Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The tree of death - and life

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree... 1 Peter 2:24

I love these words. They are only a part of a longer sentence, but, crisp and compact, they sum up perfectly the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. When, later this week, we hear again the story of Good Friday, these words can capture for us the essence of what happened on that momentous day: Jesus became our sin-bearer.

Let’s take Peter’s statement to pieces and reflect on each part.

He himself...

At the heart of our faith is Jesus Christ: “he himself”. It might seem ridiculous to state something so obvious, but perhaps it’s necessary, because we can lose our focus. Christianity is not about “religion”, or church buildings, or rites and rituals. It’s not even mainly about the Bible, or about good behaviour, or about right doctrine. It’s about Jesus.

There are times when we need to clear away the accumulated clutter of our minds and simply look at him. A film camera may shoot a scene of thousands of people going about their business in, say, a busy city centre. But then it gradually homes in on just one person, until all you can see is that one person’s face: everything else falls away.

The Writer to the Hebrews says we need to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), and let everything else fall away. Is it time you stopped, thought, prayed... and did just that?

...bore our sins...

From the day we are born we human beings have a problem. The Bible calls it “sin”. This little word conjures up the fact that we are in the wrong with God: made to love and enjoy him, we in fact rebel against him and disobey him. Our natures have become twisted and corrupt. 

Often we may enjoy our sins and think they don’t matter. But they have a nasty way of building up on us and crushing us, like a heavy load on our backs that we can’t unstrap. And what Peter is saying here is that Jesus has taken that load onto his own shoulders.

Where does he get this idea from? Almost certainly the answer is: Isaiah 53. In the later part of Isaiah, the prophet talks a lot about a mysterious person whom he calls “the servant of the Lord” - that expression crops up several times. 

And it all comes to a head in chapter 53, one of the greatest chapters in the whole Bible. Says Isaiah: “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities... he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:11-12).

Peter, along with the early church as a whole, couldn’t help identifying Isaiah’s “servant” with Jesus. Can you blame them?

So... Are you fed up with carrying the weight of your sin? Well, stop doing so! Confess them to God, and Jesus will carry that weight for you.

... in his body...

This “sin-bearing” isn’t some vague, obscure business. It’s not some kind of purely “spiritual” transaction between Jesus and his heavenly Father. No: it’s a physical thing; Jesus bore our sins “in his body”.

When God chose to send us a saviour, he gave that saviour a body like ours: Jesus ate and drank like us, slept like us, got tired like us. And he experienced pain like us. And his body became the place - if that’s the right word - where our sins were perfectly dealt with: “This is my body, given for you,” says Jesus to his disciples (Luke 22:19).

The Jewish people were well used to the idea of animals being brought to the altar of sacrifice, their blood shed and their bodies offered up by fire. And so the body of the sacrificial Lamb of God was given for us.

... on the tree...

That word “tree” can be translated in various ways: wood, stake, beam, pole, cross, even gallows. Why Peter doesn’t use the more usual New Testament word for the cross isn’t clear, but I think he will have had in mind the words of Deuteronomy 21:23: “...anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”. 

In Roman times the cross was a symbol not just of terrible pain, but of condemnation and punishment - indeed, as Paul sees it (Galatians 3:13), a symbol of God’s curse. Jesus took our place and soaked up God’s judgment on our behalf.

So... let’s put it back together again: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”. This is the message of Good Friday; this is the good news of the gospel. 

Is this the message you need to hear?

Lord Jesus, thank you for carrying even my sins in your body on the cross. So help me now, in turn, to die to sins and live for righteousness. Amen.

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