Dr. Carl Hoefler: Bought Back By Blood

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The Blood of Christ. We have forgotten how to speak of it. The debate in theological circles has moved from which theory of atonement best describes the work of Christ on the cross to a debate as to whether there is any atonement at all. Contemporary Christian music avoids the blood. Mainline hymnals edit it out. I have heard a district clergy meeting sing out, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the love of Jesus.”

This fourth of seven Lenten devotionals by the late Dr. Carl Hoefler does not answer the “how” but the more important “why” the blood of Christ is needed in our life. 

Keith Sweat, 25 March 2019.

The Fourth Word

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45, 46)


It was now past noon — about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the land. Strange, isn’t it, that when our Lord was born, the spectacular light of a star filled the darkness of Bethlehem’s night? Now that he is about to die, a terrifying darkness covers the hill of Calvary in the middle of the day.

It is as if all creation were attempting to flee the horror of the scene, and even the sun hides its face in shame. But darker and more foreboding than all the somber skies of Calvary are the words which fall from our Savior’s lips: “My God! my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

He who came to save the world cannot save himself. He who came to reveal what it really means to be alive is himself dying. He who came to give abundant life and promised life eternal is now having his life brutally taken from him by the scorching sun, the bleeding wounds, the callous cruelty of a criminal’s cross.

Therefore, it should be no surprise to us when Matthew records: “Then the disciples forsook him and fled.” This is a very human reaction. There is little doubt that had we been in the disciples’ place we would have done the same thing.

It is important, however, if we are to fully understand the actions of the disciples, to discover why they fled. Many authorities agree that the disciples fled because they were disappointed and disillusioned, because their hopes, dreams, their faith and beliefs had all been shattered by this shocking event. This is true; but the fleeing of the disciples had a still more basic motivation. They fled because they had come face to face with death — not just Christ’s death, but their own.

Many times before in their association with Christ the disciples had experienced disillusionment and disappointment. He was far from their traditional idea of what the Messiah of Israel should be. Jesus was not an ordinary person. He frequently did the unexpected. In fact, most of what he did and said must have continually shocked and disturbed the disciples; but never before had they forsook and fled from him. They patiently stuck with him, wondering what strange thing he would do next.

At the cross, however, the disciples were not confronted with just another unexpected and strange action of their master; they were confronted with death — the horrible, agonizing — the disgraceful and ignoble death by crucifixion. Almost without warning, defeat by death was thrust upon the one whom they believed could master every situation. Christ was dying, and the disciples turned their backs upon him and fled — not so much from Christ their master as from the Prince of Darkness — Death!

When the disciples saw Christ dying they were certain all was lost; for if their master’s life could be taken from him, what hope was there for them? If the Lord of life loses his life — has it snatched from him by the brutality and cunning of men — what hope is there for them?

What the disciples failed to understand, and what we so often fail to understand, is that this event of Calvary is not an action of malicious men taking Christ’s life from him; rather this is an action of God. This is the Son of God giving his life for us!

Later St. John came to realize this and wrote one of the grandest sentences ever penned by man: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son …” And for our understanding of the cross this difference between “taking” and “giving” is a crucial difference. In the decisive battle of Calvary when God fought the forces of evil and death, he did not lose his Son — he gave him!

It is said that when King Clovis of the Franks first heard the account of our Lord’s crucifixion, he cried out, “If I had been there with my soldiers, this never would have happened.” King Clovis, like so many of us, had too limited and narrow a view of what happened there on Calvary at noon on a Friday we call “Good.” He saw it only as an action of men — what James Stewart called “the dastardly deed done by dirty men.” But the witness of the gospels is that this act was primarily an act of God. From the beginning of the world God had intended to give this gift — a ransom for many.

A young man returned home from the war. An empty sleeve hung where once his arm had been. A well-meaning friend remarked, “We are so sorry that you lost your arm.” To this the young soldier quickly replied, “I didn’t lose it; I gave it!” The witness of Holy Scripture is that God did not lose his Son on Calvary’s cross: he gave him!

When Christ knelt in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweat dropped like blood as he struggled and prayed: “Let this cup pass from my lips; but not my will but thine be done.” The Father answered this prayer by thrusting into our Lord’s nail-pierced hands the cup of the cross — the cup of suffering and death. This was the will of God for which Christ prayed and to which he surrendered. Christ took the cup and drank it — drank all of it — drank the last bitter dregs of it as he cried out, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”

This fourth word has continually and consistently created problems for the exegetes of Scripture. How can it be that Christ, true God as well as true man, underwent the experience of death? God cannot die. If Christ is God, as we confess him to be, how can he die? If the triune God is one, how can God separate himself from himself? It is illogical! It is irrational! It is impossible!

Struggle as we will with this great mystery there is no answer except the dramatic event of Calvary. There is no logical answer, no rational explanation; there is only a cross veiled with the crucified body of our Lord. God’s answer is a deed — a deed so deep in the divine dimensions of reality that we can never discover the holy darkness of its depths.

However, there is a legitimate question which can be asked and answered as we stand before the cross and hear our Lord cry out, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” It is the very question which Christ himself asks: “Why?” — not “How?” but “Why?” Christ does not cry out, “How can this be?” — but “Why?” — “Why have you forsaken me?” To this question the gospel accounts give a clear and responding answer: This is the cost of redemptive freedom. This is the price the Creator had to pay to change his rebellious creation and transform his lost children — you and me — into the righteous people of God.

During the American Revolution a father took his son up to the top of a hill overlooking a valley where the American patriots had just driven the British back with sacrificial courage and tremendous loss of life. Before the father and the son lay the battle-ridden valley; the smoke of cannon-fire still lingered in the evening sky; the stench of dying flesh hovered heavily in the air; the moans of injured young men occasionally broke the silence; the snow-covered ground was stained red with patriots’ blood. The father placed his arms about the shoulder of his son and said, “Look long, and well, and remember — this is the horrible cost of your freedom.”

As we stand before the cross of Christ this is the witness of saints and martyrs ringing across the centuries. They cry out to us, “Your redemption is bought by the blood of the cross. Look long, and well, and remember — this is the horrible cost of your freedom!”

We may not know how God could die that dark Good Friday day, but we know why. Somehow in the infinite wisdom of God and in the very structure of his universe, death, sin and the devil could be conquered only by a holy death. The only way to free responsible people like you and me from the tragic condemnation of our willing rebellion against our creator was that our Creator-God had to humble himself and in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, become obedient even unto death. God at noon on the dark Good Friday day paid the horrible cost of our freedom.

We might well ask: “To whom is this cost paid?” This is always the baffling issue of the atonement.

Some scholars have said that the price was paid to Satan. God paid a ransom to the devil so that we who were imprisoned might be set free. But this places the devil Satan on the same level as God. Such theological dualism cannot be the answer.

Others have said that God paid the cost to himself. The justice and holiness of God had been offended, therefore Jesus Christ pays the price of our salvation to God the Father to appease the angry wrath of our creator — God. But this, too, is unsatisfactory, for we can so easily conclude there are two Gods — a God of wrath and a God of love.

The only way to come close to a satisfactory answer is to note that when the witness of Scripture uses the words ‘cost,’ ‘ransom,’ ‘price,’ they are not talking about a monetary object like coinage or currency. It is not gold or silver that is paid — but blood! Blood is not a coinage to be passed across a commercial counter of exchange. Blood is paid by the act of shedding it.

The cost which God pays is not coinage but an action. God does not pay something as we understand the word “pay”; he does something. An action cannot be paid to another person. It cannot change hands like money. It is something that happens to the one who acts and to the one who is acted upon.

God is both the one who pays and the payment. God pays the cost of our deliverance not by satisfying a creditor but by sanctifying a debtor. God acts and the object of his action is not some creditor — but us.

God humbles himself for us. God feels the cutting sting of the leather whip. He faces the insults of a crooked, trumped-up trial. His aching, bloody shoulders bend under the weight of a criminal’s cross. His face is stained with mocking spit. His ears are punctured by the jeers and curses of a mob gone mad. He feels nails pierce his precious hands and feet. A spear brutally tears open his holy side. Thorns lacerate his kingly brow. God hangs nailed to a stick of wood, skewered like a piece of meat. Ignobly and in the excruciating agony of crucifixion — God dies. This is the horrible cost of our freedom!

All this for us! All this was endured by God — not to change himself but us. God is love and always has been love. The rebellion of his children does not change this. God loves us even while we are sinners. God underwent the experience of the cross of death not to change himself — but us! Not that he might love us — but that we might love him.

God paid the price of the cross to transform and make us new, and through us, all creation. “If anyone be in Christ he is a new creation.” The cause of the cross was our failure, our fall, our guilt — but the decision of the cross was God’s. God chose to die for us. He experienced the forsakenness of death that we might know the forgiveness of new life. The cross is the cost of our conversion paid to and for us.

Tradition tells a story about Barabbas who should have died on the cross but was freed from it by the choice of the people. When Barabbas realized that he was free — he rushed with his friends to the local inn and soon became drunk with the exciting joy of his new-found freedom.

Later that day as he was wandering home in a drunken stupor, he passed by the Hill of the Skull and there on the crest of stone against the darkening horizon three crosses splintered the evening sky.

Something drew Barabbas up that hill — some irresistible force carried him to the very foot of the central cross. Slowly he looked upward until his eyes fell on the crucified body of our precious Lord. Suddenly he was shocked into soberness. A spark was struck within him — burst into flame searing every fiber of his being. And flinging his arms across his eyes, he cried out, “My God! My God! That’s my cross he’s dying on!”

This is the mysterious answer to this strange fourth word from the cross. We can never understand or appreciate what is meant when Christ cries out, “My God! my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” until we stand at the foot of the cross — facing this holy and innocent one dying there — and cry out, “My God! My God! That’s my cross he’s dying on!” Then and then only can we understand the holy mystery of it all.

We are the ones to whom and for whom this price is paid. We are the recipients of this bloody payment. He is forsaken that we might be forgiven and made free. We are changed by the cross. We are made new by its horrible cost. This is the message of the crucifixion of God against which all logic and reason fail, become unimportant and fade from view. Nothing is left before our vision except our Savior on his cross and we know that his cross is our cross erected there for our sin and for our salvation.

The cross whereon he is forsaken is the cross by which we are claimed — bought back — brought back — created anew — children of God — a blood-bought people.

Thank God that because our Lord is forsaken and dies at noon on this dark Friday we call “Good” we need never fear death, for we shall never be forsaken by God. And our death, like his, will know an Easter dawn.

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