Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner?

Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.

I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.

I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.

But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.

Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.

The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.
Alleluia!

I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.

Are we not supposed to call anyone pastor, teacher or father?

Q. Does the Bible say we shouldn’t call anyone pastor, teacher or father? I heard a man on YouTube state this but he gave no scriptures to reference. Thanks in advance.

The passage this man was likely referring to is Matthew 23:1-11:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think this a situation, however, where it is not so much the thing in itself that must be avoided, but the misuse of that thing. We can see that by analogy to the other things Jesus mentions. We wouldn’t say, for example, that there should never be places of honor at banquets, such as a “head table” for the bridal party at a wedding. Rather, people shouldn’t desire to have the best places as a matter of worldly prestige; instead, we should cultivate the mature spiritual quality of humility. That’s what Jesus was getting at.

Similarly, I think there is a valid place for titles of honor in many contexts. It’s respectful, for example, for a college student to address the person who’s teaching their class as “professor” when asking a question. It’s certainly respectful for children to address their parents as “mother” and “father” (or Mom and Dad, or something similar) rather than calling them by their first names.

So the point is actually not to desire “status symbols” that confer social prestige. Rather, we should be humble and seek our praise from God alone, through loyal obedience, not from other people. I hope this helps answer your question.

 

 

Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic: Another tour-de-force

Esther, the next volume in the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic-novel presentations of biblical books, is now available. I find it another tour-de-force by the artist, Simon Amadeus Pillario. It’s particularly impressive that he has researched and portrayed a third cultural and historical context, that of the Persian Empire, after the land of Canaan in the settlement period for the Joshua, Judges, and Ruth volumes and the first-century Mediterranean world for Mark. All the sumptuousness of the Persian court, where the story of Esther takes place, comes through in the detailed and historically accurate artwork.

The cultural and technological achievements of the Persians are also depicted, for example, the way the emperor could communicate rapidly and effectively in multiple languages throughout his far-flung territories.

Even though I’m a lifelong student and teacher of the Bible, seeing another volume of the Word for Word Bible Comic, as always, has given me insights into the biblical story that I never had before. For example, because Mordecai won’t grovel before him, Haman wants to have him hanged on a gallows “fifty cubits high.” We read this and don’t think much of it, as we may not know how to translate the ancient measurement into modern terms. But in the panel that shows Haman being hanged on his own gallows, the comic illustrates that this actually works out to seventy-five feet high! (A small-scale replica here would not do this justice; the image takes up an entire page, and it stops you in your tracks. You need to see it for yourself in the comic.) Haman not only wanted to kill Mordecai, he wanted to make an example of him for all to see, far and wide. He was a terrorist in the true sense of the word—he wanted to create terror that would keep anyone from opposing him.

But beyond these realistic and informative touches, the real genius of this latest volume is its characterizations of Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman. The story revolves around those four figures; it moves back and forth between scenes with each one  at the center. While the comic is faithful to the biblical narrative, reproducing every word, it tells much of the story just through their facial expressions—and they are eloquent. Here, for example, Ahasuerus is contemplating whether to spare Esther’s life after she steps uninvited into his throne room.

Through such portrayals, readers of the comic are drawn immediately and irresistibly into the intrigue between Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman, and thus right into the fast-paced story itself. But as it should be, Esther herself is at the center of the book and the story. Her portrayal, in which she develops from a little girl in pigtails to a stunning natural beauty who is also a woman of strength, courage, and character, is the highlight of the comic. You’ll have to get the book yourself to see this entire development unfold. But here’s a preview of how it begins:

You can order Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic series at this link.

And, as a special bonus this time around, you can download and preview the first chapter at this link.

I was going to say, as I have for all the previous volumes, that I highly recommend this book. But I think if you download the preview, I won’t need to say another word. You’ll see for yourself!

Disclosure: I am an unpaid biblical-theological consultant to this project. (It’s a great privilege!)

 

How can I have a soft heart, not a hardened one?

Q. I want to be a Christian, but I hardened my heart and then God hardened it. I don’t want a heard heart, I don’t want God to harden my heart. How can I get my heart softened by God? I want to be safe and not frightened and scared.

I have good news for you. If you are grieved by the way you’ve hardened your heart in the past, then that in itself means that your heart is actually soft once again now. When you say that God hardened your heart, I take that to mean that you gave God no option other than to leave you in the hardness of your heart—until that brought you to the place where you are now, grieved by your resistance to Him and wanting to come back. So I see no reason why God would continue to harden your heart, either, now that this purpose has been accomplished.

I would say go to God in the softness of your heart and say to Him everything that you’ve just said here: You want to be a Christian, you don’t want to have a hard heart, you want God to soften your heart, and you want to be safe (saved) and unafraid. You can pray to God in those terms and be confident of Jesus’ promise, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me.”

I encourage you to approach Christian friends or relatives, or a nearby church, and share your past struggles and future hopes. I trust you will find a warm welcome in to the community of those who are following Jesus and walking with God. May God be with you and bless you.

Will I ever be with my pet again?

Q. I have recently lost a pet who I loved dearly, due to cancer. There is no mention in the Bible about pet/owner relationships nor about any spiritual connection concerning them. In fact, any loving relationship with an animal can not be found (to the best of my knowledge). Yet if I loved my pet, how can a God who is love not be involved in the matter? Were we not placed here to look after his creations? Will we ever be together again in the resurrection? Or is this love shared between owner and pet lost forever in time, a memory that will just become dust again? I am looking for some solace. Surely God can not be so indifferent on the matter.

Please see this post, which I hope will be an encouragement to you:

Will we see our pets again in heaven?

My sincere condolences. May you experience God’s presence and comfort in this time of grief and loss.

Does the Bible clearly forbid a man to have more than one wife?

Q. I just want to know where it is categorically written in the Bible that men should not marry more than one wife because the way things are going with the Christian ladies is terrible for us.

I believe you’re saying that there aren’t enough godly Christian men out there to provide husbands for all of the Christian women who desire to be married, and so it would help if men (specifically, godly Christian men) could marry more than one woman. Before I offer any reflections about that from the Bible itself, let me say first that I am very sympathetic to your concern. In response, I’d like to challenge all the men who read this who might be hovering around the edges of the faith to step up and commit to following Christ and becoming godly so that they could be a suitable husband, if that turns out to be God’s will for them, to one of the many wonderful Christian women who have this desire. And I wish the comfort and companionship of God for those women as they wait for their longing to be fulfilled. I do appreciate how difficult that can be.

It is important, however, to seek to understand God’s ideals for human life as they are disclosed in the Bible, and not come to conclusions based on the needs and constraints of our present situations. And so, to pursue the biblical teaching on the subject you’re asking about, let me say that I believe it is actually not embodied in a categorical statement. That is, I’m not aware of any biblical commandment along the lines of, “Thou shalt not marry more than one wife.” Rather, the clearest teaching on the subject is found by analogy to an answer that Jesus gave to a different question about marriage.

According to the gospel of Matthew, some Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him whether men could divorce their wives for any reason they wished. Jesus answered, quoting from Genesis, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The Pharisees responded, “Then why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” They were referring to a law in Deuteronomy that actually says that if a man divorces his wife and gives her a certificate of divorce, he can’t take her back again if she marries someone else and that second husband subsequently divorces her as well. So it isn’t actually the case that Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates so they could divorce them. Nevertheless, the Law of Moses does regulate the situation of divorce (the certificate would have proved that the woman was legally free to remarry, which was important for her protection and provision), and thus the Law tacitly recognizes that situation.

Jesus explained this distinction in his reply to the Pharisees. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives”—he didn’t command this—”because your hearts were hard. But it was not that way from the beginning.” Jesus added that therefore if a man divorced his wife for a reason other than marital unfaithfulness and then married another woman, he would be committing adultery.

I think there is a clear analogy here to the issue you’re asking about. Suppose the Pharisees had instead asked Jesus whether a man could marry more than one wife. He would likely have answered the same way at first, by quoting from the Genesis creation account. And the Pharisees would likely have responded in the same way, by appealing to the law of Moses, which regulates various situations that might arise from a man having more than one wife and so tacitly recognizes that situation as well.

For example, a law in Exodus says that if a man marries one of his female slaves (so that she becomes his concubine, both his slave and his wife) and he then marries another woman, “He must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” And another law in Deuteronomy says that if a man has two wives and the less-preferred wife bears his firstborn son, he can’t deny that son the double share of his inheritance that’s the “right of the firstborn” and give it instead to a son of the more-preferred wife.

But even though the Law of Moses regulates and thus recognizes the situation of a man having more than one wife, I believe that Jesus would have said the same thing about this situation that he did about divorce: “It was not that way from the beginning.” So while we must acknowledge that the practice of men marrying more than one wife has been followed in many different times and places (indeed, Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and David followed it themselves), and that this practice in fact continues in some places today, if we are looking for God’s ideal for human life as disclosed in the Bible, we find it embodied in the answer that Jesus gave to the question he was asked about divorce: As it was at the beginning, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Just the two of them.

Once again, let me say that I am very sympathetic to the concern that leads you to ask about this. But I would encourage you to resolve to pursue God’s ideal, and nothing else, in this area and in all others, so that no matter what happens, whether a desire to be married is ultimately fulfilled or not, you will be drawing closer and closer to God over the course of your whole life.

Were Jacob’s descendants not supposed to stay in Egypt?

Q. As a nation, did Israel sin against God by remaining in Egypt for 400 years and not returning to the promised land? I mean, 400 years is a long time! Maybe they got way too comfortable. I realize He spoke to Abraham about this and we all know about God’s deliverance etc., but perhaps God punished Israel with Egyptian slavery for her failure to return? Also, we know that Abraham sojourned in Egypt but he didn’t stay. What do you think?

As I read the biblical accounts of ancient Israel’s time in Egypt (found in the books of Genesis and Exodus), I see first that Joseph, who brought his father Jacob and his whole extended family down to Egypt, told his brothers when he was dying, “God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” In other words, the Israelites were supposed to wait for God to come and give them just as clear an indication that they were meant to leave as they had gotten to come in the first place. So it wasn’t a sin for them to stay.

I see next that at the start of the following generation, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This king was so concerned that the Israelites, who were already becoming a large community, might side with their enemies that he persuaded his people and officials to enslave them. So the Israelites didn’t have an opportunity to return to the land of Canaan but  were too complacent to take advantage of it. Instead, they never got such an opportunity, because Joseph said when he was dying that they should wait, and the next thing that happened was that they were enslaved and trapped.

We should also note that in Exodus, God never says that He has punished the Israelites with slavery because they have complacently ignored their responsibility to return to the promised land. Instead, God says that He will punish the Egyptians for enslaving them and exploiting their labor. You mentioned that God had spoken to Abraham about the future enslavement of his descendants; God specifically told him, “For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (that is, as compensation for their unpaid labor).

It’s still an important biblical warning for us not to be complacent but instead to remain aware of what God expects of us and to seek eagerly to fulfill God’s purposes for our lives. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, for example, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” However, the time that the ancient Israelites spent in Egypt doesn’t seem to be a case study of the kind of complacency we need to be careful to avoid.