“Students at many colleges these days operate like Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution. Being unwoke is socially punished. Breaking that culture of conformity will take reinforcement across the institution.” (Wall Street Journal, “Harvard Has a Free Speech Moment: Fifty Professors Form an Alliance on Academic Freedom”)
Most of the Woke Red Guard I encounter is asleep at the wheel of reason. They can bully. They cannot think. Or, in a Nietzschean move, they prefer bullying over thinking.
But, perhaps there is some hope for the woke. At Harvard, Stephen Pinker (an atheist, btw) and fifty diverse Harvard professors, are forming “a new faculty-led Council on Academic Freedom dedicated to the free exchange of ideas as a cornerstone of “reason and rational discourse.””
These professors confess, sadly, that Harvard has seen “cases of disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions.”
Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.
The lyrics of this hymn I just shared with you were written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus – truly from age to age it is the same. We do welcome that happy morning when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Jesus was acknowledged then as Conqueror of Sin, Death and Satan as He is today, as He always will be. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the risen Lord, eternal Lord.
You know it really surprises me that so many people spend so much time and effort and energy chasing after the temporary, pondering the inconsequential. In truth, much of the world focuses its attention on the fleeting while putting off thoughts of eternal destiny — ultimate consequences — when really the first priority of our thinking ought to be eternity and how eternity informs the momentary. We’re here for just a blinking of an eye and then something happens to us. Death and eternity. We can’t avoid death any more than we can avoid eternity – they don’t go away simply because we choose not to think about them. We need to plan ahead and not go so willy nilly about life. Eternity is a long time. So let me ask you a question this morning: How and where will you be spending eternity? If you truly are a Christian, can you be certain – are you certain that you have put your faith in a reliable place, in a reliable person?
The Bible tells us that everyone has sinned and has fallen short of the glory of God and that the wages of sin – what is earned through sin – is death. If there is no atonement for sin, what is earned is an eternity of separation from God.
The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is the only basis on which we can come into a saving relationship with the living God. There is no other way for Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” By Jesus.
Suppose the entire human race lined up on the West Coast with one objective – to get to Hawaii. We’ll equate their goal with God’s standard of righteousness. The gun is fired and all the swimmers jump in. As we look out over the ocean, we see the most moral one of all – an individual always doing his best, trying to adhere to the highest moral standards – yet he would be the first to admit his imperfection and sinfulness. But he’s out there in the water 75 miles from shore. Next we see a college student. She does cheat on her exams a little and goes on a binge every now and then but she’s not a complete reprobate. She’s gotten about 10 miles out. The mass murderer is drowning a few yards off shore. Scattered about in the water between the two extremes of the spectrum, we see the rest of the human race. As we look from the mass murderer to the tremendously moral man, we can see the difference. It’s an enormous difference. But what’s the difference in terms of Hawaii. Everyone will drown.
A set of swimming instructions won’t help at this point. We need somebody to take us to Hawaii. This is where Jesus comes in. If you can live a life that is absolutely perfect in thought, word and deed, you can make it to heaven on your own steam. But no mere human being has ever done or ever will do this. All the other religions of the world are essentially sets of swimming instructions, suggested codes of ethics, patterns for living. But humankind’s basic problem is not a matter of knowing how we ought to live; it’s lacking the power to live as we ought. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. Through Him alone are we reconciled with God, given His righteousness and enabled to have a personal relationship with Him in His very presence.
And how did He accomplish all of this? By going to the cross and taking upon Himself the punishment for sins that was rightfully due to us. And how do we appropriate His righteousness? By admitting and repenting of our sin, accepting Christ’s sacrifice in our place and living lives of service and gratitude for what the Lord has done.
But how do we know that Jesus – who claimed to be the Messiah, the Savior, God enfleshed – how do we know that He wasn’t some lunatic or that He wasn’t a liar? The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are either elements in the world’s greatest hoax –or the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are the most important events ever for humankind.
So what do we have for proof of the claims of Jesus?
Well, first there are the prophecies all fulfilled in Jesus – written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on earth, prophecies recorded for us in, what we call, the Old Testament. Detailed prophecies referring to the place and time of His birth in – specifically – Bethlehem. His birth by a virgin. His ministry in Galilee. His roles as prophet, priest and king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem astride a donkey. His betrayal by a friend. We have to the penny the amount of money for which He would be betrayed. We have the prophecies that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, that false witnesses would come forward to accuse the Messiah. We have accountings, hundreds of years before they occurred, of all the incidents surrounding His death – that He would be mocked and spat upon; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that Jesus would pray for those who were crucifying Him; that not a bone of His would be broken; that He would be buried with the rich; that He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
Then we have the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus: from 1st Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, we learn that Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to several women as they ran from the tomb, to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, to 10 disciples in the Upper Room, to seven men at the Sea of Galilee, to 11 disciples on a mountain, to more than 500 people at one time
And then there are the details surrounding the crucifixion: Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion, the most horrific, painful means of execution ever devised. But first, as I noted last week, Pontius Pilate had Him scourged. And, as you’ll recall, in this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used on Him. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable.
They jammed on His head a crown of thorns and then beat Him on the head repeatedly with a staff. Then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus – battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.
Then on the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His ankle and heel bones. And He remained on that cross for six hours.
The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:
The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (Jn. 19:33).
The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (Jn. 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mk. 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Mt. 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (Jn. 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mk. 15:46). It seems obvious that any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred. They made such remarks as “while He was still alive” (Mt. 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.
After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time. The stone, they estimated, would have weighted 1 ½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To mess with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded – remember, this was the Roman Empire – the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail guarding Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.
Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two ton stone, unwrap the 100 pounds of graveclothes, fold them up neatly, lift the body and carry it away? Come on!
And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives. But, then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.
They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – John tells us one of the women who had followed Jesus made her way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.
Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found, to her amazement and fear, that the stone had been rolled away.
She responded by running to tell the disciples. Her announcement to Peter and John was like a pistol shot that started the race to the tomb. And so the proud, impulsive fisherman and the one known as the beloved disciple, made for the tomb. From the outside, one could see the body was not there. Mary had probably seen that. But from the inside of the tomb, a person might be able to receive a great insight. That insight is the key in all of this: the realization that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
Understand that Mary didn’t know that in those initial moments outside the tomb. What she said was: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” When she said, “they,” she probably meant the Romans had taken the body.
But, as we’ve noted, that was an incorrect assumption. After all that had occurred, the last thing the authorities wanted was to see a missing Jesus whose disappearance would be certain to stir up the people again. And Mary knew the disciples hadn’t taken Him. They’d been in hiding, afraid to show their faces. And a simply human Jesus couldn’t have emerged from the tomb on His own. Remember what He had endured.
So, if the authorities hadn’t done it and the disciples hadn’t done it, and a merely human Jesus hadn’t done it, how had the stone been moved, the guard foiled and a dead Jesus come out of the tomb? Well, let’s see.
Verse 4 in John’s gospel tells us that John reached the tomb. Imagine the scene: He and Peter had been running and have arrived huffing and puffing. But John stops short – he peeks into the tomb but he doesn’t cross the line. Instead, he squints to try to see inside.
We can sympathize with him. There is something about walking into a tomb – we avert our eyes, we pull back. It’s a region to which we defer and give respect. But, while John hesitated, Peter crossed the line. He went right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there as had John from the outside.
This gospel writer, John, now uses four Greek words all translated “saw.” Mary and John “saw” at a glance (the word used for their seeing is blephei). Peter “saw” (the-o-rei), carefully examining the details, theorizing.
Peter noted that the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was separate from the other grave clothes. It even had a rolled-up appearance. The Greek word suggests it was coiled or rolled as though the head around which it was wrapped had suddenly dematerialized and vanished. Peter saw all this like a detective, examining the details, looking for clues. He was trying to figure out what “they” had done with the body when “they” had taken it. He was puzzled that they would leave the grave clothes.
Then John went into the tomb. Again, he “saw” but this time the Greek word used is eiden, a physical seeing, a mental understanding, a spiritual knowing. While Mary and John had initially just looked, while Peter was theorizing, John now had a flash of insight.
Verse 8 says John saw and believed. What did he believe? He believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He understood that Jesus was not carried away by some weird soldiers who had taken the trouble to unwind and rewind the grave clothes. John had crossed the line. Faith is going across the line, seeing, believing, and then acting on that belief. John believed what he believed based on what he saw in the tomb. Only later did the disciples come to understand from scripture why Jesus had to follow this route. The point here is that they didn’t make up a story of resurrection to fit a preconceived understanding of scriptural prophecy. Jesus had been explaining to them that these prophecies had to be fulfilled in Him but, as scripture tells us again and again and, as we’re reminded in our passage from John, the disciples were slow to understand.
It is interesting to note how each of these words about seeing has moved into the English language. Blephei is found in words particularly relating to the eyelids, that which covers the eyes. Theorei lends it base to words that speak about speculations, untested assumptions, abstract reasoning. And eidon has made its way into the language in words such as eidetic, defined as that which is marked by extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images.
It’s clear that all of the disciples came to this eidetic way of seeing because nothing less — no fictional story, no hoax — could possibly account for the changes that occurred within them.
Take, for instance, the transformation of Thomas. Of all the disciples, he seemed the least likely to be convinced. His pessimism was first revealed earlier, when Jesus mentioned His plans to go to Bethany where Lazarus had just died. Thomas had suggested to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn. 11:16). Although this statement suggests a degree of courage, it also implies that Thomas was resigned to martyrdom. If that was his typical response, it is no wonder he responded to the disciples’ claim that they had seen Jesus after His death by saying, “Unless I see . . . I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25). Does this sound like someone who is willing to rekindle the anger of the Roman officials by claiming that Jesus was alive if He really wasn’t?
Now look at Thomas a week after the crucifixion. In the upper room, surrounded by his 10 friends who had already seen Jesus, he saw the Savior face to face. Finally, Thomas was convinced. His statement, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28) is the ultimate proclamation of belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Here was victory that could be won only through hard evidence. It’s the only thing that could have changed this skeptic into a believer.
No, the disciples were not the type of men who could have lived a lie as far-reaching as one that claimed a dead man wasn’t dead anymore. They might have misunderstood Jesus on occasion, but they were basically honest men. They had no reason to devise such a scheme, and they didn’t have the courage it would take to defend such a bald-faced lie. Peter would never have been hanged upside down for a trumped-up story. Mark would not have been dragged through the streets to his death if he had been defending fiction. James would not have been beheaded for a falsehood. Thomas wouldn’t have been pierced with a lance for a lie. Yet history tells us that these men each died in these horrific ways. What a testimony to the truth of their claims! They were willing to die for the One who overcame death for them–and for us!
So this day we celebrate – this happy morning – calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the eternal life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Finally, let us walk once more by the tomb. John and Peter have gone off to ponder the questions and Mary remains at the tomb sobbing and sobbing. But, as she looks into the tomb again, she sees two angels now seated where Jesus’ body had been.
And they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her reply was the same she had given to Peter and John just moments earlier, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him.”
Then she sensed someone else near her. She turned and saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener. And He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
Perhaps she couldn’t see clearly through her tears, perhaps her grief and fear kept her from seeing, but, initially, we’re told she failed to recognize that the one to whom she was speaking was the risen Jesus. Finally, He called her by name as He does each of His disciples and she felt a pull on her heart. She knew this was Jesus, alive and standing before her.
Then Jesus said a surprising thing: “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet returned (or ascended to the Father). Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of telling Mary that her life could never return to what it was. Mary would have to let go of the incarnated Jesus so that He might complete His work and send the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Mary would also have to let go of death, of sin, of all that bound her. She would have to truly trust the risen Lord. That’s something we all need to remember on this Resurrection Sunday. There are some things we just can’t hold on to. Many of us have perhaps remained entombed for years, wearing death and sin like graveclothes – bound by regrets, anger, unresolved guilt, fears. These must be stripped away in order for us to fully display the light that will draw others unto Jesus.
We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb; we can let it go to claim the abundant life that Jesus has for us now. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name.
While tears of joy were streaming down Mary’s face, Jesus told, “Go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary left the tomb to share the good news. “I have seen (in the Greek, e-o-raka) the Lord,” she said. This fourth Greek word for seeing has a similar meaning to another – eureka – which has come directly into the English language and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the word “used to express triumph upon the discovery of something.” In the case of Mary, the something was not a something, but a someone. Mary had discovered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And because this risen Lord had conquered death, Mary had discovered new hope, new meaning, new life. Well, more accurately, these had been given to her for salvation is the gift of God. We receive not of our own efforts so that no one can boast. My most fervent prayer this morning is that we all might see as Mary saw on that first Resurrection morning.
That we might really see – not a simple blephei kind of seeing (at a glance); not a theorei kind of seeing (speculation) and not even an eiden kind of seeing (identification) but that we might be filled with the full triumph of discovery as the eyes of our hearts comprehend that in this day we have been confronted with the reality of death and it’s alright because Jesus has conquered death. Jesus has risen from the dead and that makes a difference for us now.
Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.
And all God’s people said Amen!
NOTE: I composed this from notes compiled over a number of years. Attributions may not be complete. Sources include: Paul E. Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith.
Featured image: Easter Procession by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1893.
When you see the nails piercing through Christ’s hands, believe surely that it is your work. When you see His crown of thorns, believe that it is your evil thoughts.—Martin Luther (1483-1546), leader of the Reformation in Germany
The spectacle of the crucifixion of Jesus was hideous. No language can express how awful and how diabolically evil it was that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, was being put to death by torturous crucifixion. This was one of the cruelest deaths imaginable; the physical agony to be endured was unimaginable. But Jesus was put to death this way. As Mark records, “It was nine in the morning when they crucified Him” (Mark 15:25).
Jesus had been mocked and beaten bloody by soldiers. The soldiers had “dressed Him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on Him” (Mark 15:17). Humiliation with pain and torture—all for the innocent Son of God.
These horrible things were done to Jesus by others. But theologically, Jesus went to the cross for the sin of the world, which includes the sin of you and me. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Our answer has to be, “Yes, we were there.” “I was there.”
From The Sanctuary for Lent 2017 by Donald K. McKim.
Review of Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022)
In the introduction to Against Liberal Theology, author Roger E. Olson states that his goal in writing the book was to provide “a warning aimed mainly at those who think of themselves as progressive Christians,” a warning about “not sliding into true liberal Christianity.” As he considers “Progressive” a label too “flexible to pin down, with no tradition to track and no movement to follow, his chapters center on and trace a “Liberal Christianity,” and—more specifically—American Liberal Christianity—which “constitutes a tradition that grew out of a movement.”
Olson, now an Emeritus Professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, comes to this exploration having taught Christian theology for forty years in three Christian universities, most recently Baylor. He has authored more than twenty books including The Story of Christian Theology and The Journey of Modern Theology. An avowed evangelical Arminian, Olson is multi-denominational having been Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, and Presbyterian.
The author traces the beginnings of Liberal Christianity to German pastor-theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1854) and to the individual Olson considers the “prototype, influencer,” German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89). Olson notes that many Americans studied under these men and returned home eager to “modernize” their own country’s Christianity, and the ideas from these thinkers were melded with those of later German liberal theologians including Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch. Olson relies heavily, in his tracking of theological liberalism on the written works of liberal historians Gary Dorrien, Kenneth Cauthen, and William R. Hutchinson.
Olson acknowledges that Liberal Christianity is not “monolithic or homogeneous,” rather it is “a diverse tradition with some common unifying features. He summarizes liberal Christians as finding “the ultimate authority for deciding what is true…within the individual. Further, most also tend to “reinterpret Scripture, doctrine, thought and religious experience in terms of modernity, giving modern thought authority alongside, if not over, Scripture and tradition. In most cases that means a non-supernatural interpretation of the Bible and Christianity, a Christianity without miracles.”
In this thinking, Jesus is reduced to a mere man who revealed God to people, a man different in degree but not in substance, a man who was not, himself, God. This funnels into Degree Christology, wherein the Trinity is denied and the door is opened to religious pluralism where Jesus is just one of many saviors and lords. The book’s short introduction lays out much of the foregoing; these themes and others are then fleshed out in the ensuing chapters. Throughout the book, Olson contrasts Liberal Theology with the “classical, historical, biblical, orthodox” theology that was codified in the ecumenical and historic creeds of the Christian faith. Olson doesn’t venture into whether he believes liberal Christians are indeed Christians. Instead he asserts that their theology is not authentically Christian as measured against classical, historical, biblical, orthodox Christianity—the transdenominational Vincentian Canon—what has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians.
Olson unpacks what Dorrien referred to as the “gospel norms” and “mythical aspects of Christianity” that liberal theology has viewed as “problematic” and in need of displacement or replacement. These include “the Bible as God’s supernaturally inspired Word; God as a personal being above nature, sovereign, omnipotent, and unchanging; the Trinity as three eternal, distinct persons united by one essence and substance; Jesus Christ as God the Son, equal with the Father, different in kind and not only in degree from other humans; God incarnate yet truly human, the one and only savior of humankind; miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; and salvation as God’s loving and merciful rescue of sinful persons from hell and into an eternal relationship of blissful communion with himself in heaven.
Beginning with the doctrinal chapters (three and following), some degree of familiarity with orthodox theology across denominational boundaries is assumed. In each of these chapters, Olson summarizes the consensual orthodox doctrine and brings alongside the contrasting, alternative liberal views. So, for example, in the chapter on the Bible, the author contrasts the orthodox Christian consensus that the Bible is “the supernaturally given revelation of God,” with liberal Christianity’s treatment of the Bible “as a human book of great insight and spiritual wisdom that is not divinely inspired or uniquely authoritative.” He finds that God’s immanence (His being in and with the world) is emphasized in liberal theology to the point of losing God’s transcendence, so God’s greatness is sacrificed, leaving in His place in liberal theology, “a pathetic God who seems more like a nice, heavenly grandfather.” The orthodox belief in Jesus as fully God and fully human (the hypostatic union, the union of two complete natures in one person) is denied as is salvation in Jesus alone by grace alone; liberal theology replaces this belief with a humanistic religion of self-realization, a human-centered religion where what is necessary is the turning over of a new leaf. The Parousia (the literal/actual return of Jesus Christ) is viewed as symbolic, metaphorical, not at all to be taken literally. God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo is denied. Olson asserts that liberal theologians believe in universal salvation and deny hell except as a lack of God-consciousness. Eschatological issues, he finds, are often treated agnostically or relegated to a footnote. Many liberal Christians, he notes, tend to settle for “vague hopes for the future of both the individual after death and for the world.” Finally, in liberal Christian theology, “the return of Jesus Christ in glory, divine judgments, a fulfilled kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth free of sin, sickness and death, where there will be no more tears, all get treated as myths or symbols. We are left almost entirely with this world and virtue as its own reward.”
In the book, Olson delves into further elements found in liberal Christianity including higher criticism; symbolic realism (the Bible made up of humanly-created symbols that point to some “Reality); degree Christology (similar to Paul of Samosata’s adoptionism); Pelagianism (self-salvation through good works); semi-Pelagianism (the belief that the initiative in salvation belongs to the human person); and Process Theology wherein God is viewed as absorbing into Himself everything that happens with the result that His life is enriched or impoverished by what we do.
Olson traces liberal theology’s shared beliefs with Unitarianism and Universalism. He touches upon Tillich, DeWolf, Churchill King, Miller, Hodgson, Ottati and other liberal theologians to expand upon the range of nuances in liberal thinking.
He laments the influence liberal Christianity has had on the mainline churches in the United States where Bible-based Christian doctrine has been replaced in many pulpits with therapeutic sermons. He laments the rise of a social gospel that reduced religion to ethics while rejecting the concepts of individual sin and the need for personal salvation in Christ. His examination of the writings of Marcus Borg (of the Jesus Seminar) and the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong called to mind for this reviewer the incursions by New Age (NAM) theology into the mainline churches. The NAM’s emphases on panentheism and monism—are found as well in liberal theology.
I heartily recommend this book. It is straight forward in its analysis of the twisting and turning of the biblical faith by liberal theologians. Olson carefully sets forth the elements of classical, biblical, orthodox theology and then, unsparingly—without apology, but deeply and richly imbedded in apologetic reasoning—his critique of liberal theology. One of Olson’s writing techniques this reviewer especially appreciated was the use of stops for probing questions. Examples: if one asserts that “the best of modern thought” and “the careful judgments of the present age” are to be used in gauging the truth of Scripture, “what if the best of modern thought is only a passing fashion of thought, a philosophy of the moment, a cultural fad?…Is Christianity endlessly flexible, changeable, mutable? Is everyone’s ‘hat’ his or her own church? How much can an individual Christian’s beliefs differ, be unique to him or her, while maintaining that we have one God, one faith, and one universal church?” While Christians may debate secondary issues, there are non-negotiables: what has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians.
This is a well-documented, thorough-going, meaty, revelatory, critically-needed, brilliant piece of work set out masterfully in just 174 pages. Olson makes a convincing case that liberal theology has cut “the cord of continuity between itself and biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity” and is “a new, invented religion with roots in Christianity” akin to other sects and cults that have veered off from authentic, Bible-honoring, Christ-centered, theologically-sound and rock-grounded faith. He concludes that Liberal Christianity, if it is Christianity at all, is what the apostle Paul called “a ‘different gospel”…a false gospel…They may call it good news, but those who know how helpless we humans are to have a right relationship with God on our own, apart from God’s supernatural intervening grace and power, know that this liberal gospel is bad news…spiritual poison because it betrays the truth God has revealed about himself and us and how we can find fulfillment, hope, joy and peace.”
Donna F.G. Hailson is an award-winning writer, editor, educator, administrator, and photographer focusing on theology, nature and the arts as spiritual ambassadors for the Christian faith. She has served as a professor of Christian spiritual disciplines, evangelism, world religions, and practical ministry, and directed a Doctor of Ministry program centered on personal, congregational and community renewal. As an ABCUSA ordained minister, she has pastored congregations in three states. She is at work on her sixth book, a memoir centered on how life has changed in the days following the devastating stroke suffered by her husband in 2020. Her articles, columns, and book reviews are found in professional journals and popular magazines.
Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, is the day on which we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem; it is also the day on which we recount the sufferings of our Lord Jesus in the week that followed. This Holy Week began with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem where He was met with great rejoicing, great honor, and great praise.
As Jesus approached the city, He knew full well what lay ahead of Him for Jesus, fully God, had come in the flesh so that He might take upon Himself the punishment rightfully due to sinful humankind.
Before His arrest, He had foretold that one of His own disciples would betray Him. He had predicted the suffering that He would undergo at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. And He had warned His disciples He would meet His death but, three days later, would be raised from the dead.
Before He went to the cross, Jesus used the image of the instrument of His death to instruct His followers in the need for being willing to bear the cross for Him, being willing to suffer and perhaps to die, in obedience to Him but always with the realization that eternal glory was in store for those who would submit themselves to God.
As Jesus neared the villages of Bethphage (bait-fuh-gee) and Bethany (Baith-a-nee) on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem, He knew it was time for Him to be revealed as the Messiah. Messiah translates into English “Anointed One.” He was the One for whom the people had been waiting. But some in the crowd didn’t understand who He was because they had been hoping for a Savior who would overcome earthly enemies and reign as an earthly king. Others rightly understood that Jesus—in the Hebrew “Yeshuah” (which means Savior)—was the Messiah to Whom what we now know as the Old Testament had pointed. With his work on the cross, Jesus—Prophet, Priest and King—would be victor over the enemies of sin, death and Satan.
Jesus was the answer to more than 300 Biblical prophecies/promises that were all fulfilled in Him.
Hundreds of years before He came, the prophets Micah and Isaiah predicted the Messiah would be born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem and that He would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of King David.
Zechariah, prophesying more than 500 years before the coming of Christ, wrote that the Messiah would be sold for 30 pieces of silver, and it was for this amount that Judas Iscariot handed over Jesus. Zechariah also predicted the money would be returned for a potters’ field, a burial place for foreigners. And it was.
And, as Isaiah foretold, Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and He was crucified with sinners. Isaiah had said the hands and feet of the Messiah would be pierced, He would be mocked and insulted, He would be given gall and vinegar to drink, He would pray for His enemies, His side would be pierced, soldiers would cast lots to see who would get His clothes, not a bone of His would be broken, and He would be buried with the rich. All these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.
And all this suffering—the prophets foretold—would be necessary so the Messiah might take upon Himself our sins and, in so doing, accept the grievous penalty for them. The prophets also foretold that Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven would guarantee eternal life to all those who would believe and accept what the Savior had done for them on the cross.
One other prophecy was offered by Zechariah and it is this that leads us into our passage from Mark. In the ninth chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
And this prophecy was fulfilled as Jesus asked His disciples to procure such a colt that He might enter the city—the city of His destiny—not on foot, as would be expected of a pilgrim and not on a horse, a mighty steed, as a warrior, but on a lowly donkey, as a man of peace.
On the colt—and we are told in the gospel of Matthew that it was the colt of a donkey—the disciples placed cloaks to create a sort of saddle for Jesus. As a token of homage to Him, cloaks and leafy palm branches were spread on the road before Him.
The words of praise the people then offered are recorded in Mark’s gospel and in like passages in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. “Hosanna?! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The word Hosanna is a Hebrew exclamation that translates “Save Now!” It was an appeal to God to save the Israelite people now that the Messiah had appeared among them. The words “He Who Comes” is the title by which the Messiah was denoted. “Save us now, Messiah!”
And so, on what has come to be known as Palm Sunday, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the following Sunday, He would make His triumphal resurrection from the dead.
In between, there would be a full week. On Monday, He would cleanse the temple of the moneychangers and, in that same temple, He would heal the blind and the lame and He would instruct His disciples on the power of faith.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, He would share a number of parables, teach about the Greatest Commandment, tell about the events that would signal the end time, and describe the final judgment.
Wednesday would close with Mary’s anointing of Him with oil and with Judas’ promise to the authorities to betray Jesus.
On Thursday, there would be the preparation of the Passover meal, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the designation of the traitor, the Last Supper, the parable of the true vine, the promise of the Holy Spirit.
And then there would be the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Gethsemane” translates from the Hebrew: oil press. John’s language in his gospel suggests it was a walled garden, and Luke tells us it was located on the slope of the Mount of Olives.
The symbolism in all of this is astonishing. In Jesus’ day, olive oil took the place of butter and cooking fat and so was crucial in a person’s diet. Oil was used as fuel for lamps. It was also used in healing. Further, in religious life, those consecrated to God’s service were anointed with oil. The prophet, the priest, and the king were all anointed with oil in ceremonies of consecration. Jesus, the anointed One, gathered up into Himself the triple function of prophet, priest and king and this Messiah, who fed the multitudes, who brought light into the darkness, and who healed in body, mind and spirit—this Messiah came to the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to undo the damage done by the inhabitants of the first garden.
So, just as the Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, which translates to the English, “House of Bread,” and was placed in a feeding trough, so now on the night of His betrayal, the Anointed One is found at Gethsemane, in the oil press, on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus knew what was coming. He could have run. Instead He prayed and He waited and He made a request of His disciples. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” They fell asleep.
Luke 22:44 tells us that as Jesus anguished over what was coming, His sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground. The medical term for this, “hemohidrosis” has been seen in patients who have experienced extreme stress or shock to their systems. The capillaries around the sweat pores become fragile and leak blood into the sweat.
The fully human Jesus knelt in prayer and anguished over what lay ahead of Him. The fully human Jesus would know every excruciating lash of the whip and the piercing pain of the crown of thorns. This Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was fully God and fully human. Now, e may not understand how this is possible but to appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus did, we need to accept it.
He was fully present on the cross but beyond the horror of the cross, Jesus knew even more awaited Him. He, the sinless One, who had existed from all eternity, pure, unspotted, holy, knew that He would redeem us from the curse of the law by taking all our filthy sins upon Himself that they might be crucified with Him on the cross.
After this time in Gethsemane, there would be His arrest, His healing of the High Priest’s servant, and the desertion of His disciples.
On Friday, Jesus would appear before Caiaphas (kay-a-fus), the high priest, then before the entire Sanhedrin (the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of the ancient Jewish nation composed of 71 members). Then He would be before Pilate, Herod and Pilate again.
Judas, filled with remorse and self-loathing over his betrayal of Jesus, committed suicide. Pontius Pilate, responding to the cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus, approved the death sentence and then tried to wash his hands of the whole affair.
But before sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had Jesus scourged. In this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather thongs studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable. The pain from being struck with this instrument—up to 39 times from the neck to the knees–was so severe that men died under it or broke with loss of their senses. But Jesus retained His consciousness throughout.
Then Matthew, in chapter 27, beginning at verse 27, records the preparation for Christ’s crucifixion. The Roman guard—about 200 men—took Jesus into the barracks at the Fortress of Antonia (an-toe-nia) and began to mock Him. They stripped Him of His clothing and put a scarlet robe on Him, the color symbolizing power and kingship. On His head, they put a crown of woven thorns. In His hand, a staff to symbolize a scepter. Then the guards knelt before Him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”
They spat on Him and took the staff and struck Him again and again on the head and then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus—battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night–carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, Jesus stumbled under the load. And the soldiers took a man—a North African—from the crowd—Simon of Cyrene—and ordered him to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus followed until the 650-yard journey from the fortress of Antonia (An-toe-nia) to the place of crucifixion was completed.
That place of crucifixion was the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. There Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross.
Jesus was crucified at about nine o’clock in the morning. Our passage from Matthew refers to the sixth to the ninth hours (which, in our reckoning would be from noon to 3 o’clock) and in those three hours, darkness came over the land.
C. Truman Davis provides a physician’s description of what would have happened on the cross. He tells us that the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross would have looked for the depression at the front of the wrist and through that would have driven the heavy, square, wrought-iron nail. The soldier would then have moved to the other side and driven the nail into the other wrist careful not to pull the arms too tightly but to allow for movement.
Jesus’ left foot would then have been pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, the nail would have been driven through the heels.
Then Davis imagines: Jesus slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists. Then as He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles in his chest are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles by His ribcage are unable to function. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in oxygen. It was probably during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded throughout the gospels:
The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The second, to the penitent thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken John—the beloved Apostle—Jesus says to him, “Behold your mother.” Then, looking to His mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son.”
The fourth cry harkens back to the first words of the 22nd Psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (sa-voke-tanee),” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins. A terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (the double walled sac that contains the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
We are reminded in this of the 22nd Psalm, the 14th verse: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”
It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.
Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst.” This recalls another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.”
Someone runs to get a sponge filled with drugged wine, puts it on a stick and offers it to Jesus to drink. He refuses it. Some continue to mock Him. And then perhaps Jesus feels the chill of death creeping through His body and He speaks the sixth of His words from the cross: “It is finished.”
His mission of atonement has been completed. He can allow Himself to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, “Father! Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom signifying the fact that, at that moment, Christ had made it possible for believers to go directly into God’s presence. The earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
Finally, when the centurion and the others with him saw all of this, they realized what they had done and they were terrified. He must have been the Son of God! And those of His followers who had not deserted, watched from a distance.
As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by Nicodemus—we’re told by the gospel writer John—dared to go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Can you see them working together to take Him down and to wrap Him gently in a clean linen cloth? Placing Him in the tomb? And can you see the two women—Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John–outside the tomb?
Well, this is where we find ourselves as we approach Holy Week. Over these days, if you dip your bread into oil or eat an olive, think as you do of Jesus pouring Himself out in grief on the Mount of Olives—in Gethsemane–the oil press—as He looked toward the cross. As you receive a palm branch in worship, give thanks to the One who went to the cross for you and praise Him—our Prophet, Priest and King, our Savior, our Lord.
If you happen to pass a field where donkeys are grazing, think of the Man of Peace riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Imagine yourself in the throng, laying your tributes at His feet. Place yourself at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, listen to His teaching, walk with Him through these days. May we not slumber on through this time but rather read and read again the gospel accounts of Holy Week. As you are able, as your strength permits, spend time fasting, feasting only on the Word of God and praying.
Take a few moments to contemplate the great love of our Lord that sent Him to the cross for the remission of our sins.