By Ross Clark
In 1994, Good Friday fell on April 1st, All Fools’ Day. Have you thought as to how much this co-incidence has to say?
We are not used to thinking of Easter in terms of folly. We think of Easter in terms of Jesus’ crowning in the triumph and the glory of the resurrection, and so it is. But such an approach ignores the profound lessons to be learnt from Good Friday in its own right.
Good Friday is not about some unpleasant necessity that Jesus had to endure before returning to his rightful place as sovereign of the universe. No: Good Friday is the pattern for all of the Christian life, the archetype for which is Jesus, as it was the pattern worked out in his life; the continual reminder that there is no crown without a cross.
In the foolishness of the Cross there is life and power. It is only one of the many paradoxes within the Christian pilgrimage: that life and power and glory could come from a place of death and weakness and disgrace.
We find such ideas paradoxical only because we insist on viewing them from the pespective of human logic. Seen through God’s eyes these things are quite logical; but such a way of thinking is not easily acceptable to us.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY
To see what the Cross means, let us begin with the first eighteen months of Jesus’ ministry, in which it appeared that he would fulfil the popular expectation of a triumphant Messiah. Even then, though, Jesus refused to pay to the gallery; the reality of the Cross was spelt out from the very beginning. The Romans had crucified hundreds of people in Galilee, so they all knew what a crucifixion was. Not only was it an agonising way to die; it was also utterly shameful and humiliating.
So, when Jesus told the crowds in Galilee that they would have to deny themselves, take up their Cross and follow him, it is no surprise that the crowds eventually lost interest in Jesus, despite all the miracles he performed.
“Glory to God in the lowest” was not an appealing message, then or now. It must have been utter foolishness to the crowds of that day to think that Messiah would go to a Roman cross; and even more foolish that his disciples would have to follow him there carrying one. Yet, the centrality of the Cross in Jesus’ teaching is easy to show. It is found in all four Gospels and generally, more than once.1 If this was the core of Jesus’ call to discipleship, then we must take it seriously.
Inevitably, Jesus’ life took him to Calvary. What happened that day?
The answer seems obvious to modern believers: Jesus sacrificed himself on the Cross on our behalf, to purchase our salvation. But this is to look at Calvary with the benefit of much hindsight. What did it look like at the time?
The answer to that question is simple — it was a total disaster.
Instead of the huge crowds of the early days, like those present for the feeding of the five thousand, there was almost no-one left to stand by Jesus. The disciples cut and ran. The crowd who a few days before had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday became the mob who cried for his death on front of Pilate that morning.
Instead of the five thousand, there were only five people who acknowledged Jesus in his agony and disgrace:
- Mary, his mother, now realising what Simeon had meant all those years ago when he had said, “a sword will pierce your own soul”.
- Her sister Salome, mother of James and John
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary, wife of Clopas, who had supported Jesus financially
- John, the beloved disciple.
Later, two more friends threw a hurried burial together. Between the crucifixion, the abandonment by God and the darkness, it is no surprise that Jesus should cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is no surprise that one writer had argued that Jesus died a failure to everything he stood for.2 Jesus’ death wasn’t a martyr’s death, not by any means — one could have understood the point of that.
If we remember these aspects of Good Friday we start looking at Easter in a very different light. They cannot be ignored, even in the context of everything which followed.
GLORYING IN THE CROSS
Jesus preached the Cross and died by it. He rose in glory some 36 hours later and one would have thought that glory enough to forget the awful memory of Good Friday.
And generally, that is how we have presented Jesus. I wonder if the real reason that Protestants don’t like crucifixes is because they remind us too vividly of what Good Friday involved; an aspect of Jesus’ life we don’t want to think about. We refer to “Calvary” forgetting that in Latin calvaria means “a skull”.
When we look at the apostolic preaching, though, the opposite pattern is apparent. The apostles could have preached Jesus like some ancient demi-god, resurrected from the dead but playing down the cross like some unavoidable evil. Instead they gloried in it, acknowledging and boasting in the disaster and disgrace. It was a mark of honour that the faith’s founder had died like a common criminal!
There are many, many examples in the New Testament to illustrate this principle. “St John was not ashamed to write of the cross as the place where the glory of God was displayed”.3 St Paul continued this line of thought, describing it as the place where the foolishness of God was shown to be wiser than the wisdom of men, 4 and the place where “Christ made a spectacle of his enemies”.5
Facing pressure from many things, Paul could even tell the Corinthians that he gloried in his own weakness. To the Philippians he wrote that he desired to know the fellowship of Jesus’ sufferings, thus to share in the resurrection from the dead.
Finally, around this time, St Mark’s Gospel would present Jesus as the “servant King”. This followed closely the theme of the suffering servant of Isaiah; 6 again, a part of Jesus’ ministry that people weren’t too keen to hear about. It has been suggested that this was partly in response to an incipient triumphalism in the early church.
If the evidence is brought together, two things are clear. First, the apostles preached the cross of Christ from the very beginning. Second, this was offensive and foolish to the people they preached to; because it cut against all the notions, Jewish as well as Greek, as to how God would act.7
In particular the Corinthians faced the fatal temptation to recast the Gospel in terms more acceptable to their own culture. This was the “worldly wisdom” which robbed the Cross of its power and which so concerned Paul.8 A triumphant God in glory going forth in the power of the Spirit was one thing, but Paul had to take some troubles to remind them that the only way to the power of the Spirit is past the Hill of Calvary.
A church in my city that I sometimes attend doesn’t have a Cross on its premises — anywhere. It has missed the point. If it doesn’t want to offend people, then it has also missed the point because the Cross is meant to be an offence!
It is not that the physical symbol of the Cross is, by itself, critical. A symbol is no more (or less) that the value people place on what it stands for. But the absence of a symbol may also convey a message; and in this case I believe that it is conveying that the costs of the Gospel message can be ignored. That is hardly Biblical Christianity.
LIVING UNDER THE CROSS
If we follow these interlinked themes, where do they take us? What is the significance of the Cross for us?
The Cross is a vivid reminder that our perception or understanding of God’s glory should never be confined to natural or visible things.
The Pauline readings referred to in this article show that the Cross was a place of victory; but crucially, this victory is never separated from the defeat and offence which accompanied it.
By extension: because of Christ’s redeeming work, many of our apparent defeats can be turned in the long run into victories — a theology of failure, perhaps. As C.S. Lewis put it, “nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead”. Of course the flipside of this understanding is that many of our apparent victories (success, large churches, money, crowds) may, in the end, prove to be nothing of the sort!
The Cross models “the way we need to follow and the truth we need to know”.
The Cross is not just about dying to sin and turning to righteousness (this part of it is understood, even if not always put into practice). The Cross also models our turning from things which are good in themselves but which have to be sacrificed for some higher good — the sharp edge of discipleship. To live by the Cross is difficult; but if we can do so, the power of the Cross will be available to us.
To truly live for Christ may appear foolish in the world’s eyes, never mind our own. From God’s perspective, though, is this the only way to live?
St Francis of Assisi was known as one of God’s Fools, or a Holy Fool, yet he is one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. Think of Forrest Gump; not perhaps the brightest person around, yet his simple faith in God was, in the movie, more than enough to sustain him. This is also a thread in Hebrews 11; you don’t care for the earthly city if the heavenly one is even partially visible.
The Cross sheds some light on the ultimate questions of faith — pain, unmet needs like healing, disappointment with God.
I say “some light” only, as this is a great mystery. However, the Cross tells us that when we come to God with these questions, he understands. In Jesus he has been there; on the Cross he faced those questions himself. This has big implications for both ministry and evangelism.
The Cross allows our evangelism to be upfront about the costs of discipleship — indeed, insists on it.
This sort of preaching both cuts across the grain of the predominant culture and challenges its values. As one New Zealand YWAMer once put it, “In our desire to be relevant, accessible and even trendy, have we left the Cross of Christ behind?” In some ways evangelism in my country is becoming “bad news for modern man”; the needs in the country are such that we have had to learn to preach “a broken God to broken people in a broken world”.
KNOWN BY THE SCARS
Most profoundly, the Cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. In a world which has questioned the love of God even more than it has questioned the existence of God, we can reply that the Cross is the evidence of God’s love for those with eyes to see.
Some years ago musician Michael Card observed that in heaven “we’ll not be known by the medals but by the scars”.
If that sounds heavy going, consider Jesus’ way of identifying himself to his disciples after the Resurrection: by means of the scars in his hands, feet and side — scars present even in a glorified body. Indeed, some Catholic theology portrays Jesus as having had those marks for all eternity, not just after the Resurrection. Perhaps that is what Revelation means when it described Jesus as the Lamb “slain from before the creation of the world”.9
The Cross also sheds light on the issue of healing but does so by means of a paradox. We associate giving glory to God with the presence of the miraculous, especially healing. Yet God’s glory was present at the cross, despite the failure. Does that mean that His glory can be seen and witnessed to in situations of chronic unhealing, loss and disability?
That sounds odd, even illogical. It probably is illogical but the converse is easy to demonstrate; that healings or other forms of the miraculous may not lead to any glory being given to God at all. In the Exodus period the people saw all the miracles and God’s judgment of the Egyptians. Amazingly, though, the people did not respond with a mature commitment to God; if anything, quite the opposite. In Elijah’s time the people may have appeared to respond, as the power showdown on Mt Carmel demonstrates. But later history shows that the whole affair did not lead to any real revival.
Philip Yancey has commented, “Would a burst of miracles nourish faith? Evidently, not the sort of faith that God seems interested in. The Israelites give ample opportunity that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God”.
Luke 17 recount a similar incident in which ten lepers were healed, but only one returned to give thanks and worship. Power encounters may not lead to glory being given to God — at least, not as much as we think.
The logical conclusions to all of this is that for someone to remain faithful in the midst of sickness and even despair may — ultimately — bring more glory to God than any number of miraculous healings, even if God is glorified in them (as he often is).
The presence of the disabled in our midst, like Joni Eareckson, is a striking example of how glory to God can be shown even in the midst of their conditions. Yet we don’t follow that logic of that through into our healing ministries. Perhaps we dare not.
What is clear, though, is that God’s glory and God’s healing may not always work in tandem. Whether people are healed is God’s decision…whether he is glorified…is ours? It would appear so.
In a world crying out for healing it seems foolish to claim that God can be glorified in our failures. It is foolish. I hesitate to reflect along these lines because I am good in health and do not want to appear a Job’s comforter to someone who isn’t. But the logic of this view, that God’s glory is never seen more clearly than in the weakness of his people is as compelling as it is uncomfortable. I do not know why; but the Cross shows how.
Furthermore there is plenty of evidence from Christian history to support this view. People have sometimes exercised great healing ministries even in the midst of their lack of good health.
St. Paul for all the miracles in his work 10 had bad eyesight (there is evidence for this in Scripture as well as in early Christian tradition). St Francis of Assisi exercised a remarkable ministry of healing but knew great sickness too, even for the times.
Perhaps with this in mind Paul wrote, “The Lord said to me, ‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness’. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me…when I am weak, then I am strong”.
We tend to quote these words a little too glibly, don’t we? And yet these ironies cannot go unnoticed. What also cannot go unnoticed is our inability to acknowledge that God’s glory can be shown in this way. But the Cross can, and does, empower our ministry and evangelism to the wounded. I had a friend once who had survived an horrific upbringing (incest survivor) and was left with a lot of doubts about God: “Where was he when I really needed him?” As we thought about it we were led back to the Psalm of Dereliction (Psalm 22), a Psalm of David which Scripture in Song will never bother with:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”
The words are, of course, of Jesus on the Cross. What that meant to my friend was that while God couldn’t answer their immediate questions, He did understand what they had been through. And that was enough.
The Cross shows us how to minister with some integrity to the chronically unhealed. It also shows us how to minister to the families of the unhealed, alienated by pressures which seem to assume healing as long as you follow the right methods. We can show that such people have not been excluded from the love of God: far from it. A healing ministry will not have any real integrity if it cannot speak God’s mercy to the situation of the unhealed.
It also means that we have something to offer those facing great psychological pressures. We know that God can be glorified in despite those areas of our physical lives which are left unhealed, or healed only in part.
Suppose the same is true, then, for those with emotional stresses or psychological needs. What, then, do we have to say to people whose needs here remain unmet while others find what they seek? A difficult question, but this appears in the “physical” area all the time.
God given glory despite emotional gaps, unhealed perverse sexual orientation, dysfunctional family life, being single — that we understand. But perhaps, if the teaching of the Cross is logically extended, it means that we should not be so surprised when these things don’t “come right” — and not because of some unconfessed sin. It sounds mad, but if so, it is the foolishness and mystery of the Cross; and the preaching of the Cross provides a way to minister to the lonely, vulnerable and hurting, because it shows those people that God can identify with them and in Christ has done so.
No longer do we have to give easy answers to hard questions.
NO CROSS WITHOUT A CROWN
Up to now I’ve presented the Cross in terms of cost, exile, self-denial. But now I want to look at the other side of the Cross: resurrection, life, power, wisdom, which are manifested when the way of the Cross is followed. There is no cross we carry now without a crown to come.
One of the highest points on the Antarctic continent is Mount Erebus. Photos of that mountain, which would otherwise be pretty featureless, have this distinctive feature: a Cross, which is visible for some miles. It is a memorial to people who died in an air crash on that mountain in 1979. The image is striking; and moving. Two thoughts which arose from seeing that photo:
First, the Cross is the promise of God to us of life in a barren place. You cannot get much more barren, or dry, than Antarctica.
Second, the Cross is God’s promise to us of light in a dark place — for in Greek mythology, Erebus was the god of darkness. Yet the Cross rules there too.
The photo reminded me of the certainty of Resurrection in the battle I was then facing and still am; and not just in respect of being single. What will be true for me will be true for us all. To follow the way of the Cross means that its power — resurrection, salvation, God glorified — can be made available to us.
The Cross is the profound reminder that while God’s Kingdom has not arrived in full, as that awaits Jesus’ coming, the kingdom is dawning, and Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of that dawn. So we look “East at Easter” to see and live by that coming light, both already and not yet. In looking and following we make it possible for the power of the Cross to be shown among us. It cannot be shown any other way.
- Matt 10:38 and 16:24; Mk 8″34; Lk 9:23, 14:27; John 12:24.
- Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God.
- Michael Cole
- 1 Cor 1:18ff
- Col 2:15
- Isa 52:13-53:12
- With the notable exception of the depiction in Plato’s Republic, of the death by crucifixion of the Perfect Man.
- 2 Cor 10-13; not, as generations of revivalists have thought, the use of an intellectual or reasoned approach to share the Gospel. Paul on Mars Hill, and the letter to the Romans, showed that Paul could well use that approach.
- Rev 13:8b
- Acts 19:12
© Ross Clark
This article is reprinted with permission from “Reality” magazine, New Zealand’s Christian bimonthly, available by phoning 0800-999-777 or writing Freepost 4428 c/o BCNZ, Private Bag 93-104, Henderson, Auckland 1231.