This is my sermon from this past Sunday, March 27.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.John 10:14—18
While going up to Jerusalem, Jesus took the twelve disciples aside privately and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised.”Matthew 20:17—19
Do our plans always “come together”? Let me ask this way: Have you ever had to have a “Plan B”? What about when it comes to God’s plan? Does God ever need a “Plan B”? Or let me ask more pointedly: was the cross on which Jesus died God’s “Plan B” when things didn’t work out?
We’re currently in the middle of the season of Lent and a few weeks away from Holy Week. Soon we will observe Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday and celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday. And so when we think about the cross, it’s important to understand that it’s not God’s “Plan B.” Because there are people—those who are not Christians and who see Jesus only as a historical figure but not Lord and Savior—who would look at the cross as an unfortunate end to Jesus’ life. Some might even say, “It’s so sad that he died so young.”
However, in Luke 9:51 it says this: When the days were coming to a close for him to be taken up, he determined to journey to Jerusalem. In the ESV it says that he set his face to go to Jerusalem. What does this mean? “He set his face” is a “Hebrew expression for firmness of purpose in spite of danger.” Because, you see, Jesus knew that to go to Jerusalem would mean death—his death. Yet he set his face. He was determined to live out the Father’s will. He was determined to go to the cross.
So this morning we’re going to look at how the cross is the center of God’s plan, how it’s necessary for us to be made right with God, and how the cross reveals the heart of God. We’re going to think about how God set his face to demonstrate his love for us through the cross from before the foundation of the world.
“Before the foundation of the world”
You and I rarely know what is going to happen in our future. And even if based on prior experience and probabilities we think we have a pretty good idea, we still can’t be certain. Yet, we know Jesus knew about exactly what lay before him, because three times in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he predicted his crucifixion and resurrection. He told his disciples what was going to happen.
This is what we heard in our passage from Matthew 20: See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised.
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem—which would end with his crucifixion—was not God’s “Plan B.” The cross didn’t happen to Jesus; Jesus happened to the cross. Think of what we heard from the passage in John’s Gospel: I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. Jesus chose the way of the cross. He willingly went to the cross. No one took his life; he gave his life.
This means Jesus is not a victim but the victor! The cross is not a tragedy but a triumph! What looks like defeat and weakness to the world is God’s demonstration of his powerful victory over sin and death. We can put it this way: the cross is central to God’s eternal plan of salvation. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem—to Golgotha—had always been what was going to happen.
Writing in the letter to the Ephesians (1:4) the apostle Paul puts it this way: For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ. Now, first of all, what a great gift, right? To be chosen by God to be adopted as his children, to be brought into his family, to be recipients of his love and grace—can we really ask for anything more than that?
And by what means were we adopted? In verse 1:7 it says that In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. So when Jesus set his face it was with all of this mind. And so all this was planned, as Paul says, before the foundation of the world. And this tells us that our God knows what he’s doing. Our God keeps his promises. Our God had plans for us before the foundation of the world—before the sun and stars, and you and I, were ever made. The cross is central to God’s eternal plan of salvation. So let’s never think for a moment that it could ever have been any other way.
“I lay down my life for the sheep”
But why must the cross be at the center of God’s plan of salvation? Why was Jesus’ death central to God’s plan? Consider the words from Isaiah 53 in our responsive call to worship: he himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains . . . he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. Think of the words used here: sicknesses, pains, rebellion, iniquities, and wounds. All of these words describe the dark and broken side of our human experience. We all know things aren’t right with the world. We all know things aren’t right with us. We know that things aren’t right between us.
And so we also have to say this: the cross was necessary for us and the world to be made right with God. For on the cross, Christ shouldered all of the weight of our wrong-doing and brokenness so that we might know life. Consider what’s going on in Ukraine. There we see how things are wrong with the world, with human beings. At this point in human history there is still plenty of violence, war, conflict, hatred, pride, and injustice. All of this points us to the deep need we have for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. But we don’t have the power to make this happen in a full and lasting way. For healing and forgiveness and reconciliation—for new life—to happen, we need a power outside of ourselves. That power is revealed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19—20 says this: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. It is through the cross that God reconciles and makes right all things. The cross pronounces a death sentence on the ways of the world, on the ways we injure one another and ourselves. Through the cross—when we receive in faith the Jesus who died there but now lives—we can experience new life. We can begin to experience healing. We can be rid of guilt and be healed of shame. We can be made right. Only through Jesus’ death on the cross is this possible.
“For God loved the world in this way”
How many people long to know what God is really like? Or how many people at least long for what God seeks to give us through Christ: peace, forgiveness, hope, and healing? The most famous verse in the Bible is this one: For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Of course, most of us learned that this verse begins this way: For God so loved the world. This might give us the wrong impression. The word so here doesn’t indicate here how much God loves us—though his love for us is infinite and beyond our comprehension.
Rather, it indicates the way in which God loves us or the manner in which God loves us. “This is the way God loves us,” John says, “by giving his one and only Son, Jesus.” In other words, if you want to know what God’s love looks like, we don’t have to look any further than Jesus. Jesus, some have said, is God’s love letter to the world. To know Jesus is to know the Father. That means—in a way that you and I can only begin to imagine—that from all eternity it was will of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to demonstrate his love through the suffering of the cross. All so that you and I could know peace and have hope.
Our ultimate point is this: The cross reveals the heart of God. And when I say the heart of God, I mean the core of who he is, of what he is in essence like, and how he seeks to relate to you and me and everyone else. Remember, Scripture tells us: God is love. And it is in Jesus that we see the fullness of God’s love for us: his love for me and his love for you and his love for every person you know and every person you meet. In 1 John 4:9—10 we read this: God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
In her book The Mystery of the Cross Judith Couchman writes: “For reasons beyond my comprehension, the mighty God stooped to conquer evil and forgive sin. This is his eternal commitment. This is the inexpressible value and mystery of the cross.”
What about you this morning? Do you see the “inexpressible value and mystery of the cross”? Do you see there what God has done for you? Do you see there what God is like and how infinitely deep his love is for you? What is your response to the cross this morning? How are you going to respond to the Jesus who was crucified there for you and was then raised to new life?
Because the cross is the center of God’s eternal plan of salvation. Because the cross is the way we’re made right with God. And because the cross reveals the very heart of God: a God willing to set his face before the foundation of the world to restore us, to forgive us, to love us, to heal us, and to love us. All through the cross of Jesus. May God by his grace open our hearts—either for the first time or in a new way—to the power of his love revealed in the cross.