Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Happy Memorial Day today for those of you here in the States. Last time, we looked at the sanctifying power of Christ on the cross. That was episode 2048. In our Bible reading together, we’ve been reading Mark 15 recently, about the death of Christ. It’s been a theme for us. And today we return to the cross by doing something different, Pastor John. I want you to respond to a viral video clip going around from a pretty well-known actor named Shia LaBeouf. He’s 37. He was converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years. He starred in the 2022 film Padre Pio, a movie named after a Catholic priest, mystic, and so-called venerated saint. Not long ago, in an interview, the actor was discussing the connection between Christ’s suffering and joy, and it generated some emails for you, all asking for your response.

Before we get to what he said, let me footnote a few caveats. It should be first said that the New Testament never speaks of individuals as saints. That’s a Catholic myth. Saints is a corporate title for all Christians. And I’m unsure if this actor understands the gospel, that Christ paid for the guilt of our sin by satisfying the wrath of God. He tends to speak of the cross as more of a moral model — Christ died mainly as an example for us. And he’s obviously very comfortable with images of Christ — crucifixes and paintings. Those are several factors I want to acknowledge at the front end of this episode and set aside for now. I don’t want to get into any of those.

As Shia spoke, my mind went to Hebrews 12:2 — a text you’ve brought up in 25 episodes on the podcast over the years, Pastor John, so I can see why listeners want you to weigh in and respond to what was said. I’ll read what he said and then ask you, on behalf of those listeners who emailed, What does this actor get right and what does he get wrong about the joy of Christ on the cross? Here’s what he said.

When I look at Christ on the cross, I think, hmm, is that a joyful man as he bleeds out and dies on a cross for humanity? Is that man joyful? And I think the answer is yes, that even in his suffering — that’s what Christ represents for me: meaningful suffering. The story of Christ is that God became man for our betterment. So, that means that he is the ultimate example, the supreme priest, the ultimate redeemer. If I look at Christ on the cross, I think, That’s very instructive. You don’t see a lot of smiley-face Christs on the cross. You don’t see Christ on the cross dying and laughing with aplomb — in joy, in ultimate joy. But I think they should make some Christs on the cross in ultimate serenity and ultimate joy. They always make this sad face. And that seems stupid. It seems like it’s not deep enough, like the artists who manufacture those crucifixes — it’s almost like they’re not seeing the full story. And the full story, I believe, is that Christ is in maximum joy in that moment. He is fully in his purpose. If you can tap into how you can use your suffering to help other people, that is maximum joy.

What strikes you?

What strikes me first is that I’m not sure what he means by joy and what he means by suffering even. It’s hard to respond with a clear yes or no to what he’s saying when he seems to switch categories on me. I’ll try to point out what I mean by this ambiguity by suggesting several positive responses. So, I’ll try to be positive before I’m negative.

Christ’s Purposeful Suffering

For example, he uses the phrase “meaningful suffering,” and I can’t escape the impression that he might mean that this phrase “meaningful suffering” is synonymous with “joyful suffering.” He says, “Is that man on the cross joyful? And I think the answer is yes, that even in his suffering — that’s what Christ represents for me: meaningful suffering.” So, he switches. He switches from joyful to meaningful, which is what throws me.

“What sustained Jesus was a confidently expected future experience of joy.”

Well, Christ’s suffering certainly was meaningful, right? Everybody would agree with that. Oh my goodness! His suffering carried more meaning in it than all the suffering of all the human beings in the world combined, because it carried in it the salvation of millions of people that nobody else’s suffering could do. So, that’s absolutely right: the suffering of Christ was not meaningless; it was infinitely meaningful. And if that’s what he means by joyful, it’s hard to disagree.

I see at least two other things that are positive. He says that Christ, at that moment of suffering, “is fully in his purpose.” That’s almost the same as saying that the suffering was meaningful — that is, it was fully purposeful. He was not being frustrated at that moment in his designs. He was accomplishing exactly what he came to do. Indeed, it is a satisfying thing to accomplish what you were designed to do. We all would agree with that. I’m doing what I was made to do. I’m doing what I came to do.

Then he applies that to us, and he says, “If you can tap into how you can use your suffering to help other people, that is maximum joy.” Well, the true part of that is that Jesus did say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Living to make others glad in God is certainly a glad way of living, even through suffering.

When Is Maximum Joy?

But the question I have at this point is whether the moment of suffering is the moment of maximum joy. That’s my question. One biblical obstacle to thinking that way is Hebrews 12:2, which says, “Jesus . . . for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Notice that it does not locate the pinnacle of Jesus’s joy at the point of the cross, but on the other side of the cross. At the cross, the joy “was set before him.”

To be sure, Hebrews 11:1 teaches that, by faith, the substance of things hoped for — the substance of that future joy — can be tasted now. Yes, it can and is, even in our suffering. But that does not change the fact that the text says that what sustained Jesus was a confidently expected future experience of joy, whatever partial measure of it he might have tasted on the cross.

Another biblical factor that we have to, I think, take into account is that there are different kinds of experiences of joy and different degrees of joy, and not just because of sin. I don’t think joy goes up and down only because sin enters in. For example, in Luke 15:7 we are told that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who don’t need repentance. So, there’s very great joy in heaven, and there’s great joy in heaven — more joy and less more. And it’s not because there’s sin in heaven. There is no sin in heaven; that’s not what causes the difference.

So, it’s fair to say, isn’t it, that the sinless Christ may have tasted a kind of joy and a degree of joy as he suffered on the cross, but that there was a much fuller joy of a different kind even yet to be experienced beyond the cross.

It seems to me that Shia LaBeouf may be saying too much when he writes that some crucifixes should depict “ultimate serenity and ultimate joy.” I think any ordinary use of the word serenity would simply not fit the hours of Jesus’s horrific suffering. I just don’t think serenity is what you would see, nor should you explain it with that word. I think that would diminish the reality of his agony. I think to use the word ultimate to describe his joy is probably a failure to take into account that there will be more joy on the other side of death and resurrection and ascension.

Maintaining Mystery

Another biblical problem I have is that I think there’s probably a greater mystery at the moment of propitiation on the cross than he realizes. When Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that is the cry of the damned (Matthew 27:46). He is at that moment experiencing the outpouring of the wrath of God upon the sin of all his people. And I say it is a mystery because I don’t think we can give a sufficient account for how he can experience that damnation and joy simultaneously — at least, I don’t feel competent to rise to that level of sufficient explanation of what happened in that moment in the heart and mind of our Lord Jesus.

I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m saying we need to tread very carefully here so as to give full measure to Christ’s mental and spiritual agony under the Father’s displeasure, even as we try to give proper measure to the fact that in himself Jesus had a clear conscience, and he was doing the absolutely right thing. It was meaningful; it was purposeful; it was the loving thing to do.

Maybe I should say one more thing before we stop our reflections. The mystery of Christ’s experience — indeed, the Father’s experience as Christ died on the cross — is expressed, I think, in Ephesians 5:2 in another way. Paul says, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” A fragrant offering? Fragrant? Sweet smelling? Pleasing smelling? I take that to mean that God the Father was able, in some mysterious way, to pour out wrath on his beloved Son and know at the same time with approval that this sacrifice was beautiful, fragrant, pleasing, righteous, glorious — achieving everything that the two of them had designed and intended.

So, in summary, what I’m pleading for is a careful expression of the reality of Jesus’s suffering, the reality of being damned and forsaken, the reality of knowing that more joy lay ahead — all of that to temper any effort to describe the Lord’s experience on the cross as “ultimate joy.”