Archive: Our Master’s Mind

Reflections on the atoning death of Jesus Christ

by Rev. Dr. John N. Oswalt, Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky
Elder, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

Today, at every turn, we meet the sign of the Cross. We see it on coat lapels, on slender, golden chains about girls’ necks, on church steeples, even on ball point pens. There is something clean about it, something geometrically satisfying, something lovely.

Yet, the Cross (as a cross) was the exact opposite of these. It was not clean but degrading … not satisfying but horrifying … not lovely but gruesome. It was an instrument of torture, devised to produce the slowest, most excruciating death the ancient world could inflict. Yet it was to such a death that the Lord of Glory went—consciously, purposefully. Why? What was it which impelled Him there—to that stake?

It was His mind. No, not His mental capacity … not His brainpower, but His outlook on life, His basic approach to living. It was His servanthood. Both Philippians, chapter 2, and Isaiah, chapter 52, proclaim this truth.

What was the nature of Christ’s servanthood? The famous servant passage, beginning with Isaiah 52:13, depicts several facets of Jesus’ attitude.

First, Jesus’ servanthood is rooted and grounded in triumph. The outcome was sealed from the beginning. Jesus knew who He was; He knew whence He had come. More than that, He knew where He was going. Any identity crises He may ever have had were resolved in His abiding faith in His Father and in the certainty of the triumphant conclusion of His mission. He had no need to exalt Himself, to fight for status. He knew who He was.

But immediately, one is brought face to face with the jolting results of servanthood: astonishment and rejection. From the heights of promised triumph one is dashed down by the memory that although the world longs for the balm of true servanthood, none of us likes the scarred, twisted face of it. (53:1,2) Who could believe that salvation would look like that? Where are the accouterments of divinity? Where at least is the charm of physical beauty?

What did we expect—a costumed drum major to lead our triumphal parade? No, but at least we expected a sign so that we could know He was on the winning side before we decided to join with Him!

How astonishing that He should grow up so quietly and naturally, like a plant—no fireworks, no glittering bodyguard, none of that satisfying royal pomp. No, His divinity was in His character, not His bearing. He loved people, common, ordinary people, and it was a divine love. He desired to serve people with their hurts and their sorrows, and it was a divine desire.

But most of all, through it all, He was a good man, maddeningly, unconventionally good. That’s why we reject Him—His absolute goodness condemns us! Nobody can be that good. Nobody ought to be that good! Away with Him!

Legalistic goodness—totaling up its points, toiling upward on the weary path—that we understand. That we like. But goodness for its own sake? Plain, unadulterated unselfishness? It’s embarrassing, it’s indecent. It is as if someone were walking around naked, unprotected! It’s contrary to human nature. That is why “we hid as it were our faces from Him.” (53:3)

The results of Jesus’ servanthood were astonishment and rejection. “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (53:3) Whose? His own? No. “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows … He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.” (53:5)

Whose twisted, scarred, broken face is that I see upon the Cross? It is the face of all the world. All the injustice, all the greed, all the hopelessness, all the insane hatreds look out at me from those eyes. My God, it is my face I see! That terrible, broken, despised face there on the Cross is mine.

And yet—and yet—we saw Him suffering and we did not think much of it. Perhaps He deserved it. Perhaps He brought it upon Himself. If only He had been a little less prodigal, a little more restrained, a little wiser, a little more conventionally pious, perhaps then He would not have died nailed to a cross between two thieves.

We cannot admit to ourselves that this should be our end, the end of our selfishness. We dare not admit that through the Cross He has taken upon Himself our own nature and has thus transformed it.

Yet, “All we like sheep. have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” (53:6) In us it is that quiet, stupid, thoughtless willfulness which leads us , like sheep, from one clump of grass to the next, following our noses, refusing to be led by Him. But He has taken our sheepliness upon Himself and in Him it is transformed. “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is dumb before her shearers, so he opened not his mouth.” (53:7) He has taken our nature and our fate, and taking them He has shown us all that we were meant to be.

What is the result of Christ’s servanthood? To be misunderstood … rejected … loaded with unbearable burdens … killed. Even the final irony, to be buried with the thoughtless, self-sufficient rich! Worst of all, He was cut off without children. (53:8) To those of the ancient world, no worse fate than a childless death could be imagined. For children provided the only certainty that one’s name would live on after one had died. Resurrection could be hoped for—but in children there was a certainty of living on. To die childless was to be as if one had never lived. (53:8)

But there are offspring from Jesus’ servanthood—a numberless host. “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou was slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priest to our God.’ ” (Revelation 5:9, 10a) “Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Because Jesus dared to trust His Father’s promise, all the world will fall down in honor of that Name above every name. Jesus—Savior. Immanuel—God with us.

How many times must Satan have whispered in Jesus ear, “This is crazy! You’re going to die and it’s going to be all over. You’ll be forgotten in six months.”

Suppose—impossible thought—Jesus had succumbed. Suppose He had not had the faith to see beyond the present. Had this happened, then His real posterity—you and I—would have been lost.

This brings us to the final aspect of Jesus’ servanthood—the nature of it. It sounds trite and simple, especially here, but His servanthood was redemptive. No place in the Old Testament is the process of Christian redemption more clearly stated than here in Isaiah 53. The hurts, the agonies, the iniquities of the world cannot be ignored, they cannot be whitewashed, they cannot be pushed under the rug. They must be faced. They must have the poison drained out of them.

The Cross stands out on the highest hill of time, a lightning rod attracting to itself all that we have made of ourselves. In this sense it pleased God to bruise Hirn. (53:10) He was glad to lay all of that upon His Son—Himself—in order to save us from the consequences of ourselves.

But He forces this gift on no one. A servant does not command, He offers. He offers, and offers, and offers. He offers Himself to us in order that we might, in turn, offer Hirn to God: His transformed nature in place of our deformed nature. It is so terribly embarrassing: that a person should give Himself to us without reserve or condition! It is frightening … it is unbelievable … but it is true!

This is the glory of redemption: it is not an “it ” or a “process,” but Him. (53:11b) Real life is knowledge of Him—that is, intimate acquaintance with Hirn. This is what it started out to be one morning several millennia ago. And unless the atonement results in fellowship, unless Jesus continues to serve us and we Hirn, then the purpose of the Cross is frustrated. This is not a cultic matter, the correct performance of certain religious acts. The Hebrew prophets 3,000 years ago, were trying to convey to their people that God wants us, not our church services or our devotions or our abstinences. If He has us, then these others may be of value, but not as substitutes.

How easily we fall into the trap of thinking that because we do certain things for God, He will do certain things for us. Or, if we don’t do certain things, God will not do certain things for us. Redemption is not a mechanical tit-for-tat affair. It is a relationship! This is why marriage is so commonly used in the Bible as a figure of speech describing the redemptive relationship. If my wife, Karen, were measuring me in terms of perfect performance as a husband, it would have all been over a long time ago. But she loves me and she knows that I love her. That makes all the difference!

What is the result of Jesus’ redemptive servanthood? Triumph! The Servant is the King. Had Jesus clung to that equality with God which was rightfully His, He certainly would have lost it. But because He rejected His “rights,” choosing instead the path of service, the Name above every name was given to Him. This, then, is the mind of Christ—revealed most of all by His death upon the Cross for undeserving sinners. What does this mean for us? What does it call for in us?

First, the mind of Christ in us calls for a continuing sense of triumph. In this darkening world, where increasing numbers of people are con vi need that there is nothing beyond the natural realm, it is only a sense of God’s eventual triumph which will allow us to deny the inner scream for self-protection and to take up the cross of service. This knowledge of God’s triumph makes it possible for us to lay ourselves down in the road and to become a bridge, as Jesus did on Calvary.

And indeed, the person who lays himself down will be walked on! Thus, the mind of Christ in us calls for the willingness to bear rejection, to be misunderstood, to be maligned. Let me add, however, that to be rejected is not proof positive that we have the mind of Christ. Some of us are rejected because we deserve to be! We are selfish, headstrong, tactless. Some of us are like porcupines—interesting to watch but not someone you want to get close to! Peter warns us to make sure that we are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and not because we deserve it. No crowns are handed out for deserved persecution! (I Peter 2:20)

But suppose rejection is not deserved? What then?

One of the most basic human drives is to be accepted. People lie, steal, or kill to gain the acceptance of those whose opinion they value. One of the major causes of mental illness is a sense of rejection, of being unwanted. How can one face such a thing? How did Jesus?

One certainty was uppermost in His mind: God had accepted Him and it was God’s acceptance which mattered most. This can be our rock as well: God has accepted me! I am His, He is mine. Even when I fail Him, He knows the intent of my heart and He does not reject me. No, we are not Christ. We do sin. But even then, discipline does not mean rejection. Rather, God’s discipline demonstrates the completeness of our acceptance (Hebrews 12:5-7) “in the beloved.”

The mind of Christ in us calls for a sense of triumph and for a willingness to face rejection. It also calls for us to bear griefs and sorrows. Oh, this is hard! Judging is easier than bearing. Pronouncing is easier than grieving.

What did Jesus’ bearing mean? It meant sharing. It means taking upon myself another person’s sins and failures, becoming intimately involved. It means breaking down my self-built protections which wall out other people’s pain. It means to invite pain and upset.

This is hard. But it is the only safe path for you and me. Any other pathway ends in a whitewashed tomb. We need to live in horror of Pharisaism’s dead orthodoxy. In our worst nightmares we need to see ourselves lifting spotless hems lest they be defiled by the griefs and sorrows and sins of the world.

The mind of Christ, then, calls for redemptive servanthood. Not that we can redeem the world, but that we may be agents of Christ’s redemption.

How carefully we protect ourselves. We are so wise. Luke said, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” (Luke 3:11) But when we see a skinny derelict clutching a ragged jacket around his shoulders against a bone-chilling winter wind and we have on a $70 topcoat, “how dwelleth the love of God in us?”

“He wouldn’t appreciate it. Why, he’d probably sell it for $5 to buy some whiskey.” Yes, those things are very probably true. But I’ve still got my coat, don’t I? How redemptive is our servanthood anyway?

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”


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