Friday, April 10, 2009

The Cross and Man's Fallenness--

Listen to audio message: Christ's Trial, Crucifixion, and Resurrection

Bound and finite we are helpless in this puddle of muck without a savior…

It is really easy to forget that the cross, regardless of the fact that it has become a religious decoration, was a hideous instrument of torture and death reserved only for the lowest of criminals and reprobates. Roman citizens, if they should be found guilty in a trial of an offense deserving death, were actually exempted from capital punishment of such a cruel and hideous nature as dying on a cross like Jesus did. It should make one who believes in redemption actually shudder that this was actually the punishment needed to pay the penalty for our sins. Those who find forgiveness at the foot of it need revelation of just how dark the human condition is that such punishment, pain, torture and agony was necessary to bring forth redemption.

Many scenes in the redemptive narrative of Christ’s going to the cross are fraught with commentary on man’s hideous fallenness and absolutely sinful state, something all too easily overlooked in the Zeitgeist of “live your best life now,” saccharin-laced, shallow, pop religiosity these days.

At the heart of this redemptive story we see Jesus, One who had done nothing other than heal those suffering from terrible diseases, care for the outcast and downtrodden, and oh yes! clearly point out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, being marched up to a show trial, all while being beaten, mocked, and degraded.

Standing before Pilate—a man who was governor in one of the greatest and most advanced ancient civilizations the world had ever seen, with a system of justice that put all others before it to shame—we see the human enigma and dilemma revealed: Humankind at one of the zenith’s of its very existence meets the very embodiment of truth and love in Christ, and yet man in his bondage can do no other than demonstrate his corrupt, brutal, and wicked bondage to sin by crucifying this One who had done no wrong, committed no sin, condemning Him to the most unthinkable and hideous death imaginable.

In this moment we see that man in all his God-given capacity to build, construct, govern and exist is still yet completely and utterly incapable of doing what is right. Weighed down and bound to sin he carries out evil even at the best and highest of circumstances in his existence.

The Roman Empire was the high point of man’s existence during ancient times, with a road and travel system that could take one anywhere from Britain to Cairo to Mesopotamia reaching far and wide throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, and parts of Africa and Asia. All roads did in fact lead to Rome eventually.

Furthermore, they had an international monetary system that worked all throughout the empire, where with one currency, the Roman denarius, people could buy and sell goods, a feat unequaled throughout history and one it seems many are bent on duplicating. They boasted a truly international language given by the Greeks before them that was the veritable lingua franca of the world. Greek was spoken everywhere, and along with Greek culture and philosophy it had spread abroad, fulfilling the vision of Alexander the Great before them; as a matter of fact, the New Testament came to be written in Greek.

Cities had fresh spring water flowing to them thanks to the elaborate and ingenious system of aqueducts that the Romans had built and homes even had central heating systems constructed to carry heated water under the floors to each room. These particular achievements were not even matched again in history until the latter 1800’s in the developed world, and still are not matched today in much of the two-thirds developing world; it doesn’t take long to think of the many places in the world that don’t even have a decent drinking water system.

Here are some of the greatest achievements of ancient human history viewed from the time when the Roman Empire was itself at its very height, at its greatest pinnacle, having ushered in a time of peace throughout the known world, which came to be known as the Pax Romana, that is still the envy of all history. Yet here at the same time we find the perplexing dilemma of man with all his achievements at hand, unable even for a moment to extricate himself from the very evil that he is bound to, sinking constantly as he always does, back down the shafts into the corridors of hell from where the chains that hold him spring.

Created in God’s image yet so marred and bound by sin, the image of the Creator is unrecognizable. When the very Creator appears before him, he descends back into his darkness with the dark prince who bids him on towards more evil. At the very height of man’s existence in all his glory and achievements we see the cringing cowardice, evil, and cruelty of man’s bondage to his sinful state making itself manifest: Here Jesus, the very embodiment of truth and love stood before a Roman official, a governor at that, having committed no crime, One who had merely pointed out the obvious: that the Jewish religious leaders had completely corrupted and perverted the Mosaic Law they claimed to live by. But this was a thing intolerable to religious men who prided themselves as followers of God’s written code. Once again, rather than hearing the message sent by God to them, they did as their forefathers before them had done to the prophets of old, and conspired to kill the messenger.

This time however, it plays out in a drama that illustrates the fallenness of all who are born of women.

Pilate, caught in the middle of a Jewish conflagration regarding truth and messiahship, is first confused and then alarmed by this Jesus: many have called Him the Christ, a known prophet, a healer of the sick and downtrodden, a defender of the outcast and weak, yet now He stands before him with a disregard for defending himself and with claims about having a Kingdom not of this world.

Here the Roman governor is confronted with the Son of Man and is caught quite off guard with it all.

While listening to Jesus and His warning about accountability to the Most High, Pilate examines Him and comes to the clear conclusion that Jesus has done absolutely nothing wrong, but rather it is because of jealousy that the religious leaders have handed Him over.

Both Luke and John show that Pilate pleaded with the Jews regarding the fact of Jesus’ innocence. It says then that three times Pilate pronounced without equivocation that Jesus had done no crime. In fact, John points out that Pilate even tried to set Jesus free.

Here we see a Roman governor publicly declaring without a doubt a verdict of not guilty regarding Jesus in front of everyone. Not one time, or two times, but three whole times he did this—three, of course, is a number of completeness in Scripture.

Then the course of things becomes exceedingly strange, for after the Roman Governor makes this public declaration three different times of Jesus’ innocence, he suddenly descends into a mire of fear. Overcome with the darkness that plagues the human heart, after making such a public declaration of Jesus’ innocence three times in front of everyone, out of fear Pilate suddenly concedes to the people’s demands that Jesus be crucified.

Here the Roman governor, the head of state of that area, a leader in the most advanced civilization the world has seen up to that time with a sophisticated judicial system at his behest and a powerful army at his command, after publicly declaring Jesus’ complete innocence to all assembled three times, suddenly quivers in fear, abandons all virtues and values that embody the Roman ideal, and capitulates to the bloodthirsty demands of a mob filled with jealousy.

From a rational point of view it makes no sense at all: the one with all the power the world could deliver at his fingertips suddenly becoming afraid of a loudmouthed mob. He knew that the Jews and their leaders were filled with nothing more than jealousy and bitterness because Jesus had pulled the rug from underneath their feet by showing that they couldn’t justify themselves by their works as they zealously sought to do.

Suddenly, this powerful Roman leader now quivers at the sound of a bunch of loudmouthed powerless Jews who have no army, have no political representation, and they can’t even get a decent insurrection going with a miserable failure like Barabbas. After repeatedly declaring publicly that Jesus is innocent and even trying to set him free, Pilate suddenly and completely abandons every aspect of the heritage of the proud Romans who have built a system of justice and civil living and quivers in cowardice by conceding that an absolutely innocent man—whose innocence he declared publicly and emphatically just moments before—should be put to death, a hideously cruel and awful death at that, only to satisfy the bloodlust of a bunch of corrupt Jewish hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees.

Here we see the cracks in the foundation of the existence of humankind and the paradox of the human existence. Created in God’s image with the ability to create and build and flourish with all kinds remarkable achievements and yet something down in the foundation is rotten to the core. Man is so stained with sin and so fallen that even at his best and highest point he is the worst monster one could imagine. Here Pilate, a Roman governor in the days of the epitome of Roman greatness, after publicly declaring Jesus’ innocence, gives him over to be tortured, maimed, horrifically beaten and finally crucified, when he from his own lips three times has declared this Man, this Jesus, to be completely innocent.

There is no other explanation other than sin. Man at his best is still the worst he can be. Bound with feet of clay and chained to the post of bondage, he can’t liberate himself even in his best moments. Even when the very Creator, the very Existence of truth and love stands before him, he still fumbles the moment and descends into the pit of depravity and does what is wrong in the most crucial time. Even when he has all the best resources at his fingertips he still carries out the worst, thus the bondage of the sinful condition is here manifest. The reformers called it “The bondage of the will.” Indeed it is the situation for all of us, “The whole world is a prisoner of sin.” (Gal. 3:22a)

The only hope is found right here in this very situation as Jesus willingly takes all of humankind’s sin for exactly this very reason. We are bound and cannot lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps as much as we might “believe in ourselves” or any other gobbledygook the world tries to ram down our throats. Bound and finite we are helpless in this puddle of muck without a savior. Yet the very One who was betrayed by a kiss from His own disciple is the same One who still reaches out His hand to deliver us if we will open our hands and hearts and receive. He goes to the cross willingly and takes all this punishment for me and for you. This is the price for our fallenness and He pays it willingly.

Though we are corrupt and sinful He goes to the cross for us and there bears the burden for a sinful humanity upon Himself. “He who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor.5:21)

Yet at the same time that we receive this grace of forgiveness from Christ who paid so dearly on the cross for our redemption, we must remember that we are still within ourselves sinners who must learn to embrace the cross and die to that old man every day, that sinful nature that still lives on within us. As Martin Luther said: “We are saved and yet at the same time still sinners.”

Renowned scholar F.F. Bruce points out that those who forget this are bound for all kinds of abuses, like we see with the Pharisees and Saducees in Jesus’ day.

History is fraught with man’s corruption, even in the name of the One who came to redeem man from his very fallenness. Torture chambers have been found in the basement of some monasteries; that sinful corruption turned them from preaching peace to carrying out the Inquisition, the more hideous the action when we realize it was done in the name of Christ. Man stinks up and stains every last thing he puts his hands on.

Human claims of infallibility are the biggest farces in history there ever were, be they by religious leaders or institutions, be they papal or otherwise. Every human being is a stinking sinner and is saved only by sheer grace and mercy in spite of our wanton wickedness, a wickedness there is no escaping from but which must be crucified while following Christ. Any thought to the contrary leads to the tragedy of errors that has been acted out throughout the history of institutional religion. Killing in His name wasn’t on Jesus’ list of things to go and do.

At the end of it all, only one hope remains for a fallen humanity who can’t even do what is right at the best of times, at the best of all history, when the best ever created, spotless and without sin, stood before it. Only one hope remains, which is to fall at the feet of that cross and the One who died on it, asking for mercy from Him who paid the steepest of prices for our sin and for the sin of all of humankind.