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What Is God Up To?

Dying A Winner

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 18, 1990

Selected highlights from this sermon

God set a grand plan into motion, and in keeping with His attributes, it sent Jesus on a lowly path to a cross. 

While humanity saw injustice, indignity, and shame at the cross, God actually made Himself known through Christ’s suffering. It was God’s greatest moment.  

There was a Roman poet by the name of Horace who was giving some guidelines for play writers in his day, and he criticized them for too readily bringing a god onto the stage to solve the complicated plot they had created. Said this Roman poet, Horace, “Do not bring a god on the stage unless the problem deserves a god to solve it.”

Well, if you’ve been listening to these messages, you know that we have a problem that only God is able to solve. And I’ve been emphasizing that the earth actually is like a stage, and there is a drama that has been played out. And you have all of the different characters participating, and God created the stage, and then He created a wonderful canopy called the whole universe. And this drama is being played out on this little small planet – issues of justice and injustice, righteousness, light versus darkness. It’s all happening right here, and the angels are watching, and God is watching, and the demons are watching and we are watching as the play is enacted. But there is a problem on planet earth that only God can solve, and we must bring Him onto the stage.

Let me take a moment to review with you who the players are. First of all, there is Satan, of course, that strong, powerful, beautiful evil being, who chose against God and decided that he would not let God rule over him. And along with him, there were tens of thousands of lesser spirits, called demons, which do his bidding, who are party to his absurdities. And they fell too in rebellion against God. And then, of course, you have mankind. Remember what happened there in the garden when Adam and Eve decided to participate with Satan in their rebellion and anger toward God, and they ate of the fruit, and they became participants in standing against the sovereignty of Almighty God.

What could God do in this situation? What are His options? One of the options would be for God to take all of humanity and all the forces of Satan, confine them to hell, and allow them to think throughout all of eternity about the serious blunder of rebellion that they created for themselves. That would be one option.

Now if God were to do that, I want to affirm the fact that He would be totally just and that throughout all of eternity all the universe would stand in awe of the justice of Almighty God. But there would be a problem if God would have done that, and that is that only one of His attributes would really clearly be seen – two actually. In the creation of the universe, God showed us His mighty awesome power, and in creating beings that would choose against Him and confining them to everlasting torment, He would be showing us His justice. But that is really all that the universe would see of God. So God decided that there would be another plan, one that would display His mercy, and His grace, and His love, and all the other attributes combined to make God. These attributes also would be given specific, glorious expression.

Now I am sure that when Satan asked Adam and Eve to sin and tempted them to do that, and then they did exactly what he wanted, he had no idea that God was going to redeem part of the human race back to Himself and reverse the curse. Satan didn’t know that. In his glee and in his excitement, he thought to himself that now that man had chosen to stand against God, that the curse would be universal. Everyone who would be born would be tainted with sin from here on out, and therefore consigned to everlasting rebellion and anger against God. That’s what he thought, but God had a plan – a secret plan. And Satan began to see the outworking of that plan, as we noticed in the message last week.

But now we see the plan come to its completion. What are the rules by which this plan is going to be executed? First of all, the Lord knew that whatever would be done to redeem a part of humanity back to God – whatever was done would have to be done totally and wholly by God. Salvation would have to be of the Lord. Obviously God could not look to man to participate because, first of all, men and women are tainted with sin, and God is inexpressibly holy, and therefore any righteousness that people might want to contribute toward this would of necessity be disqualified. The only righteousness that God accepts is His own. Salvation would have to be of the Lord.

There’s a second rule, and that is that none of the attributes of God could ever be compromised. There could be no such thing as God looking at sin and then compromising His holiness and His integrity in salvation. That we know to be the case! There was no possibility of God bending just because we’re sinners.

Now how did God do it? You know how we would have done it? We would have ordered a media campaign. We would have gotten a newsman, an advance press corp. We would have invited the hosts of the universe. We would have invited angels and demons and all of humanity, and God would have said, “Guess what I’m going to do, and I want everybody to watch,” and we’re going to have live huge screens by which the world will be able to watch because God is coming to town. That’s the way we’d have done it.

But God, who loves to do things differently than we, whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and whose ways are not our ways, does it entirely different. Here’s a little sleepy town (that some of us visited this June), six miles south of Jerusalem, called Bethlehem, and here’s this peasant couple that comes to Bethlehem, and the Redeemer is born in Bethlehem, who is the Son of God, who was both God and man, because a third rule was that God would accept no sacrifice on behalf of humanity unless it was given by a part of humanity, namely a man.

And here this baby is born, a helpless baby if you please, a baby who participated in creation, who throughout all of eternity was used to having the hosts of heaven saying, “Holy, holy holy!” He is a helpless baby who needs His diapers changed, born there in Bethlehem. And then He grows up and becomes a man, and He does some miracles, and He preaches some fantastic sermons, and people want to shove Him over the cliff. Other people want to destroy Him in other ways. They are taking up stones to stone Him, but God prevents Him from dying before the time when He is scheduled to die.

And then finally all the wrath of humanity descends upon Him, and they get their wish, and they take this man who was an irritation to them, primarily because He was making the religious leaders look bad, and they nail Him to a cross, and everybody who is party to that scheme shouts, “Good riddance! He’s gone!”

Just take your Bible for a moment and turn to Luke 23. We could read any one of the Gospels and read the account of Christ’s death, but I’ve chosen Luke 23 just to refresh your memory of how it went.

Luke 23:32-41: “And two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since And we indeed are justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Just that far for a moment.

You know, people say, “Oh I wish I was there in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.” I tell you, I’m not sure if I wish that because I don’t know. I might be among those who are hurling insults at Him. You know, apart from God’s grace I’m just bad enough to do that. I may have been on the wrong side of Christ when He was here on earth. A lot of (quote) good religious people were on the wrong side.

Now I want us to look today first of all at the cross through the eyes of mankind. Let’s suppose that you had a video recorder and you were going to tape this and you were going to use segments of it in the evening news. And you wanted to follow the last few days of Jesus Christ when He was here on earth. What is it that you would see as you’d see Him mocked and crucified?

First of all, you’d see a tremendous amount of injustice without any vindication. He takes it all. We don’t have time to do it this morning, but when you read the accounts, you can see that He had a very unfair trial. Unfair! And He had no attorney to appeal to. He had nobody to go to for help. He was falsely accused. The charges were made up and there was no investigation as to whether or not the charges were true. They were only too quickly believed. And He endured it. He was the proverbial doormat. “As a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He opens not His mouth.” He was taken from prison and from judgment and He endured it all, and He did not say anything. He just took it. What a loser!

Not only injustice but also shame! Shame! You know, just remember, folks, that this is Jesus who in heaven was used to hearing all the hosts of angels shout, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts!” That expression has as its object Jesus Christ, as well as God the Father. And He’s heard it all, and He comes to the earth and He is despised and rejected. His clothes are torn off. He’s kicked. “Move it, Jew boy! Get with it! What’s your problem? Carry your cross.” He was shouted at and mocked, and then when He is crucified, He is crucified naked, and people are able to walk by and to hurl abuse at Him, and insults, and nothing happens to stop it. It goes on and on and on. Shame – powerlessness! That’s what we’d see. We’d see injustice and shame. We’d also see death without any dignity at all.

In fact, when He is there on the cross and they offer Him some wine, hoping that possibly some of the sting of death and those nails would be alleviated, He rejects it because He wants to die with a full capacity of all of His powers intact. And He says, “no,” and there is no death with dignity. What an awful, gory sight!

One of our problems as Christians is that we magnify the cross because we don’t want to see it in all of its horror, so we have nice, neat, beautiful crosses made for churches, crosses that are built with right angles, and then they are sawed and they are sanded, and then they are varnished and they look so smooth and so nice. Rid your mind of such nonsense. We’re talking about a cross that was a tree trunk. And then the cross beam was a branch - rough, un-sanded. It was awful, and we’re talking about huge, ugly nails. That’s what we’re talking about.

You look at Jesus Christ with your video recorder because you want to do an analysis of His last week on earth, and there are only one or two words that can possibly describe it, and they are words like failure, words like defeat. It’s all over, and even the disciples ran away and said, “We guess we were deceived. We followed Him. We hoped that it would be He who would deliver Israel, but He was not the deliverer because just look at Him now.” Awful, gory death!

That’s the cross from man’s standpoint. From God’s standpoint something quite different was taking place at that moment. Quite different! You know, the Bible says in Luke 23:44-45, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Why darkness? It’s because the worst criminal who had ever walked planet earth was dying. It was a terrible death. What is the worst sin that you can think of? You think murder is bad? You think Stalin and his death camps were bad? Wanton cruelty is bad? This man who was being crucified between two common thieves was guilty of that in all of its horror. Oh, I know there are some women here today who say, “Well, that’s not the worst thing that you could possibly do. Death is one thing. Rape is worse when a woman is violated and humiliated.” And now suddenly the man who was dying there on the middle cross, He is a rapist of all things.

Somebody says, “Well, that’s still not bad. What about child abusers – child molesters? What about them?” I got a letter from one of them on Friday. I told you that our radio ministry touches prisons, and I’m just astounded by the number of letters we receive. He said, “I listened to your sermon over the radio station WMBW yesterday. You spoke on abused children. I found it helpful, but I need to ask you how does the one who has offended the little ones receive peace? You see, I’m in prison. I received a life sentence plus 185 years. I was charged with rape, but what really happened was that I had sex with four little boys, ages 7 to 12. I’ve been locked up for ten years.” And he goes on to say, “I want to go to heaven forever and be with Christ.” That’s what he says, but he says, “I still feel guilty, and even though I’ve confessed my sin, sometimes I don’t feel forgiven.”

But I say to myself, what kind of a person can molest little children? It makes you so mad you’d like to spit. Who can do that? And then if that isn’t enough, you think about child abuse, like that little girl who was locked in the closet. She cries for help. She’s five years old, and she is beaten and she is neglected, and she is whipped until she dies, and we say, “God, how can you take it?” And the man who is dying there on the cross is guilty of it, if you can believe it. No wonder it became dark.

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut its glories in,
when Christ, the great Redeemer, died
for man, the creature’s sin.

It so happens that He Himself never committed a single sin. He was without sin. He was spotless, but the Bible says, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of us all,” and He became guilty of all of it in all of its horror and terribleness. And that’s how He died.

What I’d like to do is to show you now how the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s greatest moment. You say, “Oh, I thought that the creation of the world was.” Listen, if all that we had was creation, and all that we’d ever know about God is His power, we’d never know about His grace. If He had consigned mankind to hell, we’d have known His justice but we’d have never seen His grace and compassion.

It is there on the cross (in what mankind may well describe as the darkest hour) that God’s attributes, like a kaleidoscope, were lit up in all of their glory and beauty and wonder so that even the angels of heaven were looking over and seeing what was happening and saying, “We can’t believe it. This is God at his finest hour.”

What are the attributes? First of all, Paul says in Romans 3:25, “God set Christ forth to declare His righteousness.” That’s the first purpose of the cross. You say, “I always thought that the cross was designed to save me.” Listen, the first purpose of the cross is for God to declare to the world His righteousness. It says that Christ was set forth publicly to declare the righteousness of God, because you see, God was serving notice throughout all of the universe at that moment that there was no such thing as Him being able to forgive a single sinner unless payment was fully made for that sin.

So this man (who is an abuser) writes me from prison (we often talk about those who are abused but we’re talking here about an abuser) about how an abuser can be forgiven without God compromising His justice one iota. The only way that that could happen is that there be a payment that would be complete enough and whole enough that men like this (and like us who could do the same thing) could be thoroughly and totally acquitted by God, and God’s reputation remains intact. That’s what “the righteousness of God was set forth” means.

Years ago there were some atheists who wrote a tract to mock God. And in the tract they said, “What kind of a God has friends like the God of the Bible?” They said, “Here’s Abraham who told a lie to save his own skin, and he’s called a friend of God. Here’s Jacob who is nothing but a cheater, and he’s called a prince of God.” And then they said, “There is Moses who was a murderer and a fugitive, and he stands up and he tells people, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ and God uses him.” And then David came in for the most severe criticism. They said, “Here’s an adulterer and a murderer who is a man after God’s own heart. What kind of a God is that?” And you know, in their perverse way, the atheists had a point. What kind of a God does associate with people like this? If a man is known by his friends, what kind of a God are we talking about?

Friend, the primary purpose of the cross is to remove the scandal from God’s name and to clear His name. That’s what He is saying. And because of the fact that Jesus died and a payment was made for sin so that therefore God can acquit the guilty and still, Paul says, “remain absolutely just and untainted,” that’s the first purpose of the cross. It’s to rid God of scandal. The righteousness of God is revealed.

Secondly, the truth of God is revealed in the cross. God was saying, “I’m not going to turn the other way just because of man’s sin. We’re not going to sweep it under the rug. We’re not going to pretend that nothing happened, or pretend that it’s all okay.” He said, “I am going to look at sin with all of its horror, with all of its indiscretions, with all of the tearing that it brings about to the human race, and I’m going to face it squarely and totally through one offering, perfecting forever those who are sanctified. I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it right.” The truth of God!

We see the mercy of God! And let me add to that attribute also the grace of God because, you see, here’s what happened. Now that God had taken care of all of the legal red tape, now that man could stand acquitted in the sight of God, declared justified, God says, “Now there’s no limit to what I can do for you because My own reputation is thus protected without compromising my holiness. I can give you so many gifts.”

“He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things.” I can even make you an heir of God and a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. That’s what I can do.

You see, Jesus Christ took all those things upon Himself, which He did not deserve, so that you’d get a whole lot of things that you didn’t deserve, like the peace of Christ and the forgiveness of God, and like assurance of your salvation, and your name written in heaven - all those things which you don’t deserve because He bore what He didn’t deserve, namely your ugly hideous sin. And so God becomes merciful and grace means that because of what Jesus did on the cross, God can say to you, “Look, I can receive you and welcome you. I can become compassionate to you,” and nobody can point a finger and say, “Well, what kind of a God can be compassionate with evil sins?” It’s all taken care of.

You have also the love of God. What does it say in John 3:16? It says, “For God so loved the world that He gave.” God says, “This is an expression of the fact that I can love at high cost.” It’s so easy to say to somebody, “I love you,” but you know, of course, that proof of that is sacrificial action, and God says not just, “I love you,” because talk is cheap. He says, “I love you and I’m proving it. I’m giving you My Son.”

And then we can see the power of God at the cross. You see, because Jesus Christ was put into a tomb, and then He was raised, and the Bible talks about the power of God, and it’s not just the physical power of God raising a body from the dead. Jesus had already done that in his own ministry in the resurrection of Lazarus. There was more involved than that. It’s because, you see, Satan wanted to keep Christ dead because it says in the book of Hebrews that He has the power of death. That is, the devil has the power of death. He wanted to keep Jesus there. He inspired those people to put a stone over the tomb, and He says, “Set a guard there. Make sure that He doesn’t get out. He’s dead, but let’s keep Him dead.” And Jesus, in a tremendous victory over those evil forces, was raised from the dead, and then He was ascended into heaven, and seated at the right hand of God the Father so that the entire universe would marvel at the awesome, awesome power of God – undisputed power.

And did you know that every time somebody is saved, God’s creative power goes to work and does a miracle. If you are visiting with us here today, I want you to know that we here at The Moody Church believe that it is possible for people to be saved, and we claim that we are saved because of God’s mercy and grace. It says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” Did you know that God’s creative activity when you accepted Christ as your Savior was just as much involved in your conversion as the creation of the sun, the moon and the stars? That’s right! He’s the same creative, active God. That’s why the Bible talks about salvation as resurrection. It talks about the new creation. It’s because God does a miracle. He creates something out of nothing and gives us a new nature within. So the cross magnifies the power of God. It magnifies the wisdom of God.

Just think this through. Isn’t the cross the greatest crime that has ever been committed on planet earth, taking an innocent person and not giving him a trial, somebody who did nothing but good, and then cruelly nailing him to the cross and then mocking him while he’s dying? I mean, how low-down can you get? Somebody who incidentally happened to be the Son of God too, and who did a whole host of miracles to prove it! The cross is terrible. And yet, think of what God did with it. He made something so glorious that we sing “In the cross of Christ I glory.” Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross.” Paul says, “I don’t have anything to boast about except I love to boast about the cross.”

Paul, you’re telling me that you love to boast about this hideous crime? “Yep, sure do! Greatest thing that ever happened on planet earth!” Well listen, it takes a God to take a mess and a crime like the cross and turn it into such a river of blessing that throughout tens of centuries people would still sing about it and cling to the goodness of the cross and be lost in its wonder and grace. It takes a God to take the Gentiles and Herod and Pilate and all of those people and to have their wills so converge that they think that what they are doing is simply because they want to do it, and lo and behold they are crucifying Jesus Christ at exactly the right time that God had predicted. In fact, He died when the Passover lambs were being slain, right at the very moment that God wanted Him to die. No human being can pull that off. It’s the wisdom and the grace and the power of God.

That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 2 that throughout all of eternity when we are in heaven, we are going to be God’s showpiece so that throughout all the ages people may marvel at the wisdom of God. He pulled it off.

Lastly, and of course summing it all up, there was the glory of God that is seen in the cross. The word glory means weight, or heaviness of God. We speak about there being a weighty topic that’s being discussed. Well God is weighty. He is what this universe is all about. And in the cross, therefore, all of His attributes have come into focus.

You know, it’s interesting that when the Bible talks about the creation of the stars, what does it say? It says that the stars were made with His fingers. It just went like this. Poof! And then He went like that (snaps fingers) and there were hundreds of billions of stars.

In Isaiah 52:10 when it speaks about salvation, it says “The Lord has laid forth and bared His mighty arm.” He’s made it bare because God is using His arm. If I may put it somewhat imprecisely, but I think you will get the point, there was more of God seen at the cross than in creation. And God was on display. There was a tangle that no one could possibly untangle, and then God came and pulled it off.

You know I read this story in Luke and I am reminded of something. But before I tell you what I’m reminded of, I do need to throw in the footnote here that you should remember. I have never yet seen anyone die who did not die looking gruesome. You look at Jesus Christ’s death here on the cross. It was not a pretty picture. It was not the kind of thing that I like to see. I don’t like to see suffering. I don’t like to see pain. I don’t like to see people in anguish, and yet I’ve seen men who were 200 pounds, who were inflicted with cancer, and they ended up being 90 pounds before they died, and it just looks awful. But you see, that’s what we see. Just like there are all kinds of things going on in the spirit world here when Jesus dies in weakness and shame and humiliation, in the very same way when believers in Jesus Christ die, I wish that we could see them five minutes after they have died, and we’d be absolutely overwhelmed with the contrast. We’d say, “You know what we are seeing isn’t reality at all.” God would say, “Yes, that’s right. It’s not reality. This is what’s happening on earth, but if your eyes were opened and you saw the spirit world, you’d be rejoicing that this person was taken to glory.” It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

But now back to the text. Do you know that humanity is divided into two huge groups? And the groups are not men and women, although there are important distinctions between men and women. The two groups are not blacks and whites. The two groups are not rich and poor, educated and uneducated or east versus west. All of those divisions are interesting but not determinative. But the human race is divided into two groups. And those two groups are epitomized here by the two people who are crucified with Jesus Christ.

On the one hand you have one man deriding Christ and saying, “If You are the Son of God, do something.” It’s just like some of the people with whom you work down in the Loop who say, “Well, if God is God, then why doesn’t He do something about what’s happening in the Middle East? Why doesn’t He do something about Africa? Why doesn’t He do something about all of the earthquakes and the floods? I mean, you believe in God? Well, where is He? Why doesn’t He come and save Himself and us?” Well, that’s one segment of humanity.

Then there’s another segment of humanity that says, “We are receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus turns to him and says, “Truly, truly I say to you. Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

There’s Jesus dying on that cross, and on one side there is someone who is saying, “If You are the Son of God, do something. If You are as big as You think You are then what’s wrong?” And there you have another man who is saying, “I’m a sinner. Oh God, remember me.” And Jesus said that you are going to die today and we are going to be together in Paradise.”

I marvel at the faith of this man, to put so much confidence in somebody who was in a position that was as bad as his own. Jesus didn’t look any better than the other two guys who were dying. He probably looked worse, more helpless. And he says, “Though He’s dying or not (remove or not?) I’m going to believe in Him anyway. I’m not going to look at what He looks like physically. I’m going to just believe that He is the Son of God, and I’m going to trust Him no matter how much of a failure He seems to be at this moment.” And Jesus said, “You are in the kingdom, Friend. We’ll be together in Paradise.”

What about you today? I wish that I could tell you that when Jesus died on the cross He reconciled all of humanity to Himself. He did not! There is no question but that there are only few people proportionately on planet earth who will take advantage of Christ. Do you know that there are a lot of people who say to themselves, “I’ve been baptized in the church; I’ve been confirmed by the church; I have sung in choirs; I have given money,” and they will be excluded from the Kingdom because they do not understand the nature of what happened at the cross. They think that if they contribute their part and then God comes along and contributes His part, and they punt the ball to His mercy, they are going to be in. No way! The only ones who are saved are those who say, “Oh God, I’m so helpless, I can’t save myself. You don’t accept human righteousness. I look to Jesus Christ alone. Oh remember me when I come into your kingdom. I will believe in Him.”

In California, some time ago there was a man who was speeding. He was taken to court, and he pleaded guilty. The judge issued a sentence, and after the judge issued the sentence, he went around and stood with the man and paid the sentence for him. And that’s what the Gospel is all about.

God says, “I have so much righteousness that I require that if you even knew how holy I was, you’d be blown away. You couldn’t stand before Me. And I’m demanding that kind of righteousness before I can let you into heaven. It’s a righteousness that you cannot supply.” But when Jesus died on the cross, He supplied the kind of righteousness that I need. He says, “Because I am God I issue the sentence, and because I am God I pay the sentence.” And so God, the Son, pays it to God, the Father, and now God says, “What you need to do is to admit your helplessness and believe, and apart from that you are lost forever. Eternally on display, showing the justice of God in everlasting torment versus those who believe, displaying the grace and the mercy of God in the midst of human need and undeservedness! That’s what it’s about. Have you savingly believed? Let us pray.

Father, we thank You today that there are people who are dying with AIDS with the absolute assurance that they will be with You. We thank You today that there are people who are dying of cancer, who are dying of all kinds of diseases, that have believed in Christ, the Son of the Living God, who bore all that ugliness for those who believe. We pray today that there may be no one who feels excluded. There may be child abusers listening to this message, or maybe those who have done terrible, terrible things. Help them to understand that Jesus became all those terrible things. And today we pray that we might rush to point out to people the wonder and the glory and magnitude of the cross. Thank you, Father.

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