It began with two devastating words: “tumor” and “incurable.” If they are not words you have ever heard, they are probably words heard by someone near you, someone you love or loved. They were words David McDonald heard as well.

McDonald had pastored for just about twenty years and by 2011 had decided to begin a new work. He and his family would leave Canberra, Australia, and move thousands of kilometers north to Darwin, a remote but needy city. They were going there to found a new church. They secured support, made the journey a couple of times, found a place to live, made all the necessary preparations, packed the truck, and sent it off. They were all ready to begin the next twenty years of ministry.

And then, just days before the big move, there was shortness of breath, numbness in the limbs. Something was wrong. Really wrong. There was a visit to the specialist and the terrible diagnosis: lung cancer. Incurable. Stage 4. Best-case scenario: he might live to see next Christmas.

In all the difficulty and in all the devastation, he needed to find hope. With the fatal diagnosis and with the best of modern medicine unable to offer the promise of health, he knew he had to look for hope beyond cure.

Hope Beyond Cure
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Hope Beyond Cure describes his search for hope. Yes, he was a pastor. Yes, he had walked with others through devastating and even terminal illness. But now it was him and now he was the one whose faith had been rocked and whose dreams had been shattered. He wasn’t ever tempted to throw away his Christian faith. Not at all. But he did realize the importance of deep and deeply satisfying answers.

Faith and reason have shaped this book. Together they have given me hope. I don’t know everything there is to know about cancer or God. I’ve studied them both, but my understanding is partial and limited. My ignorance outweighs my knowledge, even though I’m learning more day by day. But this knowledge of cancer and of God isn’t simply in my head—it’s deeply personal. I don’t just know about them—they are part of my life and my experience. I know cancer and I know God. And it’s because I know God that I believe there is real hope for those who have cancer, for those who are struggling, for those who have lost hope—for everyone.

The hope he describes is the best and truest hope because it is founded upon the best and truest reality—that God is real and that he has sent his Son into this world to redeem sinners. McDonald goes to the gospel, but he does it in such a faith-stirring and helpful way. These aren’t easy answers. These aren’t trite solutions to deep problems. These are truths drawn carefully and consistently from the Bible, and all the while combined with the strength of human experience.

Each of us knows someone who will suffer from cancer. Many who read these words will some day be diagnosed. Hope Beyond Cure is a book to read if you, like McDonald, are a Christian and suffering and need to be reminded of what is true. It is an appropriate book to hand to an unbeliever as well; it is written in a gentle and humble style that is not the least bit offensive.

As Christians, we have nothing better to offer than what the Bible tells us and no better hope than the hope it describes—a hope beyond cure. Here is a book that offers deep answers to deep questions, all the while tempered by deep wells of experience. It is powerful, it is helpful, and it comes highly recommended.

Christians sing. As far as I know, there are not too many faiths whose adherents make congregational singing an integral part of their worship. But when Christians gather to worship, they inevitably sing. Colossians 3:16 gives Christians their orders: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We love to do this, to join together to sing out our joy before the Lord. While our practices may vary from church to church and culture to culture, and while we express this worship through different words and in a great variety of styles, we all make it a part of our meetings.

But I think there is one part of this verse we tend to overlook: the “one another.” If I could distill this verse down to its essence I would do it like this: We sing from the gospel, for one another, to the Lord.

We are to let the word of Christ, the gospel, dwell in us richly. When we do that, there will be a natural outburst of joy, gratitude and worship that will express itself in song. We will sing out our praises with thankfulness in our hearts to God. This is good. This glorifies God.

What we tend to overlook is the part about teaching and admonishing one another. We all know there is a vertical dimension to our worship, where our songs give us a voice to sing to the Lord in praise or in petition, in expressions of wonder or in pleas for his favor. Most of us think far less about the horizontal dimension of worship, where we worship for the benefit of our Christian brothers and sisters. The least-sung song is the song we sing for one another.

Yet the Bible tells us that when we stand and sing as a community of Christians, we are teaching and admonishing one another. When we stand and sing, we are not only singing to God, but are also singing for one another. When I sing, I am teaching and admonishing you; when you sing, you are teaching and admonishing me. Your words come to my ear as instruction and correction. At least, they should. If I am listening, they do.

Do you sing for the people in your church even as you sing to the Lord? Do you stand ready to teach and be taught? Do you stand ready to admonish and be admonished by the words you will sing and the words you will hear from the people around you?

If we are to take this horizontal dimension seriously, we need to rid ourselves of the mindset that says singing is primarily a time for me and Jesus, a time for me to commune with the Lord as I sing to him. Yes, that happens and yes, it is good to sing out praises and to enjoy the sweet fellowship with the Savior. But my whole posture of body and posture of heart will change if I am aware that I am singing for you and you are singing for me. If this is the case, I will pay attention to the words, I will engage, I will look around, I will listen, I will worship as part of a worshipping community. Haven’t you known the encouragement of seeing others worship, of hearing their words in your ears?

Very practically, when I sing, “Come, Ye Sinners” I will be singing it with an awareness that those words are falling on sin-deafened ears as a call from me to the person who remains lost in his sin. “Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power.” So turn to him! Don’t delay! When I sing, “Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders,” I am singing it for you, telling you to look to Christ and in his suffering and death to see the love of the Father, “that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.” Be encouraged by the depth of the Father’s love!

Christian, you have the great privilege of worshipping in song, and in that song, the joy of blessing and encouraging your brothers and sisters even while you glorify God. Sing from the gospel, sing for one another, and sing to the Lord. It will transform the way you worship.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

 

Crucifixion Not the Cross

Last week I compared The Passion of the Christ to the forthcoming Son of God, a film set to release later this week. I meant to point out that we can’t expect a movie to do what God promises only the Word will do. I also wanted to suggest similarities between the two movies and to draw attention to the obvious attempts from the marketing team behind Son of God to apply lessons learned during the brouhaha surrounding The Passion of the Christ. Today I want to dig in just a little bit more. I suppose I am going to be a tad contrary here, but I want to give us something to think about before we buy our tickets.

Now listen: I know many people who read this site have thought about the movie, will go to see it, and will enjoy it. I also know many people who read this site will not go to see the movie because they too have thought about it and are convicted it would be wrong for them to go. I believe this is one of those areas in which Christians need to acknowledge that some will believe the very opposite of what they themselves believe. Convictions will vary, even among Christians of the same theological stripe, which makes it an ideal time to obey Romans 14 and to refuse to pass judgment on one another.

Before moving on, let’s distinguish between two related terms: crucifixion and cross. I will allow David Wells to describe the difference: “The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness.” According to this definition, many were crucified, but only One went to the cross.

Here is what I want to think about: A film cannot adequately capture the reality of what transpired between the Father and the Son while the Son hung upon the cross. If this is true, a film that displays the crucifixion but misses the cross might actually prove a hindrance rather than a help to the Christian faith. Even the best movie will still be hampered by a grave weakness.

Words and pictures are very different media, and in the history of redemption, God has used both. For example, in the Old Testament God used words to record prophecies about the coming Messiah while in the tabernacle he provided pictures of the coming Messiah and what he would accomplish—an altar for sacrifice, a lamb to be slaughtered, incense rising to God. Words can tell truth while pictures can display truth.

When it comes to the cross, God has given us four written eyewitness accounts but no visual accounts. Why is this? The Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know, though, is that every medium has limitations. While visual media are excellent at conveying feelings, they are poorly suited to conveying ideas. Words are able to tell what happened at the cross in a way that pictures cannot.

At the cross we encounter something no picture can tell. Its reality cannot be displayed. Even the eyewitnesses of the cross, those who saw it all unfold, walked away ignorant that day, needing words to explain what had happened there. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see excruciating physical suffering; when we read about the cross, our hearts recoil at soul-crushing spiritual suffering. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see soldiers punishing an innocent man; when we read about the cross, our minds grapple with God the Father pouring out his wrath upon his sinless Son. When we see the crucifixion, we see a man stripped naked and slowly dying; when we read about the cross we see Christ Jesus clothed in our unrighteousness. When it comes to understanding the cross, only words will do, only words are sufficient.

David Wells explains this in a powerful way in his new book God in the Whirlwind:

[Crucifixion] was a death that many others had also suffered. In fact, it was an event so common in the first-century Roman world that Jesus’s crucifixion almost passed unnoticed. For the soldiers who carried it out, it was an unexceptional part of their routine. As for the Jewish leaders who had opposed Christ, it was a fitting end to their problem. Soon, they were back to business as usual. And although the resurrection was to happen shortly thereafter, and although the disciples were to be emboldened in their preaching, and although the Holy Spirit was to authenticate what they said by miracles, the historians of that day also missed the significance of this event.

There is a distinction between the crucifixion and the cross. The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness. It was there that our judgment fell on the One who is also our Judge. Indeed, he who had made all of creation was dishonored in the very creation he had made. And yet, through this dark moment, this fierce judgment, through this dishonor, there now shines the light of God’s triumph over sin, death, and the Devil. And in this moment, this moment of Jesus’s judgment-death, God was revealed in his holy-love as nowhere else.

This, however, was not seen from the outside. Besides Christ’s cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)—there was little to indicate what was really happening. For that we need to think back to the Old Testament with its prophetic foretelling of the cross and to Jesus’s own expressed understanding of it, and we need to look on to the apostles for their more complete exposition of it. Without this, the meaning of Christ’s death is lost on us. We would see the execution but, without God’s explicating revelation, it would remain mute. It would be a death like any other death except for its disgrace. God must interpret his own actions, and so he has. Without this, we too are mute.

That is why dramatic presentations of Christ’s death, such as on TV and in movies, so often miss the point. They give us the crucifixion, not the cross. They show the horrifying circumstances of his death. These circumstances may be shown accurately. But this can take us only so far. It leaves us with only a biographical Christ, who may be interesting, but not with the eternal Christ whom we need for our salvation. The crucifixion without the cross is an incomplete picture, a half-told story. What is omitted is the meaning of the event. We do not carry this meaning within ourselves, nor can we find it in this world. What eludes us is something we have to be given by God himself, for only he can say what was happening within the Godhead as Christ was killed and, in his death, atoned for our sin. This is indispensable to the meaning of Christian faith. Without it, Christ’s death is only a martyrdom and Christian faith is just a nice, moral religion but one that is neither unique nor uniquely true.

The cross of Christ is not less than the crucifixion, but it is certainly far, far more. Don’t believe you understand more about the cross by witnessing a dramatic recreation of the crucifixion. Before you line up to see Son of God, do at least consider what Wells says: the film leaves us with a biographical Christ, an incomplete picture, a half-told story. Those who see the film without being told the rest of the story may actually understand less about the person and work of Christ than if they had never seen it at all.

Note: A moment ago I said that God has given us no visual representations of the cross, but that is not strictly true. He did give us one: The Lord’s Supper. It may be worth challenging yourself whether you are more excited to see the film or to remember what Christ did at the cross by participating in that God-given picture.