February 8, 2009

The Essentials

What all Christians believe and why it matters

Part 4: I believe in Jesus’ redemptive death



          Did you see in the news that 135 fisherman had to be rescued from Lake Erie yesterday?  They were ice-fishing on thin ice in warming temperatures, and the ice broke loose stranding the fisherman about 1000 yards off shore.  The local sheriff called them “idiotic”.  One guy wasn’t so lucky; he fell in and died.  The other 135 had to be rescued or they would have died.  Idiotic.

          Well that’s me.  I’m an idiot and need to be rescued.  I’m going to tell you about that, and about the one who rescued me.

          Greeting: meet someone new and tell them the dumbest thing you’ve ever done!


          Back in December, I started a series of talks called “The Essentials: what all Christians believe and why it matters.”  We were walking our way through the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most universally accepted creed of the church.  In case you’re not familiar with creeds, a creed is a summary of beliefs.  Think of it as an extreme Cliff Notes version of the Bible, or a bullet list of the main things Christians believe.  Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off at Christmas.

I’ve got to tell you that this is a little unusual for us.  We are not a “creedal church”; in my 30 years here, we had never read a creed out loud in church.  This summer I took a couple courses in church history; they were so enriching!  And I came to appreciate the broad shoulders on which we stand, the Great Tradition of faith that has been around for almost 2000 years.  So I thought it would be good for us to become familiar with the creed for three reasons:

          First, we want you to know what you believe.  What you believe is important.  Truth matters.  Christianity is a doctrinal faith-it is built upon some essential beliefs.  If you don’t believe them, you’re not a Christian.  For example, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in God.  We want you to know what you believe, what makes you a Christian. So we want you to know what you believe. 

Second, we want you to live what you believe. Belief determines behavior.  What you believe determines how you live.  If I believe it’s likely to rain or snow, I won’t ride my motorcycle.  In the same way, if I believe in God, I live differently than if I didn’t.  In this series, I’ll show you how.

Theology is very practical.  That’s why I subtitled this, “What every Christian believes and why it matters.”  This series of talks will not be dry doctrine, a series of cerebral talks with no application to everyday life.  I’ll show you how each truth we belief affects the way we live.

          Third, we want you to know what’s essential and what’s not.  There is a core of essential beliefs that have united Christians for 20 centuries.  Christians may disagree about a lot of secondary issues, but we agree on the essentials.  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” 

What are the essentials?  These are found in the great creeds of the church.  So we are walking through the Apostles Creed. In a moment when we read the creed, remember that millions of Christians all over the world are reading this today, and millions of others through history have read it before us.  You are part of something much bigger than you, much bigger than Life Center, or any denomination.  You are part of the church, God’s family throughout all the world and all the ages.  Let’s read the creed together.


I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

    Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

    He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.

    He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
    whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,

    the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and life everlasting.  Amen.


Today, we are at article four of the creed: I believe in Jesus Christ…who…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  Let’s take a look at what Jesus did and why He did it.


1. What He did.

The creed jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” straight to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.  It skips right over the life, teachings and miracles of Jesus.  This is not to suggest that they are unimportant.  But the creed is reminding us that Jesus was born to die.  At His birth, the angel told Joseph, “You shall name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”  The name Jesus means “God saves” or “God to the rescue”.  God sent Jesus on a search and rescue mission.  He came to rescue us from our sins, and somehow, Jesus’ death was central to this.  He was born to die…for us.  This is why the four gospels devote so much space to what we call “the Passion”, the final week of Jesus’ life, including his death and resurrection.

  • 40% of Matthew.
  • 60% of Mark.
  • 33% of Luke.
  • 50% of John.

Almost half of the gospels focus on the events leading up to and including Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It is the Big Deal, the heart of the gospel.  I believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.


A.   He suffered under Pontius Pilate.

Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea from 26-36 AD.  Judea was a sore spot in the Roman Empire.  The Jews deeply resented the Roman occupation, and rabble-rousers regularly led rebellions against Rome, which the Roman troops quickly and mercilessly squashed.  Pilate’s main goals were to keep the peace and collect the taxes.  So when the Jewish authorities dragged Jesus before Pilate and accused Jesus of political subversion, of stirring up rebellion against Rome, of opposing paying taxes to Caesar and of claiming to be a king himself, they had Pilate’s attention.  He didn’t need this kind of trouble.  However, when it became apparent that Jesus was not guilty of these charges, Pilate wanted to release Him.  But the Jewish leaders had turned the crowds against Jesus, and when they screamed for His death, Pilate caved in.  He condemned to death a man he knew was innocent-all for political expediency.  And then in one of the most lame acts of irresponsibility ever, Pilate washed his hands, to show that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood.

Who is responsible for Jesus’ death?  Was it Pilate?  He condemned an innocent man.  Was it the Jewish leaders?  They framed Jesus out of envy.  Was it the Roman executioners?  They nailed him to the cross.  Yes, all those people are responsible for killing Jesus.  But so am I.  Christ died for our sins…for my sins.  So I killed him too. 

ILL: When Mel Gibson was asked by Diane Sawyer who killed Jesus, he said, “We all did.”  In the movie, Gibson portrays this in a remarkable way. While Gibson’s face never crosses the screen, we do see his hands once. They are the ones, with spike and hammer, nailing Jesus to the cross.

So who killed Jesus?  Pilate, the Jewish leaders, the Roman executioners, me, you, all of us.  But here is the big surprise.  Ultimately it was God who killed Jesus. 

Isaiah 53:10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…

It was the Lord’s will for Jesus to die.

Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

It was God’s set purpose for Jesus to die.

John 10:17-18 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life-only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

Jesus even takes responsibility.  He is laying down His life.  So Pilate isn’t mentioned in the creed as the killer of Jesus.

Why is Pontius Pilate mentioned in the creed?  One reason: to show the historical nature of these events.  The creed is rooted in history.  This isn’t a myth, or a fairy tale, something that happened “long, long ago, in a land far far away.”  This really happened, and here’s a time and date and names.  God Himself entered human history to meet us and redeem us.  The gospel isn’t just about ideas; it is about God acting in history.  It’s good news, not just good views.  God did something, and here’s when He did it. 

It says that Jesus suffered.  How many of you have seen “The Passion of the Christ”?  It is rated R for violence.  Many people criticized Mel Gibson for making the violence so graphic, so bloody.  I’ll never forget watching them whipping Jesus; it was awful, almost painful to watch.  I couldn’t stop crying, because I knew He was taking that beating for me.  Jesus suffered-and the movie couldn’t show the half of it.  He was beaten and spat upon and mocked…by people he loved.  He was scourged; the scourging was done with a whip called a “cat-of-nine-tails”: nine leather thongs with a ball of lead or a sharp piece of bone at the end.  In a practiced hand, this whip could strip the skin and flesh off a man’s back.  Many people didn’t survive the 39 lashes.  Jesus suffered…more than you can imagine.

Why is this important?  Have you ever heard people say, “How can God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?  We can’t believe in a God who stays safely in heaven while all this suffering goes on.”  God didn’t stay safely in heaven.  He came to earth and suffered, and in His suffering, He took upon Himself all the pain and suffering of the world. 

Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.


B.   He was crucified.

Crucifixion was the most barbaric form of execution known.  The Romans used it to suppress rebellions, sometimes crucifying hundreds of people along the main roads as a deterrent to others.  It was a penalty reserved for the worst criminals, a shameful and degrading way to die.  No wonder many people in the first century reacted with disgust or disbelief at the Christians’ suggestion that they should worship a crucified man. 

Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

He endured the cross, scorning its shame.  It was a shameful way to die.

It was also an unimaginably painful, slow and torturous way to die.  After Jesus had been beaten and scourged, they laid a rough wooden beam across his lacerated back and forced him to carry his cross to the place of his execution.  Imagine the pain of that beam scraping across his raw back.  At Golgotha, a Roman soldier nailed Jesus’ hands and feet into the cross.  Imagine the pain of huge spikes being driven through your hands and feet.  When the cross was raised into place, Jesus hung there, the weight of his body tearing at the spikes in his hands and feet.  Some people slowly bled to death on a cross, but most people slowly died of suffocation.  The only way one can breathe is to push up on the nails in your feet or pull up on the nails in your hands, and catch a short breath.  Slowly, the loss of blood, the shortage of oxygen, shock and exhaustion make it almost impossible to move, and the victim suffocates.

          All this in just three words: he was crucified.


C.   He died and was buried.

He suffered, was crucified, died and was buried.  Jesus was dead when they took him down from the cross.  To be sure of that, the Roman executor stabbed a spear into his side, just below his heart.  On one thought he had just passed out, or swooned.  He was dead, and everyone there knew it.  That’s important because after He rose from the dead, some people tried to explain it by saying He hadn’t really died, just fainted. Then when his body was placed in a cool tomb, he revived, regained his strength, rolled away the massive stone, and walked out Sunday morning looking fresh as a daisy, and convinced his gullible disciples that He was raised from the dead!  That’s just plain crazy!  In fact, on Friday night, the one thing that the Romans, the Jewish leaders and the disciples all agreed on was that Jesus was dead.

After He died, Joseph and Nicodemus, two members of the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, who were secret followers of Jesus, took His body down and cared for it.  In accordance with Jewish burial customs, they tended Jesus wounds, and then wrapped His body with linen strips with 75 pounds of spices, which would have congealed and turned it into a solid cocoon, much like a full body cast.  He was dead; and they buried him.  They put him in Joseph’s own tomb and had a huge stone rolled over the mouth of the cave.  And then the Jewish leaders posted an armed guard to prevent any hanky-panky.

He died and was buried.

          This is what happened.  But what does it mean?


2. Why He did it.  

          The creed tells us the bare facts, what God did in Christ.  But it doesn’t tell us why He did it, or what it means.  However, the New Testament does.  Now here’s the deal.  I’ve got about 10-15 minutes left in this talk, which means I’m going to barely scratch the surface.  To describe why Jesus died, the New Testament uses a rich variety of language drawn from different arenas in life.

  • Propitiation: a word from the temple. It means to appease or conciliate someone. Have you ever made someone really mad, and then you gave them a gift to appease them? Husbands, ever bought your wife flowers? Ok, that’s the basic idea of propitiation. Christ’s death was a propitiation for our sins.
  • Redemption: a word from the marketplace. To redeem is to buy back, to pay a ransom. Has anyone here ever redeemed something from a pawn shop? You buy it back. Slaves were redeemed and set free. Christ died to redeem us, free us from slavery.
  • Justification: a word from the courtroom. To justify is to declare someone just, or not guilty. Let’s say someone takes you to court to collect money you owe them-let’s say it’s $10,000, and you don’t have the money. The judge is about to order you pay-you’re in trouble-and then a friend shows up with a check for ten grand. Case dismissed. Christ died to pay our debt.
  • Reconciliation: a word from the family. To reconcile is to turn enemies into friends, to repair a broken relationship. Anybody ever had a broken relationship? We all have a broken relationship with God, and Christ died to bring us back to God.

I didn’t do justice to any of those; and then there is atonement and salvation and forgiveness.  I’m just saying, this is a deep well, and I’ve got a short rope today.  So I’m going to focus on two things, as long as you promise me you know there’s a lot more to it than I’m telling you!  Deal?

          Why did Jesus die?


A.   He died to be our example.

1 Peter 2:20-23 But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Peter wrote these words to slaves who were being treated unjustly by their masters.  Have you ever been treated unjustly?  Has a boss ever treated you unjustly?  A spouse?  A parent?  A coach?  A teacher?  A cop?  A friend?  Have you ever said, “This isn’t fair!  I don’t deserve this!  This isn’t right!”  We live in a broken world with lots of injustice in it, and there are many places in the Bible where we are commanded to work for justice and to act justly.  But what if someone treats us unjustly?  What do we do in the face of unjust suffering, unfair treatment?  Retaliate!  Fight back! 

ILL: I went to see Clint Eastwood in “Gran Turino”.  He plays Walt Kowalski, a 72 year old grouchy old racist whose wife has just died and he’s mad at the world.  He’s retired from 50 years working at the Ford plant in Detroit and his neighborhood has been overrun with Hmong refugees.  The previews let you know that Walt gets into it with a Hmong gang that terrorizes his neighborhood. 

          I have to tell you that I went to see an old Dirty Harry take on the bad guys.  You mess with Walt Kowalski, you mess with the wrong guy.  He will take you down.  I like movies like this…anyone else?  I like to see the good guys win, and the bad guys get theirs.  That’s my dream…

Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps.  What did Jesus do?  He didn’t retaliate or make threats; he entrusted Himself to God.  And you’re thinking, “Yeah, and look what it got him!  They crucified Him.”  Yes.  And God raised Him from the dead. 

          The challenge of the cross is as uncomfortable for us as it would have been for these first century slaves hearing Peter’s words.  Nothing is more opposed to our natural instincts than this command not to resist, but to bear unjust suffering and overcome evil with good.  It’s hard.

          Are you suffering unjustly?  Jesus left you an example that you should follow in His steps.  Trust yourself to God.

          He died to be our example.  But we need something more than an example.  I’ve got lots of good examples that I haven’t followed.


B.   He died to be our savior.

Let’s keep reading in 1 Peter 2…the next verse:

1 Peter 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree.  Somehow, in his death, Jesus took all our sins upon Himself.  All our wrong-doing, all our selfishness, all our rebellion, all our sins…all of it, Jesus bore in His body on the cross. 

Peter is referring to Isaiah 53; it’s listed on your outline.  This prophecy about the Suffering Servant was written almost 700 years before Christ.  Jesus and the early Christians all believed that it pointed to Jesus and was fulfilled by Jesus.

Isaiah 53:3-6 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was pierced for our transgressions.  He was crushed for our iniquities.  The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  By His wounds we are healed.  He bore our sins in His body on the tree.

          Notice that it says we all like sheep have gone astray.  All of us.  Each of us turned to his own way.  Have you ever gotten lost?

ILL: A few years ago, a 12 year old boy was backpacking with his father in Central Oregon, and he ran ahead on the trail to beat his dad to the car.  When his father got to the car, the boy was nowhere to be found.  A couple hours later, the father realized that his son was lost and called for help.  For 2 days, that father and hundreds of volunteers combed the woods before they found the boy, alive and well.  That boy was so lost that he would have never found his way out; he would have died in the woods.  He needed a savior, someone to rescue him, someone to come find him.

We all like sheep have gone astray.  We have all wandered far from our father, gotten crazy lost, and need to be rescued.  We’ve all done things-and let’s not soft-sell it and call it mistakes or boo-boos.  It’s sin, it’s evil, it’s just plain wrong-and we’re far from God.  This is why Jesus died: to bring us back to God.  It was a search and rescue operation.

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

Christ died for sins…to bring you to God.  Folks, I need more than an example; I need a savior.  I need to be rescued.

ILL: Have you ever gotten your car stuck in the mud?  A few years ago, Laina and I went on a Sunday afternoon drive.  It was spring, the ground was thawing and soft, and I managed to get our car stuck in the mud…deep…up to the axels.  We were way out in the tulies.  I made some phone calls, and then stood by the main road, watching for my savior.  Who was I watching for?  The tow truck. 

          A friend drove by and asked me, “Joe, what are you doing standing out here in the cold in the middle of nowhere.”  I told him my car was stuck, and he was sympathetic, but couldn’t help me.  I didn’t need sympathy; I needed rescue!  I needed a tow truck.

          A neighbor came out and chatted.  He told me that I wasn’t very smart to drive off the road at this time of year when the ground was so soft.  He told me about a couple of other idiots like me who had done the same thing only last week.  His comments were well-intended, but useless.  I already knew I was dumb!  I didn’t need criticism; I needed rescue!  I needed a tow truck.

          Another guy stopped and actually tried to help.  First he suggested I try rocking the car back and forth.  I did, and dug deeper in.  Then he suggested we try breaking up pine branches and putting them under the wheels for traction.  We did, and dug deeper in.  I didn’t need more suggestions; I needed rescue.  I needed a tow truck!

          Finally, to my joy and relief, the tow truck came!  By the way, the tow truck got stuck trying to get us out, and finally, a second tow truck had to come and pull us both out. 

What was that tow truck to me?  My rescuer from the mud.  My savior. 

          That’s what I need.  That’s what you need: a savior to pull us out of the mud and set us free from our sin.  The Bible is very clear that we are all stuck and need to be rescued.  It is also clear that we can’t rescue ourselves; we need a savior.  That’s who Jesus is and why He came. 

          The gospel is the surprising story of the world’s greatest rescue operation.  It’s about God coming down into the mud to pull us out.  It’s about sinners like you and me who are hopelessly stuck being rescued by a God who deeply loves us and longs to set us free. 

When I got stuck, I had to do just one thing to get free.  What was that?  Make a call and ask for help.  The tow truck was out there, ready to rescue me, but I had to call and ask for help.  Listen to this verse: “Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.”  That’s great news if you’re stuck!  Just call and He’ll come to your rescue. 

This is the good news.  Christ died for our sins, to bring us back to God.


Worship and communion