While We Were Yet Unworthy…

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

A disproportionate amount of my time sheltering in place was spent watching videos of people I don’t know hanging out of their apartment windows and clapping. This nightly occurrence all over the world had an emotional grip on me, in part because of our innate desire to honor and celebrate those who are worthy of our praise. Even in our increasingly divided and polarized political world, we find common ground offering a meager gift to those who risk their own well-being in order to serve their fellow man. At a minimum, we should all be able to agree that doctors and nurses treating critically ill patients at risk to their own health deserve nothing less than a hearty round of applause.

In this season we deem medical professionals worthy of our admiration. The praise we give them, as paltry as it seems, honors their sacrifice. What happens, though, when someone receives a gift they don’t deserve? When honor is given to someone who isn’t deemed worthy? The focus of our attention shifts. We take our gaze off of the receiver and look back to the giver. Our shifted-gaze back to the originator of the gift – the gift of salvation – is the subject of the third article in this series. At the cross, God displayed his love for mankind, as seen especially in the unworthiness of the recipients of the gift of the cross.

The story of Hosea and Gomer provides a captivating example of one’s unworthiness in comparison to the gift offered. Hosea was one of God’s highly-esteemed prophets. Gomer was akin to the town prostitute. And yet God commanded Hosea to take Gomer as his bride. Hosea obeyed God, but instead of answering his kindness with faithfulness, Gomer wandered. Again, Hosea called her away from the arms of another lover and back to fidelity with himself. She was undeserving of his love, and yet he was faithful to give it. What do we make of a man like Hosea? Is he an anomaly in Scripture? Or is he one of many examples that show this pattern of undeserved love, a gracious gift given to an unworthy recipient?

The cowardly liar Abraham didn’t deserve the blessings God bestowed on him. The cheating Jacob didn’t deserve to be the father of Israel. Joseph’s wicked brothers didn’t deserve his forgiveness and provision. The murderer Moses didn’t deserve to have such a highly esteemed position before God. The grumbling people of Israel who preferred to return to slavery didn’t deserve the manna God provided every day. I could continue. Page after page of Scripture shows one disproportionate relationship after another, a generous gift offered to an unseemly recipient.

Of all those pictures of undeserved gifts, none illustrates the point more clearly than the cross where Jesus died for those who were unworthy. He did not die for the lovely. He did not come for those who had earned His affection. He came to rescue the vilest of sinners. He came to pursue in love those who were in an attempted coup against Him. He is the handsome prince who desires to husband the ugly whore. At the cross we see God’s love for His people magnified because He died for those who did not deserve it.

While We Were Yet Sinners

Scripture defines our praise for God in light of our unworthiness to receive such a sacrificial gift. Paul wrote in Romans, ‘One will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die’ (Rom. 5:7). We were neither righteous nor good when God enacted His rescue plan for sinners. When God sent Jesus into the world to die on our behalf, we were in outright rebellion against God. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8). Do you see how God says He demonstrates His love for us? It is our unworthiness to receive the gift of Christ’s death that makes tht love magnificent.

Isn’t one of the deepest desires in all of our lives to be fully known and still fully loved? God is keenly aware of who we are in our sin, and yet He offers to us His sacrificial, bottomless, unconditional love. He willingly lays down his life for his people, aware of our rebellion, our filth, and our unworthiness of his sacrificial gift. As our maker, He knows us intimately. He knows things about us we have not yet discovered for ourselves. And yet His love for us has no time limit and no end. Nothing can cause His love to weaken or fray or ever fall away. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ (Rom. 8:35). Paul asks the question and then answers it, ‘I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:38-39). Because of the cross of Christ, we can see clearly God’s vast and endless love for His people.

Weep No More

The aged apostle John, exiled to the island of Patmos, had a prophetic vision in which the scroll representing God’s purposes in history was sealed, and there was no one worthy to open it. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” cried a mighty angel, the question echoing in despair as no one – not even the great ones – in that throne room scene was found worthy. “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly.” But one of the elders stopped John’s lament with these words: “Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:2-5) John turned to see this conquering, victorious Lion who was the lone one deemed worthy to open the scroll, but instead he saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” And the creatures and the elders bowed before Jesus singing this new song:

            ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
            for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
            from every tribe and language and people and nation…” (Rev. 5:9)

The world honors those who are found worthy of earthly praise. Those who get the most votes. Or conquer with power. Or achieve great things by their intellect and hard work. But heaven praises as worthy the one who was slain, who brought life through his death and lavished an eternally rich salvation on the unworthy.

Read Jenny’s previous articles on God’s display of his character at the cross here and here. These articles are excerpts from Jenny’s new book, The Good Portion: Christ.

Next week, look for the beginning of a series of Bible studies and devotionals on Romans 6. Submit your email to subscribe to make sure not to miss anything.

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.

Holiness Displayed

When I was a toddler and my older brother Matt was in first grade, he rode the school bus each morning to school. One particularly memorable spring morning, the bus full of children arrived at its usual stop while my mom was still urging my brother to put down Batman and hurry to the bus stop. By the time my brother reached the bus, its doors had just closed, and the other neighborhood children were already finding their seats. I’m still not sure if the bus driver did not see my brother or just wanted to teach him a lesson about timeliness, but he drove away toward the next stop while my brother was still trying unsuccessfully to pry open the doors. My mom, watching this all unfold from our front door, saw my brother’s superhero self-assurance take over, as he decided he could catch the moving bus – whose wheels were taller than he was.

My father heard the commotion from my mom and came out of his bedroom just in time to see Matt running down the middle of the street dangerously close to oncoming traffic and a moving school bus. This would be a dilemma for any loving father. But unfortunately for everyone involved, the problem was compounded because my dad was in the middle of getting dressed.

In the following split second, my dad made a decision that would become folklore in our small hometown. Without hesitation or trousers, he darted out the front door running after my brother. By the time my dad caught up with Matt, the neighbors had come out of their homes, alerted to the unfolding drama by my mom’s horrified screams and a nearly-naked grown man running down the street. Fortunately, before my brother caught up with the school bus, my dad scooped my brother into his arms and carried him safely home. The neighbors were speechless as they watched my dad, far more concerned about his son than he was about the public appearance of his underwear.

Prior to this episode, my father had said things to my brother, older sister, and me like, ‘I would do anything to protect you all.’ We heard him say this, but we had not seen the lengths to which he was actually willing to go for us. After the episode of his running down the street in his underwear, we understood our father was willing to sacrifice his own good (and pride) if it meant protecting us. That spring morning’s activities were a clear demonstration of this aspect of his character. He loved us and was willing to fiercely protect us, even at his own expense. Along with his underwear, we all saw my dad’s character on display in dramatic fashion.

For centuries, God had been revealing aspects of his character to his people that they had not yet fully seen demonstrated. But it was at the cross that God’s character was seen dramatically and clearly. All creation could see God’s holiness, righteousness and justice, as well as his grace and love displayed in powerful clarity at the cross of Christ Jesus. Today, we will look more closely at how the cross of Christ displayed the holiness of God. In the following few weeks we will consider how Jesus’ death displayed other aspects of God’s character.

Holiness Displayed

The holiness of God is perhaps his most defining characteristic, and while God ensured his people knew of his holiness in the Old Testament (Exod. 3:1-4, 17; Exod. 19:16-24; 2 Sam. 6:1-11), the cross provides a significantly clearer picture of it. God’s holiness encompasses his moral purity, although there is a second use of the word in Scripture we must keep in mind. Scripture’s use of the word holiness usually refers to being separate or intentionally set apart for God’s use. God met Moses in a burning bush and even the ground around the bush was set apart as holy. Aaron was ‘set apart’ as the first high priest to make offerings to God and pronounce blessings from God (1 Chron. 23:13). His lineage became the priestly line, separate from the rest of the tribes of Israel to keep the holy worship of God according to God’s command. The center of the tabernacle was set apart as the Most Holy Place (Lev. 16) because that is where God’s presence dwelled. No one could walk into that room nonchalantly and live.

Unholy people cannot be in fellowship with a holy God. They have not been set apart for God’s use, and they have no right to his morally pure presence. Our sin keeps us separated. The cross then is the only answer to the question of how a holy God can be reconciled to an unholy people. Through a perfectly holy mediator our sin can be paid for and we can be declared righteous. We can be set apart to be in the presence of God.

The only acceptable form of payment for treason against a holy God is a perfectly holy substitute for us. Our guilt is punished in Jesus, and he transfers to us his righteousness so that we can be made right with a holy God. Through this exchange of our sin for God’s righteousness, God upholds his holy character by punishing sin and declaring his people holy in Christ. This does not compromise God’s own holiness and righteousness. Instead, he removes our dirty sandals and gives us new metaphorical shoes so we can stand on his holy ground.

This great exchange – our sin for his righteousness – is what Paul boasts about to the Corinthians when he writes, ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21). If you are in Christ, his righteousness now belongs to you. In theological terms, it has been imputed to you. This exchange rate is unbeatable. We trade in our sin and – in return – we get the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus. Cloaked in the righteousness of Christ, we are able to freely enter the most holy place. At the death of Jesus, the curtain in the temple separating the outer court from the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom, signifying that sin would no longer separate God’s people from Him. Those who enter through Christ enter into the very presence of God (Matt. 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). Our perfect high priest has already made eternal atonement for us, and our sin no longer prevents us from approaching the holy God.

The Riches Found at the Cross

How foolish of us to brush past an enormous truth like this without meditating on the richness of it. At the cross, your biggest problem has been solved, and you contributed nothing to its solution. Your greatest boast has been accomplished, and your contribution? Absolutely zilch. In God’s vast wisdom, he simultaneously revealed his holy character and accomplished salvation for his people. I can think of other routes that God could have taken to clearly reveal his holiness, but they all end in eternal punishment of man. Only through the cross of Christ was God able to fully reveal himself as holy and altogether separate from sin, and yet also accomplish salvation for his people. Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33)

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