This is the day in our calendar when we commemorate the time when the mangled body of our Lord Jesus was nailed to a cross of wood. Not only do we commemorate this, we exult in it. In this divine humiliation, we have learned to see the beauty of the Lord, the wisdom of God, and the power of the gospel to draw all the nations of men to this compelling center. This is, literally, the crux of human history.
We know the resurrection that follows, and we know it sets the boundary of this part of the story. So the attraction of the cross is not a matter of suspense, or relativistic notion of how a naïve goodness challenged raw Roman authority and paid the inevitable price. Nor does the resurrection bring about a happy ending as some sort of afterthought. The resurrection presupposes the cross, and the cross presupposes the resurrection. Jesus did what He did for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2). He told the disciples plainly that He was going to come back from the grave. Jesus descended into the darkness, but in that darkness He never forgot the light, and He never ceased to believe that everlasting Light was still before Him.
He was so clear about this that even the false witnesses at His trial knew about it. “This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days” (Matt. 26:61).
They used His words to taunt Him while He was on the cross. “And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:39-40).
Although they needn’t have worried about it, the enemies of Christ thought that His disciples must have picked up on this element of His teaching.”Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first” (Matt. 27:62-64).
It was not as though the Lord Jesus had only spoken of this to His enemies. “And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him” (Mk. 8:31-32).
Jesus went to the cross in faith, knowing by faith that He would be raised. It is this faith, the faith of our Lord Jesus in dying, that is the basis of our salvation. It is this faith that fascinates us, that draws us. Jesus knew that when He was lifted up-flogged, mocked, nailed, pierced, and bloody-the whole world would be drawn to Him. But we have not been drawn to a mere spectacle of meaningless suffering. Rather we are drawn to ultimate meaning when we see the ultimate man, the last man, the true man, descend into suffering for others, and to do it all in faith. Even the cry of despair at the end is filled with faith. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even then, it is still “my God.” Even then, He is quoting the Scriptures. Even then He is self-consciously fulfilling all the words of Scripture, which cannot be broken. The one who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:20).
Faith in dying, faith in death, faith in torture, faith through the mockery-this is what draws us. This was faith that had no visible means of support-nothing other than the simple promise of God. His body was held up by the nails, but His soul was sustained by the will of the Father, the Father who willed that the world would be saved through this means.
“Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:27-32).
Jesus speaks of His lifting up, His crucifixion, as that which would draw all men to Him. But this is said in the next breath, right after He has said that the judgment of God has come upon “this world,” and that the prince of this world would be cast out. This is Christ the conqueror, not Christ the helpless Victim. He is a Victim, yes, but in the biblical story, the Victim conquers. The Victim overcomes. The Victim triumphs. Note that Jesus knew what the cost of all this would be. His soul was troubled. But He submits to the hour, and asks the Father to glorify His name, presumably in that same hour, which the Father has most certainly done.
Jesus knew the antithesis between light and darkness, and He knew that a sharp line between good and evil was inescapable. But He also knew, and taught us His disciples, that this line is made most clear when the godly imitate Him. We do not separate from evil by shrinking back from it. We are to embrace the betrayal; we give, we bestow. How did the Lord Jesus identify the traitor at their last meal together? He did not do it by giving pieces of bread to the eleven who were faithful. Rather, He bestowed kindness to the treacherous, He gave the bread to Judas.
“When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake. Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night” (John 13: 21-30).
We do not separate from evil by hiding from it. We do not withdraw into our small evangelical ghettoes. We do not approach evil in order to align with it, or surrender to it. Rather, we are commanded to follow our Lord outside the camp, and to suffer with Him there.
When we offer the gospel to the world, that gospel overcomes the world. When we approach such moments in faith, we imitate the faith of the Lord Jesus, and we extend our hand to the world, holding the bread of life. We bestow. When we do this, some do go out into the night, eager to betray, and the antithesis is evident. We are to be separate. But we also know the cross of Christ is potent, and that cross is what accomplishes the separation. But the cross does not do this unless we have taken it up, and have shown our willingness to follow the Lord, even in this.
So this day commemorates the most beautiful event in human history. The loveliness of Christ, the beauty of the Lord, is seen in this. We honor tonight what the Lord Jesus has done for us, and we do it in the same faith that He had, and which He has now given to us. When He was lifted up, so was His faith. And when His faith was lifted up, so was the world. And when the world was lifted up, we all, you and I, were taken out of the miry clay, and our feet were set on the Rock.
And so, may glory, majesty, dominion and power be rendered to the crucified Lord, the one who had to rise from dead, and may all His people behold in this the beauty of the Lord, the beauty of love, the beauty of sacrifice, and the beauty of faith. And in that suffering faith all the people of the Lord said, amen.