The Heart of the Gospel

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 53:6

Why do Christians call the day on which Jesus died “Good Friday”? What could be good about an innocent man’s unjust and untimely death?

Have you ever gotten so caught up in the details of something that you forgot the main point, so that “you couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” as the saying goes? That’s easy to do. I remember a wedding I was scheduled to perform one winter years ago. The couple at last finished all their arrangements and the wedding day arrived, but with it came also the greatest snow storm in recent memory. One by one all the careful arrangements fell apart. The photographer couldn’t make it to the ceremony, but that was not too bad for we could get on without him. The florist and the caterer and the soloist were all stuck outside of town, and most of the guests didn’t show up. But we didn’t really need them either. The real problem came when we learned that the groom was snowed in and could not reach the church. That’s when we decided to postpone the ceremony! Many things, you see, may be important, but only one is central.

What is it that is central to Christianity? I almost said, “What is it that is crucial?” Crucial means “that which is supremely important,” and comes from the Latin word crux or “cross.” For Christianity, the cross literally is crucial. The heart of the gospel is, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, niv). Many things are important to the Christian faith, but only one is central – the death of Jesus Christ.

CHRIST SUFFERED

Here it is again, the heart of the gospel: Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. This is the good news Jesus came to create. While other people find the meaning of their lives through what they live for, the supreme meaning of his life is found in what he died for. This is the good news the Bible was written to convey; the Old Testament as well as the New. When the apostle said that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, he must have been thinking especially of these moving and powerful words from Isaiah 53:

. . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

(vv. 5,6,8, nrsv)

But is the death of Christ in fact central to Christianity? The cross is Christianity’s most prominent symbol; is what happened there truly its most important fact? Some have criticized evangelical Christians for being obsessed with Christ’s suffering. We focus too much on his death, it is said, and not enough upon his life. We preach too much about Christ’s cross and not enough about his resurrection. No biblical Christian would ever want to diminish the importance of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, or to downplay his life and ministry. But we still must assert that, important as all these other things are, it is Christ’s death which is supremely important. One thing is central.

We know that the cross is central to the Christian gospel because this is the place given to it by scripture itself. I have been talking a lot about the suffering of Christ in these studies; of course, that’s hard to avoid when one is looking at the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. This is a passage filled to overflowing with the sights and sounds of Jesus’ suffering. In the New Testament the focus is even clearer. At first glance, the four gospels look like mini-biographies of Jesus, but it does not take long to realize they are not. The gospels are partial accounts covering only a small fraction of Jesus’ life. There’s almost nothing in them about his family or birth or childhood. His teen-age years and early adulthood are passed over in complete silence. Even the three or so years of public ministry are described selectively rather than systematically and comprehensively.

The fact is, what the four gospels are most concerned about is the death of Jesus. Each of them devotes anywhere from a third to a half of its total length to narrate the events of just the last few days of Jesus’ earthly life. Mark, the earliest of the gospels, has been described as a passion story with an extended introduction. And something similar could be said of all of them. For the New Testament writers, there was no question about what part of Jesus’ story required the most attention and emphasis. The very heart of the gospel was to be found in Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.

CHRIST SUFFERED FOR US

But what does this mean? What is the cross all about? Is it merely another human tragedy, just the sad story of one more innocent man done to death by the evil forces of society? Is Jesus another of those martyrs of which human history, in particular the history of our dark and bloody century, is so full? Is the meaning of Jesus’ death to be found primarily in the way it illustrates the human capacity for injustice? Is it just another example of the painful truth that in our world the good do die young and that when the humble, meek and innocent clash with the powerful, brutal and evil, it is the former who are usually destroyed?

The strange thing is, the more one reads and reflects on what actually happened, the less it seems like Christ’s death is a tragedy. Tragedies are terrible things that break our hearts, and while Jesus’ death was certainly terrible, in another way it was wonderful. It’s no mistake that Christians have learned to call the day he died “Good Friday.” When we experience a tragedy, we would give anything to have prevented it, or to undo it if we could. Though Christians regret that Jesus’ death had to happen, we would not for all the world wish that it hadn’t.

Nor, if I had the power, would I have tried to stop his death from happening. For one thing, Jesus himself had that power and refused to use it. The most amazing thing of all about Jesus’ suffering was that it was completely voluntary. When I read a story with a tragic ending I have a sense of sadness and helplessness as I see the inevitable disaster approaching. But when I read the gospels, I have a sense of wonder at the deliberate way Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. The thing that comes through most clearly is that he saw it all beforehand: the plots of his enemies, the dangers that awaited in Jerusalem, the agony of the cross – and yet he calmly went forward. He could have avoided it all, turned aside, escaped at any time. Even as he hung on the cross and his enemies mocked, “He saved others, himself he cannot save,” he knew they were wrong. He could have saved himself. Jesus didn’t just suffer. He allowed himself to suffer.

So the real question is, why? Why did Christ choose to die? Why did Christ have to die? The Bible offers several answers to that question. On one level of meaning, Jesus’ death provides us an example of how faithful believers should endure suffering (1 Peter 2:21). More important perhaps is the way Jesus’ death serves to reveal the character of God. Nothing demonstrates the love of God more clearly than the cross: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The death of Christ also reminds us of the compassion and understanding of God. God himself knows what it’s like to suffer and die. “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross,” says John Stott, the greatest living evangelical Christian writer. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” (The Cross of Christ). And the Bible also explains that the cross is the means by which God defeated the forces of evil, the place where, having disarmed the demonic powers, he made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them (see Col. 2:14-15). By dying, Jesus triumphed over sin and death and the devil, and won the victory which his resurrection proclaims, and his coming again will complete. So the meaning of the cross may be found in all these things: it gives us an example of patient suffering; it reveals the depth of God’s love and mercy; it involves God in our suffering; and it establishes God’s victory over the powers of darkness.

But as with the gospel, so with the death of Christ: many things are important, one is central. While these are all true explanations of the meaning of the cross, none of them fully answers the question of why Jesus had to die, and none of them brings us to the very heart of the gospel. For that we must listen again to Isaiah:

The punishment that brought us peace was upon him . . . we all, like sheep, have gone astray . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all . . . (53:5-6, niv).

Isaiah begins by reminding us of our sin; we humans all have gone astray like wandering sheep. To sin is to transgress, to go where we’re not supposed to. Sin is a violation, like a basketball player stepping out of bounds with the ball. It is breaking God’s law, God’s rules for life. It is actively doing wrong. The Bible also speaks of sin as “missing the mark” or failing to do right, like an archer aiming at the bull’s-eye and hitting the barn door instead. So we sin as much by failing to do what is right as by actually doing wrong .All we like sheep have gone astray, every last one of us. In the words of a Christian prayer, “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”

This is not the gospel, it’s bad news. The bad news must precede the good news because no one will appreciate the good unless they have first heard the bad. And the full extent of the bad news is this: not only are we all sinners, but all sinners must die. The penalty for sin is death, to be rejected by God and to be excluded forever from his presence.

There cannot be any good news unless someone dies a death for sin. But the heart of the gospel is that Someone has. Since none of us could possibly do that, no sinner could ever fully pay for his sin without being destroyed, God has paid for it himself. God has provided a substitute, a sin-bearer, to take our place, and has poured all the weight of sin’s punishment upon him. The substitute is Jesus Christ, the sinless One, whose perfect sacrifice satisfies the law’s just demand for everyone who believes in him. That is why he had to die; this is the full meaning of the cross. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Now you know the heart of the gospel. Do you hold the gospel in your heart?