God's End Game - Part 21

Series: My Preaching Bucket List

April 07, 2019
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

I don’t think we can go wrong by darting directly to the Scripture. Look with me at a familiar account in Luke’s Gospel about what is both the darkest and brightest day in the history of mankind…

Luke 23:32–46 (ESV) — 32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 

The ancient practice of crucifixion was a horror. Invented by the Persians, borrowed by the conqueror Alexander the Great, it was continued in mass proportion by the Romans, who by the time of Jesus had overtaken the civilized world.

It was unarguably the most barbaric, cruel form of capital punishment around, reserved for the worst of criminals. Roman soldiers carried it out in public for a reason: to make a statement about Rome’s power to maintain control of its domain. Imagine walking into a Roman city along the main road and seeing the crosses and the people on them!

We’ve read about the crucifixion or heard it preached or seen it portrayed so many times, we become desensitized to its brutality… much like the horrors of war in our day.

War is part of our history as a nation. We’ve seen countless movies about World War I and World War II and Vietnam. We’ve been so exposed to a sanitized version of what war is like, we don’t have a clue as to how horrible it really is.

A movie called Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998. It didn’t hold anything back. I remember watching it. It changed me, and not in a good way. I had no idea that’s what those men - others who fought in real live wars - went through. Words can’t describe it. I mean, if the movie could give me a taste of how bad it was, then what must it have been like to be there.

In the same way, pretty much every movie, every account of Jesus’ crucifixion has been sanitized, except for one that came out in 2004 called The Passion of the Christ. The church I pastored at the time did a big promotion of it, selling hundreds of tickets. As a way to prepare for my Easter message that year, I snuck away to the theater in Rivergate by myself for an afternoon showing. It changed me. I had no idea how shocking and appalling the crucifixion really was.

Not only do we not get the physical brutality of it, but the popularity of the cross today also takes away the scandalousness associated with crucifixion back then. One NT scholar reminds us that...

[Crucifixion was, after all, one of the most horrible fates that humans could devise. That isn’t a modern overstatement. It was the considered opinion of the Roman orator Cicero and the Jewish historian Josephus, two men who had seen plenty of crucifixions, and also another who knew what he was talking about, the church father Origen. Cicero refers to crucifixion as … the “most cruel and terrifying penalty” (In Verrem 2.5.165). 

Josephus speaks of a Jewish protest against the “most pitiable of deaths,” thanatōn ton oiktiston (Jewish War 7.202f.). 

Origen refers to it as… the “most shameful form of death, namely, the cross” (Commentary on Matthew 27.22). 

The point is often made but bears repetition: we in the modern West, who wear jeweled crosses around our necks, stamp them on Bibles and prayer books, and carry them in cheerful processions, need regularly to be reminded that the very word “cross” was a word you would most likely not utter in polite society. The thought of it would not only put you off your dinner; it could give you sleepless nights. And if you had actually seen a crucifixion or two, as many in the Roman world would have, your sleep itself would have been invaded by nightmares as the memories came flooding back unbidden, memories of humans half alive and half dead, lingering on perhaps for days on end, covered in blood and flies, nibbled by rats, pecked at by crows, with weeping but helpless relatives still keeping watch, and with hostile or mocking crowds adding their insults to the terrible injuries. 

All this explains Cicero’s statement that everything to do with crucifixion, including the word… itself, 

“should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things, or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” (In Verrem 16)]

Let’s keep going…

34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 

Isn’t that ironic? Jesus really was the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.

Let’s keep going…

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Even on the cross, in his darkest hour, our Lord showed kindness to those mocking him and to the repentant thief hanging beside him.

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

Jesus, God come to us in the flesh, who was 100% God and 100% man, died a cruel, undeserving death. We need to stop a minute and prayerfully let that sink in.

After exploring the incarnation with all its wonder, what comes after - the crucifixion - is shocking, unexpected, and seemingly impossible. I mean, when we read that and then remember where the apostle John took us at the beginning of his gospel, I don’t quite know what to do…

John 1:1–2, 14 (ESV) — 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God… 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God with us ends up being crucified on a Roman cross. How can that be? Once more, I’ll be honest. I don’t know.

It was a stumbling block to the Jews and Gentiles of ancient times. Paul wrote…

1 Corinthians 1:23 (ESV) — 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,

The Jews had an incredibly hard time with it and still do because they weren’t looking for a suffering Messiah, one who would end up in seeming defeat with his hand and feet nailed to a tree. In their Scripture, after all, it is said that cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.

The Gentiles had an equally difficult time with it because they couldn’t imagine any god hung on a Roman cross worth following. I mean, the scandal of it all. 

Archaeologists found graffiti on a wall in Rome depicting Jesus with the head of a donkey, his body affixed on a cross with the mocking words, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

It’s a stumbling block for many today as well. They can’t imagine a loving God requiring such a price for sin from his own son. They see the crucifixion as God the Father abusing and killing his child. And so they reject Christianity altogether or they revise it. And I totally understand why.

They reject it by saying it isn’t true. It’s so offensive, so bizarre, so contradictory, it can’t be right. Those who wrote this down must either be lying, have made it up, or be crazy.

They revise it by saying those who gave us this account in the Gospels fabricated it all having not even been there when Jesus was crucified. And they give themselves permission to redact whatever parts they choose.

As I’ve often mentioned though, I’ve learned to look at things from another perspective. Christianity, with its god becoming one of us and being crucified, isn’t what you’d expect from disciples making up a religion (which is what the skeptics say about it).

If you were going to fabricate a religion with the intent of duping people into following it, you’d make it very palatable. Right? Not offensive.

If you’re making a religion you don’t have your central figure born under questionable circumstances and die a criminal’s death on a Roman cross! Either Paul and the disciples were crazy or they were telling the truth!

Paul knew how it would sound, he knew it was an offense yet he preached it anyway because he found…

1 Corinthians 1:25 (ESV) — 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

You can spend a lot of time answering the question was it true? from a historical or doctrinal perspective. That’s not within the scope of our End Game study, though I believe with all my heart it is true. The fact that it’s not what you’d expect actually supports my belief.

You can also spend a great deal of energy on another crucifixion question people wrestle with: was it necessary? Did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God have found another way? This too is not within the scope of our End Game study, but just so you know one theologian explains that…

[…several passages in Scripture indicate that there was no other way for God to do this than through the death of his Son. Therefore, the atonement was not absolutely necessary, but, as a “consequence” of God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary. This is sometimes called the “consequent absolute necessity” view of the atonement.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). We may be confident that Jesus always prayed according to the will of the Father, and that he always prayed with fullness of faith. Thus it seems that this prayer, which Matthew takes pains to record for us, shows that it was not possible for Jesus to avoid the death on the cross which was soon to come to him (the “cup” of suffering that he had said would be his). If he was going to accomplish the work that the Father sent him to do, and if people were going to be redeemed for God, then it was necessary for him to die on the cross.]

Conclusion: Most importantly for us in this series, we will try and answer the question, as much as we can…

What did it do?

What did Jesus’ death on the cross do? What did it accomplish?

Western Christianity for the last 200 years or so has limited that answer to…

Jesus was crucified on the cross to save me from my sins so I can go to heaven when I die.

That’s right, of course, but it’s way more than that. If that’s all we know about, we are missing out. And we’ll get into that next time.

But for right now. Right here at this moment, listen to Paul once more…

1 Corinthians 1:17–18 (The Message) — 17 God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words. 18 The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out.

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