Glorious Justice at the Cross

The second article on God’s display of his character at the cross from The Good Portion: Christ.

How do you react when you go through trials you don’t deserve? What do you do when you witness the unfair treatment of another? In the current climate, what are you thinking about justice?

We often associate Jesus with mercy. A common theme in the Gospels is that he showed mercy to societies’ outcast. Tax collectors, those in poverty, and even lepers benefited from his compassion. We don’t have to linger long in the text to see examples of this aspect of Jesus’ character. But what does Jesus have to do with justice?

Scripture tells us Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and is the clearest revelation we have of the full character of God. Observing Jesus’ life, his death, and all that was accomplished in both pulls back the curtain so we can see clearly who God is and what he is like. In the last post, we considered that Jesus’ death on the cross revealed God’s holiness. But it revealed even more about God.

We know that because God is holy, he demands punishment for sin. Scripture refers to his demand for moral perfection as His righteousness and justice. These English words are how we generally translate the concept that God does not answer to any other authority for a code of conduct or moral standard. He does not answer to any lesser thing because he is the very definition of righteousness. No one and no thing is more morally pure than he is.

Paul explained to the Romans that ‘[Jesus’ death] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins’ (Rom. 3:25). In what sense had former sins been passed over prior to the cross? In the Old Testament, God showed a tremendous patience toward his sinful people. In scene after scene of the Old Testament, God did not deal with sin as it deserved. His people both corporately and individually disobeyed him, and yet God continued to spare them. At times his wrath would burn hot, and He would send a plague, famine, or neighboring army to punish the people for their wickedness, but the problem of sin was not comprehensively addressed on the scale which it warranted. Their sins were often (but not always) punished, but their Sin was not. ‘The times of ignorance God overlooked’ is how Paul explained God’s patience in addressing sin (Acts 17:30). In His mercy, God continued to allow His sinful people to live. Even the prophet Micah laments the wickedness of the people and asks the legitimate question, ‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression…?’ (Micah 7:18). In praise the Psalmist repeats this truth about God, ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities’ (Ps. 103:10). These questions highlight God’s mercy, but how can a God who doesn’t punish sin be just?

But What about Justice?

After David’s infidelity with Bathsheba and his wickedness toward her husband Uriah the Hittite, the prophet Nathan rebuked King David, who in turn confessed his sin before the Lord. And then astonishingly Nathan responds, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die’ (2 Sam. 12:9-13). A first-time reader of this passage should gasp. David took another man’s wife and then had that man killed in battle, and the Lord just ‘put away’ his sin? Where is the justice in that for Uriah, or even Bathsheba? How can a good God not punish wickedness? One might be tempted to think God could just look away and disregard sin as irrelevant or unimportant whenever He wanted to, but that would mean He is unjust and does not treat sin as it deserves. The sinner would surely appreciate such mercy, but what about the victim? Where is the justice for the innocent?

God could not simply ‘put away’ sin and maintain His justice at the same time. He could not be a God of righteousness without comprehensively addressing the problem of sin. His patience toward sinners should not be mistaken for apathy toward sin. Back to what Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘[Jesus’ death] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.’ Jesus’ death on the cross displayed God’s perfect righteousness and justice. The sin, like David’s, that had been passed over for centuries was finally given the knock-out blow it deserved. All the sins for all God’s children for all time were laid on Jesus when He died, and all the world could see the glory of God’s righteous character on display as His wrath poured out for this sin.

The other way in which God’s righteousness and justice are clearly seen in the cross is by observing the lengths that God went to maintain this part of His character. The Father was willing to send His only Son into the world to die a humiliating death in order to punish sin in the way His justice required. For God to be a righteous and just God, sin could not be ignored. It had to be confronted. And punished. Jesus Himself was willing to suffer and die – even taking the punishment on Himself – in order to address sin in a way that upheld the character of God.

In recounting God’s faithfulness to generations, Asaph said of God, ‘He restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath’ (Ps. 78:38). It is a myth that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and angry, but the God of the New Testament is not. Just like it’s a myth that the God of the New Testament is loving, but the God of the Old Testament is not. In episode after episode, God shows Himself incredibly patient with, and merciful to, sinners for generations and generations. God waited to deal with sin as it deserved. At the cross, we see God’s glorious justice enacted toward sin as the God-man Jesus bore the punishment for the sins of His people.

What about Me?

Do you ever consider God’s justice when you take account of your own life? Do your trials ever seem ‘unfair?’ We can be confident that a God who goes to such great lengths to protect His justice is a God who is always acting in a just and right manner. We cannot complain that our circumstances are unfair when we look at the cross. Jesus is the only person in history who was punished when He deserved none. Would you reconsider your accusation against God as being unfair for the trial you find yourself in? Whatever the current trial you are experiencing, it has been designed by a just God to bring about your growth in righteousness–to make you more like Christ.

And yet, because we see Jesus’ death proclaiming our God who displays justice perfectly, we know we too should be people who care about what is just. We should be people who fight on behalf of those who are weak and treated unfairly. Our reputations should be that we stand up for justice when it is lacking, whether in the lives of individuals, corporations, or nations. As those in Christ, we should reflect the heart of our Savior – loving mercy and demonstrating justice.

Subscribe to this blog to receive Jenny Manley‘s next article on God’s display of his character at the cross. Read the first article here. These articles are excerpts from Jenny’s new book, The Good Portion: Christ.

The Status Change We All Need

Here’s a little taste of my book, The Good Portion: Christ, from The Gospel Coalition Blog.

As a mother of five young children, it’s not unusual for complete strangers to ask about my family. The question I hear most often at the grocery store or the playground is, “Are they all yours?” The most awkward I hear is, “Do you not believe in birth control?” But the most surprising came one spring afternoon when my children and some of their entrepreneurial friends set up a lemonade stand in front of our house. Someone stopped their car to ask me the name of our school. I took that as a compliment. They could’ve asked, “What is the name of your circus?” 

One of the sweetest questions I often hear is, “Who does he/she look like?” It’s an obvious question when we see a child. We look to see whom they resemble. Children inherit physical features from their parents, but parents also pass on things like habits and genetic medical history. We look to the older generation to see things we want to imitate or avoid as we get older. This is natural. Watching our parents gives us a foreshadowing of what life may be like down the road. 

God also raised up men in history whose lives help us better understand Jesus: human figures given to foreshadow his life and help us to understand his work more clearly. 

Read the rest of the excerpt.

Look to 20-Year-Old Jesus This Easter

The week that so joyfully defines the reason for Christian hope has been eerily replaced with empty baskets, vacant pews, and untasted communion. Even so, we continue celebrating the events that happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago as the only hope sinful men have to be reconciled to a holy God. 

But we do so more quietly this year. Not in large gatherings, sunrise services, and loud choruses of corporate worship. Christians around the world this year will celebrate in our homes, meagerly offering unpretentious and humble praise. Perhaps while we contemplate and celebrate the victory of the resurrection, we should do so with 20-year-old Jesus in mind.

What was Jesus like as a 20-year-old? 

We have thorough accounts of Jesus’s distinctive entrance and dramatic exit from the world, but Scripture does not provide us with many details about his early adulthood. We know a smattering of facts about Jesus as a boy, most notably that at age 12 his parents accidentally left him in Jerusalem after a Passover trip, only to find him in the synagogue three days later, tending to his Father’s business. But the Gospels don’t record much else for the next 18 years until his famous encounter with John the Baptist. So what was he doing as a young adult?

Obedience of the Incarnate Word

Scripture speaks loudly about this crucial age of Jesus’s development in a small detail found in the Gospels. Jesus had already healed the sick, cast demons out of the possessed, silenced a storm, and raised a girl from the dead when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. On the Sabbath he began teaching in the local synagogue, likely the one where he studied as a boy. Those present were surprised at the power and wisdom with which he exposited the Scriptures. They asked, “Is this not the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3). The incarnate Son of God’s reputation in his own hometown was not as an insightful spiritual leader or eloquent teacher. He was known around town simply and most notably for his skilled labor. The One who created all things by the power of words was known primarily for making things with his hands. 

For years, Jesus took up Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter, learning the trade from his earthly father as he was made ready for the work of his heavenly Father. Scripture’s silence on these 18 years speaks loudly—Jesus worked six-times longer doing manual labor than doing public ministry! Yet these hidden, tedious years at a workman’s bench were not in vain. For while he was crafting pieces of wood into useful items for others, he was being made ready to hang on a beam of wood himself.

One relevant hint is found in Hebrews 5:8: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Although mysterious, this passage must be speaking to the humanity of Christ, for the emphasis is on learning. The divine, all-knowing Son did not have to learn anything. But as the man Jesus learned to obey and trust his Father, and as he was tempted without succumbing to sin, he became the perfect (also translated “complete”) sinless man. And as the sinless man, he became our only suitable substitute, the source of eternal salvation. The passage suggests the incarnate Word of God learned obedience throughout the entirety of his earthly life, not simply in a singular act of suffering.

Learning Through Suffering

With each instance of suffering in his life, with each temptation, he learned to obey the Father. Each small moment of trusting his Father in adversity prepared him for the next and bigger one until, ultimately, he was able to obey the Father’s will unto death. 

With each instance of suffering in his life, with each temptation, he learned to obey the Father. 

Bruce Ware helps us understand this profound reality:

As the Son learned to obey the Father in earlier times of “lighter” divine demands upon him and consequent “lighter” suffering—lighter, that is, in comparison both to the divine demands and the suffering he would encounter in the end, as he obeyed the Father in going to the cross—these earlier experiences of faith in the Father’s provision, protection, and direction prepared him for the greater acts of obedience he would need to render as he got nearer to the time of the cross. 

What “lighter” suffering did Jesus experience in his life that equipped him for the cross? Ware refers to “the training program necessary to prepare Jesus for the later and much harder obediences that were to come.” We can only speculate what afflictions he experienced in those 18 years. 

It seems reasonable to assume his daily suffering was not less than ours. Life wasn’t easy in first-century Palestine, and Jesus had an unimaginably difficult task to accomplish in the end. Years of manual labor also surely helped prepare his body for the physical challenges of his public ministry. For the three years detailed in the Gospels, he spent most of his time in active ministry—preaching, teaching, healing, and so on. He was with people and traveling for the majority of those years. Calculating only his recorded journeys, he walked more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km.) on foot during that time. He needed a strong physical constitution, and 18 years of manual labor prepared him for it. 

Training in Small Things for Bigger Things

Never undervalue the training in which God may currently have you, whether you’re staying home or on the front lines of fighting a global pandemic. Does the position God has called you to feel small and insignificant? Does this lockdown season feel like an inconvenient pause to your plans?

In your temptation to think life is on hold or going nowhere, remember: your faithfulness in the “small” things God has called you to may be preparing you for faithfulness in “bigger” things. God may be strengthening your muscles of obedience and faithfulness now in preparation for something that will require greater stamina and fitness. 

Just as God didn’t waste any of the Savior’s suffering, he’s not wasting your days this Easter week either. In his hands, even the smallest and seemingly most “foolish” obediences can be used for ends more glorious than you can possibly imagine.

This article originally appear at The Gospel Coalition on April 10, 2020.

Jenny Manley lives on the Arabian Peninsula, where she serves in an international evangelical church with her pastor husband, Josh, and their five children. Previously, she served as chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. Helping women from all over the world study Scripture in a Christ-exalting way is one of her greatest joys. She is the author of the new book The Good Portion: The Doctrine of Christ for Every Woman (Christian Focus, 2020).