Why the Cross?

Telford Work
Montecito Covenant Church, Santa Barbara, CA
April 28, 2013

Conundrum: The Cross Worked, but Why?

Using political — even military — imagery, Paul calls salvation "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages" (Eph. 3:7-13).

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

Like military historians, Christians agree that the plan worked, but we don't agree on why.

Events call for interpretation. The Spirit's testimony (see John 16:12-15) is like a DVD's "director's commentary."

A common interpretation (from John Calvin): On the cross Jesus took the just punishment for our sins as a divine-human substitute.

However, if this is our whole explanation of the plan, problems arise: What is just about the cross? Is the Father even good? (Cf. my friend's and some students' reactions to The Passion of the Christ.) If everything happens on the cross, does the resurrection matter? What does the cross do about suffering now?

A common response: The cross is "foolishness to the Greeks." Only faith makes sense of it.

An objection: Paul is educating here. He doesn't appeal to a mystery we can't see, but a mystery we can see.

Another objection: Eph. 3:13. For Paul, the cross is an ethic. It tells us how to live. But if the cross is just something strange, then what can it teach us?

Think: If a presidential candidate or CEO or attorney or doctor — or pastor — advocated the cross as a strategy for your life, would you vote? buy? decide in favor? visit? follow? Few 'disciples' actually have. Is one reason for this because we don't see the plan?

My answer: The main problem with the usual answer is not that substitution is wrong, but that substitution alone doesn't say nearly enough. The passage sees the cross as "a rich variety." Any convincing account of how a war was won will be complicated, because wars are complicated affairs. Our account of how the cross worked will need to be complicated if it will be accurate and persuasive.

A tour of three roles the Spirit-filled Jesus plays throughout his life will help us appreciate more about the strategy of the cross, not just as Jesus' strategy, but also as ours.

Courage: The Cross of the Priest

A massively influential interpretation of Jesus' death occurs before the fact, in Isaiah 53, where the Lord lays upon the suffering servant Israel (or one of Israel) the sin/guilt/punishment of all. When Jesus comes along, his story is seen as the fulfillment of this account. It is easy to see how this sensibility generates satisfaction or substitution language and makes it so intuitive.

Yet if Jesus is just our substitute, then why does the thief have to stay on the cross? Can't Jesus dismiss him after he confesses faith in Jesus' kingdom? Why do Christians still suffer? In fact, why does Paul think his sufferings are the Ephesians' glory?

A clue: Jesus at the Jordan submits to John's baptism for forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews envisions this aspect of Jesus' work in terms of the Jewish priesthood.

Priests aren't substitutes, but representatives. They serve at the 'tent of meeting' on God's behalf, and also on Israel's behalf. They belong to both sides.

Jesus' flesh is the curtain of the temple (Heb. 10:20), the interface between God and God's people. When he is in God's presence, we are in God's presence. When he is with us, God is with us.

Representation is thus reconciliation. God is with us in spite of our sin, sharing and overcoming its consequences.

Jesus' representation is lifelong and eternal (even now). Then what is the significance of Jesus' death? It is the climax of his work as our representative. It is Jesus so fully immersed in a discouraged, Roman-occupied Israel "held in slavery by fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-18) that he can represent all its needs and deliver it.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. ... He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

The old covenant's priestly line could not represent Israel as well as Jesus can (Heb. 7). Sinless Jesus is our best representation (the way we speak of 'the best legal representation'), not just on the cross but also today. (Think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The Green Mile.)

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:7-10).

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16).

What is the point of his shed blood? It is not that God needs to see pain and suffering. The priests did not torture animals, they just slaughtered them.

Moreover, despite some resemblances, this is not a sacrifice according to the law of Moses! The cross is "abuse" (Heb. 13:13).

1. His blood is like (and better than) the sacrifices for the old priests' purification — to set them apart (make them holy) as worthy representatives (Heb. 9:12-14).

he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

2. His blood ratifies the new covenant (9:15-24) that removes our sin (9:26-10:25) [remember, Jesus was already forgiving sin before his crucifixion]. Blood is how the ancients 'signed' their covenants. Jesus' blood is like his signature on an agreement — it is his solemn commitment to represent us.

3. And what a signature! Like the giant 'John Hancock' on the Declaration of Independence that is big enough for George III to see without his glasses, the passion, resurrection, and ascension convince us of the new covenant's reality (10:22-23) and so empower us to serve (10:24-25).

4. Jesus' blood "sprinkles" our hearts "to cleanse us from a guilty conscience" (Heb. 10:22) and deliver us from our worthiness of God's punishment and retribution (10:26-31) to lives of love and goodness.

So Jesus' priestly act is confidence in the expectation of coming joy that lets him call on God for deliverance while enduring shaming and hostility from sinners (Heb. 12:1-4).

That should be our confidence as Spirit-filled disciples awaiting deliverance during suffering (Heb. 12:3-15) and representing Christ to others as his fellow priests (John 20:19-23).

Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (Heb. 13:13).

Conquest: The Cross of the King

If Jesus is just our substitute, then does God agree with Caiaphas', Herod's, and Pilate's verdicts? Is Jesus just submitting to earthly authorities? So we don't have to? Or so we do? How does the cross do anything about worldly injustice? What should the disciples have done in response to his arrest?

A clue: At Jesus' baptism, God says, "You are my Son" (Ps. 2:7 — a royal psalm), meaning the Father's heir.

God's new reign happens throughout Jesus' life. The ways he acts are the ways God reigns.

From his baptism through his ascension, Jesus was sent to preach "the good news of the Kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43-Acts 1:3).

Kings are military leaders; Jesus' life is a campaign warring against evil rebellion, as in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-12), or John's scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:6) or before Pilate (18:33-38).

This is easy to miss because Jesus refuses to adopt his enemies' tactics. (Think Gandhi, even though Jesus isn't that kind of pacifist.) The cross is not Jesus' military defeat, but brilliant asymmetrical warfare (John 12:23-33).

Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. ... Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Jesus is our 'passover lamb'. Sin and death conspire against him, but fail. How do you defend against a risen savior when killing him didn't humiliate and stop him as you intended it to? Jesus' death defuses the principalities and powers that tried to make a spectacle of him. Instead, his 'weakness' makes a spectacle of their 'strength' (Col. 2:8-15). This is why "Christ crucified" is foolishness, yet "the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:23-25).

In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. ... When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The ends of the earth are already the spoils of Jesus' victory, and we are already its freed captives.

The Kingdom's freedom is real freedom from slavery to any opponent of the Kingdom.

Jesus shares his reign with us when he shares his Spirit. When we thus suffer with Christ, our sufferings also lead to victory (John 13:36) and inheritance (Rom. 8:11-17).

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. ... For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are sons of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Enemies still try to defeat God; Jesus' disciples are conscripted to fight his war with his asymmetrical tactics and spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:10-17).

Conviction: The Cross of the Prophet

If Jesus is a just a substitute, does the rest of his life have any real significance? Could he just have come and died for us, fulfilling Isaiah 53 and satisfying the Lord? Why is hearing about his life, death, and resurrection so important?

A clue: Jesus' baptism is like Isaiah's anointing to proclaim (Isa. 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-22).

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." ... Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Jewish prophets were "appointed above nations and kingdoms" (Jer. 1:10).

Examples: Moses over Pharaoh (the ultimate prophet-redeemer), Nathan over David, Elijah over Ahab, Jeremiah over kings of Judah and Babylon, Daniel over Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist over Herod; today, Martin Luther King, Jr. over the United States Government.

Jesus' whole life is truth-telling. His signs and wonders "teach with authority" (Mark 1:21-28; on the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 7:29), challenging the status quo, creating conflict, and leading to others' judgment of Jesus as a false prophet and blasphemer (Mark 14:53-65).

But where we must look on him is where he is lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14-16).

Facing the cross saves us because it is the climax of Jesus' prophesying:

about God, whose love suffers with sufferers, even those who suffer God;
about us, who misuse power in every possible way and suffer the consequences;
about the future of the world and its peoples, which is radical transformation.

Persecuting prophets doesn't extinguish the truth. (Think Prince of Egypt or Romero.) Prophecy works anyway (Luke 23:47, 1 Thess. 1:1-5). Continuing in Jesus' word teaches us the truth and sets us free (John 8:31-32).

The resurrection is God's vindication of Jesus' righteous life and wrongful death. Jesus is the awaited "prophet like Moses" (Acts 3:11-26). His truth-telling signs and wonders deliver like none since Moses.

Jesus' disciples receive his Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) and so prophesy of his signs and wonders (Acts 2:22-40), with similar consequences (Acts 2:41-47), including persecution (Acts 6:8-7:60).

Prophesying is powerful and dangerous business — but not risky (Luke 21:12-19).

They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith ... (Ro 1:16-17).

Community: The Cross of the Messiah

If Jesus is a just a substitute, are we just individual beneficiaries? Do we need to do anything?

A clue: the disciples are baptized too, "into the Messiah" or "into Christ."

As our representative, our leader, and our truth-teller, Jesus bears a cross that is already ours (Matt. 16:24). He is not there so that we don't have to be; he is there now because we were there already (Matt. 10:38).

Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

You already have your cross, your doom. What changes for those who have his Spirit-anointing is that they can (like Paul) now bear their crosses together, joyfully, as signs of

fellowship with God and each other,
victory over sin and death, and
our own (and our world's) coming transformation.

If we do that, we become powerful signs to the world that the good news is a reality, and a strategy that really works. (Think Places in the Heart.)

Lee Camp, in Mere Discipleship, unpacks the consequences of 'radical Christianity':

worship: why disciples love their enemies
baptism: why disciples don't make good Americans (or Germans, or Frenchmen)
prayer: why disciples trust God rather than their own calculations
communion: why disciples share their wealth
evangelism: how disciples "make a difference"

Note that I am not pleading with you to think positively about the cross and use that new attitude to change your life. It is not for you to create its meaning, nor for me, but only for the Holy Spirit. We do not make the cross significant; the cross of Jesus makes us significant. Our role is only to receive and obey its message.

If our crosses are not our glory, then we are really telling some different story and turning the good news into foolishness (horror, fanaticism, wishful thinking, hypocrisy, sentimentalism, a distant future, an unattainable ideal, a calling for a select few).

If the cross is your hope, it is also your glory and your life.