He paid a debt He did not owe

I have a son, two of them in fact, and I love them more than life itself. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them and I would never turn my back on them.

So as I prepare for Good Friday, as a precursor to Sunday’s triumphant Easter, I admit I am struggling with the part in the Passion narrative where Jesus Christ is forsaken by God the Father.
Everyone learns in Sunday School that Jesus was crucified as the “Lamb of God to forever pay the penalty for the sin of mankind. In the process, all of the sin of human existence is placed squarely on His shoulders, and Jesus is forsaken by the Father (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).

A deeper study of fundamental Christian theology reveals that, in this act, the sinless and morally pure Jesus bore the blame for that which He was not a part. Or, to put it simply, He “took the rap” for a vast multitude of crimes that He didn’t commit. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, the one without sin became sin (II Cor. 5:21) to purchase the salvation of many.

So the Lord turns away and Jesus Christ is forsaken. A few moments later, Jesus dies. Abandoned. Alone.

As my family and I have been reading about the life and death of Jesus this week (and chasing all the tangential questions our children ask) I’ve spent more than one “dark night of the soul” this week contemplating that moment. That moment when God looked at His beloved Son and saw every murderer, every criminal, every blasphemer, and every transgression along the great winding corridor of human existence.

By submitting Himself to this judgment, the Father poured out a His wrath upon the Son. For the first time Jesus experienced a separation from the father, to spare many from just such an eternal fate.

My children are my delight. They are each tiny wonders to me. No other human being holds me enthralled as much as they do, with the only possible exception being my wife. I believe God imprints an aspect of His own delight for children into parents. Notice how our souls are well-pleased when our children do well, and how our hearts are broken when they falter.

So how does God endure the death of Christ on the cross? The biblical narrative describes how the sky grows dark, the earth shakes, and the great curtain within the Temple is torn in half. Not unlike a heartbroken parent. Heaven and earth wear a mourning black and robes are rent in despair.

We would all do well to linger for a moment in this.

In imagining this scene of events, I wonder if we often do so in a sterile or stoic manner: picturing a grim-faced Jesus and a stern task-master-like “Jehovah” meting out a legalistic and purely punitive metaphysical exchange. But in this (as is so often the case) there is far more to the story, and it ain’t called the “Passion” story for nothing.

“No one takes my life from me,” Jesus tells his followers. “I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

The death of Jesus on the cross, like so much of His life, is one instance of giving after the next. Jesus is constantly giving of Himself to and for others.

People are hungry, so He feeds them. They are sick, so He heals them. They are ignorant of the truth, so He teaches them. They are oppressed by other men, so He shows them how to become truly free. They are bound by death, so He purchases eternal life for them. They are held captive by sin, so He sends them His spirit. They stumble and fall, yet He prays for them and holds fast to them.

Again and again, you see Jesus giving of Himself for the good of others and to the glory of God.

Even as the Lord knew the awful penalty His son would have to endure, He also knew the greater victory that was yet to come. That there was a bigger picture than a single dark day in Judæa. During this holy week, let us first dwell upon the holiness of Friday before all thoughts turn toward resurrection Sunday.

I like to say that “you can’t appreciate the sweet without the sour” and without the agony of the cross, there’s nothing to celebrate about an empty tomb.


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