The Messiah on the Cross

The death of Jesus the Messiah is an enigma in so many ways. Something happened at the cross that changed the world. But exactly how and in what way is not absolutely clear. On the contrary, whatever happened on the cross between God, Jesus, humanity, and the cosmos lies deep within recesses of the heart and mind of God. It is a mystery that transcends our understanding, but we are not left clueless.

While there are many different ways to understand the cross, and Christian history has debated them for centuries, each Gospel tells the story of the Messiah’s trial and death. Each has their own message and emphasis. Each expresses the mystery in a particular way, and Luke’s Gospel is particularly poignant because, in part, it is particularly enigmatic. Luke’s passion narrative quotes Jesus three times, and each saying of the crucified Jesus points us to both the inscrutability and transformative nature of the Messiah’s cross.

Surrounded by people who falsely accused him, mocked him, beat him, divided his last possessions among themselves, and nailed him to the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” The cross and forgiveness are an unnatural pair, but, in part, the cross is designed for forgiveness. The blood of the new covenant forgives sins, and because of the cross—somehow and in some way—we receive God’s forgiveness.

When one of the criminals crucified with the Messiah, confessed his guilt, recognized the innocence of Jesus, and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The sign over the head of Jesus read, “The King of Jews.” The cross, as unlikely as it seems, is a kingdom moment. Indeed, it is the moment when Jesus absorbs all the evil that the powers—whether spiritual or political—throw at him. Jesus surrenders himself to the will of God through obedience for the sake of the kingdom of God. The cross is the not the victory that evil powers imagine but the beginning of their fall. Even on the cross, the kingdom of God testifies to its sovereignty over evil. Evil will not win.

When darkness covered the whole land and the sun no longer shined, Jesus, in a loud voice, cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The cross, we might think, is that last place we might entrust ourselves to God’s purposes and trust that God is able to give meaning even to the most despicable evils committed by the powers. Nevertheless, though the cross had no seeming purpose as an innocent and good person died there, its meaning was global, cosmic, and redemptive.

If we had been standing before the cross some two thousand years ago, there was nothing about that scene that announced the forgiveness of sin, victory over evil, and trust in God’s good work. Crucifixion was a place of imperial vengeance, defeat through death, and mocking by one’s enemies. Indeed, we probably would have wondered, as we often do today, where is God in this? Why does not God save this innocent one from death? Why did God abandon the Messiah?

Whatever our reasonings, the Messiah himself sought forgiveness for his persecutors, hoped in the victory his death entailed, and died with a profound trust in the God of Israel. What gives birth to such merciful love, expectant hope, and trusting faith? Jesus knew that though God abandoned him on the cross, God would not abandon him in the grave. The cross was not the final act in the theodrama; there is more to the story.

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