Tag Archives: the cross

The Cross is Good News

To some of us, nevertheless, the cross is great good news. Yes, it is true that sinners will die, but that doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of God; in fact, He died to prove that we don’t need to be afraid. And this message has great power to win all who will listen to repentance and to trust. Paul was so proud of this good news. Notice what he says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, 18:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel. And not with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (RSV).

The gospel is the powerful good news about the cross, which is the clearest revelation of the truth about God and His government. Now compare 1 Corinthians 1 with Romans 1, where you find that very famous verse about righteousness by faith:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith . . . for in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom 1:16-17, RSV).

This text tells us that the gospel (good news) is powerful for those who trust in God, and that power is in the revelation of God’s righteousness. The good news is that God is not the unrighteous kind of person his enemies have made him out to be. Even in the Old Testament, before the clarity of the cross, it’s wonderful to see that God had good friends who trusted Him to always do the right thing. They were proud to know Him and proud to speak about Him to others. Look at Jeremiah 9:24:

Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord (NIV).

Jeremiah was able to repeat those words with feeling long before the cross. But now such confidence in God has been confirmed by the way Jesus suffered and died. And among God’s friends, whether angels or men, this meaning of the cross will have power to hold God’s great family together in loyalty and in peace forever.

The Importance of Our Picture of God

But there was a third question that needed to be answered. Gethsemane by itself would not have been enough. The third question is this: Why is it so important to understand that God does not execute his sinful children? This question had to be answered, too. And so an angel came to strengthen Jesus in Gethsemane so he could continue on out to Calvary. And there, once again, He answered the first two questions. But He was also this time tortured and crucified. By whom? By the Father? Or by most devout group of Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, health-reforming, Bible-quoting “Adventists” the world has ever known? Before they tortured him to death, they even said He had a devil (John 8:44). They obeyed God out of fear because they did not really know God. Look at John 19:31:

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take the bodies down from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the Sabbath, since the coming Sabbath was especially holy (GNB).

You see, they nailed their Savior to the cross and then rushed home to keep that Sabbath especially holy. They did it to prove they were God’s true people. That’s the awful result of serving God from fear because you do not know the truth about God. Now the three questions were fully answered. Does sin result in death? Indeed, it does! But is it torture and execution at the hands of our gracious God? Indeed, it is not! What’s so dangerous about misunderstanding this and serving God from fear? The service of fear produces the character of a rebel. Fear turns people who are dedicated to obedience into harsh rebels, and they become God’s worst enemies!

Jesus did not die to win over His Father. Paul is extremely clear about this. 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (RSV). Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God had to be reconciled to us. Never once! Instead God paid the price to reconcile us to Himself! Jesus did not die to pay a mere legal penalty. He died to reveal the truth about God and the falsity of Satan’s charges. And even the angels had to learn this. Look at Colossians 1:20: “. . . And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (RSV).

John 12:32 agrees with this: “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw everyone to me” (GNB). The “everyone” here is not limited to the human race, it is everyone in the whole family of the universe. These texts point us to the larger setting of the Great Controversy in order to understand the cross. The way in which Jesus suffered and died is the greatest revelation of the truth about God and His government that the universe will ever see or ever need. Correctly understood, the message of the cross is final defeat for the adversary. No wonder Satan has worked so hard to obscure, misrepresent, and even pervert the meaning of the cross.

The Cross and the Wrath of God

So in imagination let’s go to the cross and watch Jesus die. First of all, did He really die? The soldiers were surprised to find he was already dead. Crucifixion was usually a very slow way of dying. Evidently something else had happened. Is it true that Jesus was dying the death of a sinner, to show us how the sinner really dies? That’s what we find in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (RSV). So Jesus died the death of a sinner. And what caused Jesus to die? As you watch him dying on the cross, is God killing His Son? Is he torturing his Son to death? Is God pouring out His wrath on His Son; something the Bible so often pictures God doing toward sinners for whom there is no further hope?

Well it all depends on the meaning of wrath. What does the Bible mean when it talks about God’s wrath? One of the clearest explanations is in Romans 1. The entire chapter is worth reading, but let’s at least look at the following four verses:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . . Therefore, God gave them up . . .For this reason God gave them up . . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up. (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28, RSV)

The “truth” Paul is talking about in 1:18 is the truth about God. Three times it states in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is simply His turning away, in loving disappointment, from those who do not want Him anyway. God’s wrath is leaving them to the inevitable and awful consequences of their own rebellious choices. Is that what happened to Jesus on the cross? Was Jesus given up? Look at Romans 4:25: “. . . Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses” (RSV).

There is nothing in the Greek, actually, that says He was “put to death.” The Greek word translated “put to death” is actually paredothê, exactly the same word translated “gave them up” in Romans 1:24, 26, 28. Translators ought to leave them the same to show that Jesus died under the wrath of His Father. But the real meaning of God’s wrath is His turning away, leaving sinners to the inevitable and awful consequences of sin. And this concept was not new with Paul. It’s all through the Old Testament, most dramatically in Hosea, chapter eleven: “My people are bent on turning away from me . . . . How, oh how can I give you up, Ephraim! How, oh how, can I hand you over Israel!” (Hos 11:7-8, Phillips).

Did Jesus understand that this was the experience He was passing through? Did Jesus know He was being given up as Hosea and Paul describe it? What did Jesus cry just before He died? Did He say, “My God, my God, why are You beating Me up? Why are you torturing Me? Why are you killing Me?” No! “Why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). In other words, “Why have you given me up?” Jesus knew.

This part of Jesus’ journey began in Gethsemane. There He began to demonstrate the truth about God’s gracious but awful warning, that the wages of sin is death. There Jesus fell to the ground, dying. And the angels were watching too. Was God killing his Son in the Garden of Gethsemane, or did Jesus feel the unity with His Father breaking up? There He began to feel the awesome loneliness of being given up. Had Jesus died in the Garden of Gethsemane, could anyone say that the Father had killed the Son? Jesus Himself made that clear earlier in John 10:18: “No one takes My life from Me. No one can. I lay it down of Myself. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up.”

The angels knew who Jesus was. They knew that He was God. And they knew the meaning of His words when He said, “No one takes My life from Me.” The angels knew that was the truth. And if Jesus had died in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would not have been because His Father had killed Him. Instead, the Father was giving Him up, and both of them suffered together. As in Hosea the Father was crying, “How can I give you up?” The Son who had assumed humanity was the One who died. And so two questions were answered in Gethsemane. Is death the result of sin? Indeed it is. Is it because God kills his wayward children? No, He did not lay a hand on His Son.

Chapter 8: “The Most Costly and Convincing Evidence”

This blog begins chapter eight of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The Bible contains many answers to the question, “Why did Jesus die?” One of the most compelling and persuasive answers to this question is articulated by Graham Maxwell in this chapter. The words that follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

I’ve entitled this chapter “The Most Costly and Convincing Evidence,” and the question to be answered is “Why did Jesus have to die?” While there are so many texts that could be included in examining this topic, I have tried to limit myself to the ones that help to explain why Jesus had to die. I’ve called the cross the most costly and convincing evidence, because I believe that the unique and awful way in which Jesus suffered and died reveals something about our God and about His government that absolutely had to be clarified before trust and peace could be restored again. For as we have considered already, there has been a crisis of distrust in God’s universal family, even to the point of war in heaven as described in Revelation twelve.

Our God has been accused of being unworthy of the trust of His created beings, of being arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He has particularly been accused of lying to His children, of lying about death being the result of sin. It does no good simply to deny such charges. God does not ask us to accept mere claims. It is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of circumstances, particularly difficult ones, that trust can be re-established and confirmed. And so the Bible records that God sent His Son to deal with this breakdown of trust and trustworthiness in His family. In other words, He sent His Son to deal with sin (Rom 8:3).

Fundamental Belief Number 9 (Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ)

In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness. The death of Christ is substitutionary and expiatory, reconciling and transforming. The resurrection of Christ proclaims God’s triumph over the forces of evil, and for those who accept the atonement assures their final victory over sin and death. It declares the Lordship of Jesus Christ, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth will bow. (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 22:1; Isa. 53; John 3:16; 14:30; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 John 2:2; 4;10.) (John 3:16; Isa. 53; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:6-11.)

Aside from a reshuffling of the biblical evidence at the bottom, there are no changes in the wording of FB9. Since this fundamental focused on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, one wonders why it isn’t listed after number four, which dealt with the nature of Christ. The answer probably is that the first five fundamentals focus on the persons of the godhead and the next five or so focus on the actions of the godhead. There is never a perfect grouping of beliefs like these, the order that was chosen is probably as good as any.

The religion scholars at Loma Linda have historically expressed concerns that legal substitution not be seen as the controlling metaphor of the atonement, as it often is in Protestant Christianity. But this statement certainly does not limit itself to legal substitution. This statement offers an excellent balance among the various biblical metaphors of the atonement. Legal, substitutionary atonement was seen as liberal and “new theology” in the 1970s, and therefore suspect, but now it has become the conservative view. It is interesting how theology changes over time and people hardly notice, because a new generation sees what was recently new and the new normal. In our resistance to change we often end up changing without realizing it.

In the broadest sense, atonement is seen as having both objective and subjective elements in it. The objective side of the atonement focuses on what happened outside of us on the cross. Did the cross in some way change God’s mind? Did it defeat Satan in some way? Did it somehow satisfy the justice of God? The subjective side of the atonement, on the other hand, focuses on how the cross changes us. Through the cross we learn that God is fair and just, that the law is for our good, that God is on our side. We are moved from serving God on account of fear to trusting Him. Another way to express this contrast is this: Which is more important, the Christmas story or the Easter story? Do you focus on the life of Jesus or on His death and resurrection as the driving forces behind the atonement? At Loma Linda there is a tendency to focus on the life and death of Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God’s character, the strong emphasis of chapter one in Steps to Christ, whereas at Andrews and other places, the emphasis is more on the death and resurrection of Christ as an atoning sacrifice. This fundamental affirms both as part of a balance and tension.

For SDAs it is good to see an increasing focus on atonement at the cross, but it would be unwise to lose the pioneer sense that the cross has ongoing significance. It represents the way that God behaves and rules in all times and places. The gospel is not about sinners in the hands of an angry God, it is about God in the hands of angry sinners. In addition, the cross is not just about how God behaves on this earth; past, present and future. It also has a cosmic dimension, it changes everything at the level of the whole universe, not just earth.

2 Corinthians 5 has an interesting universal tone. God was reconciling the whole world to Himself in Christ. But a universal tone is not the same thing as universalism. The very ones who are reconciled to God at the cross still need to “be reconciled” to God. Having said that, the availability of universal salvation involves the possibility of universal salvation. No one is excluded, all have equal access to God and salvation at the foot of the cross.

In our discussion we considered one possible corrective to this excellent fundamental. The way this fundamental expresses the cross focuses much more on us than on God. It might have been helpful to explore a bit more questions like, What did it cost God to go to the cross? What does it mean when divinity suffers? Did the experience of sacrifice leave a mark on God? Did He lose something that He doesn’t get back? The natural human tendency to focus on ourselves is not easy to overcome, even in the writing of fundamental beliefs!

The Implications of the Cross, Conclusion

A second difference the cross makes is, at first glance, the very opposite of the first. We all have a fundamental need to value ourselves and to be valued by others. But how can we value ourselves when we recognize that the seeds of evil are within? It seems that the better we know ourselves the more we will dislike ourselves and the worse we will feel. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.
How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twenty or twenty-five dollars. But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Kobe Bryant. Suddenly your value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software the majority of the people the world use, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!
You see, we are valued in terms of what others see in us. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .
So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of a particular Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just an atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It provides hope for a better world. How?
The best hope for a troubled world is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the evil within ourselves seriously but also sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world. Once we know the right question, it is obvious that “Jesus is the answer.”

The Implications of the Cross

This blog stands by itself, but can also be read as the conclusion of the previous blogs in this series on the problem of evil in the world. What was the cross all about in God’s purpose? What difference did it make? I’d like to highlight two things. First, the cross changes the way we look at our personal lives, particularly our mistakes and failures. According to the Bible, human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. Those who crucified Jesus acted no differently than we would have, given the same circumstances. In other words, the struggle to overcome evil is not, first of all, a social or political task, it is a struggle against the evil within.
This “repentance” is not fun. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. We will never change until we are willing to be changed, until we recognize that change is needed.
The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).
Tragedies like September 11 and the Holocaust are more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, they are symptoms of deeper issues that plague us all. The struggle to recognize the evil within us all is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.