Part of a series based on The Cross of Jesus by Dr Leon Morris audio (6MB)
I trust no-one here would doubt that the cross is central to the Christian faith. Without the cross Christianity becomes just another religion, emptied of its power.
The cross is central to our life together; central to our belief in Jesus as the Son of God; central to our salvation, central to our preaching of the gospel.
You can see that in the way Jesus’ life is portrayed for us in the 4 gospels. There we find a sketchy history of his early life, then a brief account of various incidents in his time with his disciples over a period of 3 or so years, followed by an extended account of his death and resurrection.
You can see it in Paul’s preaching - he sums it up in 1 Corinthians 1:23-24: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Today’s reading from Hebrews states: “9but we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
So let’s think about why the Cross is crucial to us as Christians?
Sin and Justice
Let’s start from the most basic problem of humanity: i.e. sin. It’s sin that separates us from God and from one another. Sin is the root cause of every human predicament. Despite what some people would have us think it’s not ignorance or poverty or lack of education that’s our problem. It’s sin. Not that most people today would recognise that of course. Most people think we’re basically good people who just need the right environment to blossom. You know the saying: “he’s basically a very nice person?” What that actually means is that mostly he’s not very nice.
The reality is you only have to take a fleeting glance at the world we live in to realise that sin and evil pervade our world and the level of education or wealth or civilisation makes no difference. What do we see? War, crime, selfishness, relationship breakdowns, child abuse, suicide, violence, addictions of various sorts. The list is endless. And it all comes back in the end to human beings turning their back on God.
But the consequences of sin are far more serious than the mere breakdown of society. The Bible describes God’s reaction to our disobedience as anger, wrath, judgement. God is a just God who expects justice from his creation. He’s the one who made us and he expects us to obey him. When he sees evil in a world that he made good, when he sees us rebelling against his just rule, he calls us to give account for what we’ve done.
Of course the common response to that sort of statement is to say that we can’t help it, it’s just how we’re made: a bit like the boy who gives the excuse “the devil made me”. No, when we stand before God on the last day we’ll be asked to give an account for the way we’ve lived, for the choices we’ve made, for the way we’ve responded to God’s claims on our life.
The Love of God
But the amazing thing about the Bible’s account of the relationship between God and us is that God doesn’t just respond as a just judge. He also responds as a loving father. He loves us because he made us. He loves us because he is Love.
We mustn’t fall into the error of so many people who want to say that they like Jesus but don’t like God. They think of God as judgmental while Jesus is all-loving. Yet one of the striking things about the Old testament account of God’s dealings with the people of Israel is that even when they’re at their most wicked, their most rebellious, he continues to love them. The sort of language that’s used by the prophets is that of a loving husband who longs for his unfaithful wife to return to him. He promises to seek her out and win her back. He offers her a second and a third and a fourth chance; over and over and over again. He promises to provide a way that she can be made right with him again.
But he never overlooks her rebellion. He isn’t like some lovesick fool who says “Don’t worry about your unfaithfulness. I don’t mind as long as you come back to me.” No, her unfaithfulness needs to be dealt with, accounted for. And right from the start God points to the cross as the way sin will be dealt with once and for all. Even in Gen 3 we see God promising that Adam’s offspring will crush Satan’s head.
God’s love and God’s righteousness must go hand in hand. Imagine if we thought an evildoer was to go unpunished. We’d protest loudly wouldn’t we? It’d be splashed across the front page of our newspapers in large print. That’s exactly what happening at the moment with the protest about child abuse by the clergy isn’t it? We want to see justice done. It’s no good saying God is a God of love so he’ll overlook such sinful acts. No we expect that God will act justly and judge the evildoers even if he does love them.
So how is God to exercise both love and justice at the same time? Well, in his love and grace he does it by lowering himself to become one of us. Again look at that passage from Hebrews 2: “9but we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, ... so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, came as a human being so he might take our place, so he might suffer the punishment that was due to us, and so that we might be freed from slavery to sin and death: “14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
Jesus does this as a human being on our behalf. And he’s able to do it because he’s the perfect Son of God, God incarnate, God in human flesh.
The Death of Jesus
Unless we understand that Jesus came precisely in order to die on the cross on our behalf, the incarnation makes no sense. Why would Jesus give up his place at God’s right hand in heaven for any other reason.
Some people want to suggest that he came to show us how to live; to be the ultimate example of godly living. Well, hurrah! A lot of good that would have done! What use is a perfect example if I’m no different to what I was before I saw it. You know I played on my High School basketball team for 6 years with a guy who ended up being in the Olympic basketball squad. I saw his example of how to play basketball for 6 years running and do you think it made me an Olympic standard basketballer? Not a hope! You see, I didn’t have what it took. And it’s the same with us and godliness. We need far more than a good example. We need a total change of character, of mindset; a change of heart is how the Bible puts it.
What’s more even if I were to change my behaviour now, I’ve already done too much to blot my copy book. The mass murderer who has a change of heart and reforms his life is still going to be found guilty of murder. Apologising to someone doesn’t do much good if you’ve ruined their life. So Jesus’ coming has to do much more than provide a good example. I need him to help me with the consequences of my sin.
And that’s what Jesus’ death on the cross accomplishes for us. He dies to save us from our sin. In fact as we read the New Testament we find a range of metaphors, picture words, to describe what it is that Jesus’ death on the cross achieves for us. Now some of these were obvious to the people of the first century but aren’t in common usage any more so we may need to rediscover their meaning. So let me remind you of some of them and I’ll explain as we go why they’re significant.
Redemption or Ransom
The first of these words is redemption. We might have some idea of what this means because it is used on occasion to refer to someone who’s made up for a past mistake. But the original meaning was related to a price paid to release prisoners of war. It was a form of ransom, like you'd pay for someone who’s been kidnapped. That quickly developed into a term used for release from slavery by the paying of a slave price. So Christians adopted the word to refer to the idea that we’re slaves to sin, unable to escape from its clutches unless the price is paid to free us. So Col 1 tells us: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Our next word is propitiation. You probably won’t find it in any of the modern translations. The NRSV and NIV translate the word as “the atoning sacrifice” but they actually miss the point. Propitiation means the turning away of anger, usually by offering a gift. As I said earlier God is angry with those he’s created when they turn away from him, ignore his commands and especially when they go after other gods. In the early chapters of Genesis we’re told that God is so angry with humanity that he decides to wipe out the entire population, apart from Noah and his family. During the Exodus God says he’s so angry with the people that he’s going to abandon them and start again with Moses and his family.
So when Jesus comes it’s to bear the brunt of God’s anger against sinful humanity, to propitiate God’s anger on our behalf.
Most of us understand the idea of reconciliation. It’s what we do when we restore a broken relationship. And it’s done by removing the cause of the relationship breakdown. We all know that unless the cause is removed, unless the hurt is taken away, the relationship won’t survive, don’t we?
When Jesus dies on the cross, it’s to take away the root cause of the breakdown in our relationship with God. He dies to deal with our sin. Eph 2:15-16 puts it like this: “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
Justification is a legal concept. It has the idea of a judge declaring someone in the right, or innocent. It has the idea of us standing before the judgment seat of God on the last day and God declaring that all charges against us have been cleared because Jesus has taken the punishment due to us on himself.
That leads us to our final picture and one of the most controversial ideas of recent years. That’s the idea of Jesus becoming our substitute. Some theologians reject it because they believe that because God promises to forgive us Jesus can’t have taken our place because otherwise he isn’t forgiving us at all. If Jesus has paid our debt there’s no forgiveness required. And if our debt has been paid by Jesus then we now owe Jesus. In other words they’ve taken the redemption metaphor as the only way of thinking about the cross. They’re thinking of the cross as an economic transaction where a debt needs to be paid. But when you think of it as a relational transaction, as in the idea of taking away God’s anger, of us being reconciled to God by Jesus making good what was broken in the relationship, it become a bit clearer. Likewise if the picture is that of justification, of the judge declaring us cleared because someone else has taken the just punishment for what we’ve done, then substitution make perfect sense. So in Isaiah 53 we read these words: “3Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” 2 Cor 5:21 tells us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Or 1 Pet 3:18: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
This is a most important concept to understand. Jesus took our place on the cross, so we could join him in his place at the Father’s right hand.
No Other Way
Well there are lots of ways of thinking about the cross; lots of picture we can use, and let me suggest that you have to think of multiple pictures if you don’t want to get it wrong, but whatever picture we think about, the conclusion we come to is that there’s no other way that we could have been made right with God. We all understand that evil in the world needs to be dealt with. I hope we’ve worked out that by ourselves we’re unable to overcome the evil we find in the world around us. We’re not even able to overcome the evil we find within ourselves! Only God is able to stand against the evil that humans beings have brought into his world and the way he’s chosen to do it is by sending Jesus to become one of us, taking our place, becoming our substitute in facing God’s anger at humanity’s rebellion and paving the way for humanity to be remade in God’s image.
Over the next 6 weeks we’re going to be thinking about the various ways that Jesus’ death on the cross has served to overcome the effects of sin on us and our relationships, and on our world. As Peter said to the crowds in Jerusalem: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)