Scripture Reference: Acts 4:1-31, 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2, Revelation 5
What God Thinks Of The CrossDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 3, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
In an age where morality and society are in disrepair, the Scriptures teach us to focus on the proclamation of the Gospel rather than political agendas.
The cross is centerpiece of all history. Even before time, God planned that the cross of Calvary would have to happen in order to save people from every nation. And one day, when we are kneeling before our Savior, we will see the Lamb who was slain and praise Him forever.
The question at hand is this: What do we do when society begins to crumble? What do we do when our families are coming apart and when there is violence and immorality and darkness and great cruelty in a country? What do we do when our freedoms, which we so often have taken for granted, suddenly seem to be eroded in courts that want to make a very strong wall of separation between Church and State, and when political correctness seems to close the mouths of our university students and college students, knowing that they cannot share their faith? What do we do at a time like that?
Well, I want you to know that even though things are bad, it is encouraging for us to realize that there have been other times in history when the Church has been a minority. We may think that we do not have enough people to vote people into office whom we would like to see there, or we think might do a better job, that Christians in a democracy might become a minority when their voting power is not that great. What then? Where do we turn? Where do we turn when we have pinned our hopes on political realities, only to discover that they might be overturned? Where do we turn?
Well, I want you to take your Bibles today and turn to Acts 4, because it is here that we see that the Church was also a great minority. But God used the Apostles mightily for the advancement of His Kingdom even in circumstances that seemed to be contrary to them, circumstances in which they were decidedly a minority. Acts 4:1 reads, “And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.”
The next day they bring them out, and Peter gives the folks who had jailed him a speech, and he’s speaking to people who are very hostile to the message of Jesus Christ. And he says to them in verse 11, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Now there’s an example of keeping the main thing the main thing, because the most important truth that people could ever know is that God has come to us in Christ and that He is the only way to the Father. And this is our message in a day when many people seem to be discouraged because of the violence and because of what is happening in society.
Now what I’d like to suggest to you today, and not only suggest it but to imprint it upon your minds, is this. And when we speak of the cross we’re not talking about a piece of wood on which Jesus Christ died, but rather that word cross refers to Christ’s death, and what was accomplished there. The cross is really the centerpiece of God’s agenda, and therefore, it should be our centerpiece too. As a matter of fact, the cross is the hinge upon which the door of history turns. The cross is actually the hub in which all of the spokes of history all come together. And it is the cross that makes sense out of all of these seemingly unrelated elements that go into your history textbooks. It is the cross, and what we must do is to realize that when we as Christians talk about that old rugged cross, we are talking about the centrality of our faith.
Well, my assignment today is a big one, but we’re going to plunge in and we’re going to walk through it. And what we’re going to do is to look at the cross from the standpoint of eternity past. We’re going to talk about the cross also in history, the history that is past. And then we’re going to speak about the cross in the future, but the journey will be brief. I want you to come along with me.
What we need to understand, first of all, is that the earth is like a drama that is being played out. This is the planet upon which issues such as justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness, the devil and God are going to be settled. That’s what God’s plan was, that this would be the place where it would all happen. And what we want to do at the beginning is to look at the person who made the script, the one who wrote the play, so to speak, and that is God Himself, and His relationship to the cross. And that’s why I’ve entitled this message What God Thinks of the Cross. For the cross, we could begin by talking about it in eternity past. The scriptwriter! What does He think of it?
Well, you remember the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Of course, it’s a very familiar story. Do you remember what it says in Genesis 3:15? You need not look at it because you know it by memory, but God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed, and He (that is the seed of the woman) will crush you on the head, and you will only be able to nip His heal.”
Let me make a couple of observations about that verse. First of all, God is saying that He is the one who is going to take the initiative in redemption. Man fell into sin. The ruin is great. The devastation was all over the place. What can man do? The answer is nothing. God says, “I will,” and then He says that that act of redemption is going to have in it enmity. There’s going to be strife. There is going to be the seed of the woman, which turns out to be Jesus Christ, who will crush the head of the serpent, and that’s what Christ did when He died on the cross. Satan was cast out, we read.
Now I have a question for you. When did this idea of redemption occur to God? Was it that after the fall God thought to Himself, “You know, I had hoped for better things from Adam and Eve, but now that they’ve blown it, I’d better do something? I’ll send my Son.”
There’s a minister in Canada who preached a message entitled God the Gambler. Now he’s in an Evangelical church in a respectable denomination. God the Gambler! What that message actually said was that when God created Adam and Eve, He hoped that they would obey Him, but when they didn’t and He lost the gamble, He does the very same thing that somebody does in Las Vegas. He ups the ante, and now God says, “I’m willing to gamble even higher. I’m going to gamble my Son because,” said this minister, “God had no guarantees that anyone would believe on Christ after Christ died, so He took the gamble.” In fact, it’s hard for you to believe this, but he actually quotes John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that He gambled His only begotten Son.”
Now how do you like that theology? I hope you dislike it passionately. It’s demeaning to God. It is unbiblical. It shows you what happens when somebody begins to spin ideas in his mind that have been severed from the Scripture, and when you begin to float into the realm of your own thinking. That’s what I think it shows. Now if I’ve been unclear as to my opinion regarding it, come up to me later and I’ll tell you what I really think about it. It’s unworthy of God.
Let me give you a second view that is much better, one that certainly restores sovereignty to God, and that is that somewhere between eternity past and the creation of the world, it is then that God the Father and God the Son planned redemption. And the Father said to God the Son, “I love you so much I want to give you a gift that redeems humanity, and so what we’re going to do is to realize now that there’s going to be a creation, there’s going to be a fall, and there’s going to be redemption so that I can display My mercy and My grace and My glory.”
It does say, after all, in Titus 1:2, “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” To whom did He promise it? God the Father promised it to God the Son. The Trinity is involved. Now that is a much better view, but I would like to suggest that the answer even lies deeper in the recesses of eternity. I believe that the cross was an idea in the mind of God as long as God has existed, which means from eternity past. It was always an idea in God’s mind – always. It makes no sense to ask, “When did the idea of the cross come to God, or occur to God, or when did He plan it?” That question makes no more sense than asking, “When did God arise, and what is His history?” because the cross always existed with Him.
Now of course, in a sense that’s true of all of God’s ideas, and all of God’s decisions. “Known unto God are all of His works from the beginning of time,” but the cross occupied that central place because it was in redemption that God was going to be most clearly seen. This was, if I may be somewhat imprecise, His finest moment.
Now you say, “Well, that makes sense logically because God is eternal, therefore redemption is eternal, but can you show me a verse?” For those of you who brought your Bibles, keep your Bible open to Acts 4 because we’re going to come back there, but let’s look at 2 Timothy 1:9. This is what the Scripture says. It says, “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” Before the ages began! Already then God was granting us grace. The script was written. The plan was made. In fact, in Greek that expression says before times eternal. I can’t even get a handle on that. I can’t understand that. I can’t get my mind around it. What do you mean, before times eternal? Where did God come from? We cannot even think that. We can think of God as being eternal in the future. It is impossible for us to comprehend God being eternal from the past. Our minds can’t grasp it, but as long as God existed, which is eternity past, that’s as long as the grace of God was granted to us in Christ. That was the script.
Do you realize what that means? That means that you, too, were in God’s mind from eternity past, that the redeemed humanity that Jesus Christ would purchase on the cross were on God’s mind, and you were known to God, and you were chosen by God from before the foundation of the earth, and you were a part of the divine plan as long as God existed.
My point is simply that there was a cross in the heart of God long before there was a cross planted at Calvary.
We’ve looked very briefly at the cross – God’s heart, His priority, His number one agenda. Let’s look briefly at the cross – God’s history. Now I hope that you kept your Bible open to Acts 4 because Peter here is giving a prayer and, in this prayer, he gives us a tremendous amount of insight into how it all came about that the purpose of God was accomplished. We’ll pick it up in verse 27, “For truly in this city (that is, in Jerusalem) there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
In eternity past the script was written. God knew what was going to happen. God already had us in mind way back then, and now suddenly the script was going to be played out on the stage of the world. And who are the players? There is a coalition of God’s enemies that conspire together to have Christ put away, to have Him put to death. First of all, of course, you have Herod. Now there are six Herods in the Bible, so don’t get them confused. It is very easy to do this. This actually is Herod Antipas. He was the ruler in Galilee. This is the Herod who beheaded John the Baptist. This is the Herod before whom Christ was brought, and Christ said nothing. Do you remember the story of how Herod said to Him, “Perform a miracle; do something for me?” Herod wanted Christ to entertain him with something spectacular, and Jesus would not say a word to him. He kept quiet. That was the Herod.
And now suddenly this Herod is confronted by what to do with someone who, at His birth, was said to be the King of the Jews. And he conspired along with some of the others, such as Pilate, who is listed. Pilate is a very tragic figure in history, I think, because remember he preferred not to have anything to do with Jesus Christ, and he knew that Jesus was innocent. And his wife even warned him. She said, “Because of a dream I have suffered many things. Don’t have anything to do with this man,” so he tried to bargain with the Jews, and said, “Let me scourge Him and let Him go because at the Passover you always let a prisoner go anyway.” The crowd shouted, “No, not Christ. Give us Barabbas. Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” So what does Pilate do? He gives in to the mob and he lets Jesus be crucified.
Now it’s interesting that Herod and Pilate were enemies. They did not get along at all, but the Scripture says that on that day they became friends. They said that the man whom we hate has to be put away, and we need each other in order to do it. Let’s lay aside our differences to get rid of Christ.
And then it says here in verse 27 that there were the Gentiles. The Gentiles! Those were the Romans who actually ended up crucifying Christ, and of course, the nation Israel who rejected Him. And why did they reject Him? Was it because of theological difficulties, because He claimed to be God, and they couldn’t handle it – their theology couldn’t? No, that isn’t the reason.
Pilate, who had his ear to the ground and was apparently a great student of human nature and picked up the scuttlebutt, is the one who gives us the answer. The Bible says that Pilate knew that it was because of envy that they delivered Him. Jesus made the religious leaders look bad, and because of that jealousy, and because the crowds were going with Christ, and people were turning away from the scribes and the Pharisees, and they saw His popularity, and they were so angry, they said, “Get Him out of our way.” And that was the motivation to have Him crucified.
Well, I have a question for you. Was it a gamble? Might it be that it won’t happen? What if Jesus came and they wouldn’t crucify Him and the prophecies of God could not be fulfilled? “After all,” said someone, “God is a gambler.” Well I want you to notice that it says in verse 28, “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Don’t be afraid of that word predestined. It simply means predetermined. There wasn’t a chance in the world that it would happen other than the way the script was written.
Well, you say, “Yeah, but – human responsibility, human free will.” And I hope you realize that I’m not going to speak on solving that dilemma today, or else we’d be here a little longer than you intended to stay when you came here. All that I can say is that in the Bible we need to live with the tension that on one hand we are not puppets, but we actually do have wills and we act voluntarily as Herod did. If you went up to Herod and said, “Herod, why are you delivering Christ over?” would he say, “Well, I feel the pressure of a divine decree?” No, he did it because he wanted to. He acted voluntarily, so we need to live with that, and then we also need to live with the fact that whatever God wills comes to pass, and we have to live with that tension and recognize that there are some mysteries here that we will never possibly solve.
But here’s my point. When Jesus Christ died in history now, and the script of heaven became a reality, the Scripture says that God set Him forth to be a propitiation for our sins, to declare first of all the justice of God. That’s what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 3. God wanted to declare the fact that He was totally just, that He could not overlook sin, that if He wanted to redeem sinners, every single sin had to be accounted for and paid for – meticulously just and the cross of Christ proves that – to prove His justice and to prove His love because He would not have had to die at all. In other words, God could have been just by letting all of humanity go its way and be lost forever. There was no necessary reason to redeem us apart from love. And that’s why we say with such enthusiasm that God loved the world. And aren’t you glad He did?
And then His wisdom – His wisdom of how this dilemma could be solved, that on the one hand we are sinners and cannot be received by God, and on the other hand that He is so holy that indeed there can be no bridge, no fellowship. And the dilemma was solved by the coming of Christ when God came Himself onto the stage of history.
Remember the Roman poet Horace used to criticize Greek plays because whenever the plot got so tangled that they needed to untangle it, they would bring a god onto the stage. And Horace said, “Sometimes you are bringing a god onto the stage too quickly, before the plot is so tangled that it can’t be undone.” Well, I want you to know that this plot needed a god, and God came.
We’ve talked about the cross in the heart of God from the beginning of eternity. We’ve talked about the cross in history, and the players as the script was enacted. What about the future? Is that the end of the cross? No, we have to speak briefly about the cross now in heaven. Take your Bibles and turn to Revelation 5. In chapter 4 God is seen on the throne, but in chapter 5 there is a scroll that is written on. On both sides it is so full of information. It is the script. It is God’s script of history as to how it is all going to end, and no one can open this book. They can’t open the seals because it is hidden. Only the One who wrote the script knows its contents and can enact it and make sure that it is carried out.
And so because John is involved here emotionally, wondering who is going to open this book, he says, “I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” There is the cross!
It is frequently said that when we get to heaven, yes, we will see the nail pierced hands because Thomas was invited to see them. And there it is! A lamb as if he had been put to death! He is living but He still has the scars of that event that took place in history just outside of the walls of the city of Jerusalem. And I want you to notice that now we see the audience that was participating in this play, because there is a new song that has been written.
Roy Clements points out in a message that the cross of Jesus Christ changes the unchangeable. It even changes heaven. A new song has to be written with new creativity, with a new way in which to worship because the Lamb is there on the throne, the Lamb who is God. And notice what they sing when they sing this new song. Verses 9 and 10 say, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain (There’s the cross.), and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and (notice what it says) you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Now there’s a kingdom that is not going to be shaken no matter who wins a political election.
Do you see now that if it were not for that cross, if it were not for the Lamb that was slain, these people would be indistinguishable from all of the other people in the world because they would not be redeemed? The cross was in the heart of God. The cross in history becomes the focal point of history and the cross of Christ is going to be represented in heaven forever by those of us who have been redeemed by its purchase and its blood. That’s why the cross is God’s priority.
You know, on earth it is sometimes said that it is not what you know, but it’s who you know. That’s true in heaven too. When you get to heaven you want to know the right person, and the right person to know is Jesus Christ. You know Him here on earth and He will take you to heaven to be with Him. It’s not how much you know. It is whom you know, and Christ is the center of it all.
Now what I need to do is to end today by giving you three very important lessons that I trust will be branded upon our hearts.
Number one, redemption, not political reformation, is obviously God’s priority. I need to say that again. Redemption, not political reformation, is God’s priority. Now, you don’t need to think that I am asking that we withdraw from the political process. Here in America we have the privilege to be involved, and we should be involved. Christians should be running for office, but hear me very carefully. Even that must be subject to God’s larger purpose, and for the purpose of being a mirror to display the wonder of God’s love to fallen humanity, because what we are interested in is not merely changes that might take place in the world today, but we are interested in eternity. We are interested in the vision that John had of heaven where you had people from every tongue and people and nation participating.
It’s not our responsibility to see whether or not we can shout louder than others, or whether we can take up our political muscle and therefore control a political party because they had better march to our agenda, or whether we have our Christian agenda adopted. That has its place somewhere if it is done carefully, but that is not God’s agenda. That’s not the thing to which we should be giving our energy, our attention, our time, our money and our focus. We have a higher purpose. We indeed look for that city whose builder and maker is God. And we should not come across to society as those who are hostile, those who can shout just as loud as somebody else, and those who whine like babies because our rights are stepped on. The rights of Christians have always been stepped on throughout two thousand years of history.
Christ’s rights were stepped on, and that was the whole message of the cross. It’s interesting. I wonder if those who believe in political salvation have ever taken the time to ask the simple question, “How did Jesus and a small band of His followers actually transform their culture, and transform their society through the proclamation of the Gospel?” How did that happen?
I believe that we have lost confidence in God’s ability to save America through the cross. We don’t think that He does that anymore and we’re not seeing it happen. And therefore we think that God can’t, and we cast about for some solution that is going to deliver us and restore us. And God is bringing us back to the basics to God’s own priority. So that’s number one.
Number two: All nations, not just one nation, but all nations are a part of God’s program and comprise His agenda. Verse 9 says, “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” You say, “Well surely, there’s a very special little part of heaven that’s reserved just for America.” Well, maybe there is but that’s not what the text tells us. Do you realize that God’s agenda is much greater than saving the American dream? There are people from Brazil and from Russia, and from China and from all the nations of the earth because God’s vision for this world is transnational. And it includes people of every color, and people of every nation, and of every tribe that has ever existed. And that is God’s agenda for the world, and that should be our agenda for the world as well. The best thing we can do is to get in line with the director, the Man who wrote the script (the One who wrote the script), and be in line with His agenda.
Lastly, and of course I’ve already said it, it is the Church, and not a political party, that is the bearer of this message. I want you to know today that the future of America does not rest with a political election. The future of America much more rests with the people of God, and always will. It is we who are called to be salt and light, and even a candle. Even a match in a very dark cave can give a tremendous amount of light. And we need not decry the fact that we do not have enough numbers possibly to always do what we want to do politically. We may work toward that goal. But that’s not a means of discouragement because we recognize that at the end of the day we have a message, which can grow and can be in the lives of people and grant them eternal life. And if God should be pleased, this nation can have a great spiritual awakening, with men and women all over the place turning to Christ.
You say, “Well, is it going to happen?” I don’t know whether it’s going to happen. We certainly don’t deserve it. I don’t believe that Christians are desperate yet. That’s why we find it so hard to get people to pray today because we still are not in a condition that is bad enough for them to be that concerned. So we do not know, but what we know is that we must stick with God’s agenda.
Take, for example, England. Do you know that there was a time in English history when things were so bad that they would have to shut down parliament during the afternoon because the members were too drunk to continue? Children were being abused in factories, and working long hours, and they were being rejected, and the decadence was all over the place. And then what did God do? He raised up the Wesley brothers, and you had The Great Awakening, and that awakening, by the way, had its effects here in America. And we think of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards.
We do not know whether God will do that again, but this much we do know. That is ultimately God’s means of restoring us. It is through His cross. You see, God gives us the cross, and when we believe on the cross and receive what Jesus did for us there, as a payment for sinners, then what happens is God gives us Himself. God comes to us. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself. What we must do is to have the same boldness as the early churches who were so deeply convinced that this message could change lives. Nothing could stop them as they proclaimed it around the world. And we stand now in their history and in their train.
Will you join me as we pray? Father, we pray that there may be those who, in this moment, are believing on Christ as Savior. We pray that you will give them the grace to reach out and say, “Lord Jesus, I’ve sinned. I cannot be reconciled to you apart from Christ. I accept Him.” Enable them to reach out. Father, for those of us who know Him we pray that during these days we might use every opportunity to represent Him well, to tell men and women that there is only one name by which you can be saved, and that is the glorious name of Christ. Grant us that vision of the cross we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.