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Recognizing the Risen Lord: Part 3

            In the first two parts of this series, “Recognizing the Risen Lord,” we saw that the risen Lord is recognized by identifying him with the crucified Christ and that this fact is so contrary to the human heart’s desires that God’s grace is necessary to grasp it.  In this post we shall examine how the identification of the crucified Jesus with the risen Lord contradicts human religion.

            The Apostle Paul states, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).  In verses 24 and 25 Paul associates the demand for a sign with power and declares, “The weakness of God is stronger than men.”  The demand for a sign is therefore a desire for a God of power.  From this perspective the cross is a sign of weakness, unacceptable to those demanding a God of power.

            Biblically, it is not necessarily wrong to base one’s faith on signs.  The Gospel of John is arranged around a series of signs performed by Jesus which are recorded so that the readers might believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).           

            Nevertheless, when the Jewish religious leaders sought to test Jesus, he answered, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:39; 16:4).  Jesus did not conform to their idea of a Messiah; so they sought to expose him by demanding a Messianic sign which would signal God’s intervention in history to establish his kingdom, vindicating righteous Israel and overthrowing the Roman Empire.

            The meaning of the sign of Jonah is then explained by Jesus.  “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40).  The sign of Jonah is thus an oblique reference to Christ’s burial after his death.[1]

            The Jewish leaders would reject Christ’s death as a sign for two reasons.  It would be a sign both of God’s curse (Galatians 3:13) and also of weakness, being a defeat by the Romans, who carried out the crucifixion.  Yet, why could they not see that the resurrection, implicit in the sign of Jonah since the prophet was delivered from the belly of the whale, was a vindication of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, demonstrating both God’s acceptance of him and power over death?

            It could be argued that this was a uniquely Jewish problem.  After all, doesn’t Paul write explicitly that the Jews, in contrast to the Gentiles, seek signs of power?  However, I believe that the Jewish leaders’ demand for a sign was a particularly virulent example of a wider problem with human religion and virulent because it was closer to the truth, being derived from a warped view of God’s revelation to the Jewish people.  Religion based upon the human heart wants power—a powerful God to overcome life’s hardships—and often worships power. 

            Much of the Judaism of Jesus’ day was hoping for God to judge their enemies and deliver and vindicate them, the righteous ones.  This is the religious problem of God on our side, the powerful one, who condemns and defeats the wicked.  The cross will have none of this.  The cross proclaims that God is on the side of all and all are guilty, condemned and failures.  It is the sign of God’s redeeming love, of his mercy and forgiveness.  The religion of powerful signs wants self-vindication and deliverance.  As the Pharisees made very clear, the religion of the human heart does not want to put itself in the company of sinners, but on the cross God identifies himself with sinners—the cursed, the weak, even the enemy.

            Recognizing the crucified Christ as the risen Lord is to acknowledge our weakness and failing, rebellion, cruelty, sin and guilt and thus God’s merciful and forgiving love.  It is a challenge to the religion of the human heart that desires only a God of power to serve its own ends.  The religion of the human heart cannot tolerate a humble God because it refuses to be humbled.

            Power is promised in the Christian gospel.  There is the resurrection, but it is the resurrection of the crucified one.  It is power hidden in suffering, visible only to the eyes of faith.  In the light of faith the cross demonstrates human failure and rebellion, but even more God’s power to overcome sin by taking it upon himself. 

            The next post will examine the cross as a challenge to human reason.


[1] Luke 11:29-32 makes the same criticism for seeking a sign but does not mention Jonah’s three days and nights in the whale, which may result in a slightly different understanding of the sign of Jonah.  Discussion of this point is beyond the scope of this present essay to explore.

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