness of the issues involved in faith and unbelief, in choosing to accept or reject the work of the struggling, sweating, gasping Man who hung on the stake. It truly is a question of believe or perish. Baptism into that death and resurrection is essential for salvation. Of course we must not bully or intimidate people into faith, but on the other hand, a preaching of the cross cannot help but have something compulsive and urgent and passionate about it. For we appeal to men on God’s behalf to accept the work of the cross as efficacious for them. I submit that much of our preaching somehow fails in urgency and entreaty. We seem to be in places too expository, or too attractive with the peripherals, seeking to please men...or be offering good advice, very good advice indeed, background Bible knowledge, how to read the Bible effectively....all of which may be all well and good, but we should be preaching good news, not good advice. The message of the cross is of a grace and real salvation which is almost too good to believe. It isn’t Bible background or archaeology or Russia invading Israel. It is the Man who had our nature hanging there perfect, full of love, a light in this dark world....and as far as we perceive the wonder of it all, as far as this breaks in upon us, so far we will hold it forth to this world. The Lord wasn’t preaching good ideas; He was preaching good news. The cross means that we have a faith to live by all our days; not just a faith to die by, a comfort in our time of dying, as we face the endgame.
The cross alone can shake people out of their indifference, and force them to make some election in this world, instead of sliding dully forward as in a dream. Life is a business we are all apt to mismanage; either living recklessly from day to day, or suffering ourselves to be gulled out of our moments by the inanities of custom. There is something stupefying in the recurrence of unimportant things. And it is only through the provocations of the Lord and His cross that we are lead to take an outlook beyond daily concerns, and comprehend the narrow limits, and great possibilities of our existence. It is the power of the Lord and His cross to induce such moments of clear insight. He, there, is the declared enemy of all living by reflex action. He, there, can electrify His readers and viewers into an instant unflagging activity of service. Those who ignore the challenge of the cross turn to their “own way" (Is. 53:6)- the Hebrew means a custom, habitual way of life. This is what stops us responding to the radical challenge of the cross- our basic conservatism, our love of what we know and are used to. Yet the cross can shake us from this.
Do we feel that our conscience is so dysfunctional and our heart so hardened in some places that nothing much can touch us and motivate us like it used to? The cross can touch and transform the hardest and most damaged heart. Apart from many real life examples around of this, consider the Biblical case of Pilate. Jewish and Roman historians paint a very different picture of Pilate than what we see in the Biblical record. Philo describes him as “ruthless, stubborn and of cruel disposition", famed for “frequent executions without trial" (1). Josephus speaks of him as totally despising the Jews, stealing money from the temple treasury and brutally suppressing unruly crowds(2). Why then does he come over in the Gospels as a man desperately struggling with his conscience, to the extent that the Jewish crowds manipulate him to order the crucifixion of a man whom he genuinely believed to be innocent? Surely because the person of the Lord Jesus and the awfulness of putting the Son of God to death touched a conscience which appeared not to even exist. If the whole drama of the death of Jesus could touch the conscience and personality of even Pilate, it can touch each of us. Just compare the words of Philo and Josephus with how Mark records that Pilate was “amazed" at the self-control of Jesus under trial (Mk. 15:5); how he almost pleads with his Jewish subjects for justice to be done: “Why, what evil has he done?" (Mk. 15:14). Compare this with how Philo speaks of Pilate as a man of “inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition", famous for “abusive behaviour… and endless savage ferocity"(3). Mt. 27:25 describes how Pilate washes his hands, alluding to the Jewish rite based in Deuteronomy, to declare that he is innocent of the blood of a just man. But Josephus records how Pilate totally despised Jewish religious customs and sensibilities, and appeared to love to commit sacrilege against Jewish things. And in Luke’s record, Pilate is recorded as pronouncing Jesus innocent no less than three times. I so admire the way the Lord attempted even as He faced death in the face, to appeal to Pilate's conscience. I'd paraphrase Mk. 15:2 like this: 'Pilate: 'You are King of Israel?'. Jesus: 'You're saying it''. Why did the Lord put it like that? Surely because He knew that Pilate, in his conscience, did actually know that Jesus was King of Israel, and the very words [in the original] 'You are King of Israel' came out of his lips, as a kind of psychological slip. This small incident not only indciates how the suffering Jesus could touch even Pilate's conscience; but that the Lord was eagerly seeking the response of men, even the toughest and unspiritual, right to His very end. And He is the same today. May our feeble responses give Him pleasure and glory.
Do we feel so hurt by others that we find forgiveness impossible, sensing an ever-encroaching bitterness always getting closer to gripping our whole lives? All around this sad world, there seems an endless round of revenge being danced out. The knock someone receives is paid back by them on someone else, and often this ends up in another person being made a scapegoat, someone incapable of defending themselves, who must take all the knocks when they can’t pay them back. People subconsciously are obeying a compelling law- to get even. To pay back the hard words the postman gave you with hard words to the girl in the supermarket, and then to scapegoat [say] a child at church for messing up the church service… But the point is, the Lord Jesus is set up as the one and only scapegoat for human sin. On the cross He was the ultimate One who took all the knocks without paying back. For those who truly believe this to the point of feeling it deep within them, they are freed from the law of revenge- and thus they become free to live life spontaneously, for fun, to not be ashamed of fulfilling life’s natural needs. The cycle of revenge and paying back has to be resolved in sacrifice- many societies have shown that. I was a few times in far northern Russia, and it was fascinating to hear the traditions of the Chukchi people. In the past, they say, when a big crime was committed and the criminal convicted, an innocent person had to be sacrificed. The study of primitive societies reveals this basic human need for a scapegoat. There was a psychological value to the Mosaic rite of the scapegoat (Lev. 16:10). All the sins, all the grudges that called for revenge, were to be placed upon that animal, and it was released into the desert. They could watch it scampering away into the bush. This is how we are to understand the placing of human sin- yes, the sins committed against you this day by others- upon the Lord as He hung on the cross. And we must remember that “Vengeance is mine [not ours, not the state’s], and requital" (Dt. 32:35). That taking of vengeance, that requital, was worked out by God on the cross. There the Lord Jesus was clothed with the ‘garments of vengeance’ (Is. 59:17); the day of the crucifixion was “the day of vengeance" (Is. 63:4). This is one reason why God doesn’t operate a tit-for-tat requital of our sins upon our heads- because He dealt with sin and His vengeance for it in the cross, not by any other way. Hence David calls Yahweh the “God of revenge", the one alone to whom vengeance belongs (Ps. 94:1,3). Our response to all this is to believe that truly vengeance is God and therefore we will not avenge ourselves (Rom. 12:19). I take this to apply to all the micro-level ‘takings of vengeance’ which we so easily do in our words, body language, attitudes etc., in response to the hurt received from others. The cross alone enables us to break the cycle.
Finally, and, I think, most relevantly. Do we, as men and women all too taken up with our lives, raising families, earning money, caught up with being speaking brethren, Arranging Brothers... lost in the absorption of our daily work, as computer programmers, drivers, factory workers, housewives, business executives...do we in our heart of hearts feel that we just don’t have the faith to believe that truly we are forgiven, and will be saved? I know I am talking to the heart of every reader here. Are we like that? I am, and I suspect most of us are. Not that this makes me feel any better about my own inadequacy of faith. Again, let the cross of Christ be our inspiration. For there, “when we were yet without strength, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly". He gave His life there, in the way that He gave it, without any consideration for our personal merits. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us". The Lord gave His all for us, the totally unworthy. And with abounding and matchless logic, Paul continues: “Much more then, being now justified by his blood [i.e. no longer being so worthless and undeserving, but counted as so much better through the atonement He achieved], we shall be saved from wrath through him". In this knowledge we can truly have as an helmet the hope of sure salvation. If God gave His Son, and so gave His Son, how much more shall He not with Him freely give us all things?
The knowledge and experience of the love of Christ is the end result of all our Bible searching. There’s a well known story about the great theologian Karl Barth, who probably penned more words of theology than any other writer in the 20th century. Towards the end of his life, he gave a lecture and invited questions. He was asked something to the effect: ‘After a lifetime of theological study, what’s your single greatest theological insight?’. After a pause he replied, to a hushed audience: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’. To know that love of Christ, with the full assurance of salvation which it involves, is the end result of all our questioning, our study, our Bible searching, our hunting through concordances, listening to talks, reading studies.
(1) Philo, Embassy to Gaius 301-2, Loeb edition, vol. 10, translated by F.H. Colson (London: Heinemann, 1962).
(2) Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.63, Loeb edition, Vol. 9, translated by L. H. Feldman (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1965).
(3) The whole issue of the differences between the Gospel accounts of Pilate at the trial of Jesus and the historical reality are discussed well in James M. Robinson, The Problem Of History In Mark (London: SCM, 1957) and T.J. Weeden, Mark: Traditions In Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).