P. G. Mathew | Sunday, October 27, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
Christ died for our sins. That is the gospel as recorded by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3. There are three things that we can learn from this statement. First, "Christ died" means there are historical facts relating to the death of Jesus Christ. Second, "for our sins" means we are given God's interpretation of the historical facts of the crucifixion of Christ. Third, "Christ died for our sins" means we can see the application of redemption in the lives of God's elect. So we see history, theology, and doxology in this profound statement, "Christ died for our sins."
Jesus Predicts His Death
What is the historical background of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? During the last days of his earthly ministry Jesus took his apostles to Caesarea Philippi, where he revealed to them what would happen to him in a few days in Jerusalem. He said he would suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt. 16, Mark 8). He said the same thing as he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17, Mark 9). And on his way to Jerusalem Jesus again revealed to the disciples the purpose of his incarnation in these words: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom in place of many" (Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45).
Who are the many for whom Jesus would die? Their identity is revealed to us in his high priestly prayer in John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 12, 24. They are those whom God the Father had given him from all eternity so that he could give them eternal life. They are the Father's gift to the Son, the elect ones. Jesus Christ came to die in behalf of them and them alone.
Just two days before the Passover Jesus once again told his disciples of his impending death: "As you know, the Passover is two days away and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified" (Matt. 26:2). Soon thereafter, one of his own apostles, Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and made a deal to hand Jesus over to them for thirty pieces of silver. Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, tried illegally by the Sanhedrin, and condemned to die. The Jews brought him to the Roman governor Pilate who, even though he declared three times that Jesus was innocent of any crime, handed him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
The Death of the Cross
Throughout the religious and civil trials and prior to his crucifixion, Jesus suffered much physically, as he had predicted. He was mocked, hit, beaten and whipped with the dreaded scourge. His back became furrowed with from the scourging, his face became formless from the brutal beatings, and blood flowed from his head down to his face. Then the suffering, condemned Jesus was given his own cross to carry through the streets to the place of execution. The Romans conducted processions as a warning to the public that they should behave themselves and not engage in any kind of seditious political activity. But what is God's interpretation of this procession? Just as the body of a sin offering victim would be burned outside the camp of ancient Israel, "so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his blood," says the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 13:12).
Jesus was facing the worst form of execution of his time--crucifixion. The Sanhedrin could have asked that Jesus merely be banished as punishment for his presumed seditious activity, but they wanted him to be crucified. Why did they insist on crucifixion? Because in Deuteronomy 21:23 it says that "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse." The enmity against Jesus was so intense that the religious leaders desired to heap upon Jesus maximum indignity and shame.
In Philippians 2:8 Paul tells us that Jesus humbled himself even to the death of the cross. Jesus bore his cross all the way to the city gate, but at that point he stumbled and was not able to carry it anymore. Imagine the state of exhaustion of Jesus at this point! He suffered so much agony in Gethsemane that his sweat was like drops of blood, we are told. During his unjust trial before Annas he was struck in the face by the chief priests and leaders. Think of the anguish Jesus suffered when Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus! Think of the illegal trial by Caiaphas and how those present spit in his face, struck him with their fists, slapped him, and mocked him. Think of the trial again before the Sanhedrin early in the morning. Think of standing trial before Pilate, before Herod Antipas, and again before Pilate. Think of the scourging and physical and verbal abuse of the soldiers. Think of the lack of sleep and food he endured. All this culminated in a state of total exhaustion for Jesus, the condemned Son of God. He had no strength left in him to carry his own cross to the place of execution.
Take up the Cross
As he watched Jesus stumble and fall, the Roman officer in charge noticed a man, Simon of Cyrene, passing by. Simon was probably a Jew from the Diaspora, a Cyrenian from Libya. There were many Cyrenian Jews in Jerusalem as we are told in the book of Acts. The Roman officer commandeered Simon to carry Jesus' cross for him. He could do so because the Romans had the power to requisition people at any time for any service they desired to be performed. A Roman could come and touch your shoulder with the back of his spear, signaling to you that you were selected for service.
Why was Simon of Cyrene chosen for this task and not someone else? I believe this was divine plan. In my view Simon was an elect of God, and so he was given the opportunity to carry Christ's cross, hear words from Christ's lips and watch Christ's death in behalf of him, so that he could put his trust in him. As the procession resumed, then, Simon of Cyrene walked behind Jesus, carrying his cross. In so doing, Simon gave us a physical illustration of the principle Jesus taught of taking up the cross daily and following him.
The procession arrived at the place called Golgotha, which means skull in Hebrew. It is also called Calvary, from the Latin word calva, which also means skull. Why was it called that? Some say the site was a hill that looked like a skull, and those who visited Gordon's Calvary in Jerusalem have seen that shape of a skull on a nearby hill. One legend says that at Golgotha the skull of Adam was discovered, but we doubt that very seriously. Others say the place was called Golgotha because as a place of execution there would be many skulls lying around. However, no one today can be very certain of the site of Calvary. The traditional site is covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but an alternative site is Gordon's Calvary, near a highway facing a hill that looks like a skull and by a garden in which there is a first-century tomb.
A Despicable Death
When they reached Golgotha, Simon's service was finished. Four soldiers, under the leadership of a centurion, crucified Jesus was crucified along with two thieves. Because everyone at that time knew the brutality of crucifixion, the gospel writers do not give us a detailed description of it. However, we read of it in other sources. The Roman Cicero said it was the most cruel and horrifying death possible, and Tacitus the historian called it a despicable death.
Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and criminals convicted of serious crimes. Roman citizens were exempt from this cruel form of punishment. This form of execution originated with the Persians. They thought the earth was too sacred to be defiled by the dead body of a criminal, so they would nail a person's body to a cross and leave it there to be consumed by vultures. Later, Carthaginians adopted this method of execution, and Romans learned it from the Carthaginians.
Dr. D. A. Carson describes crucifixion in his commentary on Matthew:
Crucifixion was unspeakably painful and degrading. Whether tied or nailed to the cross, the victim endured countless paroxysms as he pulled with his arms and pushed with his legs to keep the chest cavity open for breathing and then collapsed in exhaustion until the demand for oxygen demanded renewed paroxysms. The scourging, the loss of blood, the shock from the pain, all produced agony that could go on for days, ending at last by suffocation, cardiac arrest, or loss of blood. When there was reason to hasten death, the execution squad would smash the victim's legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing.
Beyond the pain was the shame. The later rabbis excluded crucifixion as a form of capital punishment for just this reason. . . In ancient sources crucifixion was universally viewed with horror. In Roman law it was reserved only for the worst criminals and lowest classes. No Roman citizen could be crucified without a direct edict from Caesar.
Among Jews the horror of the cross was greater still because of Deuteronomy 21:23: 'Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God's curse.' In Israelite law this meant the corpse of a judicially executed criminal was hung up for public exposure that branded him as cursed by God. The words were also applied in Jesus' day to anyone crucified; and therefore the Jews' demand that Jesus be crucified rather than banished [and that demand] was aimed at arousing maximum public revulsion toward Jesus of Nazareth." (D. A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Matthew, Mark and Luke, p. 574, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1984)
We are told that Jesus was offered some wine mixed with gall, or myrrh, a narcotic, so that he would not feel as much pain. Probably the wealthy women of Jerusalem provided it to crucifixion victims as a charitable activity. There were instructions in the Talmud that when a man was led to execution, he was given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense in order to benumb his senses, because it says in Proverbs 31:6 to give strong drink to those who are ready to perish and wine to those who are bitter in soul. But Jesus refused to drink the stupefying concoction. He would experience the pain and shame of crucifixion to its fullest extent with an alert mind.
After nailing Jesus to the cross, the four soldiers divided up his personal effects, which consisted of a turban, a girdle, sandals, an inner garment and an outer garment. They divided the items by lots into four even shares, and then cast lots for the seamless inner garment which they agreed not to divide. These soldiers did not know it, but they were unconsciously fulfilling scriptures by gambling on Jesus' clothes (Ps. 22:18).
"It Is Finished!"
Jesus was crucified at nine in the morning, but at noon something strange happened, which is recorded in the gospel histories. Instead of maximum daylight total darkness came upon the land and lasted for three hours. This was not due to an eclipse. It was a supernatural miracle, a divine signal of God's judgment upon sin, as we read in Amos 8:9-10, "'In that day,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and your singing into weeping. . . '"
Around 3 p.m. Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'--'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" One of the people standing by the cross ran and gave him some sour wine to drink. PGM At the moment of Jesus' cry of dereliction the priests who were offering the evening sacrifice in the Holy Place of the temple were startled to see the thick veil separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place supernaturally bisect and tear asunder from top to bottom. Simultaneously there was a great earthquake in Jerusalem that split rocks and caused tombs to break open.
Then Jesus came out of the tunnel of the total darkness of divine abandonment into the glorious light of God's favor. After committing his spirit to the Father, he died, as we read in Luke 23:46: "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last." Fellowship with God was restored, the abandonment of the Son came to an end, and the smile of the Father resumed. That is the history of the crucifixion.
The Theology of Crucifixion
What does this historical crucifixion of Jesus Christ mean? We find God's interpretation of these events in the writings of the apostles in the Holy Scriptures. The gospel of Matthew opens with an angel telling Joseph that he is to name the child Jesus, "because he will save his people from their sins." In John 1:29 John the Baptist spoke of Jesus, saying, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" And in Matthew 20:28 Jesus himself said that the Son of Man "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." And in John 19:30, Jesus declared, "Tetelestai --It is finished," and died.
What did Jesus mean when he said "It is finished"? He was referring to his work of atonement. Jesus accomplished the work that God the Father gave him to do by paying up our debt on the cross. This is the interpretation and meaning of Christ's crucifixion. This is theology.
He Became Sin
In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul wrote, "Christ died for our sins"--huper ton hamartian hemon, in behalf of our sins Christ died. That is the theology of Christ's death. In Ephesians 5:25 Paul wrote, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her," in behalf of her. Again, that is theology. There is meaning to this event for God's people. An unbeliever, a natural man, might read the history of Christ's crucifixion, but he will never understand anything other than that a criminal named Jesus was crucified by Rome unless God gives him understanding.
In the Old Testament we are given the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ in Isaiah 53. Verses 4-6 tell us, "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted." This would be the interpretation of people who are not enlightened by the Holy Spirit. But now Isaiah gives us God's interpretation: "But he was pierced for our transgressions. . ." For our transgressions! That is theology. That is meaning. That is God's revelation. "He was crushed for our iniquities"--not for his iniquities, but ours! Isaiah continues, "The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, "God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God." This is the theology of Christ's crucifixion. God the Father made him sin. How did he do that? God heaped on Jesus all the iniquity, trespasses, and sins of all the people whom the Father has given him as gift. He imputed it to Jesus that he may give them eternal life in this way.
Why did God do this? Why did he lay on Jesus all of our iniquity? So that we might become the righteousness of God in him. That is also imputation. God put our sin in its totality upon Jesus--punishing, judging, abandoning and pouring out his wrath upon Christ--and he puts upon us his perfect righteousness, the seamless robe of Christ's perfect righteousness.
He Became Curse
In Galatians 3:13 Paul writes, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree,'" and in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we read, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law" that says he who sins must die. The wages of sin is death, but thanks be to God who giveth us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 6:23, 1 Co. 15:57)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. And so we notice in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul tells the Corinthians, "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." The heart of the gospel is that Christ was crucified in our place. And so in Galatians 6:14 Paul writes, "May I never boast in anything except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
How did Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, interpret the crucifixion of Christ? In 1 Peter 2:21 he says, "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you." And verse 24: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. . . by his wounds you have been healed.'" If you do not understand what the cross is all about, then I pity you. If that is true of you, then you are lost and outside the pale of salvation. Then you cannot meet God as Father and Savior, but you will meet him as Judge. But if you do understand what the meaning of Christ's death is as God has revealed it, then you, together with St. Peter and St. Paul, will glory in the cross of Jesus Christ. You will not want to know anything other than Jesus Christ and him crucified, for therein is our salvation and our righteousness.
He Removed the Veil
The writer of the book of Hebrews also gives us great insight into the meaning of the events of the crucifixion. When Jesus died on the cross, the priests who were in the Holy Place noticed something. What was it? A miraculous bisecting of the thick veil that separated people from the presence of God. And the Hebrew writer gives the theology of that miracle in Hebrews 10:19-22: "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water."
Could anyone enter the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament times? No. No one could go in, except the high priest, and he could do so only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, with blood. But as we are told in Hebrews 10:4, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins"--to save anyone, in other words. Then Jesus Christ came, who is called a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6 and 7). When he died on the cross, when he finished the work of atonement, when he declared, "Tetelestai --it is finished," and breathed his last by committing his spirit to the Father, at that moment the curtain split open supernaturally, opening up a new and living way for every person who trusts in the atonement of Jesus Christ.
So we are told by the Hebrew writer in Hebrews 4:16, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence. . ." We won't die, in other words. The wrath and anger of God is gone, and our guilt is taken care of by Christ. We are now invited to come before this awesome God in great confidence "so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time in need."
This is theology. The curtain that separated us from God was torn in two when Christ died on the cross. Now all those who trust in Christ can approach God with confidence, and we will not die. Why? Christ died in our place. Our sin is dealt with in Christ, and fellowship with God is restored for us in Jesus Christ.
The Heart of It
What is the heart of this theology? Read Romans 3:25-26. "God presented him"--God the Father presented Jesus Christ--"as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice. . ." Punishment is always the demonstration that God is just and God punishes sin. The sins of God's people in the Old Testament were not punished, but now the sins of all God's elect have been punished in the person of Jesus Christ. By so doing, God the Father was demonstrating his justice. God is just and must punish sin. He punished our sin in Jesus Christ and therefore, he can justify us. Read verse 26: "He did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." All this is for the benefit of those who have faith in Jesus. All the sin of all the elect people of God was punished when he laid our sin upon Christ and punished him. Remember how Christ cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It is a real cry of dereliction but it is also mysterious.
The Cauldron of God's Wrath
The wages of sin is death, and Christ died for us, went to hell for us, and suffered the wrath of God for us. The cauldron that was full of the wrath of God against sin in its totality was poured upon Christ when he hung on the cross in Golgotha. Look at the cauldron again. It is empty. That is why God's wrath is gone forever for us. There is no wrath remaining to be poured out in behalf of us. God has demonstrated his justice in full by punishing Jesus Christ in our place.
What, then, remains for us in God if the wrath and hell are gone? Only love remains for us. Only eternal life remains for us. Only heaven remains for us. Only communion with God remains for us.
We know that Christ died. In time and space Jesus Christ was crucified, and through that historical event God the Father demonstrated his justice. The sting of sin was taken away and the law was dealt with. That is history. But the meaning of the crucifixion is this: Christ died for us--for our sins. That means there is no more wrath for those who trust in Jesus Christ. That is theology.
Now, you may ask the question, "Why am I experiencing trouble, persecution, and problems?" Let me assure you, that is discipline. We are told in Revelation 3:19, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline." Such problems are not the wrath of God. No, it is love. And because God's wrath is removed from you, that does not mean that you are exempt from the persecutions of the world. No, there is a Satan who is still opposed to you, but God is not opposed to you. God is for us, and he said he will never leave us nor forsake us. He abandoned his own Son in Golgotha that he may never abandon his sons. And Jesus himself said, "I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).
Are You Being Saved?
Has your hell been taken away by Jesus Christ? If you are not sure that this great transaction has taken place for you, then you must make it certain. There are only two classes of people: those who are being saved and those who are perishing. There is no third class.
What about your children or other family members? Have you asked them, "Are you saved? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation?" Have you confronted them with that question in all its clarity and definitiveness? If the answer is no, let me assure you, they are perishing. When they die, they will meet with God as Judge.
We may want to create our own theology, but it will not work on the last day. God has exalted his word in the heavens, and we can glory in the foolishness of the gospel, that "Christ died for me, even for me." The way to the Father has been opened up, and the Scripture encourages us to go to him. We can come with confidence through the blood of Christ.
May God have mercy on us and deliver us from false theologies and false ways of looking at history, especially those that question whether Jesus ever existed. May we be delivered from the arrogance, unbelief, and intellectual and philosophic craziness that causes us to move away from the simplicity of the gospel. May we look unto him who died on the cross, embrace God's theology of grace, and be saved. May we have total certainty that Christ died for us, and the wrath of God that was due us has been expended fully on our mediator, substitute, and redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
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