The Descent from the Cross (1614), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
One of the earliest religious memories for many people is learning to sing the old favorite Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me.” In the second verse of that song, we sing these words: “Jesus loves me, He who died, heaven’s gates to open wide; He will wash away my sin, and let this little child come in; Yes, Jesus loves me.”
‘He who died,’ we sing. Died. This is one of the first things that we learn when we come to church. Even before we know or understand very much about the concept of death or what it means to be a sinner, we learn that Jesus died for our sins. What is more, we learn that he died a most awful and painful death. This is a very intense message for little children. But it cannot be avoided or delayed, because Christ’s death on the cross for us is at the very heart of the Christian story and message. If we are going to talk about Jesus at all, it won’t be very long and we will be talking about his death on the cross.
This message is reflected in many hymns: Were You There When They Crucified my Lord?; In the Cross of Christ I Glory; Jesus in Thy Dying Woes: Beneath the Cross of Jesus; Just As I Am Without One Plea, But That Thy Blood was Shed for Me; and The Old Rugged Cross, and many more.
The sufferings and death of Jesus make up a huge portion of each of the four Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament spends a great deal of time describing the implications and the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross:
Romans 5:10 — We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son
I Corinthians 14:3 — Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
Ephesians 5:2 — Christ gave himself for us as an offering.
Hebrews 12:2 — Christ, for the joy set before him, endured the pain of the cross, despising its shame.
I John 3 — He laid down his life for us.
Therefore, says II Corinthians 1:5, “as the suffering of Christ abounds in us, so our consolation abounds in Christ.” All the way through to the last book of the New Testament this is proclaimed. There, even at the end in that strange book of Revelation, it is the same message: “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, worthy is this Christ to receive all honor, power, and glory” (5:12). Again and again, in every book of the New Testament, we are told that everything we believe in and trust in and hope for depends on Christ’s death on the cross.
Yet, if Peter, the out-spoken leader of the disciples, would have had his way, that crucial, decisive, all-important death on the cross would never have happened. In Matthew chapter sixteen Jesus predicted his suffering and death in Jerusalem, and Peter took him aside and said, “No Lord, that shall never happen to you.” Then later, when the authorities came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter pulled out a knife and started to attack. Peter was eager to jump in and defend and protect Jesus, doing everything he could to get Jesus to avoid this death that was to mean the redemption and salvation of the whole world. To be fair, Peter did not yet have a full understanding of all that would take place and all that it would mean. But even after Jesus explained why he was determined to go to Jerusalem, Peter still objected.
Jesus then gave Peter a sharp rebuke, even calling him Satan, and telling him to get out of his way. Jesus made it clear he was not going to follow any other agenda but the plan God had set for him, saying, “You are a stumbling block to me Peter; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Peter wanted to keep Jesus alive and safe. At the time, that certainly looked like the wise and prudent and courageous thing to do. Jesus was too important to die, too much was depending on him, he was too young, he was just getting started, people did not understand him yet, and if they just got to know him they wouldn’t want to kill him. There were all kinds of reasons that Jesus should try and stay alive. He should not have even come into this dangerous city in the first place, filled as it was with his enemies.
And Peter, who had left everything to follow him, was ready to die fighting for Jesus. But when Jesus rebuked Peter even for that, Peter gave up. A few hours later, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. What was the use anymore? (continued…)
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.
–Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)