The Cross and God's Providence

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Acts 2:23

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

Acts 22-24, RSV

Who is responsible? Whenever a crime is committed, that’s the burning question, isn’t it? Police authorities investigate the scene, interview witnesses, consider possible motives, and gather all the evidence they can. They want to solve the mystery. They want, as we say, “to get to the bottom of the case.” And that can only happen when they identify, apprehend, and bring to justice the party or parties responsible.

The suspects usually try to demonstrate that they are not to blame. They present what we call “alibis.” They could not have been responsible, they maintain, because at the time the crime was committed, they were in another place, with a different group of people, doing something else. The more serious the crime, and the more severe its stated punishment, the more eager each person is to prove, “I am not responsible.”

Today I want to think with you about the most heinous crime ever committed, the most monstrous injustice in human history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And let’s meet head-on that momentous question: Who is responsible? Who brought about the infamous deed? Who caused Jesus to suffer and die?

The apostle Peter once preached a sermon in Jerusalem about that very question. It was on Pentecost, only weeks after Jesus’ execution. Peter’s answer to the question takes us by surprise. We can hardly make sense of what he says. Listen:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

OUR HANDS

Now notice first that he brings a charge against the entire holiday crowd. “You,” he thunders, “crucified and killed Jesus by the hands of lawless men.” By “lawless men,” he clearly meant the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. It was Pontius Pilate, you remember, who officially decreed that Jesus should die. No Jewish court had the power of life and death. Those who actually spiked the hands of Jesus to a rough crossbar and hung Him up to die were Roman soldiers. Theirs were the hands that did Him violence. They cuffed Him, flogged Him, hoisted the cross on His back, and later nailed Him to it. They were “lawless,” all of them. That was the common Israelite designation for anyone outside the range of the Jewish law. Who did this awful thing? “The Romans,” says Peter.

But the New Testament records make it plain that the instigators of the crucifixion were Jesus’ own countrymen. The high priest and his circle engineered the whole chain of events. They arrested Jesus, accused Him of blasphemy and sedition, and handed Him over to Rome with the urging that He be put to death. They whipped up the mob to cry for His blood. We can say, with evident justice, that the Sanhedrin was responsible.

And what about the people in that chanting mob? When Pilate was willing to release one prisoner to them, they demanded Barabbas, a condemned killer. When he asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” they shouted, “Let him be crucified.” There was no doubt about it. The crowd could have secured His release. Their choice sealed His condemnation. Everyone who voted against Him and cried “Crucify!” was in a sense responsible.

But Peter was speaking on Pentecost to a large gathering, many of whom may not even have been present on Good Friday. Yet he includes all of them: “You,” he says, “are the ones who killed him.”

We can understand this charge only when we know the meaning of Jesus’ death. He died, the Scriptures tell us, for our sins. Indeed, it was “for the sins of the whole world.” Now it’s quite evident that various forms of evil contributed to His death. We see envy in the priests, injustice in their legal proceedings, cruelty among the soldiers and the mob, the venomous hatred of His accusers, the greed of a Judas, the cowardice and self-serving of Pilate, the bigotry of the would-be religious. But all that is only a hint of what’s involved, only the visible tip of the iceberg. Jesus was bearing the iniquity of us all. He was stooping under the condemnation we all deserve. He was “tasting death,” as the Scripture puts it, “for every man.” So Peter was preaching to all the world on that day of Pentecost when he said, “You crucified and killed Him.” Yes, your pride and mine, our loveless ways, our disobedience, all were in the bitter cup He drank. More profoundly than any of us have ever recognized, we are responsible.

And this, friends, all of us have done to an utterly innocent man. He was the only human being who ever lived in whom no one could justly find fault. When He asked His critics one day, “Which of you convinces me of sin?” they had nothing to say. He did always the Father’s will – with an undivided heart. All His ministry to persons was inspired by self-giving love. He harmed no one, deceived no one, took from no one. To Him supremely, honor was due. He deserved the praise of His nation and the gratitude of all, but instead He was despised, rejected and condemned to die the worst of deaths.

But there’s much more to be said. We didn’t simply execute the best man who ever lived. When we did away with Jesus, we humans crucified our true Lord. Jesus is the unique Son of the Father. He is the Word of the eternal. He is God Himself come in person to dwell among us. And here’s the poignancy of it all – He came to His own world and it gave Him no home – no room at the inn, and later nowhere to lay His head. He came to His own people and His own received Him not. They ran Him out of town in Nazareth, refused to receive Him in Samaria, and in Jerusalem killed Him outside the city walls. He came in unspeakable love to serve others, to seek and save those who were lost, to bind up the brokenhearted, to give abundant life, and this is how we treated Him. “This Jesus,” says Peter, “you crucified and killed.”

GOD’S HAND

But we still haven’t fully “solved” the case. We haven’t settled the question of responsibility. Peter has something even more remarkable to say about what lay behind the death of Jesus. Listen again: “He was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” This, astonishing as it may seem, was God’s definite plan, His predetermined counsel, His eternal purpose. There is a profound sense, says the great apostle, in which God Himself is responsible.

Remember that prophecy in Isaiah, chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant? The prophet speaks of an innocent One who suffers on behalf of the guilty.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; … he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Note that. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Somehow this is God’s doing. A few lines later that appears in an even more startling way: “It was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief.” In some mysterious way, it was God’s plan that the Servant should suffer, that the Messiah should die.

Jesus seemed to know early in His ministry that He was so destined. He talked mysteriously about how the Bridegroom would be “taken away” from His friends and of how He had an ominous cup to drink. He taught His followers repeatedly that “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed.” Somehow this had to be. Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem even though He knew what awaited Him there. He stayed in the garden where He knew He would be arrested. At His trial, He made no effort at a defense. He called upon no legions of angels to save Him from a cruel death.

But the necessity to which He yielded was not a blind fate, a relentless wheel of events but a loving Father’s purpose. “Not my will,” He agonized in Gethsemane, “but thine be done.” He marched unflinchingly to the cross because, as He said, “I do always those things that please the Father.” “My meat is to do the will of him who sent me, and to finish his work.” And when He cried out, “It is accomplished,” He knew that He had been more than brave, more than loyal to a cause. Jesus the Son had been obedient to His Father, even unto death.

GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD

Does this strike you as strange that within one sentence Peter should say that we are responsible for the crucifixion and also that God is? That men engineered it and God planned it? That it was both our doing and His design?

“Surely,” someone objects, “both can’t be true.” How can you accept one without rejecting the other? If God planned it from all eternity and brought it about by His providence, surely you can’t blame the people involved! They were only puppets, actors playing their parts in a drama over which they had no control. But if, on the other hand, we really are responsible for Jesus’ death and guilty because of it, then it’s nonsense to say that God planned it all. We’ll have to go with one or the other. We can’t have it both ways.

There’s a fascinating narrative in the Old Testament that sheds light on this mystery. Joseph, you recall, was the favorite son of father Jacob. He had dreams of greatness and was bitterly envied by his brothers. They hated him so much that some of them were determined to kill him. Even the most lenient thought it best to sell him away into slavery. He went through one disappointment after another in Egypt until finally his God-given ability to interpret dreams won Pharaoh’s gratitude and raised Joseph to a place of high authority.

When his brothers came down to Egypt in a time of famine, Joseph made himself known to them. They were terrified, expecting him to punish them severely. But this was his word of assurance to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today.” Joseph saw in the same circumstances both the hand of his brothers and the hand of God. He could say to them, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt,” but also, “it was not you who sent me here but God.” They act, and God acts. They send, and God sends. They are responsible for his exile in Egypt and God is. The differing responsibility appears in the intent of each, the motivation. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

Now think about the Cross in that light. We were there, and we meant it for evil. We did not want this Lord to rule over us. We cried out in our hearts, “Away with Him!” and caused Him to die. But God was there too, meaning it for good. With a breaking heart, Jesus gave Himself to die so that we could live. He was condemned so that we could be forgiven. He was forsaken so that we might always be accepted. In the cross, the sin of earth and the love of heaven met with an awesome impact, and the crash was on the heart of God.

Our limited logic can’t pull all this together. We can’t explain in neat categories how God can work out His sovereign purpose of love, and how we can at the same time be responsible for the evil that we do. But at the Cross, with eyes of faith, we see and know the reality of both.

Peter was preaching this message not to answer speculative questions but to call for a personal response. The preaching of the Cross is always meant to do that. The apostles want us to know that directly or indirectly we have crucified Jesus, so that we may recognize the depths of our sin and turn from it to God. That’s the response they want – a broken heart. They want us then to receive with a grateful trust the Lord’s forgiveness. And they want us to be able to face the worst evils in the world and say to them with triumphant confidence: “You meant it for evil but God meant it – and means it – for good!”

PRAYER: O God, for the Cross which shows us both our sin and Your saving purpose, we bless You. Give to every person who shares in this program the sense that whatever comes, though others may mean it for evil, You mean it for good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.