Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed by trouble. We thought we had made the right decisions, done the right things. But everything is going wrong. We thought we were one of the good guys. But the bad guys (or even just bad things!) seem to be winning, and we’re tempted to just crawl in a hole and give up.
Imagine being one of Jesus’ disciples and standing near the cross as he dies. We’ve seen that the so-called beloved disciple is there, for example, standing alongside Jesus’ mother. As you gaze upon the morbid spectacle of Jesus’ suffering and death, can you see the event from a heavenly point of view? As you watch the soldiers refrain from breaking Jesus’ legs and see them thrust a spear into his side instead, can you view all this from the perspective of divine power and providence?
Yeah. Me neither.
But that doesn’t stop John from writing this after the fact:
The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bones. And another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced. (John 19:35-37, CEB)
It would be too much of a stretch, I think, to believe that this eyewitness (possibly John himself) actually remembered those scriptures while standing transfixed at Golgotha. Only after Easter would the big picture take shape. Our hindsight, as they say, is much better than our foresight.
But the testimony is given for our benefit, to teach us that there is a big picture. John, as he is wont to do, accomplishes this by showing how the events — which may have been nothing more than just another day’s work for the soldiers — were the prophetic fulfillment of ancient scriptures.
They won’t break any of his bones: John is probably thinking of Psalm 34:20 and its promise of God’s protection for the righteous. But he also tells the story in such a way that suggests Jesus as our Passover lamb; through his sacrifice, there is a new exodus. If that is so, then he may also be thinking of passages like Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 — in which the Israelites were instructed long ago not to break the bones of the Passover lamb.
They will look at him whom they have pierced: this is probably a reference to Zechariah 12:10. Chapters 12 and 13 prophesy God’s stunning salvation of Jerusalem, and their purification from sin. Indeed, it may even be that in John’s fertile theological mind, the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side themselves are symbols of ritual cleansing and purification. But the point is this: Scripture helps us take the long view. Even the most spectacularly awful things may happen for divine reasons.
I have to admit: I’m hesitant to say that. I know how the idea can be misused to chastise believers for their seeming lack of faith in the face of difficulty: Hey, cheer up! What’s wrong with you? What kind of Christian are you? Don’t you know that everything is part of God’s plan, that everything happens for a reason?
True, Jesus sometimes scolded his disciples for their cluelessness — but never with anything less than complete love and boundless patience. And frankly, I doubt even Jesus would have faulted the beloved disciple for experiencing distress and confusion at the foot of the cross. I don’t think his response would have been, Stop moping and being so weak-minded! Rather, I imagine something more along the lines of, I get it. But just wait until you see what happens next!
Moreover, even if God can bring good out of evil, that is never a reason to be passive about evil. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes that reason is sin. God can redeem it, but it is still right to mourn the sin that needed redemption in the first place.
Meanwhile, it would behoove us to learn to read Scripture in such a way that we are able to see what God has been about all along: a story of love and grace, justice and surprising salvation. We can never know with complete certainty why things happen as they do. But we can know that it matters to God, and that there is often more going on than meets our faith-challenged eyes.