The cross offers a glimpse into the heart of a God who is willing to be with us in death and suffering. But we need more than a God who knows our pain. We need mercy for our own contributions to the pain in the world. Christ’s death is not merely a picture of God with us. It is also a picture of a God willing to stand in our place.
Jesus Christ dies instead of us. He not only identifies with our suffering caused by our sin; he also enters into our sorrow and makes it his own. He takes our sin and its consequences upon himself so that we can be free. He experiences the full force of God’s wrath toward sin in order that we might be saved. Only the cross satisfies God’s demand for justice and our desire for mercy.
Guilt and Sin
People know deep down that there is something wrong with our world. Things aren’t right. The world has been damaged and defaced by sin. We see it in our relationships, in the toil of our work, the brokenness of our marriages, and the rebelliousness of our own hearts.
And yet, we are more than damaged by sin. We are complicit. We are not merely victims of evil but also perpetrators. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking that all the problems of sin are out there and that we are being affected only by the sin of others. We too are involved in evil and selfishness, idolatry and greed.
We will never grasp the heights of God’s forgiveness until we comprehend the depths of our own sinfulness. We not only need someone to suffer with us. We need one who will suffer for us – in our place.
Our culture minimizes the idea that human beings are guilty of wrongdoing. We ignore guilt, explain it away, and recast it in psychological terms. The world sees guilt as delusion and sin as a mere construct.
As a result of our denial of guilt, young people are taking desperate measures. Some have turned to cutting in a desperate attempt to soothe the guilt and pain. Teenagers are so disgusted with themselves that many believe the only relief from their guilt and pain is to self-mutilate, cutting themselves with razor blades on their arms or legs.
Christianity can deal with cutting because we too believe that it is only in the shedding of blood that true relief and forgiveness is found. But true forgiveness and relief comes – not through mutilating ourselves – but through the stripes on the back of Jesus. By his stripes, we are healed. He was pierced, cut for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.
God, in his mercy, has laid upon Jesus Christ the iniquity of us all. We receive his perfect righteousness and he receives our sinfulness. All the debts we owed, all the sins we have ever committed: Jesus, God’s Son, is the One who pays the price.
In this picture of God giving himself for our salvation, the earlier stories in the Grand Narrative begin to make sense. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the definitive moment in the story of the world. On this hill called Calvary, we see so many threads from the earlier chapters in the history of the world come together. Throughout the Old Testament, we see hints and clues pointing forward to the cross of Jesus. As the narrative proceeds, these different streams begin to converge into a mighty current. By the time we arrive at the last week of Jesus, the river is rushing towards us, with all of the original streams caught up together in one great river.
Mount Sinai – Jesus fulfills the Law in our Place
First, let’s go back to Mount Sinai. Dark clouds hover over the mountain. The silence is pierced by thunder, the darkness by lightning. Moses receives the Law of God – the revelation of God’s holy standard, given in love to his people. It is the way of righteousness. The path to peace. It reveals to us the holiness of God.
But just like us, God’s people were unable to live up to the high and holy standards of God. They bore the image of their forefather, Adam. God had created Adam to reflect his image and to rule wisely over creation. He rebelled. So God called out a people, the children of Israel, to be the light of the world, the people through whom his blessings would flow. Yet they rebelled also.
But though Adam rebelled against the command of God, and Israel did not live up to the righteousness, love and faithfulness God demanded, Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father’s plan.
A life of perfect obedience.
A death of perfect submission.
Where we as humans failed in our task to reflect God rightly and where Israel failed in her task to shine God’s love to the rest of the world, Jesus remained faithful. He accomplished God’s will completely.
Jesus not only fulfilled the Law of Moses; he revealed the heart of God. He showed us God’s intention of the Law. Jesus announced the arrival of God’s Kingdom; he demanded allegiance and obedience; he taught how living God’s way turned human wisdom on its head.
Now, the time had come for his life to be given as a ransom for many. And on that fateful day in Jerusalem, he lived out his own teaching for the whole world to see, perfectly fulfilling the Law of Moses – and even his own Sermon on the Mount.
If someone strikes you, turn to him the other cheek… The Roman fists had already bloodied and bruised Jesus’ face, but he did not strike back.
If someone asks you to go one mile, go with him two miles. From Pilate’s courtyard to Calvary’s hill, he had carried his cross, walking miles on that dusty road for you and me.
If someone takes your tunic, give him your cloak as well, Jesus had told his followers on the mountainside. Now, on the hill of Golgotha, just below the cross, his enemies were mockingly casting lots for his clothes.
And finally, on the cross, almost completely unrecognizable, Jesus lived out one last part of his teaching.
Love your enemies… Pray for those who persecute you… Forgive… In a moving display of divine love, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who had tortured him.
“Father, forgive them,” he had said. Luke uses a verb that implies Jesus was repeating the phrase over and over again.
Enduring the painful insults and humiliating spit of Roman guards… Father, forgive them…
Being lied about and falsely accused in Caiphas’ court… Father, forgive them…
Surviving the vicious torture of Roman scourging… Father, forgive them…
Hearing the taunts being hurled at him from below the cross… Father forgive them…
Here is Jesus – living out the total summation of his message of forgiveness. He is not a hypocrite like the rest of us. He is truly and fully God. God being who God is. God doing what God does.
Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness to those who despised him can break the heart of stone. Because of his life in our place, and his death in our stead, we are freed from our sins, and also from the Law. Horatio Spafford’s song, “It is Well with My Soul” includes the beautiful lines:
My sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought -
My sin, not in part but the whole
is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
When the Romans crucified criminals in the first century, it was customary for them to nail an accusation list to the cross. The list informed people why this person was being crucified. When Jesus died, God took the accusations that Satan brings against us – all our failures and mistakes, our willful rebellion and our constant inability to keep God’s law – and God nails those accusations to the cross of his Son. So Jesus Christ died there on Calvary, bearing your sin and mine; the accusations that should be hurled against us were hurled against him instead.