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Life

Day 10: God with Us in Our Sufferings

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” (Matthew 1:23)

For many people, Christmas is the most brutal time of year. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a recent divorce, loneliness, or something else, Christmas can be a sad reminder that life is not how it should be. Even if Christmas is a happy time for you, the indwelling power of sin and the general brokenness of the world is a testimony that life is not as it should be.

If you are suffering this Advent season, you might ask, “Where are you, God? Why do I suffer so much?” When we are at the lowest point, we may ask questions, but answers aren’t what we really want. What we want (and need) is to be embraced by someone who has been there.

On that first Christmas night, when Mary bore Jesus in a dirty stable, the world was no different from ours. It was filled with disease, war, oppression, injustice, famine, hunger, and hatred. The problems were less noticeable because Mary and Joseph didn’t have Twitter or CNN, but they were no less prevalent. While “long lay the world in sin and error pining,” the baby boy Jesus, entered with a most precious name: Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

The God of the Bible is sovereign over the entire world, including all the brokenness. Yet he is not immune to suffering. He enters this broken world and suffers with us. God may not always give you answers. But he gives you himself, which is better than answers.

In Jesus, God joins us in our sufferings and sadness. In him we meet “a man of sorrows…acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3). When you are weighed down with the brokenness of this world and wondering where God is, take comfort that at the end of his life, Jesus asked his Father the same question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Take comfort, too, that Jesus was actually abandoned by God so that you can rest in knowing God will, truly, always be with you. Especially in your sufferings.

Scripture and Reflection Questions
Read Isaiah 53:1-12

  1. Isaiah 53 is rightly associated with what Jesus did on the cross. But how does this passage help you understand his incarnation (i.e. his taking on flesh)?
  2. What are you going through right now? Does it feel like God is with you? Why or why not?
  3. How does the fact that Jesus knows what you are going through, better than you do, help in times of hardship?
  4. How do you try to avoid suffering? This Advent, how can you embrace suffering, like Jesus, and pursue God in the midst of it?

From We Look for Light: Readings and Reflections for Advent

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Theology

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Why did Jesus cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross?

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is called “lamb,” of course, because of the Old Testament where lambs were designated to be the sin-bearers for the people on the day of atonement (see especially Lev. 16 for the “day of atonement,” what Jews call today “Yom Kippur”). When John the Baptizer called Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1:29, he was prophesying and essentially saying, “There aren’t going to be any more sacrifices after this man. He’s the last lamb.”Isaiah picks up this theme of atonement for sin from Leviticus 16 in his “Suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. He says,

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away…Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief (vv. 4-8a, 10).

So Isaiah shows us that not only were lambs–and the Ultimate Lamb–sacrificed for sin, but that their sacrifice was actually punishment for the sinner (his language makes that clear). Lambs, and thus Jesus, received punishment, for what we deserved. Jesus, then, not only paid the debt for sin, but also took the punishment that sin deserved. We see this throughout the New Testament in different vocabulary:

  • Christ became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13).
  • Christ became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
  • Christ saves us from wrath by taking wrath for us (1 Thess. 1:10).
  • Christ was condemned in the flesh so that the righteous requirement of the law would be fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:3).
  • Christ was put forward as a “propitiation,” which is a theological word that means Christ was given to satisfy God’s wrath (Rom. 3:25).

We can sum up the judgment of God this way: Everyone will be judged for their sins. No one anywhere at any time gets away with anything. Every sin will be punished–either in hell or on the cross.

All of this evidence leads me to believe that when Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was saying, “I am being forsaken for the sins of many. I am experiencing the punishment for sin that everyone who believes in me should bear.” Now this is tricky. Can God turn his back on himself? Does he not see what’s happening? Of course, the answers are no and no. He cannot turn his back on himself and he does see everything. However, in a mysterious, cosmic way, at that moment, all of the sins of the God’s people were poured onto Jesus. In order for redemption to be possible, God, indeed, had to forsake Jesus. Jesus needed to be judged. Jesus needed to face the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins. So while God did not turn his literal back so he did not see, the meaning is that Jesus really and truly experienced the absence of fellowship and union with the Father because of sin. Because Jesus was abandoned by the Father for those precious moments before he died we can be sure that he will “never leave nor forsake” us.

In saying, “My God, my God…etc,” Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1. In those days, when a rabbi quoted the first verse of psalm, the whole chapter was being alluded to. Jesus then implies that he is the true author of Psalm 22–the only truly righteous person who can faithfully sing that song. God will eventually restore Jesus: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Ps. 22:24). The Father has heard the cry of the Son. Why could the Father hear the cry of the afflicted One? Because Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer who does not deserve to suffer. The evidence of this fact is that the Father raised the Son from the dead. The resurrection was Christ’s reward for a perfectly obedient life. God did not simply forsake Jesus in some form of divine child abuse (which some wrongly assert I am implying). He punished and chastised him, only to bring him through death after hearing his cry of affliction in order to bring in “all the families of the nations” to God (Ps. 22:27-28). The promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 was being fulfilled in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Christ took our punishment so that we will never face punishment in eternity.

Finally, was Jesus being punished until his resurrection? Did he go to hell after he died? No and no. He said on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” (Luke 23:46); and to the thief he said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christ’s victory was not fully realized until his resurrection, but he certainly was not overcome by death: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps. 16:10).

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Life

The Future Hope of Advent

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:17)

The Israelites were a people in-between the times. They had been given all the promises of God and a promised land in which to dwell (Rom. 9:4). But they were awaiting the advent of their Messiah. All those who truly loved and worshiped Yahweh and had faith in the Savior’s coming inherited salvation, but it was not final. 

The first advent of Jesus–his birth in a grungy manger in a village called Bethlehem–was the beginning of hope for God’s people. Jesus’ first coming was the fulfillment of the promise God made to Israel that a Messiah, an anointed King, would come to bring salvation to Israel. He accomplished this salvation through his death and resurrection. This salvation event was not just for Israel, however. Even at his dedication in the temple as an infant, Simeon recognized the baby Jesus as much more than an Israelite king: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

For all who believe (i.e. have faith) in Jesus, God gives them the right to become children of God (John 1:12-13). But life isn’t perfect at that point. Even Christians admit that the world and their own lives are broken, horrifically broken. Christians–Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female, young or old–have inherited salvation, indeed; but it is not final.

Like the Israelites, Christians are people in-between the times. We have the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. We have faith that his first advent brought about his death and resurrection which inaugurated a new covenant. We have the hope of eternal life. So we wait for his second advent when he will make our salvation final. Paul calls this our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). At his second advent, he will bring the new heavens and the new earth. There will be no more crying, no more pain, no more sin (Rev. 21:4). There will be nothing unclean in this new world (Rev. 21:27). We will be perfect. The world will be perfect.

The happiness and peace and music and joy and fun and laughter and good food and generosity you experience at Christmas ultimately points to a world where we will experience nothing but that and a million other charms we cannot begin to imagine. Christmas ultimately points to the fact that Jesus was born for one purpose: to shed his blood to create a new people for God so that they might worship him in glory for all eternity in a new world.

Do you rejoice in the future hope of Advent? Do you believe it will actually happen? Celebrate Christmas this year knowing and treasuring the fact that your Savior will return once more to meet you face-to-face, make your salvation final, and restore this world to be everything it was intended to be.

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Theology

The Triumph of Advent

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isa. 9:2)

Imagine trying to make your way through a forest or jungle in utter darkness. Suppose there is a new moon, or it has already set, and the stars of little help. You don’t have a flashlight–or iPhone–to light your way. That would be scary. Think now of a different kind of darkness, a darkness of the soul. This darkness leaves you feeling hopeless and despairing. It is a kind of darkness that leaves you wondering, “Why don’t I just end it all?”

Isaiah prophesied during a dark time in Judah’s history when it was so hopeless people wept for days on end and sat in ash piles because that was the only appropriate response. In Isaiah 8, Isaiah foretold of coming national defeat when all hope would seem lost. This was fulfilled when Assyria ransacked the northern kingdom of Israel (c. 720-722). Assyria’s conquering wasn’t a small military demonstration. It was epic devastation. Children were killed in the streets. Women were raped. Men were slain and taken off as prisoners of war. Even before the invasion, all hope was lost, for it was God’s word and it was sure to take place.

In the midst of darkness and anguish and gloom, Isaiah prophesied hope: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa. 9:2). In 9:1, Isaiah had just referred to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, where much of the Assyrian destruction took place (see 2 Kings 15:9; 2 Chr. 16:4). This hope would come, Isaiah said, through a special baby born to Israel, who would  reign on David’s throne and establish his kingdom with justice and righteousness (Isa. 9:7). All of Judah and Israel’s hope was set on this baby.

Hope arrived and light dawned at the coming of Jesus. Born in a horse’s trough in a podunk town to a teenage mom and poor adoptive father, this baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jesus began his ministry in Galilee (where Naphtali and Zebulun were located) to fulfill what Isaiah wrote in his ninth chapter (Matt. 4:12-17; cf. Mark 1:15). He came not to bring political liberation or social reform. He came not to take vengeance on Assyria (nor on Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or Rome for that matter). He came to bring light to those in spiritual darkness, to make all who believe in him children of God: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:4, 9).

Later in his ministry, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). World. Jesus did not only come for those in Galilee who were left hopeless after the Assyrian invasion. As Luke 2:32 (mentioned above) foretold, Jesus came for all who have were invaded by sin and left devastated. Like ancient Israel who was once left in gloom and anguish by Assyria, so you and I have been devastated by sin, death, and Satan. We were left for dead and clinging to anything and everything for hope, yet no hope came. Money, sex, relationships, fame, power, security, comfort, food. All leave us in darkness wanting more and more and more.

Despite the dark night, however, we share with Israel in God’s promise of a great morning light. Christ has triumphed over an enemy greater than Assyria. He has conquered our spiritual darkness and hopelessness. Jesus endured the darkness of death and separation from the Father so that we who believe in him might have relationship with God and never taste death. Will you believe in the hope Jesus gives? His triumph is worth celebrating this Christmas.

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Theology

Jesus, the Lamb of God Who Never Went Astray

I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments. (Psalm 119:176)

This verse ends the longest chapter in the Bible.  Psalm 119 is all about God’s word and the psalmist’s desire to follow it. Often he makes bold statements, as he does in verse 176, petitioning God to “seek his servant” because he “does not forget God’s commandments.”

If you read the whole chapter, however, you will notice that this is rooted in repeated requests from the psalmist for God to teach, open eyes, give mercy, give understanding, and be gracious. Our “remembrance” of God’s commands is rooted in one thing: God sovereignly and generously granting it. Thankfully, God does grant it to some.

This psalm looks forward to the Messiah, because the ability to remember God’s word and rejoice in it “like one who finds great spoil” (v. 162) was ultimately purchased by Jesus, the great treasure (Matt. 13:44) and the perfect Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is not just God’s servant like the psalmist; he is the Suffering Servant who took the iniquity of the sheep who have gone astray (Isa. 53:6), and he becomes our Good Shepherd and gives life to God’s flock (John 10:10). He does not simply “not forget” God’s commandments, he is the only one who has perfectly communicated God’s word, being, and character to the world (John 1:1-5; 14:5; 15:15; 17:8, 14; Heb. 1:1-3).

If you want to know, remember, and rejoice in God’s word, you must know Jesus, and all of your failures to do what God demands must be cast upon him. Run, silly sheep, and embrace your Good Shepherd.