We have talked so far in this series about God, people, and sin. Those are all good things to know, but we left things last week in a bit of a hard spot. I told you to come back this week and I’d finish the story. Well, here we go. Although you and I are sinners, God wasn’t content to leave us there. Let’s talk together today about just how He fixed that problem. It’s quite a story.
When was the last time you got something unexpectedly good? That happens every now and then and it’s always fun. I remember an occasion like this several years ago when we were eating at a Buffalo Wild Wings. I happened to be wearing a KU shirt. In the next booth over were several young women from the military who were all stationed at Fort Lee. One of them noticed my shirt and immediately asked where we were from. We talked for a minute and figured out that her parents actually lived right around the corner from where my folks live. It was one of those occasional small world experiences that are hard to explain as anything other than a God wink. In any event, they finished their meal and left, but when we later went to pay for our meal, it had been covered in full. I can’t imagine it was anyone other than that soldier who got what was perhaps a welcome taste of home who paid for the meal. We never had even the slightest chance to do anything for her in return and almost certainly never will.
Getting something we don’t deserve or even couldn’t do for ourselves can be a real blessing when the circumstances are right. In the wrong circumstances—such as when we are enabling dependency rather than encouraging hard work and a reasonable level of self-sufficiency—it can also be dehumanizing. But there is one instance in which receiving something we don’t deserve and couldn’t accomplish on our own is the secret to life.
Now, last week, I got us all good and lost. That was the third stop in our teaching series, You Believe What?, and it was tough. So far on this journey we have talked about God, people, and sin. God is a trinity which means He can love us, we were created in His image to serve and honor Him, and sin is bad. Or, as we put it last week, we are sinners, and on our own we can’t do anything about it. We’ve been through a lot of theology together over the past three weeks, but I hope you’ve seen how this is all really practical stuff and not just theoretical. Indeed, that has been one of the driving ideas of this whole series of conversations: We can’t get away with a commitment to Christ that is primarily theoretical and theological anymore. As the culture around us continues to de-Christianize, it is essential for followers of Jesus to understand what we believe and why that matters at a very practical level. This morning is going to be no different.
I left you hanging last week. I did that on purpose. I wanted you back this week. I wanted you back this week because today we are going to talk about something exceedingly important. Today we are going to talk about redemption. Now, redemption is a churchy word. It’s another one of those words we use without really understanding. When followers of Jesus talk about redemption, we are talking about God’s efforts to deal with our sin on our behalf. Just like you redeem a coupon for, say, some free ice cream at Cup and Cone across the street, God redeemed us from sin with Jesus. The question we need to be able to answer, though, is how. How did God do that? How does redemption work?
It all started on a Friday morning.
Thursday night Jesus was arrested by a mob from the temple led by Judas and some of the priests and Pharisees. He was taken to the home of Annas, the son-in-law of Caiaphas. Annas was the current high priest, appointed by Rome, but Caiaphas had served before him and still had the respect of most of the people. Annas tried to crack Jesus, failed, and sent Him to Caiaphas to try. The efforts there failed as well and they finally sent Him early the next morning to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate questioned Him for a while, sent Him to Herod who happened to be in town, but Herod couldn’t get Him to cooperate, so he sent Jesus back to Pilate again. Pilot finally had Jesus scourged, a particularly brutal punishment that left most victims almost unrecognizably human by the time it was done.
And you think you’ve had rough nights.
Here, let’s join John’s telling of this story in John 19 with Pilate bringing the scourged Jesus back out to display to the people. Start with me at v. 6. “When the chief priests and the temple servants saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ Pilate responded, ‘Take him and crucify him yourselves, since I find no grounds for charging him.’ ‘We have a law,’ the Jews replied to him, ‘and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.’”
Well, this freaked Pilate out. The Jewish leaders knew that would be a trigger word for Pilate. We hear that phrase today and think about Jesus. In the first century, that was the phrase they used to refer to the Emperor of Rome. When Augustus Caesar died, the Roman Senate voted to deify him. That meant that the current Emperor was the Son of God. What this meant for Pilate was that the little fit the Jewish religious leaders were throwing about Jesus launched from an in-house tiff to a potential national political scandal. Rome tended to not handle those very well and usually dealt quickly and violently with not only the people involved in them, but with the Roman-appointed leaders who failed to handle them efficiently. Pilate’s freak out gave the Jewish religious leaders the chink in his armor they needed to exploit to force him into doing what they wanted.
What happened next gets consistently understated in the Gospels. Modern retellings of the crucifixion give a great deal of attention to the details here, but the Gospels present it as just another thing that happened. Look down to v. 16 with me: “Then he handed him over to be crucified. Then they took Jesus away. Carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him and two others with him, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle.”
I don’t need to give you any of the details this morning, but suffice to say that crucifixion was the worst method of human execution we have ever conceived. It was designed from the ground up to be as painful and humiliating as it could possibly be. Jesus hung there on that cross, slowly bleeding to death, for about three hours, which was really fast compared with most crucifixion timelines. And what is truly amazing throughout the ordeal of the cross is the strength of Jesus. He was dying in a way that is, frankly, hard to imagine how painful it would have been, and He had the presence of mind to do things like think about entrusting the care of His mother to John and to consciously fulfill Scripture by asking for a drink. In the end, He uttered three final words and gave up His fight: “It is finished.”
What was finished? Our redemption. But why? How? How did what happened there on that cross have any bearing on our lives today? I’m just going to tell you, and then we’ll talk about it for just a minute. What Jesus did on that cross matters for you because it was the means by which God’s forgiveness of your sins was made available to you. Okay, but how does that work?
Let’s walk through it. It starts with where we were last week: sinners and incapable of doing anything about it. Now, Christian theology stands out from the rest of the worldview options available out there on this point. All of them agree that there is something wrong with the world, but they all take the position that what is wrong is around us. As we talked about last week, what the Scriptures decisively reveal—and what reality bears out again and again and again—is that the problem is inside of us. As we said: We are sinners.
The problem with sin, though, is that it separates us from God. The reason is that sin cannot exist in the presence of our holy God. It’s not that He doesn’t want us there; it’s that we can’t handle being there. Just like you get a little nervous being around someone you consider to be a much better person than you are—especially if you know you’ve done something wrong—the same thing goes with God. Thus, if we have sin in us—and as sinners, we all have sin in us—we can’t be in God’s presence. Ever. Unless the sin is dealt with.
This, though, just brings us to the point of another problem: The only way sin can be “dealt with” is with a death. You see, when we sin, we are taking something from God that rightly belongs to Him, namely, our lives. This is why it is so important to understand that God is the creator of everything. As the creator of everything God owns everything, and everything includes you and me. Well, if I take something from you that belongs to you, the only way I can be reconciled with you is to give it back to you. In the same way, since we have taken our lives from God, the only way we can be reconciled with God is if we give our lives back to God at which point we don’t have them any longer. And if you don’t have your life anymore, what are you left with? Death. Sin brings death.
In the past God graciously allowed for an animal to be sacrificed to cover for the life we owed to Him, but that system was never intended to be a permanent fix to the problem and was fundamentally flawed from the outset in terms of allowing us to truly have a meaningful relationship with God. The fact that He not only created such a system but tolerated its insufficiencies for as long as He did speaks volumes about His gracious and humble character.
We needed something more than an animal. We needed a life that more accurately reflected our own. We needed a human. That human was Jesus. The Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, God in human flesh, was born into this world and then lived a sinless life while He was in it. This means He was perfectly right with God at every moment of His human existence. This in turn means that He was able to serve as a fitting sacrifice on our behalf. Indeed, because God is holy and righteous, a sacrifice that was marred by the taint of sin wasn’t going to be able to cut it. The requirements for what kind of animal could be used for a sacrifice in the past were stringent and God let the people of Israel have it through the prophets more than once for slacking off on those high standards. The only human life that could be used to pay the price for someone else’s sins would have to be a perfect one, one entirely without sin.
Stay with me now because this is where things get really cool. If our God was only a fair God, Jesus’ perfect, sinless life would have been acceptable to pay the price for only a single other person’s life. Talk about winning the lottery. But our God is not merely a fair God. He is perfect in justice and love. And in His amazing loving justice He decreed that Jesus’ life would be a sufficient sacrifice for not just one other life, but all other lives. In other words, the sin of every single person who has ever lived including you and me was covered by Jesus’ sacrifice on that cross. And by “covered” what I mean is this: Jesus paid the price that our sin demanded. He used His life to redeem us from our sin. Forgiveness of sins is possible for you in Christ.
We are sinners, and on our own we can’t do anything about it, but God’s love for us was—is—so great He wasn’t content to leave us on our own. So, He came in Christ to pull us out of the mess we were in and make us whole once again. Jesus is indeed our redeemer. As the apostle Peter put it in his first letter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” That is good news indeed.
In the end, I want to give you two ways to remember this incredible truth. One is for you personally and the other is to help you share the news with someone else. And just so there aren’t any doubts about this, I made these really cheesy so you’ll remember them. Are you ready? Here’s the one for you: I can become who God made me to be, because Jesus died on that tree. Say that with me: I can become who God made me to be, because Jesus died on that tree. Now, practice that until it sticks. I can become who God made me to be, because Jesus died on that tree.
But this truth isn’t just for you. It’s for everybody and you need to be able to share it with someone else. Here’s how: Because Jesus died for you, your life can be made brand-spanking-new. Try that with me: Because Jesus died for you, your life can be made brand-spanking-new. Sin doesn’t have to be your brand any longer. Forgiveness is available in Jesus because He went to the cross in your place. It’s hard to imagine it can get better than that…but it does. And if you’ll come back next week, I’ll tell you all about it.