Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Calvary Tree

Advent Series: Four Christmas Trees

Part Three: The Calvary Tree

There’s something awkward about taking about the death of Christ in the season in which we celebrate the birth of Christ. There’s something difficult about considering the cross at the same time that we are fixed on the manger. There’s something uncomfortable about discussing crucifixion at the same time that our attention is drawn to welcoming angels, Christmas pageants and boughs of holly.

The Christmas story itself, as we find it in the gospels, seems to recognize this tension. In Luke’s gospel, we have the journey to Bethlehem, the birth, the angels and the shepherds’ visit. And that is often where we stop. But Luke goes on to describe Jesus’ circumcision, at age eight days, and then 40 days after the birth, following the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary and Jesus go to the temple in Jerusalem. Their purpose was to make an offering for Mary’s post-childbirth “purification”, as commanded in the Law. While there, they encountered two older saints, Simeon and Anna. Let’s look at Simeon’s prophecy.

Simeon’s prophecy is found in Luke 2:29-31. He sees the baby Jesus, takes Him in his arms, and says:

29"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

It’s a simple, wonderful prophecy; as Luke tells us in vs. 26, the Holy Spirit had told old Simeon that he wouldn’t die without seeing God’s Messiah. Now he does see Him, and He sees that Jesus would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel.”

So far, so good. But then we read this in vs. 33-35:

33The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Suddenly, there is a dark turn in the prophecy. Falling and rising; a sign spoken against. And to Mary, this ominous word: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”

That word “too” tells us that Mary would be second in line when it came to suffering—that the child, as a “sign spoken against” would suffer first of all. There is a cross-shaped shadow falling over them.

In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we have the visit of the Magi, which probably occurred when Jesus was between a year and two years old. And there is another cross-shaped shadow here as well. Down the centuries, the three gifts that the wise men brought have been discussed and the significance of the gifts—why the Holy Spirit moved them to give these specific gifts and why the Spirit moved Matthew to record what there were—is powerful.

Those gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Gold speaks to the kingly nature of Jesus. The incense speaks to His role and priest; it was one of the same incenses used by priests in the temple. But myrrh—it has long associations with great suffering. It’s a resin derived from a tree sap, and in ancient times was used as a powerful pain killer.

And it shows up at the cross of Jesus. In Mark 15:21-22, we read,

22They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.

Jesus faced the pain, and turned down wine doped with myrrh as He hung on the cross. He faces the suffering of the cross without the pain-killing myrrh.

So the story of the birth of Jesus, the accounts in Matthew and Luke, has foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus. As much as we would like to cover the Christmas season in a blanket of heavenly peace, the Bible itself keeps the cross just a step away from the manger.

So these last few weeks we have been looking at the story of God’s love in Jesus through what I called biblical Christmas trees. Can you tell the Christmas story through biblical Christmas trees? Here are the four Christmas trees I’m using:

· The Eden Tree: how we got into this mess

· The Family Tree of Jesus: the plan of God moves forward

· The Calvary Tree of Jesus: The Cross

· The Tree of Life: God’s Plan is fulfilled

We’ve seen the Eden Tree: what Genesis calls the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When the first human beings disobeyed God and ate from the tree God had forbidden, this became the I’ll Decide for Myself Tree. Instead of looking to God for what’s right and wrong, we decided that we could do that for ourselves.

Then we looked at the Family Tree of Jesus from Matthew 1. We saw that the story and mission of Jesus can be told from His family tree: that the family tree is a royal family tree, a real family tree (with all kinds of “wild monkeys” in its branches) and a redemptive family tree—that is, not the story of people getting their act together so that God comes to love them; but the story of human sin and tragedy and error and mistake, and God just keeps at it to love us and win us and woo us back to His love and into His family.

But how would that redemption happen? How would God bring us back in to His family? How would we experience the love and grace and peace of God? It would happen through the cross of Jesus.

Interestingly, the cross is called a “tree” several times in the New Testament, that is, in most translations. OK, this is going to get a little technical, but bear with me. Four times—three in Acts, and once in 1 Peter, Peter says that Jesus died on a “tree.”[1] He seems to like to use that term for the cross. The Greek word he uses is zylon, which is a kind of generic word meaning “a piece of wood.” (“Timber” may be the closest English word to zylon.) So sometimes it stands for what we would call a tree, and some other times in stands for something made of wood.

There’s another Greek word that is more specific, the word stauros. That’s the Greek word for cross (the Romans used the Latin word crux). That’s the word—stauros—most commonly used for “cross” in the New Testament.

Peter uses the Greek word zylon instead of stauros. Paul does the same thing once, in Galatians 3:13. Why? What’s this about?

Well, it seems that both Peter and Paul had one particular Old Testament passage in mind. That passage is Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

In ancient times, when someone was executed it was common to leave the body hanging on a tree, or a city wall, or some other public place for days or even weeks or months (think of the smell!) In the Law of Moses, God says that if someone is executed, the body has to be taken down before nightfall, “because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” To leave the body out longer would desecrate the land that God gave them.

So in the mind of a first century AD Jews like Peter and Paul, there was an association with execution, a tree and a curse. Since Old Testament era Jews had never encountered crucifixion, they applied this Old Testament law involving a tree to the horror of the cross. So Jews would often refer to the cross as a zylon, a tree instead of the common Greek word, stauros.

So Paul writes in Galatians 3:13-14:

13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

What Paul is saying is that by hanging on the cross—the “tree”—Jesus takes the full force of the curse of God that falls on all spiritual rebels (that’s us).

That’s the Calvary Tree of Jesus. The Eden Tree tells us why the Redeemer had to come; the Family Tree tells us how He came to us and what He came to do; the Calvary Tree—the cross—tells us how He redeems us.

He redeems us by being our substitute. He became “a curse for us” says Paul. Substitution lies at the heart of the Biblical teaching of the cross of Christ. He comes into the world to show the love of God, to teach the ways of God and to display the kingdom of God, but if we leave out the fact that Jesus came as our substitute on the cross, we have missed the heart of His mission.

This is not new; just as the prophets foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), so the prophets foretold the substitutionary death of Messiah. When we looked the Eden Tree, we saw that foreshadowed in the suffering of Enmity, the child of the woman, who would crush the head of the devil (Genesis 3). But later prophets were far more explicit. There’s a principle here, called “progressive revelation.” The farther along we get in Scripture, God tells us more and more.

So five hundred years after the time of Moses, we have Psalm 22, where David foresees one whose hands and feet are pierced. And three hundred years after that, you have the prophet Isaiah. Nowhere is the mission of the Messiah as suffering for us as clear as in the great Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 52:12-53:12. We can’t go into the whole passage, but let’s look at just a few verses.

Isaiah 53:5 says,

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Did He die for His own sins? No, it was for “our transgressions, our iniquities.” “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. Well, maybe there is one—in vs. 6 of the same chapter:

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Here’s what this means. Take a book in your hand—go ahead, take a hymnal or a Bible. Hold it like this. That’s your sin, and it holds you down. It separates you from God. It makes you unhappy. It brings you misery.

Now what does God do? Isaiah 53:6 says “and the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” “Iniquity” means “really bad sin, crookedness.” So take the book and transfer it from that hand to another like this.

The other hand stands for Jesus. The Lord—God the Father—laid on Him—Jesus, God the Son—the iniquity of us all. He takes it, and it dies with Him on the cross. The cross—the third Christmas tree.

This brings us full circle back to the Eden Tree. That’s where iniquity started. The Family Tree brings us to the cross. That’s three Christmas Trees: Eden, Family, and the Cross.

Mark Lowry is a very funny guy. He’s recorded about a dozen comedy CDs and he’s also a pretty good singer. On one of his CDs, he observed that Mary’s silence at the cross always amazed him. He said that if he were being crucified in the middle of town, his mother would have "pitched a fit", but Mary never said a word. Lowry wondered if maybe what made the difference for her was remembering back to that first Christmas, remembering touching his little hands and feet and counting his fingers and toes.

Lowry says: "I wonder if she realized then that those were the same fingers that had scooped out the oceans and formed the seas. Mary probably counted those little toes; I wonder if she realized that those were the same feet that had walked on streets of gold and had been worshipped by angels. Those little lips were the same lips that had spoken the world into existence. When Mary kissed her little baby, she wasn’t just kissing another baby—she was kissing the face of God. Thirty-three years later she’s standing on a hillside watching blood pour from His veins, from the side of her own son... and she didn’t open her mouth. What a great testimony to the fact that He wasn’t just a great prophet, He wasn’t just a great preacher, He wasn’t just a great teacher, He was the virgin-born son of God. He was our Savior. And He didn’t just die for us; He died for His own mother. [She realized that] the baby boy she had delivered on that first Christmas was now on a cross delivering her."

There is a straight line from Bethlehem to the cross. I once went to the Reagan library and they had a display of Christmas trees from all over the world. There was something like a hundred of them. Some of them were spectacular. But I have no doubt: the cross, this tree, is the greatest Christmas tree of all.



[1] Acts 5:30, 10:39 and 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24.

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