Paul, Peter and John…The Centrality of the Cross

Jesus knew He had to die in order for His mission on earth to be complete but how did His apostles view His death?  Many Christians think that the main thrust of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus, John Stott writing “It is often asserted that in the book of Acts the apostles’ emphasis was on the resurrection rather than on the death of Jesus” [38].  Of course there is nothing wrong with that but Stott is writing a book entitled The Cross of Christ, and his focus is not on resurrection but on the importance of the death of Jesus.  Do we as Christians prefer to skip the uncomfortable negative news so we can get to the good news?  Do we ignore the sacrifice in order to get to the salvation?  Is it easier to turn away from the vision of our Savior hung upon the cross than stare directly at that spectacle and consider its meaning?

Furthermore, is there any evidence for a doctrinal explanation of Jesus’ death in the writings of the apostles?  Is there any evidence for the centrality of the cross in the minds of the apostles or were they like us; they just wanted to skip over the bad part to the good news of the resurrection?

The “human verdict” for Jesus was death on a cross; of course, the resurrection was the “divine reversal of the human verdict.”  You can’t have one without the other, but do we dwell on the resurrection too much and ignore the sacrificial death of our Savior?  Stott argues that the writings of Paul, Peter and John do provide ample evidence that Jesus’ key followers knew that Jesus was on a divine mission directed by His Father God, a mission that led to a purposeful death.

In turning to Paul, it is clear why he refers to his own writings as “the message of the cross.”  In First Corinthians and Romans, he uses phrases like “we preach Christ crucified,” Jesus’ baptism is referred to as initiation “into His death” and the Lord’s Supper as a “proclamation of the Lord’s death.”  Paul felt that Jesus’ death on the cross was proof of the very essence of God’s wisdom and power.  When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was convinced that Christ died for our sins “according to the Scriptures.”   Repeatedly Paul focuses on how humankind is sinful and guilty before God and Jesus came to make “the unrighteous right;” in Jesus, “God presented as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood” [Romans 3:21-25].  We are “justified” through the blood of Jesus, “reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”  Paul knew that the sacrificial death of Christ was necessary for us to be saved from our sin.  In Galatians, Paul boasted in nothing “except for the cross”.  Certainly Paul did not let resurrection overshadow the importance of the cross; there is evidence that the cross was central to his message. 

When we focus on Peter, his testimony about the importance of the cross is also clear.  His first letter opens with a statement that his readers have been sprinkled by the blood of Jesus.  He reminds his readers that they are redeemed at a cost, not with “perishable things such as silver or gold” but rather “the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or defect” [First Peter 1:18-19].   Peter connects the sacrifice of Christ to our need for redemption: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” and “Christ dies for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” [First Peter 2:24; 3:18].   In the context of First Peter, the cross is the main point of emphasis and Christ is our “sin-bearer and substitute.”  Peter does not gloss over the cross in his writings, moving on to the resurrection; he knows the importance of the cross for the Christian’s life and he explains it clearly. It is central.

No apostle concentrates on the cross more than John.  John even tied the incarnation of Jesus to the death of Jesus: “he saw the incarnation as being a view to the atonement” [Stott, 42].   God’s love for mankind was seen in the birth of His Son, whom He “sent . . . as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” and whose “blood purifies us from every sin” [1 John 3:16, 4:9 etc].

An even more striking portrayal of John’s focus on the death of Jesus is seen in the last book of the Bible, Revelation.  Jesus is introduced in this book as the “firstborn of the dead” and “the Living One” who was dead but is now alive forever.  The most common designation that John gives Jesus is “The Lamb”.  This title occurs twenty-eight times in the book and it has nothing to do with Jesus being meek.  It is about Jesus as a sacrificial character whose blood has been shed so His people can be set free.  Stott says in order to understand the full ramifications of The Lamb, you have to divide the symbolic meaning into salvation, history, worship and eternity.

We owe our salvation to the blood of The Lamb.  “Salvation belongs to God, who sits on the throne, and to The Lamb.”  Man has been “washed . . . and made white in the blood of The Lamb.”  In other words, all of mankind owes their righteous standing because Christ went to the cross.  Furthermore, our salvation is secure because not only are our names written in The Lamb’s book of life, but the Lamb’s name is written on our foreheads” [all references to Revelation].

History is also depicted in Revelation.  Our Savior is standing in the center of God’s throne, sharing the rule of Almighty God.  The occupant of the throne is holding in His hand a seven-sealed scroll which is generally identified as the book of history.  In Revelation, John weeps because no one can break the seals on the scroll but The Lamb does break the seals and proves He is a part of history.  Stott writes “It is significant that what has qualified Him to assume this role is His cross, for this is the key to history and the redemptive process it inaugurated.”  No matter what will come to man, God will overcome the devil due to the blood of The Lamb, which is in all of history, until the final victory.

In Chapter Five of Revelation, choir after choir sings the praises of The Lamb.  “Four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” fell down before The Lamb and began to sing a new song.  They sing that Jesus is worthy to take the scroll of history and open the seals because He has been slain “With your blood you purchased for God, from every tribe and language and people and nation.”  Next John hears a hundred million angels singing “worthy is The Lamb, who was slain.”  When the four living creatures [representing all of mankind] fall down and worship The Lamb, this (of course) is worship to the extreme.

Finally, John makes the case that the cross entitled Christ to have eternal importance.  Revelation is one of the most difficult books to understand in the Bible but “eternal” imagery is powerful regarding the lasting influence of The Lamb.  John is telling the reader that from the eternity of the past to the eternity of the future, the “center stage” is occupied by The Lamb of God who was slain for all of us.  Jesus is placed on an equal level with God.  Jesus mediates God’s salvation, shares God’s throne, and receives God’s worship.   What allows Jesus these privileges forever is the fact that He was slain for man and died to procure our salvation.  John has the vision that God and Jesus are forever coupled: Stott describes this as “the seer’s uninhibited coupling of ‘God and The Lamb’” [44].

I have been a Christian all of my life, attending church all my life and making a “born again” commitment in 1998.  I know first hand that as Christians approach the Christmas season, the incarnation will get a tremendous amount of attention and 100 days later, we will have a tremendous celebration of the resurrection.  John Stott is trying to take a little of the emphasis off of the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus. He is trying to suggest that we should stop and consider the importance of Jesus’ death, for it is in His death that we are forgiven, in His death we are made righteous before God, for it is in the sacrifice of His life that we have a chance for eternal life.

Paul, Peter and John certainly did not forget the importance of Jesus’ death.  One might examine their writings and conclude that they felt it was the key to all that followed.  Like us, maybe they would have preferred to “skip over the bad part” to get to the resurrection but when one does a close reading of their writings, they certainly did not ignore the fact that Jesus died for all our sins.

They did not turn away from the fact that Jesus hung upon the cross.  They stared directly at that spectacle and had a serious consideration of its meaning.

They recognized the centrality of the cross…

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