March 28, 1993

WHAT THE CROSS ACCOMPLISHED

“…by his death, he destroyed him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil …  He made atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  (Hebrews 2:14,17-18)

Jesus Christ said and did many great things, but for some reason, it’s not his profound teaching, or his amazing miracles, or anything else about his life, that stands at the center of Christian faith.  No, it’s his death that stands at the center.  The main symbol of Christianity is a cross.  Why is that?

Is it perhaps the martyr factor?  Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Anwar Sadat–all were unusual people, but the fact that they died violently at the hands of an executioner or an assassin made them all the more memorable.  Had they lived out their lives and died of old age, these people might not hold the same lofty place in our memory.  That’s not to deny that they lived very remarkable lives, but their deaths elevated their reputations even more.

Now, is that why Christians make so much of the crucifixion of Jesus?  Is this another case of the martyr factor, of a great man’s reputation becoming even greater because of the tragic way he died?  That would certainly be understandable.  After all, Jesus was an astonishing man, and he was brutally killed when he was only in his early thirties.  For such a great person to die so young, and in such a dreadful and gruesome way, surely leaves a deep impression.

Betrayed by a friend, taunted by his enemies, separated from his heavenly Father, his face bruised by fists, his body beaten with sticks, his head lacerated by a crown of thorns, his back lashed by a whip, his hands and feet pierced with spikes, his wounds oozing with blood, his throat burning with thirst, his lungs gasping for breath as he slowly suffocated from the pressure on his diaphragm, and finally, his side mutilated by one last spear thrust just after he died–it was indeed horrible.  If ever a tragic death could magnify the impact of a remarkable life, surely this would be it.  But is that all it is?  Is the Christian preoccupation with the cross just another instance of revering the memory of a slain hero?

No, it’s not.  In the first place, Christians don’t think of Jesus as a slain hero.  We worship him as the living Lord.  The story of Jesus doesn’t end in tragedy but in triumph.  Only a few days after he died, Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples, and then he ascended to heaven, where he’s very much alive right now.  So when Christians emphasize the cross, it’s not because we’re thinking fondly and sadly of our dead hero.  We follow a Savior who lives, and who sits on heaven’s throne.

And yet, although we know he’s alive, we keep returning to his suffering and death.  We think about it, we talk about it;  we celebrate it and sing about it.  In fact, we hold up the cross as the very symbol of our faith.  What’s more, our most sacred act as Christians is one in which, over and over, we participate spiritually in Jesus’ death.  In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we eat bread and drink wine that represents Jesus’ crucified body and spilled blood.

This preoccupation with Christ’s death must seem odd, even somewhat morbid, to those who don’t understand the Christian faith.  Why do Christians keep coming back to Christ crucified?  Well, it’s because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  When other great people have been killed, their untimely deaths seemed like a tragic waste.  We mourn the injustice of it all, and we wonder how much more they might have accomplished if their lives had not been cut short.  But with Jesus, it’s another matter.  According to the Bible, the crucifixion of Jesus isn’t a tragic waste but a great accomplishment.  Jesus achieved things by his suffering and death that his teaching and miracles could never have accomplished.

What did the cross accomplish?  What did Jesus actually achieve when he suffered and died?  I can’t think of a better way to answer that question than to read what the Bible says in Hebrews 2:14-18.  Listen:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.  For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Here, in just a few sentences, God shows us three major things that Jesus accomplished on the cross:  (1)  He destroyed the tyranny of the devil;  (2) he bridged the gap between sinful people and holy God;  and (3) he became a companion and helper to us in times of testing.  Let’s look at each of these great accomplishments in more detail.

First, Jesus won a great victory over Satan at the cross.  Now, Jesus had won some important skirmishes with Satan on other occasions:  he resisted the devil’s temptations, he did miracles and drove out demons, and these were all blows to Satan.  But it was when Jesus hung on the cross that he won the decisive battle.  As Hebrews 2 puts it, Jesus shared in our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Imagine a situation where a brutal terrorist is holding hostages.  This terrorist wants to win some concessions from the leader of the government, and he threatens to harm the hostages if he doesn’t get his way.  Actually, he intends to murder the hostages anyway as soon as his demands are met, but first, he wants to make the government look bad and undermine its authority.

However, the leader of the government doesn’t compromise or give in;  instead, he offers to become a hostage himself.  The terrorist is gleeful.  He’s got a chance to lay his hands on this powerful person whom he hates so much.  He’s got the leader right where he wants him, trapped in his hideout with all the other hostages.  But suddenly the terrorist finds himself disarmed, and he’s looking right down the barrel of his own gun, which the leader is now holding.  The hostages are set free, the terrorist is paraded out of the building at the point of his own weapon, and it all happened because the leader was willing to become a hostage himself in order to disarm the terrorist.  You can imagine how grateful and delighted the former hostages would be, and how angry and embarrassed the terrorist would be that his plan had backfired.

Now, that’s something like what Jesus did to the powers of evil.  Christ is the rightful ruler of the world, but Satan, like a rebel terrorist, used the power of sin to capture people and hold them hostage to their fear of death.  The Lord Jesus refused to negotiate or compromise with Satan, and he also refused to stand by and allow the hostages to perish.  Instead, he entered this world himself, joining all the other hostages who were in the devil’s grip.  And somehow, by entering the dreadful domain of suffering and death–by placing himself right in the devil’s hideout, as it were–Jesus destroyed the power of the ultimate terrorist and freed the hostages.  As Hebrews 2 puts it, by his death he destroyed him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery to their fear of death.

At the cross Jesus overpowered Satan and completely embarrassed him by turning the devil’s own weapons against him.  Satan’s two deadliest weapons are sin and death, and at the cross he unleashed them full force.  There was never a greater sin than the unjust execution of the perfect Son of God, and there was never a more awful death than the one Jesus endured.  But Christ took sin and death, those two dreadful weapons of Satan, and turned them back on their owner.  The Lord used the worst sin ever committed to overcome sin and to set people free from it.  He used the most awful death anyone ever died to destroy the power of death.

And so Jesus didn’t just defeat Satan at the cross;  he disarmed him and disgraced him and made a public spectacle of him by turning the devil’s very own weapons against him.  In Colossians 2:15 the Bible says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Christ] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

If you belong to Jesus, you are no longer under Satan’s power.  You are no longer held hostage by the fear of death.  You still go through the process of dying, but you don’t have to be terrorized by death anymore.  The menace of death, the horror of sin, the power of Satan, and the dread of hell have been conquered once and for all by Jesus’ victory at the cross.  Satan’s grip has been broken;  the hostages have been liberated.  That is one of the amazing accomplishments of the cross.

A second great accomplishment of the cross is that Jesus bridged the gap between sinful people and holy God.  You see, Satan isn’t our only problem, perhaps not even our biggest problem.  Your biggest problem is you, and my biggest problem is me.  Even with Satan and his demons out of the picture, we’d still be in big trouble, because of our own sinful nature and our own evil actions.

James Boice tells the story of a young girl named Mary Ann who got in a fight with her brother.  Their mother pulled them apart and scolded her daughter:  “Mary Ann!  How could you let Satan put it into your heart to pull your brother’s hair and kick his shins?”  The little girl looked at her mother for a moment and then replied, “Well, mommy, maybe Satan did put it into my heart to pull his hair, but kicking his shins was my own idea.”

That was pretty good theology.  Satan is certainly very real, and he causes a great deal of evil, but we can’t just use the excuse, “The devil made me do it.”  We’re quite good at sinning, even without any outside help.  Our problem isn’t just Satan, but the sin and selfishness right in our own hearts.

This sin causes a great gap, an enormous distance, between us and God.  The Lord knows our sin, and it is repulsive to him. God hates sin.  It offends his holiness; it violates his justice; it provokes his wrath.  So unless our sin is somehow dealt with, we can never be made right with a holy God.  Our problem, then, isn’t just how to get away from Satan, but how to come close to God and be accepted by him.  We need someone who can stand between us and God, to bridge the gap and cover our guilt.  And once again, the cross of Jesus provides the answer.

Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason, he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”  In order to help us, in order to help bridge the distance between us and God, the divine Son of God had to be made like us in every way.  He became our brother.  He became as human as you or me and lived through the same kind of things that we experience.  Not only did he become one of us in every way, but he identified with us so completely that he even took on the actual responsibility for our sins.  Though he himself was holy and innocent, he made the burden of our sin his own.  The Bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (1 Corinthians 5:21).  On the cross Jesus took the responsibility for human sin, and he took the punishment for it.

It’s not easy to see how one person can actually bear responsibility for the actions of another, but Professor John Hare of Calvin College suggests some examples that might at least give us a hint.

One example is that of corporate responsibility.  Suppose a large company buys a small business which is in deep financial trouble.  As soon as the big company takes ownership, it becomes responsible for the business it purchased.  The past debts have to be paid off, and any problems which that business may have in the future will also be the responsibility of the company that bought it.  One entity takes responsibility for the other;  that’s part of the deal when a purchase is made.

Now, the Bible teaches that Jesus bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20).  One aspect of that purchase is that he takes personal responsibility for all of our debts and problems, and sins.  By choosing to buy us and take ownership of us, he has made our problems his problems, and he has also made his resources our resources.

Another example where one person’s responsibility might be transferred to someone else is adoption.  Suppose a family decides to adopt a delinquent child who’s had many problems.   At the moment of adoption, the family suddenly becomes responsible and liable for what that child does.  If he breaks a neighbor’s window, the parents are held responsible.  If he steals, the parents pay.  By the act of adoption, the parents take on the responsibility for that child as long as he is under their care.  Even when the child is the guilty one and the parents had no part in anything wrong, they are liable, and they pay the price.

That may give us a hint of how Jesus could be held liable for sins he didn’t commit, for sins we’ve committed.  The Bible tells us that in Christ, God has adopted us as his sons and daughters, and this adoption is possible only because God in the person of Jesus has taken upon himself the responsibility for our sins.  He did this at the cross.

However we try to understand it, the Bible teaches that Jesus united himself to humanity so that he could be held responsible for humanity’s sins.  Hebrews 2 says, “For this reason, he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”  Jesus immersed himself in our condition in order to represent us as a priest before God, and to offer himself as a sacrifice to pay the penalty of sin.

Being both God and man, Jesus could stand between God and humanity, and he could bridge the gap created by sin.  On the cross, Jesus joined himself to us, and us to himself.  He who knew no sin became sin for us.  He took our guilt and our responsibility, he suffered the penalty we deserved, he paid the price we owed, he made atonement for our offenses, when he suffered the agony of hell itself during those dark and dreadful hours on the cross.

God’s holy wrath against sin requires that when somebody sins, somebody pays.  Every sinner must either be punished or else have his sin atoned for by the sacrificial death of another.  Only such a sacrifice could bring people back to God again.

We’ve been thinking about what the cross accomplished in the light of what the Bible says in Hebrews 2.  So far we’ve seen that the cross was a battle in which Jesus conquered Satan, and we’ve also seen that the cross was a sacrifice in which Jesus took on himself the punishment for sin and made his people right with God and brought them into God’s loving embrace.

A third accomplishment of the cross is described in verse 18 of Hebrews 2, which says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  In other words, because of his suffering on the cross, Jesus is able to be a true companion and helper.  He is an example and an inspiration and a support to his people when they go through tough times.

If you’re a soldier, you want to serve under a general who is not only a great strategist but who once went through the hardships of training and combat himself.  If you’re an athlete, it’s nice to have a coach who was also an athlete once, a coach who not only give excellent advice, but who also knows the pain of harsh workouts and the stress of competition.  When you’re sick in the hospital, there’s an added comfort in having a doctor who is not only highly qualified but who has also been through serious illness herself, who knows what it’s like and understands how you feel.

Likewise, when you’re a Christian, it’s a tremendous comfort and inspiration to know not only that Jesus is the mighty Son of God, but also that he’s been through the same things you’re struggling with.  Jesus is one of us;  he understands our struggles from his own experience.  He’s not just a great general sitting safe and aloof in the control room.  He’s been through the battle himself.  Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”

Are you going through temptation?  Is Satan tempting you to do whatever feels good, or to take the easy way rather than God’s way?  Jesus has been there.  He knows from experience how appealing Satan’s suggestions can be.  Are you being tested by hardship and physical pain?  You can turn to a Savior who experienced the excruciating agony of crucifixion.  Do you feel mocked and rejected by others?  Jesus knows all about rejection.  A close friend betrayed him.  He’s been mocked, spit on, and tortured.  Are you facing death?  Jesus knows death from personal experience.  And because he himself was tempted and tested, he is able to help those who are being tempted and tested.  He is our companion in suffering, our example in temptation, our inspiration in discouragement.

Words alone can never fully express all that the cross accomplished, but the three great accomplishments we’ve been exploring with the help of Hebrews 2 are more than enough to show us why the cross stands at the center of Christianity.  At the cross, Jesus overpowered Satan and liberated his people, he bore the responsibility for sin and reconciled his people to God, and he became a perfect and sympathetic friend for all who are being tested.  Any one of those accomplishments would be amazing enough, but the fact that on the cross Jesus accomplished all three ought to be enough to make us fall down in worship and gratitude and love, to call on him in repentance and faith, and to walk every day in the glory of the cross and in the joy of the living Lord.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, we praise you for all that you accomplished by your suffering and death.  Draw each person listening to me right now to your cross.  Help those who still live in slavery to Satan and fear of death to experience your liberation.  Help those who are far from God and burdened with guilt to receive the Father’s forgiveness and love and to enjoy peace with God.  Help those who are tempted and tested to lean on you and depend on your compassion and help.  We praise you, Lord, and we thank you for providing such a great salvation.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.