Preached at Gateway on 24th March 2013
We believe that Jesus died...but what does this mean?
We believe that Jesus died...but what does this mean?
Last week was quite an historic week. On Tuesday we had Pope Francis I presiding over his inaugural Mass in Rome. Then on Thursday it was Justin Welby’s turn, as he was enthroned as the 106th Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics across the world, and the Archbishop is leader of 80 million members of the Anglican Communion.
What these men say and how they represent the Christian faith to their global audiences will either promote the gospel or be an obstacle. We need to pray for them.
Then sandwiched between the official commencement of these two global ministries was – on the Wednesday – the UK budget delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ironically this was on the same day as the UN launching ‘International Happiness Day’. In these days of austerity, there is only one thing that will truly deliver happiness, and that’s the gospel – the good news of Jesus.
There is a verse in 1 Thessalonians (which is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a church in Thessalonica just a few months after he founded it) that says, ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again’ (4.14). This week we’re looking at the first part of that verse as we lead up to Good Friday when we especially remember the death of Jesus. Then next Sunday, Easter Sunday, we shall look at the second part, as we celebrate that momentous day in history when Jesus rose again.
So part 1, ‘We believe that Jesus died’. But what does this mean? In the first place we are talking about a crucifixion. The title to this preaching series is, ‘The world’s greatest hero, Christ Crucified’. In the passage from Mark’s gospel we picked up the account half-way through the 6 hour ordeal that Jesus endured whilst hanging on the cross.
1) ‘Jesus died’
Here’s what one Roman statesman, Cicero, famously said of Roman crucifixion a few years before Jesus’ death, ‘It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination...let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears’. In other words, Cicero is saying that crucifixion is so shocking, don’t even think about it.
It is a verifiable, historical fact that Jesus was crucified. Not only do we have the historical attested accounts of the gospels like Mark 15, but also outside references. For example Josephus, a famous historian in the 1st century, wrote this,
‘Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man...for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared unto them alive again the third day...and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (p379 Josephus, Complete Works).
The gospels inform us that Jesus was betrayed by a close friend, Judas, with the ramifications of being sentenced to crucifixion. Jesus’ trial took place by a kangaroo court illegally thrown together in the middle of the night, and then, once sentenced was passed, he was flogged with a whip woven with pieces of bone and metal, and so his flesh was torn open. Jesus was hit, mocked and spat upon. He then was humiliated through the streets of Jerusalem in the early hours of the following morning, jeered on by – who knows – even people he had healed, carrying his own cross. Then outside the city wall, he was laid upon a crossbeam, with his clothing stripped from him, and endured Roman spikes hammered into his hands or wrists, exploding his nerve ends with agonising pain and hoisted up onto his cross.
So horrid was crucifixion, that it was forbidden to crucify a Roman citizen, no matter how terrible his crime. Indeed, a few generations later, another Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, outlawed crucifixion as unsuitable for a civilised society.
So at the one level, as we think about those words, ‘We believe that Jesus died’, yes we believe he endured one of the most torturous ways to die. It shines light on the truth that God identifies with suffering. But on another deeper level, we believe this...let’s allow Isaiah the prophet to speak and this was 800 years before the actual death of Jesus. So not only do we have the contemporary and historical accounts of Jesus confirmed, but also predicted 800 years beforehand. In Isaiah 53 we have that remarkable prophecy that describes in detail Jesus’ death, which includes that God ‘laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53.6).
2) Jesus died for your sins
In other words, as the apostle Paul writes elsewhere, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15.3). So there is a deeper meaning and significance to why Jesus died. As we look back on this preaching series, at the core of everything is the substitutionary death of Jesus. That he died in your place, he substituted himself instead of you. There is no better story line that is so compelling or electrifying than one person giving his life to save another. Nothing is more attractive than that.
Consider one of the most popular fictional story themes of all time, the Harry Potter series. Whilst Christians have varying opinions, one thing is for sure, JK Rowling could not end her series any other way than one person giving his life for his friends. There is no other ultimate drama, there is nothing more moving. There is no higher theme to end on, then one person to give his life for another. We have looked at the death of Jesus from different angles or perspectives during the previous 5 weeks, but at the heart of each focus is the truth that Jesus died for you.
The image of the battlefield. Jesus conquered so you can have the victory over evil (Colossians 2.15).
The image of the hospital. Jesus is wounded so you can be healed (Isaiah 53.5).
The image of the court of law. Jesus is sentenced in your place (Romans 3.24).
The image of the prison. Jesus sets you free from the shackles (Hebrews 2.15).
The image of reconciliation. Jesus offers you the hand of friendship (Ephesians 2.16).
There is no greater appeal to you, or any other person – whatever culture they are from or language they speak – the wonderful attraction of Jesus Christ (the gospel – the good news) is that he died for yours sins, instead of you.
That’s why the death of Jesus is the most famous death in history. According to Rowling, a major theme in the Harry Potter series is death: "My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price...I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it."
But Jesus’ death gives you hope and an eternal future. You need not be frightened. As we’ve seen from just 5 images, and there are more, the Bible is not monochrome. There are many colourful, vivid ways to explain this one message of the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Here’s one more...
3) Jesus’ death shields you from an eternal death.
Here’s another image, and it’s derived from just one word. The apostle Paul wrote, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15.3). The word ‘for’ may seem insignificant, but it’s a very important word. A world-class scholar (Murray J. Harris) of the New Testament suggests that the word ‘for’ which is ‘hyper’ in Greek seems to have come from the image of one person standing protectively over another person. It’s the image of one person shielding another.
So ‘Christ died for – hyper – our sins presents the picture of Christ, whilst he is hanging on the cross, protecting you from something. But what? God sent Jesus to die on a cross to shield you from God’s own wrath towards your sin. You see God is righteously angry at your sin, that fact that you’ve turned your backs on him, and rightly so. The consequence is to be banished from his presence for ever. That is what happens at death to every unbeliever. If you choose to reject God and his good news, then after you die in the life to come, God will reject you. God is only honouring your choice. But there is the hope. The fact that Christ died for your sins, means that he shields you from God’s righteous anger, because Jesus takes it himself. Jesus experiences the abandonment of God his heavenly Father upon the cross, Jesus experiences being shut out of God’s presence (hell) instead of you. Jesus diverts God’s righteous anger away from you and upon himself. He shields you, he guards you.
Indeed, as we consider Jesus, the Son of God, it is therefore God himself, who gave himself, to save us from himself. But to stand under the protection of Jesus, you must stand under the protection of the cross – Christ crucified. In other words, you have to embrace this message, indeed embrace Jesus himself and live for him as a sign that you believe in him and are committed to him.
Remember at the core of everything re. the death of Jesus is his substitutionary sacrifice. Jesus substitutes himself for you. He is sacrificed in your place.
Here are 3 examples of people who came to understand why Jesus died, and subsequently changed the course of history:
Martin Luther, ‘Though I lived as a monk, I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience’. Luther struggled and wrestled with God, trying to make himself good enough for God. He hated the verse in the Bible, ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 3.21), because he knew he could never match it. Then, as if light broke into the darkness, after meditating day and night upon the Bible, Luther realised that it was through faith, that he could be clothed or covered with ‘the righteousness of God’ – it was a gift from God. So Luther’s spiritual struggle was over, as he came to love that verse, ‘the righteousness of God’, which was for him, as he wrote nearly 30 years later in 1545, ‘truly the gate to paradise’. Martin Luther changed the course of history, triggered by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg on 31st October 1517 protesting against the Catholic Church of the day, starting the Protestant movement.
John Wesley, already a well known Church of England vicar, attended a Christian gathering one evening in London, very relunctantly. He too had been struggling intensely with his own failings and faults. He wrote this in his journal of his experience that evening on 24th May 1738 as he listened to a speaker, “About a quarter before nine...I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”. John Wesley changed the course of history. He founded the Methodist movement, which, as historians state, saved Britain from a civil revolution that was imminent, unless there was change in society. Indeed, historians like the atheist Roy Hattersley former MP and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, argues that Methodists with their strong work ethic became the backbone to the great Industrial Revolution that changed the world.
James Hudson Taylor in June 1849, was lazily browsing his father’s books on summer’s day and a defining moment occurred. He came across some pamphlets. He picked one up and wandered across to the old warehouse at the back of the family home where he often read in quiet. In this pamphlet, he was struck by one phrase, ‘The finished work of Christ’. This was reference to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, who exclaimed moments before he died, ‘It is finished’! (Gospel of John 19.30). Hudson asked himself, ‘What was finished?’
Hudson said, years later, “I at once replied, ‘A full and perfect atonement and satisfaction for sin. The debt was paid for our sins...If the whole work was finished and the whole debt paid, what is there left for me to do?’
So there in the surroundings of the family home in Barnsley, Hudson, all alone, knelt on his knees and accepted Jesus as his Saviour. He had answered his own question, and described it years later as ‘light flashed into my own soul by the Holy Spirit’. So at the age of 17 years, James Hudson Taylor experienced the joy of real Christianity. Without this most significant God-moment, the China Inland Mission would never have been born. Indeed the multitudes of 19th century China would never have been reached with the same Good News message of Jesus Christ, ‘It is finished’. It was the clear understanding of the atonement of Christ that changed the whole course of Hudson’s life and to some degree changed the course of history in China.
In all 3 examples, it was the understanding of what God had done for them, not what they could do for God.
We believe that Jesus died for our sins. That’s what we believe as a local church, part of the universal church across the world and down through the ages. But do you believe that? Here’s the test. If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven? Do you have that assurance that you will spend eternity in heaven with the Lord Jesus and all his people – a place where there is no more death, mourning, crying or pain? Do you know for sure? If you are thinking, “I hope so, but I’m not sure”...it means you have not quite yet understood the message of the cross, the core part of the Christian faith.
There is only one way into heaven, the eternal life to come, and that’s by faith in Jesus. You are barred, but Jesus can get you in...if you are in him. If you allow him to conquer the evil in your life, if you allow him to heal you, if you allow him to take the sentence, if you allow him to set you free, if you take his hand of friendship being offered to you.
We believe Jesus died and rose again – so come back next Sunday for part 2. ‘We believe Jesus rose again’. The cross changes things in a big way! That’s why Jesus is the world greatest hero – not Christ superstar - but Christ crucified.