There is, according to someone much smarter than I am, a time to keep silent, and equally a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7). Yesterday I shared some thoughts I have learned (mostly by error) about when to keep silent. Today some rather tenuous thoughts about when it is appropriate – or even mandatory – to speak up.
(As an aside, I think it is at least worth pondering that the Preacher noted silence before he mentioned speech. Hmmm.)
So, okay, when is it a good thing to speak up? Well, if none of the four things I mentioned yesterday are present (or are at least minimally present), here are some suggestions about raising your voice. We should speak up when:
An error is being promoted, that, if not confronted, will have significant, and perhaps eternal, consequences.
I can handle it when my friends argue whether the Texas Rangers or the Houston Astros are the best baseball team in America, because, quite frankly, they are both wrong. Beyond that, the topic, while interesting, simply has no eternal significance. On the other hand, there are subjects about which we simply cannot equivocate. Admittedly this question is fraught with the possibility of abuse, because I know people who will fall on their sword over the color of the carpet in the church building. The way I have learned to separate the wheat from the chaff is to ask, “Is there a teaching from Christ or the apostles that directly links this topic to obedience to God and his nature?” Notice I did NOT say, “Is there are passage of Scripture that I can find to proof-text my answer?” In the history of the church we can find one wretched example after another of proof-texting and Scripture bending. There is a difference between Jesus’s direct teaching, and my interpretation of a passage from “the dark side of Nahum” (to steal a beautiful phrase from Fred Craddock). If you cannot tell the difference, please refer to my post of yesterday.
People are being hurt, or there is the distinct possibility that people will be hurt.
It is never acceptable to stand by and allow people to be hurt, either by words or physical action. Common sense has to apply here, and it might be that the best way to “speak up” is to call the appropriate authorities. However, silence is never an acceptable option when a person is being physically, emotionally, or verbally abused.
God’s honor is being attacked.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never reacted when HE was being attacked, yet when his Father’s house was being abused he drove the money changers from its walls? I believe there is a profound theological truth illustrated in that action. (And, this is not the place to argue about the trinity, but I do believe Jesus was divine in his earthly body – but he knew the difference between attacks against his words and attacks against God’s honor). It is true we are not “divine” in the sense that Jesus was – so we will never be tempted to think that an attack on our person is an attack on God. YEAH, RIGHT! Once again, to accurately determine whether it is our fragile ego or God’s pure honor that is being besmirched takes a great deal of maturity and discernment – but as with the above reason, it is never acceptable to allow God’s name – or his honor – to be used in a vain, disrespectful manner.
Finally, when we have been asked an honest, searching question.
It is never okay to simply duck an honest, open, searching question. Even if the best we can come up with is, “I do not have the foggiest clue what the answer to that question is.” At the very least we can be, and must be, honest. But to say, “Well, it is not really appropriate for me to talk about religion (or God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.) right now” is really just a dodge. In fact, this is one of the times in which Scripture does give us a fairly direct command – “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15). In such a situation silence is never golden.
Okay – so there are times when it is appropriate – even necessary – to speak up. I hope it goes without saying (pardon the pun) that even though the when may be obvious, the how is also just as critical. So, the last section of 1 Peter 3:15 is significant here – “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Speaking up does not always mean speaking up immediately. Sometimes (and oh, how I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago), it is better to remain silent initially, to compose our emotions and to prepare our thoughts, and only then to confront and speak when the conversation can be private (or involve only those who are necessary). And, just to repeat, sometime speaking up means contacting the appropriate authorities, and not trying to interject ourselves into violent or potentially violent confrontations.
Maybe all of this is so common sense as to be frivolous. But, if for no other reason than it is helpful to remind ourselves of these things occasionally, I hope these words have been useful.
I shared last post about silence. Today I move from silence to prayer. Silence is the ground from which prayer is grown.
In my last post I attempted to stress the critical importance of silence. God created, God spoke, out of the primordial silence. Jesus was led into 40 days of wilderness before his speaking ministry would begin. “Be still (silent)” the psalmist directs, “and know that I am God.” If there is no silence, then speech becomes meaningless. It is silence that gives meaning to our words.
Silence, however, is not our highest passion. We are not called to vows of silence. We use the silence we are given (and that which we create) in order to move into prayer. Prayer is the proper goal of silence.
I know I am in the minority when I say this (perhaps the ONLY one who would say this), but I believe Christians have destroyed the gift of prayer. Christians have trivialized it, manipulated it, commercialized it, secularized it – and emasculated it. Far from being a path into the awesome throne room of the Almighty God, we have turned prayer into a perfunctory prelude before a meal, or worse yet, the opening rite before a disturbingly violent and utterly un-godlike sporting event. We use prayer to begin a legislative session in which women are given the right to murder their children, and where laws are passed to protect and even promote the deviant lifestyle of those who pervert God’s design for human sexuality. To salve our wounded conscience we declare one day out of 365 to be a “National Day of Prayer.”
National prayer for what? Have we never read Jeremiah 7:16ff and 11:14ff? Brothers and sisters, those are terrifying passages of Scripture! How can we be so hypocritical?
What then, is prayer?
Prayer is the path I take to align my bent and broken will to that of my Father in heaven. Prayer is the process by which I submit my heart and my body to the service of my Lord. Prayer is the method of communication that God has given me so that I can be at one time utterly human, and at the same time share in his transcendence. Prayer allows us to touch the infinite. Properly understood and practiced, prayer is the most powerful gift of expression that humans are allowed to use. Is it any wonder that when Jesus’ disciples heard him pray that they begged him to teach them how to pray? How many of us get down on our knees and ask God, “Teach us to pray!”?
This partially explains why we cannot pray today. Our world is so full of our words, of our noise, of the expression of our self importance, and even our own self righteousness that we cannot grasp the single most important component of prayer – the humiliating (making humble) and purifying presence of the gift of silence. We must listen before we can pray. It is then through the penetrating silence of God’s presence that we can begin to lift our own voice.
God wants us to pray. Jesus taught his disciples (and through their words, he has taught us) how to pray. The apostles commanded unceasing and fervent prayer. It is one of the great tragedies of the church that we have taken such a gift, yes, even such a command, and have turned it into something so base, so trivial.
Are we, as Christians, really serious about prayer? Maybe we need to begin by asking God to teach us, really teach us, how to pray.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, ESV)
2015 is almost over, and for me the end of the year cannot come soon enough. I certainly hope your year has been better – exponentially better – than mine. 1990 was by far worse than 2015, but this past year comes in a solid second. I cannot remember a year in which virtually every decision, every action, every plan I made, thought, or worked on resulted in such failure, disappointment and regret. In reviewing some of the posts I wrote this year I can see how my disappointments and struggles have colored many of my posts. I have been far too “snarky” and negative. I regret that. I am told these seasons come, and I guess I need to take solace in the fact that things cannot get much worse. The law of averages has to even out somehow.
With all of that said, I want to thank all of you who regularly, or even occasionally, read this blog. I had fully intended to devote more time to writing this past year, but see the above paragraph. I have been comforted to check in and see that this space continues to receive what I feel like is a wonderful bit of attention. The blog should reach 10,000 reads this year, which is a slight decrease from last year, and not anywhere close to the major heavyweights in the blogosphere, but for me it is a deeply appreciated sign that at least some of my meandering thoughts are considered to be worthwhile.
There is one bit of trivia about what I have written that stands out to me as curious. The one post that continues to receive the most attention is the post I wrote on the difference between tolerance and indifference. That post is read almost every day, and sometimes multiple times in a day. The folks who read it never comment, so I’m not sure if people are agreeing, disagreeing, or just mildly curious, but I hope that what I said is considered thoughtfully.
It now appears certain the the Smith family will be moving from Portales in the spring or summer of 2016. What we will be doing is unknown, but I feel certain we will find a place to serve God in some capacity. Once again I do plan on writing more in this space in 2016, but we will see how that plan goes.
Before I close, I must share two very bright and joyous endeavors that I was able to celebrate in 2015. The first was when I received my diploma for my Doctor of Ministry degree. Whew! My daughter made a huge banner for our living room that said, “Congratulations Dr. Daddy Smith.” How can you feel bad when you have that kind of love from your child and wife? The second was this fall semester when I helped the Chair of our university department complete a program review for the Religion Program. It was an incredibly steep learning curve for me – but with my supervisor’s help we prepared a review that has been very well received by the administration. I feel very, very, blessed to have been a part of that process. God is good – even with all of our mistakes and failures His love never ceases, and his blessings never fail.
Once again, I want to thank you for reading, and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and holiday season, and the very best and most prosperous of years in 2016.
Paul Smith, the ol’ freightdawg
In the past several posts I have provided the reasons why I believe God did not, and indeed could not, have abandoned Jesus on the cross. As I conclude, I would like to present some inescapable conclusions that follow if we believe that somehow God did, or even wanted, to abandon Jesus. I feel that these are so serious as to be conclusive in and of themselves. I will allow you to judge for yourself.
1. If God abandoned Jesus, even for a moment, for that moment Jesus was just a human. This is in clear contradiction to the entire message of the gospel of John. If Jesus’s divinity was somehow “revoked” on the cross, then a mere human atoned for our sins. What does that say about the atonement?
2. The unity of Jesus’s church is a lie. If Jesus’s prayer for the church was based on his unity with his Father, and if that unity was “revoked” or “abandoned,” then what does that teach us about the unity of his believers? Can we accept division in Christ’s church because Jesus and his Father experienced division?
3. The comfort and guidance that Jesus promised is a lie. Jesus prayed in the garden that he would be able to accomplish God’s will. He then promised his disciples that he would be with them “always,” especially as they fulfilled his commission. If God could, and did, reject Jesus at the very moment that Jesus was fulfilling God’s will, what faith can we have in Jesus’s promise to be with us as we try to do his will?
4. Jesus’s death was ultimately unnecessary. If God was with Jesus before Jesus died, and if he was with Jesus as he died, then the atonement was accomplished simply by the suffering of Jesus. His death was superfluous.
5. God cannot be trusted. Who can, or would, trust a despot who demanded absolute fealty and then rejected his own son who is the greatest example of that fealty?
6. Jesus cannot be trusted. Jesus believed he and his Father were one. If he could be misled by the events leading up to the cross, how can he be trusted with his other words? Jesus called for his disciples to follow him up to and including the point of death. If God could, and did, reject Jesus as Jesus was obeying God, how can we trust Jesus to be with us as we follow him to his cross?
The doctrine that God abandoned Jesus is false. It is wrong textually, contextually, theologically, chronologically and historically. The doctrine has no support in the explicit or any implicit teaching of Scripture. It should, therefore, be rejected by any who claim to follow Jesus as the Son of the Living God.
As the title notes, this is post #6 in a series. If you have not been following the series, I invite you to backtrack a little over the past 5 posts.
Of all these posts I think this one is perhaps my favorite. You can argue with me about the interpretation of Psalm 22, or the meaning of Habakkuk 1:13, and certainly the finer points of the trinity and the philosophical arguments about the nature of the atonement can become arcane. However, virtually everyone can understand time, and the ramifications of past tense and present tense. Also, the logic (or illogic) of various arguments becomes crystal clear in this discussion, so I think the present topic is especially meaningful for those who do not understand what is at stake in this debate.
To begin, let us examine the chronology of the last few hours of Jesus life. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is is full unity with God, as I do not believe any “separationist” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) would argue. Note Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, and John 17:1-26.
Next we come to the series of quotations we have from Jesus on the cross.
John 19:26-27 – “Son, here is your mother, mother, here is your son.”
Luke 23:34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:43 – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (spoken to the repentant thief)
Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 – the quotation from Psalm 22:1
John 19:28 – “I thirst.” (alluded to, but not quoted, in Matthew and Mark)
Luke 23:46 – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
John 19:30 – “It is finished.”
Of the seven statements, four are specifically tied to a time (about the ninth hour, or 3 pm) or immediately before Jesus’s death. Luke’s quotation in 23:46 clearly has Jesus in a close relationship with God, his father. Matthew and Mark’s quotation of Psalm 22 with the “ninth hour” or the time period immediately preceding his death. So, Matthew and Mark place the quotation from Psalm 22 at roughly the same time that Luke has Jesus in an intimate relationship with the father.
Now – here is where we have to allow some logic to direct our thoughts. One major argument used by the “separationists” is that Jesus and the Father were separated, or to put it another way, that God abandoned Jesus, because in Jesus referred to God as “God” and not “Father.” It is inferred that if Jesus was in full unity with God he could not have used the more “distant” term of address. So, just for arguments sake, let’s play this out in terms of the clock –
In the garden – Jesus and God are unified. (No one seriously questions, to the best of my knowledge)
Early in the crucifixion sequence – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, forgive them…” and “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Jesus used the term of intimacy and familial relationship, and it would be the height of blasphemy for a mere human, bereft of any deity, to proclaim any kind of forgiveness of sin or promise of paradise to a condemned criminal!)
Whoops – God abandons Jesus because Jesus uses the word “God” and not “Father.” (Quotation of Psalm 22:1)
At the point of death – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, into your hands” and “It is finished” – emphasis on the familial term once again and the completion of his mission.
So according to the timeline thus presented, God abandoned Jesus for an exceedingly brief period of time, virtually at the same moment that he is breathing his last few breaths. But, not exactly at the time he breathes his last breaths, because at that moment he is once again one with God!
So, let me ask a question here – at what point did God become so horrified at all the sin that Jesus was bearing that he had to “turn his back on Jesus”? And at what point did he return to Jesus? And if it was the burden of sin that Jesus was bearing that made God abandon Jesus, at what point were those sins erased?
If you are riding the fence on this issue I hope something just occurred to you. According to the text of the gospel writers, God was with Jesus before he was crucified, and clearly during the first few hours on the cross. God was with Jesus as he died. Therefore, there is only a very brief window for God to “abandon” Jesus. And, if the only reason for God to abandon Jesus was the “sin” he was bearing, that sin had to be placed on Jesus AFTER his initial crucifixion, and it had to be erased BEFORE he died.
Therefore, dear reader, I would suggest that the death of Jesus was unnecessary. According to that scenario, Jesus only had to suffer pain to atone for sin. Jesus’s actual death then becomes the most horrific crime perpetrated in the entire history of God’s creation.
According to the texts provided in my last post, that is categorically NOT what the apostles preached concerning the atonement. And, therefore, this is the crux (pardon the pun) of my argument that God did not abandon, did not reject, did not turn his back on, Jesus.
Next: the conclusion – there are some profound practical issues involved if we submit to the teaching of an abandoned Christ on the cross.
So far in this series of posts I have examined Psalm 22, Habakkuk 1:13, and the nature of the trinity as arguments against the mistaken belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. At this point if you agree with me you are probably saying, “Enough, you made your point, what could be more clear?” Of course, if you disagree with me you are probably not reading this post at all, so to go on further would kind of be silly anyway. But I am not done yet – I have a number or arguments yet to mention that further support the biblical view that God was entirely with Jesus on the cross.
Today I look at how Jesus himself rejected the idea that somehow the Father would abandon him on the cross. Consider first Jesus’s words in John 16:32:
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. (RSV, emphasis mine.)
Now, a full fledged separationist (one who believes God did abandon Jesus on the cross) would point out that at this point in time Jesus was in fellowship with his father. What I want to point out is that Jesus never said, “At some point I will be alone” or “At some point the Father will abandon me.” He went out of his way to emphasize that at the point in time the disciples abandon him, he will not be alone, because his father (God) will be with him. If God did reject Jesus it was a complete shock to Jesus, and a repudiation of Jesus’s own words! I do not think many separationists stop to consider this verse, nor the one to follow:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that show has sent me and has loved them even as thou has loved me. (John 17:20-23, RSV, emphasis mine)
Notice the purpose for which this prayer is prayed – the unity of all followers of Jesus. Notice the proof that Jesus gives that such believers can be, and should be, perfectly one. That proof is the unity of God and Jesus. If that unity is destroyed, then the argument Jesus makes that all disciples should be one is also destroyed. If God can abandon Jesus, why then can Jesus’s disciples not abandon one another in times of stress and persecution? The theory of God abandoning Jesus simply destroys the concept of the trinity (last post) and invalidates the promises and prayers that Jesus spoke immediately before his death.
So, just to recap: if you believe that God abandoned Jesus you have to (1) twist Psalm 22 to mean something it most definitely does not mean. You have to also (2) take Habakkuk 1:13 out of context and make Habakkuk mean something for all time and eternity that he said once, that God later corrected him for saying, and that Habakkuk himself refuted toward the end of his writing. Finally, you have to reject all the biblical teachings of the unity and indivisible nature of the trinity, up to and including disregarding, or even disavowing, the very words of Jesus to his disciples.
It just seems to me to be an awful amount of work to do to defend a teaching that was rejected in the first couple of centuries as being heresy. Why would you want to?
Next: The New Testament (and indeed the biblical) doctrine of the atonement refutes the idea the God abandoned Jesus.
Note: in the first two installments of this series I discussed Psalm 22 and Habakkuk 1:13. If you have not read those posts please refer to them as well.
The first two posts in this series dealt with two arguments in favor of the belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross from a scriptural point of view. Both arguments were shown to be false. In Psalm 22 the psalmist himself declares that he was NOT forsaken, and in Habakkuk 1:13 it is clear that Habakkuk’s lament is NOT accepted by God, and he later demonstrates his error in a beautiful prayer and statement of faithful acceptance. With these two arguments from Scripture removed, we can now turn our attention to related evidence that further demonstrate that God did NOT forsake or abandon Jesus on the cross. The first is somewhat philosophical in nature, but certainly no less convincing. It is the argument from the very nature of God – the trinity.
To begin with I must admit that the idea of the trinity is a difficult one to understand. I’m quite sure I do not fully understand how the three aspects of God’s nature relate. Certainly the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible. However, there is much that we can learn about God’s essence, and though we will never understand everything, that does not mean we cannot understand that which has been explained to us. We must be very careful that we do not say too much, nor should we say too little.
Please consider the following Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4; John 1:1ff; John 4:26; John 8:24; John 8:58; John 9:35-37; John 13:19; John 17:1-26; and Colossians 1:15-23.
From those passages we can conclude that the greatest statement concerning the nature of God from the Israelite perspective is that He is One – singular, indivisible. There are not many gods, but one God, and He is One. This makes the passages in John even more compelling. John declared Jesus to be with God, and to even be God. Throughout his ministry Jesus declared his divine essence. The apostle Paul declared as much in his letter to the Colossians. For the early church there was no difficulty is confessing the singular essence of God while at the same time declaring that Jesus was this God. While this post is not necessarily concerned with the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit that completes the Godhead, the trinity.
How does this relate to the cross? Just this – those who suggest that God abandoned Jesus on the cross must accept that the this relationship was destroyed while Jesus was on the cross. Jesus ceased to be God. Jesus ceased to be “I am He.” Jesus ceased to be “I Am.” In fact, in one of the more popular presentations of this belief, the author clearly stated, “The trinity was ripped apart.”
As kindly and as gently as I can, while being as forceful as I can, I must say that this must be identified as pure heresy. How can God render his nature into separate pieces, and then discard one of those pieces? How can God violate his own essence, that which makes him God? How can Jesus be divine, participate in deity, and yet have that deity ripped from him?
In the first several centuries the church had to work through some very difficult questions, beginning with the nature of Jesus as both God and man. These discussions came to be known as the Christological controversies. Two teachings were clearly labeled as heretical for their opposite but equal repudiation of the deity and humanity of Christ. One was docetism, in which Jesus was viewed as pure spirit, pure God, with no real human attributes. He only seemed, or appeared, to be human. The opposite heresy was that Jesus was human alright, but there was nothing divine about his nature. He could not be human and divine, and he was obviously human, so the God part, the deity, had to go. Those who taught this belief were known as Ebionites.
When someone teaches that Jesus was forsaken on the cross, he is denying the deity of Jesus. The teaching that Jesus was somehow only human on the cross, and not God, is pure Ebionism. To argue that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is to say that God abandoned God. It is another way of saying that God was no longer God, that Jesus somehow in his most profound essence rejected Jesus himself. God, who in his trinitarian relationship is “One,” now ceases to be One. He becomes less than one. Once the trinity is ruptured, once Jesus ceases to be the “I Am,” then he becomes just another human being, broken and sinful, and at that point his death becomes merely tragic, not redemptive. A human being can sacrifice himself or herself for me, but a human being cannot redeem me to God. Only God can redeem his creation – and as the gospel of John emphatically and repeatedly declares, that is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus could only do this as God, not Jesus as sinner.
This argument is closely tied to the other issues that I will discuss in each of the forthcoming posts – the statements that Jesus himself made that refute the “separationists,” the violation of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement, major conflicts with the chronology of the crucifixion, and the profound spiritual implications that derive from the idea that God’s essence can be somehow ruptured and then repaired with no consequences.
As always, thank you for flying with me in the fog, and, agree or disagree with me, I do hope these posts stir you to greater and deeper study of the Scriptures.
Note: In the last post I discussed how Psalm 22 has been misinterpreted by some to indicate that Jesus was abandoned/forsaken by God on the cross. Today we look at Habakkuk 1:13
“Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13, RSV)
If Psalm 22 is misunderstood and misinterpreted because of a lack of awareness and careful study, then Habakkuk does not even show up on the radar screen. Quick – tell me the last time you had a Bible class on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you heard a sermon preached on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you even read Habakkuk. If you use the old “analog” paper version of the text of the Bible, can you find Habakkuk without looking at the table of contents or thumbing your way through the “little prophets?” To be perfectly honest, I cannot. I know its around Amos somewhere – but that if I get to Malachi I’ve gone too far.
That is really a shame. Habakkuk is a beautiful depiction of a prophet’s struggle with the word of God. The story is written in the form of a dialogue – first Habakkuk speaks, God answers, Habakkuk responds to God’s declaration, God responds to Habakkuk again, and finally the prophecy ends with a beautiful prayer of faithfulness by Habakkuk. In some ways the story resembles Jeremiah, in others it resembles the story of Job. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and deserves far better treatment that we usually give to it.
In 1:1-4 Habakkuk puts forth his initial lament – God is simply not paying attention to his people, the law is being ignored or abused, and God is not doing anything about it. Habakkuk wonders why God has been so unresponsive to the prophet’s cries.
In 1:5-11 God responds, and in a manner that Habakkuk could never, and would never, have imagined! God is going to send the Babylonians to punish the guilty for their lawlessness. God will respond to the crimes and the situation that Habakkuk has described, but in a manner that is simply incomprehensible to Habakkuk.
1:12-2:1 records Habakkuk’s terrified (and somewhat petulant) response – God, you must be crazy! Surely there is a better way to fix the problem than by sending the Babylonians to punish Judah. Habakkuk basically tells God that God is better than that, everything that Habakkuk knows about God would tell him that God simply would not behave in such a ghastly manner. So, after amending his complaint and setting forth his argument, Habakkuk sets down to see how God will respond (very similar, I might add, to Jonah’s petulant response and pouting gesture after preaching to Nineveh and awaiting God’s response).
Chapter 2 contains God’s detailed response to Habakkuk’s complaint. Yes, God is aware of Babylon’s reputation, their immorality, their viciousness, their cruelty. God will punish them for these crimes, but first he must use them as his tool to punish faithless Judah. Chapter two ends with that triumphant declaration that gets minimized far too often as we turn it into a sing-songy little ditty – but God is letting Habakkuk know in no uncertain terms that he, God, is God, and he has everything under control, and that Habakkuk would be better served by being a prophet than by trying to be God. Habakkuk is unqualified for the position, thank you very much.
Chapter three contains one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. Habakkuk gets the message. He understands. He accepts his demotion. Although his initial response was one of terror and revulsion, he now quietly accepts God’s judgment, because he properly accepts his position relative to God’s wisdom and power:
“I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:16b-18)
The verse that the “separationists” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) pull from Habakkuk to justify their position is 1:13, located in Habakkuk’s second lament, the one in which he rebukes God for planning to use the Babylonians to punish Judah. In context the statement is Habakkuk’s conclusion of how God should act, based on Habakkuk’s theology at that given moment. God is simply too pure, too perfect, too much “God” to use such a vicious and cruel people to fix the problem that Habakkuk had identified. The statement in question is not approved by God, and in fact, in the context of God’s correction of Habakkuk, we can confidently say that God is fully aware of the situation – his eyes are in fact NOT too pure to behold evil – but that he is utterly in control of the situation. Far from proving the point that the separationists want to make, taken in context the verse proves the exact opposite. Habakkuk is wrong. God does not need to be vindicated, Habakkuk needs to be corrected. (For what it is worth, compare Jeremiah’s bitter accusation against God in Jeremiah 20:7. Are we to take Jeremiah’s word as “gospel” and therefore declare that God is deceptive and a bully? See also Jeremiah 4:10)
Just think of the ways in which God not only was aware of evil, but actively inserted himself in evil situations to either end the evil or protect the righteous. God was certainly aware of Abraham’s lies, yet he delivered Pharaoh and protected Abimelech from the sin of taking Sarah as their wife. God certainly “saw” the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah (read Genesis 18:20-21!). Notice the verbs that are used to describe God’s involvement in the deliverance of his people from Egypt: God heard the Israelites’ groaning, he remembered his covenant, he saw their condition, and he knew their condition. This certainly does not sound to me like verbs that could be used if God was somehow incapable of viewing, or seeing, or becoming involved in a broken world. The passages taken from the Old Testament could be multiplied numerous times – but the point should be clear: God is NOT incapable of seeing nor of acting in a world in which there are sinful acts.
To turn to the New Testament we find God incarnate involving himself in scenes of evil and violence repeatedly – not to justify or promote or to participate in it but to overturn and destroy it. Jesus interjects himself in the attempted stoning of an adulterous woman. He casts wicked people out of the temple, he allows women of ill repute not only to touch him, but to weep profusely over him. On a daily basis Jesus inserted himself into a bent and broken world for the express purpose of bringing healing to that which was broken and to straighten out that which was bent. I will have much more to say about Jesus’s role in actively confronting evil in the next post as I discuss the importance of the trinity. Let this paragraph suffice to demonstrate that if God could not be in the presence of evil, then we have all kinds of theological problems as Jesus swam in a figurative ocean of evil and sin.
To aver that God had to abandon Jesus on the cross because “he could not bear to look on evil” is a violation of Scripture in a number of ways. It is a blatant twisting of a passage of Scripture out of context. It refuses to consider any conflicting information from other passages of Scripture. It is proof-texting in the worst possible manner. There is simply no other way to describe it. To use Habakkuk 1:13 to justify the erroneous teaching that God abandoned Jesus is just horrific theology. Let us be done with such practices.
Next: What about the trinity? What about the relationship between God and Jesus?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)
When we begin to look at the mistaken idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross the first place we must turn is the opening line of Psalm 22. I find it incredible to discover that some people do not even know that Jesus was quoting Ps. 22:1 as he suffered on the cross, (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:35) but even those who do recognize the quotation have rarely bothered to discover WHY Jesus quoted that single verse. Examining the Psalm goes a long way toward refuting the claim that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
As I understand the most common explanation of the “Separators” (as I will call them, those who believe God separated from Jesus on the cross), we can see that God had abandoned Jesus because Jesus addressed God with his formal title, “God,” as opposed to his familial relationship (“Abba father,” see Mark 14:36). This is either an admission that the speaker is not aware of Psalm 22:1, or rejects any specific connection to the Psalm. So, recognizing that Jesus was indeed quoting (verbatim, that is) from Psalm 22:1, is there any specific reason why he would choose that Psalm? Let us turn to Psalm 22 and read.
The first thing that we note in reading Psalm 22 is that the first 21 verses are among the most specific and emotionally laden laments in the Old Testament. It is an emotionally draining Psalm to read.
In the first 2 verses the psalmist sets the tone for the entire poem – he feels utterly rejected by God. He prays, but there is no response. This is a continual prayer, not a one-and-done prayer. It is un-ending, and fervent.
In verses 3-5 he confesses that this result is radically out of God’s nature. His entire faith has been built around the idea that God hears, God responds, God delivers. But he himself has found no hearing, no deliverance. This result is shocking, and deeply disturbing to the psalmist.
In verses 6-8 the psalmist returns to his misery – he even despairs of his life – he is a worm, and no man. Everyone who sees him mocks him. It is one thing to be in physical or emotional pain, but to have all his nearest friends turn from him is almost more than he can take.
In verses 9-11 there is a return to the way he thinks it ought to be – once upon a time God took care of the psalmist, why not now? The situation is desperate, almost critical. Where is God? Why is the God who once was there, no longer there?
Verses 12-18 contain the bulk of the lament, the most graphic and specific complaints. And it is in verses 12-18 that we see the greatest connection to the events of the crucifixion. Some have even used the word “prophetic” in regard to Psalm 22, but I do not like to think of the Psalms as prophecy. The psalmist is not “prophesying” anything – he is lamenting a very real and deplorable situation in his life – one the demands immediate attention from a God that has gone AWOL.
However, in verses 19-21 the psalmist returns to his faith – almost as if he is dredging up one more bucket of brackish water to his parched lips in the hopes that he can survive one more hour, one more day.
And then, right there in-between verse 21 and 22 there is a massive change. You cannot miss it – not if you read the Psalm for the Psalm and not try to make it something that it is not. The change in tone between 21 and 22 is palpable, and theologically as well as emotionally decisive.
The reader is not told what happens, but something earth changing happens to the psalmist. From verses 22-31 the psalmist is no longer in the mode of lament. The last third of the Psalm is pure rejoicing, celebration, and worship. It will not do for the psalmist to rejoice alone – no, he must go and proclaim his great good fortune to the assembly. And, pay very careful attention to verse 24
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24, RSV)
Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” ends with the confession, rather the boisterous proclamation, that God never did forsake the psalmist, never did abandon the psalmist. The remainder of the psalm is one of the greatest affirmations of the glory and righteous rule of God anywhere in the Psalter.
Just for comparison, consider Psalm 73. The first 14 verses follow the same pattern as the early verses of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist complains bitterly and confesses that “…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps has well nigh slipped.” (v. 2) But, he did not stumble, his steps did not slip, because in v. 15 there is another one of those massive shifts, an “epiphany” if you will. The psalmist in Psalm 73 entered into the sanctuary of God and realized how wrong his earlier thoughts had been. We are not told of the circumstances of the shift in Psalm 22, but the result is remarkably similar. Psalm 22 and 73 and two examples of this transformative type of Psalm. They communicate through their words, to be sure, but their structure is critical to understanding the message of the psalm.
Why have I gone to such lengths to discuss Psalm 22? Because, when you remove Psalm 22 as a declaration of utter abandonment, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially no theological sense, to use the opening phrase as a declaration of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. If the psalmist was not abandoned, how can this verse be used as evidence that Jesus was abandoned? Do the “separators” believe that Jesus was so ignorant of the Psalm that he was quoting that he did not know it was a raucous anthem of the presence of God and ultimate deliverance? What kind of theological illiterate do some of these individuals think that Jesus was?
There is a literary method of using one small part of a whole to refer to the entire body, it is called “synecdoche.” Many scholars believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing here with this Psalm as he quotes the first line on the cross. He is quoting a poem, or the first line at least, that ends in triumph. True, only the first line is quoted in the gospels, but that does not in and of itself mean he did not later quote more of the Psalm. Those who knew the Psalm would know how it ended, whether he finished the Psalm or not.
I have no way of knowing whether or not that is Jesus’s intention. We only have the first line, and we certainly cannot read Jesus’s mind as he suffered on the cross. But this much is clear – he is not quoting a Psalm of abandonment and rejection, but a Psalm of great faith and worship.
Two more quick points and I must cease. First, I believe it is noteworthy that both Matthew and Mark drew attention to the quotation of the Psalm NOT because of the content of the opening line, but because everyone in hearing distance MISUNDERSTOOD what Jesus was saying, and they believed he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. It is as if the evangelists were drawing specific attention to the fact that even in his last few minutes on this earth, Jesus was still being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Sadly, that misinterpretation continues even today.
And, finally, I cannot leave Psalm 22 without making the point that canonically, the lament (and therefore the great rejoicing) of Psalm 22 leads directly into the most beloved of all Psalms of God’s presence – Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” This was not an accident of just throwing some poems down on the table and seeing which came up first. This structure is intentional, and the juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and 23 is profound. God not not abandon. God does not desert. God does not forsake. Indeed, God, the LORD, is my shepherd. I fear nothing, need nothing, but am tenderly loved and cared for.
He did not abandon any Israelite psalmist, and he certainly did not do so to his own Son, Jesus.
Next installment: The misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13
It’s been a while since the ol’ Freightdawg put on his theology cap and went for a walk out into the fog. Recent events have spurred me on to do just that, so I am announcing a new series that I will begin either later today, or tomorrow at the latest. The topic is one that has occupied me for quite some time, and at one point was actually a stimulus to return to school to earn the Doctor of Ministry degree. The topic I will be discussing is the belief, quite false as I will demonstrate, that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
For some reason this is a deeply held belief by many people, both the erudite and the painfully ignorant. As near as I can determine there is only one reason for holding this belief, and only two very weak propositions used to defend the belief. As I will demonstrate, the reason many people hold the belief may not be overcome, but the two propositions used in defense can certainly be proven to be misunderstandings and distortions.
I will work through seven installments (as they are planned now), and end with some concluding remarks. I intend to demonstrate that the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is false because:
- It is based on a misunderstanding and distortion of Psalm 22
- It is based on a misunderstanding and distortion of Habakkuk 1:13
- It requires an indefensible violation of the trinity
- Jesus flatly denied that it would or did occur
- It violates the later New Testament doctrine of the atonement
- It cannot be sustained by any reasonable chronology of the event of the crucifixion
- It results in many significant practical issues
If you hold to this opinion, I hope you will stay with me through the entire series. If you follow me carefully I believe you will be forced to change your mind. If not, you will have to work much harder to defend this belief. If you have always felt uncomfortable with the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross, but just did not know how to answer the teaching, I hope you will stay with me as well as I will share with you how to confront this false teaching.
As I mentioned above, this particular topic has interested me for well over a decade, and has resulted in several spirited conversations with those who disagree with me. I present this series not as an attack on any single individual, but rather as a demonstration that there are a number of beliefs that we hold, sometimes quite emotionally and fervently, that have absolutely no basis in Scripture. But, as I have repeated almost to the point of nausea, theology matters! Good theology heals and strengthens. Bad theology sickens and kills.
I look forward to demonstrating how good theology overcomes bad theology, and any teaching that would suggest God turned his back on Jesus cannot be good theology.