Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Meaning of the Cross, Part 3

* The following is a sermon, the third in a series that I wrote as Lenten reflections. I don't usually post sermons here, because (at least in my practice) they work better as a spoken medium, and this blog is devoted to the written medium. But they do give a good look at the significance of Christ's death on the cross, so I offer them here as a fitting follow-up to our recent celebration of Holy Week.

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This week we continue with our series of reflections on the Cross. We’ve already seen how Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross won the forgiveness of our sins, and how his act of obedience on the Cross began the healing of our sin natures. But the Bible has even more to say about the meaning of the Cross and what Jesus accomplished there. And today we’ll look at one of the themes that is not quite so commonly talked about, but it’s a theme that’s all through the New Testament. Today we look at Jesus’ death on the Cross and his Resurrection as his triumph over the power of Satan and death. In theological terms, this view of the Cross is called “Christus Victor,” which just means “Christ Victorious.” So not only is the Cross the symbol of pain and humility and sacrifice, the Cross is also the symbol of victory and glory and triumph.

Since this is a less-familiar theme than the other ones that we’ve covered, I’ve decided not to focus on one particular passage. Instead, I’ve selected a number of verses from throughout the New Testament, just to give us a picture of how widespread this interpretation of the Cross really is. You’ll find the verses printed out on an insert in your bulletin, so that you won’t have to spend all sermon flipping back and forth in your Bible. Normally, I don’t like to do sermons this way—pulling verses out of their original context—but I want to say up front that I feel that the meaning that I’m going to draw out of these verses is faithful to what the original authors intended.

As we begin to think about this theme, I thought I’d start with a literary example. How many of you are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the first in his Chronicles of Narnia series? For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, let me give a brief recap of the storyline. C. S. Lewis himself was a faithful Christian, and he wrote those books to be allegories of the Christian gospel, and it’s the clearest in the first book. In the story, four children stumble into a magical fantasy world called Narnia, but they find that it’s enslaved to the power of the White Witch, who keeps it always winter. But as they travel through Narnia, they hear whispers about the great lion, Aslan—the rightful ruler of the land—and they hear that he’s gathering an army to challenge the White Witch’s power. As the story goes on, winter slowly begins to lose its hold on Narnia—the snow starts melting, trees start producing leaves—all because Aslan has arrived, and the power of the White Witch is melting away. And then at the climax of the story, Aslan gives himself up to be killed in place of one of the children. So the White Witch kills Aslan on the Stone Table, and it’s very much like a picture of the Crucifixion. And then, the next morning, Aslan comes back to life, the Stone Table breaks, and Aslan actually goes and storms the White Witch’s castle and frees all the prisoners there. Then there’s the final battle scene, where Aslan and his followers defeat her once and for all. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story, with hundreds of connections to the Gospel. But I bring it up to point out that C. S. Lewis wrote it with this view of the Cross—the Christus Victor view—primarily in mind. Aslan’s sacrifice does more than just take the place of one of the children; it seals the White Witch’s defeat. The whole story is about Aslan’s glorious overthrow of the White Witch’s power, from start to finish. And I think C. S. Lewis had it right—when we look at the story of the Gospel, we should remember that the forgiveness of our sins is only part of the story. The love of God extends so far that Jesus did even more on the Cross. He did the unimaginable—he broke the power of evil forever. We can think about the life of Jesus Christ as an invasion, just like Aslan’s. He came to a world that was rightfully his, but which was under the power of a usurping tyrant—Satan. And wherever he went, he was fighting against the power of Satan. And then, finally, he broke Satan’s power and the power of death through what he did at the Cross, and through his Resurrection.

1.) Jesus defeated Satan on the Cross

So our first point for the morning is just that: Jesus defeated Satan on the Cross. And please keep in mind, this was all for our sake. In the same way that we were slaves to sin, as I said last week, we were also slaves to the power of Satan. The New Testament tells us over and over again that we were all under the “dominion of darkness.” And we needed to be set free—we needed someone to invade the dominion of darkness and to bring us out into the kingdom of light. Jesus defeated Satan on the Cross, and he did it to set us free.

But let’s take a step back. Who—or what—is Satan? He doesn’t get talked about very much nowadays, and the vast majority of our culture doesn’t believe that he actually exists. But according to Scripture, the person of Satan is very much a reality. And he’s not some goofy creature wearing red tights and holding a pitchfork—he is a spiritual enemy that has set himself up against the kingdom of God. According to tradition, Satan was created as one of God’s highest angels, and his name was Lucifer. But he and a group of other angels rebelled against the rule of God, and they were cast down. (This is why they’re sometimes called “fallen angels.) So Lucifer became Satan, the devil, and the angels who followed him became demons. They are spiritual beings, just as angels are, but they are still in rebellion and set themselves against God and his people.

And this is where we come into the story. According to tradition, the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden was none other than the person of Satan. And when Adam and Eve sinned, humanity decided to follow Satan’s path and defy God’s command. So we all became co-opted into Satan’s rebellion, and we became slaves to his power. Every time people sin, they yield their God-given sovereignty and freedom to Satan. The New Testament has some pretty chilling things to say about the power that Satan now holds. Paul calls him “the god of this world” and “the ruler of the power of the air.” And Jesus calls him “the Prince of this present age.”

Now, there’s a common misconception we have to clear up at this point. Although God has allowed Satan to gain some power here on earth, over the souls of people, Satan is not the equal of God. Some people have this idea that God and Satan are evenly matched—as if Satan was just God’s evil counterpart. But that’s entirely false. Satan is a created being, and God is uncreated. God is omnipotent—possessing infinite power; but Satan is not. Satan is limited, and even though he’s in rebellion, he can still only do what God allows him to do, as we see in the book of Job. The truth is, God could wipe out Satan at any time if he wanted to. And you may ask, “Well, why doesn’t he?” And here’s the answer of the Cross: He already has! God didn’t leave this problem unresolved. He has crushed Satan’s power because of his love for us, but in his wisdom he chose to do it through self-sacrifice, on the Cross, rather than through brute force.

If we think about it carefully, a great deal of Jesus’ ministry was aimed towards this end. And this is important. If the only reason for Jesus coming was to forgive our sins, then the Crucifixion is the only thing that mattered—he didn’t need to waste so much time teaching and healing. He could have just gone and died, and that would have been all we needed. But this view of the Cross reminds us that the whole life of Jesus is significant for our salvation. Every part of his ministry leading up to the Cross is a part of his war against Satan, and as such it is part of the grand story of our freedom.

As soon as Jesus begins his active ministry, the first thing he does is to go into the desert and have a faceoff with Satan. Satan offers him three rounds of temptations, and Jesus refuses every one. And as Jesus travels around with his disciples, one of his main works is in driving out demons and healing people who have diseases that came from evil spirits. He is constantly about the business of fighting Satan’s dominion here on earth. And as the disciples and the other authors of the New Testament reflected back on this pattern later on, the Holy Spirit led them to conclude that beating Satan was a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission, and a fundamental part of what he did on the Cross.

Let’s look at the first few verses printed out on your sheet. It’s hard to say it any plainer than John does in that first verse: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to defeat the devil’s work.” And now look at the second verse. [Read Col. 2:15] Who are the powers and authorities? That’s a debated question, but most scholars think that when Paul uses these words—powers, authorities, rulers, dominions—he’s talking about demons, about spiritual forces of evil. So this verse says that after Jesus had disarmed the demonic powers by his ministry, he triumphed over them in the Cross. This is the irony of the Gospel—that the Cross, which was meant to be a public humiliation for a criminal, turned out to be Christ’s triumph and glory. And now look at the passage from Hebrews. [Read Heb. 2:14-15] What does this mean? It means just what we’ve been saying—that one of the biggest things Jesus accomplished at the Cross was the defeat of Satan’s power and the setting free of those who had been under Satan’s rule.

2.) Jesus defeated Death

But these verses lead us into a second point. Not only did Jesus defeat Satan, but he defeated death itself. Last week we said that sin wasn’t part of God’s original design for humanity. We weren’t meant to be sinful. And the same thing is true of death—it wasn’t part of God’s original design for us. It was sin that brought death into the world. And now, because of sin, humanity suffers both a spiritual death—separation from God—as well as a physical death, the end of our physical life. But we were created for relationship with God, and the only way to really have relationship with an eternal being is to be everlasting yourself. So death was part of the problem—if Jesus was going to open up a way for us to come to God, then he needed to find a way to beat death, so that we too could end up beating death.

In these verses, as well as in much of the New Testament, death is actually seen as some kind of evil spiritual force, holding us in oppression and fear. If you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that there isn’t much there about heaven or everlasting life. There are a few hints here and there, but for the most part, the Jews didn’t know what would happen after death. The Old Testament just talks about going down to Sheol—the grave. But Jesus, through his death and resurrection, tells us that there’s so much more—the grave is not the end, and we have nothing to fear from death. Jesus has beaten the power of death, and now we can be assured that we, too, will be raised from our graves one day. Jesus accepted death even though he didn’t deserve it, but death couldn’t hold him. He rose from the dead, and he is our visible promise that we too can beat death and find everlasting life on the other side.

But now let me pause and address a few concerns. Critics might object at this point. They might ask, well—if death has already been beaten by Jesus, then why are people still dying? For that matter, if Satan has already been beaten by Jesus, then why are Satan and his demons still active in the world?

It’s a good question. The answer is that the church age—where we now live—is an in-between phase in all these things. In his first coming, Jesus sealed the defeat of Satan and death, but their final destruction won’t come until his second coming at the end of time. Look at the next verse on the sheet. [Read 1 Cor. 15:24-26] What this verse says is that even though their fate has been sealed, Jesus is still in the process of making war on Satan, and his ultimate and total defeat won’t come until the end of all things. And then, at the end, that’s when death goes away—the last enemy to be defeated.

So right now, we’re kind of in an in-between time. Jesus has already won the decisive victory, and we already know the end result. Our enemies—Satan and death—they’re still around, but they’ve been dealt a blow from which they can’t possibly recover. Let me use an example from World War II. Almost everything was going Hitler’s way, and he had taken over pretty much the whole of western continental Europe. But then the Allies decided to pull off a daring move. They launched a surprise offensive on the beaches of Normandy, France, and they caught the Germans off-guard. And from that point on, the Allies had won a foothold in Europe. Little by little, they pushed back the German forces until finally, many months later, they won the final surrender at Berlin.

It might not have seemed like it at the time, but D-Day—the invasion of Normandy—that’s when the Allies won the war. Looking back, military scholars look at D-Day and say, “That’s when Hitler lost the war.” And that’s the way it is with Jesus’ war against Satan. When he first came and died on the Cross and rose again, that was D-Day. He invaded Satan’s territory and broke his power. And now the final result is a sure thing. But Satan is still out there, and he’s still fighting. That’s where we live right now—in God’s war, we’re living between D-Day and the final victory. So Satan is still out there, but the decisive battle has already been won. All that’s left is to push him back until finally, at the end of time, his rule will be wiped out forever.

3.) We’re part of Jesus’ war

And this leads me to our third point. Not only did Jesus defeat Satan and death on the Cross, but he made us part of his war. In his love for us, he used the Cross to rescue us from Satan’s power and gave us the blessed hope of beating death through the resurrection. And then, not only did he save us from their power, but he gave us his power and authority to fight on his side of the war. Now we’re not only freed slaves, we’ve been made warriors of the heavenly kingdom. To go back to the Chronicles of Narnia again for just a moment, you can see this theme there too. Not only does the lion Aslan break the White Witch’s power, but he makes the children his warriors and kings and queens. And you can bet that those children didn’t feel up to the task of fighting a war against the White Witch. But with Aslan’s power behind them, they became men and women of tremendous power and authority. And it’s the same with us. Even though Peter Pevensie was just a normal boy in our world, in the spiritual-world of Narnia, he was Peter the Magnificent. And you, friends—no matter who you are, no matter how you feel—don’t look down on yourself; don’t think that you’re worthless. Jesus gives us incredible power and authority and makes us kings and queens and generals and warriors in his army. And if you take up his call and fight Satan’s power with prayer and good deeds and love of others, then you can be a central player in this magnificent adventure, and God can do extraordinary things through you.

Look at these verses. The first is a familiar passage from Eph. 6, and it reminds us that this isn’t just Jesus’ war—it’s our battle too, and God gives us armor to wear in the fight. And then look at the two little verses below it. Look what tremendous power and authority God has given us in the spiritual realm! Against you and me, the devil and all his forces—no matter how scary or powerful they might seem—against you and me, they don’t stand a chance. Jesus has already won the decisive victory over them, and we’re fighting the final clean-up part of the war. If you’ll let him, God will take you and use you in incredible ways in advancing his kingdom and in tearing down the works of Satan.

We don’t generally center our spiritual lives on these themes nowadays, but that hasn’t always been the case. I’m a bit of a history buff, and in seminary I did an independent study on the history of missions in the first thousand years of Christianity. I wanted to find out how early Christian missionaries thought about their work, and what the motivations were for them to go. Nowadays, we expect to hear things like, “We’re going to tell people about Jesus because God loves all people, and he wants them to hear his Gospel. We’re going because God commands us to go in Scripture.” But the interesting thing was that those weren’t the reasons that early missionaries gave. For the first thousand years of Christianity, the most common motivation for missions came out something like this: “We go because we are warriors in Christ’s army, and we are part of his victory march, and everywhere we go, Satan’s power crumbles in front of us.” It’s a very different way of thinking than we think now, but I think they were on to something. The great church father Athanasius noted that everywhere that their missionaries went, people left their old religions. The ancient polytheistic worship of Greece and Rome—Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and all those—that system of worship and belief had been going on for thousands of years, but it crumbled in the face of Christianity, and now it’s completely gone—it’s just a memory. Interesting, isn’t it? For many of the early Christians, the thing that really got them going, and got them excited about the Christian life, was the fact that they knew they were on the winning side, and they could see the power of God moving through them and destroying the works of Satan.

This is a good reminder for us, in our day and age. Too often we fall into a defensive mindset. We think that we’re a little island of faithful belief in a sea of secularizing culture. Some of us think sometimes that it looks like a losing fight. But we forget the tremendous power of the Gospel and the tremendous power that we have in prayer and in spiritual warfare. The truth is, although things may look a little bleak in our country right now, the Gospel is spreading faster than ever before on the worldwide scale. In my generation, in my day, I may see the promise that was made to Abraham 4000 years ago fulfilled—that people from every tribe and nation and language in the world will be blessed with the knowledge of Christ. We’re that close! The message of Jesus is exploding across Africa and Latin America and Asia in great revivals. Even Muslims are coming to Christ faster than ever before in history. We need to remember that the message of the Cross is overwhelmingly powerful, and no matter what it may look like in the world around us, we are on the winning side, and Satan’s power cannot stand against the power of God’s church.


So what does this tell us about the Cross? It tells us that the Cross is the sign of God’s love for us, setting us free from our captivity to Satan and death. It tells us that the Cross is the symbol of Jesus Christ’s ultimate victory. And it tells us that we too, if we are in Christ, are part of that ongoing victory. Jesus set us free from Satan’s grip on the Cross. So if you feel spiritual bondage from a sin in your life, or if you have old ties to the occult that are weighing you down spiritually—there’s freedom from all that. Satan’s power is broken, and we can be a part of Jesus’ victory parade. Let me close by reading my favorite passage in the whole Bible, which reminds us that none of these powers—not Satan, not death, not anything else—none of it can separate us from the love of God. [Read Romans 8:37-39]