THE CROSS OF CHRIST
SIGNS AND WISDOM
The 1994 General Conference Sermon
There are many religions on the market today. I remember one which came to Oxford University when I was a student to advertise its spiritual wares. It was called the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSAUWC). Its doctrine was highly intellectual and it was the intellect it was trying to appeal to. For the ordinary man on the street what was being said would have been totally meaningless. It was a religion marketed for a certain type of person only. Most of its members were young, single people who were quite well educated. It had very little appeal to the family and in all the years I knew this organisation I never saw a family converted.
Other religions have a multi-tier system -- a watered-down religion for the masses and a more potent form for the more advanced. This is typical of Hinduism and its off-shoots, particularly the New Age Movement. Indeed, in many New Age groups, the "masses" on the lower-levels are expendable and are due to be exterminated, leaving only an advanced, spiritual hierarchy.
One of the distinguishing features of Christianity is that it is a religion for all people. Its appeal is not only to the intellectual but to the ordinary person. Salvation is open to all and in a rather unique way.
In the neo-Hindu religions salvation has to be worked out by each individual. Each person must save him or herself through multiple lives on earth called reincarnation. The more "advanced" souls will naturally have greater mental powers and be able to understand the Hindu scriptures and practice the more demanding forms of yoga. The New Age is an élitist religion.
Christianity is the very opposite. Unlike the leaders of other religions who were often born in sumptuous conditions, or later entered them, the founder of Christianity, though a king, lived like a pauper the whole of his life. But there was more. Whereas the leaders of other religions were ordinary mortals like you and I, the founder of Christianity was actually God in the flesh. He was an utterly unique phenomenon -- the Creator of the Universe living in a human body.
But that was not all. He did not die an honourable death as the leaders of most world religions did, but was executed as a criminal by an occupying power. And yet this ignominious execution is presented as the saving event. This rather bloody and cruel execution is the central point of the Christian religion!
Now to the intellectual who prides himself in his wisdom, this is a total absurdity. To the religionist looking for signs and miracles -- a great spectacular display of supernatural power -- this like an anticlimax in a failed magician's trick.
The door to the Christian faith is neither miracles nor wisdom per se. Paul explains:
Now before I explain these words I want to make absolutely clear that the Christian faith is neither anti-intellectual nor is it bereft of signs. The very opposite. For one who has faith, the Christian faith is the nadir of wisdom because it reaches into the very heart of the God of wisdom, the author of true wisdom. And it produces signs in abundance, not to the sign-seekers, against whom the door of signs is firmly closed, but to those of faith.
"For the message of the cross is folly to those on their way to destruction, but to us who are being saved, it is God's power, as it is written, 'I will render useless the wisdom of the learned and set aside the understanding of the intelligent.' Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar in Law? Where is the debater of this time? Has not God shown the folly of wordy wisdom? Inasmuch as in God's providence the world failed to know God by means of its wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the folly of the proclamation. And while Jews request signs and Greeks search for wisdom, we on our part preach the crucified Christ; a snare to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, God's power and God's wisdom. Because God's folly surpasses human wisdom and God's weakness surpasses human strength" (1 Cor.1:18-25, RBV).
Why is it that all the other religions fail to reveal the true nature of God? Because they are lacking in the one cardinal truth which to them is foolishness -- namely, the cross. And it is foolishness to them because they are dead spiritually, and, as Paul reminded them, "are on their way to destruction." So how does a blood-drenched gallows open the door to God? What is so marvelous about this hideous torture device?
What is so wonderful about the cross is the heart that lies behind it. Or rather, the two hearts -- hearts which show us not only how we can come into eternally meaningful relationship with God but with each other too. The cross reveals completely the meaning of love -- God's love -- which is sacrificial love. It reveals the heart of true religion. It reveals the path into satisfying and secure relationships. And the most important of all -- and this is its mystical aspect -- it provides release from the guilt of wrong-doing, caused by God's forgiveness.
The Cross lies as the centre of the New Covenant Church of God. In the forerunner organisation that led to the eventual formation of the New Covenant, people came seeking for wisdom but not the cross. When presented with the cross, they left. Others, desiring signs, miracles, and wonders, left because they were offered the cross instead. Paul experienced the same problem in his day -- he was confronted by Jews who wanted signs and Greeks who wanted intellectual knowledge.
Now brethren and sisters, this New Covenant Church of God is the repository of great knowledge and wisdom, and there are many who have lusted after it. But access to it is only through the cross. Equally, there are many who are looking for signs and wonders -- proofs, if you like -- but access to these is only through the cross. If we did not preach the folly of the cross -- if the cross were not the central doctrine of this work -- then our wisdom and signs would be absolutely worthless. Indeed, they would rank together with all the counterfeit wisdom and signs that you will find plenty of in the New Age and in other religions. Oh yes, they have plenty of signs and so-called esoteric wisdom. They will teach you plenty of occult knowledge, give plenty of supernatural displays -- visions, levitations, astral projections, telepathic contact with spirits of the dead, UFOnauts, and even perform healings. Do you want these? Well, the New Age has got them. They'll oblige you, but they won't lead you to God and ultimate happiness. Because the way to God is the cross, and only the cross.
Have you ever heard it said that there is only one God, but that God has many names -- Jehovah, Jesus, Shiva, Allah, etc.? But I tell you most soberly that there is only one God and He has only one Name -- that Name is Jesus, and He is also known as the God of the Cross. No there is not one God with many names serving many religions because there is only one God with one Name and with one Mission. And that mission was to die on a cross for you and me and rise again from the dead. The gods of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and the pagan religions never did this, even though they have mythologies which talk about dying and rising gods. There is only one God and only one religion, and that is the religion of Christ.
So what does the cross actually mean? We have seen what it meant to Paul. For him the wisdom of the world was foolishness in comparison. Does that mean he was an anti-intellectual? By no means. Paul was one of the most educated and learnèd men of his day. He knew and understood the wisdom of the world. He even used it against the Greeks in Athens. Paul knew where his religion was centred. To the Galatians he said: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal.6:14). In regard to his Gospel preaching, he said to the Corinthians: "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor.2:2).
The cross is central to Christianity. Everyone who has been born again of the Holy Spirit knows that the death of Jesus on the cross was for our wrong-doings or "sins". However, there are many who do not understand what that actually means. How does a death on a cross bring about forgiveness? I would now like to explain that to you.
Firstly we must understand something of the nature of God. Most people who believe in God have some kind of mental picture of Him and usually it is based on their personal expectations. However, we can never come to have a personal relationship with God if we do not accept what He says about Himself. God, after all, is the greatest authority on His own nature.
The prophet Isaiah had a vision in which he was shown God sitting on His throne surrounded by heavenly beings. They all cried out: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of His glory" (Isa.6:3, NIV).
Now what does the word "holy" mean to you? To be holy is to be morally perfect and ethically pure. God cannot tolerate unrighteousness or impurity in any degree. He is perfect in every attribute. He is also perfect love and perfect justice. He is trustworthy. He keeps His promises. He is long-suffering and patient with sinners. He will not be mocked. All these, and many others, are characteristics of the holiness of God.
God is so holy that when He manifests Himself in our space and time we are to approach Him with the greatest of reverence and caution. To Moses in front of the burning bush he said: "'Do not come any closer...Take of your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground'" (Ex.3:5, NIV). Later, the Lord said similar things to the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai -- only those specially selected, and at a time indicated by God, could approach Him (Ex.19:10-13). God is holy, and must be approached in the correct way.
Look at the reaction of mortal men who have seen God and known him. Consider Job who said: "My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6, NIV). And listen at Peter's reaction: "Go away from me, Lord; for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8, NIV). I wonder what your reaction to God is? I remember a Mormon who once said that the reason he joined the Mormons was because they did not grovel on the earth before God on their knees like other Christians but stood tall and proud of their godly inheritance. And whilst he is probably not representative of all Mormons, his attitude certainly reveals the false way people look upon our Heavenly Father and shows their latent pride. Holiness is the very opposite. Holiness is humility.
The holiness of God, His impeccable and beautiful moral purity, is in many ways the dominant attribute of God. And for that reason forgiving sins is not a simple task for God. It is a great mistake for us to think that it is. Indeed, it is far easier for us to forgive our fellow-men than it is for God to forgive people. Does that surprise you?
Paul said: "Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ" (Eph.4:32, TEV). In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus tells the story of a forgiving king who said to a man he had forgiven his debts: "'You worthless slave!...I forgave you the whole amount you owed me, just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow-servant , just as I had mercy on you'. The king was very angry, and he sent his servant to jail until he should pay back the whole amount" (Matt.18:32-24, TEV).
This parable is vitally important to understand. Jesus forgives us freely of our sins if we genuinely repent, and takes the punishment upon Himself. But if we then do not forgive the wrongs others have done for us, the forgiveness of God is canceled -- we must pay for our own! So understand this well -- God forgives your sins unconditionally -- He wipes them all out -- when you repent, but if you then refuse to forgive the wrongs others have done to you -- real or imagined -- your sins remain unforgiven.
I doubt this doctrine would be very popular amongst most modern Christians who teach that "one forgiven, always forgiven". But Jesus contradicts them. He says that all we have to do is forgive others of the wrongs they do to us and our own slate remains clean. Once we fail to forgive the wrongs of others, we are at once dirty again.
Here is a vital key to the holiness of God. He is not so liberal as to just forgive, and that's that. There's a condition. And that condition is that we freely forgive others, holding no grievances against them. The moment we forgive others of their sins against us, we are forgiven by God of ours.
Now really this ought to be common sense but the human mind has a tendency to rationalise such common sense away. Find me someone who is full of the Spirit of God, who is free and open, happy and care- free, who harbours a grudge or a root of bitterness against anyone or anything. You know sometimes we are quite clever and instead of blaming people for our problems we blame something less personal like "life" or "fate".
Actually, when we do that, we are really blaming God. And don't forgive expecting to get restitution or satisfaction from the person who has wronged you. There are going to be many people who will wrong you in this life who will never repent. Our forgiveness cannot be conditional on their repentance towards us. That is why is easier for man to forgive than for God. Those who won't repent have their punishment, for they are cut off from God. Let us not cut ourselves off from God because we won't forgive them until they have humbled themselves before us.
God gets no pleasure from watching people humiliate themselves before Him -- He doesn't want to see us eating dust like a snake, but He knows that is usually the only way we can lose our self-destructive pride and so open the door to the real life and glory that is within us. How many of you have wanted revenge against an enemy? How many of you would really like to humiliate the person who made a fool of you? Most likely all of us, at some time. But that is not the way of holiness. No-one here should want to ever humiliate his brother or sister, but rather exalt him as better than himself. Isn't that what Christ did for us? Didn't He eat dust so that we could be saved from our own wretchedness? Here, then, is another key of the atonement.
Unlike us, God is holy and indeed His holy character is the ground upon which all moral values in the universe depend. For God to do or to be seen to agree to anything unholy would be to un-God Himself and throw the whole of creation into chaos.
The difficulty for God is how to forgive people without compromising His holy character. If He merely overlooks evil, it is as good as saying that evil does not matter. That would make Him no better than the devil. As the Holy God, His righteousness -- that is, His opposition to all evil -- must be demonstrated. How could God forgive people and still be on the side of righteousness, and be seen to be so? This was, as it were, the "obstacle" He had to overcome as He contemplated saving us.
1. God the Judge
The first and most obvious way for God to demonstrate His righteousness is by His rôle as the Judge of all the earth. This means at least two things.
Firstly, God declares and publicly backs His Holy Law, summarised, for example, in the Ten Commandments (Ex.20:1-17) or in another way in the first eight verses of the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians which is the great discourse of Paul on love. How are the two connected? Paul later said to the Romans:
We, as New Covenant Christians, are known for our love of the Torah or Law, and I hope, having read this scripture, you will understand why alot better. The Law is holy, and the root and branch of the Law is love. I hope that none of us are in any doubts as to the correctness of the Old Testament Law in the New Testament dispensation -- it is eternal. And that the essential difference is merely one or emphasis and degree -- the emphasis being that love is the heart of the Law, and that we must love even more because we have, as it were, "seen" with our own eyes the love of God in the atonement. And one thing about the atonement is that is was perfectly just.
"Be under no obligation to no-one -- the only obligation you have is to love one another. Whoever has done this has loved the Law. The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not desire what belongs to someone else' -- all these things, and any others besides, are summed up in the one commandment, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' If you love someone, you will never do him wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law" (Rom.13:8-10, TEV).
We know that Christ publicly endorsed the moral law of God, and we cite the Sermon on the Mount often, where He said:
The second thing we must understand is that God, as Judge of the Universe, executes penalties upon those who break His holy law. The Lord said through His prophet Ezekiel: "The life of every person belongs to Me, the life of the parent as well as of the child. The person who sins is the one who will die" (Ezek.18:4, TEV). Understand this, and mark it well -- sin is death. Paul said to the Romans: "Other people are selfish and reject what is right, in order to follow what is wrong; on them God will pour out His anger and fury...For sin pays its wage -- death; but God's free gift is eternal life in union with Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom.2:8-9; 6:23, TEV).
"Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true" (Matt.5:17, TEV; also see v.18-20).
Now I want to dispense with a myth once and for all: and that myth is that the God of the New Testament is a God of love, but that the God of the Old Testament is a God of hate. They are both one and the same. The trouble is that the people who talk such nonsense are those who love sin more than God and are under the penalty of God. They reject God's Judgeship and therefore His moral righteousness. Such people, the Lord says, will have God's anger and fury poured out on them at the last day.
Am I talking about the God of Jesus Christ? You had better believe it. Listen to what Jesus says about the God who authored the Law of Moses in the Old Testament:
Now I challenge anyone here who still believes that Jesus diluted the Law of Moses, or went soft on it, or got rid of it altogether to stand up and say so! But if he does, I will call him a liar and a blasphemer for mocking the holiness of God's character! God will condemn such a person who believes in the Word, hears the Word, and then rejects it because he loves the liberal nonsense that the world loves so much. God is holy because God is not only love but He is just and strict when it comes to His Law.
"'You have heard that people were told in the past, 'Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.' But now I tell you: whoever is angry with his brother will be brought to trial, whoever calls his brother, 'You good-for-nothing!' will be brought before the Council, and whoever calls His brother a worthless fool WILL BE IN DANGER OF GOING TO THE FIRE OF HELL...'You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But now I tell you: anyone who looks at a woman and wants to possess her is guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart. So if your right eye causes you to sin, take it out and throw it away! It is much better for you to lose a part of your body that to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is much better for you to lose one of your limbs that for your whole body to go to hell'" (Matt.5:21-22, 27-30, TEV).
Now Jesus clearly taught on the Sermon on the Mount -- that wonderful sermon about loving your enemies, about keeping covenants holy, about the blessedness of being humble, of being a peace-maker, of being pure in heart -- that those who in any way lessen the Law, or reject it, or dilute it, are on the way to hell! Yes, brethren and sisters, they were his own words! This Jesus, whose love so many Christians embrace but whose justice they reject, is the very moral image of the God of the Old Testament. Indeed, so precise is this image, that He is God Himself!
Our Heavenly Father, and His Son Jesus Christ, are so morally perfect and strict, that we learn two terrible things about our human race. Paul said to the Romans: "No-one is put right in God's sight by doing what the Law requires; what the Law does is to make a man know that he has sinned" (Rom.3:20, TEV). That's the first awful truth. The second is this: "Everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence" (v.23). The whole of mankind. All of us. We can't live the Law perfectly; instead, by trying to live it, we see just how rotten and sinful we really are.
And if that were the end of the story, the human race would be lost. Look at the world today. Read any newspaper and you will see that the world is in a terrible mess and it's getting worse. Despite the bold claims of religions, who say you must do this-and-this, nothing changes. Indeed, very often religion lies behind some of the worst atrocities being committed -- murder in Northern Ireland by Protestants and Catholics, murder in Bosnia by Catholics, Serbian Orthodox "Christians" and Muslims, murder in Palestine by Muslims and Jews, murder in India by Muslims and Hindus...and often in the name of God. But is this "name" they use the God of the Bible? No, absolutely not, for they do not know His holiness, or His utter revulsion at what they do.
If people are to be saved -- and that, we have now seen, means everyone -- then some other way must be found.
2. Christ the Saviour
We have seen a little, now, of the justice of God. God cannot ignore His Laws, which are just and righteous. If God's justice actually condemns us, how, then, can we be saved? It is here that the coming of Jesus Christ is good news. God sent His Son into the world as an ordinary human being. He lived a spotless and holy life which was wholly pleasing to God. He lived as we ought to live were we fulfilling God's Law. Through His death on the cross, all who believe in Him, repent, and do all they can to turn away from sin, are counted righteous in God's sight, even if they fail to live the Law completely. Let us see what Paul says to the Romans to explain how this is done:
I want to stress here what Paul says: we do not get right with God in obeying the Law per se. If we could, all we would have to do is become Jews. And indeed, if there had been no change in dispensation, God would overlook our sins so long as we tried everything in our power to obey the Law. But the dispensation has changed. God has decreed: "OK, I've overlooked sin all this time, but the moment has come to deal with it. Christ has dealt with it, making forgiveness of sin possible. Therefore I can't overlook sin any more, since I have provided the way out."
"But now God's way of putting people right with Himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with the Law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with Him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free. God offered Him, so that by His death He should become the means by which people's sins are forgiven through their faith in Him. God did this in order to demonstrate that He is righteous. In the past He was patient and overlooked people's sins; but in the present He deals with their sins , in order to demonstrate His righteousness. In this way God shows that He Himself is righteous and that He puts right everyone who believes in Jesus" (Rom.3:21-26, TEV).
Obedience to the law, though a moral commandment, does not make us right with God (v.21). What do we mean by that? Does that mean a person who is an habitual thief, who does his best, is condemned? Surely he can only do what he is capable of? That is true. But the atonement does not just forgive us of our wrong-doing and our sinful tendencies -- it also gives us supernatural power to overcome our sinful tendencies.
To be in right relationship with God comes, as Paul says, through faith (v.22). But where does this faith come from? It comes from God Himself because we are put right "by the free gift of God's grace" (v.24)! That faith is from God -- but is up to us to use it. It was a faith that did not exist before Christ's death because God had not made it available before then -- He couldn't make it available until Christ had made atonement. God therefore makes available to us both the means of salvation and the salvation itself!
Now I want to talk about the mechanism of the atonement. How does the physical death of a member of the Godhead bring about forgiveness of sins and make God's supernatural power available to us? Well, there are two aspects to this, neither of which is right by itself.
A. The Subjective Atonement
The first way that Christ saves us is subjectively, and He does this in three ways. The death of Christ on the Cross was a great demonstration of God's love towards us which moves us to change our minds about God and so love Him. This is called Christ's moral influence. This was the first stage of my conversion to Christ when I was a student. I was watching a film called the Gospel According to Matthew made by an Italian director called Passolini. I was deeply moved inside during the crucifixion scene. And although I had been searching for truth for some time and had had supernatural experiences, my heart had never really been pierced by the sacrificial love of God until this moment. Only once before or afterwards (I cannot exactly remember when) have I been similarly moved, and that was when I watched Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities which tells of a man who lays down his life to save the life of his friend. Both of these films had a profound effect on me.
The second part of what I call the subjective side of the atonement is Christ's moral example. The death of Christ is an illustration for us of perfect obedience to God and as such shows us how we ought to live. By seeing what Jesus has done for us, we should be convicted of our own selfishness and sin and so decide to reform our lives.
The third part of the subjective atonement is mystical union. In the cross we see God suffering in the same way that we suffer in our fallen world, so we can intimately identify. We are led, as a result, to faith in God, feeling that He is with us amidst the struggles of our lives.
All these three aspects are important, as is the overall idea of a subjective atonement, but they all miss the central purpose of the cross. Please notice that the subjective atonement effects essentially our emotional side. And for many people, Christianity is only that -- an emotional response. But it is much, much more.
To illustrate the inadequacy of a subjective atonement on its own we have only to read the testimony of David who spent his whole life deeply repenting of murder and adultery. Psalm 51 really tells it all:
Here, then, is the central problem. It is not enough to intellectually know what our sin is. David did. It is not enough to feel deep sorrow at wrong. David did. The central question is: How do I receive forgiveness which brings joy, obedience, loyalty and a pure heart? That is what David could not find. And it is what alot of well-meaning Christians cannot find today.
"Be merciful unto me, O God, because of Your constant love. Because of Your great mercy wipe away my sins! Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin! I recognise my faults; I am always conscious of my sins. I have sinned against You -- only against You -- and done what You consider evil. So You are right in judging me; You are justified in condemning me. I have been evil from the time I was born; from the day of my birth I have been sinful . Sincerity and truth are what you require; fill my mind with your wisdom. Remove my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness; and though You have crushed me and broken me, I will be happy once again. Close Your eyes to my sins and wipe out all my evil. Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me. Do not banish me from Your presence; do not take Your Holy Spirit away from me. Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation, and make me willing to obey You. Then I will teach sinners your commands, and they will turn back to You" (Psalm 51:1-13, TEV).
You see, up until now we have been talking about how the cross changes us and our attitudes, but the New Testament speaks of the cross making a difference -- not, first of all, to us -- but to GOD.
It is our sinful tendency, unfortunately, only to think of ourselves. But has it occurred to anyone that the cross was vital to our Heavenly Father? Why was it important to God? How could it affect Him? It is here that I hope you will learn a vital key about God's nature and the whole process of salvation.
We have learned already from Paul's letter to the Romans that one of the purposes of the atonement was to demonstrate to us that God is righteous (Rom.3:25). Why should He want to do that? Because He wants to have a relationship with us -- and you can't have a relationship with someone until you know that person's heart. The death of Christ revealed the heart of God.
The apostle John said: "Christ Himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not our sins only, but also the sins of everybody" (1 John 2:2, TEV). Let's see how.
B. The Substitute Atonement
We have already seen that there are many aspects to the cross but its central significance is as a substitutionary sacrifice. That means that Jesus died in the sinner's place as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah predicted the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour. The apostle Philip quoted it when he converted the Ethiopian official:
"Like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered, like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off, He did not say a word. He was humiliated, and justice was denied Him. No one will be able to tell about His descendants, because His life on earth has come to an end" (Acts 8:32-33, TEV; compare Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
We therefore see that Christ is our substitute. He died in our place (Isa.53:8). The New Testament uses three important words to describe what was achieved at the cross when Jesus died in our place. The first of these is redemption. Paul said: " justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom.3:24, NASB). "...we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin, (through God's beloved Son)" (Col.1:14, NASB). This is not a word commonly used today. Its background in New Testament times was the slave market where a ransom was paid to a slave-owner in place of the slave, in order to effect the slave's release.
"He endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne...because of our sins He was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment He suffered, made whole by the blows He received. All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the Lord made the punishment fall on Him, the punishment all of us deserved...The Lord says, 'It was My will that He should suffer; His death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness...My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many and for His sake I will forgive them" (Isa.53:4-6,10-11, TEV).
Jesus understood this aspect of His mission from the very beginning. In Mark's Gospel He said: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; He came to serve and to give His life to redeem many people" (Mark 10:45, TEV). Of the words that we are looking at, this is the one Jesus uses of Himself, and is therefore of the utmost importance. Without Christ, we are slaves to sin, controlled by our lower natures which lead us to wrong-doings. Jesus came to free is from that by breaking our bondage. The price was His life.
The second word we find used in the New Testament is propriation which translates as atoning sacrifice in the New International Version. When someone is propriated, he has been appeased, his anger has been averted and turned away. Christ dying in our place took the full force of God's anger against sin for us and God is angry no more with us (Rom.3:25; 1 John 2:2).
If nothing else, the word propriation should tell us what God feels about sin. If you saw your daughter being abused by a wicked man and couldn't do anything about it because that was her choice and because you were restrained by the Law of Free Agency from intervening, wouldn't you be angry? When God sees us choose to ruin ourselves by allowing Satan into our lives, He is aroused to holy fury. It is not uncontrolled passion, as when a mortal looses his temper and goes wild, but it is controlled, righteous indignation.
Yes, God is angry -- He wouldn't have a soul if He wasn't, but He is not angry like fallen human beings. If you do not believe that God can be angry, now is the time to believe! He hates sin with a passion because it destroys all goodness and brings only grief and despair. God loved David as we know, so much that He called him His friend. But He also hated the wickedness he did in murdering Uriah and committing adultery with His wife. David paid for the rest of his life. He knew God was angry, as we have read in Psalm 51, and knew he deserved it. God hated punishing him, but He had to, for righteousness' sake.
You can't understand God's holiness without understanding His anger against sin, and you certainly cannot understand the atonement either. There is such a thing as righteous anger, but it is controlled and rooted in pure love. It is not vengeful for its purpose is to bring goodness to pass.
Finally, we come to the third word, which is reconciliation. Paul said to the Romans: "We were God's enemies, but He made us His friends through the death of His son" (Rom.5:10, TEV). But it is our choice to be God's friends, and that occurs only through repentance. Paul said to the Corinthians: "We plead on Christ's behalf: let God change you from enemies into friends! Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made Him share our sin in order that in union with Him we might share the righteousness of God" (2 Cor.5:20-21, TEV).
To understand these three concepts of substitutionary atonement we need to understand the Old Testament background. God set up the cross in the context of Old Testament Judaism in order to show how Christ's death should be interpreted. He gives us two pictures which I would like you to try and visualize.
The first is Isaac's Ram (Gen.22:1-19). You will remember the story of how God commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac in sacrifice as part of a test of loyalty, obedience and love. Isaac was spared and "Abraham looked round and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son" (Gen.22:13, TEV). We see here the ram being used as a substitute. This was not the time yet for human sacrifice but Abraham needed to see and understand what it was the God would do Himself at the beginning of the New Testament dispensation. Abraham was perhaps the only man who came close to understand what God went through in His heart when He offered Jesus on the altar of sacrifice. And it is important to add that both Isaac and Jesus went willingly. In both cases God Himself provided the sacrifices (v.8).
The second picture is in the story of the Passover (Ex.12:1-28) when Israel was led across the Red Sea from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Now we know from the scriptures that the Israelites were every bit as wicked as their Egyptian task-masters, so how was it that they were protected? We read: "'On that night I will go through the land of Egypt, killing every first-born male, both human and animal, and punishing all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood of the door-posts will be a sign to mark the houses in which you live. When I see the blood, I will pass over you and will not harm you when I punish the Egyptians" (Gen.12:12-13, TEV).
The day after the angel of death passed through the land in judgment, there was a dead son in every Egyptian home; while in every Israelite home there was a dead lamb. Each eldest son in Israel could say that the angel of death had passed over him because a "passover lamb" had died for him. So how is this a picture of our salvation? Paul says to the Corinthians: "You must remove the old yeast of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough without any yeast, as indeed I know you actually are. For our Passover Festival is ready, now that Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor.5:7, TEV).
And to the Hebrews he summarizes the whole picture of atonement thus: "Christ did not go into a man-made (Temple), which was a copy of the real one. He went into heaven itself, where He now appears in our behalf in the presence of God. The Jewish High Priest goes into the Most Holy Place every year with the blood of an animal. But Christ did not go in to offer Himself many times, for then He would have to suffer many times ever since the creation of the world. Instead, now when all ages of time are nearing the end, He has appeared once and for all, to remove sin through the sacrifice of Himself. Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God. In the same manner Christ also was offered in sacrifice once to take away the sins of many. He will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are waiting for Him" (Heb.9:24-28, TEV).
Christ's death satisfies God's justice. It was a "most holy" sacrifice, pure and good, because its heart and soul was love. You will notice from these verses also that the atonement puts a lie to the doctrine of reincarnation, which is claimed to be the route of men's salvation apart from Christ. But there is none apart from Him. We all die...once...never to die again. And then comes the judgment.
It was against this Old Testament background that John the Baptist was able to triumphantly announce concerning Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, AV).
Brethren and sisters, the cross lies at the heart of our faith, and I hope now you can see why. It is foolishness to those who are unsaved but for us it is the door to an abundant life of peace and joy. It is the source of our loyalty to God and to His Church because we know that God is the author of the cross and that the Church was purchased at great cost.
I pray that the cross will, from this day forth -- if it is not already -- become an integral part of your daily devotions. And for those you who may perhaps for the first time have believed today, or have believed but been too afraid to make a public commitment, I invite you now to receive Christ as your Saviour, and come and acknowledge Him as the purchaser of your redemption and make Him an integral part of your life. If there is anyone who would like to make that commitment by being baptised, I would invite them to come forward and stand in front of the altar...
This page was created on 16 April 1998
Last updated on 16 April 1998
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