The Expository Files

What Happened at the Cross?

The death of Jesus on the cross was the greatest and most important event the world will ever see. In a day in which things are being stripped of their importance and trivialized, I want us to look again at the cross and see what the Bible says happened there. Some people refer to John 3:16 as "the gospel in a nutshell." I believe the gospel is too great to be fully grasped so easily. It is simple enough to be understood, yet complex enough to be pondered for a lifetime. Thus the greatness of it's author -- the Lord God Almighty. Just what happened at the cross?

1. Atonement was made for our sins. In the garden, God told Adam that he could eat freely from the fruit of every tree, "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). Adam ate of that tree, and he died. He began to die physically that day, but more importantly, he died spiritually. His sin caused a separation between himself and God (Isaiah 59:1-2). He needed to make atonement for this sin, but was powerless to do so. Thus began the great theme of the Bible, God's scheme of redemption.

Death was the penalty for sin, that was the price that had to be paid. The Law of Moses called for the sacrifice of bulls and goats. Their life was given and their blood was shed, but to no effect, "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). It couldn't be just any death. It was a man's soul that was lost in the garden, atonement required a man's death. But, it couldn't be just any man. A sinless soul was lost in Eden, only a sinless man could make atonement. Thus, the perfect Son of God had to die. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). Only in the death of Jesus is this wrong made right and God's righteous judgment satisfied. In the cross we see the painful reality of what has been said, "He paid a debt He didn't owe because we owed a debt we couldn't pay."

2. Prophecies were fulfilled. Our Lord's death on the cross was no accident. It was planned in the mind of God before time began (Acts 2:23). It was foretold to the world through the prophets. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the pierced hands and feet of Psalm 22, no broken bones of Psalm 34, given gall and vinegar in Psalm 69, and beaten and spat upon in Isaiah 50. All of these pointed to Calvary.

One of the proofs of the inspiration of the Bible is fulfilled prophecy. Jesus' death on the cross is a part of that. This wasn't made up, nor was it an accident. Matthew uses fulfilled prophecy to convince the Jews of his day that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Jesus Himself also foretold His death (Matt. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19). If He hadn't died on the cross, He would have proven Himself a liar and a false prophet (Deut. 18:15-22).

3. The Old Law was put away. "And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14). That old law was nailed to the cross with Jesus. When He died, the veil of the temple was torn in two (Matt. 27:51), signifying the end of the law it represented.

That law of Moses was taken out of the way. God said it would be: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord" (Heb. 8:8-9). We now live under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). We don't live under a combination of the law of Moses and the law of Christ. Some principles are carried over from that old law, but we are living under and new and better covenant.

4. Enmity was abolished. "For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity" (Eph. 2:14-16). The law that separated Jew from Gentile is gone. The gospel truly is for all. "Then Peter opened his mouth and said: 'In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him'" (Acts 10:34-35).

5. The love of God was displayed. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Could God have done any better? What more could He have done? Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). Hours after He said this, He did it. He laid down His life for His friends, His enemies, you and me. If you ever begin to doubt God's love for you, ever wonder if He really knows and cares about you, remember the cross. There has never been a greater act of love.

Perhaps you have read the following before: "I asked Jesus how much He loved Me. 'This much,' He answered, then stretched out His arms and died."

6. A perfect example in suffering. Times of suffering are going to come to all of us. We will all face trials various times in our lives. How can we make it though it? Jesus' death on the cross left us both encouragement and an example. "For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness - by whose stripes you were healed" (1 Peter 2:21-24).

Jesus' death on the cross not only paid the penalty for our sin, it also showed us that we can endure any suffering that we have to face. If Jesus can endure the cross for us, then we can endure anything for Him.

By Heath Rogers
From Expository Files 9.10; October 2002