This morning marks the beginning of our weekly Lenten Journey toward the Cross of Calvary. During Lent, Pastor Drew will be preaching a 7-part sermon series which will focus on some of things Christ specifically accomplished through his suffering and crucifixion, collectively referred to as the passion of Christ. The series is entitled “Why Did Jesus Die?” and is inspired by John Piper’s book, The Passion of Jesus Christ. The main point of the whole series is that the suffering an death of Jesus Christ was a purposefully event; many of the reasons for the passion of Christ are for our benefit. The hope is that you will come to a much greater appreciation for what Christ Jesus accomplished through his suffering and death on the cross. Today’s theme is faith/faithfulness. The main point is that Jesus died to bring us to faith and keep us faithful.
- #2: March 13: “The Cross: The Means of Freedom“
- #3: March 20: “The Cross: The Means of God’s Blessings“
- #4: March 27: “The Cross: The Means of Reconciliation With God“
- #5: April 3: “The Cross: The Ground of Our Boasting“
- #6: April 10 (Palm Sunday): “The Cross: The Crowning Glory of Jesus Christ“
- #7: April 17 (Easter): “Victory!“
Scriptures: Romans 10:8-13; Mark 14:24; Jeremiah 32:40
The first section is an introduction to the sermon series which I shared with the congregation earlier in the worship service.
In my February Tower Chimes article, I mentioned that I started following a new Bible reading plan this year for my personal devotions. This particular plan entails reading through the book of Proverbs over and over. At the completion of chapter 31, you start over and read it again. Theoretically, if I followed the reading plan to a ‘T’ (which I haven’t been), I’d read the book of Proverbs twelve times a year! Presently, I’m on my second read-through, but already one theme in particular has jumped out at me, which is the author’s unceasing insistence on seeking after wisdom and knowledge; specifically, the wisdom and knowledge which comes from God. Over and over, the listener is encouraged to seek it out, go after it with all your strength and determination, grab hold of it, live by it, intentionally make Godly wisdom and knowledge the foundation of your life and it will result in a blessed life. In other words, be intentional about knowing and understanding who God is as well as the ways of God. That’s the message that comes through loud and clear in Proverbs.
It’s been my experience that most of the best learning in life happens when we ask questions and when we seek clarification when we don’t understand. One of the best questions in all of life is one that toddlers and young children instinctively ask all the time: Why? Why is the sky blue? Why is grandma’s face so wrinkly? Why can’t I eat candy for supper? Why do I have to go to bed when all my friends are still up and playing outside? (That was one I asked of my parents a lot when I was in elementary school.) Even though it can be somewhat draining to keep answering their never-ending why? questions, we nevertheless know that that’s how they learn.
In fact, it’s how we all learn. It’s just that the older we get, the questions change. If we as the church do a good job of raising up children of faith who become youths of faith who become adults of faith, we will have instilled in them a healthy ability to ask Why? To seek deeper understanding, not only for the sake of gaining knowledge but, more importantly, for growing in faith.
With this in mind, have you ever questioned why Jesus had to die? And why he had to die the way he did? Maybe not. Maybe you’ve just always accepted that that’s the way it was and the way it had to be. Or maybe early in life you were taught to not ask such questions, that it’s important to just accept “on faith” whatever the Sunday school teacher or pastor told you. Well, this year, for Lent we’re asking an important why? question: Why did Jesus die? In asking this question, we’ll be getting at the reasons for his suffering and death. That is, what the passion of Christ accomplished, or achieved.
Pastor and author John Piper penned a small book entitled “The Passion of Jesus Christ” in which he identifies from the New Testament fifty reason why Jesus Christ came to die. Between now and Easter, I’m going to focus on seven of those reasons, beginning with the principle that Jesus died in order to bring us to faith and thereafter to keep us faithful.
I had a professor in seminary who told me he was of belief that Jesus didn’t have to die in the manner he did. His view was that Jesus’ death was a travesty of human justice, and that he died because certain religious leaders were threatened by him and simply wanted him out of their hair and out of the picture altogether. He said that Jesus could have opted to not go to Jerusalem. He knew what awaited him there. He’d already informed his disciples that he’d be handed over to the authorities and put to death. My professor’s point was that if Jesus would have taken the steps to remain alive and thus continue his ministry, he could have accomplished even more than he did in those three short years. All this is to say, he viewed the crucifixion as something that didn’t have to happen, that shouldn’t have happened, and would have been better for everybody if it hadn’t happened.
To be honest, my theological grounding was so immature at the time that the unorthodox theology he expressed went right over my head. In essence, he was telling me that from his point of view, Jesus’ death accomplished nothing more than killing an innocent man. But if that’s the case, then an awful lot of Scripture will need to disregarded, because the witness of the New Testament is that Jesus’ death on the cross was something he deliberately and consciously submitted to, not as a victim of broken political and religious systems, but because he was fully aware of the fact that it was the only solution to broken humanity. The Biblical witness is that as terrible and dehumanizing as his crucifixion was, it was the God’s solution to the problem of sin. Jesus was fully aware that if he didn’t go through with it, he’d be rebelling against his very nature, and every person ever born into this world would never be reconciled to God and we would all die in our sins.
I realize it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around the truth of it the matter, but Jesus’ death was the central event of God’s plan of redemption. For 2000+ years, Christians have understood and interpreted Isaiah chapter 53 through the lens of the cross. Here are a few key verses.
He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Surely, he took up our pain and bore our suffering. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
In this description of Isaiah’s “suffering servant” we perceive Jesus’ suffering on the cross. We see it as a prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion. Verse 10 is also an important prophetic utterance of Jesus’ suffering. (And if you take it to heart, it can be quite startling.) [v. 9: “Though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth,] yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” According to Isaiah, it was the Father’s will that the Son, Jesus, would suffer and die.
That’s difficult to hear, isn’t it? If you’re like me, the first question out of your mouth is probably, “Why?” Why did it have to be like this? That’s what I’m going to attempt to begin to answer over these seven weeks. But let me offer 1 Peter 2:24 as the foundation of the various reasons I’ll talk about in the weeks ahead. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds [we] are healed” (which a quote of Isaiah 53:5). So, the passion of Christ was for the healing of humanity’s broken relationship with God.
In a short while we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s something we do on a regular basis, but it’s quite possible that even though we’re familiar with it, we may not fully understand some of the terminology used in the liturgy. For example, at a certain point during the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the pastor lifts the cup and says, “When the supper was over, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” The key phrase in this statement is Jesus’ proclamation, “This [wine—the contents of this cup] is my blood of the new covenant.” What exactly is he talking about?
He’s talking about a very important aspect of the relationship between God and his people. From the day God first called out to Abraham and revealed his plan to make his descendants into a great nation until today, one of the central tenants of being in relationship with God is covenant. In fact, God’s people are often referred to as ‘covenant people’ because we are in a covenantal relationship with God.
What does it mean to be in a covenantal relationship with God? In John Piper’s words:
the term covenant refers to a solemn, binding agreement between two parties carrying obligations for both sides and enforced by an oath. Today, we’re more likely to call them contracts or binding agreements. They’re often written down and signed. Think of a covenant as a promise, pledge, or vow with teeth. In the Bible, God is always the one who initiates the covenant with persons. And it’s God who sets the terms of the covenant. Although this is somewhat oversimplified, the various covenants God makes with persons in the Bible boils down to I will be your God and you will be my people. I will take care of you, and you will worship only me. As long as you remain faithful to me, I will never break my covenant with you.
So, when Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his arrest, he mentioned something about a new covenant. What was the old covenant?
The old covenant refers to the arrangement God established with Israel in the law of Moses. Again, it was an agreement between God and Israel. They were to keep the law as given to Moses, and God would watch over them. The original law given to Moses was the Ten Commandments. This law was literally chiseled into stone. Over time, the law expanded beyond the Ten. Today, there are over 600 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some of them are “thou shall” commands, and some are “thou shall not.”
What was God’s purpose in giving Israel the law? The purpose of the law was to sanctify them. Sanctify—there’s a good church word! To ‘sanctify’ means a couple of different but related things. First, it means to set apart from another. To make different than; to differentiate. The commands given to the Jews were different than the commands and rules of the other religions in that part of the world at that time. For example, they were the only people required to circumcise their sons. That law alone differentiated them from the rest of the world.
Secondly, to sanctify means to make [something] holy. In essence, keeping the law of Moses was intended to make them holy and righteous in God’s eyes. But there was a big problem. It failed to do that, and the reason it failed to do that was because it was impossible to keep every commandment. And Scripture indicates that to break one commandment makes one guilty of breaking the law. It’s either all or nothing. And so, the result was that the old covenant was in fact not accompanied by spiritual transformation it was intended to foster. So, when the prophet Jeremiah came on the scene, God had a word of hope for his people. Through Jeremiah, here’s what God told his people: “I will surely gather [my people] and bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me” (Jeremiah 32:37-40).
But the prophecy we’re probably more familiar with is from chapter 31, where God says:
“The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestorswhen I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, (a reference to the 10 Commandments written on stone). This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Jeremiah spoke of a future new covenant that God would initiate with his people, one that would be written on their hearts, and one that would result in true spiritual transformation because their sins would be truly cleansed. When Jesus lifted the cup, he announced that his blood—the blood that would be shed on the cross the next day—would be final sacrifice required by the law of Moses for the forgiveness of sins. His self-sacrifice would usher in the new covenant Jeremiah spoke of. His blood would bring about true forgiveness and heart-level transformation. The suffering and death of Christ accomplishes and guarantees what the old covenant could not: the inner change of his people (because the law is inscribed upon our hearts) and the forgiveness of our sins.
Let me put this another way. There have been two ways of being sanctified; of being set apart from the ways of the world and made holy and righteous in God’s eyes. The first was to follow the law which was written on stone. But this didn’t work, and it ended in spiritual death, which is spiritual separation from God. The other way is to exhibit faith in the One who lived the sinless life required by the law of Moses, and who bore in himself all the requirements of the law, including the shedding of blood. The Holy Spirit is the one who writes this new covenant upon the heart, and he does so with the blood of Christ. And this way brings life. 2 Corinthians 3:6 tells us that the “letter kills, but Spirit gives life.” Ephesians 2:5 says that God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our sins.” How were we made alive? By believing what God’s Word tells us, namely that the blood of Christ is the source of our forgiveness and therefore our life. And that’s what saving faith is—believing that what Christ did truly accomplished what Scripture tells us it accomplished. The Spiritual life Christ gives us by writing it on our hearts is what enables us to see and believe in the glory of Christ. This miracle creates the new-covenant people. That’s us!
And, as Piper points out, the miracle is not only the creation of our faith, but the securing of our faithfulness. That is, the ability to “keep the faith,” both individually and corporately. What was the promise God made? “I will make with them an everlasting covenant…that they may not turn away from me” (Jer. 32:40). Friends, when Christ died, he secured for his people not only new hearts but new security. God will not let his people turn away from him like they did the first time. This means that the church of Jesus Christ will never die off or fade away. We will be around in one form or another until Christ returns. This world will always contain God’s people. Why? Because God will keep us. We will persevere no matter what. The blood of the new covenant guarantees it! Let’s pray.