The way Jesus died shows us how to live

Jesus rejected the sword and took up his cross. But was this only necessary because of the particular set of  circumstances that Jesus encountered? After all, Jesus had to die to save us! Or maybe this only teaches us what to do in a situation of persecution. Is the cross really the example that guides us in dealing with all kinds of enemies?

The example of Jesus’ path to the cross

First we will look at the example of Jesus. There are three steps in the way of the cross:

1. Jesus endured suffering: Jesus could have returned harm for harm. He could have fought back. He could have called upon his disciples to fight for him (John 18:36). He could have called upon the angel armies of heaven to fight for him (Matthew 26:53). But he freely chose to endure the harm and not strike back. He refused to take up the sword himself and he forbade his disciples to take up the sword. He said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

  • He endured betrayal by Judas (Matthew 26:47-49).
  • He endured an unjust arrest (Matthew 26:50-56).
  • He endured desertion and denial from his disciples (Matthew 26:56;75).
  • He endured an unjust trial before his people (Matthew 26:57-66).
  • He endured mocking and beating (Matthew 26:67-68).
  • He endured humiliation from Herod (Luke 23:6-12).
  • He endured injustice from Pilate (Matthew 27:11-26).
  • He endured abuse from Roman soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31).
  • He endured crucifixion (Matthew 27:32-44).
  • He endured death (Matthew 27:45-50).

As I Peter 2:23 says, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten . . ..” Jesus endured harm, but did not return harm to anyone.

2. Jesus looked to God for justice: Jesus did not take up the sword to find his justice. He looked to God for his vindication.

In the narrative itself we see this as he cries out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken  me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is not simply a cry of desperation. It is a reference to Psalm 22:1 and it brings to mind the whole of Psalm 22, where the one who suffers unjustly calls upon God for vindication.

Jesus did not look for justice from the people or political institutions of his day. As I Peter 2:23 says, “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” He looked to God.

3. Jesus loved his enemies: Jesus returned good for evil. He was kind to his enemies and submitted to the unjust authorities that put him to death.

  • He spoke gently to Judas even as he betrayed him (Matthew 26:47-50).
  • He returned submission for oppression to both Jewish and Roman authorities.
  • He healed the ear of the servant who came to help    arrest him (Luke 22:51).
  • He prayed for his killers, that God would have mercy on them (Luke 23:34).

Jesus expressed genuine love and concern for his enemies.

But Jesus had to die! We don’t!

But some will say, “Jesus set aside the sword and took up the cross because he had to in order to save us. He had to die because this was God’s redemptive plan. We are not in this situation, so we can take up the sword.”

1. We all must take up our cross: Jesus is clear on this point. It is not just God’s will for him to take up the cross. It is God’s will for all followers of Jesus to take up the cross as well. After Peter tried to persuade Jesus to forsake the cross and suffering, Jesus told all of his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life from my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

The cross is not a unique demand placed only upon Jesus. It is placed upon each of us. We each have to choose – “Will we lose our lives by means of the cross, or will we try to preserve our lives by means of the sword?”

2. Our suffering also has a purpose: Jesus’ suffering is unique and our suffering can never do what his did. But we can participate in the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). For instance, Paul says, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). The idea here seems to be that God has set a certain amount of suffering that must take place before he acts to bring about the end of all things and the vindication of his people (Revelation 6:9-11). So our suffering does have a redemptive aim. It moves forward the purposes of God for this world. It fills up what is still lacking.

So, although we are not dying to save anyone, our suffering does play a role in God’s redemptive plan, as did Jesus’. And just as God’s plan would have been foiled if Jesus took up the sword, so too God’s plan is foiled when we seek to avoid suffering and the cross and take up the sword to preserve our lives.

But Jesus’ enemies were persecutors!

But did Jesus take up his cross only because this was a situation of persecution? Should this give us guidance in dealing with all of our enemies, or only those who cause us to suffer for our faith?

It is certainly true that the example of Jesus’ death guides us in the context of enemies who persecute us (Matthew 10:34-39). But his example also guides us in dealing with all kinds of enemies.

This is confirmed in I Peter 2:18-25. This text is one of the most detailed references to the cross of Jesus – used for ethical guidance. Yet it is applied to a situation of general oppression. This is dealing with enemies who are not mistreating Christians because of their religious beliefs or practices. These enemies are simply evil people that oppress others. The example of Jesus in going to the cross is used to give these Christians guidance for how to treat these enemies:

  • They are to endure: “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. . . If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval” (vs. 18-20). They are to be like Jesus. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered,  he did not threaten” (v. 23).
  • They are to look to God for justice: Peter tells them to be like Jesus, for “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (v. 23).
  • They are to give good for evil: Peter tells them, “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (v. 18).

Conclusion

Jesus’ example show us how to respond to any enemy. No matter what the situation is – personal conflict, issues handled by the criminal justice system, or matters of war, the cross is our guide, not the sword. We always endure harm without striking back. We always look to God for our justice and vindication, not the sword. We always love our enemies despite the evil they do to us.

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William S. Higgins – 2003