At the literal crux of human history, Christ hangs on a tree. Jesus’ death for our sins has become in some cases so commonplace that we miss the brutality of it, and at the same time we forget how it perfectly demonstrates the love of God for us. We will teach about the Cross, including some aspects of what Jesus’ death accomplished.
We will start by answering a series of questions, the first of which is simply, what is crucifixion?
Crucifixion was invented by the Persians 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
It was perfected by the Romans in the days of Jesus, and it continued until it was ended by the Roman emperor Constantine in roughly 300 AD.
The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of the deaths.”
The Greek philosopher Cicero said that decent Roman citizens shouldn’t speak of the cross because it was unfit for them to even ponder that kind of murderous death.
This was such a horrific mode of execution that Romans wouldn’t even crucify their own citizens, only those who were foreigners and guilty of high treason and the most heinous of crimes.
The word excruciating literally means “from the cross.”
Those who were crucified died a painfully slow death by asphyxiation, accompanied with dehydration, blood loss, and shock.
This was done in open public places.
People would gather around and turn this into sport. They would jeer and spit upon the victim. They would curse them out. They would mock them, make fun of them.
Oftentimes they were crucified at eye level, on a short cross so that all of their accusers and all of their enemies and all of their mockers could look them right in the eye – and dishonor, and disrespect, and disregard them.
When Spartacus a real person fell in battle in 71bc, 6,000 of his followers were crucified in a day and they were lined up along the shoulder of the highway for 120 miles.
The body underwent such a brutal, devastating series of sufferings that oftentimes underneath the body of the person who was dying would be a pool that was a mixture of feces because the man would become incontinent, urine, sweat, tears, and blood.
Oftentimes the person being crucified would want to retaliate. They had very little opportunity to do so, so they would spit at those who gathered around. They would curse people out. They would urinate on the crowd who gathered beneath them, and it was a disgusting scene.
I tell you all of this not to be overly dramatic, but to tell you that one of the great errors among Christians is to too quickly we pass over the cross, assuming that everyone knows what we are speaking of.
Some will say simply, to their friends, for example, “Jesus died on the cross for all your sins.”
And it’s totally true.
But without a proper understanding and explanation of the crucifixion of Jesus there’s not a full appreciation for what he endured, particularly in light of the fact that he’s God become a man.
I really need you to visibly see what crucifixion is so that you can fully appreciate what Jesus’ crucifixion does.
How did Jesus die?
The Bible simply says that before Jesus was crucified he was scourged.
Scourging occurred when a man would be stripped, oftentimes naked, his hands shackled above his head, usually around a pole.
He was then laid out so that his back and his shoulders and his buttocks and his legs were exposed.
An executioner would take something called a cat o’ nine tails. It was a handle from which proceeded straps of leather.
At the end of each strap of leather there would be either a metal ball or a hook made out of bone or metal. The executioner would whip the prisoner across the back.
The metal balls would serve to tenderize the flesh as you would a steak.
The hooks would then sink into the man’s body. The executioner would give a tug upon the cat o’ nine tails and then literally rip the flesh off the body of the man.
Jesus was repeatedly flogged, and the bone shook, and the muscle was torn, and the flesh was removed. He went into shock. His body was covered in blood.
This is after a sleepless night. He’s exhausted. He was run through a series of false trials and he was beaten by a mob.
The Bible then records that a crown of thorns was also placed upon Jesus’ head.
And this was done in mockery because he declared himself to be the king of the Jews.
Jesus was then forced to carry his own crossbar to his place of execution. This crossbar would have weighed upwards of 100 pounds of rough wood.
Upon arriving at his place of crucifixion Jesus was laid down upon the cross, then nails driven through the most sensitive nerve centers on his body, through his hands and his feet.
He was stripped and dishonored.
The cross was then raised up and dropped violently into its hole so that his entire body shook upon the nails.
At this point, he is bleeding. He is sweating. He is suffering.
And as he opens his eyes to gaze upon the crowd that is before him, he sees his enemies.
He sees those who have falsely accused him.
He sees his disciples who have abandoned and betrayed him.
He hears mockery. “What kind of God are you? You cannot even save yourself!”
And unlike so many other men, Jesus does not retaliate.
He says things like, “Father forgive them,”
He tells the thief who is rightly being crucified at his side, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
And he tells John to look after his mother.
All of his words from the cross are of love and grace and mercy.
He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then he cries, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”
Anticipating this in advance, Isaiah 53:3-4“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
That is how Jesus died.
The next question is why did Jesus die?
How in the world could Christians call the crucifixion of Jesus good news?
How could we possibly celebrate it every year on Good Friday?
The answer to this question is found in Scripture…
The Bible repeatedly tells of the crucifixion of Jesus and then uses the word “for” to transition into the theological significance: the event and then its meaning.
And this little word “for” has big implications.
I’ll start in Isaiah, 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ,
Isaiah 53:5 says it this way: “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” or sins.
Isaiah 53:12 says, “He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors,” or the sinners.
Romans 4:25 says, “He was delivered up for our trespasses” or sins.
Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrates his love for this in this: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
1 Corinthians 15:3 says that “Christ died for our sins.”
1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
Here’s why the crucifixion of Jesus is good news: it is for us.
Theologically we call this penal-substitutionary atonement.
There is no right understanding of Jesus, there is no true gospel, there is no forgiveness of sin and salvation apart from penal-substitionary atonement.
Let me explain each word.
Penal meaning that there is a penalty for sin.
In Genesis God told our first parents, “If you sin you will die.” That’s the penalty.
Paul says that the wage for sin is death.
So the penalty for sin is death – spiritual death, separation from God, and also a physical death in the end.
When Jesus went to the cross he did so to pay our penalty.
He suffered and died in our place for our sins to pay our penalty.
The next word: substitution. That Jesus went as our substitute, Jesus went in our place.
Jesus endured what we should have endured.
Jesus suffered what I should have suffered.
He’s my substitute. I love Jesus so much because he took my place.
Some will say, “No, no, no. The cross is not about substitution. It’s about the fact that Jesus is a great example, and he shows us how to suffer well, and how to love our enemies” – all of which is true.
But the big idea of the cross is substitution.
The rest are simply implications.
Third word – Atonement is a word that you start hearing/reading early on in the Old Testament.
You will see God’s people in the Old Testament celebrating Yom Kippur annually, the Day of Atonement.
And the point of atonement is that sin has separated us from God…
And that sin must be taken away so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.
The Day of Atonement was the day that God’s people would come together to individually and collectively confess their sins and deal with them according to the Old Testament sacrificial system…
Which was all foreshadowing the coming of Jesus who’s the High Priest, who lays down his life as the sacrifice in our place for our sins.
All of it was preparing people for the coming of Jesus.
Through sin we are separated from God, and by Jesus taking away our sin we are forgiven and reconciled to God, and we can be one with God again through Jesus Christ.
The next question, then, is what exactly did Jesus’ death accomplish?
Now in this I will say that there are many things that Jesus’ death accomplished.
And the first thing I will say is that on the cross Jesus is our justification.
“What does that mean?”
It appears repeatedly in the Bible.
Galatians 2:16. “A person is not justified” – there’s our word – “by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
What’s he talking about?
Justification is articulating the fact that you and I one day will stand before God and give an account for our life.
And that God, in His position, is a just judge.
And because God is just, he cannot declare us justified because we’re guilty as sinners.
We sin by omission, not doing what we ought.
We also sin by commission, doing what we ought not do.
We have sins of thought, word, and deed.
The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
You and I are guilty as sinners and God is just.
God is not evil. He is good.
God cannot look at us and say, “I declare you are justified.”
The question, then, is how can we be justified in the sight of God?
Paul says that the proclivity of the sinful human nature is to justify oneself through what he calls works of the law.
What he means by that is ‘you try to make yourself good enough for God.’
That’s the basic definition of works of the law.
It’s about you, not Jesus; what you do, not him.
You cleaning yourself up and getting your life together, not him changing you from the inside out.
Works of the law occurs in two ways.
There’s a religious form and a vague spiritual form.
The religious form is that you try to be a devoutly good and religious person so that God will love you.
The false assumption underlying all religion is that the only way to be justified in the sight of God is to earn it by doing your best and obeying the rules.
And so religious people make lists of things they will and will not do.
Anticipating then one day, the Day of Judgment, where they stand before God and then…
Sharing with him their resume and saying, “God, here’s my life. I did a good job. Please justify me. Declare me to be righteous and allow me into your presence forever.”
The more vague spiritual form is not making sincere, hard efforts to be a good person, but assuming that what you are presently doing is good enough.
The problem with religion is this: it leads to pride or despair, pride meaning, “I feel like I did enough;” despair meaning, “I don’t think I did enough.”
Religion never leads to hope, confidence, joy, and peace because the assumption is you need to do something that God will love you.
Likewise, vague spirituality and the assumption that you are good enough is nothing more than pure pride.
Furthermore, it is an absolute sense of overriding self- righteousness, that you look at all the people and just assume you’re better than most. That is the pinnacle of arrogance.
Now, in the Bible God does speak of these things using some very stark terminology.
I’ll share them with you so that you will be discouraged from being religious or vaguely spiritual.
The first comes from Isaiah 64:6, We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Where speaking of religion, and works of the law, and thinking you’re a good person, and trying your hardest so that God will love you, God says…
That your righteousness, your human attempts at being a good person apart from relationship with him through Jesus are as filthy menstrual rags.
If God is a Father, this is the equivalent of showing up to his birthday party, and when he unwraps the box, that’s what he gets.
Some of you say, “That’s gross.” I know. I’m with you. I agree. It’s disgusting.
But coming before God at the end of time and saying to him, “Well, I think I’ve got a few things that you’ll really appreciate.
And I feel like if I give them to you you’ll justify me and we’ll be even.” He opens the box and says “Not really.”
Paul uses equally stark imagery in Philippians 3:8, talking about his religious life before Jesus, saying that all of his righteousness is as dung.
Might I submit to you, when you stand before God at the end of time, that if you come with a handful of bloody rags and a warm steaming pile of poo you will not be declared justified in his sight?
That probably won’t please him and it won’t be sufficient.
You say, “That’s disgusting.”
Religion is disgusting.
Vague Spirituality is disgusting.
Trying to earn or merit God’s favor is disgusting.
Assuming that you are good enough for a holy, righteous, perfect, and good God is disgusting.
That’s why the Bible uses disgusting imagery.
The alternative is Jesus. That righteousness, Paul says, comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says it this way: God made him who knew no sin to become sin, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Martin Luther rightly called this the great exchange.
What happens is that my sin is reckoned to Jesus.
God made him, who knew no sin, to become sin.
All of my sin, past, present, and future, is put on Jesus.
It then says that “we might become the righteousness of God.”
The perfect righteousness of the sinless Lord Jesus is then imputed or reckoned to my account.
My sin goes to Jesus.
His righteousness comes to me.
It’s the great exchange.
This is purely, the Bible says repeatedly, an act of grace.
We don’t earn it.
We don’t deserve it.
It’s a gift that doesn’t lead to the kind of pride of despair that religion does, and does not lead to the kind of haughtiness and self-righteousness that moral spirituality does.
It leads to humility. “I did nothing. Jesus did everything.” And everything he did is sufficient.
The only way that you and I can stand before God and he remain just and declare us to be justified is if we have faith in and grace from Jesus Christ alone.
This was the declaration of the Protestant Reformation, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone.
Number two, Jesus is our propitiation – another big word.
Here’s the big idea.
You cannot begin with a false definition of love, and then compare God to that.
Instead we start with God, WHO IS LOVE, and then we interpret all else in light of the character of God.
1 John 4:10 “In this is love, not that we have loved God” – not that we’re seeking God, pursuing God, crying out to God, yearning for God – “but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
This word propitiation appears four times in the New Testament.
Propitiation is a very important word. Let me explain it to you.
David says it rightly in Psalm 51:4. He says, “God, against you only have I sinned.”
That you and I, we sin, and our sin is against one another, to be sure. But ultimately our sin is against God.
The question then is how does God feel about our sin?
How does God respond to our sin?
The Bible says repeatedly that God is angry because of sin, that though he loves us God hates sin.
And it says on multiple occasions that he also hates those who are sinners.
This works itself out with the wrath of God.
Some of you say, “Don’t go there.” Oh, yes. We must, because the Bible does.
And in speaking of the wrath of God, some of you will say, “God’s not a God or wrath. God’s a God of love. God doesn’t get angry, God’s a God of love.”
If you take all of the times and ways that the Bible speaks of the love of God and then compile them, and take all of the ways that the Bible speaks of the wrath of God and compile them, the number of times that it speaks of his wrath is greater than the number of times that it speaks of his love.
He is both loving and filled with wrath.
No one is supposed to talk about this anymore.
“Don’t talk about sin.
Don’t talk about hell.
Don’t talk about wrath.
Make a little list of things that people don’t like and conveniently ignore them.”
As I get into the doctrine of propitiation, you need to know that God is very angry at sinners and their sin, and that his wrath burns against them.
And I tell you that not to be mean, but I tell you that to be truthful and because I love you.
‘Cause I gotta give an account before God for all of us, james 3 says.
And I want you to know the truth, that you are far worse than you think.
And God is far better than you think.
And that the distance between you and God is far greater than you would suspect.
God has to be angry at sin because he’s good.
And God has to do something with sinners because he’s just.
That’s the doctrine of propitiation.
Now, the way this works is the doctrine of propitiation is that Jesus substituted himself and died in our place for our sins.
That unlike Greek mythology and paganism who demand a blood sacrifice, that human beings do something to appease those gods, the God of the Bible is exactly the opposite.
Rather than asking anything from us, he does something for us.
Rather than giving us a mandate to shed our blood, he comes and sheds his own.
It’s the ultimate love, mercy and grace.
Jesus died in my place for my sins,
The wrath of God is poured out on the Son of God, so that the wrath of God is propitiated, diverted, taken away from me.
Here’s why it matters.
In Jesus, God is not angry with me. He loves me.
Jesus has propitiated the wrath of God.
And here’s what this means as well.
When I suffer I do not assume that God is punishing me because that would be unjust.
He already punished Jesus in my place.
Now Hebrews and Proverbs does say that God is a Father and he disciplines his kids, but he doesn’t punish them.
He’s not angry at them. He loves them. He’s not making them pay him back.
He’s using their sin as an opportunity for correction to grow them in holiness.
The propitiation of Jesus reminds us that on the cross, when he said, “It is finished,” our salvation was accomplished.
We don’t need to pay God back.
We don’t need to suffer.
We don’t need to make it up to him.
We need to trust in his Son.
And the wrath of God is propitiated, diverted, taken away from us and placed on Jesus.
This was shown every year in Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, where a sacrificial goat was brought forward.
The high priest, representing the coming of Jesus, our great High Priest, would then confess the sins of the people over the animal, slaughter it, its blood would be shed, and it would die being a substitute for the sins of the people.
And then the wrath of God was propitiated, taken away.
This was all foreshadowing, anticipating the coming of Jesus.
Every year God’s people saw the slaughter of the substitute, and acknowledged that in the coming of Jesus Messiah would be the propitiation of sin.
That’s the doctrine of propitiation.
Secondly, in relation to that, there was an additional goat, the scapegoat, that was significant because it foreshadowed the expiation of Jesus.
Again, this is a word that is important: expiation. When we sin we are made unclean.
The Bible uses this language a lot. If you read the Old Testament, why do they have to keep bathing themselves and cleaning their homes and living in a clean way? Why? What is that?
It’s showing that Jesus would come to expiate, to cleanse from sin.
I’ll give you one example New Testament, 1 John 1:7. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus” – there’s the cross – “his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Hebrews says that when Jesus went to the cross he scorned its shame. That sense of defilement and filth and dirt, it leads to shame and condemnation that Jesus takes away.
This was foreshadowed and typified with the second goat on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Likewise the sins of the people were confessed over the animal, but rather than being slaughtered, as the goat for propitiation was, the goat of expiation was sent away, run out of town – literally, taking the sins of the people with it.
And what would happen is that the people would cheer and they would chase that animal to make sure that their sins were forever removed.
Last question is this: Doesn’t the cross contradict God’s love?
Apart from the cross all we have is a sentimental understanding of love.
The Bible speaks not just of God’s love in terms of being sentimental, but rather being capable of and the end result of the love being Jesus.
God doesn’t just feel loving, he is love. And he acts.
God doesn’t just send a greeting card. He goes to a cross and dies. He does something.
John 3:16 “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.” That’s Jesus.
John 15:12-13, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Romans 5:8 says this: “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
1 John 4:9-10: “This is love.” Whatever you’ve been told love is – perversion, abuse, and use – that’s not love. That’s a demonic manipulation of a wonderful love. “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.”
The cross of Jesus is the clearest demonstration of the love of God in the history of the world.
God loves us to such a degree that he came as a human to identify with us.
That he lived a life without sin.
That he died the death in our place for our sins, and he rose to forgive us, transform us.
And he lives to intercede for us.
And he’s preparing a place for us. And he’ll come again to claim us.
We will enter into a party that never ends,
Where there will be no more pain,
No more rejection,
No more tears in his presence – a Kingdom with a King, where sin is no more and Jesus is everything.