The Nakedness of God

Note: This is the manuscript of the sermon I'm preaching tonight for our Good Friday service. It's not edited for blogging as it normally would be, but it speaks to some things my heart has recently been deeply meditating on.

It is often the little details we ignore or skip over in a story that are the most revealing about our hearts. The little inconsistencies. The stuff we fail to notice. It can often reveal things we are afraid to look at, our places of deepest wounding and shame.

Tonight, this Good Friday, I want to focus on one of those specific details about the crucifixion that I think offers us an incredible vision of one part of Jesus’s work.

Pretty much all of us have seen images of Jesus on the cross. Crucifixes. Pictures in children’s Bibles. Movies like the Passion of the Christ. In every one of those images, even the ones that show the crucifixion in its brutality and Jesus in his agony—in almost every one of them, Jesus is wearing some kind of garment. A loin cloth or whatever, draped over his waist to cover his nakedness.

Yet the gospel authors take great pains to stress to us that Jesus was not, in fact, so dressed. John is especially explicit. He tells us the soldiers divided Jesus’s outer garment into four parts—his outer garments. But then he explicitly tells us that they didn’t want to divide up Jesus’s tunic.The tunic, for Jesus—that was his undergarment. That is what you wore under your robes. Your underwear. And they cast lots for it. But that is meant to highlight something: Jesus is naked as He is crucified. Which is not a picture I think I have ever seen.

In the Roman world, this was normal. Crucifixion wasn’t just an act of execution; it was an act of public humiliation. It was the ultimate shaming. By making criminals die in the most horrific, most exposed way, Rome was seeking to send a message about its power and the costs of disobedience. It lifted you up and displayed you to the world, naked, as you slowly and messily died.

But while Jesus’s nakedness on the cross was an act of Roman humiliation, it was also the fulfillment of a biblical theme. And I want us to trace that theme, because it shows something remarkable about what Jesus has come to do.

In the garden of Eden, before sin enters the world, the climactic summary of our state of innocence is found in these words: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) That was the heart of the world before sin. 

That wasn’t just about physical nakedness, of course. That was a symbol of a deeper reality. To be naked is to be exposed. To be vulnerable. To have every part of ourselves seen and known. And the freedom of Adam and Eve rested in the fact that they could live such lives, transparent and open, and there was nothing in them to feel ashamed of and no one around them to make them feel ashamed. It was a beautiful, almost unimaginable freedom.

Then sin enters the picture, and immediately the situation changes. And again, it finds its expression in the theme of nakedness. “And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:10)

Again, this isn’t really about physical nakedness. The shame Adam and Eve both feel is rooted in their sin, and in the verses that follow we see them trying to cover it up by denial and blame-shifting. They are no longer living open, transparent, free lives. Yet it is their awareness of their physical nakedness that is deeply connected to this shame. It is the embodied reaction to their shame and guilt.

So Adam and Eve sin and are expelled from the garden. Yet even in that, as God shows them mercy, He does it by providing something to cover their nakedness. “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) God gives them something to cover their physical shame, showing mercy to them in their sudden vulnerability and fear. Yet the underlying issue remained: they could not be naked any longer. They could not live open, vulnerable lives.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see these themes of nakedness and shame and God’s mercy intermingled. We don’t have time for a full survey tonight, but here is the basic idea. Our sin is shameful. That shame is embodied in the image of nakedness. To be stripped naked is to have our shame and guilt revealed. And God, in His mercy, provides coverings for us to hide our shame.

Before we return to Jesus, I want to just take a minute to talk about that underlying idea of shame. The idea of shame is a complicated one, both in Scripture and in our world. So let me try to name how I think Scripture views it.

Shame is the feeling of exposure we have that drives us to hide parts of ourselves.

Sometimes that feeling of exposure is the result of our sin. We do things we know we shouldn’t do, and so we hide ourselves from those things. Shame in this sense is different than guilt. We are guilty because of our sin, but shame is what we feel and do as a result of that guilt. It is the way we try to deal with our guilt by hiding it from others.

At other times, that feeling of exposure is the result of sin done against us. Someone says or does something to us and it leaves us feeling exposed, and so we hide parts of ourselves because of that. This can be the result of extreme sins: if you have been abused, for example, it often makes you feel ashamed and dirty and causes you to try to hide. It can also be the result of patterns of little sins. Harsh, critical words from parents or others, for instance, can lead us down the same path.

Here’s the thing about shame in Scripture. Sometimes it is appropriate to feel it. When we have hurt someone or sinned in some way, we should feel ashamed. Indeed, one of the central accusations of the prophets is that Israel fails to feel shame for their sins. They exploit the poor and worship idols and then shamelessly pretend like they are the righteous, chosen people of God. 

Sometimes it is appropriate to feel shame, and other times it is inappropriate. We shouldn’t feel ashamed because of sins against us, we shouldn’t feel ashamed when others humiliate or unjustly accuse us. But whether it is appropriate or inappropriate, it is always a problem. Shame cannot produce righteousness because it drives us to hide our nakedness, and so to hide from God.

Let me say that again: shame is always a problem, even when it is justified, because shame cannot produce righteousness. Instead, it drives us to hide our nakedness and so to hide from God.

Which brings us back to the cross, and Jesus’s nakedness on it. The reason the gospel authors emphasize Jesus’s nakedness is to stress the fact that Jesus enters into our shame. 

The accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion are full of images of shame. Jesus is hauled out before jeering crowds. He is spat upon. He is stripped naked. He is mocked. He is dressed in royal robes as a satire of His claim to be the Messiah. He is beaten up and whipped. And ultimately, he is lifted up to die naked before the watching crowds.

Importantly, for Jesus, none of this shame is justified. None of it is the result of His sin. And yet He faces it, He enters into it. So the question is: why?

Here is the answer, although it will take a little space to unpack: Jesus enters into our shame in order to destroy its power. Jesus enters into our shame in order to destroy the power it has over us, so that we can begin to live open, vulnerable, honest lives.

First, let’s discuss that in terms of shame we feel that is unjustified. Shame we feel because others heap it on us or because of sins done against us. For that shame, Jesus destroys it by identifying with us in our shame. Jesus identifies with us in our shame.

There is this striking idea about shame in the book of Hebrews. There, the author first notes that the animals whose blood was used to make the temple holy were burned outside the camp. Without going into all the details, this was an image of not just the guilt of sin but also the shame of sin. The animal was exiled, hidden, cast out—which is what shaming someone is. So the author talks about these sacrifices and then he says this: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13)

So Jesus suffered outside the gate, he says. He was shamed, he was exiled, he was cast out. That is an image of the shaming of Jesus. And then he says, “Let us go and join him there. Let us join Him outside the camp and share in the shame He endured.”

That is the Bible saying this: if you feel shame from others, that makes you feel unloved. Unworthy. Like you should hide. And we can think that means we are far from God. We feel ashamed in His presence too. But Scripture is saying, no, that place of shame: that is actually where Jesus is. When you are cast out, when you are mocked and ridiculed and rejected by the world, when you are cast out—that is actually the place where Jesus already is. He was mocked and ridiculed and rejected, and so He is there with you in that place of shame. You don’t need to hide from God in your nakedness; it is precisely there where He has gone to meet you.

Okay, we might say, but what about the shame we do deserve? What about the sins we commit for which we are guilty and for which we should rightly feel ashamed?

The prophet Isaiah famously prophecies the work of Jesus in Isaiah 53. And he also uses this image of shame to talk about the cross. Consider this, from verse 3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)

So Jesus bears shame. People hide their faces from Him and despise Him. He identifies with our shame. Yet that is not the fullness of His work; it isn’t just that He identifies but that He justifies. Continuing on in Isaiah: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

The cross isn’t just about our undeserved shame. The heart of the cross is that Jesus enters into the shame and guilt that we deserve in order to suffer it on our behalf. He enters into the shame and guilt we deserve in order to suffer it on our behalf. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. By His wounds we, even in our sin, are healed and given peace with God.

This is the culmination of that story of Scripture that goes all the way back to Genesis. Yes, Adam and Eve are given clothing by God to hide their nakedness, but they are still in the place of shame. They are exiled from the garden. They are under the curse.

Jesus doesn’t just give us a cover-up for our shame; He pays for the guilt that lies at the root of it. He suffers the curse of sin on our behalf. He is exiled so that we might again gain entrance into the place of blessing and fellowship with God.

So what does that mean for us? How does Jesus’s nakedness meet us here? Well, for tonight, here is the thing I want to leave us with: it means the cross of Jesus sets us free to begin to be naked and unashamed one more. The cross of Jesus sets us free to begin to be naked and unashamed.

It frees us to be naked, not literally, but meaning we can be honest and vulnerable about who we really are. The invitation of Jesus, in many ways, is simply an invitation to stop hiding. Stop hiding our sin. Stop hiding in shame. Stop hiding from ourselves and from others and from God.

Too often, as much for Christians as for anyone else, we can turn the call to be righteous into the pressure to appear righteous. We feel shame because we don’t measure up, because we fall short, because we sin. And so our response, that same natural response with us since Adam and Eve in Eden, is to try to hide. To try to cover up our sin.

Yet the call of the author of Hebrews meets us there: stop hiding, and instead join Jesus in the place of disgrace outside the camp. Admit to yourself that you are guilty and that you feel shame. Admit it to other people—tell your secrets. Open yourself in vulnerability. It is the scariest thing we might ever seek to do, but it is also the most freeing and powerful. And Jesus opens the way to do it by bearing our shame on the cross.

So stop hiding, but more than that, the cross of Jesus invites us to be unashamed. Not unashamed because we are shameless. Not because we haven’t done shameful things. No, we are invited to be unashamed because Jesus has paid for all of our guilt and born all of the shame we deserve, and so there is nothing more we need to shoulder.

Here is the problem we face as human beings. We basically have two options. We can either say we have done nothing wrong, we are innocent, and so we don’t need to be ashamed, or we say that we have done bad things, that we are guilty, and so we should live in shame. Either we are innocent and so should be unashamed, or we are guilty and so should be ashamed.

Our culture in this moment is working really hard to convince people of the first option. All of our sins are excused or explained away. We are only human. We aren’t bad people. They were mistakes or wounds or genetic abnormalities. We haven’t done anything really wrong, and so hey, don’t feel ashamed of what isn’t really your fault.

Yet too often, in reaction to the culture, our response can be to say, “No, you are guilty, and you should be ashamed.” And then to leave people there. To give them the sense that in order to be free from shame they have to fix themselves and clean up their acts and stop being guilty so that they can stop feeling ashamed.

There are two problems with these two approaches. The first is that both of them can’t deal with the reality that we are in fact guilty because we are deeply broken by sin. The first approach struggles to help us when we do in fact do things that are wrong or hurt others. Trying to pretend like you are guiltless doesn’t make people free, it makes them sociopaths. The second approach, though, is equally wrong because it creates an unattainable standard. We will never be so guiltless as to be free from shame. And so you start off saying you are guilty and therefore ashamed and either you will stay trapped in that shame or you will clean yourself up a little bit and then start taking the first approach, once again pretending like nothing is your fault.

And that is because of the second problem: both approaches miss the beating heart of the gospel we find in the cross of Christ. Here is what Christianity says, against both perspectives: you are guilty, yet you should carry no shame. You are guilty, but you can and should be unashamed.

Why? Because of the work of Jesus Christ. He suffers the full penalty for our sin. He bears all of the consequences. He works total, perfect, eternal forgiveness. He suffers all the guilt and all the shame hanging naked on that cross. All of it, all the darkness you have done and all the darkness done to you and all the darkness you feel you need to hide and all the darkness that you try to hide in—all that darkness was poured out on Jesus and was swallowed up by Him in this one moment, and so there is no darkness left.

This is the freedom of being a son or daughter of God. Jesus comes to us in our sin and in our shame. He identifies with us. He suffers for us. And so we can look at our sin and shame and say, “Yes, that is true. Yes, that is real. Yes, I feel that. But it is not true of me anymore. I am in Jesus Christ, and so it has no hold on me. I am justified. I am known. I am unashamed. I am forgiven.”

May that hope animate our hearts as we reflect on the death of Jesus this Good Friday.