You know the story of the death of Jesus on the cross. There must be a thousand intriguing aspects of the crucifixion of our Lord, with each one supplying unending sermons and books and songs from men and women of this faith.
From the Old Testament, we have the prophecies, the sacrifices, the priesthood, the altars, the feast days, the types, and the special passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, which point to Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s one, all-purpose provision for our everlasting salvation.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus’ predictions of His coming death, the arrest, its effect on the disciples, and the various trials before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. We are stunned by the scourging and the harsh treatment given our Lord, intrigued by the cross beam which Jesus bore up the hill, and fascinated by the side stories of Barabbas who saw Jesus die in his place, Simon who bore the cross for Jesus, the dying thieves who went out into eternity, one cursing and the other rejoicing, and the soldiers who gambled for his garments. There was Judas who betrayed Him, Peter who denied Him, Thomas who doubted Him, and John who stood by the cross. We preach sermons, compose oratorios, and write books on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. We consider the medical aspects of the crucifixion, the historical account, the soteriological features, the geography, philosophy, and the emotional impact of our Lord’s death.
There seems to be no end nor any bottom to this incredible story. You can get as detailed as you wish, go as deep as you choose, for as long as you like in studying it. Untold numbers of Bible scholars have devoted their entire careers to any one of these aspects of Jesus’ death on Calvary.
But just this once, back off from it. Take a long look at the larger picture, not at the fine details. See what stands out, what impresses you most.
Here is my answer. Four large facts stare us in the face as we behold our Lord’s death on that cross.
1. A BIG PROBLEM: MANKIND IS IN BAD TROUBLE.
If the remedy for our ills is so drastic, our problems must be far worse than we ever imagined.
Recently while preaching in a Baton Rouge church, members of a neighboring congregation told me of their pastor’s cancer surgery. The surgeons had removed his entire tongue, then built him another. He went through a lengthy period of therapy to be able to speak again. Cancer is a horrible thing. The surgery was so drastic because the disease was so severe.
A drastic remedy indicates a critical condition.
No more extreme remedy in the history of this small planet was ever applied than when the Lord of all creation sent His Son from Heaven’s glory to be our Saviour–to have Him born into a humble stable to a virgin mother, to work as a poor Jewish man in his father’s carpentry shop, to preach among the people for three years, afterwards die on a Roman cross as the sacrifice for our sins, be buried in a borrowed tomb, and rise from the grave on the third day. As drastic a remedy as could ever be imagined.
All this begs the question: what was the disease that made this extreme remedy necessary? The Bible calls it sin.
Sin. The most overused, under-understood three-letter word in our language. Scripture variously defines sin as transgressing God’s commandment, failing to do the good we know to do, rebellion, and disobedience. “All have sinned,” we are told, and “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 3:23 and 6:23)
Sin must be far worse than we thought, for God to go to such lengths to deal with it so harshly. It is. Sin is a cancer of the soul and it is destroying God’s beloved creation.
One evidence of our condition is the way we minimize our sin. We call it mistakes, errors in judgement, doing what comes naturally, being true to myself. We think of it as a weakness, a biological trait, heredity, “the way I am,” something we can’t help. We blame our sin on parents, the church, our spouses, the boss, society, the government, everyone except ourselves.
In giving God’s perspective on our sin problem, Scripture uses terms like hardheartedness, stiff necks, lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, darkness, disease, and death itself. “We have turned everyone to his own way,” said Isaiah (53:6). “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” said Jeremiah (10:23).
We are sinners of the first order and need a Savior above all else.
To minimize our sin is to devalue what God did to remedy our sin problem. By underestimating my sin, I diminish the significance of the cross. As a result, I enlarge my own goodness and exaggerate my capability to rescue myself.
Nothing better reveals the pathetic condition of theology in the average modern church than the way we explain away our sin, justify our waywardness, disdain the need for a Savior, and overstate our own goodness.
Every Christian would do well to listen carefully to the sermons preached in his church to make certain they deal with man’s sin, Jesus’ cross, and God’s salvation. Pastors who fail to tell their people the truth about their condition and God’s provisions are abandoning them in the most critical way possible.
Something rotten is corrupting every relationship on the planet, spoiling every thing of beauty, and polluting every gift from God. That problem is sin. Sin and only sin caused God to send His Son into this world.
You cannot look at Jesus’ death on the cross without asking, “Why?” The answer is “sin.”
2. A BIG LOVE: WHAT MOTIVATED GOD TO SEND HIS SON.
He must be a God of incredible love, to have done what He did.
“Want to see love?” asks the Apostle John. Do not look at what we have done for God. Look at what He did for us. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I John 4:10) “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us.” (I John 3:16)
No wonder John exclaims, “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God.” (I John 3:1) It’s all about His love.
Want to see God’s love? Look at the cross. There it is, on full display before the world. On His way to that dreaded encounter, Jesus rebuked a disciple for drawing his sword. “Don’t you know,” He said, “that I could ask the Father and He would give me 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Jesus’ trek to Calvary was about nothing in the world so much as love for a blind, helpless humanity.
As a consequence of minimizing our sin, we underrate the love of God. If my condition was not all that bad, then the surgery must have been optional, and the extreme remedy was provided unnecessarily. Then, when Bible teachers urge us to behold the death of Jesus on the cross as evidence of God’s overwhelming love, it just doesn’t “take.” There’s something missing. We yawn. What is the big deal.
The big deal is that we deserve to go to hell. God is under no obligation to have any further to-do with wretches like us. If we got what we deserved, God would condemn this entire planet and turn His attention to some better side of His universe.
Instead of law and judgement, God gave us grace. Instead of punishment, He showed us mercy. Not passive grace and mercy–the kind where He might have stood back and let us go our way like a dismissive parent at his wit’s end–but active grace and mercy in the coming of the Lord Jesus into this world to take our sins on Himself and pay the ultimate penalty for our deeds.
Love on display. That was the cross of Jesus. Sin required it; love accomplished it.
Martin Luther used to speak of the left-handed power of God. When we hear of God’s power, we automatically envision the right-handed kind–miracles, earthquakes, storms, lightnings, the flood of Noah, the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah, that sort of thing. Right-handed power is obvious strength, a clenched fist, a flexed muscle, a drawn sword. It is brute force on display. “Do this or suffer the consequences.”
Left-handed power, Luther pointed out, is a more subtle aspect of God’s greatness: the strength of humility, of love and servanthood, of turning the other cheek, of sacrifice, of giving oneself, of bearing up under suffering. This kind of power masquerades as weakness and fools a lot of people. However, it took far greater power for Jesus to submit to the authorities and allow Himself to be crucified than to call down fire from Heaven and put an end to that foolishness on the spot.
Make no mistake. It was not three nails that held Jesus to that cross. Love did the deed.
No one standing back and taking in the glory and the gore of the cross of Jesus should ever again doubt the love of the Father for mankind. He has proven Himself for all time.
John 3:16 says it best. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
3. A BIG FACT: THERE MUST BE NO OTHER WAY.
Look at the lengths God went to, to establish our salvation. Now, answer this: if there was another way to save mankind, wouldn’t He have taken it?
Sometimes people say, “If we are good enough, we will go to Heaven.”
We respond, “Then what was the cross all about? If it’s just a matter of being nice, if that’s all it takes to get to Heaven, then God sure went to a lot of trouble for nothing, sending His Son to die there. Why did He do that?” They have no answer. They have none because there is none.
The fact of the cross says that man’s need is critical, that God’s love is incredible, and that salvation is this one way and no other.
The other expression we hear people using is that we all travel different roads to get to Heaven, referring to the various religions mankind has saturated the earth with. That sounds so enlightened, so tolerant and respectful of those different from us, that many a well-meaning but unthinking Christian has bought into it. But upon closer examination, it doesn’t stand up.
Anyone who thinks that all religions are good and that all accomplish the same purposes has not bothered to study all those other religions. Many are enslaving the millions that follow their paths. And even the well-intentioned faiths are often promising what they cannot deliver. Only the Christian faith as revealed through the Old and New Testaments–and backed up by centuries of hard historical evidence and countless testimonies of exemplary saints–stands up under scrutiny.
Christians do not believe that all other religions are evil. We do not believe they are wrong in all respects. We do believe that other religions are wrong in the ways that ultimately matter. Many are well-meaning attempts to add significance and light to the lives of their adherents. The Christians I know respect this and are determined to defend the right of everyone to believe as he will.
But, based on our understanding of the total message of Scripture, we come to a profound conclusion.
Every man-made religion is like a bridge built by people determined to get to God. Only one faith offers a bridge built from God to man. Jesus Christ is that Bridge. In fact, He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6)
There is no other way because there could not be. If there was, God would have taken it.
This has nothing to do with whether one is a Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, or a member of any denomination. Denominationalism is one more evidence of the sinfulness of the human heart, although given man’s ways of reasoning and disagreeing over minutae, it would appear that we are stuck with it and should try to make the most of it. To outsiders, I want to emphasize that the bulk of Christian people in every segment of our faith are united on the great themes of Holy Scripture: that man is a sinner, that God loved us and sent His Son, and that Christ alone is the way of salvation.
In Gethsemane on the night before Jesus was arrested, He and the Father had this very conversation. “Father,” Jesus prayed, “if there is another way, let us take it.” Then He prayed, “Nevertheless, thy will be done.” (See Matthew 26:39)
There was no other way than the cross. Never has been, never will be.
For forgiveness of sins, for eternal salvation, to get to God, you come by the cross or you do not get there at all. “Neither is there salvation in any other,” Acts 4:12 declares. “For there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
4. ONE BIG MESSAGE: THE GOSPEL OF THE CROSS.
Our message is called the “gospel,” a word meaning “good news.” It is that.
The gospel in its essence, when stripped of all the secondary considerations, is the story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In delivering that story, we start with the great need of mankind which made His coming to earth for us necessary in the first place, but man’s sin is not the good news. It’s just the jumping off place.
In fact, I venture to say that in presenting the good news, if you leave out the sin of man which made Jesus’ coming necessary, nothing else makes sense. Suppose I come running to you, shouting that we have found the cure for your condition. You look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. You respond, “I have no condition. I’m perfectly healthy.” That is the situation in our culture when a Christian witness or a preacher of the Gospel presents a message of salvation without showing the hearer that he/she is a sinner and facing God’s divine judgement. Only after seeing his own sinfulness is one ready to receive God’s good news.
Nothing establishes that we are sinners like a quick review of the list found in Exodus 20, which Scripture calls “Ten Words” and we refer to as the Ten Commandments.
Occasionally, I hear people say their religion is the Ten Commandments. That sounds noble, but is usually a dodge. If you have the time and the inclination, it’s always interesting to ask that person to list the commandments. Not one person in a dozen can name them all.
“Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” is the first, and that pretty well seals the deal. There is not a person on the planet who has not violated that. Whether it was an idol, a car or a job, another person or some trifle that caught our eye, we have all made gods of lesser things and broken this commandment.
The other commandments call us to make no graven images of God, to honor His name, honor His sabbath, honor our parents, and then to avoid murder, adultery, theft, lying, and coveting. The last one further clinches the deal. It’s as if God said, “Not only are you not to do these things, don’t even want to!”
Bible students will recall that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7), Jesus strengthened many of these commandments. He said, for example, that when one looks on a woman to lust after her, he has committed adultery in his heart. When he hates his brother, he has murdered him.
If staying sin-free is our ticket to Heaven, we’re all in trouble. Fortunately, God’s salvation does not require the impossible from us. And make no mistake, keeping all ten of those commands would be an impossibility.
The good news is: God knows that. He made us, He has known us from the beginning, and He is under no illusion about us. “He knows our frame,” the Psalmist says, “He is mindful that we are but dust.” (Ps. 103)
No insight from Scripture thrills me more than one found in Exodus 20, that same passage which gives us the Ten Commandments. It forever drives the nails in the coffin of the claim that these commandments were intended to comprise anyone’s religion.
Toward the end of that chapter, we read: “You shall make an altar of earth for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings…. If you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.” (Ex. 20:24-25)
Two facts stand out there: 1) there’s the altar itself. After establishing His standard for His people, God says in effect, “You will not be able to keep them completely. So, here is the way back into my fellowship after you sin.” That way was the altar, and remember that every Old Testament altar pointed to the cross of Jesus.
Then, 2) there is the ugliness of the altar. God warns Israel not to pretty it up. The altar was a place of death, of blood, and filth, and nothing should detract from that fact. On the cross, Jesus was nailed and spit upon, He was cursed and speared, He hurt and bled and died. God sent mankind the best Heaven had and what did we do but crucify Him. Think of what that says about the sinful condition of humanity.
Salvation through the cross of Jesus has been in the heart of God from the beginning. It’s the best message anyone has ever told.
An old gospel song puts it like this:
There is singing up in Heaven such as we have never known,
Where the angels sing the praises of the Lamb upon the throne.
Their sweet harps are ever tuneful and their voices always clear.
Oh, that we might be more like them while we serve the Master here.
Holy, Holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of Heaven ring.
But when I sing redemption’s story they will fold their wings
For angels never felt the joy that my salvation brings.
So although I’m not an angel yet I know that over there,
I will join the blessed chorus that the angels cannot share.
I will sing of my Redeemer who upon dark Calvary
Freely pardoned my transgression, died to set the sinner free.
I will never forget many years ago watching the old Phil Donahue show when he had country singer Jeanne C. Riley as his guest. She had spoken of her Christian faith and Donahue asked her to sing a little of Amazing Grace. Thinking he actually wanted to hear it, she launched into the first line, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
“Hold it right there,” Donahue said. “That’s the problem I have with your faith. I’m not a wretch.”
That was a long time ago, and I have long since forgotten what answer Miss Riley gave. But I know the right answer. It’s two things. One, “I didn’t say you were. I said I was. It’s my testimony.” And second, “I didn’t say I am now. I said I used to be.”
Only after coming to Christ and receiving your free gift of salvation which He worked out for you on the cross, only after that will you be able to look back and say, “Wow, what bad shape I was in. I was in wretched condition. But, thank God, Jesus saved me.”
Big problem: sin. Big motivation: love. Big fact: there’s no other way. Big message: the gospel of Jesus.