God at War
Many countries designate at least one day a year when they honor the tragic deaths of soldiers who gave their lives in battle. In the United States, Memorial Day comes in the month of May. A visit to Washington, D.C., with its many war memorials, is a telling reminder of the horror of war. Arlington National Cemetery has acres of little white markers on the graves of the beloved members of so many families. The black marble wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists thousands of engraved names of young men and women—sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins, dads, and moms still missed by their families—cut down before they could live out their lives. The sheer number of names causes one to wonder how different the history of the United States might have been if all these brave soldiers had not been slaughtered in the prime of life in war and instead had enriched the world with their abilities and strengths. War memorials rightly testify to the deadly cost of war. Warfare is a ghastly reality of this world, and it is fitting that once a year those who have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives are honored.
According to Scripture, a great cosmic war between Christ and Satan is raging. Virtually every book of the Bible speaks about God’s warring activities, describing fierce hostilities with His enemy since the Fall (Genesis 3). At that time Adam and Eve chose to believe the sly, lying words of the serpent, which demonstrated chat God had an enemy, that sin had already invaded the universe. When cursing the serpent after the couple’s ill-chosen decisions, God sharply delineated the two sides of this great conflict: “‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel’” (vs. 15, NKJV).1 Ever since, every person has been affected by this vicious conflict.
After crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel sang, “‘The Lord is a man of war’” (Ex. 15:3). Tens of thousands of weaponless Israelites had narrowly escaped death from the Egyptian monarch, who determined to defy God and to enslave His people. Their miraculous deliverance was striking evidence of God’s warring nature.
The New Testament continues, presenting the cosmic battle between Christ and Satan, with the Cross as its climax. Paul referred to this conflict with distinctly combative language: “And you, being dead in your trespasses . . . He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, . . . having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:13–15). Christ, the Divine Warrior, did not come to wage war against Israel’s political enemies (at that time, the Romans) but to fight an even more deadly foe—the devil himself. And it cost Him His life.
It is nearly impossible to wrap words around the nature of Christ’s death on the cross. At the time, such a death was considered to be ignoble and shameful, reserved for the most despicable criminals. The crucifixion of Christ also appeared to be Satan’s ultimate success. He thought he had achieved a goal that had seemed beyond his reach. But the Cross was, in fact, the zenith of glory. What appeared to be the death of God and the dissolution of the Trinity was actually the most glorious demonstration of justice and mercy possible. Though Jesus was apparently powerless and died on the Cross, He was actually earning victory over His archenemy.
This is the heart of the gospel, and it is based on an astonishing reversal. God won the paramount conflict, not by killing but by dying. Scripture closes as it opens, highlighting the brutal war between Christ and Satan but now presenting the final divine victory. In fact, one of the most dramatic portraits of Jesus as a Mighty Warrior is found in Revelation: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (19:11–16).
Though the decisive battle has been fought and won, the cosmic war still continues, piling up extensive casualties. Many Christian churches exhibit a memorial for the decisive battle in this long-lasting conflict. They use a replica of what God Himself erected—the Cross.
But there on Mount Calvary, on that “old rugged cross,” hung a condemned criminal who most people didn’t recognize as God. “Oh, sure, you’re the Messiah. You don’t look like God to me,” they taunted and sneered at Him as He was dying. Crucifixion was designed to inflict maximum pain and humiliation. The harshness of the event is a crucial aspect of understanding the incredible grace that is offered from that cross. A cross was not a welcome sight then. And with handsome, artistic representations of the Cross on churches, church bulletins, and Christian materials, it is easy to forget how ugly and despised the cross really was when Jesus died. It was the ultimate punishment in the first century.
The difference between modern celebrations of Easter and Christmas is a curious phenomenon. Public commemorations for the Easter season are never as extensive as they are for Christmas, with its extravagant holiday decorations adorning storefronts and homes. Christmas music is broadcast on most radio stations for weeks. Of course, modern Christmas merchandising has little, if anything, to do with the birth of the Christ Child. Yet it can hardly be denied that Christmas has become the focal point of the yearly calendar. The Easter season just doesn’t call forth the same lavish attention. If anything, Easter festivities last only a day and are often linked with bunnies and jelly beans.
Significantly, this modern priority is reversed in Scripture. In the New Testament, Christmas is not the primary focus. The four Gospel accounts of the Messiah’s life focus attention on the events leading up to and including the crucifixion. The staggering miracle of the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas story, is barely mentioned by comparison. The opening chapters of Matthew and Luke contain the treasured record of the Christmas miracle. However, Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist and contains no mention of Bethlehem—Christ is already an adult when Mark’s narrative begins. Similarly, the Gospel of John also begins with John the Baptist. Mark and John omit any details of the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke include it, yes, but selectively in comparison to the adult life of Jesus.
However, both Luke and Matthew, after their recounting of the birth of Baby Jesus, quickly shift emphasis. In fact, all four Gospel writers, rather than providing detailed, informative accounts of Christ’s childhood and early adult life, move quickly into the events leading up to and including the Crucifixion. Though only two Gospels mention Christ’s birth, all four Gospels contain a pointed focus on the week of Christ’s death. One-third to one-half of each of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is devoted to one week of time—they all rivet attention on the Cross.
Despite the astounding miracle of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem, His 30 years in Nazareth, His profound teaching, and His mighty miracles of power and compassion, these vital events are not the central focus of the New Testament record of Christ’s life. What dominates the Gospels is the death of Jesus. Christ often referred to it, giving an explicit statement en route to Jerusalem with His disciples and a group of followers. As they walked, Jesus described what was going to happen to Him: “‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again’” (Mark 10:33, 34).
Incredibly oblivious to Jesus’ statement, James and John make a request: they want to be given the positions of greatest authority at the Lord’s side when He sets up His kingdom, which they assume will happen shortly. The other disciples are indignant, but not because the two brothers are insensitive toward Christ’s approaching death. Rather, they resent having missed the opportunity of being the first to make the brash request for pre-eminence.
A dispute breaks out, and Jesus has to intervene, reminding them again of the nature of His kingdom. Preeminence and greatness do not result from self-promotion and political connections but from sacrifice: “‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’” (vs. 45).
Christ summarized His mission, declaring that His crowning work would not be His teachings or miracles or even being crowned king, even though that was what His disciples still presumed. Rather, He had come to die, clearly echoing the portrayal of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Jesus insisted that He had come to sacrificially pour out His life as a Substitute for the human race condemned to death because of sin. And this is what truly defines His kingship.
Even the Last Supper, instituted by Christ Himself the night before He died—the only commemorative act He personally authorized—commemorates not His birth, His life, His words, or His miracles, but His death. Christ wished above all else to be remembered by His death.
In light of this, in light of the deadly battle with Satan that Jesus, the Mighty Warrior, fought and won in the cosmic war, it would be well to reflect on the deep meaning of the Cross. The death of Christ is not some peripheral detail or optional consideration in the Gospels; it is the primary focus. Two crucial aspects of Christ’s atonement need to be reviewed often.
First of all: Christians never question the love of Christ. Many hymns rightly honor His great love for all humankind. Even children happily sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” The love of Christ is warmly affirmed by all believers. However, the love of the Father is something else. It is His love that many stumble over. Therefore, lest there be some lingering misunderstanding that through His death on Calvary, Jesus was trying to persuade an angry Father-God to be forgiving, recall immediately Jesus’ own words that “‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’” and “I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you’” (John 3:16; 16:26, 27; italics supplied).
Apparently, John couldn’t get this wonderful truth out of his mind, for he wrote, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (1 John 3:1; 4:9).
The apostle Paul also understood the truth about the Father’s love: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–7). In Romans 8, he penned a passage often used to assure of Christ’s unquenchable love. However, it contains a tiny prepositional phrase that significantly shades the meaning: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vss. 38, 39; italics supplied).
This easily missed, often overlooked, three-word phrase underscores that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus. Scripture insists that the Father’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement. God doesn’t love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loves us. It bears repeating that the horrible death of Jesus was not necessary to entice the Father to love those He otherwise hated; it was not made to produce a love that did not exist. Rather, it was a manifestation of the love already in God’s heart.
The second aspect of the atonement we need to review is that Scripture also carefully instructs that the forgiveness God offers through the Cross is no mere winking away or overlooking of sin as if it were some trivial problem, as an overindulgent parent might do, saying, “Oh, I forgive you; it’s all right.” Nor did Jesus die because God’s feelings were slighted by human sinfulness. Scripture is very clear that though God’s love for His children is indestructible, He is deeply in earnest against sin. The large number of biblical texts emphasizing God’s intense wrath concerning sin in both the Old and New Testaments cannot be avoided. In fact, God’s wrath is one of the most frequently mentioned divine attributes in the Bible. Jesus Himself warned of it: “‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell’” (Matt. 10:28).The Bible is crystal clear: God never forgives sin, never! He forgives sinners. And the Cross reveals just how deadly sin is and how costly our redemption.
Modern Christians sometimes calculate that, despite “minor” mistakes, such as unforgiven bitterness, little white lies, impatience, and intemperance, we aren’t really so “bad”—and then imagine that God has this same complacency toward sin. Because sin doesn’t stir our anger, we find it difficult to believe that sin provokes the wrath of a holy God. However, Scripture insists upon the seriousness of sin and that it separates us from God. No Bible writers ever allow that someone might someday simply drift into heaven without repenting and accepting forgiveness.
It is essential to have these two fundamental concepts of the biblical teaching of the atonement clear: God deeply loves every person, but He hates sin.
One year when our family was living in Israel, my husband, Richard, learned that the Samaritans still sacrificed sheep at Passover each year on Mount Gerizim and thought we should attend the ceremony. I must admit I was reluctant. Tensions in the Middle East were high at that point, and we would need a special government permit to travel there. I didn’t think it was worth all the trouble and possible danger. But what was really happening was that I was finally having honestly to face my feelings about the Old Testament sacrificial system—and the times I have “secretly” questioned it. I had been harboring thoughts I foolishly hoped God would never notice as He tended a universe—wondering why the Creator couldn’t have taught lessons about sin and forgiveness some other way.
At the last moment, I decided to go. As we waited for the Passover service to begin on that windy hillside of Mount Gerizim, I was alternately furious with myself for coming, yet somewhat curious, and then again admitting negative feelings against the God-ordained sacrificial system. The Samaritans weren’t sobered at all at what was going to happen. The carnival-like atmosphere infuriated me. Following the ceremony, I was more upset than ever. It was horrible, and I was nauseated. I spent much of the rest of the evening stroking my contrary attitude, when a new realization abruptly jolted my I thinking. And this thought stunned me: Sin is that terrible.
Suddenly, I was convicted that the sacrificial system was not something humans did for God but something God used to try to teach a lesson desperately difficult to grasp. How else could He rivet in our minds the horrible offensiveness and extreme costliness of sin? How else could He portray His own innocent Self, suffering the judgment and death that sin causes? How else could He show the depths of His own love for this sin-calloused planet? For just as the innocent lambs there on Mount Gerizim struggled against the death knife, so the sinless Messiah, in the prime of His manhood, wrestled with the horror of death until blood seeped from His forehead. In Gethsemane, He fell prostrate, clutching the earth, crying in agony, “‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me’” (Matt. 26:39).
“All Heaven, and the worlds that had not fallen by sin, had been witnesses to the controversy between Christ and Satan. With intense interest had they followed the closing scenes of the conflict. They had beheld the Saviour enter the garden of Gethsemane, his soul bowed down by a horror of darkness that he had never before experienced. An overmastering agony had wrenched from his lips the bitter cry for that cup, if possible, to pass from him. A terrible amazement had filled his Divine spirit with shuddering dread, as he felt his Father's presence removed from him. He was sorrowful, with a bitterness of sorrow exceeding that of the last great struggle with death; the sweat of blood was forced from his pores, and fell in drops upon the ground. Thrice the prayer for deliverance had been wrung from his lips. Heaven had been unable to longer endure the sight, and had sent a messenger of consolation to the prostrate Son of God, fainting and dying under the accumulated guilt of the world.”2
The sin problem is not just a minor matter of the God of heaven having His feelings hurt. Jesus suffered an awful, torturing death that tore apart God from God. It was a divine execution, and both the Father and the Son were in anguish. Christ bore God’s holy wrath against sin to the utmost upon Himself because God loves sinners more than He loved His own life. “God, the infinite Creator, becomes a perfect sacrifice for the sake of a twisted human soul. He not only dies, but does so as a public spectacle of shame.”3
As these concepts washed over my soul on our return trip to Jerusalem that night, I kept thinking, But, God, how can you love that much? How can You love us that much? I finally realized how much I need to learn about real loving and real forgiving.
“There is little that we can point to in our lives as deserving anything but God’s wrath. Our best moments have been mostly grotesque parodies. Our best loves have been almost always blurred with selfishness and deceit. But there is something to which we can point. Not anything that we ever did or were, but something that was done for us by another. Not our own lives, but the life of one who died in our behalf and yet is still alive. This is our only glory and our only hope.”4
War is a ghastly reality of this present world. The cosmic war is the most heinous of all. Salvation is provided with immeasurable cost, the spilling of God’s holy blood.
“In this life we can only begin to understand the wonderful theme of redemption. With our finite comprehension we may consider most earnestly the shame and the glory, the life and the death, the justice and the mercy, that meet in the cross; yet with the utmost stretch of our mental powers we fail to grasp its full significance. The length and the breadth, the depth and the height of redeeming love are but dimly comprehended. The plan of redemption will not be fully understood, even when the ransomed see as they are seen and know as they are known; but through the eternal ages, new truth will continually unfold to the wondering and delighted mind.”5
The Protestant Reformers contend that Christian faith will always be misconstrued if the Cross is misunderstood. Christ and His death stand at the very center of God’s saving ways in Scripture. Indeed, without the Cross, we are without the magnifying glass through which God’s love and holiness arc most clearly seen. It is the place where the character of God burns brightest and where His resolution of the sin problem is grounded. Admission to this holy ground means the humbling of our pride and repenting of our natural tendencies to evade God’s judgment on our sinfulness. It involves being willing to acknowledge how corrupt we really are, accepting God’s sobering judgment on our fallen lives rather than the rosy assessments we tend to give ourselves. Presently, the enmity that should be felt toward sin is now often directed to God. But it is the wonder of heaven (and should be ours too) that God, the Judge of all the earth, is also our Savior, and takes our death sentence upon Himself—what awesome tidings!
No wonder Ellen G. White counseled that “it would be well to spend a thoughtful hour each day reviewing the life of Christ . . . especially the closing [scenes].”6 Her book on the life of Christ, The Desire of Ages, exhibits the same concentrated focus on the Cross as do the four Gospels. Almost two-thirds of the pages focus on the passion of Christ.
She urges that if we would deepen our grasp of Christ’s atonement, “our prayers will be more and more acceptable to God, because they will be more and more mixed with faith and love. They will be intelligent and fervent.”7 She ever held up the wonders of the Cross:
“The divine-human Sin-bearer, He can take away our sins. The thought is too great for our comprehension. Oh, how honored we are in having a Saviour who can save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him. ‘Unto the uttermost’—these words comprehend and include all. The Lord Jesus can communicate to us spiritual truths that no words of ours can adequately express.”8 “The cross of Christ will be the science and the song of the redeemed through all eternity.”9
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless noted noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Ellen G. White, “The Sufferings of Christ,” The Present Truth 2:4 (February 18, 1886): 25.
3. Don B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Bold Love (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 1992), 84.
4. Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1996), 85, 86.
5. The Great Controversy, 651.
6. Maranatha, 77.
7. Steps to Christ, 88.
8. “Spiritual Knowledge to Be Obtained Through Christ and Nature: Many Jewish People to Receive Christ” (March 28, 1903), Manuscript Releases 20:1454: 152, 153.
9. The Great Controversy, 651.