We are still in the season of Lent and recalling our Lord’s final days with his disciples. His public ministry was drawing to a close and Jesus was trying to prepare his closest friends for his death and departure. He was burdened for them. He had prayed for them (John 17), that they might be kept from the evil one in this world, for the “father of liars” would attempt to deceive and distract them, to devour and destroy them. He prayed that they would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to remain steadfast and immovable in their faith during the difficult and dangerous times they would be facing. He wanted them to know that the road they would be walking was going to be a rough road. It had not been an easy road when Jesus was walking with them during the three years they had traveled together and it was going to be even more difficult and dangerous when he was not with them in the flesh. Yes, he would “always” be with them in the spirit (Matthew 28;19-20), but they would not be able to see him or touch him, or to experience the touch of the Master’s hand.
Furthermore, his enemies were going to be their enemies, and the “powers of hell” would be arrayed against them (Matthew 16:18) and against his Church, which he would be building on the foundation of their witness to his Lordship.They had not only listened with their own ears to his wonderful words of life, including his incredible claims, but had also seen with their own eyes his mighty miracles of mercy, which could not be explained apart from God. They had stood amazed in his very presence as he opened eyes that had been blind from birth, freed the demon-possessed, cleansed lepers, straightened legs so the lame could walk upright for the first time in their lives, and even broke up funeral processions by raising the dead, such as a poor widow’s only child and his beloved friend, Lazarus. However, Jesus knew they were going to experience intense persecution. He had told them, “If they have hated me, know that they will hate you also…Just as they persecuted me, so they are going to persecute you” (John 15:20).
Jesus had warned them time and time again that he was going away, but they had not understood his words. Life without his visible presence was inconceivable, beyond all imagination. It was impossible for his disciples to imagine what their lives would be like without the comfort and companionship of their Lord’s presence. Jesus had tried to prepare them for the inevitable, his suffering and death. Furthermore, he was a young man, the very embodiment of life itself, and he did not want to die. However he knew the cross was unavoidable. There was no way he could detour around it. He had come into the world for this purpose, to “…give his life as a ransom for many.” This was his mission, to “…seek and to save the lost.” He was going to lay down his life for them, for he loved them unconditionally, sacrificially, redemptively, and would love them “to the end.” He wanted them to know that there was no greater love than this, “…that a man should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). God’s prophet, Isaiah, had understood this seven-hundred years before the Messiah, God’s Suffering Servant, would be “wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
The question that this Season of Lent presents each of us with is: HAVE WE UNDERSTOOD THIS GREAT TRUTH, THAT JESUS SUFFERED DEATH UPON THE CROSS FOR EACH OF US, FOR YOU AND FOR ME? And why did he die? That we sinners might be reconciled to a holy God! That we might experience the greatness of God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance! That we might know the joy of God’s salvation (i.e. pardon for all our sins, and have the assurance of everlasting life — not only an abundant life in this world, but eternal life in the kingdom of God). All this is made possible by grace alone through faith alone; not an achievement, nothing we could ever earn or possibly deserve, but a “grace gift” granted to all those who put their trust in Christ’s atoning death on the cross for their salvation.
The Apostle Paul put it best in his letter to the Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead (i.e. spiritually dead, without spiritual life, for there are two deaths: physical and spiritual; just as there can be two births, not only physical, but a spiritual birth). Jesus said we must be “born anew” by the Spirit, to be saved from the power and penalty of sin, which is spiritual death — read John 3:1-21, and then hear these words of Paul once again: “…EVEN WHEN WE WERE DEAD (i.e. the unburied dead) through our trespasses, God made us alive together in Christ, to sit with him in the heavenly places…For by grace you have been saved through faith in Christ Jesus…This is not your own doing, but the gift of God; not the result of works, so that no man may boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9).
I share this “Good News” (i.e. the true “Gospel”, the only authentic Gospel), for this should be the focus of our worship and thanksgiving throughout this Lenten season. During Lent we fix our minds and hearts on the passion of Jesus, Christ’s vicarious suffering and atoning death on the cross for our salvation — for the forgiveness of all our sins, just as our crucified Savior prayed in the agony of his death as the sacrificial Lamb of God: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If he could even forgive those who had been in charge of the detail of hammer and nails (who even at that moment were kneeling beneath his cross, not in prayer and penitence for what they had done, but throwing dice for his robe), then we can be certain there is no sin greater than God’s love, a love that could be spat upon in vulgar jest and yet remain love — NO GREATER LOVE THAN THIS!
No sin could be so great that God’s love is not greater still — if we will only do as that dying thief, who was being crucified with Christ, did when he confessed that he was guilty and receiving the just punishment he deserved for his sins. He somehow recognized that Jesus was sinless, saying, “This man has done nothing wrong.” So in faith he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It must have been by divine revelation that he understood who Jesus was, and that he was dying not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world! So, confessing him as “Lord”, he asked to be remembered and given a place in his kingdom. Hearing his request, Jesus turned to him, saying “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The other criminal being crucified with Jesus taunted him, saying: “You saved others, now save yourself and us if you are truly the Son of God.” Of course, Jesus had the power to save himself, but he knew if he used his power to save himself he could not be the “Savior of the world.”
So during this Lenten Season let us remember that it was for our sins that Jesus died! He who had “done nothing wrong” died for all of us sinners in this world, who collectively have done everything wrong — that you and I might be able to one day, in “the fullness of time”, stand before God cleansed of all sin, ”just-as-if” we had done nothing wrong. (This is the meaning of the biblical word “justified” — “just-as-if I’d” never sinned at all. Read Romans 5:6-11 for a better understanding of of the mighty miracle of God’s amazing grace, “justification by faith”).
During these days of preparation for Easter, do not forget that there were three crosses on that hill “shaped like a skull”, a place of execution. The cross was the means of capital punishment in the Roman empire and the ugliest of all symbols — an “emblem of suffering and shame.” But by the amazing grace and redeeming love of Almighty God, the cross of Christ was transformed into the most beautiful of all religious symbols, “where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.” This is the faith we sing, the Christian faith set to music.
When we remember how three men died on that fateful Friday, we recall how one died TO sin (the penitent thief who turned to Jesus in faith) — another died IN sin (the criminal who just taunted Jesus) — and the One who was dying FOR sin, for your sin and my sin, for the sin of “the world” (John 3:16) — the spotless Lamb of God, the Lamb “without blemish”, offering himself as the one sufficient sacrifice for the salvation of all sinners, for all time. But each of us, like that penitent thief, must turn to Jesus Christ in faith, putting our trust in him for the forgiveness of all our sins, praying: “Lord, remember me, and grant me a place in your everlasting kingdom.” All who have offered that prayer, all who have confessed their sins, all who have truly and earnestly repented, all who have called upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, taking their place beneath his cross — ALL of the redeemed will be able to join believers in all nations, from every tribe, of every tongue, around the world on Easter Sunday, the “Day of Resurrection” in jubilant song, singing:
“He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today;
He walks with ME, He talks with ME, along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart;
You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within MY heart”
“All hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou hast died for ME!
Thy praise shall never, never fail, throughout eternity.”