Last time I listed a number of questions that challenge a certain understanding of what happened at the Cross. This article attempts to explore some of the answers. It should be said though that the depth of meaning of the Cross and what was accomplished at the Cross will be the “science of the ages”. In other words, we should always have an attitude of humility and never take the position that we have mastered the subject entirely. First, a few quotes on the subject that I have appreciated:
“While the Cross was a violent episode, we are not witnessing God’s violence; the atonement is non-penal. Good Friday was not the outpouring of God’s violence upon Christ to assuage his own wrath. That day was God’s “No!” to wrath and “Yes!” to love and forgiveness in the face of our violence and wrath….We stand in a place of mystery that requires humility. We ought not violate the very love that Christ demonstrated by firing cannon balls over Golgotha at one another. We do well to present our proposals with genuine meekness, with generosity for our rival theorists, renouncing contempt wherever it lurks. Let us not tread, through lack of charity, upon the very Cross we proclaim.” (Brad Jersak)
“The inevitability of the death of Jesus does not stem from God’s need, but from humanity’s. There are only two roles to play in the tale of divine and human relationships, persecutor or persecuted. God can cause suffering or God can suffer. God in Christ chose the latter…[Christ’s death] will mean a costly understanding of discipleship. It will mean the active choice to live a life of non-retaliation, non-retribution or vengeance; a life grounded in forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking. Discipleship as ‘cross-carrying’ is life lived as Jesus died.” (Michael Hardin)
“Jesus crucified is God crucified, so we believe. Jesus is the total and final embodiment in history of God’s loving mercy; and so this cross is a unique, terrible, extreme act of violence – a summary of all sin. It represents the human rejection of love. And not even that can destroy God: with the wounds of the cross still disfiguring his body, he returned out of hell to his disciples and wishes them peace…he proclaims God as the one who, above all others, has the right to forgive.” (Rowan Williams)
“The law of Jehovah was burdened with needless exactions and traditions, and God was represented as severe, exacting, revengeful, and arbitrary. He was pictured as one who could take pleasure in the sufferings of his creatures. The very attributes that belonged to the character of Satan, the evil one represented as belonging to the character of God. Jesus came to teach men of the Father, to correctly represent him before the fallen children of earth. Angels could not fully portray the character of God, but Christ, who was a living impersonation of God, could not fail to accomplish the work. The only way in which he could set and keep men right was to make himself visible and familiar to their eyes. Christ exalted the character of God, attributing to him the praise, and giving to him the credit, of the whole purpose of his own mission on earth,–to set men right through the revelation of God. In Christ was arrayed before men the paternal grace and the matchless perfections of the Father. In his prayer just before his crucifixion, he declared, “I have manifested thy name.” “I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” When the object of his mission was attained,–the revelation of God to the world,–the Son of God announced that his work was accomplished, and that the character of the Father was made manifest to men.” The Signs of the Times, January 20, 1890
“Had God the Father come to our world and dwelt among us, humbling Himself, veiling His glory, that humanity might look upon Him, the history that we have of the life of Christ would not have been changed….In every act of Jesus, in every lesson of His instruction, we are to see and hear and recognize God. In sight, in hearing, in effect, it is the voice and movements of the Father.” Letter 83, 1895
I should first say that these thoughts on the atonement are not all-encompassing of everything that could or should be said about the meaning of Jesus’ death. I would hope that if I were to write another article on the atonement in a few years that it would look much different than this. In fact, I think that if we are not continually growing in our understanding of this subject, it is a reflection that we are not progressing in our walk with God since the plan of salvation and the meaning of Jesus’ death are limitless in depth of meaning. In our understanding of the atonement, we should struggle with God and with an attitude of a humble willingness to allow Him to lead us closer and closer to the reality of truth. Now, where to begin?
Several years ago when Mel Gibson’s movie on the death of Jesus came out, I read the transcript of an interview with Mr. Gibson on the subject of Jesus’ death, which he summarized with these words:
“He could have pricked his finger and solved the problem, but he wanted to go all the way.” – Mel Gibson
Is that true? Does the entire plan of salvation boil down to one drop of the right blood?
“Why did Jesus have to die?” Could there be any more important question than this? I grew up being told that the plan of salvation and the Cross of Christ will be the science of the ages.
But yet, for some, the question as to why Jesus had to die is not difficult at all: All God needed was one drop of the right blood, and then he would be satisfied.
If that’s all that were necessary, it would seem that God could have had that drop of blood much sooner than the Cross. Satan tried to kill Jesus when he was a baby – remember the decree of Herod to kill all the baby boys and God had to intervene to warn Jesus’ parents so that they could flee to Egypt. But, let’s suppose that baby Jesus had been killed. Certainly blood would have been shed, but would Jesus’ death as a baby really have solved the problem?
And this, I think raises a critically important point: When we talk about the blood of Jesus and being saved by the blood of Jesus – that blood – the meaning of that blood, includes THE LIFE. Who was Jesus? None other than God in human form. God Himself – the Almighty God – condescended to become a flesh and blood embryo and to spend 9 months in the womb of one of his sinful creatures. And, we have the inspired record of God’s life on earth as a flesh and blood human being. So, we should not associate the blood only with the death, but also with the life and the life was also necessary for our salvation.
The death of Jesus then was the culmination and the climax of his life.
Others have suggested that the meaning of Jesus death is really not that important. I heard a well known evangelist say this quite recently:
“I don’t know how the blood of Christ saves, I just know that it works – and that’s all we need to know.” – evangelist
Is it important that we struggle to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death or should we just settle with the knowledge that “It works – that’s all we need to know.”
It’s true, there are some things that work, and we don’t need to know the mechanism. For example, when a patient is sent for an MRI scan of the brain, they do not need study up on the physics of how an MRI flips protons to obtain the image. It just works and that all the patient needs to know. But, is that how it is with the Cross?
Listen to these words of Paul:
“For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 1:18 – GN)
Notice that there is a message about Christ’s death. Understanding that message is our purpose just now.
And, when talking about the communion service, which was to remind us of the death of Jesus, Paul would say:
“This means that every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes…For if you do not recognize the meaning of the Lord’s body when you eat the bread and drink from the cup, you bring judgment on yourself as you eat and drink.” (1 Corinthians 11:29 – GN)
According to Paul, there is both a message and a meaning of deep importance for us in the death of Christ.
In fact, I’ve even heard it said that we would do well to spend a thoughtful hour every day contemplating the death of Jesus. If that is true, then wouldn’t this statement suggest that we should spend that time prayerfully searching for insight, clarity and understanding as to why Jesus had to die? Would it make sense to spend that hour reminding ourselves that the meaning is not important?
I believe that standing at the foot of the Cross, all of life’s most important questions are answered. It is, as if everything comes into focus at the Cross and we can finally see clearly with our spiritual eyes.
My specialty in medicine is neurology, which by its nature involves the treatment of chronic disease – there are very few immediate and spectacular cures. And so, I’ve always been just a little bit jealous of ophthalmologists, because they can go into the mission fields and miraculously (it would seem) bring sight to the blind by fixing cataracts and a whole host of eye diseases that with today’s technology is curable and after surgery sight is suddenly returned. Incredible!
I believe that as we begin to understand the meaning of the Cross, all of a sudden our spiritual eyes are opened and we proclaim, “I can see!”
Of course, when we ask the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” we are discussing the atonement. But notice what we see in that word: AT-ONE-MENT. Sin had broken apart God’s family and ever since Cain killed Abel, the history of this world is brother hating brother. But also, sin had caused people to even hate God. As evidence of this, God came to his own people, who, if you’d asked them they certainly would have said “of course, we love God”. But yet when God showed up in human form, they hated him and nailed him to a cross to silence his voice.
The atonement, the at-one-ment, is the process of God reconciling humanity back to Himself and in the process of also uniting the family of God (brother and brother, sister and sister) back together again. That is the end goal. The at-one-ment, unification, and reconciliation of God’s family back together again is what Jesus accomplished at the Cross.
But first, before we try to answer the question as to why Jesus had to die, as a foundational point of this discussion, I think we need to be clear on who is being reconciled to who at the Cross. “We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10 – GN)
“All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also. Our message is that God was making all human beings his friends through Christ.” (2Corinthians 5:18-19 – GN)
The Father was not reconciled to us at the Cross. We were the enemies and the ones who needed to be reconciled back to God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. In no way did Jesus win back the Father to us at the Cross. The Cross did not create sympathy for humanity in the heart of the Father; rather, the Cross was the revelation of the Father’s heart of love for his rebellious children.
So just now, let’s imagine ourselves in the upper room the night before Jesus died. The upper room is Jesus’ last chance to unfold to his disciples the clearest, most sublime truth that I believe is critical to our understanding of the Cross.
To Know God
In John, chapter 17, Jesus very clearly explained his mission in coming when he said: “This is eternal life…”
The conclusion of these words might seem like a “no-brainer”. Every Christian knows what eternal life is: Living forever! Isn’t that it? But notice how Jesus would define eternal life:
“This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent. On earth I have given you glory by finishing the work you gave me to do…I made your name known to the people you gave me.” (John 17:3-6)
My understanding is that Jesus ultimate mission was to reveal in all its beautiful glory, the character of God – for “name” is “character” in the Bible. This was his work and his mission and every word and action of Jesus, which climaxed at the cross, are evidence as to the true character of our God. To know God is to know Him in a very intimate and personal way. This was only possible through the revelation of God in human form. Jesus is the way to know God and this is eternal life.
The expression “to know” in the Bible is very significant. For example, “Adam knew Eve” and these words signify an intimacy that resulted in a child, not a casual acquaintance. And, at the end of the age when Jesus’ returns, He says to those not fit to enter the kingdom: “go away, I never knew you”. This doesn’t mean that God looks at them and knows nothing about them. Of course He knows everything about them. The meaning is that there is no relationship, no friendship, no intimacy. These people do not know God in the Biblical sense of the word.
In the book by book Bible study that I have with the students at Loma Linda, I have been amazed this past year at how frequently this concept is repeated in the Old Testament. For example, in Hosea, God described the fundamental problem with his people just before the Assyrian captivity:
“There is no faithfulness, no kindness, no knowledge of God in your land…My people are being destroyed because they don’t know me. It is all your fault, you priests, for you yourselves refuse to know me…They have exchanged the glory of God for the disgrace of idols.” (Hosea 4:1,6,7 – NLT)
“What I want from you is plain and clear: I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me. (Hosea 6:6 – GN)
This last verse reflects Hebrew poetry, which is based on repetition, not rhyme. In Hebrew poetry, the second line ads meaning to the first line. Animal sacrifices goes with burning offerings, to know God is then associated with experiencing His constant love. This is very significant! To know God is to experience His constant love and this knowledge of God involves intimacy and relationship. It is based on a true knowledge of His character as revealed by Jesus Christ.
To know God is to experience his constant love. And when we know God in the Biblical sense we have experienced the AT-ONE-MENT in our lives.
As further evidence of this, just before the Babylonian captivity, God (through Isaiah) would clearly tell the people why they are going into captivity:
“I raised my children and helped them grow, but they have rebelled against me. Oxen know their owners, and donkeys know where their masters feed them. But Israel doesn’t know its owner. My people don’t understand who feeds them.’” (Isaiah 1:2,3 – GOD’S WORD)
This is not a detached, impersonal, merely intellectual knowledge of God. It is personal and relational. And John would look back on the life and death of Jesus and summarize it this way:
“We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding…”
Wait! John is about to tell us why Jesus came and what understanding He came to bring us. Read on:
“We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we know the true God. We live in union with the true God—in union with his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and this is eternal life.” (1 John 5:20 – GOD’S WORD)
That eternal life is to know God in this way is the central message of the Bible. It was certainly the most important thing to Paul as well who said:
“I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere garbage, so that I may gain Christ and be completely united with him.” (Philippians 3:8,9 – GN)
It’s easy to construct a “me-centered” gospel. But, I believe that the message about the life and the death of Christ is not primarily about me (or you): my salvation, my forgiveness, my pardon.
I would submit that we not view the Cross primarily from this “me, myself, and I” perspective. In other words, as we watch the crown of thorns placed on Jesus, as we watch the nails driven through his hands, and as we watch the agony of our God hanging on a cross, let’s not focus on ourselves so much with thoughts such as: “this is good for me”, “now I am forgiven”, “now I can be saved”, “now I can inherit eternal life”, “me, me, me, this is good for me..”
Should not the Cross stimulate outward and selfless thoughts of love and compassion about our God? “God, I can’t believe what YOU are like”. The process of eternal life begins when we turn to God and, out of love and admiration for him (not merely for reasons of personal gain) and we say, “I love how you are God and I would be honored to be your friend.”
Notice the reaction of the heathen army officer to the love of Jesus as he died. This man had probably watched many a crucifixion and most likely he knew little of theology, but yet this crucifixion was like no other:
“[When he] saw what had happened, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly he was a good man!’
In the same account in Mark he is recorded as saying “This man was really the Son of God!” – – but notice also the reaction of the people as they left the cross
“When the people who had gathered there to watch the spectacle saw what happened, they all went back home, beating their breasts in sorrow. (Luke 23:47-48 – GN)
Why were they beating their breasts in sorrow? It is not expected that when you torture someone to death that they look on you with eyes of love, compassion and kindness.
It is not expected that when you torture someone to death, that their response is to say, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
And, it was not expected that when they tortured Jesus to death, that His response was not to be concerned with self but rather to search the crowd with concern for his mother. And when he found her he said, “John, here is your mother”.
When we realize that the one hanging on that Cross is none other than God, and that God Himself is that way, trust in God is restored and we desire, we begin to crave a relationship with such a good God and the process of eternal life (which is to know God) begins in our hearts right here and now.
The words of Jesus during his three and a half year ministry provide such a climax to the way he died. Jesus didn’t just tell us “love your enemies” and then zip up to heaven. He loved his enemies as he died on that Cross.
God did not merely come in human form and say “do good to those who hate you” and then escape to heaven in a cloud. No, he loved those who hated him, to the point of death.
Eternal life is to know God, and the death of Jesus on Calvary, forgiving those who tortured him to death, is the clearest picture of who God is that the universe will ever have.
Like the Roman soldier, the thief on the Cross also responded to this great revelation of God’s love. Initially, he was hurling insults at Jesus. But I find it remarkable that during a short period of time he could be so transformed by the way Jesus died.
Intuitively, I just imagine that if I am dying, and that if someone is also dying next to me, most of my thoughts would be about me, not the guy hanging next to me. “Hey, I’m dying up here and this is painful. This is it. This is the end! I hope the birds don’t get me.” Being very honest, these might be the selfish thoughts that would dominate me during that time.
But instead, concern for his own life finally turned outward to the one hanging next to him. The hardened heart of that thief was melted by the love of Jesus. And, for a moment, rather than being concerned with his own suffering and death, he looked with love, trust, and admiration at the one dying next to him.
And wouldn’t you love to hear the tone of voice and the look in Jesus’ eyes as he told that thief that he would be in the kingdom?
John was one of the few who stayed with Jesus and witnessed the crucifixion. He sums it all up for us:
“Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.” (1 John 1:5 – GN)
There is no darkness in our Creator God who, despite having all power, would allow his own creatures to torture him to death. The eternal life experience is only desirable for us when we realize that God is exactly as Jesus revealed Him to be.
But is the message of the cross merely a moral influence as to the goodness, love, and humility of our God?
Keeping our eyes on Jesus as he dies, we look at another critically important aspect of the cross – and that is sin. We use expressions such as “the sins of the world were laid on Jesus.” The Bible says that he was treated as a sinner, though he knew no sin.
But this brings up a very important question: Was the Father punishing his Son on the Cross? Is sin a quantity that we can hold in our hand or place on a table or onto someone and beat it with a hammer? What was it that punished Jesus?
We turn to the familiar words in Isaiah 53.
“He was hated and rejected; his life was filled with sorrow and terrible suffering. No one wanted to look at him. We despised him and said, ‘He is a nobody!’ He suffered and endured great pain for us, but we thought his suffering was punishment from God. He was wounded and crushed because of our sins; by taking our punishment, he made us completely well.” (Isaiah 53:1-5 – CEV)
“We thought that his suffering was punishment from God.” Many have understood it that way – that the Father punished the Son on the Cross. But notice that sin did the punishing, not God.
The Bible describes sin as a rebellious, disconnected and distrusting attitude toward our Heavenly Father. This then leads to outward acts of rebellion: stealing, cheating, lying, hatred, murder, fear, chaos and ultimately death are the outward manifestations of a rebellious heart and mind that is disconnected from our God of love.
In the garden of Eden, Satan told Eve, essentially: “Sin isn’t that serious. God has lied to you. You won’t die.”
And, if we believe these lies of Satan at the tree, we could come to the conclusion that the ultimate problem with sin is primarily that God doesn’t like it. We could falsely agree with Satan that sin, intrinsically, is not harmful and that the real problem with sin is that someday God must actively do something to sinners.
But Paul, in describing how Jesus died, would say this in Romans 3:
“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Romans 3:25)
That is, prior to the Cross we do not fully see and appreciate not only the righteousness of our God, but also the intrinsic and malignant effects of sin. How so?
Repeatedly in the Old Testament, God tried to give evidence as to what happens when his children completely reject him to the point that he can do no more. When we are completely hardened and unwilling to listen to God in any way, this is described as the experience of God’s anger or wrath. Let me just give a few examples of this. It goes all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy.
“My anger will flame up like fire and burn everything on earth. It will reach to the world below and consume the roots of the mountains. I will bring on them endless disasters and use all my arrows against them.” (Deuteronomy 32:22,23 – GN)
What does God’s anger look like? How does God use His arrows against us? Keep reading!
“They fail to see why they were defeated; they cannot understand what happened. Why were a thousand defeated by one, and ten thousand by only two? The Lord, their God, had abandoned them; their mighty God had given them up” (Deuteronomy 32:29,30 – GN)
The next time you read through the Old Testament, look for this relationship between God’s wrath and his “giving up” or “abandoning” his children. It is redundant and present on dozens of occasions. For a more detailed description of this listen to the talk entitled “The Wrath of the Lamb”.
Just as one more example, before the Assyrian captivity when the 10 northern tribes were lost forever, this is the description in Hosea:
“I will attack the people of Israel and Judah like a lion. I myself will tear them to pieces and then leave them. When I drag them off, no one will be able to save them. (How does God attack his children? We read on for clarification) I will abandon my people until they have suffered enough for their sins and come looking for me. Perhaps in their suffering they will try to find me.” (Hosea 5:14,15 – GN)
And in the midst of this description of God pouring out his wrath on his children, we just read on to see the clear reality of this:
“They insist on turning away from me. They will cry out because of the yoke that is on them, but not one will lift it from them. How can I give you up, Israel? How can I abandon you?” (Hosea 11:7,8 – GN)
God is not vindictive in this, it’s just that if we are completely hardened to the love of God – if even God’s shouting and thundering does not reach us – then God really has one of 2 choices: He can either take away our freedom to rebel and become a puppet master, or He can give us up to our own foolish choice. Real love requires freedom and so God does the most loving thing for His children – He gives them up.
Finally, in the book of Romans, Paul very clearly synthesizes the OT concept of God’s wrath, and Romans 1 is the clearest place in the Bible as to what this is:
“God’s anger is revealed from heaven against all the sin and evil of the people whose evil ways prevent the truth from being known. God punishes them, because what can be known about God is plain to them, for God himself made it plain.” (Romans 1:18,19 – GN)
So, Paul is going to describe for us precisely what God’s wrath is. The subject is “How does God punish?”
“They say they are wise, but they are fools; instead of worshiping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortals or birds or animals or reptiles. And so God has given those people over to do the filthy things their hearts desire, and they do shameful things with each other. They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever! Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions….Because those people refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God, he has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do.” (Romans 1:22-26,28 – GN)
Three times, Paul would reinforce this concept. God doesn’t have to actively punish people who leave his side. Why? When we fully separate from the loving arms of our God, there is chaos, destruction and death – as a natural consequence – not at the hands of our God.
And, Paul would go on to explain the cross in this same way:
“Because of our sins he was given over to die…” (Romans 4:25 – GN)
It is critical that we understand that sin, which separates us from the loving and protecting arms of our God, is intrinsically destructive. Sin, ultimately, pays the wage, not God.
And so it is very significant that the anguish and sorrow of Jesus, which began really in the garden of Gethsemane, would climax with these words:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
“Why have you given me up? Why have you handed me over? Why have you abandoned me?”
These are the very same words we associate again and again with the separation of God from his rebellious children. The Father did not kill his Son at the Cross. No, at the cross we see the full result of separation that sin causes between us and our God. It’s true that the wages of sin is death – but sin is ultimately what pays the wage. The Cross proves this to be true.
Jesus Christ, who lived every moment in loving harmony with His Father, experienced the withdrawal of His Father’s love, acceptance and protection. Satan was allowed to wring the heart of Jesus with fierce temptations and finally, cruel men were allowed to crucify the Son of God.
In the book of Acts, it is described this way:
“In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him.” (Acts 2:23 – GN)
We could correctly say that the wrath of God fell upon Christ if we understand that the Biblical concept of God’s wrath is not to be punished by God, but rather to be forsaken, abandoned, given up.
One description of the cross can actually make us afraid of the Father (the “real” God) who killed his Son. No! The One on the Cross WAS GOD – in human form – showing us the horrifying nature of the sin problem. I believe that as the Son died (and as God’s wicked children will die in the very end) that the Father’s attitude is expressed in Hosea, “My Son, my son, how can I give you up?” The cross should make us afraid of sin, not God, for at Cross we not only see the goodness of our God, we also see the cancer that is sin.
But there’s more. The plan of salvation involves more than fallen humanity. The problem of sin began in heaven, right in the very presence of God. There is an enemy, an accuser, who has been maliciously spreading lies about the character of our God. In Hebrews we read that:
“Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature. He did this so that through his death he might destroy the Devil…” (Hebrews 2:4 – GN).
How did Jesus’ death defeat the Devil?
Satan (the Father of lies) was successful in separating 1/3 of the angels and humanity from God through the methods of lying, deception and fear. Satan has slanderously accused God of being a vengeful, severe, and arbitrary, tyrant. These lies about God’s character were the very methods he used with Eve at the tree. But though these are the very character traits of Satan (those of a vengeful, severe and arbitrary tyrant), he has turned them around and falsely accused our Heavenly Father of being this way. Thus, instead of falling in love with God and experiencing intimacy and relationship with him, ever since Adam and Eve cowered in the bushes, hiding from a false conception of God, God’s children have, by and large, lived in fear of Him.
In the Old Testament, the essence of idolatry and paganism is appeasement of an angry God, which is Satan’s false caricature of God.
But at the Cross, all those lies were soundly defeated and when Jesus died, the war was over from Satan’s perspective for who could believe his lies about God after watching Jesus die the way that he did? Who could believe Satan’s lie to Eve that sin does not lead to death, after watching Jesus endure this terrible separation from his Father’s heart of love?
The entire life of Jesus is the clearest distinction we will ever have as a contrast between God’s character and Satan’s character and between the principle of God’s kingdom and the principle of Satan’s kingdom.
In fact, imagine that you are an angel in heaven with God. And one day you suddenly realize that the Son – the one who created you – is no longer there. A heavenly counsel is called and you are informed that one member of the Trinity has entered the womb of one of his sinful creatures and that He is growing, cell by cell, into a baby boy.
You watch in amazement as he is born to a poor family and that he would spend his first night on earth sleeping in a feeding trough for animals. You watch him grow up as a humble carpenter in a town called Nazareth, from which it was said “can any good thing come from Nazareth?”
And then, in the midst of this amazing condescension of God Almighty, you watch as Jesus finally begins his ministry by going out into the wilderness where he would meet Satan, who you remember is a fellow angel just as you are.
You recall the issues in this war that began in heaven and you watch in amazement as your Creator, now limited in time and space by degraded human flesh and further weakened by 40 days of fasting is subtly tempted by the mighty angel Satan – the former light bearer.
Don’t you think that there was just a small gasp of amazement among the angels in heaven when Satan, an angel and a created being just as you, asked his Creator to kneel down and worship him?
This great distinction and clarity between God’s character and Satan’s character widened further during the life of Jesus, but ultimately this became crystal clear at the cross – black and white – as angels witnessed the awful display of Satan’s selfishness and desire for conquest, and to sit in power in the very place of God.
As Jesus left the upper room, he warned his disciples that this was the hour that the prince of evil was allowed to attack:
“I’ll not be talking with you much more like this because the chief of this godless world is about to attack.” (John 14:30 – The Message)
And, he would go on to warn Peter of the great trial that awaiting all of them at the hands of Satan:
“Simon, Simon! Listen! Satan has received permission to test all of you, to separate the good from the bad, as a farmer separates the wheat from the chaff.” (Luke 22:31,32 – GN)
We don’t see Satan in physical form as we did in the wilderness temptation, but did not Satan also receive permission to even test Jesus? And don’t you think that Satan was the inspiration for those people at the cross who wagged their fingers at Jesus with these words?
“People passing by shook their heads and hurled insults at Jesus: ‘You were going to tear down the Temple and build it back up in three days! Save yourself if you are God’s Son! Come on down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the Law and the elders made fun of him: ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself ! Isn’t he the king of Israel? If he will come down off the cross now, we will believe in him!’” (Matthew 27:39-43 – GN)
This was the same temptation Satan pushed on Jesus in the wilderness. “Please Jesus, use your power! Use the principles of my kingdom – just once!”
Hanging on the cross, Jesus was confronted with 2 great principles:
- The principle of Satan’s kingdom, which is ultimately “survival of the fittest” and is based on power, coercion, and the use force. The principle of Satan’s kingdom is “I am willing to kill you, that I might live.”
- But instead, Jesus clung firmly to the principle of His kingdom which by contrast is, “I am willing to die, that you may live.” God’s kingdom is based on loving others more than self.
One kingdom sucks in and takes from others; the other kingdom gives of self and empties self for others.
At the cross, Jesus was the brunt of all the evil and hatred that could be thrown at him by Satan, but at every step Jesus returned that evil, with good. The principle of God’s kingdom is to “love even your enemy”; “do good to those who persecute you”; and “pray for them”. Perhaps we really didn’t believe or “see” that this is the foundation of God’s kingdom, until we saw our God living this principle out – even unto death.
And so God in human form defeated Satan and won the great controversy not by physical might and power but by selflessly laying down his life. God won the great controversy by using the weapons of love and truth, not force and power.
The Bible then explains the death of Jesus in terms of this cosmic conflict:
“And on that cross Christ freed himself from the power of the spiritual rulers and authorities; he made a public spectacle of them by leading them as captives in his victory procession.” (Colossians 2:15 – GN)
“Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. At one time you were far away from God and were his enemies because of the evil things you did and thought. But now, by means of the physical death of his Son God has made you his friends…” (Colossians 1:20-22 – GN)
But sadly, there is for us another very painful dimension to the Cross. Thus far we have said that the Cross is the clearest revelation of who God is and that eternal life is to know God. We have said that the Cross reveals to us the intrinsically destructive result of sin. And, we have said that the Cross was the place where Satan was exposed and defeated.
But the Cross also says something very important about humanity.
Jesus could have come at any time in human history. He could have come before the flood and don’t you believe that he would have also been killed by that evil generation?
But God decided to come to a people who were perhaps the most upright moral people that the world had known. These people were very careful to outwardly keep the law; they faithfully read their Bibles; they would never miss church; they even tithed their spices; Jesus even commented on their worldwide evangelism; and they were Sabbath keepers.
But notice that it was these people who were working so hard to obey, that could look at their King, face to face, and say, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15, KJV)
Though keeping a good list of externals, they did not know who their God was. In their minds, he certainly could not be as humble and kind as Jesus Christ.
These people, as representatives of the human race at this time were asked:
“Which one do you want me to set free for you? Jesus Barabbas or Jesus called the Messiah?” (Matthew 27:17 – GN)
We (the human race, God’s chosen people) chose to release a murderer, Barabbas, and to crucify our Creator. And in our ignorance late Friday afternoon, we began to worry that the sun was beginning to set, and that the Sabbath was coming soon – so we rushed to Pilate:
“Then the Jews, since it was the day of Sabbath preparation, and so the bodies wouldn’t stay on the crosses over the Sabbath (it was a high holy day that year), petitioned Pilate that their legs be broken to speed death, and the bodies taken down.” (John 19:31 – The Message).
Why did they make this request? They wanted Jesus to die faster so that they could make it home to keep the Sabbath. Who did they believe that they were worshiping on the Sabbath? God. Who is the real God? The One they just crucified.
This is the single most insane and sad moment in human history.
We sometimes celebrate the Cross as the greatest event in universal history, but at the same time it is the worst and darkest moment in history, for it is the time when the creatures conspired to kill their Creator and then rushed home to keep the Sabbath.
The Cross is the strongest testimony of all against legalism (keeping the rules) as a means of salvation. The most careful law keepers and Sabbath keepers of all time hated the true God. Eternal life is to know God, not merely to keep the right list of rules. In fact, the rules are ultimately there to facilitate bringing us to know God for if those people 2,000 years ago had spent their Sabbath days experiencing the relationship and intimacy of the true God, they would have known him and welcomed him when he came.
As so, as we stand at the foot of the Cross, we see God in all His beauty; we see sin, in all its malignity; we see Satan for the liar and murderer he is; and we see ourselves – not a pretty site.
Do all the issues of importance now become clear in our mind? Do we now feel in a position to respond to what Jesus did for us and to accept the at-one-ment, the reconciliation, the friendship, and the marriage relationship that the life and death of Jesus is supposed to accomplish in us?
And here, I must thank my wife Dorothee for helping me to see this point clearly: The atonement is accomplished in us when we say “I do” to God’s offer of marriage and intimacy with him.
We often talk a great deal about the blood of Christ, but I would suggest that when we talk of being covered by the blood of Jesus that we are putting the blood in the wrong place – as if it was meant to shield us from something or someone. This is where the blood is meant to be:
“I can guarantee this truth: If you don’t eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have the source of life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will bring them back to life on the last day. My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53- 55 – GN)
We’ve just said that eternal life is to know God intimately and as a Friend. Jesus here symbolically describes that we must fully internalize and ingest his words, his life, his death, his principle of other-centered love, and his character so that we may enter into this experience of relationship and at-one-ment with God.
Just as food and drink is ingested and goes throughout the entire body, so he must permeate our entire being.
This is the function of the Holy Spirit to bring to our minds the truth about God that Jesus revealed – that we may behold, in all its beauty, the character of our God and so that we may be changed into his image.
God came in human form to re-write the law of self-sacrificial love in our hearts and minds. The message of the Cross was absolutely necessary, from God’s perspective, to heal our selfish hearts and minds.
The plan of salvation is the plan of healing and restoration. You can hear it in the word “salvation” – just like a salve that heals wounds. And, it is an unavoidable consequence that when we are fully in relationship and at-one with our God that we reflect his beautiful character to the world:
“Yes, may you come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely filled with the very nature of God” (Ephesians 3:19 – GN).
“This is how we can be sure that we are in union with God: if we say that we remain in union with God, we should live just as Jesus Christ did” (1 John 2:5 – GN)
These verses could be a discouragement to us, as we each look at ourselves and see that we do not live just as Jesus Christ did. But they shouldn’t be. These verses are good news, because they describe the inevitable natural consequences of fully experiencing the at-one-ment, the relationship and the intimacy of Jesus Christ.
The atonement was achieved, in principle, at the cross, but unless we allow the Holy Spirit to apply what Jesus accomplished to our hearts and minds in a very real way, the life and death of Jesus Christ is merely a distant historical event.
But if we will allow God to accomplish the atonement in our hearts and minds, then the character of God will be reflected in his people; brother and brother, and sister and sister will again be united to God and to each other in friendship and love, and the family of God will once again be At-One.