When I was younger, taking communion was always a morbid, gut-wrenching reminder of how my sin killed Jesus.
As I chewed down a piece of bread that was supposed to remind me of torn flesh, and took a sip of grape juice, a stand-in for human blood, I couldn’t really concentrate on things like love and grace and forgiveness. No, this was about how my bad attitudes and poor choices drove spikes in the hands and feet of Jesus, and forced a spear into his side.
As I grew and studied, I began to realize that no one twists God’s arm. Death and resurrection was the plan from before the beginning, and not just because God knew that sin was inevitable and this was the only way to clean it up. No, the scope of God’s incarnation, life, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension and heavenly rule by the Spirit was much more than a way for him to allow himself to forgive me, one confession at a time. Much much more.
According to the Bible, sin is something that each of us inherits from Adam, a state of spiritual isolation that results in a self-oriented existence and ultimately a grim headstone. If you want to see a visual representation of sin and death, wrap a rubber band around your forearm and watch what happens to your hand.
God isn’t surprised or disappointed by our sin. He’s not so foolish or near-sighted as to think that we have any alternative. He also doesn’t need the crucifixion in order to forgive us. Jesus said that he was able to forgive anyone anytime anywhere before he died [Mark 2:10]. Besides, what reasonable person would require a blood sacrifice to forgive a person that was truly repentant?
Remember, it was God who established the sacrificial system and stated that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” That was his rule, and he made it with the crucifixion in mind. It was a teaser trailer for his good work, not a Chinese finger trap.
So if the crucifixion was not just about forgiving sin, what was it about? How do we expand our lens?
We often say that Jesus died for sinners. That’s true. Romans 4:25 claims that “he was delivered over to death for our sins,” and Romans 5:6 claims that “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
But what do we do with this famous passage from Galatians? “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I—” Wait . . . what? Crucified with Christ? Romans 6 goes into detail, claiming that believers have died with Christ, been buried with Christ, and have risen with Christ. In baptism, we’re not seeing someone getting their sins symbolically washed away, we’re watching a person identifying with the actual death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
But how is this possible? Or practical? I am two thousand years removed from Jesus. How could I die with him in any sense? But there is no getting around Paul’s use of prepositions. He wrote “with,” and he meant “with.”
So when we see Jesus on the cross, we can somehow superimpose ourselves in his place, seeing our own torn and bleeding body in his place.
But that’s not all we can superimpose. Think about the story of the bronze serpent.
God saves his people from slavery to the greatest superpower in the ancient Near East, shaming a pharaoh and splitting a sea to get them out. But when they start to feel uncomfortable, they start nagging Moses about taking them back to Egypt. God gets peeved, sends some poisonous snakes to get them thinking clearly, then tells Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole and set it before them. If they look at the serpent, they will live. If not, they will die.
Jesus identifies himself directly with the bronze serpent when he speaks to Nicodemus in John 3:14. But why are we looking at a bronze serpent instead of, say, a golden dove? Why would Jesus be identified with a snake?
In a sense, just as we are meant to see ourselves being crucified with Christ, the devil is also being crucified with him. I wonder when Satan realized that all of his efforts to get Jesus on a cross would ultimately get him, in a sense, nailed up there with him?
End of this age:
Jesus was using his own body to put something to rest. Call it what you will—depravity, injustice, death—it all died with Christ. It was buried. It was finished.
It is no coincidence that Jesus died on the sixth day. He died as a human being for the sake of human beings on the day that human beings were created. Then, on the seventh day, the day that God rested from all his labors, Christ is laid in a tomb, resting from his labors as well.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever, Amen. [Gal. 1:3-5]
We are told that Christ’s resurrection brings new life and ushers in a new age. That’s why we meet on Sundays, the first day of a new week. But how can we say that Jesus laid sin and death to rest when we still see it working in our hearts and raging in every corner of the earth? No wonder we sometimes think of the crucifixion as a spiritual Band-Aid, as if Jesus can forgive sins, but can’t seem to stop them this side of heaven.
No, a careful study of Scripture shows that those who have been raised with Christ have tasted of the age to come, an age that will be officially ushered in at the Second Coming. Between now and then, two ages are co-existing, each one striving against the other. One is destined to fail, while the other is destined to endure.
When we struggle with sin, or feel the anger and despair that comes with a steady onslaught of depravity and injustice, look to the finished work of the cross. The evils of this world will come to an end. The devil will be cast out. And the meek will inherit the earth.
Sure the body of the python may be thrashing around the hut, wreaking havoc on the furniture. But if you look closely, you’ll see that its head was cut off a long time ago, lying on the floor next to the bloody nails.