Monday, October 25, 2010

The Death Christ Died - 1 Peter 3:18

Audio available here (there was a technical problem with the recording ... the reading of the Scripture and beginning of the opening illustration did not make it onto the recording.)

I have had the privilege of traveling to some amazing places in the service of Christ. And I have had to learn to overcome some personal preferences and quirks. Believe it or not, I have always been a picky eater. The first time I was in Africa, one day for lunch we were served oxtail soup. I just couldn’t make myself eat something that came off of that end of an ox. Someone tried to encourage me by telling me it was probably made with the tail of a water buffalo, not an ox. That was not helpful. There were huge chunks of tail floating around in the soup, and I just had to leave the table. I decided I could hold off until dinner. So guess what we had for dinner that night? Ox tongue. That thing looked like it was going to eat me first. Then there have been the times when dinner consisted of an entire pig, or an entire goat, which had been barbecued and laid out whole on the table for you to just pick off the parts you wanted. And over time, I’ve just had to learn to do like Jesus taught His disciples to do in Luke 10, “eat and drink whatever they give you.” But there is always one sight that makes me smile when I see it. I can spot this sight from miles away, and I know when I see it that happiness is soon to be enjoyed. You don’t see too many of them in Africa, but in Ukraine, I could have told you where every one of them in the entire country was. I’ve already checked, and there isn’t one in Nepal, but there are 171 of them in India. Up in the sky, or high upon a wall, it glows like a glorious blessing … a giant golden M. Under that M, there might as well be a pot of gold. All over the world, in some hard to imagine places, that big M is a symbol that people understand and recognize, even if they have never eaten a Big Mac. Some have said that it is the most recognized symbol in the world.

Symbols have an interesting power to connect us with the realities they represent. The golden M has become a universal symbol that tells us that good, cheap, fast food can be found there. Christianity also has a universal symbol. All over the world, when people see our symbol, they know that something related to the Christian faith is present. While Christians have used many symbols through the centuries to identify themselves, one symbol has always been the primary mark of the Church. Interestingly, that symbol is an instrument of torture and death – the Cross. This symbol, more than any other, represents what Christianity is all about. It is about a death that occurred that changed everything for the world and humanity. The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is the very core of the Christian faith. What is happening on this cross is more than just a good man dying a brutal death. The person dying is not just a man. He is fully human, but he is also fully divine. He is God-incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, the God-man. And as He is dying, He is not helplessly at the hands of evil men. He is carrying out a divine plan to deal with the primary problem of humanity and history, namely the problem of sin.

Exodus 34:6-7 presents for us what we might call “the riddle of the ages.” There God reveals Himself, saying, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Here is a gracious, compassionate, patient and loving God, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; and yet He promises that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” Does this seem impossible? How can He be one who forgives, but who at the same time punishes with certainty the guilty? Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the answer to this perplexing riddle unfolds page by page in subtle whispers and shouts of clarity, until at last the answer is seen in vivid color. This God who forgives sinners, yet who punishes sin, acts in history to resolve man’s dilemma in the person of Jesus Christ on the Cross. What is happening here as He dies is captured in a single word: atonement. Sin has ruptured the relationship between a holy Creator and His wayward creatures, such that there is a breach now between them. We stand before this holy God knowing that we are guilty sinners. We cannot do any good deed to make ourselves clean before Him. Sin has so radically corrupted us that we are incapable to make ourselves right before Him. But He is God, and nothing is impossible for Him. He has provided salvation for humanity through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Atonement is God’s action in the death of Christ to save humanity from sin. In this single verse, 1 Peter 3:18, we learn three very important truths about this atonement that has been accomplished through the death that Christ died.

I. The death Christ died accomplished a substitutionary atonement.

All of us understand the concept of earning a wage. Perhaps you have a job in which you get paid a certain amount for every hour you work. Or you may have a job that pays you an annual salary, which is based upon certain requirements being met. You get what you earn. That is a basic principle of economics and labor. In the beginning of creation, God established a wage for mankind concerning righteous living. There was one tree that was forbidden to eat from in the garden, and God said, “in the day that you eat from it, you will surely die.” That is the wage. If you do this, you earn that; if you eat from the forbidden tree, you will earn death. And this established a principle for mankind that Paul summarizes in Romans 6:23, where he says, “The wages of sin is death.” Sin earns death. That is God’s law. Adam experienced it. In the day that he ate of the fruit, physical death began to occur in his body. He lived much longer than that day, but he lived out the rest of his days in a dying body. But spiritual death occurred instantaneously in Adam. Immediately, because of his disobedience to God, he was spiritually dead. Sin drove a wedge between God and Adam. Adam was ashamed of His sinfulness before God, so he hid from Him, and he tried to cover himself with fig leaves, the works of his own hands. But his own works could not “cover his sins” before God. In grace and mercy, God made another covering for the sinful man. The Bible tells us simply that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”

Now, where did this skin come from? The Bible does not tell us explicitly, and it doesn’t need to. We know where “garments of skin” have to come from. Something had to die for the man’s sinful state to be covered. So, when the very first sin of humanity was committed, God instituted a program of reconciliation, whereby sin could be covered through the death of a substitute sacrifice. Something else, a lamb perhaps, had to be killed. Death was inflicted upon the substitute. It is obvious that Adam and Eve understood this, and taught this to their children. We see in the very next chapter of Genesis that Abel approached God with a sacrifice: the firstlings of his flock. He understood that his sinfulness required the shedding of blood, and that God accepted the sacrifice of a substitute in his place. This principle is unfolded throughout the Old Testament Law, with God prescribing for His people the various regulations for what kind of sacrifices they could offer, and for what sins, and in what manner. And all of these sacrifices were teaching humanity the principle that sin required death, and that an innocent substitute could be offered for an atoning sacrifice. God was preparing them to understand little by little what He would do for them in the death that Christ died.

Adam’s sin corrupted the entire human race. Every descendent of Adam is born in the state of spiritual death, born into bodies that are physically dying from the day we take our first breath. We inherited a condition of sinfulness, and it expresses itself through our lives in our own sinful actions and attitudes. So, we are sinners, by nature and by choice. We inherited the death penalty from Adam, and we ratified the penalty by our own sins. We affirm that we deserve both physical death and spiritual death because of our sinfulness. And if our spiritual death goes untreated before our physical death occurs, then we bear that penalty for eternity. We enter eternity separated from God, bearing His holy wrath forever in that horrible place the Bible calls hell. But in the death Christ died, a remedy was provided, an atonement for sin, whereby we can be reconciled to God.

Peter says here that Christ died for sins. In a sense, we all die for sins. If it weren’t for sin, there would be no death. The universality of human death is proof of the universality of human sin. But when we come to the death Christ died, we something unique. He died for sins, but He had no sins of His own. Because of His miraculous virgin birth, Jesus was not born with a sin nature as we are. He was undefiled when He entered into the world. And throughout His life, He committed no sin. Not only was He undefiled by sin, not only did He commit no sin, He also lived a life of perfect obedience to God. He was not merely sinless; He was also perfectly righteous. Both are important to understand. If all that was required of Jesus was to be sinless, then He could have been sacrificed as an infant. God could have allowed Him to be murdered in the holocaust of children instituted by Herod. But it was necessary that He also be perfectly righteous. He died for sins, but not for His own for He had none. He died for ours, “the just for the unjust.” The perfectly righteous Christ died for radically sinful people—people like you and me. He became for us, in His death, our substitute.

All of those animals that were sacrificed under the Old Testament Law were training the minds of God’s people to see the wickedness of sin in its bloody reality, and to anticipate a day when a final sacrifice would be offered. Those animals were imperfect substitutes, He was a perfect substitute. I liken it to paying for something on credit. When you purchase something on credit, you get to take it home and enjoy it, but the bill has not yet been paid in full. The cost has been covered, but it has not yet been paid. The animal sacrifices were like purchases made with credit. They covered sin, but they didn’t pay for the sin. They were unable to pay for sin. The charges were still accumulating, and the day would come when the accounts had to be settled fully and finally. As Jesus was dying on the cross, He uttered that single word, Tetelestai, which is translated in our Bibles as “It is finished.” It is an interesting word in the original language. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient tablets which bore records of accounts, and when those accounts were paid in full, they were marked with this same word: Tetelestai. Jesus paid what sin had earned in the death He died, and He paid it for us.

As the just, suffering for the unjust, Jesus Christ bore our sin before His righteous Father, and bore all of the wrath that those sins deserve. The intensity of God’s wrath toward sin was such that the earth was darkened and shaken to its crust while Jesus died. But more than this, for the first time in all eternity, the perfect fellowship between God the Father and God the Son was severed by sin. Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This was the most severe agony of the cross. Not the piercing of His hands and feet; not the scourging and shame He endured, but the wrath He bore for our sins is what makes our atonement possible. He died for sins, the just for the unjust. As the hymn-writer said so well, “In my place, condemned He stood.” He bore our sins and made atonement for them as our substitute, and in exchange He now allows us to bear His perfect righteousness before the Father so that we are reconciled to God through Him.

II. The death Christ died provided a sufficient atonement.

Preparing for this mission trip to Nepal coming up, several of us have had to get a lot of shots to prevent us from getting sick while we are there. Some of the vaccinations, like polio for example, we had as children, but we have to get a booster, because the childhood dose is insufficient to protect us in that environment. Others, like typhoid or meningitis, we have to get now, and then if we go back in a few years, we’ll have to get another one, because they are only good for so long. And then there are others, that we might have received as children or sometime later, that are good for life. That initial dose is sufficient to last through all of life. When it comes to our sin, the atonement that Christ provided in His death is sufficient for all people, for all sins, and for all time. Peter says that Christ died for sins once for all, and that this death was enough “to bring us to God.”

Could anyone ever accurately estimate the number of lambs and bulls and goats that were slaughtered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple? On the day that the original temple was dedicated in the time of Solomon, in a demonstration of the unworthiness of sinful people to have a temple for the Holy God in their midst, a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep was offered. And that was on ONE DAY! And sacrifices were made there every day. If Solomon’s temple was dedicated sometime around 1000 BC, and Herod’s temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and subtracting around 70 years during the Babylonian captivity, we are talking close to 1000 years of daily sacrifices. That’s some 360,000 or so days of bloodshed at the temple of Jerusalem; and some on days, like the day of atonement, the sacrifices abounded. And, all of these sacrifices were not sufficient to bring us to God. But, the writer of Hebrews compares what those Old Testament priests were doing with those sacrifices with what Jesus did in the death He died. Hebrews 10 says, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices which can never take away sins.” Their work is never done. It is daily, time after time, same sacrifices over and over again. They are always on their feet, standing, because there are always more sacrifices to be offered, and yet they can’t take away sin. They are covering sin, but not paying for sin. But then Hebrews 10:12 says, “But He (that is, Jesus), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” Notice, one sacrifice – Himself – sufficient for all time. And then He sat down at the right hand of God. His work was finished. Atonement was finished. What millions of dead animals could not accomplish was fully and finally accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ. The temple that was the scene of all that bloodshed was brought down and destroyed by the Romans, but it happened under the providence of God. He didn’t need that temple any longer. He didn’t need any more animals to die. In the death of Jesus, sin was atoned for once and for all.

That means that all the sins that had been covered by the Old Testament sacrifices were finally atoned for. All the sins that were yet to be committed had been atoned sufficiently. That means that the most minor and the most major sins had been sufficiently atoned. That means that the most respectable and the most vile sinner had the atonement he or she needed provided for then and there in the death Christ died. Because of sin, we are separated from God. We need to be brought to God. What are you trusting to bring you to God? There is only atoning sacrifice which is sufficient: the death Christ died. You can’t add to it or take away from it. It is Jesus, and Jesus only, plus nothing and minus nothing, that brings us to God. The death He died is a sufficient atonement. Nothing else will bring you to God.

III. The death Christ died is a secure atonement.

In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, he says of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, “Marley was dead… There is no doubt whatever about that. … Old Marley was dead as a doornail. … There is no doubt that Marley was dead.” Dickens said, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Now, if you are going to understand anything about this atonement that we have in Christ, you need to understand that Jesus was as dead as Jacob Marley. Dead as a doornail, no doubt whatever about that. The sin of humanity required death as a penalty, and Jesus paid it. He bore the wrath of God against all of the wickedness of humanity’s sin, the agony of the cross, and was punctured through the heart to prove that He was dead. He was wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb, and that tomb was sealed over and guarded. He was dead. If there was a price to pay, it had been paid in full. The price for sin had been paid, and at the end of the day it looked as if sin and death had won. Sin had destroyed humanity and humanity’s God. Peter says he was “put to death in the flesh.” It was not a pretend or imaginary kind of death. Jesus was dead as a doornail. That must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

It doesn’t seem wonderful at this point. Jesus, the King of Glory, dead. But the story doesn’t end there. Praise God, there is no period after the words “put to death in the flesh.” There is a comma and a glorious three letter word, “BUT.” He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. It appeared for a moment of time that sin had conquered, and death was victorious, but that was Friday. On Sunday, the rest of the wonderful story was told. Death was not victorious, but defeated. Christ is risen from the dead! He has conquered sin and death forever. He died to bring us to God, but He is not a corpse we must crawl over to get there. He is risen and He Himself leads us into the presence of God, where we will live with Him in resurrected glory forever. Our atonement, our saving rescue is completed and is secure. Death is no longer to be feared. Sin has been dealt with completely, and conquered through His resurrection. If we belong to Jesus, our future is secure in His eternally glorious hands.

Hebrews 7:24-25 says that the former priests were prevented from continuing in their ministry by death. They could offer a sacrifice for someone’s sins, but then they had their own to sin to deal with and their own death to die. But Jesus, on the other hand, “because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Because Christ is risen from the dead, never to die again, and because He is seated now at the right hand of the Father, you and I have a high priest who will always plead His very blood and righteousness on our behalf. We need not fear that we who have trusted in Him will be forgotten or forsaken when we stand before the Righteous Judge on the last day. He bears the scars that He bore for our sins when He defeated them fully and finally in the death He died. We bear the righteousness of the life He lived. And we reap the benefits of the victory He accomplished in His resurrection. Nothing or no one can ever separate us from Him. Because of this wondrous atonement, we are securely reconciled to God through Him.

When we look at the death Christ died, we are confronted with two overwhelming realities. First, as we see the death He died, knowing that it was for us and for our sins, we see that we are more flawed, more corrupted, more wickedly sinful than we ever imagined. That is what we deserve. But second, we see in the death He died that we are more loved than we ever dreamed. We are so sinful that Christ had to die, but so loved that He was glad to die to reconcile us to God. The riddle of the ages is that God is a compassionate, patient, gracious and loving forgiver of sin, but is also determined to by no means leave the guilty unpunished. How can it be? The riddle is solved in the person of Jesus. In the death He died, our guilt is punished by a righteous substitute, and we are forgiven, made righteous, and brought to God. Therefore Paul could say in Romans 3:26 that God is just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. He is just because He has punished sin with the full measure of His wrath. He is the justifier because He punished that sin in the death that Christ died, and has covered us in the righteousness of the life He lived.

Because we have been the recipients of so great a salvation, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 that we are now ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us. And that appeal is this, he says, “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We who have come to know this Christ through the substitutionary, sufficient, and secure atonement that He has provided, would echo that appeal today and say to those who are near and those who are far off: “We beg you on behalf of this Christ who died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, that you might become righteous in Him and be brought to God, be reconciled to God.”

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