Evil and the Cross

And Pilate, wishing to content the multitude, released unto them Barabbas, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified (Mark 15:15).

An innocent man scourged and crucified. Such terrible evil!

One of the most challenging questions that people face is the problem of evil. If God is so good, holy, and loving, how can He allow people to suffer pain, misery, and evil? The challenge of this question has only intensified as time has gone on and people show even greater cruelty toward one another. People want to know where God was during the Holocaust and in the genocides that have been committed ever since. Many claim to lose whatever faith they had in God on account of the problem of evil.

It is not as if God cannot create a world without any evil: the New Testament teaches that God intends to do so in the future (2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). If God can create a world without evil, misery, sin, and pain, why did He not do so the first time around?

Many “answers” are provided. Some declare that evil exists as a consequence for sin. It is true that evil often does occur as a consequence of sin, be it the presence of death in the world (Romans 5:12-18), natural disasters (Romans 8:20-22), condemnation (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9), or even the suffering of innocents (Romans 5:12-18). But this does not describe how evil comes into being. Others will then point to free will: God made mankind not as robots but as free moral agents, and for free moral agency to exist, a choice must exist (Isaiah 7:15-16, Ezekiel 18). Yet God certainly knew what the choice would be (Ephesians 3:11): why allow man to make the choice if it would lead to such great misery and pain?

The problem of evil is also addressed in “apocalyptic” parts of the Bible, such as Daniel 7-12, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 6:12, and Revelation 12:9-12. While God maintains overall control of the universe, this world is currently beset by evil cosmic forces, which God will destroy on the last day (Revelation 19-20). While this may explain why God does not necessarily act to stop evil today, it still does not help us understand where these evil forces came from.

Ultimately we come to the answer provided in Job and Ecclesiastes: we humans cannot really know, and it is emptiness to consider the question (Job 38:1-42:6, Ecclesiastes 8:14, 16-17). When many people hear this, they want to protest. How can God “abandon” us without an answer to such a pressing question? What good is the Bible if it does not answer our most difficult question?

Yet maybe the problem is not with the Bible or its answers, but instead with the question itself. Why do people want to know where evil came from, anyway? We humans often believe that if we have knowledge about something, we can gain power over it. This worked with technology and science, so why not evil? The challenge is that even if we were given a most satisfying answer to the problem of evil, it would not make evil any less miserable or painful.

Evil is too challenging and complicated to be so easily dismissed. The problem is more with us: we do not want to really come face to face with the challenge evil presents. Evil pervades everything: we all have committed evil (Romans 3:9-23), and evil or at least the potential of evil exists in every person, corporation, organization, society, and government. When we are confronted with evil, we try to argue our way out of it, legislate it away, or avoid the issue. Yet none of those “solutions” ever works. We cannot, by our own devices, remove evil.

Furthermore, consider the basic message of the New Testament. God the Father told Peter, James, and John that Jesus was “His beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5). We know that Jesus prayed to God in the garden, imploring His Father to remove the evil that He would soon face (Matthew 26:39). We know that the Father heard Him (Hebrews 5:7). Therefore, if God could have somehow removed the problem of evil, or could make it irrelevant, without causing His Son to suffer such terrible pain and anguish, would He not have done so? The very fact that the New Testament teaches that the Son of God had to suffer evil demonstrates that the problem of evil cannot be answered by a philosophical argument. Asking why evil exists provides no benefit; instead, we must consider what God has done about the problem of evil.

The Bible makes it very clear that God deals with the problem of evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. God the Son was willing to take on flesh and to learn humiliation and obedience through suffering (Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 5:8). God handles the problem of evil in His own person!

Consider from the Gospel accounts all of the forms of evil that Jesus experiences on the day of His death. He experiences the evils of physical suffering in His scourging and crucifixion (Mark 15:15, Luke 23:33). He suffers political, social, and religious evils by the very “chosen people of God” who should have welcomed Him (Luke 22:63-71, 23:21). Further political evil comes from Pilate and Herod, enemies united in the downfall of Jesus (Luke 23:12). Since Jesus suffers evil without committing sin, He suffers the great moral evil of injustice (cf. Isaiah 53, 1 Peter 2:20-24). He suffers mental, emotional, and spiritual evil through the mockery, taunting, and temptations of the people and the Evil One behind them (Mark 15:29-32, Luke 4:13, 23:32-38).

Political, social, religious, moral, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual evil: Jesus experienced the full vent of such evils while enduring the cross. All the powers of evil threw all they had against the Son of God. He exhausted all their power in His death and resurrection, and He gained the victory over evil and its forces (Romans 8:2, 1 Corinthians 15:1-20).

The Bible does not provide an answer to the question of why evil exists, but God has definitively acted against evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. For whatever reason, evil cannot be willed away in this world. Instead, we must defeat evil. The only way that we can defeat evil is through the blood of Jesus the Lamb of God and our being willing to suffer as He did (Revelation 12:11, Romans 8:17). If evil stares us in the face and we cannot understand how God would allow evil to exist in the world, let us turn our face toward the cross, and see that God was willing to give His most precious Son in order to defeat evil. Let us follow Jesus’ example that was given for us and learn obedience through suffering evil unjustly (Hebrews 5:8, 1 Peter 2:20-24). Our hope of glorious salvation is dependent on God’s defeat of evil on the cross and our victory through Him (Revelation 12:11). Let us praise God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lifted Up For Us

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Jesus has been saying many difficult things to Nicodemus. This time Nicodemus probably understood the referent, but the application? How can these things be?

If we are to understand Jesus’ application, we must first understand Jesus’ referent. Jesus speaks of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and such is the situation in Numbers 21:4-9. As usual, the Israelites are not acting graciously toward God, and so God punishes them yet again, this time with serpents. Many begin to suffer and die and cry out to God. To deliver them from the serpents, God commands Moses to create a likeness of the serpents; the people must look up at the image of the serpent to be healed. Deliverance from death thus comes by God’s power to those who look upon the image of the serpent.

Jesus indicates in John 3:14 that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the “Son of Man” must be lifted up. What Nicodemus may not have understood at the time is made clear to us: as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross.

Jesus knows full well the fate that will befall Him; He begins to describe the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem at the Passover to the disciples in Matthew 16:21, and as He institutes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-28, He describes the cup as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). As the “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus teaches Nicodemus the sober truth about His own fate.

The parallel goes beyond the simple act of being “lifted up”. Not only is Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, but just as the Israelites were delivered from the power of the bite of the serpents, so in Christ all can find deliverance from the power of sin and death. Jesus had no need to die for His own sin or for any infraction that He committed, for in Him there was no sin, neither was there any deceit in His mouth (cf. Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 4:15, 7:27). He was lifted up for our transgressions, so that we could have the remission of sin in His blood, and have restored association with God (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:1-7).

The parallels do not end there. As the Israelites had to look up at the serpent in order to receive healing, so believers in Christ must look upon Jesus on the cross as well. It was predicted in Zechariah 12:10 that the people would look upon the Messiah and mourn for Him. This prophecy is directly fulfilled by the Roman soldiers who pierce the side of Jesus with a spear to verify His death (John 19:37), yet we must also internalize the prophecy for ourselves. We ourselves have pierced God by our sin, for He went to the Cross on our behalf for our transgression (Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6-8). We must look upon Christ on the Cross, the One whom we have pierced, and we should mourn for our sin and its terrible consequences. If we look upon Him in obedient faith, we gain our deliverance. Just as the Israelites looked to the image of the serpent to be healed of their wounds, so we must look to Jesus on the cross if we desire to be healed of our iniquities.

Jesus is not only “lifted up” on the cross. If it were so, His death would be meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). On the third day, however, the first day of the week, Jesus was again “lifted up” in the resurrection (John 20:1-29)!

Jesus is no less aware of His coming resurrection as He was of His upcoming death on the cross (Matthew 16:21, 26:29). In John 2:13-22, as Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, He says, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). While everyone thought He spoke of the Temple, Jesus’ disciples would later remember the event and understand how He spoke of the “Temple of His body” (John 2:21), and understood Him to be speaking of His resurrection. No doubt Nicodemus also, reflecting upon his dialogue with Jesus as recorded in John 3:1-21 after everything had taken place, would also recognize how Jesus spoke of His death and His resurrection in John 3:14.

Nevertheless, how does Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection have anything to do with Moses lifting up the serpent? The connection may not be immediately apparent, but we can understand it if we look at the events in Numbers 21:4-9 as the type of the reality seen in the resurrection. God plagues the sinful Israelites with serpents; to deliver them from death, God commands Moses to make an image of the serpent. In this event, looking upon the image of the thing that kills brings life.

The serpent also represents a much deeper level of mortality. The serpent beguiled Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-6), incurring sin and death for mankind. God did not leave man without promise: one would come to bruise the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:9). Through sin, Satan has successfully bruised the heel of all men and women, and we all are under the sentence of sin and death because of it (Romans 3:5-23). Jesus was the One who was able to bruise Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, dying on the cross for the remission of sin and being raised to life again on the third day (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Jesus gained the victory, and we are able to be victors in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness represents the type: the Israelites were bitten by snakes; by looking upon the image of a snake, they were healed, thus defeating the snakes. This points us to the resurrection of Jesus and our own victory: we have been bitten by sin, and by looking to Jesus who was lifted up in the resurrection, we have the victory over death, beginning in our baptism and ending in our resurrection on the final day (Romans 6:3-7, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us look upon Jesus, pierced for our iniquities, and receive forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Killing the Hostility

And might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby (Ephesians 2:16).

If there is one thing we can trust about human beings, it is that they can always find a reason to build a barrier between themselves and their fellow men. There is never a lack of potential reasons why “we” will not like “them.”

Think about it for a moment. How many times have we– and/or people we may know– have used some issue or matter as a justification for a snap judgment to keep another person at arm’s length? It might have involved features that are not anyone’s choice– race, ethnicity, culture of origin, class, or place of birth. Or maybe it was about a matter of choice– political preference, language, present geographical location, sports team affiliation, religion, and so on and so forth. In the world, if a reason can be found to dislike someone, odds are it will be found and exploited. It may very well be that the person who is so quickly judged might be a wonderful person and someone worth knowing and befriending, but alas– the wall has been built.

Jesus of Nazareth has the reputation for being a pacifist. In reality, He was more concerned with the spiritual conflict for souls than He was with the vicissitudes of political power (cf. Luke 19:10, John 18:36-37). But it is true that Jesus preached and lived the message of loving enemies and praying for persecutors (cf. Matthew 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-28, 23:34).

There are excellent reasons for this, and they are summed up in the work that Jesus accomplished on the cross. Normally, when the work of Jesus on the cross is considered, we speak of it in terms of atonement for sin, and such is true (cf. Romans 5:5-11). Yet more is going on when Jesus is on the cross than just the shedding of blood that will lead to the forgiveness of the believer.

In the first century one of the great divisions involved the distinction between Jew and Gentile. The Jews believed that they were God’s uniquely chosen people, and therefore despised all others who did not share in that benefit (cf. Acts 10-11). Most of the Gentiles considered the Jews to be rather odd and eccentric with all of their idiosyncrasies. Jews, therefore, did not like Gentiles, and Gentiles really did not like Jews, either.

When Jesus is on the cross, He breaks down that barrier between Jew and Gentile by fulfilling and setting aside the Law of Moses (Ephesians 2:14-16). By fulfilling and setting aside that which led to the barrier, He was able to reconcile both groups to God and to make peace. Jesus was able, through the cross, to kill the most insipid problem among men.

Jesus, the meek and gentle, the Author of Life, killed? Paul reveals that He did kill something– the enmity, or hostility, that exists among different people.

It is a startling execution, and it is ironically accomplished as He is Himself being killed. His killing allows Him to kill the one impulse that leads to that wall building.

This is very significant. The reason behind all that wall building is that we– and/or others– are trying to find ways to keep others out, however consciously or unconsciously we do so. But Jesus is trying to find ways to bring people together. He was able, through the cross, to annihilate one of the strongest prejudices that existed in the first century. And even to this day the cross has the power to annihilate all sorts of divisions that exist among mankind.

Race? Class? Ethnicity? Language? We are to all be one in Jesus Christ, no matter how different we are in these regards (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Politics? Sports team affiliation? Geography? All mere trifles in eternity’s view, and it is to our eternal shame if we allow any of these things to meaningfully divide us from our fellow man!

The cross is not to be a symbol of division or wall-building, but a symbol of reconciliation. It is the means by which a man is reconciled to his God (Romans 5:5-11). It is also the means by which men are reconciled to one another (Ephesians 2:14-19). It is where hostility and enmity are killed– enmity between God and man and enmity between man and man. When enmity and hostility are killed, peace can prevail.

There will always be justifications for division, but such things are not from the Father, but are of the world (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, 1 John 2:15-17). It is the way of Jesus to be reconciled to God and to one another through the cross and humble obedience to God. Let us tear down the walls we build against other people, seek ways of loving them and showing them compassion, reflect Christ, and serve Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Departed For a Season

And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] for a season (Luke 4:13).

Jesus’ temptations by the devil in the wilderness are a famous part of His work and life. Even though Jesus was physically weak and hungry, He did not give into the temptation to turn stones into bread, to test God by falling, or to bow down to the Evil One. Instead, He refuted the Devil by quoting Scripture (cf. Luke 4:1-12).

The victory, however, was not complete. Luke provides a telling detail not found in the other Evangelists: while the Devil did depart, it was only for a season.

Even though Luke indicates that the departure was only for a season, neither he nor the other Evangelists ever explicitly relate another time in which Satan tempted or tested Jesus. Nevertheless there are many instances in the life of Jesus where we can find a significant temptation in which Satan was most certainly involved.

There is Peter’s rebuke of Jesus on hearing that He will die– “this shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus speaks of Peter as “Satan” in response, indicating that he is focused on the things of man and not on the things of God (Matthew 16:23). It is not necessary to believe that Satan was personally indwelling Peter– Peter is motivated by his passion for Jesus and his mistaken impressions about the nature of His Messiahship and Kingdom and needed no devilish inspiration to come up with such a remark. Nevertheless, Peter was acting as the Opposer, providing a significant temptation for Jesus. Satan could have very easily said the same thing– “far be it that the Son of God should die for sinful men!”

Temptations also came when the time drew near. Satan may have been tempting Jesus while in the garden; without a doubt he was about to tempt the disciples (cf. Luke 22:39-46). While on the cross, the words of the people represented another similar temptation– “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God!” They may have said it in a mocking and derisive manner, but it is a temptation nevertheless.

Again, we do not know every point at which Satan tempted or tested Jesus, but we have great confidence that he did. Jesus was ultimately victorious– He died and was raised again in power– and the power of sin and death was broken (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

As Jesus Himself said, it is enough for the disciple to be like his master, and if the Master of the house was tempted by the Devil, then most certainly the disciples will also (cf. Matthew 10:24-25). We know that we suffer the temptations of the Evil One constantly (1 Peter 5:8)!

Let us learn from the example of our Lord. Lord willing, there will be times in our lives when we successfully overcome temptations to do evil or to avoid the good. When we do the will of God and not the will of Satan, God is glorified, and Satan is compelled to flee (James 4:7). Yet, as long as we live, the victory is not complete. The Devil will return at another season to tempt us again!

We must remember that the Evil One does not play fair. In overcoming one temptation we may fall prey to another temptation. On the other hand, even when we are weak, having fallen for a temptation or in distress and turmoil, the Evil One does not lighten up– temptations are sure to come (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). In good times or bad, in prosperity or poverty, in victory or defeat, the Devil has plenty of temptations available to cause us to stumble and, if we allow it, to lead us away from God.

This is why we must be perpetually on guard against temptation. We must always be clothed with the armor of God in order to resist the Evil One (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18), and if we ever slacken, we will find ourselves in sore distress.

When we are in that distress, it is good for us to reach out to fellow Christians and to be lifted up (Galatians 6:1-3, Hebrews 10:24-25). We must look to help lift up fellow Christians in distress, not with attitudes of superiority or arrogance, but humility and love, knowing full well that we may be the next ones that need lifting up.

Our conflict with evil is not one that any of us chose or would ever want to choose; nevertheless, it is ours to fight. We must stand firm against the Evil One at all times, knowing, as Jesus did, that temptations are sure to come at any moment. Let us stand firm for God no matter what and resist the Devil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Author of Life and the Murderer

“But ye denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted unto you, and killed the Prince of life; whom God raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).

The irony of it all was not lost on Peter.

Jesus of Nazareth did good for people– He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and taught excellent standards of living (Matthew 9:35, Luke 6:27-36, Acts 10:38).

Barabbas was a robber, an insurrectionist, and a murderer (Mark 15:7, John 18:40). He was in prison.

Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, the Author of life, the Word made flesh (Acts 3:14, John 1:1-3, 14).

Barabbas took life.

Jesus of Nazareth upheld the right of authority while maintaining in Himself even greater power (Matthew 22:21, John 19:12, Matthew 7:29, 8:27, 9:6, Mark 1:27).

Barabbas worked hard to undermine Roman authority and wanted nothing more than to get Rome out of Jerusalem.

Jesus was not of this world (John 1:1-14).

Barabbas most certainly was of this world.

And yet, in the end, Barabbas goes free, and Jesus dies on the cross (cf. Matthew 27, etc.).

The Jews, in their ignorance and the hardness of their hearts, demanded that Pilate hand over to them a murderer while they handed over the Author of life to be killed. One can only imagine how this line fell upon Peter’s audience– the very people who had demanded His crucifixion– and the strong impact it would have made upon those who believed it. The sudden weight of the horror of the actions they themselves had perpetrated would have suddenly fallen upon them. The terror! The horror!

But this was how God fulfilled His plan (cf. Acts 3:18)– and it was accomplished with subtle and profound irony.

Nevertheless, we should not be hard on Barabbas. After all, what Jesus did for him physically, Jesus has done for all of us spiritually. Barabbas deserved death for his deeds, but found himself released while Jesus bore the cross intended for him and died upon it. All of us deserve spiritual death and condemnation for the sins we have all committed (Romans 3:23, 6:23), but He bore the cross and the penalty of our sin so that we could be redeemed and have eternal life (Romans 5:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Ephesians 2:1-18)!

We may not have sinned as grievously as Barabbas did, but Jesus endured the penalty of all such sin nonetheless. Let us praise God for His plan of salvation and the willingness to sacrifice His Son for our redemption, and serve Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Taking the Cross

“And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).

After two millennia of veneration of the cross, it is easy for us to forget what the cross meant in first century Judea.  It was a symbol of Roman power, the fate for any who dared to stand against Rome.  It represented a horrifying way to die, perhaps the most cruel form of punishment and death ever invented by mankind.

For Jews crucifixion was even worse.  Death on a tree meant being accursed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).  There was no glory in a cross, at least in the way that men consider glory.

These realities, therefore, were what came to mind to the disciples listening to Jesus.  A cross meant humiliation, shame, being despised, reckoned as accursed and defiled.  This was no “easy street.”

We also have to remember that at this point, Jesus has not yet been crucified.  While Jesus no doubt knew what would eventually befall Him, we should not interpret this verse as meaning that Christians must be physically crucified.  Such is not Jesus’ point.

Jesus is telling all those who would be His disciples that if they really want to be worthy of Jesus and eternal life, they must live a “crucified life.”  They must bear the shame and humiliation that comes from serving Jesus.  If they are considered cursed by man, so be it, if they may only win Christ.

Jesus’ disciples must renounce all that they have and, in a type, die in Him.  It is no longer to be about oneself.  It is now all about Christ.

“Taking the cross” is not a statement about wearing jewelry; it is a statement of the humiliation and sacrifice necessary to follow Jesus.  Many are called to do so, yet precious few answer.  What will it be?

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me (Galatians 2:20).

Ethan R. Longhenry