As you'll see from the outline on the back of the service sheet, my title this evening is 'The Cross of Christ'. But why would we want to give our attention to the brutal execution of a man two thousand years ago? And there's no denying that if you're thinking to yourself 'That's not a very cheerful topic for an early Spring evening!' then you're right.
Thankfully, as all that we've been singing this evening makes clear, the suffering of the crucifixion is not the end of story. The truth is that Jesus broke out of the grave. He is alive today. He is with us now and always by his Spirit. One day we'll see him face to face. Nothing could be more joy-inducing than that. And the more we get to grips with the good news of Jesus the more deeply joyful we become.
But one of the wonderful things about being a Christian, as those of us who are have found, is that we can be joyful and at the same time face hard facts head on. And one of those hard facts is that Jesus died on a cross.
So I have two simple questions. First, how did Jesus die? And secondly, why did Jesus die? And to help answer those questions I want us to take another look at those two Bible readings we've heard. The reading from Matthew's Gospel helps us to know how Jesus died. The reading from the Letter to the Galatians helps us to know why it happened.
1. How Did Jesus Die?
Take a look at Matthew 27.27-50 – this eye-witness account of what happened on that momentous day. And there's a number of features of this account that I want to draw to your attention.
Note, for a start, how widespread is the hatred of Jesus. Do you see all the different categories of people caught up in this wave of revulsion against the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life?
There are the Roman soldiers and the Jewish religious leaders; so Jews and non-Jews, secular and spiritual, the colonised and the colonisers.
There are those directly involved in the maltreatment of Jesus – the tormenting soldiers and the Jewish leaders who plotted and planned to crucify Jesus. And there are those only indirectly involved – the company of soldiers gathered to enjoy the violent pre-crucifixion show in the governor's headquarters, and passers-by who are on their way to the shops or whatever when they see Jesus dying on that cross and hurl casual insults.
There's the Governor and the chief priests; and the two robbers crucified alongside Jesus – so the outwardly law-abiding and the criminal; the highest in the land and the lowest of the low; the rich and the poor. It could hardly be more graphically clear that everyone is implicated in the rejection of Jesus that sends him to his death.
And, of course, that includes me, and it includes you. As the chastened and newly Holy Spirit-filled apostle Peter puts it at Pentecost, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to the crowd most of whom were not even anywhere near the scene of Jesus death (this is Acts 2.23):
"… this Jesus, … you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men."
How widespread is the hatred of Jesus.
Then it's hard to miss the irony of the taunts against Jesus. With lashings of sneering, jeering, sarcasm they describe him as the King of the Jews, the Temple builder, the Son of God. How laughable it is, they think, that this scum of the earth should have such pretensions.
Little do they know that what they say is true. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. He is the one who will build a glorious new Temple made of people – the church that will reach to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age and into eternity. So these taunts are unintentionally prophetic.
Then we mustn't miss seeing the depth of the humiliation of Jesus. This is the one who has come from the glory he shares with God the Father, the creator and sustainer of all things. His suffering is deliberately public and in full view. He is stripped, spat on, mocked and reviled. He was crucified, a form of execution that brought to the Jewish mind the command in Deuteronomy 21 that says that "a hanged man is cursed by God" and so must be buried the same day so as not to "defile [the] land". He died with criminals, labelled a criminal and a rebel. Total humiliation.
What's more, we need to be aware of the extreme nature of Jesus' physical suffering. The descriptions are short and sharp, and thankfully we need not dwell on this. But maybe the brevity of the accounts just reflects the general awareness of the horror of crucifixion. Even before our passage begins Jesus had already been flogged – and that in itself was a sometimes fatal flaying. Then on top of that there was the crown of thorns; and the soldiers, says Matthew…
"… took the reed and struck him on the head."
By then he was too weakened by his suffering to be able to carry the cross beam to which he would be nailed. And then they crucified him – a form of death unspeakably painful and degrading.
What, then, have we been reminded of by this account in Matthew's Gospel? We've seen how widespread is the hatred of Jesus. We've seen the irony of the taunts directed at Jesus. We've seen the depth of the humiliation of Jesus. And we've seen the extreme nature of the physical suffering of Jesus. That's how Jesus died.
2. Why Did Jesus Die?
How do we make sense of the cross of Christ? That's what the apostle Paul helps us to do in his Letter to the Galatians. I want us to look closely at two key verses in Galatians 3 – so now please turn that up. These verses are on p 973 in the Bibles – or in the service sheet. Look at Galatians 3.13-14:
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree' – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith."
What's this all about then? The apostle Paul is desparately worried about the young Christians of Galatia. He's afraid that even though they've only been Christians for a very short time, they're already losing sight of the heart of the their faith. He's afraid that they're forgetting all that Jesus had done for them through his death on the cross. They're listening instead to new teachers who are causing them to take their eyes off Jesus and his death. So he says in Galatians at 1.6:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one …"
And again at Galatians 3.1:
"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified."
So then in Galatians 3.13-14, he takes them back to the very heart of the gospel – the God-given good news about Jesus. The 'law' that he speaks of is God's law. Look again:
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law …"
Why does he describe God's law as a curse? Because we all break that law. And that makes us justly subject to condemnation. There is no soft way of saying this, but the truth is we all deserve damnation. That is the curse that hangs over us.
But Jesus …
"… redeemed us from the curse of the law …"
In other words, he paid for us to be set free from that condemnation. How?
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us …"
By "becoming a curse for us". That is, when he died on that cross he was taking on himself the damnation that we deserve, so that we don't have to.
And what is the outcome? We find ourselves on the receiving end of 'the blessing of Abraham'.
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree' – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles [that is, those who aren't Jews]."
What's "the blessing of Abraham"? In short, it's the gift of God's Spirit to live with us and in us, and it's the promise of eternal life. Galatians 3.14:
"… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith."
And who exactly is on the receiving end of that blessing? It comes "in Christ Jesus … through faith". That is, it comes to anyone who entrusts his or her present life and future destiny entirely to Christ – admitting their sin, seeking forgiveness, and asking for his Spirit.
Every other consideration is beside the point. Respectable or criminal, rich or poor, strings of letters after your name or not a GCSE to call your own, whatever your language or your nation, the only thing that counts is a living faith in Christ.
So let me spell out some of the implications of this answer to the question of why Jesus died.
First, we are humbled by the cross.
We're often told that we need self-esteem. But self-esteem can be deeply self-centred. The cross of Christ chops self-centred self-esteem off at the roots. Why is that?
Well, for one thing, the cross humbles the self-satisfied. The message of the cross is that we're under God's curse and deserve to die. But as well as humbling the self-satisfied, the cross also cuts the ground from under those who see themselves as worthless.
The value of something depends on what someone is willing to pay for it. And yet so many people see themselves as a waste of space – unnecessarily using up oxygen that might be of value to someone else.
But the message of the cross is that there's no limit to the price that God will pay for each one of us. Christ willingly gave himself to die for you. He considered you worth it.
We are not worthless. But we are unworthy. And that is a fact that's brilliantly illuminated by the light of the cross. The cross brings into sharp focus the reality of our sinfulness.
"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse …"
… says the apostle Paul in Galatians 3.10.
Remember: that curse is the curse of death as the just punishment for our sin and rebellion. It is inescapable biblical teaching, that each one of us deserves the death penalty at the hands of God. Not a spell in prison. Not a suspended sentence and community service. The death penalty. That fact doesn't do much to strengthen self-centred self-esteem. It isn't meant to. It's meant to destroy it. We're not worthless. But we are unworthy. The cross humbles us.
Secondly, Jesus is lifted high by the cross.
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree …'" (Galatians 3.13)
Jesus was lifted up on that cross for all the world to see. As the apostle says in Galatians 3.1:
"It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified."
And what do we see as by faith we look at him hanging there?
The cross shows the greatness of the love of Jesus. If you want to know that you're loved, you're likely to get a pretty mixed message if you look anywhere else but at Christ. But look at Jesus dying for you and it's hard to see how anyone could doubt his love for them. In the letter to the Romans the apostle Paul puts it in this way:
"… God shows his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5.8)
Then the cross shows the completeness of his salvation. Jesus substitutes himself for you and for me. He doesn't just plead our cause, or pay our legal fees, or be there for us when we need him, or reduce our sentence. He takes our place. He becomes a curse for us. Through him the whole of God's blessing is given to us. Nothing is withheld. Total forgiveness. Total salvation.
And the cross shows the wideness of his mercy. Galatians 3.14:
"Christ redeemed us … so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles …"
And, again, what is the blessing of Abraham? Galatians 3.8:
"… the Scripture … preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.'"
This is no grudging concession or great sounding offer that doesn't live up to its promise. There is a river of blessing and mercy flowing from the cross that gets wider and wider all the time and reaches to every nation, to every ethnic group, and to the ends of the earth.
So that's what we see when we gaze at Jesus hanging there on that cross. We see the greatness of his love – in his self-sacrifice; the completeness of his salvation – in his self-substitution; and the wideness of his mercy – in the blessing of all nations. And all of that adds up to Jesus being lifted high.
On the cross Jesus is lifted high for all to see. The place where Satan thought he had snuffed out Jesus becomes the place where his magnificent glory shines at its brightest.
So how are we to respond? Well:
Thirdly, we must keep our eyes on the cross.
We must develop a Christ-centred, cross-centred view of life. We must keep our eyes on him. And it needs to be a steady gaze, not just an occasional glance in his direction. When we get Jesus and his death and resurrection in focus then we get our lives in focus. Lose sight of him, and our view of life gets hopelessly and dangerously distorted.
God says to us through the cross, 'Yes, your sin runs very deep. Deeper, in fact, than you know. But see what I have done about it! I have dealt with it. Trust in my Son, and I will forgive you, and you will be my child for ever.' Keep your eyes on the cross.
How does God see us? He sees our sin in all its ugliness. But he also sees that our sin is paid for. And he sees what we can be through Christ. Learn to see yourself in the light of the death of Jesus. Keep your eyes on the cross. How do we do that? Here's three ways.
First, we must acknowledge our own complicity in the death of Jesus. We must make no excuses for ourselves. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 3, God's law says "None is righteous, no, not one", and the purpose of God's law is…
"… so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God."
"None is righteous, no, not one." So that means me. And it means you. We must acknowledge and admit that we too crucified Jesus by our sin.
Secondly, we must make sure that we ourselves have turned away from hatred of Jesus. We must no longer join in with the widespread hatred of Jesus, whether silent and passive or vocal and active. We must stop hating him and start trusting and loving him. Luke tells that, wonderfully, in the end, that is what the second criminal hanging beside Jesus did, before the three of them died. We must do the same, and live day by day turning away from our hatred of Jesus, putting our trust in him for our forgiveness and our eternal future, and learning to love him.
Thirdly, we must kneel before Jesus in awed adoration and offer our lives in grateful service to our Saviour. As the old hymn says:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
We must keep our eyes on the wondrous cross.