Chapter 5: CROSS
Why the cross was no accident.Why the cross is terrifying and glorious. Why the cross is the heart of the good news.
In downtown Dallas there’s an old warehouse building built in 1901. It’s a beautiful plaza of old buildings to walk around during the day but probably not the kind of area you’d want to wander around at night. The building itself doesn't seem particularly remarkable, except for the families towing kids toward it from all directions.
I visited the building as a teenager, not totally prepared for it. I knew we were supposed to go to a museum but I was likely more wrapped up in a book than where we were going.
I should have paid attention.
Packing my family and other friends of our family into the elevator, we took it to the sixth floor. Exhibits filled the open room but around the corner kids and adults were gathered around one of the corners of the building.
It was a corner with large windows surrounding by stacks of book boxes that looked like they hadn't been moved in decades. They hadn't.
Because out that window was a road and a grassy knoll. Because at that corner window, squinting through a scope a sniper killed a man who was sitting in a convertible and waving at the crowds around him.
This was the place Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy.
It was strange then to see curious onlookers with their faces pressed up against the glass that preserved the corner perch. It was strange to see kids pull their dads shirts and pointing at the place a disgruntled former Marine shot his commander-in-chief.
As a teenager, I put my book down and started paying attention. After the infamous corner window, the museum turned to various explanations for what happened that day, who was behind it, and what it meant. There was an FBI model of the plaza, dozens of pictures, and presentations of various theories.
I had never grown up hearing stories about JFK's assassination. I didn't see it on the news. I barely read about it in history books. So I felt like an archeologist sifting through newspaper clippings and eyewitness testimony to piece together what actually happened. And the more I read, the more I looked, the more I dug, the more confusing it became.
There seemed to only be one thing everyone agreed on: Those three shots (two? four?) changed the world. After that, there was no going back.
It’s funny isn’t it? The way a man is killed and it rewrites the pages of history before it and echoes into the pages after it.
In some ways trying to examine Jesus and his death is something like a trip to Oswald's storage room perch. Everyone agrees something happened, that it was important, that it changed the world. But there are so many versions of Jesus, so many explanations of the significance of his death, that you feel like an archeologist piecing the information together.
So what really happened and what does it mean?
Beneath the Surface
In the gospels Jesus keeps doing something that shocks the religious leaders of the day more than healing or raising the dead: he keeps claiming he can forgive sins.
In one story Jesus is teaching in someone’s house when the roof comes off. At this point in the story his reputation has already spread quickly. People whisper that Jesus can heal anything or anyone. In a day when there were few medical cures and serious illness or disability was often a life sentence, Jesus was a miracle worker. This helps you understand why some desperate men did a desperate thing—they climbed up onto the roof, tore a hole in it, and lowered down their paralyzed friend. And Jesus said, ”Your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:17-26).
This is a fascinating moment. Jesus is a compassionate man, he has the power to heal, and faced with a man who is paralyzed...he forgives his sins? Why? Because Jesus was addressing the man’s greatest need. Because Jesus loved this man and wanted what was best for him.
Often we get our greatest need wrong. We think it’s paying our bills, or being in a relationship, or even being healthy. Or maybe it’s an end to world hunger or to war and conflict somewhere in the world. Jesus sees those needs. They’re real. But he sees that underneath it, something is causing those problems.
A few years ago I went to the ER with horrible stomach pain. I couldn’t think straight. Honestly, if you asked me what I wanted most in the world I would have said, ”I just want the pain to stop.” Then after some scans the doctor came in with the results: ”Your appendix is about to burst,” he said. ”We’ve got to get it out.” The doctor saw that the source of pain was deeper than I thought. He saw what I really needed.
This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said he came to ”seek and save the lost.” He came to save us in a deeper way than we knew we needed.
After Jesus heals the paralytic the religious leaders said ”Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21) and they were right. Only God can forgive sins and as we’ve covered, Jesus was no mere man, but God himself.
But that question should bother us in light of what we’ve read in the Bible: How can sins actually be forgiven, even by God? If you understand the reality of God's holiness and the reality of our sinfulness, claiming you can give out forgiveness of sins with no punishment for sins, no justice, is wrong. It seems impossible even for God himself to say this. If God is holy in his nature and sin is utterly opposed to his nature, he can't forgive sins without bringing justice either.
Unless—unless God himself made another way that would see sin punished and justice served.
Him for Us
This brings us to the death of Jesus.
Too many people still think that Jesus was the subject of forces beyond his control, that he was simply at the wrong place or wrong time, that he was another sad martyr like Martin Luther King, Jr. But this was Jesus plan all along. In Matthew 16:21 he tells his disciples clearly that he’s going to Jerusalem to suffer and die and claims he’ll rise again on the third day. The cross of Christ wasn’t an accident. It was the plan all along. It was the way Jesus would save the lost, the way he would forgive sins.
Jesus was beaten and whipped viciously. He was nailed to a wooden cross, hung until he couldn’t breathe anymore. He was humiliated and mocked. And when he died his last words were surprising: “It is finished” (John 19:30).
But why? Why did Jesus have to die? What was he “finishing?"
I love the simplicity of 2 Corinthians 5:21 in explaining the death of Jesus: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, God treated Jesus as if he had committed all our sins. This means that the brutal whipping that flayed Jesus' back open, the unjust trial, the crown of thorns, the spikes driven through his wrists and his feet, the agony as Jesus pushed himself up on his heal to keep from suffocating, was not even close to what he experienced behind the scenes. On the cross, God poured out the just wrath that had been stored up for sins, but he poured it out on Jesus. God's infinite holiness and infinite power resulted in unbelievable universe-tearing wrath.
Sin equals death, and Jesus bore the just punishment for our sin.
The punishment Jesus endured was the punishment we deserved. If God were to punish sin, then justice would be the result, and that justice would be terrifying. But Jesus stepped in. Jesus exchanged places with us. Jesus was treated by God as if he’d committed our sins.
The books of the law highlighted sin’s consequence with every drop of blood shed in the temple. Sin equals death, the sacrifices shouted, the shedding of blood. And over the course of our lives, sin would store up more and more death for us. Perhaps we’d taste justice in this life but we’d fully bear justice in the life to come. Until one day a final sacrifice was made. Christ’s blood was shed for us. He was poured out and spent for us.
Jesus did this so that if we are "in him" we might become righteous again according to God's standards. Not sort of righteous according to God's standards, not more righteous than you and I, but wholly righteous in God's sight. Jesus was perfectly righteous before God, he met the standard of holiness.
This is not simply more religion. This isn’t a self-help manual for us to save ourselves. This isn’t “Okay spend 20 years trying in vain to do more good deeds than bad deeds.” This is far better news.
Inside the Cross
But how exactly can this work? How is this possible?
Romans 3:22-25 takes us into the machinery of those moments on the cross a bit more: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
Two crucial words there: justified and propitiation. If you don't get those words the sentence reads like a long piece of Latin mumbo jumbo, the kind of thing I memorized as a kid but had no idea what I was saying. But these two words are some of the best news in the world.
Justification is term from the legal world. It evokes a courtroom where the obviously guilty prisoner is about to be sentenced to death in view of the stacks of evidence against him. But a commotion rises in the back of the courtroom where the mayor himself steps over the railing and presents himself to the judge saying, "Punish me instead. Give him my good name and let him go free." Jesus did this on a cosmic scale.
Jesus died to switch places with us, taking a position he didn't deserve so we could have a position we didn't deserve.
Propitiation is a term from the temple. When sacrifices were offered to God or to the gods they were offered to appease wrath and to gain favor. In the Old Testament God instructed his people to offer sacrifices, even though the blood of animals can't ultimately pay for the sins of mankind. God "passed over" those sins because of what was coming. So why did he do this? To show them a pattern: Sin, equals punishment, which equals death. If you sin, something must die, or more accurately someone must die. On the cross, someone did die.
Jesus died to step in front of the freight train of God's wrath rushing toward us so that not a drop of wrath would be left for us nor would a drop of blood still be necessary.
But the story doesn't end there.
We can finally go back to the thing our hearts long for. We can finally know the God of the endless stars, the God of endless goodness and love. We don’t have to wander life anymore looking for something we can’t put our finger on. We can finally come home.
The Apostle Peter says that Jesus suffered, ”the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus did all this—dying as the righteous for the unrighteous—so that he might bring us back to God. The relationship we were made for and long for is restored.
God does not just save us and then leave us at arm's length, he brings us near.
My grandfather was an intimidating man. By the time I began visiting his office, he was already an old man. But when he walked in the warehouse, he would still send employees scurrying around. Everything in his office was spotless, and pristine, and dignified. He’d been in business many years, he was a respected man, and people treated him with respect. Every time I visited his office I would be quiet and hang back. But he would smile and invite me to come sit on his lap and offer me an orange gummy candy he kept on his desk. He brought me near.
God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, he has unlimited power, and yet he makes a way through the cross to invite us near.
Paul the Apostle says that ”God sent forth his Son...to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). We don’t just have a close relationship with God on the other side of the cross, we are family. We have a father who will never leave us or forsake us, whose love and affection is secure.
And it gets even better.
Three days after being killed in front of everyone, Jesus wasn't in his tomb. Death itself could not hold him. He rose again, completely conquering death and sin. His resurrection was his vindication, his proof that all he said was true, that all that Scripture says happened on the cross really happened.
And the news gets even better. For those who believe in Christ, all that Jesus experienced on the cross, he experienced for us. Scripture says that we are “in Christ” and are treated as if we’ve already paid for our sins, because our sins were paid in Christ. But being “in Christ” also means that what happens to Christ in his resurrection will happen to us as well. It means that not only did Christ pay for our sins (which itself is amazing) but because he rose again to new life, we can receive new life too. Jesus not only conquers death, he brings life.
When I was growing up, our church would often do some kind of Easter drama. The best one we ever did started with a full 30 minutes of singing, followed by a lengthy drama reenactment of Jesus going to the cross. Finally, we got to the resurrection part. The whole back of the stage was our baptismal pool and it was covered to look like a tomb. Everyone looked around and waited for someone to run up on stage and pretend to be Jesus but no one did. Instead, out of the tomb itself, someone burst out of the paper and cardboard rubble. People gasped. I’m not sure whether they gasped because they were excited by the story, or because we all realized together that this guy had been hiding in a tiny cramped baptismal pool for over two hours just for the big reveal. But we all gasped together. I remember him trying to hold back a smile as he burst out victoriously.
Here’s the best part: Those of us “in Christ” burst out of the tomb with Christ. For so long we’d lived as though dead, but when Jesus’ heart restarted, our heart restarted. When his life was renewed, our life was renewed.
Scripture says that we are “new creations—the old is gone and the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It means that we have the same power that raised Jesus from the dead living in us (Romans 8:11). While in this life we may still struggle with sin at times, we’ll be fundamentally different people. Old addictions can be broken. New patterns can be set. All with the power of Christ.
Not just for a little while, but forever. Really. In John 3:16 God says that he sent his so that we could have “eternal life.” This new life we have is glimpsed here and now but one day we’ll have it in all its fullness. When we die, we will not stay dead but be raised like Christ to new life. Jesus’ resurrection is our guarantee of it. If we are in Christ and he was raised, we too will be raised to something better than we’ve ever experienced.
Life. With God. Forever.
That’s what Jesus has opened for us. If this is true, it changes everything.