I want to speak to you this morning only a little bit because the tendency is to think that one can say a lot about the death of Christ and its meaning for us. And I think the reason that there is a tendency among us to say a lot about the meaning of the death of Christ is that it is a concept, the meaning of which is hard to utter. All of us I think have struggled with the death of Christ; what does it mean for us? Why did he have to die? Why did God arrange it in that way? I also want to say a little because I do not want to drown us in legalisms and smother the love, and the mercy, and the grace, that is embodied in the phrase, ‘Christ died for us’.
Some of us–fortunately I think, are blessed with the ability to say, ‘Christ died for me, and because he died for me I have a hope for eternal life.’ And they can be satisfied and comforted with that simple understanding. Many of us–and I count myself one of these–are not satisfied with simple notions like that. Either by reason of training, or heredity, or whatever, we are unsatisfied unless we can support every statement of truth with a logical syllogism. We have to build logical statement upon logical statement until the truth–as we see it–is protected by an invulnerable logical argument that can’t be refuted. And therein lies our weakness, because we fail to understand that human logic–even the most supreme human logic–is, after all, human and fallible. Reluctantly we have to conclude that certain things about our faith have to be taken on faith. They aren’t logical.
There are many things about the truth that aren’t logical. It doesn’t seem logical to me that mans’ salvation is dependent on knowing what’s in the Bible. So many people don’t even have Bibles. It doesn’t seem logical to me, in the world as I look around it, to believe that God is the manifestation of perfect love; it seems to me to be an imperfect manifestation with so much suffering, disease and hardship. Why did it have to be that way? You see, we want to be in the position of making the rules. We’re not the rule makers, but sometimes we forget that.
Apart from these external problems, ones external to the Bible that defy our ability to draw logical conclusions, internally we find the same sorts of problems. It’s not logical that there are ‘angels that kept not their first estate’, as set forth in Jude. A response might be, perhaps it’s logical but we don’t know what it is because the evidence is fragmentary. The same thing is true on the subject of Enoch and Elijah. How is it that they are apparent contradictions to the notion that all men die? Did they in fact die? If they didn’t die, why didn’t they die? It’s not logical for them not to have died when everybody else from Adam to date has died. And the nature of Melchisadek; somebody without the beginning or ending of days. We struggle to fit those notions into a logical context, and I say to you, there are things which simply defy logic. Our logical sense is satisfied, however, by saying there is a certain consistency in the book, buttressed and demonstrated by the history of the Jews and the plight of the world to give it credibility. But that’s not to say that the truth can be reduced to a mathematical formula. So it is with the death of Christ. His death is not like Enoch and Elijah, or the angels who kept not their first estate; we don’t have fragmentary evidence about the death of Christ. The Bible is replete with statements about his death and its meaning. But to analyze it down to the very last jot and tittle is difficult. Witness all the controversies by very bright men, who were able to adduce scriptural testimony (as in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds) to promote a particular point of view, i.e, the doctrine of the trinity. What happens, unless we’re careful, is the duty of the selflessness of Christ is lost in a contest of intellects. Surely not a desired end.
So let me try to speak very simply because the simplicity of the death of Christ appeals to me most after this intellectual torture of some thirty odd years. First of all we need to have some understanding of the word ‘sacrifice’. You notice that I called this talk ‘The Meaning of the Death of Christ’. The word ‘sacrifice’, the English word ‘sacrifice’ is from two Latin words meaning ‘to make sacred’. Actually in the Old Testament where the word sacrifice appears, the underlying Hebrew word is most frequently the word ‘slaughter’. And in other religions, surely many of you must remember from history or the movies sacrifice–human sacrifice– made to placate an angry god. In Rome, in Greece, Egypt, Assyria, the Incas in Mexico, in Hawaii, all sacrificed humans to placate their gods. All of us remember those movies we went to as children, and saw the high priest mounting the steps of the temple, with a beautiful young woman in his arms, throwing her over into the fire, or perhaps just avoiding being thrown into the fire by the hero rescuing the sacrificial virgin. At this notion of sacrifice, Christians have been colored by this idea. We don’t have to look very far back in the history of this country to a man named Jonathan Edwards, who preached during the time of the Great Awakening, and one famous sermon entitled, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
I prefer not to use the word ‘sacrifice’ in terms of Christ’s death. Christ died, but he didn’t die on an altar; he wasn’t slain by a Jewish priest. He died an unnatural death, a violent death, but it is not as though he were a lamb slain on an altar, as was the case under the Jewish law. The purpose, after all, for that slaughter under the law is expounded in Hebrews 10. 1 - 3:
The law, having a shadow of good things to come,
and not the very image of the things,
can never with those sacrifices which they
offered year by year continually,
make the comers thereto perfect.
Then would they not have ceased to be offered?
Because the worshipers, once purged,
should have no more conscience of sins.
But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again,
made of sins every year.
You remember your imperfection. The sacrifice was not to placate an angry god, but to make sin exceeding sinful, to make man recognize that he was in a terrible mess; that he couldn’t get out of it by himself.
Christ didn’t die to satisfy, to placate an angry god. On the contrary, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Said differently by John in his first epistle,
In this was manifested the love of God towards us,
because God sent His only begotten son into the world,
that we might live through him.
And we have seen and do testify that the Father
sent the son to be the savior of the world.
So that’s point number one I want to make. The second point I want to make is this: Christ’s death, or sacrifice if you will (I’m not offended by the use of that word; I prefer to use ‘death’ because it seems to me to be a better description of what happened to Christ, as we’ll see in a minute.) Christ’s death was a representative death and not a substitute death. There words bring you up short. I mean, we say ‘Christ died for us, didn’t he? Because he died for us we don’t have to die?’ That’s not exactly true. We do have to die, but Christians don’t call it ‘death’, but in one place ‘sleeping in Jesus’. We’re not dead in an irretrievable sense. Everybody in Christ is asleep with the possibility, indeed the certainty of being raised. He died a representative death because he was our representative, which doesn’t shed much light on the subject. But let me see if I can tell it to you in a different way. In England they have the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They have a House of Commons made up of commoners to represent commoners. Lords are men of a different class. And they can’t represent properly a class of which they are not a member. Said as the writer of the Hebrews said in chapter 2:
As the children are partakers of flesh and blood,
he, Jesus, likewise took part of the same that he,
through death, might destroy him who has the power of death,
that is, the devil (sin), and deliver them
who through fear of death were all their lifetime
subject to bondage. Verily, he took not on him
the nature of angels,, but he took on him the seed of Abraham,
wherefore it behooved him to be made like his brethren.
He was one of us. Exactly like one of us in his nature, although the second Adam. A special creation, if you will. He had a propensity to sin as we do, and yet without sin. He was always able to say in every circumstance of his life, not my will, but Thine be done. But because he had our nature, he had to die. And so we say his death is representative.
The mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations has now been made manifest to His saints; to whom God would make known what is the riches of His glory–this mystery among the Gentiles–which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. And finally, the familiar passage in Galatians 3. 26, 27, For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, for as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
OK. Here’s my point: when Christ led a sinless life, we led a sinless life. Christ and the church are one; twain flesh became one. When he died without sin, we died without sin. Because Christ lives, we live, because we are Christ’s.