By Jim Ward
To appreciate the death of Jesus, we must understand something of law and the enormity of sin. What does it mean when Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56)? Taking the last clause first, sin is the violation of law (1 John 3:4), and the violation of law brings a penalty. Specifically, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20), “for the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). A legal system, once breached, puts the violator under a curse: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, `Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are writ-ten in the book of the law, to do them’ (Gal. 3:10). Clearly, then, law demands sinless perfection, and when men fall short as all do (Rom. 3:23) it puts them under the curse of death. Furthermore, since law accepts only flawlessness, it obviously makes no provision for failure. It only indicts and punishes men; it never justifies them. This, perhaps too briefly stated, is the “strength” behind sin.
Now we turn, even more concisely, to the first clause, “The sting of death is sin.” Though sin separates men from God, as long as they remain alive, there is hope of reconciliation. However, once they die physically, that hope is lost; they remain forever separated from the Lord. Thus is sin the “sting of death,” and thus, do we begin to see a glimmer of its dreadful effects. It destroys man eternally.
As the Old Testament vividly paints this half of the picture, no event of the patriarchal era is more to the point than the great flood. It destroyed all mankind, save for eight souls and all because of sin! Later, the Law of Moses brought evil into clearer light (Rom. 7:13), often by focusing upon seemingly guileless men. The episode of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant is shocking. Untrained hearts are horrified at the “grossly unfair punishment” of this well-intentioned man. But this ruination which sin, however slight it seems to us, brings upon man is only half the story. Man is not the only one to suffer.
It is not until the New Testament that we see the other half of the truth: that sin costs God dearly too. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have ever-lasting life” (John 3:16). When God exacted a penalty upon the ancient world of Noah’s day and upon Uzzah, and in-deed upon all sinners of all time, he committed himself to paying that penalty. Sin, running the gamut from black to white, as men view such things, calls for a price that men cannot pay and still be redeemed.
We readily understand how God can be either just or merciful, but not how he can be both. How is he to be just and merciful, to punish sin and to save the sinner? He did not renege on his prehistoric intention to slay Jesus (Rev. 13; 1 Pet. 1:18). Rather, he carried that plan through and “set forth” Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). 1 Peter 3:18 says it this way, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit . . .” (1 Pet. 3:18).
Never has the news of a death filled us with such joy. Usually we recoil at the very thought of it; we shrink from the shrill ring of an untimely phone call. But now, after struggling helplessly under the penalty of law, we learn the good news that the price has been paid for our sins. How-ever deeply sin has stained our souls, there is power in the blood of Jesus to cleanse. The sweet and awful truth hits home. I have been redeemed, but at what price? At what pain to my Heavenly Father? Only when the answer sinks down into our awareness, only when we understand the cost of sin to ourselves and to God do we see iniquity for all its ugliness. God’s “only begotten Son” he’s the price.
And what a sacrifice! He’s not an animal their blood would not suffice (Heb. 10:4) but a man, a sacrifice tailor made by God to do his will (Heb. 10:5-10). But neither is he merely a man, for he is God, and higher than the angels. Which of the angels was ever called God’s Son, or was to be worshiped, or had an everlasting throne (Heb. 1:5, 6, 8)? Being himself God and man, he is the perfect mediator between his brethren and God (Heb. 2:17).
Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15); yet unlike us, he “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). He died an innocent man. Be-cause of this, we can live in spite of our true guilt. God forgives those who will trust in his Son because that Son bore the sinner’s guilt. He “himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:23). “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). That, dear reader, is a hallelujah message!
Furthermore, Jesus forged his perfection in the arena of life’s temptation and the society of his fellowman. He was not some ascetic recluse who withdrew to a cave or mountain top to meditate and merely avoid harm to man. His morality and goodness were positive as well as negative. He “went about doing good and healing all who were op-pressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). He gave sight to the blind, cured lepers, made the lame to walk, fed the hungry, raised the dead, taught principles which promote man’s happiness, forgave sin, preached repentance, and promised healing to a sin-sick world. From childhood, he was “about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). He came to do Heaven’s will, and at the end he could say to the Father, “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4).
From Gethsemane to Golgotha, he bore unspeakable anguish of spirit and pain of body. In the garden, he prayed, “`Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.’ Then an angel appeared to him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44). The innocent Savior bore his rugged cross to the barren hill, while the murderous Barabbas went free. Between railing thieves, the Lord found a place of humiliation, and there hanged until about the ninth hour, when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Finally, in the rough mercy of a shortened moment, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit” (Matt. 27:46, 50).
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame,
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
And never has the news of a death filled us with such shame and horror. That is how enormous our sin is! That is the measure of our evil and rebellious ways! For we most certainly understand that our God did not pay a greater price than was absolutely necessary to redeem us. He is not bloody and cruel. Yet he turned his back on his sweet and guiltless Son. And the reason is this: it had to be; our sins demanded it.
Tell of the cross where they nailed Him,
Writhing in anguish and pain;
Tell of the grave where they laid Him,
Tell how He liveth again.
Love in that story so tender,
Clearer than ever I see;
Stay, let me weep while you whisper,
Love paid the ransom for me.
Oh, how that last line cuts us to our very core: “Stay, let me weep while you whisper, Love paid the ransom for me.” How long has it been, my brothers and sisters, since we have wept at the story of Jesus? How long since we have ached for what we have done?
Guardian of Truth XL: 1 p. 11-12
January 4, 1996