The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian story.
This one act — the death of the Son of God — carries with it unfathomable significance. But, like a diamond with innumerable facets, there are a few sides to the cross of Christ which are so great that it is only through them we can understand the rest. Here are three meanings of the bloody cross on that first good Friday:
Jesus Died to Absorb the Wrath of God
John Piper once wrote, “the death of Christ is the wisdom of God by which the love of God saves sinners from the wrath of God, and all the while upholds and demonstrates the righteousness of God.” [note]John Piper, Desiring God. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah. 1986, 60.[/note]
Here in the cross we find the resolution — the glorious, scandalous, beautiful, and terrible resolution to the tension of the entirety of redemptive history up to this point, and the sound is an awe-ful and wonderful one. Like the greatest finale to the greatest symphony ever written, Jesus’ death resolves the dissonance of our treasonous rebellion against God and God’s relentless love for us. How does it do this? How could death accomplish such a thing? Because in the death of the Son of God for sinners, God could be both just — taking sin seriously enough to do something about it — and merciful — pouring his wrath out on someone else so that he could save his people. Justice and mercy met where blood and water flowed.
Here, I think it most appropriate to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.
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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26).
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:10-11).
In sin, man traded places with God. On the cross, Jesus returned the favor.
In dying for sin, Jesus did something totally unexpected — better than we’d ever dream. Jesus, quite stunningly, became our sin and shame. He took all the brokenness, all the fallenness, all the war and poverty and disease. He took the unspeakable acts of horror committed against the innocent and the unspoken acts of violence committed by the guilty. He took every foul thought, impure motive, and unholy imagination that you and I have experienced. He took every part of every brokenness, upon himself. He became sin. He became detestable. He, the beautiful Son of God, became the most disgusting of things — sin. He became all of this and, representing the sin of his people, he died. He killed sin. He destroyed death. The death of death was accomplished in the death of God the Son.
This is the atonement for sin accomplished by Jesus.
Jesus Died to Demonstrate the Love of God
This is the kind of God he is. He is not forced to save us, but out of his gracious love he does anyway. And it’s this kind of love the death of the Son of God demonstrates — the amazing love of God the Father. And, the great news about this self-sacrificing love is that anyone who would look upon the death of Jesus and believe that he died to save them, will be saved. God is not only our judge, concerned with our righteousness. He is also the father of all those who would believe, and he loves us more than we can possibly know. He has the hairs on our head numbered and all our days ordained beforehand. He knows us better than anyone else and loves us more than we can possibly imagine.
“How do you know?” you ask.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, (1 John 4:10).
That’s how we know. You can’t know how much someone loves you until you know how much their love cost them. My wife knows that I love her because of what I’ve given up. To love my wife in the covenant of marriage, I have happily relinquished my say over the rest of my life. I’ve laid aside the option of simply doing whatever I want to do. I have joyfully given up independence, the love of other women, mobility, and a host of other things to gain her as my wife. And, that was a joy for me to do. Similarly, God’s love for his people is the kind of love that willingly gives up the life of the Son of God to gain us — you and me — his people.
If God loved us with a less costly, more general kind of love, I suppose that would be nice. That kind of universal, general, we-are-the-world love may be good for a song, but it’s not good for changing a heart. To change the hard, stony heart into one that lives and beats for God requires more. That kind of love can only come from the demonstration of great sacrifice, and in this case the greatest sacrifice possible — the sacrifice of God himself. This is the kind of sacrifice which takes the deepest of offenses and the broadest of relational gaps, and crosses them — even as the Son crossed the gap of eternity to come and die for us.
Jesus Died to Reconcile Us to God and Each Other
This brings us to the third accomplishment of the death of Jesus Christ: reconciliation. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that sin separates us from God, creating an enormous chasm between us. He says:
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the [God’s people] and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, (Ephesians 2:12-13).
Our brokenness creates a void that, no matter how we may try, we cannot cross. But, the good news of the story of redemption isn’t that God sits in Heaven shouting at us, “Come over here!” For he knows that we cannot, and we would not. But God, being unimaginably merciful to us, instead says, “I’m coming there.” In coming and dying, he closes the gap and reconciles the world to himself.
Remember that the nature of our offense against God spoiled creation in at least four distinct ways. Our first and primary problem is our separation from God. But of course, being separated from God has consequences — separation from each other, brokenness within ourselves, and even the inability to rightly relate to the created world. But in the cross of Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, and then calling us to be partners with him, heralding and demonstrating that same reconciliation that we have received. Paul tells us, “all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” (2 Cor. 5:18).
The death of the Son of God meant the end of war with God. In the sacrifice of Jesus we find the one death that ends all others, the one sacrifice that makes the two sides lay down arms and embrace in love. In it we also find the power to lay down arms against those who would be our enemies. For, if God has willingly sacrificed his son for a humanity that didn’t deserve it, then how can we, the recipients of such a sacrifice, not extend the same reconciling grace to others?
This good Friday, let us remember and reflect on the stunning love of God for sinners, and what Jesus death on a bloody cross have done for those who look on that act in faith.