October 31, 2013

Cross-bearing and amazing joy

The biblical idea of taking up our cross is often thought to refer to endurance in the difficult circumstances of life. That is, a cranky mother-in-law is a “cross I must bear” or a handicapped child, or anything we cannot change, so must endure and consider our cross.

However, that is not the idea of cross-bearing intended by Scripture. When Jesus bore His cross, He was on His way to die. He was going to make the ultimate sacrifice for the eternal good of others. All through the New Testament, God speaks of sacrifice in terms of giving up what my human self wants in order to glorify God and edify others. The example of Christ is used saying I’m to have His mind, think the way He thought, that I might put others first and die to self.

The Old Testament prefigures the death of Jesus Christ in those sacrificial offerings for sin. A lamb was burned on an altar in place of the sinner or sinners who deserved death for their rebellion and disobedience. While smaller sacrifices were made, the ultimate sacrifices were about blood and death, about yielding all on the altar.

We who believe in Jesus Christ know that we are to be sacrifices. Romans 12 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

In presenting myself to God, I am making a sacrifice that involves dying to my old life. This happened in salvation where the Spirit of God regenerated the old me and the new person now lives. I think of it as an identity change, sort of like becoming a soldier. However, when God enlisted me, I had no idea how a soldier should think, talk, or behave. I’ve been in boot camp ever since, learning the ways of Christ and how this new person should live.

One of my early lessons was about dying to self. The Bible uses various terms, but this means choices. When push comes to shove, I am to ignore, even put to death, my old ways and obey God. While this is at first difficult, there is great joy in it.

This “obey-die to self-experience joy” described in the New Testament is also prefigured in the Old Testament. One example is how a a wicked king led the people of God astray for many years, then a new king came to the throne and “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and restored worship in the temple . . .

Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped. (2 Chronicles 29:27–30)

Later, Jesus was the ultimate burnt offering for sin. The Bible says we need to look to Him now, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).

After the horror of His great sacrifice for us, Jesus experienced great joy. It was in anticipation of this joy that He endured the suffering and shame of yielding, of saying, “not my will but thine be done” and then willingly experienced the excruciating agony of dying.

Today’s devotional says, “It is not till the burnt offering begins that we ever hear a single strain of music.” The author of this says that every human life has got its cross and we need to distinguish that from only the shadow from the cross. The shadow is something we enter and pass out of, but the cross must be taken up and carried to that place of death.

I know that the cross is about sin, my own and the sins of others that give me pain. A deep question is how I think about these. Do I cling to and cherish my own sin, wanting my own will to be done? Do I hate the sin of others and want to condemn and fling them away from me? The reading says that if those are my choices, there will be no song, only hardening of heart and a growing bitterness.

But if I can take up that cross and consider myself dead to sin, most certainly to my own, but also to the sins of others in that I do not let them affect me personally, my heart experiences the strangest thing — joy. There is harmony, even perfect music that begins only when I yield to the will of God and become that living sacrifice. When the burnt offering begins, so also do the songs of the Lord.

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