The Old Testament is replete with references to God coming to defeat his enemies. He would gain an absolute and decisive victory. The unfolding of these promises has taken us all by surprise. To start with, we all naturally interpret them in relation to our human enemies: the people who have done wrong to us. Natural religion teaches that God is on our side against these others, and in the end, in the “apocalypse”, will destroy them and bring us through to victory.
This is what many in Israel were expecting when Jesus came. He announced the coming of the kingdom of God. Surely, this was the time in which Rome would be destroyed. Rome was passing ungodly laws in society, and they were the terrorists inflicting wounds on others. But Jesus announced forgiveness to his enemies. He announced we would be blessed in the persecution. He said we should do good to those who were against us, and to pray for their wellbeing. This message was an offence to his hearers. They rejected him and looked for a messiah who would do what they wanted. We would do the same.
The coming of Jesus revealed to us two things: 1. who our enemies really are, and 2. how God calls us to fight them. This is the “apocalypse”, the unveiling, the revealing of what was not known to our stony hearts and our fallen natures. It took the cross to reveal it.
One shock was we didn’t know how God would fight. He said in Isaiah there was no man to help, so he was coming himself to do war against our enemies. He was putting on his clothes of warfare to enter into the battle. But it turns out that his clothes are distinct from other emperors’ clothing. They are grace, mercy, kindness, patience, self-giving: the fruit of the Spirit. This costly cross, this earnest display of God’s fruit in our darkness, is the expression of God’s anger, his zeal and determination to conquer his foe. He would fight with the only weapons that would win.
Another shock was exactly who these enemies are. It turns out they aren’t the people who did bad things to us. They themselves are captives. God’s enemies are sin and death: these are what he slays on the cross. For the others he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It is the enemies of sin and death that he treads down in the winepress. It turns out that the real enemy works within us. It is our greed, our self-centeredness that the cross exposes. God came in Christ to speak into our hearts, to reveal this about ourselves, and so to deliver us from ourselves. The cross speaks to us about our hearts, our violence, what we do to the innocent and to those outsides our cultures, and calls us to repentance.
So the biggest shock is what the cross reveals to us about God and about warfare. It shows a God who overcomes his enemies, not by killing them, but by giving his own life for them. Instead of destroying his enemies, he gave his life as a substitute, to destroy our accuser, the devil. And this reveals how God does warfare. He fights by serving. He overcomes darkness by good. And by doing this, God sets in motion a new community of people who take up their own cross and follow him into the world.
In displaying openly on the cross the nature of true power, God by his Spirit within us begins a new creation, a new heart within humanity, that begins to renew the way things are done in our communities. He establishes a new principle: that we overcome our enemy next door by overcoming the enemy within ourselves. We overcome the world by serving and self-giving, just as our God has done for us and is doing in us. In Adam we all sin and destroy: in Christ we serve and heal, and God saves not only us, but his world. The original commission to Adam is not laid aside, but it is fulfilled in the church.
So here in the cross we have an entirely different view of God, of our enemies, of the way in which victory comes. We have a new view of the purpose of God, why he calls us, and what his plan is. His plan isn’t to “bless us and destroy our enemies”, but to reconcile us, and to teach us reconciliation with others by a new way of living, and in so doing to pass on gospel renewal to others and to God’s whole creation. His plan isn’t an individualist gospel, just to bless us and take us to heaven. The abundant life is the sharing/reconciling life of the Sermon on the Mount: for us and our community, neighbour, enemy and for our world. It’s a plan for us to reflect his nature, which he showed us in Christ on the cross, into our world, for his glory to cover the earth.
We now have a new view of the world, that it is not something God wishes to destroy, but something he wishes to overcome his way, and transform. We are part of that plan. This is what Paul meant about us not being conformed to this world, but to be transformed by a new mind. Paul went on in Romans 12 and explained exactly these things. He wants us to look at the world, our enemies, God’s way, and overcome the evil his way. We overcome evil God’s way, or if we try to overcome it another way, it overcomes and becomes us. This was the battle in the Garden of Gethsemane and it is the choice we also make.
In the cross we have the fulfillment of God’s promises in the world: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”