I can think back to many moments in my own short lifetime where I have seen things that have shocked and appalled me. On one occasion I was watching the news. The story being told was about thousands of children who were starving due to the greed of government officials. As the pictures were shown of malnourished and helpless children the feelings of pity, compassion and anger were mixed deep inside me in a cocktail of emotions. These things are wrong and wherever we see such injustice and the consequences of evil we are right to be revolted by what we see.
Yet, none of these tragic circumstances, no matter how bad they get, should stir us and revolt us as much as the historical reality of the cross of Jesus. For, as the Bible clearly shows us, this was the greatest act of injustice and the most defiant act of evil ever to be experienced in this world past, present or future.
To see this we just need to come to the foot of the cross of Jesus and ask four questions. First, who is this man? The Centurion who had charge of the guard that day echoes the truth that the Bible declares time and time again, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39). The crucifixion of the Son of God was not merely an act of human injustice, it was the ultimate fist-shaking act of human defiance against a sovereign God It was the epitome and climax of our rebellion against God. There can be nothing worse than that!
The second question is: what had this man done wrong? The writer of the book of Hebrews explains, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). Did Jesus do anything deserving of death? Absolutely not! It wasn’t just that he hadn’t broken any Roman or Jewish laws, but he hadn’t broken any of God’s laws either. From a legal standpoint there is no case that can be made for the death of Jesus, he simply did not deserve to die and shouldn’t have been crucified.
The next question we need to ask is: why wasn’t he let go? If you take a look at the records of those who received the death sentence in the UK before its partial abolition in 1965 and full abolition in 1998 you might be more than a little disturbed. This is not so much because of the number sentenced to death or the crimes they committed, but because of the number who were sentenced, killed and later found to be innocent. Here are two examples:
- Timothy Evans sentenced to death on 9th March 1950, given a posthumous pardon in 1966.
- George Kelly sentenced to death on 28th March 1950, his conviction was squashed posthumously in 2003.
As tragic as these cases are, it is possible to understand how the mistakes were made. A jury, made of twelve fallible people, listens to the evidence and sought, in good faith, to come to the right answer. These were mistakes, severe ones, but nonetheless honest ones. However, this cannot be said of those who tried Jesus.
The false evidence brought against Jesus was so fragile that even those who hated him had to throw it out (Matthew 26:59-60). In addition Pilate and Herod examined Jesus thoroughly without finding any reason for crucifying him. His innocence was abundantly clear and beyond denial. The reason Jesus was hanging on the cross had nothing to do with a declaration of guilt, but the feelings, fears and hatred of those who tried him. The cross of Jesus was nothing short of a wicked act of people abusing authority and influence and acting in rebellion against a holy God.
The final question we could ask to expose the evil of the cross is: how was he treated? Remember, Jesus was a man who went around healing the sick and caring for those who were hurting in all kinds of different ways. He had been straight with people, but had always done it from a heart of love. It is even more surprising then to see a complete lack of compassion in the way he was treated from the point of his arrest to his death on the cross. The temple guard beat and taunted him, the Sanhedrin spat at him and struck him, Pilate had him flogged and crucified, the Jewish leaders mocked and taunted him and even those who hung there next to him joined in pouring scorn upon him. His kindness was returned with brutality, his care returned with pain and his love returned with abject hatred. Has there ever been an event as wicked and evil as this in its extremes and injustice?
Having understood this it is startling to turn to the book of Acts and read the sermon that Peter preached just a matter of weeks after the cross. All the events of that day are fresh in his mind and you can hear it in correct accusation he brings, ‘You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross’ (Acts 2:23). Yet, that is not where he begins. Take note of these words, ‘This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23, emphases added). These are staggering words, because Peter is telling us that even the actions and events of this extreme act of evil were always firmly under the control of God. The cross was not an act of victory against God; instead, it only happened because it was in the supreme will of God.
These words in Acts 2 are not the only place in the Bible where this truth is revealed to us. In fact, it is a reality that saturates the pages of Scripture from the pictures, promises and pointers of the Old Testament through to the closing words of the book of Revelation. As we read the pages of God’s Word we can affirm time and time again that the cross was not a surprise, an accident or a mistake.
The cross was not a surprise
Surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant. One Sunday I came home from church to find a strange car in the driveway. When I opened the door to the lounge I found some old friends that I hadn’t seen for years. The next day was my birthday and my wife had organised their visit as a surprise. I hadn’t expected it or seen it coming. Just for the record, that was a pleasant surprise, but not every surprise is like that. Often hard and difficult things happen that we weren’t expecting. Is that what happened at the cross? Did Jesus get broadsided by a tragedy that he simply didn’t see?
It would be very hard to support this when we weigh up the words of the Bible. The Old Testament is full of pictures and promises of the cross. The most notable is found in Isaiah 53. Here we are told, ‘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’ (Isaiah 53:5). Approximately 750 years before Jesus was born God was telling us what would happen to his Son; he would die and die painfully.
It’s clear too that Jesus knew this and went to Jerusalem with a clear understanding of what would happen. Mark summarises his teaching to his disciples, ‘He then began to teach them that the Son of Man [Jesus] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again’ (Mark 8:31). Jesus didn’t hang on the cross wondering what had all gone wrong. Rather, he hung there because he knew what would happen and still he went to Jerusalem, still he allowed himself to be rejected, still he kept quiet before Pilate and still he didn’t call the angels to save him.
The cross was not an accident
Accidents happen. Things go wrong when we meant them to go right and often the consequences are extremely painful. Take a hammer, a bunch of nails and a piece of wood. It doesn’t take much hammering the nails into the wood before your arm gets tired, your aim goes off and the hammer will come crushing down on your tender and unprotected thumb. Ouch!!!! Don’t worry the throbbing stops after a few hours and thumb nail will grow back again. So was this what happened at the cross? Jesus meant to do something else, leisurely and easily, but instead the hammer slipped and he ended up with the brutality of the cross.
Certainly not! That’s the statement of Scripture. The cross was as intentional as you can get. Back to Isaiah 53; ‘it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ (Isaiah 53:10). God the Father meant for Jesus, his Son, to die on the cross. It wasn’t an accident.
Similarly, we are told in Luke’s Gospel of a change in Jesus ministry, ‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51). Jesus was going back to heaven, but before he did there was a job to do in Jerusalem. From other statements in the gospels we know that Jesus recognised this work as his death and resurrection. He intentionally went to Jerusalem on that Sunday with the sole purpose of dying on the cross later in the week.
The cross was not an accident; it was an intentional act of a sovereign God.
The cross was not a mistake
Well, if the cross wasn’t a surprise and it wasn’t an accident was it all a mistake? Look at Jesus hanging there all bloodied and torn and tell me that some part of you doesn’t want to ask, ‘what’s gone wrong?’ Certainly that was the way his disciples felt. Jesus had come full of miracles and powerful words. He had the potential to turn Judea upside down and now here he is hanging on a cross. It must be a big mistake and now evil has won the day.
No, that’s not how the Bible puts it; and it is not how we should see the cross because the cross was not the victory of evil over God, but the supreme and final victory of God over evil. Notice how Isaiah puts it, ‘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’ (Isaiah 53:5). The death of Jesus achieved something that could not be achieved in any other way, the saving of sinful people from God’s judgment for sin.
The cross was not a mistake because it was the central activity of God’s rescue plan for rebellious sinners like you and me. This rescue plan is first shown to us in Genesis 3:15 and we are shown its awesome completion when Jesus returns and brings his people into the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21-22). The work was done and the rescue completed 2000 years ago as Jesus hung on a piece of wood just outside Jerusalem, then buried in a tomb and on the third day rose again. As Jesus put it, ‘just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [reference to the cross], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15).
The sovereignty of God over all things is not an abstract truth without any bearing on us. Previous posts, I hope, have shown that it has bearing on the realities of life in a fallen world and here we see that it is interwoven into the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. The cross is filled with hope because God is a sovereign God and he intended for it to happen. The glory of the gospel is not that Jesus died because God could not save him. Rather, it is that God knew what he was doing, ordered every step and sent his Son to die on the cross to destroy sin and death so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Now, that’s glorious!