By Emmanuel Egbunu
At the centre of our understanding of the cross must be the boundless love and perfect justice of God. The cross, on its own, is a symbol of death. It claimed many lives. But with the death of Christ on the cross, its meaning changed. Without Christ, the cross is, at best, like an altar without a sacrificial animal. The cross is the altar on which the Lamb of God was sacrificed. It is the place where the price for sin was paid. When we read in John 1:29,36 that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the full meaning is found in the sacrificial death on the cross.
In preparing the disciples for His approaching death, we read Jesus’s statement in Matt 16:21, “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.” Though the last word of his statement was “life” the process leading to it was unacceptable even to the disciples who were His ministry companions. Peter spoke up, "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" Why did he react so sternly? It is because the cross was a thing of shame. It was the lowest, most ignoble form of death reserved for hardened criminals and murderers like Barrabas.
As the Lord Himself approached the cross, the dread that filled His heart comes across in the agony and submission in the garden of Gethsemane. But He also knew the purpose of the cross when He said in John 3:14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Isaiah’s prophecy about the Suffering Servant also paints the picture of the pain and the gain quite clearly in Isaiah 53:3-9: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 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 was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
When the time came for this to be fulfilled, the piercing nails were like fire being poured into Christ’s body; but no other price was acceptable. God, the offended and the Judge, also became the Saviour and sin-bearer. As William Rees (1802-1883) writes in his beautiful hymn, (Here is love vast as the ocean) “Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
kissed a guilty world in love.”
Christ’s death on the cross means a number of things for the individual Christian believer and worshipper, especially as we go through the Passion of Christ and make our way to the cross which is the climax of our redemption story.
Redemption is a language of the slave market. It is the price paid to buy back or to ransom a slave. Even in the Old Testament, the ransom for a life was not a cheap deal. We read in Psalm 49:7-9: “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him-- the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough-- that he should live on forever and not see decay.”
In the New Testament, Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:18-19, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
From the Fall in the garden of Eden we became enslaved to sin. Sin reigned over the human race till the time of Christ. The punishment for our sin was upon Him. By the shed blood of Christ upon the cross, mankind was redeemed from bondage to sin. Once He had paid for our sin, peace with God was secured.
Propitiation has to do with the removal of God’s anger. God’s righteous claims are satisfied by the blood of the Lamb – the Lord Jesus Christ. When we ask in our song, “What can wash away my sin?” we immediately reply, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” As John wrote in later years, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jhn 1:7). S.T. Francis puts the truth across in these lines: Vast Thy love, how deep, how wide,/In the gift of Him who died,/ Righteous claims all satisfied:/ Father we adore Thee.
On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ became the substitute for sinful men and women. We can then place our faith in Him who died in our place. We are justified – declared ‘Not guilty’ before God. When God looks at the believer who puts his faith in Christ, the sinner is seen as found in Christ who took our place, and we are therefore justified – just as if I’d never sinned. One of the most important statements about justification through the blood of Christ shed on the cross is in Romans 8:1-3 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.”
The hymn-writers celebrate these truths in many songs that space will not allow us to explore fully. Let us take a few: Isaac Watts writes:
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.
T. Kelly joins:
Inscribed upon the cross we see
In shining letters, God is love:
He bears our sins upon the tree;
He brings us mercy from above.
The cross – it takes our guilt away;
It holds the fainting spirit up;
It cheers with hope the gloomy day,
And sweetens every bitter cup.
It makes the coward spirit brave,
And nerves the feeble arm for fight;
It takes all terror from the grave
And gilds the bed of death with light.
Charles Wesley adds these timeless words:
No condemnation now I dread:
Jesus and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own
As Good Friday approaches, we will sing yet again many of these great songs. They convey great truths. But we will also meditate on the last words of our Saviour popularly called the seven words on the cross. Beyond the religious sentiments, we must ponder deeply on these truths: Father Forgive them... It is Finished!
A new and living way has been opened for us to approach God who sits on the throne of mercy. All over the world, the love which was demonstrated on the cross as Christ died for sinners is bringing many into the Kingdom. People possessed by multiple demons, or those who have strayed from the faith find a home at the cross. All vile and helpless sinners are being delivered daily from the curse of sin and death by the power of the shed blood of Christ.
The cross that reconciles man to His God also reconciles man to fellow man. The love that comes from the cross is both vertical and horizontal. The price is paid. The blood of Christ seals our pardon and secures our eternity with God.
As the Lord Jesus was told about the desire of certain Greeks to see Him, He saw it as a signal that the time had come for His sacrificial death for the sins of the whole world. In John 12:23-33 we read, “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds... "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" ... Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”
The blessings and gains of the cross are innumerable. We must close this with Paul’s liberating words to the Colossians (Col 2:13-15): “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross .