After the luncheons, eggs, and dress-ups, what was that, anyway?
My memories of Easter are a blur of chocolate bunnies. But one Sunday stands out. When I was eleven, my family woke up and decided to go to church. It seemed random, because for a while we hadn’t been active in a congregation. But that morning, my parents loaded us kids up in the car and we drove down the road to Kingsville Baptist Church.
Shortly after we arrived, my mom asked me, “Do you want to go to the grown-up church, or to Kid’s Church?” I was ambivalent, and decided to go with my younger siblings to the children’s program. That morning was a blended youth service that included kindergarten up to sixth grade. After seating us on the carpet, they proceeded to give a presentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. I had never heard the facts laid out so clearly in public—Jesus killed, Jesus buried, Jesus raised. And when people came later to view His dead body, they found his grave opened, and empty.
The man up front said to everyone, “Who do you think rolled that stone away from the door?” As if on cue, a first grader jumped up, and answered, “God did it!” I had never heard facts like this laid out with so much confidence from a group of people. After it was over, I didn’t tell anybody that I had been affected by it. To be honest, I didn’t want to supply a reason for my folks to start attending every Sunday.
Over the next years, though, I did hear more about the resurrection of Christ, in fact, to the extent that it slowly stopped being news to me, and became more of a recycled story. That’s the way it was until I was twenty-one years old, when, on another Easter Sunday, I happened to be sitting in a church in Europe. This time, the preacher not only talked about the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but explained it as well. For the first time I realized there was a subtext to the event, a meaning, and relevance. That majorly got me.
Sometimes the problem with Christians is that we don’t reflect on the mysteries of Easter, and in this unreflective state, the whole thing begins to feel like a folktale.
Let’s drill down into one verse:
“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10 ESV).
Two persons are working in absolute harmony here—the Father, mentioned explicitly as the Lord, and the Son, less explicitly identified, but present, nonetheless. Both, together, are doing something incredible. First, the Father willed to crush His Son and put him to grief. Many Christians would prefer this verse to say, the Lord willed that His Son should die for us. That wording sounds a little less brutal.
Yet the Holy Spirit breathed this verse through the prophet Isaiah, and He meant it. Some translations even say that it pleased the Lord to crush him, or it delighted the Lord to bruise Him. For a lot of contemporary readers, that makes the Father sound mean. It unsettles us, and so some Christians want to fix it, by explaining it away, smoothing it out. We wouldn’t want the Father to sound barbaric.
But we’re not used to handling our Bibles so closely. Second Corinthians 5:21 says that God made Christ sin, who knew no sin. When God dealt with Christ on the cross, He saw your idolatry, adultery, violence, hatred, theft, lust, and lies. All the darkness of the human race was gathered up and concentrated in that one place on Calvary. God saw it hanging there, and was pleased to crush it. Every ounce of wrath delivered upon that cross just meant one thing: that you became a little more free. Every stroke of his rod upon Christ, the sin-bearer, meant you were healed a little more.
Never was God so pleased to do something. For thousands of years, He had seen our helpless race go into destruction like waters flowing over Niagara Falls. The cross was where He stopped it. Truly, He was delighted.
But what was the Son doing during this time? Unfortunately, the way culture has come to understand it, Jesus was a victim, not only of men, but of God. He was roped into a redemptive scheme with only the barest of consent, coerced into it, and therefore, according to certain blasphemous views now floating around evangelical circles, He became a victim of divine abuse.
Far from such nonsense, a very willing Christ was on the cross, yielding up His soul as an offering for sin. He fully understood what He was going to endure there, as evidenced by His own foretelling of the event, and by His impassioned prayers in the garden. The sheer weight of prophecy from both Isaiah and other prophets, also demonstrated that such was the requirement of God from the beginning. Christ offered His soul up for the sin guilt of others, absorbing in full what was due them.
Moderns call such an arrangement impossible. You can’t make one person suffer on behalf of another, and call it justice, they say. In the courts of men, this is no doubt true. But when we apply these objections to the cross, it shows how little time we’ve spent in the Bible, and how much in shallow devotionals, and assorted Facebook memes. For God invested an enormous amount of space in the early part of Scripture, preparing the reader’s mind for the ideas of sacrifice, of blood, and smoke, and fire, and substitutionary atonement. This was so that when Christ came as the ultimate sacrifice, we would find what He did understandable to our initial grasp, certainly not objectionable or abhorrent.
In fact, the early sacrificial system of the Bible provides us with three overriding principles. First, an animal sacrifice had to be without blemish—scab, or scar. Perfection was mandated. Accordingly, Jesus was morally and spiritually perfect, without a need for a sacrifice of His own.
Secondly, a sacrifice must shed blood. This demonstrates the seriousness of sin, perhaps something not serious to us, but absolutely so to an infinitely holy God. When Jesus Christ came, He came as a true human being with blood in his veins.
The third thing, and probably most cosmic of all, was that the sacrifice must completely identify with the one it was to die for. In the Old Testament, the offerer would place his hands on the head of a bull or a goat, and in the eyes of God, both offering, and offerer would become one. When Jesus came, the Bible says the Word became flesh, without of course, assuming any personal sinfulness. His becoming flesh in essence meant he became us.1 Furthermore, on the cross, He was made sin—our sin. Truly, when He was judged, we were judged.
But how do we know He was successful? The very next phrase of the verse tells us: “He shall see his offspring.” He would go on to see the results of His cross, the billions of people who have benefited from it. As one who has believed in Him, you are the offspring of His fruitful death. And He sees you, because He sees all His offspring. Dead men don’t see anything. Only a person resurrected can witness the results of His own death.
The verse continues by saying, he shall prolong his days. A dead man doesn’t prolong his days. Only a man who is no longer subject to death does so. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus said, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.” Eternity is a serious prolongation of days!
Finally, the verse says, “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” No cause prospers in the hand of a dead man. Yet this living person actively operates the will of God. Wherever the Lord’s work prospers, the resurrected Christ is involved. We occasionally get it twisted in our minds, thinking when a church prospers in the will of God, it must be due to the preacher, or a singer, or a ministry of some type. No. The true cause is the risen Jesus.
What was Easter Sunday, but the Father and the Son working together for the salvation of the world. It is the dynamic site that the Holy Spirit wishes to draw all people toward.
I had a buddy whose parents got tickets to a Billy Graham crusade back in the early seventies. At that time going to see Billy was like going to see the albino tiger at the zoo. You just had to go, because everybody was talking about it. My friend wanted to get there and watch the evangelistic drama, and what the crowds would do. It was like Jesus theater. He himself was a good kid, and probably thought he didn’t need any special help himself, since he didn’t drink, or smoke, or swear.
But when Billy started preaching that simple message of the cross and the resurrection, my buddy locked onto that word and stayed there. And when it was over, and Billy called the freshly repentant forward, my friend, who never thought he needed it, jumped up out of his chair and ran down those concrete steps to the front. Probably no one was more shocked than he.
What was happening to my friend? He was being drawn to the site of a bloodied cross, and an empty tomb. He had not been enamored with a preacher, still less, with the religious response of a crowd.
Easter is a huge, kid-friendly day. As a previous Kid’s Church leader, as well as a parent, I can sympathize with Christian youth. Their experience is less about being drawn, than it is about being pushed—pushed to the car on Sunday mornings, and pushed into a meeting. The power of the Christian life is about mom having a stronger will, or dad being big enough to pick them up, and carry them like a six pack of soda, if they won’t get out of bed.
There will come a time, though, after being pushed, pushed, pushed, that one day they’ll turn around and there won’t be anybody behind them pushing anymore. What then? The power will need to come from in front of them, drawing, and attracting them. It will not be the attraction of young adult church entertainment, funny, clever preachers, interesting programs, or activist community.
It will be nothing less than a weekend thousands of years ago, where a Father and His Son did a work for us all that still exists, fresh, and undiminished.
¹ Colossians 1:16-17 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Creation, therefore, including mankind, has an attached dependence upon Him, and even subsists within Him. When He offered Himself up on the cross, He brought the entire old creation, including created man, to the cross with Him.