The Exclamation Point of God’s Love
Greg Albrecht and Brad Jersak
Greg Albrecht: Hello everyone, this is Greg Albrecht. We’re going to remember and discuss our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice for us and reflect on his life, death, burial and of course the significance and meaning of his resurrection. Helping us with his insights and observations is Brad Jersak. Brad is Editor of our magazines and a Christ-centered professor, speaker and author.
Brad, in one sense it seems to me that these two events, the crucifixion and the resurrection, are the crowning jewels in God’s demonstration and revelation of his love for us. When I think of the resurrection specifically, I often think of it as the fulfillment of the new covenant. Jesus didn’t come simply to make a new covenant with us, he came to be the new covenant. We might think of his resurrection as the final act in the life of Christ, the final part of his three-part revelation— his death, burial and resurrection. And this three-part revelation is a dynamic illustration of God’s love, his very own nature.
Brad, would you begin by talking about Good Friday, giving us some background about the cross of Christ and its relevance and significance to and for us in the light of the resurrection?
BJ: First of all, let’s focus on the fact that the cross, and specifically the way Jesus experienced the cross and what he did on the cross, is a revelation of God. What you just said is right on—the cross reveals the central nature of God. That’s such a good way to phrase it. In Christ God demonstrated his unsurpassable love. When we look at Christ on the cross, we are looking at God in the flesh. It’s very important where we locate God on Good Friday. As we know, there are many within Christianity who virtually picture the Father punishing Jesus, crucifying Jesus, or being appeased by the torture and death of his Son.
But Paul tells us that God was in Christ on the cross reconciling the world to himself (Colossians 1:19-20). So if you want to find or locate God on Good Friday, he’s on a cross. God is the Word made flesh even when that flesh was being wounded and pierced and crucified.
So when we look at Christ on the cross we’re seeing something central to the very nature of God, and you’ve alluded to it already. What is it we find out about God when we look at the cross? We do not see that he was angry and had to get his wrath off his chest. No, rather we see self-giving grace, we see sacrificial love and we see radical forgiveness.
And so I distinguish between the crucifixion and the cross in this sense: the crucifixion was a crime—
it was the greatest sin in the history of the universe; whereas the cross represents the love and grace and
forgiveness of God towards us. The crucifixion was this hideous thing we humans did, but the cross was this generous thing that God did. And it’s basically because while we were doing our worst, he was doing his best. So when I see the cross I see God’s open arms, I see God reconciling us into friendship.
Romans 5 says he made us who were his enemies, while we were his enemies, he made us his friends and reconciled us (Romans 5:8). Jesus said, “And I, when I’m lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). So I see those open arms as a parallel to the Father at the doorway welcoming the prodigal world home from the pigpen we’ve made of ourselves. We do talk about the absolute importance of the resurrection and we’ll get to that in a bit. But I also want to consider that this loving, forgiving, reconciling work and revelation of the crucified Christ settled something. The cross of Christ settled something completely and forever. And even while Jesus was still hanging there, he said that his work was finished and accomplished (John 19:30). It is finished, it’s accomplished.
And so even on the cross, on Good Friday, grace is already established. One of my favorite authors said that Hitler could have risen from the dead 50 times, and we would still not worship him as the Son of God. We worship Christ as the Son of God because of the miraculous love that we behold on the cross. And I think that’s worth considering in terms of Good Friday.
GA: Let me interject at this point we often think of the crucifixion and resurection in the Spring. It’s when our hearts and minds are particularly focused on the cross and the empty tomb. However, there are years when we celebrate Easter and then on the day after, we return to our lives as if nothing spectacular or earth-shattering has happened. You can, and indeed should, think and ponder the significance of the cross and the resurrection every day, week and month of the year. May we not isolate the deep and profound and beautiful significance of this time and this reality—this presence of our Lord, the risen Lord—to just one season of the year, but may it be of significance and spiritual nourishment for all of the days of our lives.
BJ: I was thinking something similar to that last night and this morning. The way I imagined it was this: there is a way where we see resurrection as an event that happened on the first Easter, and it’s a revelation of the Father’s love for his Son and a vindication of his Sonship. We can rightly think of the resurrection as an event that happened in time. But I wasn’t there, and in fact nobody was there at the moment of the resurrection, and only a few people were there to see the empty tomb.
But what really gripped the early disciples of Jesus, and what has gripped me, is not so much the idea of the resurrection as a one-time event long ago, but rather the resurrection as a reality in our experience. And so the historical event and the empty tomb are necessary to the fact of the resurrection, but the reality of our present day experience of God with us is just as, or far more important. After the events of the first Easter weekend the first disciples did not take trips back to the empty tomb to memorialize it as the exact place of his resurrection. They didn’t treat it as a shrine or a holy place.
We read in the New Testament that the first disciples lived out the significance of Easter, as they experienced Jesus as alive in their midst. Where two or three gather, the church, the body of Christ, has always experienced the presence of Jesus with them, or at least his presence has always been available to experience and celebrate. When we think about the living Jesus, it’s not just that he rose from the dead, it’s that he is risen. That’s the language that we use. He is risen. He is alive. He is present with us, he is present in us, he’s alive, and, by his grace, he is in the process of transfiguring us into people who are learning what it means to be fully alive.
As Paul said in the second chapter of Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). So I don’t have to come up with a really great kind of lawyer’s argument to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the tomb is empty and therefore Jesus is risen. I just have to look at what he’s doing among us. The fact that he is alive living in and through us is my confirmation that he was not left in some tomb somewhere in the Middle East.
GA: There has been a lot written about and a great emphasis placed on proving the resurrection. It seems as if there is a search and a quest for the best and most ironclad or apologetic rationale and a knock-down, beyond-dispute proof that Jesus was resurrected. Of course there’s a place for that kind of thinking, I don’t mean to demean it.
You know, it took me many years of my life to realize and experience what you just expressed. I taught a college class titled “The Life and Teachings of Jesus.” It wasn’t until a decade or more passed after I was no longer teaching that I realized that the central emphasis of any class about Jesus or any book that is written or any sermon given about Jesus—the great and compelling question is not who was Jesus, the question is who is Jesus. The Bible is clear. Jesus is the great I am, not the great I was.
I deeply appreciate that distinction made by Brad, between the crucifixion as a human act and the cross as a divine outpouring of the very nature of God. In summary, we can affirm that it’s not completely sufficient to say that the cross of Christ is something that Jesus offered to God on our behalf (because Jesus as our sin bearer is often a huge emphasis), nor is the cross of Christ a punishment that God the Father, the first person of the Triune Godhead, inflicted on Jesus instead of us. Most of all, the cross is the great and grand revelation of the love, the greater love that no man can have than this, that’s what the cross is again about. The cross of Christ brings us to the central message of the gospel, it centers us in the love of God and locates us in and with the central Christ-centered message of the gospel. The cross of Christ is God’s loving revelation of himself to us for us. Do you have any further comments, Brad, as we summarize the cross and the crucifixion?
BJ: The revelation of the cross is that God is love. When we talk about God’s essential nature, what we’re saying is that love is at the very core of who God is. Every other aspect of God’s nature is not only secondary to that, but it’s a facet of that love. God is love, like God is a diamond. Anything else you say about him is a facet of that diamond and that there is no aspect of his nature that is anything other than love. On the other hand, some seem to think of God as a two-sided coin—love on one side and wrath on the other side—love on one side and anger on the other side—or love and mercy on one side and wrath and judgment on the other side. No, the central, and essential, nature of God is love itself.
God’s nature is not love and retribution—God’s nature is love. Whatever the Bible means by anger or wrath or judgment, those can only be metaphors or expressions of God’s essential nature, which is love. And so there can be no anger or wrath or judgment that is not love. Both Isaiah and Paul explain that “wrath,” is basically a metaphor for God’s consent. The language they use is “he gave us over” or “he allowed us.” The wrath or judgment that any human experiences is better understood as God’s decision to allow for human choices, to give us over to our own rebellious choices, and consent or allow us to experience the consequences of those choices.
For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, wrath is not the father punishing his children or turning his back on them or moving far away from them, the wrath of the story of the prodigal son is that the father consents and allows his son (us) the pain of running away and hitting rock bottom. That action on his part is part of his love.
So the whole story is love. The climax of the story is when the son comes home and finds out that there is no point when the father’s love and affection has ever waned or withdrawn even for a moment.
When we talk about love and grace, in the back of people’s minds there’s lurking the thoughts that go something like this: “Well, he has other attributes too, you know, like justice and judgment and wrath.”
No, justice and judgment and wrath are only facets of his love, and his love limits what justice and judgment and wrath can even mean. And so when we talk about the cross then, what we’re seeing there is God’s love as consent. There’s a great deal to be said about the cross as a theology of consent, so that God allows and permits and gives us over to our choices, but never does he withhold or withdraw or turn his face from us.
GA: When we talk about God, we are of course limited by our humanity. We’re like fish in a goldfish bowl—we can only see so far beyond the parameters of the goldfish bowl in which we live. We are human beings bound by the boundaries of time and space. We do not inhabit eternity. We do not have God’s perspective.
Given our own nature, in order for God to begin to talk to us and to reveal himself to us, so that he can help us to come to know him, he had to accommodate us. He had to use baby talk. He had to use our language and speak within our limitations.
When it comes to completely comprehending God, the inadequacy of our language and the limitations of our minds mean that we have a problem, or at least a dilemma. God is using imperfect human language to describe the perfection of his nature. Human language is limited, it’s imperfect, but that’s obviously the only way God can talk to us. Within Christendom and theology at large, language itself can become a huge hurdle, an obstacle for many people. For example, when it comes to the cross many want to speak of the “wrath” of God.
People have gone to school, if you like—they have attended churches and classes where they have been taught a theological perspective. They have been taught definitions of language. They’ve been given a definition of “wrath.”
Language, of course, is just a symbol. Words are symbols that bring to mind a reality. When the word “wrath” is spoken or written many Christians today immediately have a definition come to mind. When we talk about God from the perspective of a Christ-centered, grace-based definition, and when we talk about the nature of God as love, we have to get into and address the definitions of terms that most people have been taught.
There’s nothing wrong with the term “wrath”—but the problem is the meaning/definition that has been poured into the term. We have to examine whether or not that meaning (and translation) is correct, whether it needs some modification or whether it needs to be completely thrown out and a new and more biblically-based and grace-based definition needs to replace that term.
So, as we talk about the cross and resurrection as the central revelation of God to us, the significance and meaning of everything else we have been taught is up for examination. We all, and I certainly include myself, take a fresh look at and ask God to not just refresh our minds and not just renew our minds, but to absolutely enlighten them in such a way that we might see the totality of the majesty and the fullness of God.
Let’s move this discussion of The Explanation Point of God’s Love to the resurrection now. Let’s continue by talking about the resurrection from seven perspectives. I’ll introduce each one, and then Brad, I’ll ask you to comment.
1) First of all, the resurrection. The resurrection is a fundamental change. I’m talking about the resurrection of Jesus historically, but I’m also talking about his risen life as it happens, as a dynamic reality in the lives of Christ followers today. The resurrection is a fundamental change in spiritual reality because it introduces for the first time, in terms of the new covenant, life in Christ, what it means to be alive in Christ, what it means to live in Christ.
BJ: You’ve made a very strong statement by talking about a fundamental change. Fundamental refers to the very foundations of things, the fundament, the essence of everything. I see two fundamental changes that are connected to the resurrection.
One is the resurrection event itself, the resurrected Jesus. This was a fundamental change in the whole universe, you know. I see it as the pinnacle or the apex or the zenith of history and indeed of reality, and also of revelation, and so whatever happened to that point and whatever happened since that point needs to be read through that fundamental change. This is a universe-altering moment in time. The resurrection is far more than just a moment in time. And that’s where the second sort of change happens. As I experience Christ, the living Christ, as I encounter this living person, then there’s a fundamental change in me.
GA: These seven points flow from one to another and there are no dogmatic boundary lines. Rather, I think they’re united, these seven points are all part of the totality of the resurrection so they flow into each other rather than completely being distinct from one another. While the first point was that the resurrection was and is a fundamental change in spiritual reality (the new covenant as opposed to the old covenant) this second point is yet another fundamental change.
2) This aspect of the resurrection concerns our fundamental identity as human beings. When we accept Christ, when we accept life in Christ, when we accept the risen Lord, our fundamental identity changes from what it was before Christ, B.C., to what it is now. We are now in Christ and he is in us.
BJ: Part of me wants to cynically say, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” But in Christ, we can rejoice that it’s more than nice, it is true. The fundamental change in our identify says this to me: I was not simply a dirty rotten sinner and sub-human or some kind of walking-dead-zombie up until the day I said “yes” to Jesus, and then overnight I became some sort of angelic being who has a permanent smile pasted to my face and is always practicing the peacemaking way and love of Jesus. I wish it were like that.
We don’t want to pretend that this fundamental identity change takes us off the journey. Being a follower of Christ means that we can always make choices. When we experience this fundamental change in identity, we go from living by external laws to living by an internal spirit. We’re in Christ. What does that mean? He’s in us. What does that mean? To me, being in Christ means I have been grafted into this life-giving vine and all that flows from him. Being in Christ means I have inherited everything Christ would give me from his father that is guaranteed in the new covenant by his spirit. So being in Christ is very much about my inheritance, my spiritual inheritance of life. The part about him being in me means I’ve gone from an external motivation to an internal relationship.
GA: Paul says we have this treasure in jars of clay. It’s the human condition. Though we are in Christ and he is in us, we still have this body and we still battle during our earthly journey. And we’re still very much imperfect humans. Paul again said that he desired to be absent from the body but present with the Lord in the ultimate sense.
Of course there’s the sense that we are now present with the Lord, but Paul was talking about the totality, the glorification and the immortality of what that means. As God’s children we are not perfect, holy or sanctified or any other terms that some use regarding a spiritual goal that can be obtained in the flesh. It’s humbling for us to realize our own imperfection. It’s also necessary for us to realize our own imperfection in order to see the grand, marvelous and glorious reality that God actually knows us better than we know ourselves, and he loves us anyway. That’s part of the significance of the resurrection.
So let’s move on to point number three. 3) The resurrection means that by God’s grace we belong to him. And the belongingness that we have in Christ means, to use a New Testament metaphor, that we actually become his body, that is, the universal body of Christ.
BJ: The sense of belonging requires that I come to a realization that Christ came to, in his humanity, in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told the Father than the Father’s will must be done, rather than his own. In a similar way, we belong to Christ. We’re not our own, we belong to Christ. We belong to each other and the fruit of the crucifixion of the old self and of self will and selfishness and self obsession is this deep sense of belonging and other-ness, and the “us/them” melts into “we.” As I surrender my ego and as it becomes not just about me, the belonging of being part of one another is a miracle, and it’s a miracle of Christ’s resurrection.
GA: Let’s now talk about 4) how the resurrection turns us into participants in the new life of Christ, not just spectators. I’m thinking of course of the New Testament example of disciples who were by and large spectators at the very beginning. The disciples even abandoned Jesus. They left, they ran away. Jesus Christ was forsaken as it was prophesied. He was abandoned. He was betrayed. So up until the resurrection, even the disciples, the very ones that he spent all this time with, were primarily at the very best spectators. But as we read the book of Acts, these guys became, through the power of the resurrection, participants. The resurrection transformed them into fully-involved participants in the new life of Christ.
BJ: Think about the book of Acts, these apostles and prophets and teachers and the church as a whole growing in leaps and bounds, doing the work of Jesus—it’s definitely people participating in kingdom ministry. We learn, as the book of Acts starts, that Jesus is wearing believers like a glove as he reaches out his hand. In the book of Acts, over and over again, Jesus stretches out his hand to heal. How? He stretches out his hand to heal through these participants. God is looking for partners and participants, not just spectators.
GA: As we prepare to consider our fifth point about the resurrection, let’s think of the bookends of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We generally focus on Easter, rather than Good Friday.
Naturally, as human beings we prefer to think about the victory and the celebration. We would rather not talk about the down-in-the-trenches time. We would rather not, as human beings, suffer. We would rather avoid the pain. We would rather leap as fast as possible from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. And there’s nothing wrong with Easter Sunday, but I think it’s important to link these two events together as they are inexorably linked together, in our lives, in history and in the present tense as well.
So 5) in the suffering of God in Christ in and through the cross, we’re united in his suffering, so that, as Peter says, we follow his example that we’re called to suffer as he did (1 Peter 2:21). This fifth point brings one of the historic and current deficiencies of much of Protestant Christianity into view. Much of Protestant Christianity doesn’t focus on suffering. But suffering is an important part of our lives. Sadly, we do suffer, and the older I get I’m finding out more about the aches and pains of getting older. When we are younger we often don’t think too much about our mortality.
The other day one of our grandchildren told my wife and I that we were never going to die (spiritually she was correct, but that wasn’t her meaning, of course). At this point in their lives, apart from getting a boo-boo and having a Band-Aid on their knee, death is not on young people’s radar. And of course, prolonged suffering is not normally a part of what it means to be young either. But it is very much a part of what it means to be human, and beyond that, what it means to be a Christ follower.
BJ: I’ll just briefly add this: as Christ followers we will suffer, but we will never suffer alone. Secondly, in Christ our suffering is elevated. That is, if and when we suffer as he did, we are delivered from suffering in and from bitterness and hatred and unforgiveness. As Christ followers we, by his grace, may suffer in the presence and in the company of the One who is acquainted with suffering.
GA: 6) The resurrection means, we’re sent forth with Jesus out of the tomb of death. We’re sent forth. What’s our mandate? Well, sadly, many people are under the illusion (I believe it’s Christ-less religion that is in large part responsible for this) that they’re sent forth to strive to become a better person, to strive to become someone that they’re not already. They believe that they are sent forth to become someone that will qualify for God’s goodness. They live under the expectation and burden that they must do more to deserve more of God’s love or God’s love period. That’s what the resurrection means to them.
But no, I believe the resurrection means that our calling is to be exactly what we are, to yield and to allow our bodies to be the proclamation of the risen life of Jesus Christ. And I don’t mean by making this distinction to say that we don’t have any work or effort involved at all. No.
But we have the victory, that’s important, we have the victory. And now we may live like we have that victory. Since we have the victory in Christ we may live in the light of that victory.
So the distinction between being what we are or striving to become something that we will eventually become (by virtue of our own efforts) is something that I think is central to the resurrection.
BJ: I fully, fully agree. The transformation I’m looking for in my own life has not happened by striving. And if we wanted to have a striving contest, I would challenge many to strive as hard as I’ve striven and only found myself crashing.
And so it seems that transformation happens not through striving but through surrender. As I’ve surrendered, even as I’ve surrendered my striving, this new self in Christ starts emerging. In this sense, life in Christ is characterized by letting go, rather than white-knuckling.
So as I relax into the reality of who I’m becoming instead of gritting my teeth and scrunching my forehead, I’m actually finding out there’s a new self inside and if I would lighten up a little bit from my religious striving, there’s going to be a delightful discovery of who he’s made me to be.
GA: Finally, let’s conclude our study of The Explanation Point of God’s Love with our seventh and last point. 7) The resurrection means that there’s not a body in that tomb. This might seem to be obvious, but you know, from a religious perspective, many would be far more comfortable with the body of Jesus being in the tomb. In fact, many who are blinded by and enslaved by Christ-less religion live as if his body is still in a tomb. Many seem to live as if the body of Christ is exhumed every Easter so that it can be admired. The body of Jesus is put on display, if you like, so that the church can attract the biggest crowds of the year, with the best music of the year.
There’s a grand celebration, lunch or dinner with the family afterwards, and then, for all intents and purposes, the body of Jesus is returned back into the tomb of the church deep down in the bowels of the basement somewhere and put away again for another 364 days.
Of course the resurrection of Jesus means that Jesus Christ is out there. He is around. He’s not going away. Colloquially we talk about people always being there for us or we assure a friend that we’ll always be there for them.
Maybe on the cusp of a big trial they’re going through or as they’re going through it or maybe a funeral or a memorial service, we assure our friends, we hug them and tell them that we’re always going to be there for them. That’s one of the central realities of the resurrection. Jesus is always, always there for us, and he’s never ever going away.
BJ: Again, here’s but a brief comment. I think of the last verse of Matthew’s Gospel: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Christ is with us 24/7 for the rest of our lives. If that offer’s on the table (and of course it is), sign me up!