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 violent death?

When the first Christian missionaries traveled to the fierce tribes of Anglo-Saxons living in England 1,400 years ago, they risked their lives to bring those people the news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As they received and believed this news the Anglo-Saxons came up with a new word for it in their language, old English. They called the message about Jesus the godspell; literally, the “good story,” or “good news.” We still use the modern form of the same word for the Christian message. It’s the “gospel,” the good news.

This is the time of year when Christians especially call to mind the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. It may seem odd to call that good news, but it is. The events that took place between Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in triumph to the acclaim of the people, and Good Friday, when the shouts of those same crowds sent him to the cross, form the basis of our faith and the ground of our salvation.

This is what is central to Christianity. I almost said, “This is what is crucial.” Crucial means “that which is supremely important.” It comes from the Latin word crux or “cross.” For Christianity, the cross literally is crucial. The heart of the gospel, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, is “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 centra – the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

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; both the Old Testament as well as the New. When the apostle Paul said that Christ died for our sins accordingto 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 event? Some have criticized evangelical Christians for being obsessed with Christ’s sufferings. We focus too much on his death, we’re told, and not enough upon his life. We preach too much about the cross and not enough about the resurrection. No biblical Christian would ever want to diminish the importance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, or to downplay his perfect life, his wonderful ministry and teaching. But still we must assert that, as important as all those other things are, it is Christ’s death which is supremely important.

We know that the cross is central to the Christian gospel because this is the place given to it by scripture itself. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a passage filled to overflowing with the sights and sounds of Jesus’ suffering. In the New Testament gospels the focus is even clearer. At first glance, the four books we call the gospels look like mini-biographies of Jesus, but it doesn’t take long to realize they aren’t. The gospels are partial accounts covering only a small fraction of Jesus’ life. There’s almost nothing in them about his family or his childhood, his teenage years, his early adulthood. Those things are all passed over in complete silence. Even the three years of Jesus’ public ministry are described selectively rather than comprehensively.

The fact is, what the four gospels are most concerned about is the death of Jesus, not his life. 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 called a passion story with an extended introduction. And something similar could be said of each of the other gospels. 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 that 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 this 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, it is the former who are usually destroyed?

The strange thing is, the more one reads and reflects on what actually happened to Jesus, the less it seems like his death is a tragedy in the strict sense of the word. Tragedies are terrible things – they break our hearts. And while Jesus’ death was certainly terrible, in another way it doesn’t leave us heart-broken. 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. And though Christians regret the fact that Jesus had to die, we wouldn’t for all the world wish that he hadn’t.

If I had the power, I would never have tried to stop his death from taking place. For one thing, Jesus himself had that very power and refused to use it. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his suffering and death was that it was completely voluntary. Whenever 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 everything to happen. The thing that comes through most clearly is that he saw it all beforehand: the plots of his enemies, the danger that awaited him in Jerusalem, the agony of the cross – and yet he calmly went forward. He could have avoided it all, he could have turned aside, he could have escaped. Even as he hung on the cross and his enemies mocked him, “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 he do that? Why did Christ choose to die in this way? Why did he have to die in this way? The Bible offers a number of 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. The Bible says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). And the death of Christ also reminds us of the compassion and understanding of God. God is a God who can identify with us whenever we suffer. 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 great evangelical Christian writer. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” (The Cross of Christ). The Bible also explains that the cross is the means by which God defeated all 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 did all those things. He triumphed over sin and death and the devil. He won the victory which his resurrection proclaims, and his coming again will complete.

So the meaning of the cross may be found on all these different levels. It gives us an example of patient human suffering; it reveals the depth of God’s love and mercy; it involves God himself in our suffering; and it establishes once for all his victory over the powers of darkness.

THE MEANING OF THE CROSS

But as with the gospel, so with the death of Christ: many things are important, but one thing 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 listen again to the prophet 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. All we humans have gone astray like wandering sheep. We have left God’s righteous ways. To sin is to transgress, to go where we’re not supposed to. Sin is violating the rules of the game, like a basketball player stepping out of bounds with the ball. Sin is breaking God’s law, God’s rules for life. It means to actively do what is wrong. Sin also means “missing the mark” or failing to do what is right, like an archer aiming at the bull’s-eye and missing the target completely. So we sin as much by not doing what is right as by actually doing wrong. All we like sheep have gone astray, says Isaiah; every last one of us. In the words of an ancient 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.”

Now that is not the gospel. That’s bad news, not good news. But the bad news has to come first because you won’t appreciate the good news until you have 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. It is to be rejected by God and to be excluded forever from his presence.

So there can’t be any good news unless someone dies a death for sin. The heart of the gospel is that Someone has. Since none of us could possibly do that (because no sinner could ever fully pay for his or her sin without being destroyed), God has paid the penalty for sin himself. God has provided a substitute to take our place, and has poured all the weight of sin’s punishment upon him. The substitute is his own Son Jesus Christ, the sinless One, whose perfect sacrifice on the cross satisfies the law’s just demand for everyone who belongs to him. That is why Christ had to die. That is the full meaning of the cross. All we like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on him our sin and iniquity.

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