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The Significance of the Cross

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Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross to the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically*, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

* Of course there is an incident where Jesus confronted moneylenders in the temple with a makeshift whip of knotted cords. He was, however, severely provoked, not as some think by the greed and dishonesty of the moneylenders themselves, but by the tacit understanding that certain people could be excluded from God’s presence. The moneylenders set up their tables in the court of the Gentiles, the only portion of the temple open to foreigners, women, and invalids. The authorities did not arrest Jesus because he had exposed a policy they themselves knew to be wrong.
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Does God Love Everyone?

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I watched a clever music video today for a song by Michael Gungor Band called “God is not a White Man.” The chorus of the song repeatedly affirms that God loves everyone. Most Christians would find this claim unexceptionable, but does it accord with what the Bible says about God? Does God really love everyone? If so, what does such universal love mean? If not, whom then does he love?

Let’s start by defining love. I may use the same word to describe my feelings for ice cream and my feelings for my wife, so we need something a bit more precise. To love is to act from sincere affection in ways that will secure the good of the one loved. For example, I love my children. My love sometimes impels me to punish them, never because I take pleasure in hurting them, but only because the punishment will help them grow and develop into mature adults. So now let’s ask our question this way: Does God act from sincere affection in ways that will secure of good of everyone?

The consistent witness of Scripture is that he does not. God condemns some people and saves others. He pours out destruction on some while rescuing others. In the end, he accepts some people into heaven and condemns others to hell. Can we say that God loves those he condemns? Here is what the Psalmist says:

The LORD examines the righteous,
but the wicked, those who love violence,
he hates with a passion.
On the wicked he will rain
fiery coals and burning sulfur;
a scorching wind will be their lot. (Psalm 11:5-6)

So according to Psalm 11, God hates the wicked. If we were to combine this verse with verses quoted by Paul in Romans 3:10-18, we might justly conclude that far from loving everyone, God hates everyone. No one is righteous; everyone is wicked; no one fears God or seeks to know him, or knows the way of peace. Instead everyone is deceitful and destructive and violent. God hates everyone, and everyone is destined for destruction. The great wonder is that he hasn’t pronounced his judgment already and condemned us all.

The Bible no where says that God loves everyone. It says that he loves the righteous (Psalm 146:8). And it says that his nature is love (I John 4:8, 16). When God appeared to Moses he told him that he was “compassionate and gracious…, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” God’s own revelation of himself is as a God of love.

Here is a contradiction. God’s nature is love, but he still hates the wicked, and everyone is wicked. His love prompts him to forgive, but his justice demands that he condemn. So God provided a means by which people could be forgiven and made righteous. He sent his own son to take the place of sinful people and endure his wrath on their behalf so that they could take his son’s place and be accounted God’s children. He has made this salvation available to everyone who puts their trust in his son, Jesus Christ.

The expression, therefore, of God’s love to everyone is in Jesus Christ. Anyone who rejects Jesus, rejects God’s love. For such a person there is no love left “but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:27). So now God loves everyone who loves his son and hates everyone who hates his son. He knows those who belong to him.

But what about you. Yes, you. Does God love you? If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then you know that he does, and nothing—not even death itself—can separate you from his love (Rom 8:38-39). If you have not put your trust in Jesus, then he still loves you enough to make you this offer: you give up your life and everything you call your own to him, and he gives to you eternal life and freedom from your guilt and sin. That’s the deal: all or nothing, life or death. There is no middle ground. Which do you choose?

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Witness Protection Program

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I don’t think of myself as a strong witness for Christ. When I’m among people who are likely unbelievers, I tend to play it safe when the topic turns to religion. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s just habit. I’ve grown used to avoiding religion discussions. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be labeled. In fact, I had an inordinate fear of it after being ridiculed as a pansy or a goody-goody. As I matured, this fear turned into an unwillingness to be misunderstood. I would remain silent because I thought the people I was with would not understand what I said.

How unlike Jesus! He repeatedly said things that confused not only his opponents but also his closest followers. When religious leaders asked him by what authority he drove merchants and bankers from the temple grounds, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The leaders were taken aback. The temple had been under construction for almost 50 years, how could this man claim to be able to rebuild it in only three days? On another occasion, he told his listeners that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood. “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explained. Talk about saying things that were ripe for misinterpretation! Yet Jesus said nothing to clarify his meaning.

What was the result? The Jews called him a crazy bastard. They vilified him. He was labeled and called names. He didn’t seem to care.

One thing I’ve recently noticed, however, is that I don’t have a problem discussing religion online. In person I shy away from religious discussion, but on my blog and in my Facebook posts I often choose religious topics. I’m not sure why. I know, for example, that people are often less civil online than in the real world. But talking God-talk online is somehow easier than in real life.

Perhaps it is the perceived distance. Even though hardly anyone reads my blog except friends and family—at least as far as I’ve been able to determine—I have the sense that when I commit words to the ether that anyone who reads them is far away, separated from me by a virtual chasm that cannot be crossed. Perhaps it is that written words can be meticulously crafted. When a topic comes up in conversation, I may be glib, but I cannot be well-researched. Whatever the reason, I feel somehow safer expressing my views online than I do in person. Being online acts for me as a kind of witness protection program, giving me a comforting illusion of safety.

I consider this a flaw in my character. I need to be the same person in real life as I am online.

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