A Believer’s Spiritual Journey
Guided by Christ’s “Seven Last Words” on the Cross
Now and not yet. This is my conclusion to many a theological question. For example, salvation occurs the moment you accept Christ into your heart. However, your sanctification is a continual process as you seek to become more like Christ. The apostle Paul suggested this “now and not yet” salvation to the church in Philippi as he wrote,”So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Paul wanted his friends to understand the ongoing balance of human effort and divine enabling.
While the recent weather may suggest anything but spring, the flipping of our calendars reveals that Easter is right around the corner. This reminder coupled with my recent reading of Psalm 22 prompted my reflection of Christ’s final words at his death establishing our initial words of new life.
STEP ONE: FORGIVENESS of Others:
First Words…”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
Do you know someone that chooses to get bitter instead of better? Unfortunately, I can think of countless stories of hurt people who hurt people. We all have baggage we didn’t ask for, but we also have the choice whether to carry it around. Jesus didn’t retaliate on the cross. On the contrary, He chose to toss the baggage of rejection, abuse, and hate. When Christ forgave those who hurt Him, He released the love of God.
I remember the first time I felt the release of God’s love as I was released from the control I had given my abusers by constantly reliving the pain from the past. I had rationalized my unforgiveness as excusing their wrong behavior. Unlike Christ, I was convinced they knew exactly what they were doing. Drowning in my the bitterness, it was if God threw me a lifeline with the realization that it didn’t matter if they did or didn’t know. What mattered was my forgiving them so that God could forgive me (Mt.6:14-15).
While God forgiving my sins is not a direct result of me forgiving others, it is critical to my understanding of forgiveness. Am I a sinner in need of the Savior? Emphatically, yes! And just as much, if not more, than those I had judged so harshly. Once we grasp the need for forgiveness, the need to forgive others becomes more important than the need for retaliation.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6 & 8). Just as it appeared that Jesus was being victimized, He turned the tables on His enemies.
Is it time for you to do the same? You don’t have to be a victim any longer. You can be more than a conqueror through Christ Jesus. Take the first step on the journey by repeating Christ’s first of his last words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do”.
STEP TWO: FREEDOM like no other:
“I tell you the truth today you will be with me in paradise”. Luke 23:43
It’s never too late to turn to God. The repentant criminal’s faith in Christ brought a freedom like no other. In fact, it was a freedom that Christ’s followers were still trying to find. While they loved Jesus, they were confused to the point of despair. Have you ever felt that hopeless? During our adoption process, I felt the depths of despair with each setback that turned a nine month anticipation into a two year anguish. I understood the sage who said, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.
While the criminal may have been spiritually sick his whole life, he found peace that so many of us lose sight of this side of eternity. He received hope at the last moment as his faith provoked him to ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). On the other hand, the disciples revealed their hopelessness as they spoke to Jesus unknowingly on the road to Emmaus. Recounting the betrayal and crucifixion, they revealed the sickness of their hearts by saying, “…but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). In other words, we were hoping for freedom from our military and political enemies, our earthly foes.
What? How short-sighted could they be? Didn’t they realize Christ came to set them free from their spiritual adversary? They could now have hope in a kingdom that would last forever!
The pursuit for both the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of Christ is futile. It is not natural to desire the invisible over the visible. And, that’s why it’s called faith: the substance of things hoped for… Consequently, James tells us there is warfare between an earthly and demonic wisdom and a heavenly and divine wisdom (James 3:13-17). Will you choose the wisdom of this world, which promotes maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain or the truth of His Word, which promises God as the source of true pleasure and the peace in the midst of pain?
Like the early disciples, we can lose hope as we struggle between the temporal and eternal. Could it be that you are heartsick because you are homesick? This earthly journey is simply preparation for our heavenly home. “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25).
Don’t be fooled as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’ while really it is finding its place in him.” Make sure your hope is in the Creator and not the creation for we will one day be in paradise!
STEP THREE: FELLOWSHIP with Others:
“Dear Woman, here is your son (and to the disciple) Here is your mother”. Jn 19:26-27
It’s been said: “To live above with saints we love–oh, that will be glory. But to live below with saints we know–well, that’s another story.” Why is it so hard to “love our neighbor as ourselves? We come to Christ as individuals but we grow in community. And, the process of becoming others-centered instead of self-centered is very fertile soil! Even so, the more we give ourselves to Christ, the more we are able to seek the interests of others rather than our own interests (Philippians 2:4).
John looked beyond another mouth to feed, beyond another woman telling him what to do, beyond the I am ‘unemployed’ now that my Master is gone, beyond his own grief. He looked beyond himself to meet the need of another. Moreover, John didn’t respond out of emotion. He demonstrated Romans 12 for when we are committed to God, we commit to the purposes of God, which always involves the people of God.
As mentioned in our introduction to The Journey, the road from the cross of Christ is an ongoing process. We come to the cross for salvation but we must continually come back to it as we die to self. Jesus clearly shows us that death is the only way to resurrection! Turning to Christ and the cross should turn us to others. And, when conflict comes, we keep looking to the cross and remember step one to forgive others and step 2 that there is more to this life. It’s what Luke Timothy Johnson calls ‘messy grace’. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, my friends.
STEP FOUR: IDENTIFICATION of Christ’s Life
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Mk 15:34, Mt 27:46
Have you ever been angry with God but afraid to express it? While I have no trouble expressing myself especially in the sense of talking to Him, like He’s sitting across the table from me, I have been hurt by feeling overlooked. And, hurt usually leads to anger if left unchecked. My anger seems to always involve yelling so I have raised my voice a time or two at the Creator of the Universe. You know, He has really big shoulders and thick skin too. I figure why hold back since He knows what I am thinking anyway.
God can handle our tough questions and moments of frustration. In the Psalms, David exemplified a child of the most High not afraid to hold back. On the run from King Saul, he prays, “I pour out my complaint before Him. I declare before Him my trouble” (Ps. 142:2). So, don’t be afraid to pour out your heart to God and tell Him how you feel.
Suffering on the cross, Jesus didn’t hesitate to share His emotions with God. His declaration was of pain and humiliation not doubt and refusal. As if being whipped and beaten wasn’t enough agony, Christ felt the anguish of being separated from His Father.
Although the words “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” are a question, they are rhetorical of sorts for Christ was not questioning his purpose. Jesus chose to go to the cross. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us that Christ made himself a servant. That’s right, it was His choice! So, don’t ever doubt His sacrifice for you. He would have gone through all that pain for you even if you were the only person on earth. He really does love you that much so don’t forsake Him!
STEP FIVE: INDWELLING of Christ’s Spirit
I am thirsty. Jn 19:28
This week’s reflection highlights our initial insight that sanctification is an ongoing balance of human effort and divine enabling. So captivating are, Christ’s fifth statement, “I am thirsty”, which was essentially human, and His sixth statement, “It is finished”, which was completely divine.
Christ tasted death and thirsted to complete his mission on earth by fulfilling the Scriptures thrice proclaimed by David, “…my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps 22:15); “I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched” (Ps 69:3); “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst” (Ps 69:21).
Jesus is God. He doesn’t need anyone yet He humbles himself to show a dependence on man after taking on the sins of mankind. He is teaching us how to live by dying. Not a physical death but a casting away of our nature to self-preserve and alienate. Isn’t that our human instinct when we are hurt by others? Run. Disconnect. Avoid. Control.
Although it is easier to build walls, we are called to build bridges. If we follow the steps on the journey, we will be able to run the good race instead of running away. Choose to forgive, find freedom, and fellowship with others. Then as you identify with Christ’s life you will receive an overflowing indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The key is to pour out so that His Spirit may be poured in. Think of it like the waters of the Holy Land. Water flows in and out of the Sea of Galilee creating an atmosphere of life while the Dead Sea is exactly that. With no outlet, the water is unable to flow in both directions causing stagnation. Only when you thirst for more can you receive the power to inspire instead of isolate. Let the river of life flow in and through you as you share the Easter story.
STEP SIX: INWORKING of Christ’s Power
It is finished. Jn 19:30
When you make the effort, the Holy Spirit will help you tear down the wall of self-centeredness so the bridge of commitment can flow into intimacy with God and others.
After all, to be sanctified is to be illuminated by God’s Spirit so that we can respond in faith to His purposes and pursue holiness in our relationships with Him and His created.
When Christ uttered, “It is finished,” He provided all that we will ever need. This is why we can find balance in this process of human effort and divine enabling. We develop a conscious sense of dependence upon the Spirit’s power in all that we do. The temptation to be self-sufficient flees with the words, “It is Finished”, as we become reliant on the Spirit’s power, which has no limits!
We have been given authority, power, and victory as children of God. Therefore, it is our responsibility to claim the truth of Scripture, especially when our feelings tell us otherwise. Emotions are not truth but the words prophesied by Zechariah after months of silence are absolute: “Salvation has come…to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear” (Lk. 1:74).
The sixth words of our Savior are a statement of faith. Even though you can’t see the victory, it is won. Even though your situation looks bleak, the promise has been fulfilled. Claim what Matthew quoted from the prophet Isaiah, who hundreds of years beforehand, predicted that Jesus would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. He would carry our griefs and sorrows, and by His stripes we would be healed (Is. 53: 4,5). It came to pass on Calvary and with it every spiritual victory you seek today. Fear Not!
I could write all day about the deliverance we received as the temple veil was torn with Christ’s cry of accomplishment. But, l want to close this week’s blog with an amazing revelation about a fearless man. Samson was so fearless that he found it difficult to balance his self-sufficiency with his call to be set apart by God. Similar to our Savior, Big Sam announces the need for a drink after striking down a thousand Philistines with a jawbone of a donkey. He expects God to refresh him after his accomplishment by saying, “Must I now die of thirst?” (Judges 15: 18) In other words, God you owe me for my efforts. His attitude should warn us not to boast in our own strength. Although we must put forth the effort we must not take credit for our sanctification that only occurs through God’s strength. And, Samson’s example and resemblance to the crucifixion doesn’t end there. Praying for God’s strength one last time, he destroyed the pagan temple by sacrificing himself for the Lord’s purpose (Judges 16:28-30). He, like our Savior, accomplished more in his death than in his lifetime.
STEP SEVEN: INHERITANCE of Christ’s Image
Father into your hands I commit my spirit. Lk 23:46
God gave us the privilege to become members of his family when we placed our trust in Christ (John 1:12). As Romans 8 tells us, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of our Heavenly Father! Nothing! Nada! Nil! When we finally understand this, we realize that sanctification is occurring.
Like many, when I first accepted Jesus, I was so exuberant. However, my passion for Christ was equaled by my pity for conviction. In other words, I would get mired down by condemnation when I would mess up. And, I seemed to mess up all the time! Instead of realizing that conviction was a good thing as it revealed spiritual maturation, I thought condemnation was stunting my growth. By grace, I held firmly to the promises in His Word, and found myself more confident in his forgiveness and less condemned in my failings. That is the process of sanctification! I was just as repentant, but I finally understood what it meant to say I am sorry and trust Him to accept my contrite heart, and more importantly, to accept me.
This final step is exciting because it isn’t the end. It is just the beginning! When we gain insight into our individual journey with God, we take these steps again, but they go deeper as we continue to commit our spirits to His leading. Sometimes, I have to take a remedial course as the Spirit gently corrects my old thoughts and patterns Yet, other times I seem to be so in sync with the Spirit that I am sure to be on the honor roll. That’s what’s so great about your personal walk with Christ–you are the teacher’s pet! He loves you as much today as He did yesterday and there is nothing you can do to make Him love you more or love you less. Isn’t it nice to be the favorite?
When I yielded to God, I let go of trying to earn his favor. During conferences, I illustrate a life-changing moment from my journey. Longing to be conformed to Christ’s image, I would surrender to Him by physically lifting up my arms as if I was reaching for Him. As I recall these times of prayer, I remember pleading with God to take my struggle, pain, sin, etc. Consequently, the more I would request, the harder I would pull back like a tug of war. “Here, take it God…I got it, I will try harder”…”Please help me, Lord…I can do better next time”.
Then, in a moment of complete surrender, I sensed the Holy Spirit tell me to stop reaching up for my Heavenly Father. Always a gentleman, the Spirit beckoned me to crawl into my Daddy’s lap and drop ‘it’ into His hands. When I was able to feel secure in God’s love and release my struggle into His hands, I couldn’t take it back from Him nor did I want to. So now, I hold my hands out instead of up; then I let go, and let God. There’s no tugging and no turning back.
Through all His suffering, Christ did not turn back. He chose to finish what He started so that we could become sons and daughters of God. His last words opened the door for our salvation and laid the foundation for our sanctification. I pray that you continue to take up your cross and follow Him (Mt. 16:24).