The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

October 26, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux | Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”[1]

So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Though the story is set during the French Revolution, its opening line strikes a universal tone. Life comes mixed with good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, faith and doubt, light and darkness, hope and despair. This is true even of Jesus’ life. For example, in Mark 7, Jesus heals a blind man:

Some people brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man. After He took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears. Then He spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:32-35)

On its surface, this story looks like one that should be marked only by joy. After all, a blind and mute man gets healed! But right before Jesus heals this man, He looks up to heaven and lets out “a deep sigh” (Mark 7:34). The Greek word for this sigh is stenazo, which denotes a groan of sorrow (e.g., Romans 8:23).  Why would Jesus groan in sorrow right as He is getting ready to do something as joyful as a healing?

Like Charles Dickens, Jesus knows that even when it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times. He knows that even as He is getting ready to do something great, evil is not far off. Indeed, Jesus knows that He will soon face the horror of the cross. And so He lets out a groan.

The Old Testament prophets spoke of a Messiah who would come and do many miraculous things, including that of making the deaf hear and the mute speak:

Your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35:4-6)

Notice even in this prophecy that the best of times and worst of times are comingled. On the one hand, the Messiah will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. This is good. On the other hand, the Messiah will come with “vengeance” and “divine retribution.” This sounds bad. But it also seems strange. Isaiah says, “With divine retribution [God] will come to save you.”  Just how does God intend to use His retribution for our salvation?  Isn’t His retribution supposed to lead to condemnation?

Timothy Keller notes that, when Jesus came, retribution and salvation were not so much in tension with each other as they were complimentary to each other, for Jesus “didn’t come to bring divine retribution; He came to bear it.”[2] On the cross, Jesus took the retribution our sins deserve so we could receive the salvation we could never earn. This is how divine retribution can lead to our salvation.

In A Tale of Two Cities, a kind of dualism runs through its opening salvo. There is good and bad, hopefulness and despair, and the reader does not know which one will ultimately prevail – or if either will prevail. In the case of Christ, though good and bad, hopefulness and despair are real and are in tension with each other, there is no doubt which will finally carry the day. Jesus may have groaned. But He still healed. And Jesus may bear divine retribution on a bloodied cross, but He still brings salvation out of an empty tomb. In Christ, the tension of Dickens is resolved. And that’s why we can have hope.

______________________________

[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 1.

[2] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 94

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