Holy Week reflections on the cross
These reflections correspond with the videos on youtube and facebook.
Monday – Sacrifice
Through this week, I am going to share these little reflections to help us to think about what is the central event of our faith, and in fact of the entire history of the world – the crucifixion of Jesus. How can it be that the state-sponsored, degrading, humiliating death of Christ can be the event that would change everything? The Bible has many ways of looking at this, many pictures of what is happening on the cross, and I want to share some thoughts about a few of these. The first, today, is the idea of sacrifice.
Sacrifice in our culture is talked about in association with some particular actions. We think of the sacrifice of those in the military ‘for their country’. We talk, right now, of the ‘sacrifice’ of those health workers especially working so hard and putting themselves in potential danger to care for others.
We think of parents making sacrifices so their children can have certain things or experiences; or of children making sacrifices to look after elderly and frail parents. What we understand about sacrifice is that there is a cost to pay, something of value is given up; and that as a result something greater is achieved.
Having said that, the kind of thing we see in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is a million miles away from our cultural experience. The problem is sin. The people need to be made clean, to be forgiven. But as we know in our own experience, when sin has been committed, there is also the need for justice. We can’t simply turn a blind eye, sweep it under the carpet. IT HASTO BE MADE RIGHT IN SOME WAY. God makes provision for the people to be cleansed and forgiven through the sacrifice of animals. There was a costliness to this – something had to be given up. And what was received in return was this cleansing, this being made right with God – something of much greater value. In the account from Leviticus 16 of what happened each year on the Day of Atonement, the high point of the sacrificial system, we see the seriousness and the costliness of this – the bull, the first goat, the second goat, the disposal and burning of the bodies. Sin is not lightly dealt with.
In the NT we learn that this whole sacrificial system pointed to the real and perfect sacrifice that would be made by Jesus Christ. Read from Hebrews chapter 9.24-26 and chapter 10.1-4, 11-12, 19-22
We know that there is a connection between the size of the thing to be achieved and the cost of the sacrifice to be made. Only the sinless Son of God can make the necessary sacrifice that will bring cleansing from sin for all people for all time, in a way that the blood of bulls and goats never could do. Do you experience the freedom from guilt that Christ died to win for you? Did you know that your heart is cleansed and made pure not by your effort, but by Christ’s sacrifice? Do you enter into the very presence of God knowing you’ve been put right with him? The very clear teaching of the OT was that there was nothing the people could do: only a sacrifice could make provision for their sins and bring them to God. The sacrifice of Jesus is what this all pointed to. Nothing else is required. This is the grace of God.
One more thought on the theme of sacrifice. Perhaps the most remarkable and important thing we must remember about Jesus’ sacrifice was that – as Peter writes – ‘Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God’. Or as Paul says, ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. There is something totally different about what Jesus has done for us compared with, say, a soldier laying down his life for his comrades and his countrymen. The sacrifice Jesus made was for the ungodly, the sinner – in fact his own enemies, those in rebellion against God. God in Christ was prepared to put himself forward as a sacrifice, to pay this almighty cost, because he loves us – not because we deserved his love, had done anything to earn his love; in fact we were living in rebellion against him and polluting his world with sin and evil. But to cleanse us, to bring us to God, Jesus sacrificed himself and died for us.
Tuesday – Justification
The idea of judgement is not a popular one today. Even if there is an underlying expectation that there will be (or should be) some sort of ‘reckoning’ for our lives, we would prefer to think that we should be the ones to decide whether our own lives have lived up to what we wanted them to be. But, interestingly – even in an age when we think it is very important to be ‘non-judgemental’ – we tend to quite enjoy judging others, and assessing whether their lives are up to scratch. You just have to look at the news press or at Twitter to see that we a society all too comfortable with judging others.
If we do accept that there is a need for ‘justice to be done’ and for injustices to put right – and even if we accept that God is the one who is in the place to execute this justice – we still tend to think that the evil or the bad people are ‘out there’ somewhere. If God is going to judge, surely he isn’t going to judge me; I’m not doing anyone any harm. But a couple of men who were on the receiving end of terrible evil in their own lives help us to see that this perspective is not right. Vaclav Havel lived under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia as a Christian. He says, ‘The line [between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but through each person. No one was simply a victim’. Similarly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, said, ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’. What powerful words.
In truth, we are all contributors to the brokenness and sin of our world. God’s wrath must not be thought of as evidence that he has a bad temper which he cannot control. It is entirely consistent with (indeed part of) his love. His wrath must go out against all that pollutes this world with sin and evil, or else the injustice we rail against would never be dealt with. God is entirely for us and his wrath against sin and evil is a part of that.
In Romans, Paul explains how it is the cross which brings both the justice we look for and the rescue we need. In Romans 3.23-26, we have a wonderful explanation. It was in Jesus’ sacrifice that provision God ‘justified’ (‘made right’) men and women, all of whom had ‘sinned and fallen short’. God no longer ‘passed over’ sin, because that would be unjust and would not ‘make right’ those injustices which cannot be allowed to continue. Instead, he showed his intention to make things right by coming to deal with sin on the cross – and also to ‘justify’ us, to make us right, as we put our faith in him.
Paul takes this further just a few verses later in Romans 4. Looking at the example of Abraham in Genesis, Paul reminds us that Abraham was ‘counted/reckoned’ as being right before God because he ‘believed’, not by works. In the same way, our being ‘justified’ or ‘made right’ is not something we can earn by what we do, it is a gift. It is ‘reckoned to us’. But this does not mean – and this is important – that God pretends we are good when really we are not. It means that he really is acting to make us right as we trust in him and in the power of the cross. On the cross, God in Christ pays the cost of our sin, but also breaks its power: he makes us right by speaking it into being, speaking it over us. And, by his work in our lives, we are indeed being made right.
Wednesday – Substitution
Substitution is a concept we understand, and the Bible often speaks of the death of Christ being ‘for us’ and ‘in our place’. It is an extraordinary exchange which takes place on the cross. We might well read the accounts in the gospels and ask, given God’s power, why doesn’t Jesus get down off the cross and instead force those who deserve it to die there. But the exchange is in the other direction – the judgement on sin falls upon Jesus, rather than on us.
One of the clearest places in the scriptures where this important theme of substitution is described is Isaiah 53 (especially v4-5). Written many centuries before Christ, this prophetic picture has been understood by Christians to speak of the crucifixion. We are told of one who ‘took up our pain’, ‘bore our suffering’, one through whose suffering we are ‘made whole’ and ‘healed’. The image is clear – he has taken our place, he has borne what we should have been made to bear. Because he has suffered, we have not. Peter quotes this passage directly, that Jesus ‘bore our sins in his body’ and that ‘by his wounds we are healed’.
Again with great clarity, we are told in Galatians 3 that we are all rightly under a curse, under judgement, since we fail to keep God’s law. And yet Jesus has stepped in to ‘become a curse for us’ so that we might be set free. And, in the midst of a passage in which Paul says that this is ‘all from God’, he writes that ‘he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). What extraordinary statements. God the Son has chosen to take our place, facing the death we deserve as those living under the power of sin, and not only that but in exchange granted us the ‘righteousness of God’ – the gift that God will now ‘make us right’ as he deals with our sin.
Here are two quotations from Karl Barth and Fleming Rutledge, which I used in my video reflection:
“Man’s reconciliation with God takes place through God putting himself in man’s place, and man’s being put in God’s place, as a sheer act of grace… an inconceivable miracle!’
“This is what Paul means when he says that God justifies the ungodly. These words about how Christ takes our place are meant not only for everyone without exception; but they are also meant to strike the heart of each individual with a piercing joy as we recognize ourselves among those sinners and enemies who, without God’s intervention, would bring upon ourselves our own destruction.’
There is another kind of substitution or turning the tables which happens at the cross. Ever since Adam and Eve first sinned, we have sought to shift the blame onto other people and to declare ourselves innocent. As we said yesterday, we prefer to be our own judge. But, as Rutledge says, ‘the invasion of creation by God in Christ means that we have been deposed from our self-made throne where we sit and judge others in order to shore up our restless need to prove our own righteousness… We enjoy this role, but in the cross we see that we have been displaced by the one who is truly the Judge’
And, as Barth says:
‘A heavy and oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge… It is a constraint always to be having to convince ourselves we are innocent… I am not the Judge. Jesus Christ is the Judge. The matter is taken out of my hands, and that means liberation!’
It must mean liberation because we know that the one who is our Judge is the one who is ‘totally for us, in our place’.
As we said yesterday, this is more than a cold transaction. The cross brings transformation. Jesus ‘became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God’ – on the cross, as Jesus defeated sin, my proud heart, my proud thoughts are vanquished. I am changed into a new person – ‘the old has gone, everything is new!’.
Thursday – Freedom
Maundy Thursday is the time when we read accounts of the Last Supper, the meal Jesus ate with his friends on the night before he died. You may well know that this was the ‘Passover Meal’, probably the most important feast of the Jewish year – and that was no coincidence. When we look at what Jesus said during that meal, and at what the Jewish people remember when they eat the Passover, we find that many of the themes are crucial to understanding what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross, and we find that they link to freedom.
To remind ourselves of that first Passover, it was a great and terrible event. God’s people had been slaves in Egypt for centuries, and now God was intervening to bring freedom. He had sent nine plagues against the Egyptians as Moses called upon the Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, but still the King of Egypt refused to release the slaves. The tenth plague was the worst of all – God said that the firstborn in each household would die that night. But he told his people that if they sacrificed a lamb and painted its blood on their doorposts, the angel of death would ‘pass over’ their houses and they would be safe. This was a horrific event, but one that did indeed bring freedom and rescue to the Hebrew slaves, as Pharaoh let them go, and then (Pharaoh having changed his mind) God brought them miraculously out of Egypt through the Red Sea.
We have to remember that, as Jesus led his disciples through the Passover meal, this would all have been right at the forefront of their minds. Luke says, as he introduces his description of this event, “the festival of Unleavened Bread arrived, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed”. The Passover lamb, the lamb whose blood protected God’s people from death and judgement, is the dominant image here, and it seems quite clear that during this meal, Jesus is associating himself and his death with that of the Passover lamb.
Looking further into Luke’s narrative, which you can find in chapter 22, Jesus first breaks bread, telling them ‘this is my body, which is given for you’. His body will be broken and beaten unto death – why? It is for his people. Then he takes wine and says it is his blood, which will be ‘poured out as a sacrifice for you’. It is unmistakable that Jesus is speaking of his own death as a sacrifice for his people. In the context of the Passover, we must understand that Jesus’ blood will ‘cover’ his people, just as the blood of the lamb ‘covered’ the Hebrew people so that the Angel of death did not touch them as it swept through the land of Egypt.
Today’s theme is freedom, and here we have seen that Jesus’ death brings freedom from death and judgement to those who are ‘covered’ by his blood. But remember too that the Passover meal is a celebration not only of that night when the blood of the lambs protected the people, but also of the great exodus, the great escape through the Red Sea and out of Egypt which followed in the hour afterwards. The Passover is a celebration of rescue and freedom. In the first instance it was rescue from slavery in Egypt; but surely in the wider Biblical context we see that it is slavery to sin and death which is God’s ultimate rescue plan. When Jesus interprets his death in the story of Passover, he is saying that through his death we will find freedom from sin. This is important, because it is not only freedom from judgement or from guilt which Jesus achieves on the cross, but freedom from the Power of Sin as well. I’ll talk more about this cosmic victory tomorrow, but remember that Jesus says in John 8 that ‘anyone who sins is a slave to sin… but if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.’
As we’ve noted on other days, the cross has a transformational power in our lives. We see that again today. Jesus says ‘this cup is the new covenant between God and his people, confirmed with my blood’. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of this (Jeremiah 31.31-34). This new covenant, this new relationship which is brought about by the cross, is a much greater one – we are brought freedom from sin and intimacy with God that people had never before known. And Paul, too expresses Jesus’ sacrifice as one which has transformational power. In 1 Cor 5, he says ‘Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us – so let us celebrate the festival not with the old bread of wickednessand evil, but with the new bread of integrity and truth.