Last summer I took part in an outdoor team challenge. We were given a photograph of a mountain and had to work out the grid reference from which the photograph was taken. The task was based on the fact that mountains look different from different angles.
This is also true of events. Sometimes several different perspectives are needed to fully appreciate their significance. Take a wedding, for example – is it losing a son or gaining a daughter? Is it gaining a bride or missing a Saturday afternoon’s football? It is certainly the creation of a new family unit and a reflection of Christ’s love for his church.
The existence of multiple perspectives is supremely true of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, which lies at the heart of the Christian faith and message.
This emerges clearly if we compare Matthew’s account with Luke’s. Matthew is bleak. Jesus utters no word except the terrible cry of dereliction, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Matthew highlights the utter God-forsakenness of Christ as he bore God’s wrath upon our sins.
By contrast, Luke’s account records three sayings: ‘Father, forgive them…’; ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’; and ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. How different these are from the one stark cry in Matthew!
Luke’s account is shot through with hope – forgiveness, a place in paradise, and the final saying that is almost serene, like a child going to sleep. So who is right – Matthew or Luke?
Of course, they both are. We need Matthew’s desolate perspective to grasp the horror of the cross, the awful cost Christ paid to set us free – so that we might truly value forgiveness. But set us free he did (if we are trusting him alone) and hence we also rejoice in Luke’s heart-warming narrative.
We marvel at Jesus’ supreme benevolence – praying for his persecutors and dispensing royal pardon – even as he hung beneath the mocking inscription, ‘King of the Jews’. We delight in his final words which assure us that no storm is so violent, no darkness so deep, that the God-Man cannot carry us through to calm and daybreak.
There is value in studying each account on its own terms. If we simply consider the seven sayings of Christ in isolation from their contexts, we run the risk of flattening out the distinct perspectives.
Indeed there are yet other ways of looking at this particular mountain! John’s account is different again. Here we see Jesus providing, in compassion and thoughtfulness, for his mother and his closest friend. We see Jesus thirsting as a human and crying in divine triumph, ‘It is finished!’
In John the bleakness and the hope are skilfully blended – as we might expect of the gospel that speaks with such exquisite ambiguity of ‘Jesus lifted up’. In fact, there are at least five independent descriptions of Calvary in Scripture: (1) Matthew/Mark; (2) Luke; (3) John; (4) Isaiah 53 (which excels in theological reflection – ‘Surely he … carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God’).
Finally, and perhaps most awesome, (5) Psalm 22 describes Calvary from Christ’s personal perspective.
Remembering his death
We can apply this scriptural ‘multi-perspective’ to the Lord’s Supper. What should the atmosphere when we meet to remember his death? How should we feel as we take the bread and the wine?
Of course it is a solemn, sober occasion. A broken body and shed blood – only complete detachment from the reality behind the symbols could deny its supreme solemnity.
Sin is a terrible thing, and it was our sin that brought all this upon him. Hell is a terrible place, and in another terrible place, Skull Hill, Jesus endured all hell for his people. So we come with heads bowed, beating our breast, saying with the Tax Collector, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’.
But that is only one perspective. From another equally valid viewpoint, the Lord’s Supper is a place of joy and liberation, a shout and a song. Paul calls it ‘the cup of blessing that we bless’.
Forgiveness is a glorious thing, and it was our forgiveness for which Christ prayed and died. Paradise is a wonderful place, and anyone who anticipates it without joy has missed the point!
So we come with heads lifted and a song in our mouths, declaring with Isaiah’s survivors, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him and he saved us. This is the Lord; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ (Isaiah 25:9).
No single vantage point gives a complete picture of the mountain. Rather, each provides a complementary view. May we learn from the balanced harmony of God’s Word to contemplate the death of his dear Son with grief that turns to joy.