Hey, let’s do the greatest thing we can do as Christ followers. Yeah, let’s do it together as we approach another Easter. It’s just a few days away, so let’s do it . . . let’s focus on the cross!
The cross of Jesus Christ is the signature symbol of the central event in the history of civilization. Not until the second century was the cross welcomed as the central symbol of Christianity. The emperor Constantine saw it in a vision and banned it as an instrument of execution. In fact, the cross was never thought of as anything but a hideous instrument of death until everyone who had actually seen a crucifixion had died off. Only then did people represent the cross as something sacred in sculpture, paintings, and other artistic forms.
Today, we depict the cross as common. Jewelers pound it into all sorts of finery so we can staple it to our ears and wear it around our necks. Merchandisers manufacture this symbol of unlimited atonement into fuzzy things for my rearview mirror or stand-ups for my garden. From teacups to t-shirts, the cross has cornered the market on crassness. Department stores hawk chocolate-covered ones for “holy week.” Baseball players and businessmen cross themselves before a big moment. The cross itself has become big business. But it was never intended to be some lucky trinket. This is profanity in the truest sense. Is it any wonder we have lost the wonder of what happened on Calvary?
The resurrection of Christ was the event that accomplished salvation and verified Christ’s victory over death but it was the cross of Jesus Christ that showed us the grace of God. Everything that God wants us to know about Him comes together in those crossbeams.
Our entire purpose in life is to elevate the cross. Think on Him there. In your mind’s eye, picture Jesus stretched out against the sky.
What’s Jesus Doing Up on the Cross? He’s Substituting for You.
Jesus lived His life on earth at a time of revolution and unrest in the nation of Israel. The Romans had conquered and dominated the land and every day, Hebrew insurgents battled in the streets. They didn’t need TV; they watched drama right in front of them as their hometown boys were captured as resistance fighters and injured, killed, or carted off to prison. They definitely played the underdogs to the forces of Rome. You can imagine how the families and communities suffered every day in the aftershock of such conflict.
So, with that background, we enter the Easter story “at the time of the Passover.” This is Jewish culture’s most celebrated time of year. They were commanded in the Old Testament to remember the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:43) and they called it Passover. Over the centuries it became bigger than their Christmas and New Year’s celebrations combined.
The “Passover party” culminated in the People’s Choice Awards when the governor released any one prisoner they wanted (see Matthew 27:15). The governor traded that one criminal for a little relief from their anger and frustration with the Roman occupation. This was Pilate’s perfect opportunity to avert the murderous demands for Jesus’ death by offering either Jesus or the most “notorious prisoner called Barabbas.” Pilate tried his best to position Jesus as the favorite. He said, you choose. Do you want this mad revolutionary or Jesus?, believing their sense of self-preservation would force them to choose Jesus. Verse 17 says, “So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?'” In effect, Pilate was offering, “do you want Osama bin Laden or Jesus? Mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) or Jesus?” Surely they would want Jesus. But Pilate “knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered Jesus up.” While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream” (v. 18-19). Even Pilate’s pagan wife was disturbed by the injustice being done to Christ.
But the crowd was irrationally determined to see Christ die.
“Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” Destroy, a very strong word, actually means “annihilate him,” to erase not only His person, but the memory of Him. Wipe Him out as if He never existed. Verse 21 records the question again, “The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” And they answered, “let him be crucified!” Pilate was stunned. Everyone knew Barabbas’ evil reputation but “Why? What evil has Jesus done?”
Jesus was crucified between “two thieves,” verse 30 says. Other translations say robbers. In the original language, robbers weren’t burglar types who combed neighborhoods looking for homes where the owner forgot to lock their patio doors. Barabbas was the most notorious of them all. It was his cross on which Jesus died in between the other two revolutionaries. It’s not stretching it at all to say that Jesus took the cross that had been reserved for Barabbas. Jesus died in Barabbas’ place.
You can’t understand the Gospel until you understand this idea of substitution. First, Jesus died in place of Barabbas. His death then was in the place of every other member of the human race who has ever lived. Barabbas was the first in the line, but behind him stands every person in history. I am in that line. You are too. Each of us deserves to die in payment for our own sin, but Jesus stepped in and took that penalty for each of us. I deserve to die that death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ. That’s substitution. The fact that Jesus took my place on the cross is the central tenet of the historic gospel; without this there is nothing else to say. Jesus in my place.
Picture Christ on the cross and ask yourself: What’s He doing up there? Answer: He’s subbing for you. He’s taking God’s wrath for your sin. He’s satisfying the just demands of a holy God. He’s paying the price that God’s holiness requires so that you and I can be forgiven.
Romans 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ” and 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
What’s Jesus doing up there on the cross? He’s substituting: Jesus in my place. My heart overflows with gratitude when I think of Jesus Christ taking upon Himself the penalty that was mine to bear! God demonstrated such love that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” Romans 5:8.