READ : John 12:23, 27-33
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! As we celebrate the resurrection on this
Easter Sunday, let’s think together about the full meaning of Jesus’ glory.
I can still remember a conversation about faith that I had in junior high school with a
classmate who claimed to be an agnostic. As I shared what I believed, he responded by
telling me what he believed — that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. In other words, he
thought that everything we read about Jesus in the Bible was made up by the early
Christians in order to support their new religion.
Well, my friend was wrong. The existence of Jesus is better attested and his life
better documented than anything else in ancient history. The New Testament is a reliable
record of what Jesus actually said and did. And the one thing we know most certainly is
the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Roman authority in the city of Jerusalem
around the year A.D. 30. Ancient non-Christian writers themselves attest to this, including
both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman Tacitus. Thus one liberal scholar who
does not accept much of the gospels, nevertheless says this:
That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both
Josephus and Tacitus . . . agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact.
(John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, p. 145.)
Moreover, if Jesus had not been crucified there is really no way the story would have
been included in the New Testament. The message that Jesus had died on a Roman cross was
not an advantage for the early Christians in trying to convince people that he was God’s
Son and Israel’s Messiah. As the apostle Paul remarked, “We preach Christ crucified, a
stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Far from attracting
people to Christ, the way in which he died was something of an embarrassment, an obstacle
to faith. To Jews Christ’s crucifixion was scandalous, for how could the Lord’s Messiah
come to such a shameful, even accursed end? To gentiles the very idea that an executed
criminal was the divine Savior of the world was ridiculous. So the fact that Jesus’ death
on a Roman cross forms the very heart of the Christian message, the gospel, means it
happened, but not only that, it means it had to happen, because Christ’s crucifixion was
and is the key event in God’s salvation of the world.
Any attempt to explain the meaning of the cross must begin with Jesus himself. And the
first thing to note is that Jesus knew how he would one day die. Three times in the
gospels we find Jesus specifically warning his disciples what lay ahead for him. The last
of those three predictions comes in the gospel of Mark, chapter 10, and it’s also the most
And taking the twelve again, [Jesus] began to tell them what was to happen to him,
saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to
the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over
to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And
after three days he will rise.”
Here Jesus offers a clear outline of his passion: condemned by the chief priests and
scribes, handed over to the Gentiles (i.e. the Romans) to be mocked, scourged, and then
killed — which could only mean death by crucifixion. He foresaw it all.
But there’s more, more to it than that. You could read these prophetic announcements
and conclude merely that Jesus was exceptionally perceptive. He realized how angry he was
making the Jewish authorities; he could guess that they would want to discredit him and
his message by getting the Romans to execute him; he knew he would never back down; so he
could see how it all must end. That’s true, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far
The gospels also reveal that Jesus had a deeper level of understanding about his death.
He not only knew that he would die on a Roman cross, but that he had to die that way, and
why. In the third chapter of John, just before the famous declaration of John 3:16, Jesus
used the symbolism of an Old Testament story to explain his death: “And as Moses lifted up
the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes
in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Later, during Holy Week, as the cross looms
large, Jesus prays,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? But
for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then [says John] a
voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
And Jesus declares,
Now is the judgment of this world . . . And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will
draw all people to myself.
To which John the evangelist adds,
He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:27-33)
John’s is the gospel of glory. His book begins with his testimony that “the Word
became flesh . . . and we beheld his glory” (1:14). It approaches its climax when Jesus
declares in chapter 12, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23).
John’s is also the gospel of paradox, of double meanings, of word-play. Jesus’ hour of
glory, his moment of exaltation when God would glorify his own name through Jesus’ perfect
sacrifice, would come when Jesus was literally lifted up — on the cross. We usually think
that Jesus’ glorification began with his resurrection, as we celebrate even today. But
John shows us that Christ’s glorification actually began before Easter Sunday, three days
earlier, to be exact.
The Significance of the Cross
So Jesus knew that he would die by crucifixion, he knew that he had to die by
crucifixion in order to save those who believe in him, who look to him in faith and put
their trust in him. But there is more. The Bible also explains why Jesus had to die in
this specific way, on a cross. “Is it significant,” asks the Heidelberg Catechism, “that
he was crucified instead of dying some other way?” “Yes,” it answers. “This death
convinces me that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was
accursed by God” (Q. & A. 39). So how do we know that death by crucifixion was
accursed by God? Because the Bible tells us so. Galatians 3:13-14 says this:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is
written, [and now he quotes from the Old Testament law, from Deuteronomy 21] “Cursed is
everyone who is hanged on a tree” — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might
come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
That’s a difficult passage, I freely acknowledge. We no longer resonate with concepts
like “the curse.” To us, a curse is simply a string of naughty words, words frankly we
don’t really take seriously any more. But cursing is a very serious business indeed; and
when God curses, it is infinitely serious. A curse is actually a judgment. And God’s
curse, God’s judgment upon sin is death (see Romans 6:23). The word gospel, as you may
know, means “good news.” But the gospel does not begin with good news. It begins with the
bad news that we are cursed. We live under the curse of God upon sin.
There can’t be any good news unless someone dies a death for that sin. But listen, this
is the heart of the gospel: Someone has. Since none of us could ever do that, Christ has
done it paid the price for us. He took our curse upon himself. He absorbed it and
exhausted it until it was nullified forever for everyone who has faith in him. This is why
he had to die on a cross — to show that he truly was our substitute, our curse-bearer.
This is why whoever believes in God’s only begotten Son will not die but will have eternal
life. It was all in the plan of God, spelled out in scripture. I said that in Galatians
3:13 the apostle Paul quotes the Torah, a statement from Deuteronomy (21:23). Now when God
decreed there that a man whose body was hanged upon a tree was accursed, do you suppose he
knew what would one day happen to the body of his Son Jesus?
One Last Thing
But there is still more. The apostle says that Christ became a curse for us “so that
in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might
receive the promised Spirit through faith.” You remember the blessing of Abraham, don’t
you? That was God’s promise God that through him all the families of earth would be
blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). And blessing is the opposite of cursing. Instead of cursed,
blessed; instead of death, life; instead of judgment, forgiveness; instead of punishment,
grace; instead of exclusion from God’s presence, God’s presence with us through his
Spirit. And it’s all in Christ.
But there’s more, just one more thing: all these blessings reach us finally through
faith. Because faith is what joins us to Christ. Faith takes us out of ourselves and
unites us with him. And the benefits of his death and the blessings of his life come to
“whoever believes in him” (John 3:16). Jesus has been glorified — he died and he is risen
— and he is drawing people of every sort, from every nation and family on earth, to
himself. So let him draw you today. When the deadly plague was raging in Israel’s camp,
Moses lifted up a brass serpent upon a pole, and those who looked to it were saved. Even
so, the Son of Man has been lifted up. So look to him, and live!