What Easter Teaches Us About Prayer

Timothy Keller muses, in Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”

Giotto - Kiss of JudasThe point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship and suffering, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to nor led by these requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers will be familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily receiving our petitions, but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?

In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.” As I wrote in another post, Jesus is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable and pained. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is strong as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not challenged by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.

Giotto - CrucifixionIn his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreats his Father yet is ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. And it is striking that as his enemies approach to arrest him, Jesus’ resignation turns to resolve, to fortified trust his God and Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened. Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. Despite the God forsakenness that Jesus anticipates beyond his arrest and trial, having pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him, Jesus’ prayers ground his trust in the Father’s purposes.

Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God answering us. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust in God despite its results.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry and Jesus’ Humanity

 

Jesus If you share a similar Christian tradition to me then I am sure you that have heard comments akin to these about the Holy Spirit, “He is the shy member of the Trinity. He points away from himself and to Jesus. Spirit-filled ministry is Jesus-focused ministry,” and so on. But, developing a point made by Colin Gunton, this narrow, “under-determination of the person of the Holy Spirit,” does not only fail to appreciate Scripture’s presentation of the Spirit but also makes it difficult to give proper dogmatic weighting to Jesus’ humanity. Thus Gunton called the doctrine of the Holy Spirit “the Achilles’ heel of Western theology.” In this post my aim is to convince you that greater significance must be laid on the work of the Spirit if we are to appreciate the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Last year I posted on Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4 and suggested that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness and partnered him as he faced Satan (Matthew 4:1). This close tie between the Spirit and Jesus is apparent throughout Matthew’s narrative: as the earliest creeds state, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:18); John the Baptist foretold that Jesus’ ministry would be inseparable from the Spirit’s (3:11); when Jesus is baptised we are told that the Spirit rests on him (3:16). So when Isaiah 42 is quoted, in Matthew 12:17-18, “Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him,” we ought to understand the Spirit to be, borrowing a phrase from Gordon Fee, “God’s empowering presence.” Immediately following that quotation we read Jesus’ stern rebuke of the Pharisees, who were blaspheming the “Spirit of God” (12:28, 31) by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan (12:26-27). Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his mission, was inseparable from the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Dove of the Holy SpiritThere are, in my opinion, at least three reasons we often fail to clearly articulate this biblical truth. Firstly, Driscoll, in Doctrine, writes, “All of the major creeds compiled during the early church…overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.” Jesus’ life was not merely ‘God striding across the earth’ (Käsemann), but a window into the remarkable potential for Spirit-empowered humanity. The second reason, linked to the previous point, is most preachers’ penchant to view every miracle Jesus does as evidence of his divinity. When we do this we overlook Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit (as well as the Father) throughout his life. Thirdly, in discussions about Jesus’ temptation our default position is: because Jesus was God he could not possibly have yielded to Satan’s seductive promises. However, that position, in my opinion, makes the temptation no more than a stage drama. Instead, we should recognise that Jesus was truly tempted but also empowered to stay his course by the Holy Spirit.

Returning to our starting point, one can now hopefully see how underappreciating the Holy Spirit’s role throughout Jesus’ life can result in an overemphasis of Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. On the other hand, when we fully appreciate God’s empowering presence then, as Gerald Hawthorne writes, in The Presence and the Power, we rightly see Jesus as the archetype of what is possible in a human life, characterised by total dependence on the Spirit of God. In an old post I compared Jesus’ temptation with our own and concluded that when the Christian is tempted they are empowered by the same Spirit who bolstered Jesus’ resolve. By way of conclusion, a proper appraisal of Jesus’ humanity does at least two things: it (1) affirms the biblical emphasis on and importance of the Spirit in all of God’s work, and (2) reassures us in our struggle with sin and temptation of the Spirit’s presence and power.

The Pharisees According to Jesus

Last year I wrote a three part series on the Pharisees, prompted by my frustration at how the Pharisees are often portrayed in teaching and writing. My appeal throughout the series was towards a more discerning exegesis, considering literary criticism and historical context when studying the Gospels. In this post I will offer a few observations about the Pharisees found in the Gospels, challenging the view that reduces their theology to works based righteousness. Since Jesus made no secret of his disapproval, and sometimes even disdain, towards this Jewish sect, I have fleshed out four points, headed by a few of his woes delivered against the Pharisees.

Commandments“You neglect justice and the love of God”

One of the repeated ironies found in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ assertion of unflagging obedience to the law coupled with their failure to practice its two fundamental fiats: loving Yahweh and your neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:5, 19:8; see Mark Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus’ many Sabbath miracles expose this failing, as the Pharisees insisted no man of or prophet from God would commit the travesty of restoring life when he should have been resting. The heart of the Old Testament law was devotion to God, as well as commitment to the wellbeing of others but it appears the Pharisees had lost sight of that. God’s laws were given to make his people more loving towards others as they appreciated his grace towards them.

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders”

In a similar vein to the previous point, Jesus accused the Pharisees of supplanting the authority of Scripture, and God’s laws, by the establishment of traditions, which in turn had become litmus tests for orthodoxy and devotion. But Jesus firmly opposed laws imposed by people, even the esteemed “elders,” quoting Isaiah, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Though the Pharisees probably invented these rules to keep them from becoming ceremonially unclean and sinning against God, it seems that by the 1st century those rules had become enshrined traditions, considered to possess the same authority as God’s inspired words. The same legalism, able to take many forms, has plagued the church throughout every generation.

Shut door“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces”

Jesus kept very unsavoury company, according to the Pharisees; and for one who claimed such deep intimacy with God, even identifying himself as God, his fraternisation with sinners implied that God reaches out to the unrighteous. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Luke 15, where the Pharisees grumble, “This man receives and dines with sinners.” Jesus then uses three very familiar parables confirming their suspicions about God, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who does not need to repent.” The parables of Luke 15 climax in the brilliantly subtle identification of the Pharisees with the elder brother, who served his father and never disobeyed but refused to celebrate the return of the younger brother, the sinners and tax collectors.

“They love the place of honour”

Reading through John’s Gospel one notices the author has arranged his narrative around Jesus’ signs. Following the resurrection of Lazarus, the sign paired with, and only second to, Jesus’ resurrection in John 20, the Pharisees find themselves in a bind. They cannot deny Jesus’ “many signs” but fear that if he is recognised and followed by the Jewish people then the political privileges they enjoyed from the Romans would be under threat (John 11:47-48). The reader of John’s Gospel cannot help but to be incredulous at this hinge in John’s storyboard, for the Pharisees choose their comforts over the Christ. As I concluded a previous post on John’s Gospel, “In gaining Pilate’s concession [to execute Jesus, the Pharisees] pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor.” The Pharisees exalted themselves and were guilty of an over realised importance. But more damning than this self-preservation was that it blinded them to see God’s messiah, before their very eyes.

Doodle: Pharisees versus Prophets

Giotto - Scene 26Being passionate about literature I often attempt to pull threads of thought through multiple works. I realise that occasionally the result of this is that my writing resembles little more than poorly sewn patchworks of ideas. Working on my current series treating the Pharisees – (1) In defence of the Pharisees, and (2) literary and historical considerations for reading the Gospels – two passages from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came to mind. In this post I hope to unpack them in reference to my series and a few other related passages.

In Gilead, John Ames ruminates on the difference between a Pharisee and a prophet: “The prophets love the people they chastise.” And the implication of his reflection is that Pharisees do not. As I have studied each instance of the Pharisees in the four Gospels, one of Jesus’ recurring rebukes levelled against the Pharisees was their gross inability to love the people they taught. Sure, as Jesus noted, they were extraordinarily righteous, able to demonstrate unparalleled obedience to the law. However, and quite ironically, despite their fastidious obedience to God’s laws they failed to fulfil the second part of the greatest commandment: loving their neighbours as themselves.

Giotto - Scene 28In his earthy and encouraging work, The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine notes the Pharisees’ penchant for loveless obedience. He writes, “These Bible teachers justified ingratitude and bitterness in the name of standing for righteousness. They gracelessly pounded people with religious virtues.” But the thread I want to pick up from Ewine is what he says next, “The harshest things Jesus ever said (like the prophets who foreshadowed Jesus) were to the ministry leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-36).” Towards the end of that cutting catena, in Matthew 23, Jesus labels the Pharisees diametric opposites of the prophets. For their fathers killed the prophets (23:31-32), and in time they themselves would silence the prophets too (23:34). Jesus then utters his distressed lament for Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the people of God, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).

In a book I return to often, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd ties some of our loose ends together, “Jesus [stood] in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel…The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God was at hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal…Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long…This was ‘zero hour’, the hour of decision.”

Giotto - Scene 34As John Ames approaches then end of his memoir he writes, “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, prédicateur, which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” Jesus was never mistaken for a Pharisee, while the Galilean public did liken him to the prophets of old (Mark 6:15). Ominous dark clouds hung over Jerusalem in the 1st century, and Jesus entered history to disclose the purposes of God, to dissect the mounting troubles of God’s people. Thus we see him as a prophet for at least two reasons. Firstly, his heart broke for those he preached to, seen in his anguished laments for Jerusalem. Secondly, in Jesus’ own words, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

The day had turned to dark, long before the sun set, as Jesus Christ hung on the cross. His enduring faith in his Father in heaven had brought him to this end; obedience to his Father had culminated in the cross. But as he struggled to take his last few breathes, while his arms grew too tired to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the darkness enveloped and gripped him tightly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). What are we to make of these final excruciating words? Michael Wilkins calls them “some of the most profoundly mysterious words in the entire Bible.” Derek Tidball writes that they uncover the awfulness of Calvary, which we prefer to forget. Alister McGrath goes further, arguing that Jesus’ cry shatters the moulds of our thinking and reveals the fundamental uncontrollability of God. The cross presents us with an unnerving and mysterious question: in what sense does God the Father forsake his Son at the cross?

“If it is possible, let his cup pass from me”

Icon Jesus prayingBefore attempting an answer, let us start with Jesus’ familiar, though often domesticated, prayer in Gethsemane; when the man of sorrows, despised and rejected, well acquianted with grief who had experienced the many hurts and hardships of human life balked at Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The prospect of the cross brought Jesus into tormented fear and dread. In his short life he had known suffering but his agonised prayer suggests a greater significance and uniqueness of what loomed ahead. Before he was stretched out on that cruel tree, Jesus could say, “I am not alone, the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And throughout his fraught life Jesus would have enjoyed assuring fellowship with the Father. But Jesus’ pleas and prayers in Gethsemane force us to ponder what Jesus was to endure. We must conclude that it was not merely physical suffering that Jesus feared, but the death that he was to die.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In addition to the above, to answer our question we must consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22. Some have called it total despair or claimed that Jesus is utterly disorientated, even confused about why he was dying. But when we consider the content of the Psalm, we can say that the cry is not entirely desparing because the psalmist anticipated divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was aware that he was dying for sins. In fact, something that is often glanced over, the Psalm expresses faith in Yahweh to vindicate. Even though Jesus’ suffering threw him into the darkest of places, he trusted his Father to the bitter end. Significantly, Psalm 22 moves from lament and despair, to prayer, and climaxes in Yahweh being entroned over the nations. Jesus’ faith was unremitting as he cried out to his Father, whom he knew would establish his kingdom, even when it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against it. Jesus knew his death would not be the end of his story. So onlookers at his crucifixion, familiar with the Psalter, would have heard an affirmation of Jesus’ faith, clinging with certain hope to the will of his Father.

Was the Son truly forsaken or the Father fully absent?

Crucifixion IconAs Jesus hung dying, being publically mocked and humiliated, it appears that God is absent from Golgotha. As Wayne Grudem comments, Jesus’ sweet fellowship with the Father, his source of unfailing strength and the element of greatest joy in a life full of sorrow, appears dashed. But as Alister McGrath writes, instead of understanding Jesus’ God-forsakeness as total privation we should see God’s presence in the most remarkably paradoxical way. Martin Luther called this the hiddeness of God at Calvary. As the sky is literally tarred, figurative darkness descends on the Son and God’s familiar protective presence and love was withdrawn from Jesus. In biblical symbolism, darkness is separation from God who is light. Jesus’ experience extends beyond deep spiritual darkness to enduring God’s wrath. Darkness is stressed by each Gospel writer, emphasising that God had not only turned away from the Son and their close communion but towards his Son in judging sin. Alone Jesus hangs, being made sin and fully identified with sinful humanity. And it this – the penalty of sin, not the Roman punishment – that weighed most heavily on the suffering servant. Calvin wrote that it was Jesus’ soul that bore the worst torment, the terror of God’s condemnation. As John Stott said, Jesus was plunged into that engulfing darkness for us; our sins blotted out the sunshine of the Father’s face.

Conclusion

When we ask in what sense the Father turned his face away from the Son on the cross we must agree with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions that the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakenness’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment. But it is not that simple, as we have seen, for the God who abandons his Son is fully present at the cross resolving the problem of sin. This great paradox prevents us from giving a glib answer to our question. Luther viewed the cross as a great mystery. Calvary should both humble and move us to adoration; while we cannot fully explain the enigma of Jesus’ cross or even grasp the anguished horror, suffering and abandonment that Jesus went through, let us not forget that he endured it on our behalf, so that we do not have to. If we understand none of the cross and Christ’s experience, praise God that it will never be ours.

Holy Week: What Lies Ahead

‘The hardest action to take is the course previously unexplored.’ That is a line from William Horwood’s Duncton Quest, an epic tale about heroic perseverance amidst tragedy and hopeless circumstances. There is much truth in Horwood’s words: the unknown is daunting. But was that the reason for the trepidation with which Jesus went about his task? Was Jesus unaware of what would be demanded of him? There is a wonderful theological word in Christology: nescience, meaning that – as a man – Jesus knew only as much as God the Father revealed to him. Should we conclude then that Jesus was in the dark regarding his messianic task? In this short post I want to explore that question, a fitting reflection for Holy Week.

Jesus ChristIf you have not formally studied theology then are forgiven for being unfamiliar with Albert Schweitzer’s contributions, especially in the search for the historic Jesus. To my shame I have not read Schweitzer and must resign myself to the perils of drawing on secondary sources to represent him, though the point I will be touching on is widely reproduced. One such place is in the writing of N. T. Wright, who borrows Schweitzer’s analogy in Simply Jesus (p183): Jesus is said to desperately throw himself onto the wheel of history after his actions had failed to bring about the kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, Jesus expected the kingdom to arrive in the immediate future during his itinerant ministry but he was painfully mistaken. David Seccombe summarises Schweitzer’s position like this: after nothing monumental had taken place during his ministry, Jesus was forced to rethink his position and die in order to bring about the denouement. Seccombe continues, “For two years Jesus he had believed that God would intervene to reveal him as the glorious Son of Man and establish his kingdom. Now he realizes…God does not break into human history” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p558). Jesus, previously left in the lurch, at the last, recklessly abandons his life in vain hope; and the cry of dereliction, that tortured utterance of despair, is Jesus’ moment of inglorious truth.

Most of you would read this post will disagree with Schweitzer on a few points, the most glaring being that Jesus was in fact God breaking into human history, as the Son of God incarnate. Other points of departure might be over the timing of God’s kingdom, which in Jesus’ parables is both inaugurated and incremental; the remarkable signs Jesus performed in his ministry indicative of restoration and redemption; and whether the cry of dereliction reveals Jesus’ abandoning his mission or fulfilling it. But I want to challenge Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ knowledge, which is where we started.

Holy WeekSchweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was largely unaware of God’s purposes, seen in him having unfulfilled expectations during his ministry and most clearly demonstrated in the cross being no more than a last throw of the dice. This ‘recalculation theory’, as it has been called, does not square with what we read in the wider Gospel accounts. For starters, if my post on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 is right, which I think it is, Jesus was tempted from the outset of his ministry to avoid the messianic rejection, suffering and death. But if that sounds too assumptive, C. H. Dodd (in The Founder of Christianity, p62-64) highlights Jesus’ uniquely personal and intimate relationship with the Father and how that energised him for what in glimpses appears as an unbearable mission; “Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden…It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable”. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), early on in his ministry we are told that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), and at his baptism he fails to renounce John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus knew full well what his task entailed; indeed it is his self-sacrifice that gives fullest meaning and significance to the incarnation. We do not follow a man who did what he thought best, acting boldly despite inadequate information. We worship the Son who did his Father’s will even though the knowledge terrified him.

Jesus’ course was, returning to Horwood’s phrase, previously unexplored and incredibly hard. But we must retain that this was only because Jesus had never known anything other than happy and unbroken fellowship with his Father. The depth of Jesus’ work is not seen in Schweitzer’s vision of a desperate Jesus throwing all caution to the wind, unsure whether it would bring about any real change; it is seen in the deliberate Jesus, sure that that through his death the world would be forever changed.