February 15, 2011

The Cross & the Providence of God

"And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, 'Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me'" (Mark 14:17-18).

The plot is hatched; the plan made; the betrayal initiated. And to some readers of Mark's gospel, it would seem that the journey to the cross has now reached the point of no return. As one famous interpreter has suggested and others have agreed, Jesus has set the wheels of history in motion, and now that wheel is about to crush him; circumstances have escalated beyond his control.

This, however, is precisely the opposite of what Mark intends the reader to take away from this portion of the narrative. Mark would have us understand that Jesus remain firmly in control of all events leading up to his death. It may look like things are in Judas' hands, but Mark intends to demonstrate that Christ remains sovereign in the events leading up to the cross. No one takes his life; he alone lays it down. The events leading up to the death and resurrection of the Christ are central to God's providential governance of history. Mark demonstrates just this in at least three ways.

Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances through his preparation for the Passover (12-16).
When Jesus sends two of his disciples to the city to find a man who has a room prepared for them to celebrate the Passover, Mark intends us to understand that the act is premeditated. Jesus has been planning this night all along. The man who will grant the use of his room is clearly a follower that we as readers simply haven't met yet. "The teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?" (14). The teacher had clearly made the plans, and as the narrative unfolds and as Jesus shares the meal with the twelve, we know with certainty, he is calling the shots in this story.

Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances by predicting his betrayal (17-21).
When we are told earlier in this chapter that Judas intends to betray Jesus, we are not told that Jesus is aware of the plot. Here, though, we learn not only that Jesus knows of the plot, but that he has embraced it as part of God's plan revealed in scripture. Jesus is not surprised by the plan to hand him over. He knew it would come to this; he knew about the plot; he knew the traitor sat at the table with him; he knew that the cross was coming, and he did not attempt to escape it. He did not flee. Rather, things are going exactly has he has intended. He is in complete control. Mark would have us know that the cross is God's plan, not Judas' nor the priests' nor any other. The cross is God's plan for accomplishing the redemption of his people, his beloved. Jesus' prediction of his betrayal demonstrates his utter control over his circumstances.

Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances in his explanation of the Passover meal (22-25).
The Passover was the pivotal event through which God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to make them not only a nation but his special treasure. More specifically, it was the night that the Hebrew people sacrificed a lamb and spread its blood over the doorposts of their homes so that the angel would pass over and spare their oldest son; those without the blood would not be spared. It was a meal that celebrated freedom and redemption from bondage and oppression.

Now Jesus would explain that he was the true Passover lamb. His body would be broken as he suffered the condemnation deserved by his people; his blood spilled as he bore the consequences of our sin. His sacrifice would inaugurate a new covenant through which humanity might once again become rightly related to the one who formed them in his own image through faith in this Passover Lamb. Jesus planned and interpreted this meal to explain the significance of his death and resurrection. Again, he is not surprised by his circumstances; he is providentially governing and explaining them.

Two brief but significant points of application should be made.

Sometimes God uses a great tragedy to produce an even greater healing.
Have you ever been in one of those times or places where it feels like the world is falling apart? Things are out of control and there's nothing you can do? If there is something we can learn from Mark's account of the Passover night, it is that Jesus works for healing in the midst of tragedy. The cross was the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen. At the same time, though, it was God's plan to bring restoration and new life to his people and to all of creation. The words from the hymn How Firm a Foundation have been a comfort to me in difficult times because they capture this truth so clearly:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
Sometimes God uses tragic circumstances to bring about very, very great healing.

No matter what happens to you, God is never surprised.
Earlier in my pastoral ministry, I was faced with a deeply difficult situation that required wisdom far beyond my inexperience. It was deeply challenging, and I knew myself to be profoundly ill-equipped. In the midst of that situation, an older and much wiser pastor asked me: Matt, do you believe that God knew this would happen before he sent you to this place? I had to answer yes. He continued: And he still sent you? Again, I had to answer yes. And almost instantly I knew a peace that I did not understand. God had sent me into that difficult spot not because I would know what to do but because he wanted to minister through my lacking and my weakness. God was not surprised by my circumstances. He had a plan, and his plans are always for the good of his people. Again, the author of How Firm a Foundation:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
God is in control. He send us into that place of trial neither to hurt nor to harm us, but to grow us, to grow us in faith and trust and confidence in him and his power. The last verse to the hymn gives these words of promise and comfort:
"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never, forsake!"
No matter what happens, Christian, God is never surprised. He is always in control, and he is always at work to sanctify his people and make them anew in the image of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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