[This is the first synchroblog of our new blogging collective The Despised Ones addressing the question of power and authority in the light of Philippians 2. Check out other synchroblogs on our facebook page and like it while you’re there!]
What does the cross say about God’s nature? Not just Jesus, but God — all three members of the Trinity, including the Father. When Jesus says to Philip in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” how do we apply that statement to the cross? If Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), does that tell us something about what God is like or is Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion only a very specific tactic that God used which reveals nothing about how God really is?
The evangelical doctrine of penal substitution seems like an attempt to rescue God from looking weak on the cross by putting Him in complete control of the situation the entire time and making Him the one who drove the nails into His Son and caused Him to die under the weight of His wrath (never mind that not one verse in the Bible actually says this). When Jesus says,”The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” (Mark 9:31), what He really meant was that He would be held in His Father’s wrathful hands the entire time. And when He says, “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes” (Mark 10:33), what He really meant was God will hand His Son over to Himself.
Sorry for the sarcasm. It’s hard to avoid it. But don’t you see that the cross is God’s choice not to be sovereign for a moment or at least to be sovereign in a different way? As Paul says, God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32). That’s an image of surrender, very different than for God to be holding His Son in His burning wrathful hands the entire time. The cross is a renunciation of power on the part of the Father, not just the Son. The only direct participation which the Father has in the cross itself is that He doesn’t say, “Forget it. Come back to heaven,” when Jesus says, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Not removing the cup is very different from pouring out your wrath.
The cross is the culmination of a mission on which Christ has been sent (i.e. let go of, handed over, given up), which is itself the culmination of God’s self-humiliating experience of tying His name to a particular nation of God-wrestlers (Israel) who had way more wicked kings than good ones and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme His name (Romans 2:24). The primary way that God reaches out to the world is He humiliates Himself in order to invite us into His arms.
The first major Christian heretic was a man named Marcion. Marcion was scandalized by the disparity between the God described in the Old Testament and Jesus, so he decided they must have been two entirely different gods and consequently decided to cut the Old Testament out of his Bible. The church ruled Marcion a heretic, declaring that the Israelite relationship with God was essential to and continuous with God’s ultimate revelation through Christ. The way the church has reconciled the disparity between Jesus and the God who orders the slaughter of women and children in the book of Joshua has been to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Christ.
We are living through an era of neo-Marcionism, the difference being that the dispensationalist evangelicals of today, unlike Marcion, are not scandalized by the two completely different gods they find in the Old Testament and New Testament. They rather prefer the mixed martial arts superhero Old Testament God to the limp-wristed hippie of the Sermon on the Mount, so they reverse the traditional Christian hermeneutic and interpret the New Testament under the shadow of the Old. They call the Old Testament deity God and the New Testament deity Jesus, and the role of the New Testament Jesus is to get the Old Testament God to stop being angry at you so He will sit in your corner where you can sic Him on your enemies.
That’s why at least on the macro level, American Christianity today looks nothing like Philippians 2. If Philippians 2 is a defining image of the one we worship, then it’s worth asking whether we would still worship if all the worldly power and success were removed from our worship context. What if you had to be in the loser congregation and not your thriving megachurch? Could you gather every Sunday morning with thirty people in a large, dilapidated sanctuary that once held a thousand and needs a new roof and a new paint job? Will you still be able to worship Jesus when it’s no longer part of the ritual by which suburbanites affirm the legitimacy of their wealth?
Could you worship a God whose life goal isn’t to make every average person awesome like all the bestselling Christian authors claim, but rather to make somebodies into nobodies for the sake of reducing all worldly idolatry to nothing (1 Corinthians 1:28)? Could you worship a God who doesn’t mind being despised by the world for the sake of making the despised ones into His people? I’m not very good at worshiping that God, because I still want Him to make me famous and brilliant and wildly successful. That’s why I have to keep coming back to the cross.