There's this great episode of the radio show This American Life where they talk about misconceptions children had that weren't corrected until adulthood. For instance one gentlemen who said,
"Isn't weird that all the families who rate TV shows have the last name Nielsen?"
Or there's another one where one guy is sitting with his friend, like in his 20s, on a bench in a park, and some deer pass by. And the guy says, "You know, they should really put up a Deer Zing sign here." And the other friend just sits in silence for a long time, and finally says, "You know Zing isn't a word, right?"
Someone else thought "misled" was pronounced, "Mizeled," the past tense of "to mizel" someone.
Another person thought quesadilla was Spanish for "what's the deal?"
Yet another person asked her co-workers who had seen a unicorn at the zoo. To be fair, unicorns aren't that much more far-fetched than a zebra or dinosaurs, so I'd forgive someone for believing they were real.
By the way, Misled Quesadilla Unicorns is a great band name.
Now, if you had a misconception that you carried into adulthood, wouldn't you want it to be corrected at some point? If you've got that piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth, wouldn't you rather someone point it out then walk around looking like a unhygienic maniac all day?
Each of us grew up and carried into adulthood misconceptions about who God is. Perhaps we imagined him as old man with a long beard sitting in a literal throne room. Maybe we thought that the God of the Old Testament was really angry, visited Dr. Phil, and became the God of the New Testament.
Here's the thing:
Whenever we ascribe a characteristic to God that's not true, we're engaging in idolatry.
1 John 5:10 puts it in even blunter terms. If we don't believe what God has said about Himself, we're calling God a liar.
So, it behooves us to study God's Word, God's testimony about Himself, and believe it. Don't believe your misconceptions about God, don't believe the lies someone has told you about God. You must be willing to unlearn what you thought you know about God, and then engage with God's Word and engage with God relationally in prayer, worship, community, and mission.
Alvin Toffler put it like this,
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
So, let's not be illiterate Christians. Let's learn, unlearn, and relearn together.
So, let me ask you a question.
Why did Jesus die?
Clearly this is a massive, important question. And there are a thousand facets to the diamond of this question. There are quite a few good answers we could talk about. And there quite a few bad answers out there as well. Let's see if one sounds familiar:
There's a story out there that says that God created humans who were innocent. Humans, however, rebelled against God. So far, so good. But here's where the story gets weird.
God, because of his infinite holiness, perfection, righteousness, and justice, could not be with sinful humanity. He could not bare to look at them, be close to them. In fact, because of His justice, God had to, needed to kill humanity. That was the only just thing to be done. God perhaps would have even liked to be in relationship with humanity, but because of the legal concept of justice, God's hands are proverbially tied.
But along comes Jesus. And Jesus says to the Father, whatever wrath, punishment, anger, or discipline you had in mind for humans, I will take it instead. So the Father, out of a need to be just and to punish sin, aims His wrath at humanity and hits Jesus instead. One writer even says, "It pleased God to bruise Jesus." The Father abandons Jesus on the cross; and Jesus dies. And now Jesus stands in the way of the Father's righteous anger, standing forever as our mediator, preventing us from being destroyed by God.
There was a Father with two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance, and went and indulged in wild living. However, the younger son came to this senses, and went back to the Father. But the Father says, "I cannot simply forgive you, it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath---my avenging justice---must be placated."
So the older son offers to do extra work in the fields in order to pay for his younger brother's penalty. And finally, when the older brother died of exhaustion, the Father's wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
In other words too many of us believe that,
Jesus died to save us from God.
But to say that Jesus died to save us from God makes about as much sense, biblically, as Misled Quesadilla Unicorns.
However, because of a far too simplistic understanding or explanation of the Gospel, we have carried this nonsense right into today. We end up saying things that are biblical nonsense like, "Jesus died so that God could forgive." Or "God could not forgive us until . . . "
So, how can we understand what is happening on the cross? Let's open up our Bibles to Romans 5:6-8.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Let's talk about 3 things. First of all, The Nature of the Trinity. Secondly, The Character of God. And Finally, our response to all of this.
Nature of the Trinity
Okay, the Trinity. No small topic.
We believe in one God who is three persons. We believe that they are distinct persons, and yet of the same essence and being.
Here's some classic, orthodox Christian statements on the Trinity. This is what Scripture teaches and what the church has affirmed from the beginning.
What the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are also. The Son and the Spirit share the divine nature with God, being "of one essence" with Him.
Every attribute of divinity which belongs to God the Father---life, love, wisdom, truth, blessedness, holiness, power, purity, joy---belongs equally as well to the Son and the Holy Spirit. The being, nature, essence, existence and life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are absolutely and identically one and the same.
Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Himself, in eternity, as well as towards the world in creation, revelation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification---the will and action of the Trinity are one: from the divine Father, through the divine Son, in the divine Holy Spirit. Every action of God is the action of the Three.
No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. And the divine action is essentially one.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each divine with the same divinity, yet each in his own divine way. Each divine action has three divine actors; there are three divine aspects to every action of God, yet the action remains one and the same.
Let's take a look at this in Scripture.
"The Son can do nothing by Himself; He can only do what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."
The Words of Jesus, John 5:19
Now this passage will be important when we start talking about God's character. Because this has massive implications. The Son only does what He sees the Father doing.
Which means when we see God the Son hanging on a cross, it tells us about the kind of God that we worship. It tells us God the Father and God the Son are united in purpose, united in character, united in their love for humanity and what they will do to show that love.
We see this concept again in Hebrews 1.
The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being. Hebrews 1:3
Another translation puts it like this,
The Son radiates God's own glory and expresses the very character of God. Hebrews 1:3, New Living Translation
What is true of God is true of Jesus; and what is true of Jesus is true of God. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. United in being, essence, purpose, and character.
So, when you tell a story about the Cross that makes it sound like God the Father wants one thing and God the Son wants another, we are rejecting an orthodox, biblical view of the Trinity.
In other words, Jesus doesn't save us from God.
JESUS IS GOD.
The Son, united with the Father and the Spirit, together reveal God's character, break the power of sin, and invite us into relationship with God.
That means that we can't use phrases like, "The Cross enabled God to forgive us," or "Without the Cross, God couldn't forgive us." That makes no sense of the Trinity. Rather --
The Cross isn't the means by which God is enabled to forgive us. The Cross demonstrates the forgiveness that God has been offering all along.
Back to Romans 5. Read it again,
But God demonstrates HIS OWN LOVE for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
Which this tells us about God's Character. God is the self-giving, self-sacrificing God. Jesus death on the cross wasn't a last-ditch effort by God to show us His love. It wasn't a stretch of God's character for Him to love us. God didn't have to grit His teeth and try really, really hard to like us.
God has always been, is today, and will always be a God willing to die and hang on a cross for you and for me.
Whatever debt of sin we carried, God is willing to pay it.
Whatever power that death held over us, God is willing to break it.
Whatever pain the world may inflect, God is willing to bare it. Because that is just who God is.
1 John 3 tells us
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. 1 John 3:8
Jesus didn't come to keep God from killing us. Jesus came, with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to destroy the evil that satan was up to. Because it's just the kind of God He is.
There is a hymn in the book of Philippians chapter 2 that goes like this,
Jesus who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, He made himself nothing.
Do you get the implications of this? Jesus' very nature is that of God. And what is His Godly nature's instinct? To empty himself. To make Himself nothing. One translator puts Philippians 2 like this,
Jesus emptied himself,
because he already had the nature of a slave,
because he had already identified with humanity.
Because we find him to appear to us like we are,
He humbled himself,
because he already was
an obedient-to-death kind of God!
One theologian puts it like this,
"What happens on Calvary reaches into the very depths of the Trinity and therefore makes its impact on the trinitarian life of God in eternity. In Christian faith the cross is always at the center of the Trinity, for the cross reveals the heart of the triune God, which beats for his whole creation.
"The definition 'God is love' acquires its full weight only if we continually make ourselves aware of the path that leads to the definition: Jesus' forsakenness on the cross, the surrender of the Son, and the love of the Father, which does everything, gives everything, and suffers everything for lost men and women. God is love: that means God is self-giving. It means God exists for us: on the cross.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ
In other words the Cross is not an exception, a weird quirk of history.
THE CROSS IS THE ULTIMATE REVELATION OF WHO GOD IS.
A God who stands in the gap for us. A God who is by His very nature self-sacrificing, self-giving, self-denying. Quite often in pastoral ministry we will be asked why God allows suffering, pain, heartache. Even Scripture itself struggles answering this question, just look at the book of Job. I've got some pretty good theories, but in the end, I don't know why God lets things happen the way that He does.
But what Scripture does reveal, and what the cross does show us, is that God is not immune to suffering or pain. When we suffer, we are not alone. We do not worship a God who is oblivious to our lot in our life. As Hebrews 4 says,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are. Hebrews 4:15
Our God is with us; our God is for us; our God loves us, and even suffers alongside us. We should never forget the Jesus' cross was alongside the crosses of two others. We never suffer alone.
The love that the Father has for humanity is shared by the Spirit and the Son; and the suffering that the Son endured on the cross was eternally felt by the Father and the Spirit.
And together, through their united love and their united sacrifice, we are made free, we are made whole, and we will be given the keys to God's Kingdom and life everlasting.
So how do we respond?
WE WORSHIP GOD AS HE TRULY IS, NOT AS WE IMAGINE HIM TO BE.
Remember what we said at the beginning: whenever we ascribe a characteristic to God that doesn't actually belong to God, that's idolatry.
Even when we add to or reduce from God's character to make us seem more righteous -- we make God to be more angry than He actually is, less loving than He actually is, more wrathful, less kind, less patient -- it's idolatry.
Some of us, out of a good intention or out of respect for our tradition, are walking around like God is waiting to strike. We are couched in fear, shame, and terror. And that betrays who we actually think God is. But here's the thing about God -- He is good. He is love. He is eager to forgive you, to embrace you, to hold you as His dear son and daughter. As the book of James says, "Mercy triumphs over judgment." When you fail, screw up, mess up, God's mercy will win every time if you would just accept it.
Here's a thought I want you to take home and ponder. The fruit of the Spirit describe God.
loving | joyful
peaceful | patient
kind | good
faithful | gentle
If the God you worship can't be described like this, I'm sorry, but that's not God. That's you.
If you can't be kind to yourself, then you probably believe that God won't be kind to you either.
If you can't be gentle to your kids, then you probably believe that God shouldn't be either.
If you can't find joy in life, then you probably find the idea of God being joyful as preposterous and insulting.
But God is each of these things to a degree passing comprehension. He is better than you can imagine.
When you remember that God is the most joyful being in the universe, then maybe finding joy won't come so hard.
If you remember that God yearns to be gentle and kind to you, then maybe allowing yourself some self-kindness won't be so impossible.
And then this loving, joyful, peaceful, patient God that we are worshipping will call us and enable us to offer that some love and joy to the world. But as the beloved disciple says,
Whoever claims to live in God must live as Jesus did. 1 John 2:6
And here is the call to holiness. Because if what is true of the Father is true of the Son is true of the Spirit, then it's also true that God wants that to be true of His people as well. If God reveals Himself, through Jesus, to be self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-denying, then God through His Spirit will sanctify and call us to be the same.
We look to the Cross to not only reveal the character of God, but also to see the call of the church. That through the love of God, we might give ourselves up for the sake of the world, even to the point of death, so that the world might know the love of God.