Ephesians 1:7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”
The cross of Christ is the very heart of the faith we believe and preach. It is the fruit of all the wisdom and understanding of God himself. The love that drew up the plan of redemption was wholly divine. The scheme, the initiative, and accomplishment by the incarnation of the Son of God, and his death on Golgotha are all the result of what Paul refers to in this text as the riches of God’s grace being lavished on us, not anything of any human devising at all. When the Almighty was justly angry with a world bent on self-destruction and contempt of all that is holy then he chose to turn his face towards it in love. With tenderness and patience he set out on the costly road of redemption. He determined to reclaim creation and a countless number of sinners. He would change them into the likeness of his Son and make this groaning world his kingdom. This he would accomplish by the life and death of his Son. So important is the death of Christ that Paul was determined that it should be at the very centre of his preaching. “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Christ,” he declared. He was determined not to know any other climax to his preaching than Jesus Christ and him crucified. Pressure was brought to bear upon him to change his emphases, but the foolishness of the gift of eternal life through the crucified Lord was his constant theme.
It must have seemed a foolish message to the outsider. The cross is a particularly hideous torture rack and there hanging on it is, we declare, God the Son with black eyes, a raw bleeding back, a crown of thorns on his head, and a beard matted with other men’s spit. There the Messiah is – a scapegoat. He is the bullied boy in the school, without any recourse or defence, the one everyone picks on from headmaster and teachers down to the smallest dirtiest child. The meanest pupil thanks God that he’s not like him, because everyone blames this kid, mocks him and kicks him around. That is the image we are dealing with and all over the Mediterranean basin these early Christians went preaching the suffering Christ. They might come into a village, and there would be some interest in the arrival of a new teacher. They would speak of the perfect life and remarkable works and profound teaching of the Lord Jesus, but the great climax of their message was always that this great man whom they worshipped and served, their God and King, had been crucified to death, and they actually gloried in that fact. Who in the world would celebrate such an end? It was an utter tragedy for any mother’s son, let alone a young, good man, wrongly arrested and unjustly condemned – if you were to believe what these men said – should die such a death. But they never saw it like that. They gloried in his death. How could they believe in an Almighty and all-loving God who would allow such a thing to happen to his only Son? There he hangs, dead weight, naked and exposed under the sun, mocked by a crowd of men near a rubbish dump. “That is the living God,” was their message. “Have you understood this?” they asked people. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, died in that way in order that we might be saved. No redemption, no heaven, no hope without that cross.
What they claimed then, we claim today. We go back to the fountainhead of Christianity and we ask, “What is the message of Jesus Christ?” If we listen to the bishops and read the religious columns in the press we have no idea what it’s all about, so let’s turn to the New Testament itself and see. We discover there that the cross is the key to the message of good news. Through the death of Jesus Christ God deals with sin. Can you grasp these apparent contradictions? The New Testament is teaching this, that by the actual sin of the Romans and the Jews who murdered Christ we may be delivered from sin. God has conquered the judgment of death by death within the holy Trinity. God overcomes our misery by the misery of his Son. Because of the capital punishment of Jesus Christ last minute reprieves and full pardons are issued to all who believe upon him. By the holes in his hands and feet and side we can be made whole.
John Brown, the Scottish preacher and commentator, once said, “Let a man preach with the greatest ability and zeal everything in the Bible but the Cross, he shall, as to the great end of preaching, preach in vain. While, on the other hand, the honest preaching of the Cross – though in great weakness, and even when accompanied with great deficiencies as to a full declaration of the counsel of God on some other subject – has usually been accompanied with the divine blessing. The doctrine of atonement ought not to be the sole theme of the Christian ministry, but every doctrine, and every precept of Christianity should be exhibited in their connection with this great master principle; and the leading object of the preacher should be to keep the mind and the heart of his hearers steadily fixed on Christ Jesus – Christ Jesus crucified.”
What was Jesus actually doing on the cross? Many years ago the Rev Alan Rees of Swansea took a trip of schoolchildren to the London Planetarium, and as they were lining up to enter it he overheard this conversation as a young couple looked at a life-size statue of the physicist Albert Einstein. “Who’s he?” asked the woman. “He’s Albert Einstein, the cleverest bloke who ever lived,” her husband replied. “Why? What did he do that made him so clever?” she asked. The man thought for a long time, and then he said, “He was the cleverest bloke who ever lived.” That was all he could say. That was the sum total of his knowledge of Albert Einstein, and it was all hearsay. What do you know of Jesus Christ? Do you know what he was doing on the cross? Let us unpack this message of the cross.
1. THE CROSS IS THE PLACE WHERE OUR BONDAGE TO THE POWER OF SIN WAS ENDED.
What language does our text use? “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Ephs. 1:7). “We have redemption,” he declares. What does Paul mean? Redemption is the language of a price paid for freedom. It is a ransom that the kidnapped victim’s family pays, and the captured person is released. He has been redeemed. Think of a slave in the south of the Sudan and those brave people who go there today and pay the slave traders the asking price of men, women and children and thus they purchase their liberty. They have redemption. Think of the princes and wealthy knights who would be captured in medieval battles and their families had to pay a heavy price for their ransom.
In the Old Testament the people of God were enslaved in Egypt. They were making bricks without straw and living under the threat that their newborn babies would be killed because they were multiplying too fast. Then God redeems them out of the land of slavery. They are set free to go to the land of Canaan on the other side of the Jordan which he provides for them. Later on God provides animal sacrifices as a means of redemption from sin. The life of the spotless animal is the ransom which is provided by God and then offered to God. No three-legged lambs, and no grotty goats were permitted. It had to be a lamb without a blemish, the best of the flock, and by that redemption offering the person who offers is freed from the guilt of sin. His part is to provide the lamb and put his hand on its head before its life is taken. God accepts the blood shed as the price of the offerer’s freedom. Something in the very nature of God himself – what is the very essence of the only God there is – requires the laying down of a life, not a dying in old age in a bed, but the shedding of blood in order for forgiveness of sins to ours.
Those Old Testament lambs were just models of the real thing that was to come one day. You see in the window of an estate agent a model of a new development, a crescent of houses, or you see a larger model of one of their new houses. That gives you some idea of what the real thing is going to be like. Today the estate agent will switch on a modem and will take you on screen into the virtual reality of a newly planned house, and you can go through the various rooms and zoom in on the various features that are going to be built. It all seems very real, but it is only in the planning stage. That is rather like the 53rd chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah which predicts the dying Servant of God. There you find the virtual reality of what one day will be absolute reality when the Lamb of God himself comes and takes away the sin of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, hanging on Golgotha.
This is how Peter talks about it in his first letter, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (I Pet. 1:18-19). “You were redeemed,’ he says to the whole church to whom he was addressing this letter. “This is your status, and don’t forget it.” As a Christian you must always reckon yourself to be a redeemed person, and to love to proclaim this fact. But your reckoning on this fact does not make you any more redeemed, and those joys that you may get as you sing some of the great redemption hymns do not mean you are getting ‘more redeemed.’ Redemption was a work which Jesus Christ accomplished all by himself for all who benefit from it. Redemption is the gift which God, in the language of our text, “lavished on us”.
So what has God redeemed us from? Generally the Bible writers such as Paul speak of deliverance from our bondage to sin. It works something like this. The non-Christian actually serves sin. I often employ words like these, that sin tells him not to believe in Jesus Christ, not to pay any attention to the Bible, not to pray, to ignore all the notices in the University about Christian Union meetings, never to go to church, never to think about his soul and death and God. That is what sin tells men and women to do, and they all obey their master! Every single one of them! There is that staggering phrase in Galatians 3 verse 22: listen to it! Won’t you unbelievers find these words terribly insulting? “The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” I can remember the jolt of shock I had when I first read those stark words. What a condemnation of our imprisoned generation.
There was a building contractor in New York state who was awarded a contract to build a jail called Tombs Prison. Not long after its completion he was found guilty of forgery and sentenced to several years in the very prison he had built. As he was taken into his cell he said to the warden, “I never dreamed when I built this pace that I would one day be an inmate.” That is profoundly true of sin. Our desires imprison us. Men boast in their freedom. They are not in the chains to traditions and proprieties as our poor benighted Victorian grandparents once were, so they say. They are free! No, says the Bible, you are prisoners of sin, and whatever sin tells you – that you do! “Laugh at sin, disdain the law of God, mock religion, boast about your conquests, spend your money on drink and drugs, live for that life!” “Yes,” they say to sin, every man jack of them, because sin has them in its grip. They think they are in control, but sin actually dominates their lives. Sin has a stranglehold on us in the most frustrating and maddening way. Look at the addict. See how he strives to give it up, and yet down he falls again and again. Sin is a kind of slave-driver that first tempts us and then brutally punishes us.
Did you hear of that theatre performer who was almost killed in Las Vegas on Friday 3rd October, 2003? In his act he had some beautiful tigers and he was in the cage alone with one. “Lie down,” he said to it. The tiger refused, and so he tapped it on the nose, and then the tiger struck, hitting him to the ground and carrying him around by his neck. Men struggled to rescue the man and rushed him off to hospital where he hung between life and death for days. He thought he was in charge of the tiger and it would always obey him, and then one day the tiger showed him who had the real power, and the tamer was tamed. Sin is just like that. It pretends that our dependencies and lusts and desires are all healthy and normal and that we can stop whenever we choose, but it is in control of us all the time. Just try to get free and you will see. “The whole world is a prisoner of sin” (Gals. 3:22). The whole world needs the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.
On the cross of Golgotha sin was imputed to Christ by Almighty God, but it could not grip him nor break him. He accepted its unabated power, sucked it all into himself, as it were, and overcame it, dying and then rising a conqueror into the power of an endless life. That overcoming authority of Christ he gives to each one of us as he takes up his abode in our lives. He redeems us from the slavery of sin by becoming our new loving and patient master. He enables us to say, “No.” Sin once told Saul of Tarsus to stone and torture and imprison followers of Jesus Christ. “Yes,” said Saul of Tarsus, but then God came up to him and right into him, and after that Saul could say, “No.” Today the man who could not walk past a pub is given strength to go home a different way and after some time he can walk right past that place where he used to booze his life away. He is given strength to do battle with sin, and when he falls in one skirmish he can find forgiveness and strength to keep going. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” the Christian can say. The Christian knows redemption through the power of the cross of Christ from the power of sin.
Then he can also know redemption from the horrible fear of death, that day by day he is heading towards. What will it be like, my having to depart into that blackness? The Christian knows that he is going to meet his great living Redeemer. The Christian is freed from the guilt of having broken God’s law, for all its condemnation has been borne by Christ. The Christian is redeemed from the emptiness of an aimless life. He says, “For to me to live is Christ and die is gain.” The Christian is redeemed from the authority of the god of this world, the spirit that even now this minute is working in the children of disobedience, blinding their eyes to the beauties of Jesus Christ. We have been redeemed from all of that by Jesus Christ; we are no longer slaves to that kind of lifestyle, and the redemption price for our liberty was not silver or gold but our courageous Saviour coming and freely giving his own life blood as the price of our ransom. The cross is the place where our bondage to the power of sin was ended.
2. THE CROSS IS THE PLACE OF THE ATONING SACRIFICE OF JESUS CHRIST.
The apostle John was with Jesus for three years. While the Saviour was hanging on the cross he spoke to John and gave to him the responsibility of caring for his mother. So John had an experience of the cross as no other. He first had had the teaching of Jesus about the cross. For example, one day the Saviour had told John that the Son of Man had not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. So when John passes on to us something about the death of Christ we ought to prick up our ears. This is what John says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I Jn. 2:2). Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice. The word ‘blood’ is found in our text. That is not unusual. It is used almost 300 times in the Old Testament and some 100 times in the New Testament. The blood is the sign of life forfeited because of sin. The great New Testament phrase about the blood is this: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb.9:22).
We know the idea of sacrifice from various areas of human life. This week I watched a programme about the Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel. The man who interviewed him began by saying that Bryn Terfel sang with such apparent ease you could almost believe he didn’t have to try. Bryn Terfel wasn’t very pleased with that remark, and by the end of the programme the presenter had changed his tune saying to him, “You have made a point of telling me how much hard work you do, how much studying you do, how much effort goes into it.” Hadn’t a man like that interviewer crossed paths with enough of the world’s greatest violinists and pianists to hear them recount how they practice for nine hours a day even though they are so famous that they could earn their huge performance fee even if they just turned up and chatted to the audience? Hasn’t he heard of Johnny Wilkinson the English rugby fly-half? For him a day without practice is a shocking void, something seriously hard to live with. I wonder how many times he has been out there by himself, in neat but well-worn training gear, in the cold, or in the wind, or the hand-stinging rain. No one else around, a white wooden set of goals 30-odd yards away, needing to get some snap, some purpose into his routine, all that sacrifice to win the World Cup.
A man puts an advertisement in the local paper to sell his car. It is well below book price and he advertises it like this, “Owner anxious to sell: will sacrifice.” A dying patriot declares, “My only regret is that I have but one life to sacrifice for my country.” A mother sacrifices her own career for the sake of her husband and family. When you sacrifice, you give up something of value in order to get something of even greater value.
So in the Old Testament we are again given simply the model or type of what the great sacrifice is going to be. We see God’s people bringing the best beast from their flocks to the House of God to make a sacrifice on the altar to the Lord as an atonement for their sin. They are giving up something that is valuable – an animal that would be a meal for a week for a family – in order to get something of greater value – forgiveness and peace with God. This is pointing forward to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, and throughout his life he makes sacrifice after sacrifice. He chooses to remain single, and to live in obscurity in a remote rocky village, and to work as a carpenter, and to keep the law of God completely – the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. He does this without fail, always loving God with all his heart, and loving his neighbour as he loves himself. He never gives a slick answer, he never threatens, he is never depressed, he never dissatisfied with God’s will even when the cup he is given to drink is very bitter. He strives though prayer and his knowledge of Scripture to make his body a living sacrifice which he gives to God. It costs him misunderstanding from his family, and hatred from the world, and bloody sweat. That is something of the sacrifice he makes, but he has to do that to fulfil all righteousness for those he loves.
Finally on Calvary he groans and suffers through the hours of official torture. Nails are driven through the hands and feet of his naked body and he is lifted up to hang on a Roman crosspiece. Pontius Pilate’s cynicism is pinned in three languages above his head. He suffers heat and buzzing insects and unimaginable pain. He endures the constant sneers and chants of those who hate him who are enjoying seeing him slowly dying – they are the kind of people who can munch popcorn and chat and joke amongst themselves at an execution. He knows the terrifying abandonment of God’s comfort and presence so that at one point he quotes this Scripture in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” What is the Lord Jesus Christ doing on that central cross? He is the Lamb of God who is taking away not the sins of individual Israelites but the sin of the world. He is sacrificing his own life for something he wants more. Think of it: he is choosing to lay down his own holy life, a life that had no beginning but was always with God, a life in this world from Bethlehem which was a life full of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness and goodness – that one divine and human life he lays down out of love for people who are not like that at all, who are the very opposite of that, selfish, arrogant, proud, mean-spirited, unforgiving, critical, tough, cruel, lustful, murderous, violent people. They were not thinking of sacrificing their lives for anyone, but he comes and lays down his perfect life as a sacrifice for us sinners because he loves us so much.
You can understand a man laying down his life for his friends. You can comprehend a parent laying down his or her life for a child – pushing them out of the way and being hit by the speeding car herself. Such nobility is gloriously understandable, but who has ever heard of this, the incarnate God choosing to sacrifice his life in this appalling way out of love of pimps and perverts, cheats and liars, bored godless blasphemers? It is the strangest event in the whole universe. It is also the mightiest and most glorious. He gives his life so that they don’t have to lose their lives, but can live with God forgiven and accepted, and be with God for ever as his beloved ones. God is utterly satisfied with the sacrifice Christ has made. He responds in wonder, love and praise to it. “Welcome my beloved ones!” he cries and flings the doors of heaven open to us. The sacrifice has been accepted and all it covers are pardoned.
3. THE CROSS IS THE PLACE WHERE GOD’S JUSTICE WAS SATISFIED.
Two little girls aged ten were abducted and murdered in the Cambridge village of Soham last year and the trial of the man accused of their murder is taking place these days. Their parents go to court each day, and the world is watching and waiting. The demand for justice to be done in such a case is very deep, this crime is shocking and the idea that the murderer walks around afterwards as if he had done nothing more than kill two slugs in his garden is utterly repugnant. Someone has broken the law, “Thou shalt not kill,” and the murderer will have to “pay his debt” to society.
Listen to these words of a father discovering his son has been charged with killing a number of people: in the spring of 1999 a series of nail bombs were set off in London, in Brixton and Brick Lane and in a gay bar in Soho. Soon a man called David Copeland was arrested and charged with causing those explosions. His father, Stephen Copeland, had to make a press statement about what had happened. He said, “Myself and my family totally condemn the cowardly and barbaric bombings carried out in London in the last two weeks. If David is guilty of these awful acts of violence then we also totally condemn him for carrying them out. Until all the facts are known, we cannot say anything further.”
That is the voice of God’s own heart of justice speaking. Because we are made by God in the image of God we all have that certainty that wickedness must be condemned. Children have a sharp sense of what is fair and right. We use that in dealing with them to our advantage. Punishments ought to be deserved and measured to fit the offence. That is justice. It means giving a person what he has coming – no more and no less. The Bible underlines this way of thinking. God is supremely straight. He hates to see the weak hurt and destroyed. He hates sin. His justice looks down at Soham now and he wants this terrible sin punished and avenged. God punished Cain because he heard the cry of his brother Abel, whom Cain had murdered. Abel’s shed blood cried out to be avenged. It cried out for satisfaction.
God is a just God. He is not indifferent to how people behave. When someone sins, someone must pay. This is written in blood across the Bible. God cannot overlook sin. God will not go soft on sin. The axe must fall. Payment must be made. The blood of sacrifice must be shed. When someone sins, someone has to pay, even if it is not the sinner himself. The reason for that lies deep in the heart of God himself, and deep in our hearts. We feel a sense of justice. We heard the testimony of the parents describing the fearful evening they realised that their girls had disappeared, their terrible worry that the worst thing that could happen to these two girls had happened. Whoever did that should be punished for it, we rightly and righteously believe. God is like that and we are like that too. The bully who gets away with making your child’s life a misery each day in school ought to pay for his bullying. Why? Because it is right. Only then is the debt paid, the wound can begin to heal, the frustration and anger by calmed.
Now think of God. He is a person to whom we owe complete obedience. When we disobey him we rob him of what is his due. To satisfy God’s justice is to offer what we owe. It means making amends, balancing things out on the scales of justice, returning to God the obedience that is his due. Then you see our problem. We owe but we cannot pay. God requires our obedience but we can’t deliver. God’s justice requires satisfaction and so we face his judgment. Our bill has come due, but we are bankrupt. The wages of sin is death.
The cross of Christ describes a remarkable solution to the problem. God himself provides a way to satisfy his own justice. In the Old Testament the aroma of a burnt sacrifice was to God what a good meal is to a hungry eater – satisfaction. God’s justice demands satisfaction, but God’s mercy provides a substitute so that the sinner does not have to pay. This is the cross of Christ. The God-man Christ Jesus, the everlasting and infinite Son of God, dies that death and satisfies the justice of God against our sin. The debt has all been cleared by Christ. There is nothing more to pay.
“Because my sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him, and pardon me.”
How the natural man hates this fact, that through another, not through his own life, but wholly through what Jesus Christ has done we are saved. Once George Bernard Shaw went to a meeting and heard this message of the cross explained. He stormed out, crying to the audience, “I’ll pay my own debts.” All eternity will not clear the bill because you will continue to defy the infinite God. Death will make no difference to your disposition. If you die rejecting this atonement you will eternally reject it. No one ever went to hell crying for the blood of the cross to cover them. When you’ve been in the place of woe a thousand years you will still be crying, “I’ll pay my own debts.” That will be your cry for ever.
Oscar Wilde introduces us to a character in his Play, “An Ideal Husband” whose name is Sir Robert Chiltern. He has been involved in some deeply devious business deals. A woman tried to blackmail him and she says, “Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.” Even if we all sought to live a blameless life from now on we cannot eradicate our pasts. Who has nothing to regret? Who has nothing to be ashamed of? Who claims, ‘I lived for God?’ Not one.
The man who murdered the two little girls might come to a profound personal revulsion and self-hatred and fall on his knees and break his heart in the presence of God and confess his terrible deed. He might genuinely ask God to forgive him for that wickedness, and because Christ has died God will be satisfied. The full demands of the justice of God against that sin have been paid by Christ. The full demands of David’s sin, and Peter’s sin, and the lustful adulterer in the Corinthian church have all been paid on the cross. They are all forgiven. God asks nothing more. His justice is silent. He is completely pleased with what Christ has done. The great word to describe this is ‘propitiation’. God’s wrath against us has been completely appeased; it has been propitiated. Of course, the human consequences of our crimes must be paid, maybe in capital punishment or a life in prison, but before God there is pardon for all who seek it from him in the name of Jesus.
Alan Rees, the Swansea minister, had a friend called Mal who was small, very fit, and a dynamic sportsman, all muscle. One day three or four older boys gathered around him in the school yard, pushing him and goading him into a fight. Mal had a bag over his shoulder, and he earnestly said to the bullies, “Look fellers, I don’t want to fight,” but they persisted. So he put the bag slowly on the floor and then swung from the floor up, lightning fast and connected with the jaw of the chief bully who immediately fell over backwards and lay on the ground. His cronies melted away. Mal never had any more problems with that crowd. He acted just once and it was all over. God is propitiated once and for ever by the death of his Son. God’s hatred of sin erupts where? On the Son of his love on the cross of Golgotha. At the time that Jesus Christ becomes my substitute, at that precise moment the anger of the Holy and Just One for my sinfulness if directed at Jesus and he takes all that my sin deserves, all of it. The cross is the place where God’s justice is satisfied.
4. THE CROSS IS THE PLACE WHERE GOD WAS RECONCILED TO SINNERS.
The word ‘reconciliation’ presupposes that a former friendship has been terminated. Now there is estrangement where once there was intimacy. There is now hostility where once there was love. Friends look on and feel sad about his state of affairs. As Leon Morris says, “Quarrels and enmities are unfortunately part and parcel of life here and now. We are all familiar with them. But it is also part and parcel of life here and now that quarrels are not necessarily permanent. It is quite possible to become friends again after there has been a quarrel. It is worth looking into the process. Let us suppose that you have had a quarrel with a friend. In the heat of the moment strong words were spoken and the friendship you have so valued has been strained. Perhaps when you cool down you say to yourself: ‘I was a fool to quarrel with him. He is a wonderful person and a valued friend.’ Then you think, ‘I’d love to be friends again. I’d like to have things as they used to be.’ You decide that you will try to repair the damage. You will take the initiative. Then what do you do? You take steps to deal with the root cause of the quarrel. If it was a matter of harsh words spoken you go along to your friend and say, ‘I am very sorry about what I said. I apologize sincerely. I withdraw that statement entirely.’
“As far as you can you remove the cause of the enmity. You take it out of the way. If any action is required you perform that action. If it was a matter of a letter that had to be written you write it. If it was a document to be signed you sign it. If it was money that had to be paid you pay it. You give thought to what the root cause of the trouble was and take it out of the way. It is only when the root cause is identified and dealt with that there can be a genuine reconciliation. Without that it is possible to have no more than an uneasy, patched-up truce. But not peace, not a reconciliation. In passing it is worth noticing that in many of the modern world’s trouble-spots this seems to be overlooked. People concentrate on the symptoms and do not get to grips with the deep-seated causes of the trouble. This can never lead to long-lasting peace” (Leon Morris, “The Atonement,” IVP, Leicester, 1983, pp.138&139).
The root cause of the enmity between God and man is the sin of man. It is always sin that arouses the wrath of God and that is the barrier in the way of good relations being reestablished between God and man. If there is to be a reconciliation then that barrier must be done away. Can you imagine how this mass of mankind’s sin must seem to God? It would be like a hot angry festering boil bigger than the earth. Who is offended by this evil? Not man. He will say, “That’s the result of evolution. That is how man is.” He won’t worry that he has alienated God by his conduct. He doesn’t care that he’s been driven out of Eden and that he can’t get back. Now you understand that when we seek reconciliation we who have done the wrong have to the ones who apologise, and we have to make amends. Zacchaeus the thieving tax-collector promised he would pay back many times over those whom he had defrauded. He took away the cause of the resentment. But we sinners didn’t do that in our dealings with God. We didn’t want to do that. We wouldn’t admit that we had done wrong and offered to God to pay what we owed, and eat humble pie. Us? Come on! Get real!
Now it is a deadly mistake to picture God as a sort of heavenly wimp. God is rock firm against sin, and terrifyingly strong in hating and condemning it, but the extraordinary thing in the gospel is this, that it is he, the innocent party, who deals with the offence we’ve given him. God the offended one removes the source of the estrangement between us completely. There are no half-measures here. God takes up that cosmos of human sin and he lays it on Christ. The Son whom he sent to live amongst men went to Calvary because he had an appointment there with that awful stinking filthy load of our sin. He took it all on, everything that drove God away from us was put on the Lord so that it is all gone. It has all been removed. There is no enmity. No condemnation. No grounds for a divorce. No grudges. No second thoughts. Nobody slips through the net and finally gets what they deserve. God has been completely reconciled to all who truly put their trust in him because of Calvary. There is no longer any barrier to fellowship between man and man’s Creator. Because he died I know I am safe.
“So near, so very near to God,
I cannot nearer be;
For in the Person of His Son
I am as near as He.” (Catesby Paget)
When in 1855 Brownlow North, the greatest evangelist of the 19th century was finally converted he wrote on the front page of his New Testament these words, “Brownlow North, a man whose sins crucified the Son of God.”
5. THE CROSS IS THE PLACE WHERE SATAN WAS DEFEATED.
The language of a great fight is used to describe Golgotha. In other words, there was a life and death struggle between Satan and ourselves. We are facing principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places. They have one aim and that is to destroy us and take us to the pit with them for ever. We are as intimidated and feel as weak as the army of Israel felt before Goliath at the sight of Beelzebub. John Bunyan describes Apollyon like this: “the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales like a fish and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came forth fire and smoke; and his mouth was the mouth of a lion.” We tremble to meet him and all his hosts. But Jesus Christ steps forward. He comes between Apollyon and ourselves. The battlefield is Golgotha and there the greatest conflict in all history took place.
What amazing tactics our Saviour used. There was a famous heavyweight championship fight many years ago between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. It took place in the Congo. Ali dubbed it the ‘rumble in the jungle.’ Ali’s extraordinary ploy was to lie against the robes and protect himself while Foreman slugged away at him for round after round, until Foreman had exhausted himself. He could not overcome Ali. Then the stronger man gathered all his remaining strength and gained a famous victory under the African sky. Our Saviour was nailed to the cross and all the demons of the pit swept out against him, descending on him, seeking to destroy him. They failed. He would not submit to them; he would not give in to their temptations. He kept looking to God and finding strength from him. He would not come down from the cross. He would not end the enfleshment. He would not stop drinking the cup. He absorbed all their strength as they hurled themselves against him. The great Captain of our salvation won the day. Satan has been knocked right out of ruling over the Gentile world.
Satan has fallen like lightning from heaven, and he has been falling ever since. When Christ rose from the dead, down Satan fell. When Christ rose to heaven and sat down on God’s right band, down Satan fell. When the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, down Satan fell. When Samaria turned to God, down Satan fell. As the gospel was taken to Asia Minor and Ethiopia and Europe, down Satan fell. When the great Reformation occurred down Satan fell. When a sinner is converted down he falls. He is always falling into the bottomless pit for the whole thousand years of the reign of Christ until he returns again, down and down Satan falls. As the gospel spreads through South America and Korea and Zambia then down he falls. This triumph of Christ is only possible because the decisive battle was fought and won on Golgotha. Since that time the church has lost many a skirmish but God lives, and Christ reigns and we shall be more than conquerors through him that loved us. It cannot be otherwise for Christ has “disarmed the powers and authorities. He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Cols. 2:15). All the blessings that come to us are ours through the battle fought and won by the slain victor of Calvary who now reigns in majesty and will do so for ever.
This is the message of the Cross. It is the place where our bondage to the power of sin ended; where Jesus Christ made an atoning sacrifice for sin; where God’s justice is satisfied; where God is reconciled to sinners, and where Satan was defeated. We need to remember all of this. God has purposed to achieve the fulness of salvation for us through this one great work of Christ. So we may not say that this truth along with many others we find in the gospel. We may not say that this truth is the most important one in the Gospel. This is the gospel itself! All the remainder of the gospel is shaped by the cross. All our evangelism is shaped by this cross. All our prayers are shaped by the cross. All our worship is shaped by it. All our knowledge of God is shaped by it. All our glorying is in it. All our motivation for living for God is because of the cross of Christ. How should a husband love his wife? As Christ loved us there. How should we give to the church? Considering the unspeakable gift of God in Christ. This truth is present everywhere, just as blood is present everywhere in the human body. Everything reminds us of it. There is a line from every Christian doctrine and every blessing that is attached to the cross and is also attached to us. Where we don’t suspect to meet it there we’ll meet the Cross, and feel its power. Wherever we may look, at whatever detail of our lives, there we are confronted with the dying love of Jesus Christ. Erase the Cross and our whole lives make no sense. Our future is unthinkable and our past is a chain that pulls us down to hell, but by the cross we face our fierce accuser and tell him Christ has died, we face the throne of God above and have a perfect plea. Thanks be to God for the redemption that is in Christ’s blood, even the forgiveness of sins. Thanks be to God that at the end of his cross-work he cried in triumph, “It is finished!”
I have read that “the end of the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is moving. The captain, played by Tom Hanks, and most of his squad end up fatally wounded after trying to hold a bridge; but at least their mission has been accomplished: Private Ryan is safe. The big question is, was it worth it? It is impossible to answer. However, the dying words of Tom Hanks’s character have to be some of the cruelest last words on film. Hardly able to speak, the dying captain whispers to Private Ryan his final command: ‘Earn it! Earn it!’ In other words, live such a life that gives the overwhelming loss of life purpose. ‘Earn it!’ They are cruel words, not least because it is clear that Ryan has been thinking like this anyway. To have it spoken aloud only makes the burden on him heavier. And it is a terrible burden. The film then closes with a scene in the present day as the now slightly doddery Ryan kneels at the captain’s grave in a Normandy war cemetery. Tears stream down his cheek as he says to his wife, ‘Tell me I’ve been good. Tell me I’ve lived a good enough life.’
“Can you imagine if Jesus’ dying words on that cross were, ‘You all earn it!’ Can you imagine how much greater the burden would be? To earn the death of the one we worship as God! The pressure would be overwhelming. We could never do it. Instead, Jesus cried, ‘It is finished.’ The message of the cross is simply that we can never earn it; nor do we need to. How do we respond to that? Well, in one sense, we can’t. It’s too much. In another sense, there is only one way – to love our God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul. In other words, to worship our God. Not to earn God’s love, but to revel in his love; not to persuade God to love us, but to delight in his love.” (Mark Meynell, “Cross -Examined” IVP, 2001, Leicester, pp.181&182)
16th November 2003 GEOFF THOMAS