(This is the fifth sermon in the series, “Finally … Some Good News.”)
(1 Corinthians 15:3-8) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
If someone from another faith asked you to explain in a nutshell what Christians believe, you could do worse than reciting the four bullet points that the Apostle Paul gave the Corinthians. Christ died for our sins; he was buried; he rose (all of which, by the way, fits perfectly with the Old Testament); and he was seen by witnesses.
But what if your non-Christian friend said to you: “That doesn’t make any sense. Why do you call the death of your leader good news [gospel]?” How would you answer? That is what we are thinking about today.
We looked last week at what the Bible means by the word “Christ” (if you didn’t hear that sermon, you might want go to www.lockwoodchurch.org and listen). We saw that the Christ is the rescuer-king appointed by God. We learned that people, especially in Israel, were looking for that king.
The nation had been conquered, her government dissolved, and her people driven into exile. That was just what Deuteronomy 28 warned would happen if the nation turned from God. But based on the promise of Deuteronomy 30, together with texts like Genesis 12, Isaiah 52, and many others, people were expecting another king to appear who would inaugurate God’s kingdom.
But they were confused about why it was taking so long. Was it possible that God had given up on them? The psalmist had asked: “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? …where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Ps. 89:46, 49) – that is, the love that promised a rescuer-king.
There were so many promises: Abraham’s seed, through whom all people on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12); David’s descendant who will be God’s ruler (2 Samuel 7); the “son of man” to whom God will give all authority (Daniel 7); and God’s own promise to return to his people (Isaiah 52; Ezekiel 43).
People were waiting, wondering, hoping. Then came the spiritual earthquake that was John the Baptist, flattening hills and raising valleys, preparing the way for the Lord to return to his people. When John was asked if he were the rescuer-king (the Christ), he flatly denied it, but he insisted that the Christ was already on the scene.
Then Jesus showed up saying, “The time has been fulfilled! The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14), and John pointed to him as the one. The crowds grew quickly. People hadn’t miss the fact that Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” Daniel’s term for God’s rescuer-king. The excitement was palpable. There was even a foiled attempt to force Jesus’s hand by proclaiming him King.
But when John the Baptist was wrongfully imprisoned and wasting away in a jail cell, he started having doubts. Isolation can do. What had become of the kingdom revolution? Why was nothing happening? Had he been mistaken about Jesus?
He sent friends to ask Jesus if he really was the one. Jesus sent them back to John to reassure him that what he was doing lined up perfectly with the Old Testament prophecies: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).
In the last century, it was popular to say that Jesus never represented himself as the Christ, the rescuer-king. He was an itinerant teacher/philosopher and never claimed otherwise. That comes from reading the Gospels through a 20th century, westernized lens. Teacher-philosophers don’t promise their closest followers that they will sit on 12 thrones. They don’t guarantee them a kingdom. They don’t play on the nation’s Independence Day celebrations to throw the capitol city into an uproar by acting out a prophecy about the arrival of the rescuer-king.
Jesus did all these things. He was making the claim that he was God’s messiah. When his adversaries said to him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe.” (John 10:24-25). His actions – healings, victories over evil powers, proclamation of the kingdom, his care for the poor – were his claim to be God’s rescuer-king.
On the Sunday of Passover week when Israel celebrated its emancipation, everything came together. Jesus made arrangements to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey colt in fulfillment of Zechariah’s rescuer-king prophecy. The claim to be the Messiah was unmistakable.
The following day, Jesus took over the temple courts, referring once again to Old Testament prophecy. The question, “How long?” was finally answered: This long. The kingdom has arrived. The Lion of Judah has roared. God has raised up David’s son.
Excitement built to a fever pitch. Jesus’s closest followers were already staking out positions in the new government. But just few days later, Jesus was dead. Mighty Rome has crushed him. They played with him like a cat with a mouse, mocking him, dressing him in a kingly robe (probably just a centurion’s cloak), giving him a crown (of thorns twisted together) and a royal scepter (which was a broken reed).
They laughed at him. Spit on him. Punched him. Tortured him. They showed him who was boss. When they were done entertaining themselves, they stripped him and hanged him on the public square for everyone – including every would-be Messiah – to see. This is what happens to fools who challenge the powers that be.
Jesus’s followers were not just grief-stricken, they were disoriented and confused. They had been absolutely certain – all the signs were there; it was unmistakable –Jesus was the Christ, the rescuer-king. But the Christ does not die. Some of the most forlorn words in the Bible belong to Cleopas and his friend in Luke 24, when they say, “…and we had hoped that he was the One who was going to redeem Israel. ” That’s what they had hoped, but they must have been wrong because the Christ does not die.
Yet within a short space of time, the early church was summarizing the gospel – their good news – by saying, “Christ died.” How could the death of the rescuer-king possibly be good news?
We might say it is good news because, as the summary goes on to say, the Christ was raised on the third day. The death of the Christ is good news in the light of the resurrection of the Christ.
That’s true, but it raises a puzzling question. Why go through the humiliation and shame, the beatings, and the terrible pain, just to rise again three days later, as if nothing had ever happened?
The answer is that something enormously important did happen that would not have happened had Jesus not died. The resurrection didn’t undo the crucifixion; it fulfilled it. Jesus’s death changed things, changed the world. The events of that day, that cross, accomplished something good for us and for the whole world.
Cleopas and his friend thought the rescuer had got himself killed before he could finish the job. The rescuer needed rescuing but that didn’t come, and even he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But the whole point – the reason the followers of Jesus considered the death of the rescuer-king (the Christ) to be great good news – is that he did finish the job. That’s why, after the terrible cry of dereliction, comes the shout of victory: “It is finished!”
That may leave us more bewildered than before. What was finished? Our text points us to the answer, to the creed the early church knew by heart, the bullet-point summary of the good news. What was finished was the long work to remove the barrier between God and people: “Christ died for our sins.”
On the cross of Christ, the way was opened for the blessing of Abraham to reach all people on earth. On the cross of Christ, the promise made by Isaiah that God would return and reign became possible – possible because God, through his rescuer-king, had provided “forgiveness of sins.”
Sin stands between us and acceptance into God’s covenant people. Sin damages our thinking, ruins our relationships, fractures our society, and defaces our future. Sin must be dealt with for us to experience life with God. The fact that is was necessary for Christ to die suggests how great is the problem of sin and how unfathomable is the love of God.
When we read the word “sin,” we are likely to think of personal sins – anger, lust, greed, sloth, pride – expressing themselves in ways of which we are ashamed and through actions that have damaged our relationships. We should think of such things, but we need to avoid the danger of shrinking the world-changing event of Christ’s cross into my personal passport to heaven. It is much bigger than that.
Christ died for our sins so that God’s plan for our world could move forward. That plan, thank God, includes me but it is not all about me. That plan has been in the works forever – the same plan God had in mind when he chose to bless all peoples on earth through Abraham. It is the same plan that was in mind when through Isaiah God promised to return and to reign. And it is still the plan.
God chose to fulfill the promises of rescue and worldwide blessing through Abraham’s offspring, the people of Israel. But Abraham’s children had, like the rest of the world, broken down under the weight of sin. They had not fulfilled their calling.
Imagine a rescue vehicle is called out to save people who have been in a bad accident on the Dan Ryan. Rescuers are dispatched but they get into an accident themselves. That’s a little like what happened here. Israel was called to be God’s agent in rescuing the world, but they got caught in the same mess as everyone else and were unable to complete the rescue.
It looked as if the plan was derailed but Abraham’s offspring, in the person of Christ, avoided the collision with sin, fulfilled the promises, and made a way for God to be with humans. He brought the kingdom of God. The rescuer emerged from the damaged vehicle and ran the rest of the way to save the injured.
There have been numerous theories of how the death of Jesus Christ accomplished this. The dominant one in the Western Church was introduced by St. Anselm in the 11th century, but other theories have been popular at one time or another. That should tell us something.
If the church didn’t have today’s most popular theory for a thousand years; if it has adopted other theories at other times and in other places; then there is one thing we can be sure of: theories don’t save people. God does. Theories don’t forgive people. God does. Theories don’t give people a new life. God does – through Christ Jesus. We may hold theories but theories won’t uphold us. We don’t put our trust in a theory but in the God and Father of Jesus Christ who died for our sins.
I said that Jesus intentionally presented himself as Israel’s messiah, the servant of the Lord, the one who would do for Israel what Israel failed to do for God: extend the blessing through Abraham to all the people on earth.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem on the Sunday of Passover week, he not only knew himself to be God’s servant but God’s suffering servant. He understood that he would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by taking on himself the iniquity of us all, becoming the one through whom peace and healing would finally come. And he knew what that would entail: God’s rescue plan would be advanced through his death.
It happened at Passover. That was no coincidence. Passover celebrated the emancipation of Israel from slavery when the heartless master that prevented them from worshiping their God was defeated. That last part is important. Over and over, like a broken record, the original Passover story repeats the goal: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 10:3).
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was with that same goal in mind. He intended to free God’s people once again, once for all, that they might truly worship him.
Sin enslaves people and prevents them from worshiping God, just as slavery in Egypt had done. Jesus understood that and knew that another – and greater – Passover was needed.
But understand: The problem with sin is not simply that people do bad things: get angry, lust, envy, get greedy. Those things are symptoms – serious and even life-threatening symptoms that can make things miserable for us and for others – but there is an underlying condition that must be addressed. Until it is, we cannot truly worship God or come under the authority of his kingdom.
That underlying condition is present everywhere throughout the Bible, but Paul is able to crystalize it in a few remarkable paragraphs in Romans 1. What went wrong, according to Paul – and this is crucial – began as a failure of worship, not of morals. Humans replaced the worship of God with the worship of created things. We call that idolatry and it underlies all other sin, whether personal, corporate, institutional, or national.
Here is Paul’s summation: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25). Wrong worship – idolatry – surrenders our authority as God’s image bearing regents to other things, other powers. The reason the world is so messed up is that we have given our authority as God’s regents over to things that (in St. Paul’s language) “by nature are not God.” People become slaves of the things they worship. Paul can say, “You were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8). It is Egypt all over again. That is why another Passover was needed.
Jesus died to free us from the powers that enslave us. He died to re-empower us to be the representatives of God’s love and grace, which was always the plan. But for that to happen, those powers needed to be defeated. Christ accomplished that on the cross, “disarming the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). That is what happens to the powers that be when they challenge the unconquerable love of God in Christ.
It is no accident that, immediately after writing those words in Colossians 2, Paul warns against falling back into false worship that leads again to slavery. Christ didn’t die so we could remain enslaved. He died to set us free to become our own man or woman, which is possible once we have become God’s man or woman. We can never be ourselves until we have become God’s.
More happened on the cross of Christ than we can begin to comprehend. Certainly more than any theory – or all the theories combined – can suggest. Sins were forgiven. The principalities and powers that enslave humanity were defeated. People were reconciled to God and even to one another.
At the cross, we get a glimpse of both how far our sins have taken us and how far God is willing to go to get us back. I’ve heard the love of God refuted this way: If he really loved people, he wouldn’t let bad things happen to them, especially the ultimate bad thing of eternal destruction. But the death of Christ exposes that idea as a fraud. God has gone to unimaginable lengths to save the world. He will forgive anyone and wants to forgive everyone. It’s not too much to say he is dying to forgive.
We love to speak and sing about the cross: where God’s love ran red and my sins washed white; where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away; where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. Biblically, the cross is where the second Passover took place; where the powers that enslave us were defeated; where we were reconciled to God and each other; where Moses and the prophets and all the Scriptures were fulfilled; where the ancient mission was completed.
But were we able to sing every song and quote every Scripture every written about the cross, it would still be a mystery. The words “Christ died for our sins” take us to depths we cannot plumb. This is why, I think, we were not given an explanation of the cross. We were given bread to eat. We were not given a theory of the atonement. We were given a cup to drink. We were invited to become participants in Christ’s victorious death, not talking heads – Christsplainers – who offer an analysis of it.
Every time we take the bread and cup, we announce Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers (1 Cor. 11:24). We take our stand with the Emancipator as the Emancipated, the company of the committed, the worshipers of the true God. We enter the mystery and take our stand on the matchless truth that “Christ died for us.”