For Us and For Our Salvation

Part IV of “We Believe: The Nicene Creed”

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

GolgothaOne of the highlights for those going on a pilgrimage to Israel is a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ancient church that houses the traditional sites of Golgotha, the place where Jesus died, and the tomb in which he was laid and from which he rose from the dead. It is usually a very crowded place, since it is the holiest site in Christendom.

When you enter through the huge wooden doors, you are directed to the right up a short set of steep stairs to a chapel, which sits on the site of the rock on which Jesus’ cross was thought to be lifted. Visitors wait in congested and often contested lines to have a chance to kneel under the altar and put their hands through a hole in the floor to touch the rock of Calvary. It is supposed to be a holy experience, and for many it is.

But for many others, it is a confusing mix of questions, thoughts, and emotions—and sometimes disappointment and frustration. I once had someone try to pick my pocket there—while in the holiest church in the world! Not exactly what you expect. But there was another incident that has stuck with me for years, and that was the young European couple who was waiting behind me in line. At one point they tapped me on the shoulder and, in their best English (it was clear I was an American—you can’t hide that), they asked me, “Can you tell us what this place is? What happened here?” Apparently they had just followed the crowd into the church, not knowing what it was (curiously, there is no sign outside indicating the name of the church).

I explained to them that this was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, where he died for the sins of the world. They looked puzzled, as though they had never heard of such a thing. “Why did he do that?” that asked. I attempted to explain, but the noise, the language barrier, and the pushing crowd made it difficult to have an in-depth conversation. I did my best, but I’m sure they touched the rock not knowing exactly why it was a big deal.

I’ve thought about that incident ever since. “Why did he do that?” Why did Jesus die? It’s a question that Christians, scholars, and theologians have wrestled with since the first century. But perhaps the bigger question is this: Why did he have to die in this way?

Certainly, there are plenty of people in history who have died heroic deaths, and there are those who will visit the site. I’ve been the Book Depository in Dallas where President Kennedy was assassinated, for example. You can visit Memphis and see where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, and I’ve been to Ford’s Theater in DC where President Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth. But what’s different about them is that we don’t tend to fixate on the means of their deaths. We don’t symbolize their presidency or their cause by displaying the symbol of a gun, for example. The point is not so much how they died, but that they died.

The death of Jesus is different, however, because from the beginning Christians have emphasized how he died. Christians still display the symbol of the cross everywhere. The early Christians, including the framers of the Creed, make sure to say that Jesus was crucified; that he suffered crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, a minor historical figure we would know nothing about otherwise. It wasn’t just that Jesus had died, they were clear to say that the manner of Jesus’ death was of vital importance for us an for our salvation.

But why? Christians are quick to come up with easy answers.  For secular people, like that European couple, the cross is largely nonsensical, though it looks good as jewelry.

Those of an evangelical persuasion might say that Jesus died to save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die. Those who are progressives might bypass the cross with its bloody religious symbolism and suggest that Jesus’ death was somehow an unfortunate incident from which we can extract a moral example of sacrifice and injustice. Truth is, most casual Christians would rather skip over Good Friday all together and go straight to Easter but as my son put it this week, “You can’t skip over all the Tarantino stuff to get to the happy stuff.” The cross compels us to examine it carefully.

Time, historical distance, and culture have dulled our senses how scandalous it was in the ancient world and how offensive it was to both the religious and secular people of the first century—people who had seen real crucifixions and all the horror they entailed. Moreover, we miss the challenge that the early Christians, like the Apostle Paul, had to deal with when they based their preaching on the cross and the means of Jesus’ death and what it meant. A worse symbol and more horrible way of death the people of his day could not have imagined.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” says Paul to the Corinthian church. They were having their own questions about crucifixion as the means of Jesus’ death and what it meant. The Jews among them could not imagine a crucified Messiah—the Law of Moses said that to be “hung on a tree” was to be cursed by God. The Gentiles among them would have been offended at the very mention of crucifixion—it was not a word used in polite company. The cross was the fate of the worst sorts of people—not even people, really, but slaves and criminals who were not Roman citizens.

Jesus-on-the-Cross-John-3-16-How could they believe in someone who had been executed in the most humiliating, dehumanizing way possible? No one to that point would have even conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man. Says Fleming Rutledge in her marvelous new book on the crucifixion of Jesus, “The early Christian preaching announced the entrance of God upon the stage of history in the person of an itinerant Jewish teacher who had been ingloriously pinned up alongside two of society’s castoffs to die horribly, rejected and condemned by religious and secular authorities alike, discarded on to the garbage heap of humanity, scornfully forsaken by both elites and common folk, leaving behind only a discredited, demoralized handful of scruffy disciples who had no status whatsoever in the eyes of anyone. The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is not sufficiently acknowledged.”

You would think such attitudes would cause a preacher like Paul to downplay the crucifixion angle and, instead, simply talk about Jesus’ death in generic terms. But he does not—ever—and neither do the other New Testament writers. “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” says Paul, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews (literally, “a scandal”) and foolishness to Gentiles.” Why was he so insistent on bringing up the cross? Why did it mean so much and why is it the key to our salvation?

For that we have to back up a bit and review. Remember what we have learned so far from the creed—that God, the Creator of the universe, of all that is, seen and unseen, has been made know in the person of Jesus Christ—one who is fully human and fully divine. In his full divinity, he is the image of the invisible God. In his full humanity, he is the perfect image of humanity itself—the new Adam, as Paul calls him. In him, both God and humanity are perfectly represented. For us and for our salvation, the fully divine God became fully human, “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary.” God did this as the means by which he would redeem his good creation, by coming in person to deal with human sin and the resulting specter of death that distorted that good creation.

A word about “sin” here. We tend to think of “sins” plural when we use that word—a list of things that we do that are wrong and against God’s law. That’s part of it, but Paul uses the word in a much broader and desperate way. For Paul, Sin (capital S) is a power that has enslaved humanity. Jesus himself said that “everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” Paul reinforces that in Romans 6:16 – “Do you not know that if you present yourself to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” In Romans 7:11, Paul reveals that Sin uses the Law of God as a club to keep us enslaved; powerless to escape its chains on our own.

That desperate situation requires a liberator—one who could enter the dungeon and break the chains of sin and death. And Paul says, as the Creed says, that the only one who could do it was the one who was fully embodies God and fully embodies humanity. And the only way he could do it was through taking the power of sin and death on directly, taking on the worst they had to offer. And only one mode of death would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s enslaved condition under sin—crucifixion.

Fleming Rutledge puts it this way: “Jesus’ situation under the harsh judgment of Rome was analogous to our situation under sin. He was condemned; he was rendered helpless and powerless; he was stripped of his humanity; he was reduced to the status of a beast, declared unfit to live and deserving of a death proper to slaves…This is what happened on the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death” (102).

The one who had no sin, was “made to be sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21)—made to be like us in our condition. Paul says in the great hymn in Philippians 2 that though he was in the form of God, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” He took the form of a slave, literally, on the cross—identifying completely with us in enslavement to Sin and Death to the point that he, in that moment, exchanged God for Godlessness. No wonder he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” with his dying breaths. It is a quote from Psalm 22, but it is even more the desperate cry of his condition—our condition. The one who knew no sin, literally became sin for us.  As Rutledge puts it, “God, in the person of his Son, put himself voluntarily and deliberately into the place of greatest accursedness and Godlessness—for us” (104).

Charles Wesley expresses the power of this truth in the hymn “And Can It Be:”

He left his Father’s throne above, so free so infinite his grace. Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. ’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast-bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

All of us are fast-bound in the dungeon of sin and death. All of us may be liberated by the one who became a slave, taking sin and death on himself, and broke our chains. When we look at the cross, we realize that all of our spiritual and intellectual achievements are nothing. God levels us of all distinctions between human beings and incorporates all who believe into his godless death on our behalf. This is why Paul could say to the Galatians, “In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free,” to which I would add black or white, rich or poor, immigrant or native, powerful or powerless, Democrat or Republican…”

Our fantasies of religious success and political power cannot stand up to the reality of Christ crucified. Instead, the cross will drive us to suffer with the weak and broken, those still enslaved by sin; it will drive us to suffer for truth and justice while the world strives after happiness and security. The cross will keep us from focusing solely on a faraway heaven, and instead cause us to look deeply at the places where the world is in pain, knowing that God’s mission is to redeem his people and his good creation. The resurrection is the guarantee that it will be done—the chains of sin and death broken forever. More about that later.

For now, however, I think that’s what Jesus means when he invites us to pick up our cross and follow him. That it not simply be a place we visit, but a self-emptying way of life. “Your attitude should be like that of Christ Jesus,” says Paul in Philippians 2, who though being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be exploited; but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” It is a call not only to believe in the scandal of the cross, but to live an equally scandalous cross-bearing life in the model of the crucified Messiah.

The ornate chapel of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher must have seemed ostentatious and foolish to that young couple that day. I wish I could have fully explained all that it meant—that it was all for them, as it was for you and for me. It was for all of us and for our salvation.


Rutledge, Fleming. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus ChristEerdman’s: 2015.

3 Comments on "For Us and For Our Salvation"

  1. Penelope Allen says:

    Your son’s comment about getting through all the ” Tarantino stuff” I know he was a film maker but what does all that Tarantino stuff mean?
    An excellent and thought provoking sermon

  2. lisa hatfield says:

    Message = “I got this, I love you THIS MUCH”- Jesus

    As they said in “Wayne’s World,” “we’re not worthy!”
    But that’s the “grace” part.

    Thank GOD.

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