235 years ago John Newton wrote Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. We all know at least the first verse. Newton understood Grace because he understood his wretchedness – he understood his sin in light of God’s Glory. Knowing this allowed him to know the Glory of the Cross.
We live in a culture that minimizes sin (wretchedness) – we don’t even like the word. We say “Everybody does it,” or, “It’s no big deal.” We shift responsibility.
In short, we avoid reality.
The New Testament writers do not avoid reality. They narrate the events that lead up to the Cross in a way that is meant to, among many other things, tell us something about ourselves.
Here are four profiles that Jesus’ best friend, the Apostle John, gives us, as Jesus heads to the cross. I’m indebted to John Stott and his book, The Cross of Christ for the outline of these thoughts.
Judas – Synonymous with betrayal – backstabbing. His betrayal, while despicable, simply resulted from what John, who knew him personally, tells us. Judas was a lover of money. Money was his God. Judas was full of greed and contempt. When the woman poured the expensive oil on Jesus’ feet, it was Judas who said, “What are you nuts! Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages!”
But John tells us, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Judas was supposed to love God, to put God first. Instead, John shows us his true love, money – so he sells out Jesus to the religious leaders.
Religious Leaders – These are the leaders of God’s people – of God’s holy nation – a light to the world. Yet, they’d been trying to kill Jesus. They were jealous of him – Jesus was stealing their thunder and undermining their authority. For them, Jesus was an intrusion.
Jesus was saying things like, “You think your sons of Abraham, Please! Me and Abe are pals! Besides, I existed before he did. I’ve always been.” With such teaching, Jesus intrudes on our lives, and we don’t like it. C.S. Lewis calls Jesus the “transcendental interferer.”
The religious leaders didn’t want anyone interfering in their religion or undermining their authority (not even God!). Full of pride and envy, they cried out “away with him – crucify Him!
So they handed him over to Pilot.
Pilot – Now Pilot has the money Judas wanted, and he has all the authority and prestige the Jewish leaders coveted. He’s at the top – charged to ensure rule, order, and administer justice. Yet, Pilot is lost and confused, exemplified by his famous retort, “What is truth?” He’s also afraid, stuck in a difficult political situation (and likely bothered by his wife’s dream about Jesus). But Pilot is not stupid. He knows Jesus is innocent and that the charges are trumped up. He even publicly declares his innocence three times! Yet, he fails to uphold justice. He hands Jesus over to be crucified.
In these three examples John shows us a snapshot of the entire spectrum of society. From the individual to the most prestigious religious and governing bodies John is saying, “You’re all corrupt! All of society. Everyone.”
But here’s the thing, John and the NT writers want us to see ourselves. They want us to see our sin – we were there, as the old hymn goes. We’re all corrupt – full of idolatry, anger, contempt, pride, envy, jealously, hatred. Rebels enslaved to SIN.
- If the mention of these sins cause us to scoff, like Judas, perhaps there’s an idol or two in our lives
- If we’re offended at Jesus’ intrusion, like the religious leaders, jealousy and pride rule us
- If we’re lost, confused and afraid, like Pilot, perhaps the Truth of Jesus hasn’t sunk deep enough
The reality is this – we’ve rebelled against our creator, worshiping man-made things, running and hiding, scheming and plotting.
BEFORE WE CAN CELEBRATE THE CROSS AS SOMETHING DONE FOR US BY A LOVING GOD, WE HAVE TO SEE IT AS SOMETHING DONE BY US AS WICKED MEN.
This is the SIN that Jesus takes on his shoulders, literally. Our sin put him on the cross.
We can’t end with our SIN though, thankfully!
God – There is another player on the stage. The Bible makes it very clear that despite our evil intentions, God is sovereign, God’s got a plan. Through His messiah, Jesus, he came to save us. To save us from our sins. To pay the price by sacrificing himself in order to reconcile us to God.
Here are a few themes of God in action:
- God “sent” his one and only son, because he loved us (God’s in charge).
- Jesus is the good shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep. No one takes his life, he lays it down. (Jesus didn’t die a martyr. He died voluntarily). It’s why the New Testament writers repeatedly say, he gave himself up for us. It’s also why Jesus repeatedly said, I must die). God’s in charge.
- Jesus gave his life as a ransom so we could live. This was all part of God’s plan.
These are things Jesus taught about himself – these themes are central to who Jesus is, and what he wants us to know. This is what we must wrestle with, reflect on, struggle with – this is the stumbling block! We preach a crucified savior as the hinge of history! A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, as Paul reminds us.
When we look at the cross, there are two sides – our wretchedness & God’s salvation. In the cross we see our sin – this is why we cry. But, BUT, we also see a Glorious God forgiving us, paying the price so we don’t have to, bringing us home. This is why we can laugh through our tears.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson