I want to talk this morning about the Purpose of the Passion. What do I mean by ‘the Passion’? I mean the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Whether you’ve seen the Mel Gibson film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ or not, and whatever your view of it, one thing is clear: it’s stirred up a great deal of controversy. Here’s a selection of the headlines: ‘Passions run high over violent act of faith by Mel Gibson’; ‘Hysteria in US over Gibson’s Passion’; ‘Passion ignites world audiences’ and so it has gone on.
But a lot of the controversy has been like a kind of smokescreen obscuring the most important question, which is not actually about the film at all. It’s this: What really is the significance of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth? Why’s that single death still such a storm centre two thousand years later? The truth is that during the last century alone, to our eternal shame, tens of millions of men, women and children have died brutal deaths at the hands of their fellow men. What’s so special about this one? To get to the bottom of that, I want to answer four related questions:
First, how do we make sense of the suffering and death of Jesus? Secondly, who is this Jesus who suffered and died on that cross? Thirdly, why did Jesus suffer and die on that cross? Fourthly, how do we respond to what Jesus has done for us through his suffering and death?
First, HOW DO WE MAKE SENSE OF THE SUFFERING AND DEATH OF JESUS?
This is something that film gets right, because the opening frame is a quotation from the Bible. It comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, and verse 5. Do open up one of the Bibles that are spread around the pews, and you’ll find it there on p 740.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
And the prophecy continues:
We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The truth is that the only way to make sense of the suffering and death of Jesus is to go back and see what the Bible says about it. The Bible is a collection of documents which is the only detailed source we have for what actually happened in those fateful few days leading to Jesus’ death. And it’s the Bible which also gives us the authoritative interpretation of the significance of his death.
Why do I say the Bible is the key to the truth here? Because what the Bible says about the cross, even centuries before it took place, hangs together in an astonishing way. And because that is the Bible’s claim about itself. The Bible claims to be true, and to have God as well as men for its author – a claim that I along with Christian’s down the ages find utterly convincing. And I also say that the Bible gives us the truth about the cross because Jesus himself pointed to the Bible as explaining what he was doing.
You’ll have to come to your own conclusion about whether the Bible is God’s word as it claims. But that is my answer to the first question. How do we go about making sense of the suffering and death of Jesus? We go to the Bible and listen to what it has to say.
Secondly, WHO IS THIS JESUS WHO SUFFERED AND DIED ON THAT CROSS?
Well what did Jesus himself claim about who he was? That passage in Isaiah is a prophecy given 700 years before the birth of Jesus. It relates to a man who is called God’s servant, who has been appointed by God to save his people throughout the world. This passage is one part of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. Messiah and Christ mean the same thing – God’s chosen King.
Now Jesus applies this prophecy of Isaiah about the suffering servant to himself. On the night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples:
“It is written [that is to say, this is in the Bible - quote]: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment.”
That quote (‘he was numbered with the transgressors’) comes directly from the suffering servant prophecy in Isaiah 53 (verse 12 in fact). In other words, Jesus says directly, even as he is preparing to be killed, that this prophecy is all about him. He is the suffering servant of God. So what Isaiah says about the significance of the death of God’s servant tells us what is the significance of Jesus’s suffering and death.
And Jesus also claimed directly to be the Messiah. Just to give one example: when the disciple Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him that he is right. And what is more, he says that Peter didn’t work it out for himself. God has shown him the truth. If you want to follow that up you can find it in Matthew’s Gospel 16.16. So Jesus agrees that he is the Messiah, and in the same breath he speaks of God as his own Father. And Jesus tells his disciples more. Matthew says:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
This is not the kind of Messiah that Peter, for one, was expecting. But Jesus knows exactly what’s going to happen to him. How is Jesus the Messiah going to bring in his Kingdom? By dying at the hands of his enemies. Why?
We often admire the courage and sacrifice of people who die attempting to rescue others. One of those who escaped from high up in one of the blazing twin towers of the World Trade Center described how, as he was desperately making his way down floor by floor, firefighters were climbing up the stairs to try to rescue people. He expressed his admiration for them. Many of them died in that failed attempt to save those trapped at the top.
The death of Jesus was not going to be a useless death. Jesus said later that he would die
“to give his life as a ransom for many.”
That’s Mark 10.45. In other words, his death would be the price that had to be paid so that we could escape eternal death and hell and find forgiveness and eternal life.
But before he died, Jesus said that he wouldn’t stay dead. He would be raised from death to live for ever. He would defeat death itself. And that would be God’s proof that Jesus really is the Saviour and Lord of the world.
That’s who Jesus said that he was. Who do you say Jesus is?
Who is Jesus? He claimed to be the Son of God, and the Saviour and Lord of the world. Is that true?
If you’re not clear in your own mind who Jesus is, then please investigate further. The best way to do that is to get together with a few other people and to look together at the source documents that tell us about him, which are collected here in the Bible.
You could do that, for instance, by joining one of our Christianity Explored groups. There’s a leaflet in the pews about those – but I’ll say more about that a bit later.
C.S.Lewis, in a famous passage, sums up the central issue here of the identity of Jesus. He says:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God’. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.
It is not enough to see Jesus as an extraordinary person. Even non-Christians can accept him as the example of a spotless life. Mahatma Ghandi once said:
The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck but to turn the other cheek – it was a beautiful example, I thought, of the perfect man.
But Ghandi refused to accept the absolute uniqueness of Christ. He believed that all religions were equal. But you can’t have Christ without his teaching. And you can’t have his teaching without his claims about himself which make him equal with God. There can be no half measures when we answer this question that Jesus puts to each one of us: ‘Who do you say I am?’ If we say, with Peter, ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God’, then we are setting our faces against every other world view. As one Christian writer puts it:
Islam says Jesus wasn’t crucified. We [Christians] say he was. Only one of us can be right. Judaism says Jesus was not the Messiah. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Hinduism says that God has often been incarnate. We say only once. And we can’t both be right. Buddhism says that the world’s miseries will end when we do what’s right. We say, you can’t do what’s right: the world’s miseries will end when we believe what’s right. So what’s your answer to the question of who Jesus is? It’s the most crucial question you will ever face. What Christians say, because the Bible says it, and because Jesus himself said it, is that Jesus is the suffering servant of God; he’s the Christ – God’s chosen King; and he’s the Son of God. So that’s the answer to the second question: Who is this Jesus who suffered and died?
Thirdly, WHY DID JESUS SUFFER AND DIE ON THAT CROSS?
Here’s three reasons, that come from the Bible, and not least from this prophecy of Isaiah. First, we’re lost. Secondly, Jesus has compassion on us. Thirdly, Jesus acted to rescue us.
Look again at Isaiah 53.6:
We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way
We’re like lost sheep and in the end we only have ourselves to blame. We’ve said no to God, and no to going his way, and no to staying close to him.
And lost sheep die if they’re not rescued. I remember walking in the Yorkshire Dales – much friendlier terrain than the rigours of the middle eastern deserts. And yet several times we found the rotting carcases of dead sheep that had strayed away from the safety of the flock and the farmer.
To willfully stray away from God is to rebel against him. And God cannot tolerate rebellion. Rebels face the death penalty. The stark truth is: that is what we deserve. Because we’ve turned our backs on God, unless we’re rescued we will pay the price of our rebellion – an eternity suffering the consequences of our choice to cut ourselves off from God. That’s what hell is. That’s what we deserve. We are lost.
But God doesn’t want us who are like lost sheep to be lost for all eternity. Why? Because he has compassion on us. That’s not what we deserve. But God sent his Son on a rescue mission. And the Son shares the compassion of the Father. The Bible says:
When he saw the crowds, [Jesus] had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
That’s Matthew 9.36. This is a powerful, gut-wrenching compassion that’s being described. Jesus could’ve been aloof and indifferent. He was not. He could with justice have been condemnatory and dismissive. He was not. He could have made excuses for people and down-played their sin. He did not. In Matthew 7.11 his one word description of the state of heart of the crowd is “evil”. He could have despised the crowd, caught up in all their petty absurdities. He could have hated the crowd, which would soon turn on him and tear him down. But instead, his heart went out to them.
He sees that we wander around like stupid lost sheep. We follow whoever happens to be in front even though they have no idea where they’re going. We get ourselves into deeper and deeper trouble, torn apart by predators and worn down by fear, with not the slightest hope of ever extricating ourselves from the valley of death that we have got ourselves trapped into.
Harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
It’s a graphic metaphor. It’s a description of us. And Christ looks at us, and has compassion. God’s compassion – because that’s who he is. And his compassion lead him to the cross – because that’s what it took to rescue us.
A few years ago a three year old boy called Benny wandered off alone onto an electric railway line. He tripped and fell across the track and was badly electrocuted. He lay there unconscious. A railway worker called Gordon saw him from a distance and ran to where he lay. Gordon had already had to remove several adult bodies from the line over the years and he feared the worst – but he saw that the child was still alive and using a piece of wood because Benny’s body was live with lethal electricity he managed to get him off the line. But before he could move him out of danger he saw a train bearing down towards them. The only thing he had time to do was to stand on the track ahead of Benny with his arms aloft to try to warn the train to stop before he and the child were crushed. The driver saw him and slammed on the brakes and the train came to a halt 15 feet from where Gordon was standing, rigid with fear. The boy survived the electrocution. Gordon literally laid his life on the line for Benny. He too survived. But he has not been able to go near an electric railway line since, and had to leave his job.
Jesus laid his life down and died to rescue us. And one of the closest friends of Jesus during his earthly life, the apostle John, who was there at the cross watching Jesus die, says this, in 1 John 3:16 :
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
And again he says, a bit later, in 1 John 4:9 :
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world, that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
What does it mean to say that the death of Jesus is an atoning sacrifice for our sins? It means that the suffering and death of Jesus was the price that had to be paid so that we don’t have to pay the price of our rebellion and sin against God. That price is an eternity suffering all that it means to be cut off from God. Back to Isaiah 53 again:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He suffered our punishment – so we don’t have to. Our iniquity – our rebellion against God and all the sin and evil that flow from it – was laid on him, as if he was the one who had committed it and not us. He substituted himself for us. He paid our debt to God. He served our sentence. He died our death. He sacrificed himself to set us free. His death was an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
God wants his lost sheep back in the fold. Jesus came to bring us back. What is Jesus willing to do to rescue us? The simple answer is: anything it takes. Whatever the cost, he’ll do anything it takes. Why? Because of his amazing love. He doesn’t want us to be thrown into the fire of hell. He wants us to know eternal life with him. And what did it take? It took suffering and death on a cross. That, then, is the third answer. Why did Jesus go through that? To save us from death and hell. That’s his costly gift to us. But we have to turn back to him and receive the gift. We have to do the same as that thief who was hanging, dying, on a cross next to Jesus, who believed that Jesus was the King and entrusted his life to him. And that brings us to the final question.
Fourthly, HOW DO WE RESPOND TO WHAT JESUS HAS DONE FOR US THROUGH HIS SUFFERING AND DEATH?
Well, here’s how we need to respond. First, investigate until we find the truth. Secondly, trust our lives to Jesus. Thirdly, live for him.
I saw this story a while back. A man was at the airport and he bought a bag of mini-doughnuts and a cup of coffee. It was very busy and he found a seat at a little table with another man sitting opposite, put his bags down and settled down to eat his doughnuts. He takes a doughnut out of the bag and eats it. As he does so, without a word the man opposite reaches into the bag, takes a doughnut himself, and eats it. He can hardly believe it. And he’s too embarrassed to say anything or even catch the other man’s eye, so he ignores it. He pulls the bag towards him, and takes another doughnut. Eats it. Takes another. Then the other man, without looking at him, reaches over, pulls the bag towards him, takes a doughnut, shamelessly, then pushes the bag back. This goes on, with our man seething inside. After a while the other man gets up to leave. ‘Getting rid of him at last!’ our man thinks. There’s one doughnut left. As he stands to leave, the other man reaches into the bag, takes out the last doughnut, breaks it in two, eats half, puts the remaining half back into the bag, pushes it back to him, and leaves. Our man is furious. This is unbelievable! Anyway, the time comes for him to go too, so he sorts himself out, bends down to pick up his luggage… And there in his bag on the floor he sees his own unopened bag of doughnuts. The doughnuts he’d been eating had belonged to the other man. It was the other man who had the right to be angry. But instead he’d been generous.
If we’re going to respond rightly to what Jesus has done, then we need to go through the same kind of total transformation in our thinking that that man experienced when he realised he’d been eating the other man’s doughnuts. Except that this is a matter of life and death – eternal life and death.
We need to realise that God is the one with the right to be angry - with us. He has nothing to apologise to us for. Far from it. We have robbed him and rebelled against him; ignored and neglected him or opposed him to his face. But instead of turning his back on us for ever, God has sent his Son to die for us. Our debt is paid. We can be forgiven. We can come back home to our heavenly Father. We can receive eternal life.
Now maybe you think that’s all too much to handle at the moment. Perhaps you don’t understand it. Or you’re not sure it’s true. Or you want to take a closer look at the Bible for yourself before you make any decisions based on what it says. Or you just have more questions about Jesus that you want to find answers to before you can think of taking things any further. If that’s you, then I would like to say this: please investigate.
Maybe you do feel ready to believe in Jesus and trust your life to him. If so, then just tell him. Talk to him in the silence of your own heart. He promises to hear, and he promises to accept you back in to God’s family. Talk to him – and then start learning how to live for him.
A great way to do that is to come along to one of our informal short courses called ‘Christianity Explored’, which I mentioned before. The blue leaflet about it is in the pews. Whether you are still unsure, or you think you’re ready to make a start on living as a Christian, I think you’d find this helpful. It’s an opportunity to meet up with others who also have questions. There are short video talks by a guy called Rico Tice explaining more about Jesus using Mark’s Gospel. And there’s opportunity to talk together in informal small groups about issues that are raised, and whatever questions you might have.
The next of these courses starts after Easter, on April 22. Do come along. You can let us know you’d like to come by filling in the form that’s at the back of the leaflet. If you do that at the end of the service today, then you can either give the form to one of the staff wearing a badge, or put it in one of the boxes on the way out. We can then get in touch with you and give you more information in due course.
In the mean time, you can make a start with one of these little blue booklets from the back, which is Mark’s account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, from the Bible. This is what we look more closely at in Christianity Explored. It’s short. It’s easy to read. Do please take one – they’re free - and begin to read it through. That’s the best way to get to know Jesus better.
Now before we sing our final hymn, let’s bow our heads to pray for a moment.
Lord Jesus, we remember your suffering and death on that cross – and we are awed and humbled by what you’ve done for us. Teach each one of us by your Spirit to turn back and to trust our lives totally and permanently to you. And teach each one of us to live for you, now and always, as our way of saying ‘thank you’. Amen.