In our series on the highlights of the life of Jesus, we have come to that which is preeminent above all else; the scene of the crucifixion. I know this story has a perennial power to fascinate the human heart.
I have, in my study, a very thick book entitled, The Assignation of President Kennedy, which is the full Warren Report on that incident a number of years ago when our president was slain in cold blood. There have been two or three books issued about that event; focusing upon it; trying to capture and reproduce the excitement, the tensions, and the tragedy of that hour.
Through the almost 2,000 years since Jesus Christ hung upon the cross, there have been produced literally hundreds and hundreds of books about this event. Every generation is fascinated anew by this remarkable thing: Jesus of Nazareth dying upon the cross. And, there have been books written for every generation to try to recapture it, and to bring it to life again, the latest of which are probably the most well known at least of the latest books is, The Day Christ Died, by Jim Bishop, which some of you have read.
But all this array of literature simply highlights the fact that the Cross of Christ has been central in Christian thinking. For in 19 or more centuries we sang together:
In the Cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time..., and this has captured the Christian’s emphasis upon the Cross. For Christians feel that here is an event of such transcending significance, such remarkable meaning, so full of import for our race, that it can never be exhausted. And they, therefore, have centered all of Christian faith around this supreme event in the life of Jesus.
I sometimes think this is a great puzzle for many people. I discover in talking with others who are non-Christian, they cannot understand why Christians make so much of the death of Jesus. In almost every other major world religion, the death of the leader is not a major event. It’s something that occurred, and of which there is some note taken, but it is not regarded as in any sense an important and significant thing. And in these other religions, the central thing is the teachings of the great leader. Christianity is not, as Buddhism or Hinduism is, for instance, a religion of ideas — a philosophy. It is rather, a religion of facts, of deeds, of the acts of God in history. And as such, it is grounded in the stream of human history directly. Now it’s this that the Gospels make clear: that the cross of Jesus Christ is the supreme fact in a series of facts.
[Interruption taken by Ray for ill woman leaving & prayer given for her health.]
Let’s come back to this look at the Cross of Christ, and remember that the Cross was to Jesus an inescapable part of his work. The Cross was not an unfortunate accident that came at the end of the life of Jesus Christ. It was not something that he simply could not foresee and was the result of poor planning on his part, as some suggest. The Cross was a deliberately-chosen path for our Lord. It was an agony which he foresaw from the very beginning, and which he accepted, and set his face resolutely toward, and never varied from.
You can’t read the Gospel accounts without realizing that the Cross was really avoidable, if Jesus had chosen to avoid it. But he deliberately insisted upon it, right to the end. When he was praying in the agony in Gethsemanes’ garden, after Judas had slipped out into the darkness of the night to arrange the final betrayal, and Jesus went with his other disciples into the darkness of the Garden to pray and wait for the coming of the guards, he could have slipped away. For there was a good long time before the guards arrived, and Bethany was just over the hill, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus and other friends were waiting. And he could have easily slipped around the corner of a hill and into the darkness of the night, and down across to Jericho and the Jordan and into safety. But, he deliberately waited until the guards came to get him, knowing that they were on the way. When he stood before the high priest, Caiaphas, you remember, and was charged by the high priest as to whether he was the Son of God or not. Legally, he had every right to remain silent. Jewish law said that an accused person did not need to defend himself or answer the accusations made against him. He could have remained silent, but he didn’t. He opened his mouth and answered them, and incriminated himself, so they cried out and said,
What need do we have for further witnesses? Out of his own mouth he has testified! And he sealed his doom by speaking up.
When they brought him before the Roman governor, Pilate, he had every right to speak up in his own defense. Roman law said that an accused person had a right to answer the charges that were made against him. But he refused to answer the charges of Pilate, and he remained silent before his questions and thus, he left Pilate almost no alternative at all. He gave him no foothold to find a way of deliverance, even though Pilate was desperately trying to find a way by which he could deliver him, short of laying his own political career on the line.
As you read these accounts, it’s obvious that what Paul writes of our Lord is literally true: He became obedient onto death. He didn’t have to die, but he deliberately chose to die. The account of the Gospels is simply the story of a man who is arranging his own death, and directing the process by which it is accomplished. In the face of that stubborn fact: that Jesus deliberately went to death, he arranged it, he insisted on it, we must ask ourselves,
Why does he do this?
In recent weeks I’ve been reading certain articles and magazines that suggest that the death of Doug Hammershult in a plane crash in Rhodesia a number of years ago, was perhaps not an accident, but a suicide arranged by him. There is some evidence that perhaps this may be true. Those writers who have traced this out and tried to investigate this, have invariably suggested that if this were the case, then it was the act of a deranged mind. That any man that would deliberately plot his own death must be deluded, must be mentally disturbed. But, nobody accuses Jesus Christ of being deluded or being mentally disturbed. Why then, did he do this? Why did he plan and plot his own death?
Through these centuries there have been a lot of attempts to answer that question. There is what we once used to call Modernism, the old Liberalism which said that Jesus was simply demonstrating in as dramatic a fashion as possible, the cause which he was upholding. He was showing that truth is worth dying for. And that he deliberately died in order that the moral influence of that death might grip us and show us that a cause is worth dying for.
But the problem with that explanation is that it does not take into consideration at all, the many predictions of our Lord of his death and his constant emphasis upon its supreme importance. Remember, he said to his mother at the first miracle at Canaan of Galilee when he turned the water into wine. And she came and suggested that he do something to supply their lack of wine. Obviously, she had some miracle in mind. And he said to her,
Woman, what have I to do with thee? My hour is not yet come. By which he meant simply,
I will do this thing that you ask, but I want you to understand something: That it will not accomplish the results that you think. There is yet to come an event which alone will make possible what you’re after. She wanted him to be accepted by the people as the Messiah. He said,
I’ll do this but it won’t have that result; my hour is not yet come.
And all through his career, he looked forward to the Cross as the only thing that would break through the darkness of understanding of man and make known to them what God was trying to say. It had to take a cross.
Now there’s the explanation also, of the death of Christ in what we might call a very shallow, fundamentalistic view that suggests that Jesus was a tender-hearted mediator between God and man. That God is a wrathful, vengeful being, who is disturbed about the sins of individuals, and who is ready to hurl the lightning bolt of his wrath from heaven against it. But Jesus stepped in and placated the wrath of God, of an angry God, and allowed God to take out all his anger and vengeance and wrath upon him. And thus, his justice was satisfied and he was free then to do something different toward man. But the trouble with this idea, though it has a germ of truth in it, is that it does not accord with what the Scripture says about God the Father. For Paul says God was in Christ, reconciling the world onto himself. And the Father’s heart was as involved in the Cross as the Son was. And the love of God was straining and longing and reaching out to men before the Cross as much as the love of the Son before.
And then there’s the newest theory along this line that we call, perhaps, in some circles: Existentialism, or Neo-Orthodoxy. And this is the suggestion: that the death of Christ (the Cross of Christ) didn’t really happen. Or if it did, it isn’t important, whether it historically took place or not. But this is simply a story that symbolizes for us what happens in our own life, when as guilty men and women, we come to the realization of the
holy otherness of God. Now, I confess to you that I don’t quite grasp what that means: The holy otherness of God. And I don’t know anyone else who does, either. But, this idea is suggesting that man becomes aware that God is utterly different than man, and in experiencing the uniqueness of his forgiving grace, he goes through a time of tension and pressure that is exemplified and symbolized in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Now in all of these ideas there is a germ of truth. But in this last one, it fails to explain the record of the Scriptures because it removes the historical basis of the Cross. And I think there is nothing that is more significant, and more helpful in Christian faith than to remember that our faith rest upon events, upon acts, upon historical things that occurred, that can never be shaken or removed or changed, because they have been worked out in the course of history. And, to look at it from the existential point of view is to make faith rest upon the quicksand of a changing experience all the time and our feelings then determine our fate.
I’m convinced that we don’t need any such complicated explanations as this of the cross of Christ. As one old Scotsman once put it:
There are some things which are better felt than telt [told]. In events of such profound significance as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the heart can often times comes closer to the real meaning than the head can. Pascal, it was I think, who said,
The heart has reasons that the reason knows not of. And the record of the Gospels, and the accounts of the Crucifixion are designed to bring before us not an emotional, nerve-shattering account of the blood and the agony and the awfulness of the Cross. It’s amazing how discrete the records are, how it passes over this and does not describe in detail anything of the awfulness, the agony of the Cross. But it is designed to bring before us, in a most factual way, certain things that touch the heart, that reach the heart instead of the head. And help us see therefore, not the wisdom of God, not the programming and the planning of God, but the great, throbbing heart of God.
It was John the Apostle, who I think gives us the clearest answer of any to this question: Why did Jesus Christ die? Why did he insist on dying? When he wrote in the opening of the Book of Revelation,
Unto Him who loved us, and gave himself for us, and loosed us from our sins, in his own blood. (based on Rev 1:5) Christ died, in other words, because he loved man, and he longed to set them free from the misery and the bondage of sin. There’s no other adequate explanation for the Cross of Christ than that one thing. Christ loved us, and He longed to set us free. And, if this is the case, then this in evidently means we need to be set free! Man needs to be saved! And Christ is the only one who’s qualified to do it! And that’s why the Christian sings,
In the Cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time. [John Bowring, 1792-1872]
I think this highlights both the evil of man and the love of God. And, we’ll never be able to grasp what the Cross means in any degree at all until we see it against the dark and terrible background of human bondage in sin. The fact is, that man is not basically good, and kind, and compassionate, as we so fondly imagine ourselves to be. We have this image of ourselves as being cultured, considerate, thoughtful of others, always interested in the right and the true and the good and the honest and the pure. And we love to look at ourselves that way! But the basic fact, which the Cross reveals in all its stark nakedness, and which we catch glimpses of all through human history, is that this is nothing but a thin veneer of civilization, a varnish with which we have polished ourselves and which disappears the moment our true interests are challenged.
In support of that concept, I’d like to read a brief quotation from a man who is widely acknowledged as a keen observer of human nature, probably the greatest statesman of our day, Sir Winston Churchill. Mr. Churchill says,
Certain it is, that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. Under sufficient stress: starvation, terror, war-like passion, or even cold, intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds. And his modern woman will back him up!
And that’s what the Cross of Christ helps us to see. Jesus Christ came in the midst of humanity doing good, and men hated Him for it. That’s the revelation of the human heart. On one occasion, you remember Jesus set free a pitiful lunatic; a man who had been running about in the mountains like a wild man, naked, tearing his hair and his flesh. And had oftentimes been chained by the people because they said he was possessed of demons. And with a word from the lips of Christ, this man was set free. And the record says that he was sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind! And what was the reaction of the people to this? They came to Jesus and pleaded with him that he go away and leave them alone! Why? Well, because in the process of setting this man free, they had lost their pigs. And these people preferred pigs to people. They didn’t want Christ upsetting the status quo, moving in and setting people free like this! Ruining their profits. And so, they chose their profits rather than the prophet of God. And they asked him to leave. What a revelation of the cultured, civilized heart of man!
His genuine compassion as he moved among men bothered religious leaders because he healed the sick on the Sabbath day, when they said he shouldn’t. And, he didn’t care a thing for their traditions, and constantly stepped over the line. And they hated the way he exposed their pretentious hypocrisies. And he kept saying such searching things, even to his own disciples, that his friends started leaving him, one by one. And, as he himself put it,
Men would not come to the light because they loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19). And yet, though man’s hatred grew against him, until they couldn’t wait to get him to a cross — they couldn’t wait to get him out of the way. And they threw justice to the wind in order to get him nailed to the tree. Yet, when it came to the cross itself, God did not take any revenge. The cross was not a place where God took revenge. It would have been so easy for him to do, wouldn’t it? It would have been so easy for God to have said,
Look, I don’t mind sending my son to die for these publicans, these harlots and the sinners. But these religious hypocrites — now’s my chance to get even. They’ve snubbed me, mocked me, insulted me, and done the things that I asked them not to do. And, now in the Cross, I’ve got a chance to get even! I’ll let my Son die for the sinners and the publicans, but not for these hypocrites. But God didn’t say that. The most remarkable thing to me about the Cross of Christ is that it was also intended for the Pharisees and for the hypocrites, for Caiaphas and Annas, and for Pilate and for Judas, and Herod, and all the others. When Jesus cried,
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, it was because Christ loved these men as well. And he made it possible to loose them from their sins: Sins of pride and greed, haughtiness, and selfishness, and hardness and lovelessness, and hate. And all these things that we find today breaking out constantly in the stream of human life; causing the riots, and the racial disorders, and disasters of our own time.
But John says,
Unto Him who loved us, and loosed us from our sin, in His own blood,” (Rev 1:5). And you see, it is this that we need to be delivered from. It’s not that we’re such open and outward violators of law and justice. It’s that we are such inward hypocrites! Constantly covering ourselves up and living one life inside and another outside. Erecting facades and fences behind with which we carry on our affairs; hiding hatred and bitterness and revenge with sweet words, and with kind sayings and sometimes kind deeds, and yet, inwardly seething, oftentimes with revolt. Now it’s this that God looking upon felt sorry for, and in his pity and in His mercy, sent the Son of God to die. That in His blood, this power, the power of this evil might be broken in our lives. Now, blood’s not very nice. The Cross was not a lovely, pleasant scene. It was a scene of blood, of sweat, and nakedness, of dirt and filth, and a bad smell. But it took this to break the hold of our sins.
I would like to think it was the teachings of Jesus that did this, wouldn’t you? I would like to believe there’s something in me so good, that when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I will respond to it and want to do it, and not only want to, but carry it out in practice! But you know, I’ve discovered that it never works that way. That the Sermon on the Mount, though I admire it, though I can read it and hunger after it, think it’s a great thing and say so. Yet I never found that I could do it until I found myself broken by the sight of the blood of the Lord Jesus. When I read that he bore my sins in his own body, on the tree, I realized that if my sins placed on Him, the sinless one, meant that He must die, that God in His wisdom and grace could find no other way to break the power of these things, no other way to shake the strangle-hold that sin had on me, but by His death, I realized how utterly hopeless it was that I should ever get anywhere trying to solve this problem myself. And when I saw that blood, I knew that He really wanted me, I knew that He loved me, and that He wanted me. And drawn by that love, I came to Christ. And I found that what He said was true: That the power of evil within was broken. And that for the first time, the impossible became possible.
Listen to a former humanist, E. R. Davies, who says,
So long as a man nurses the belief that he can save himself, salvation will escape him. And to this Dr. Paul Reese adds,
When he reaches the place where beaten and humbled, he admits that he can’t save himself, there will not be then a half dozen saviors standing around, waiting to save him. There will only be one. And His name will be Jesus - Jesus of Nazareth.
You see the Cross, as the Scripture brings it before us, is the meeting place between man’s hate and God’s love. The one laid hold of the other. The two came into a death-grapple in the darkness, in the Cross of Christ. Hate laid hold of Love. Love laid hold of Hate, but Love triumphed. That’s the story of the Cross. Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than greed, and lust, and bitterness, and jealousy, and haughtiness, and prejudice, and pride and all the other evil things of human life. In the Cross of Christ I see my own sin, and you can see yours. But in the Cross of Christ you see God’s grace as well. And listen to me: Grace is greater than sin! That’s the whole story of it. And if any man or woman who comes to the Cross, and who accepts this fact, who comes in helplessness, who stops being defensive, who quits trying to make excuses and bolster up their ego and comes and just says,
It’s all true, I need this, I can’t save myself! It’s then that love begins to manifest its victory over evil. And the glory of grace shines out above the darkness of man’s sin. And there is healing, and strength, and health, and pardon. Thousands and thousands can testify to this through the ages, hat it was at the Cross of Christ, they found that which broke through and set them free.
Grace is flowing like a river, millions there have been supplied, and still it flows as fresh as ever from the Savior’s wounded side. The Cross of Christ is an event far greater than we can possibly hope to circumscribe or to understand. It’s a mystery! I don’t understand it. I don’t know anyone that does fully. It’s like some of the other great mysteries of life, of life itself, of love, of truth. Who can understand it, who can grasp it? Who can fully analyze it, and lay it out and explain it? No one can. But I know this, and this is the great thing and the important thing: It isn’t important whether we spend an hour or two talking about the theology of the Cross, or whether we talk about and try to grasp something of the puzzle of the predestination versus human free will, or some of these things. We can spend hours trying to analyze the workings of God and the plannings and programmings of God that culminated in the Cross. And how it worked out in human history.
But all of this will leave us absolutely unchanged until we come to grips with this one central fact: Here and here alone, in all of human history, is the power manifested sufficient to break the stranglehold of our habits upon us — our habits of thought and begin to set us free. And all through the running centuries, for twenty centuries, men and women have been coming to the Cross of Christ in this simple way, boys and girls, the educated and the ignorant, the savage, the rich man, across all cultures, across all social divisions, and every boundary line that man has erected. Men have come from all places, all kinds, to the Cross of Christ. And invariably, if they’ve come in helplessness, recognizing that they are in the grip of forces greater than they can handle, that life is bigger than they are, and they admit it, they find in the Cross of Christ that which sets them free. None other name, none other lamb, none other hope in earth or heaven or hell than this: the Cross of Jesus Christ.
No wonder, our Father, our hearts sing again,In the Cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.We pray, Lord, that if any here are seeking deliverance from some mastering habit, some blinding problem, some staggering, bewildering difficulty in their life. If any are seeking to be free from the emptiness, the meaninglessness of life. If any, Lord, are hoping to find answers that will open life up and make it full, and rich, and vital, and meaningful. If any are in the grip, Lord, of habits of thought that have hounded them, perplexed them, bothered them, kept them from being what they wanted to be, hurt their loved ones, helped to wreck, perhaps, their homes, we pray that they will come to the Cross of Christ. There, hiding in that cleft, find the strength they need to break these things. Lord, we thank thee that these words are true, that here in this assembly this morning are hundreds of men and women who can say:I came to that Cross; I found it to be true. I find that principal still works whenever I imagine I have what it takes to meet life on my own, I fail. But when I come again to the Crucified One, when I come to the one who stands ready to give me all His strength for my need, I find that I can stand, I can rise up, I can withstand grief, heartache, suffering, pain — all that life throws at me, in the strength of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified for me.We thank you for this, in Christ’s name. Amen.