The Cross: Our Challenge Before A Watching WorldErwin W. Lutzer | December 8, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
Are we actually following Jesus? If we’re not, we are a part of why the church’s message is failing to impact the world. When we begin to mimic the attitude of Christ, modeling humility and suffering, we can make a difference in the world.
Oftentimes there are many discussions as to why the Church is not having a greater impact in the world. We are having an impact, by the way, but the question might be asked, “Why is it not greater?” Some people might say that it’s because of our lack of political involvement, and that if we just had more people to vote the right way, and to get the right leaders in office, then our fortunes in America might increase. Other people say, “No, it’s the methodology that you use.” They would say that you are still using 19th Century methodology for the 20th Century and for the 21st Century. “You are behind the times. Get modern!”
Of course, there’s no easy answer to the question as to why our impact is not greater. There’s no one right answer, but maybe part of the answer might be that we as individuals are not very good followers of Jesus Christ. By that I mean that it may well be that we are really not willing to bear our cross. We are much more interested in Bethlehem than we are in Golgotha. We are much more anxious to celebrate Christmas than Good Friday, and as a result of that our witness might be compromised. We may respectfully be avoiding the cross.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in Germany and paved the way for Hitler by his emphasis on a superman, was the son of a Lutheran pastor. He spent 11 years in an insane asylum and therefore you must consider the source of his quote, though it is an excellent one. He said many things that were very provocative, but he said regarding Christians, “I might believe in their Redeemer if they looked more redeemed.” The question is, “How does somebody who is redeemed look?” That’s the question. How would we look if we looked like our Redeemer? And that’s the topic that we’re going to be discussing today. Today we speak on the subject of The Cross Before a Watching World. What do redeemed people look like if they look like their Redeemer?
What I’d like you to do is to take your Bibles and turn to Philippians 2. The cross of Jesus Christ represents the greatest value reversal that we could ever possibly imagine. The cross of Jesus Christ shows us that what men love, God hates; and what God hates, men love. It is the greatest decision to descend into greatness. It is the decision that Jesus Christ made to be someone who descends rather than someone who simply remains where He is. It represents the greatest humility, the greatest love and the greatest passion. And what I’d like us to do as we go through this very interesting theological passage, though we shall see its relevance in a few moments, I want us to grasp something of that descent, the coming of Jesus Christ to this earth and what it meant.
Perhaps one way that I could describe it is to say that this is actually a change in status. This was a change in status. He went from master to servant. We pick it up at verse 5. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form (the morphḗ – that’s the Greek word) of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form (same word) of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” It was a change from master to servant.
Now let us remember that as master, Jesus Christ is and always was God. He was God. You know there was a council in Nicaea in the year 312 A.D. Constantine, the great politician, gave the opening speech. He told the delegates the theological controversy was worse than war, and asked them to get their act together and to settle the issue of the deity of Christ. In those days, theology was the glue that was going to hold his empire together. So he asked them to go to work on it and they eventually debated the issue of whether Jesus Christ’s essence was similar to that of God the Father, or whether it was the same essence as God the Father. The decision of the council was that His essence is the same. He is God.
Have you ever wondered what Jesus looked like before Bethlehem? Well, there are many depictions of Him in the Old Testament, but let me give you one of them. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!’”
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, wait a minute! You’re going too quickly. That is God – Jehovah – that the text is talking about.” Ah yes, but did you know that the 12th chapter of John (And some of you perhaps have not read the book of John recently so you should keep your place in Philippians, but look at this passage.) is a reference to Isaiah 6, the passage that I just quoted. And it refers to a verse that comes a little later in Isaiah’s response. And in John 12 it says (verse 40), “‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Everyone awake now) Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him (Christ).” Christ!
There’s a passage for you when those folks come to your house two by two, telling you that Christ isn’t God. There’s one that will cause them to do a little bit of thinking on the steps of your home. Isaiah saw the glory of Jehovah, and Jehovah in the New Testament is Christ – God.
Now notice that Jesus Christ, though He is in essence the very form of God, is willing to take the form of a servant. In heaven the angels sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and now the text tells us that He emptied Himself (verse 7). And theologians have written huge dissertations on that word and that phrase because what they want to say is “Emptied Himself of what?” Well, did He empty Himself of His attributes? No, if He had done that He would have ceased to be God when He was here. But He was God when He was here.
He voluntarily gave up the use of His attributes. That’s what happened when He emptied Himself. He lived like a man. I’ve given you the illustration before. If you were a millionaire and lived with the poor people in Chicago, you could eat with them, you could live with them, and you could choose not to depend upon that which you had as a millionaire, and you would not use those resources, though they were yours. That’s what happened.
For example, Jesus Christ, being God, had omnipotence. That big word means all power and yet there we see Him on the well, and the text says, “Jesus, being weary with His journey, sat on the well.” And we want to say, “Why in the world is He weary? He is God. He created the worlds.” He wasn’t depending upon His attribute of omnipotence.
What about omniscience – knowing all things? God knows everything. That’s a scary thought when we look into our own hearts and know that there is not one particle of matter, or one thought that escapes His notice. And yet, what did Jesus say? He said, regarding His second coming, “But the day and the hour knows no man, not the angels in heaven, nor the Son of Man, but the Father.” He limited what He knew. He had access to all of that knowledge but He didn’t use it. Omnipresence!
Because He was God He filled the universe, and yet there He was as man. If He was in Galilee He could not be in Jerusalem at the same time, limiting Himself. And He became a servant – a bondservant.
Now always remember that the limitation was self-imposed. You see the Godhead was not involved in some kind of a downsizing, and Jesus Christ got caught in the squeeze and was fired. That’s not the way it happened. You see it didn’t happen with Jesus Christ being in a situation where He was asked somehow to abdicate His responsibility. This was a voluntary decision on His part. He didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have to be yelled at. “Move it, Jew boy! Get out of my way!” He didn’t have to listen to the curses of the people. He didn’t have to allow the people who lived in Nazareth to try pushing Him over the brow of a hill, but He let them try to do it. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to put up with all this nonsense. He did have to walk sometimes 50 miles in a single week to get around in a hot desert, needing provision and all those other things that He needed. He simply did not have to do that, but He emptied Himself and He chose voluntarily to do it.
You see Jesus Christ never had to apply for the job of being God. He never put in His application because He really is God. And because He really is God, that is something that belongs to Him in essence. But He did put in His application to become a bondservant. To come from the glories of heaven to the grime of earth was His lone decision made, of course, as the Trinity – the Trinity’s decision that He became a bondservant.
So one way we can describe this greatest of descents is to say that it was a change from master to servant. It was a change of status. Another way that we can describe it is to say that it was a change of appearance. He looked differently. Notice what the text says. It says, “He had the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Verse 8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” it says in the last part of the verse.
Now notice He changed His appearance from Godhood to manhood. When it says that He came in the appearance of a man, some people have said that that means that He wasn’t really a man. It just means that He appeared like one. Well I want you to know that that is heresy if you happen to believe that because actually He was a man. It says earlier that He was in the very form (same word) of man – as being also in the form of God. The very same!
So He was a man. It just means that that’s the way He was on earth. His appearance was that of a man, fully human. Now I want you to catch the significance. Those hands that formed all the worlds that spoke and suddenly they were in existence, those very hands would now have to be held. The feet that walked to and fro about the whole universe, the feet whose goings forth have been from of old and from everlasting, those feet would now have to learn to walk. The eyes that are like a flame of fire that see throughout the whole universe and see the juxtaposition of every single particle, those eyes would now have to adjust to the dim light of a stable. And the ears that have heard all that has ever gone on in the world and in the universe, those ears would now have to be trained to listen. And the mouth that spoke – “For by the word of the Lord were the heavens made and the host of them by the breath of His mouth” - would now have to learn to speak Aramaic and Hebrew. Bear in mind that when Jesus was in heaven nobody had to say, “Who is that on the throne anyway?”
You know, some of us were in Petra and they were filming a movie there, and some of our tour group said, “You know, we met So-and-so.” I don’t know. I never heard of these movie stars. I guess that I somehow traffic in the wrong circles. I never heard of him, but people were saying, “I met him.” And I want to say, “Well, who is he? Point him out. They all look alike to me.” That’s not the way it was in heaven. The angels didn’t go around and say, “Well, who in the world is that on the throne anyway?” There was instant recognition as God and King. He gets to earth and He has to show His I.D. wherever He goes. Nobody knows Him.
“He came unto His own nation and His own people, and they received Him not.” He was unrecognized. He was not accepted for who He was, and He was accused of being born illegitimately because nobody believed this business of the virgin birth. That was just a story. And so they accused Him of that, and Mary and He had to bear the shame and the snide remarks and the sarcastic comments, and He had to put up with all of that. And He created the place, and they didn’t recognize Him as the creator. He was incognito and unrecognized, spat on and not honored at all for whom He was, and He took it. Have you ever been in a situation where you think that somebody should have known you, and they don’t? That can really affect our pride, can’t it?
You know, the contrast with other religions is explosive. In other religions you have many instances of somebody who is a man who wants to be God. In fact, we have people on earth like that.
You know, there is that story of a woman who speaks at Bible conferences. She got onto a plane and she was going through her brief case and checking something and the woman next to her said, “Whom do you work for?” And not knowing exactly what to say, she said, “God.” And the other woman said, “Yeah, I work for a guy like that, too.” (laughter)
We have lots of people who want to be God, and the Romans took an emperor and said, “Let’s call him God.” I know of many religions in history where a man aspires to be God but no religion where God aspires to be a man. And that’s what happened in Christianity. Imagine that in the appearance of a man unrecognized, the appearance of God – the appearance of a man.
There’s another way to describe that and that is to say that it involves a change of roles from victor to victim. Notice that is says in the last part of verse 8 that He was obedient, and by the way, in heaven He was always giving orders. Now He is on earth and He has to take them. He was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
There are many ways to die, and many ways to be put to death. You can be stoned, but to be stoned you keep your clothes on. A rock hits you and you finally fall over. They throw a few more on you and you’re gone. That’s a possibility. Crucifixion was reserved as the nasty, cruel way to do it. It’s not only cruel physically to hang on the cross and to have to endure that, it was also cruel emotionally and spiritually because it was so shameful, usually crucified naked with gawking. Today people say, “Well, you know I want to die with dignity.” This was not death with any kind of dignity. In fact, it says in the Scripture, “Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree,” and therefore it was an awful way to die. I mean we’re talking about blood. We’re talking about smells. We’re talking about shame. And that, my friend, is Jesus, Son of God, King, and Lord! Can you believe it?
Jesus went from victor to victim. Can you imagine what happened on that day? He is the one, you know, who limits Satan, and gives Satan the parameters and tells Satan what he can and cannot do, because Satan is always subject to God, but on that day, Jesus said, “I’m going to let you be in control so far as this is concerned.”
Can you imagine Jesus Christ staring in the very face of evil on that day and saying, “Today you win. Go ahead. Do it!” when he is King of kings and Lord of lords? And He lays aside His rights. He lays aside His glory. He lets it all pass, and what He says is, “I am willing to do even that. Get it done!” And He is King and He is God, and He is Lord.
What are some of the clear implications of what it means for us to live out the cross? I think of two. First of all, of course, this great reversal of values reminds us that God’s way up is down. God values humility. Where do you see that today? Where do you see the surrender of our rights? Where do you see that kind of humility that says, “Yes, I wouldn’t have to do it, but for you I will?” Where does it exist? That gets to the heart of what Nietzsche was talking about, that if we want people to believe in our Redeemer, we are going to have to act redeemed. We are going to have to act like Christ, and we find it hard to do.
Augustine, the great theologian and philosopher, said that God has humbled Himself, and yet man is proud. What a commentary, and we have a lot more to be humble about than Jesus did. He had a perfect human nature. We are sinners. We have very little to be proud about. Actually, more accurately, we have nothing to be proud about. You did hear about the person who went to see a counselor and said, “You know, the older I get the more humble I am becoming.” And the counselor said, “That’s good because you have an awful lot to be humble about.” Here we’re talking about us as sinners, and we are proud. God became humble.
Why did Paul write this letter? Did he say, “Well, you know, I think that there are some seminarians who need some topics for dissertations, and you know they are running out of things to teach over in the seminary, so I’m going to give them a passage that they can chew on for a while?” No. Look at why he gave it to us. He needed an illustration. Every preacher needs an illustration.
Verse 3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and that’s why he wrote the passage because he said, “What I want you to do is to have the same sense of giving. I want you to see such a reversal of values that it absolutely flies into the face of what the world is all about. The world is always trying to climb the ladder, and you’re going to have to take the chute down. The world is always saying to itself ‘What I want to do is to advance; I want to control; I want to be master. I don’t want to be a servant.’”
Christ comes along and says, “Do you want to be like Me? Then be a servant and have the good of others ahead of your own.” Do you think that’s hard? Hard! I think it’s almost impossible apart from the deep work of the cross in our hearts. It is absolutely impossible.
Illustration: Promise Keepers! Forty-three thousand pastors in Atlanta! We’re spending all day worshiping God. We hear a message on the filling of the Spirit. We all pray that God will fill us with the Spirit. We’re almost ready to burst. We feel as if we could fly.
It’s evening time now and it’s time to go back to the hotel, so we get on to the Metra in Atlanta. We’re singing choruses in the subway. The whole place is ringing. Everybody that’s walking by is hearing hundreds and hundreds of men crowded together, all singing All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. It’s marvelous.
We get into a Metra car and we go along, and we come to the major station where all of these Metra cars come, and it is there where the various hotels have vans to pick up people to take them to the hotel. It is cold – even in Atlanta at night. Wind is blowing there, and some of us thought that that was the south and we were misled. We thought that it was supposed to be warm.
There aren’t enough vans. One comes every few minutes. You’ve got 100 men all wanting to get on the same van. Now mind you, let’s review as to who they are. They are pastors who go to heaven every evening and come back in the morning. (laughter) They are pastors who have just been newly filled with the Spirit, pastors just singing the wonders of Jesus on the subway to make the rafters vibrate, and we all scramble for those vans as if our lives depended on it, your pastor included. (laughter)
My excuse was that I had a cold. (laughter) And I didn’t have a hat and I just hate cold air blowing when I have a cold. That was my excuse. Daryl was with me. (laughter) He’s one of the most unselfish men I have ever met. How in the world he got on the same van as I did, I don’t know.
I remember getting on the van and I just felt so smitten in my spirit. I said to everybody, “Well, whatever the filling of the Spirit means, it certainly doesn’t mean that we should esteem others better than ourselves.” And I thought to myself, “You know those guys who came by to pick up pastors on the vans didn’t see anything much different than they’d have seen if they’d have been picking up people who just came from some kind of a marketing convention.” Maybe it was a little different because we laughed at our selfishness, but that was about all.
How would you live if you esteemed others better than yourself? The van should have pulled up and nobody should have gotten on. We should have just stood there and said,
“We just can’t go first. I can’t go first, I can’t go first, I can’t go first.” (laughter) You know come 11 o’clock! Well, okay! Since you are older we’ll put you on. That troubled me because above all, we who preach on the cross and who believe in the deep work of the Spirit, should have been the first to say, “You go. We’ll wait.”
You know Jesus said, “Except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone.” It is through the death of the cross that we bear fruit. It is coming to the end of our own rights. It is coming to the end of our own resources. Jesus said, “Whosoever shall lose his life shall find it, and whoever lets go of his life shall find it.” Are you sometimes amazed that the cross, which we love has done its work so superficially in our lives, and we still have so far to go?
“Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” He was in the glories of heaven and He came to this earth, and He was born in a manger. Let’s just think of this infinite descent from glory to grime, and then live that way. God values selflessness. Everything I see in the world fights against that kind of a spirit. His way up was down. God values humility. That’s the first lesson I see here in the text.
And then there’s a second lesson, and that is the value of suffering. How did Jesus change the world? And He changed you and me, and He certainly changed the world, didn’t He? But how did He do it? You say, “Oh, He did it through His miracles.” No, His miracles did not change the world. His miracles benefitted a few people, but only temporarily. Lazarus had to die again. Can you imagine him getting sick and saying, “Oh, this again?” Everybody that Jesus healed got sick and died of something.
You know Jesus did miracles and refused to advertise them. Today we have people who advertise them but don’t do them. It wasn’t through the miracles that Jesus changed the world. He changed the world through His suffering. And I don’t know if there’s a shortcut to that if we’re going to be redeemed. There are different kinds of suffering. Taking the cross into the world there is, of course, the suffering of circumstances. Sometimes that involves the physical sufferings, marital conflicts. There is a kind of suffering that undoubtedly attracts the attention of God because we suffer well. We should suffer well for His glory.
There’s another kind of suffering though, and that is where we receive suffering because we belong to Christ. It is sometimes called persecution. All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But there’s a third form of suffering that I think is even more precious to God, and that is voluntary suffering, such as what Christ did, where we choose to suffer, though we would not have to. We could go back to our safe place, but we take the risk of sacrifice on behalf of somebody else. That is special to God.
Bonhoeffer, of course, was the theologian who has attracted the attention really of the world, who was willing to stand up to Hitler, and who made the statement that when Christ calls a man He bids him come and die, and he died at Flossenbürg at the age of 39. Bonhoeffer used to ask the people of his day and the church of his day, “Who is Jesus Christ for you? Christ said, ‘If you go into the jails, inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto Me.’ Let’s not criticize the inn keeper. We do everyday what he did, except we do it knowingly, and he did it ignorantly. He didn’t know that Mary was bearing the Son of God, so let’s let him off the hook. The fact is that you and I know that when we visit someone, Jesus expressly says, ‘You have visited Me. You have clothed Me.’ Christ says that.”
And therefore we have the opportunity to ask the question today, “Who is Jesus Christ to us today?” In Bonhoeffer’s day, it was the Jews, but who is it today in America? Certainly it is the unborn child. It is the single parent. It is the child reared in the ghetto. It is the poor. It can also be the cab driver.
By the way, as a parenthesis, this week I caught a cab and talked to the man who listens to our radio ministry, and he was telling me that Dr. Stowell of Moody Bible Institute was in the cab with him. And this man is a believer, and Dr. Stowell took him by the hand and led him in prayer. And he must have told me that three or four times and he said, “He actually held my hand.” That’s who Christ is to us – cab drivers, and people at work who are very un-Christlike. It gives us a chance to treat them as Christ would treat them. And as a result of those opportunities we extend beyond ourselves. There is a death that we need to die inside so that we can see that our circle of sacrifice must be increased if we are to look like the redeemed and meet Nietzsche’s challenge, because they are out there. And what they want to know – what the world wants to know - is what Jesus looks like.
In Brazil there was a festival, and at these festivals, you know, they always sell trinkets, and there was a sign up that said, “Cheap crosses for sale.” I wonder if that’s the way our cross is. It’s nothing that’s this dramatic we say to ourselves. None of this business of humility! My cross means ascend the ladder. Do this, but whatever you do, do not become a servant and do not accept the humble place. Let somebody else do that. Yet it is to the brokenness of the cross; it is that cross of humility and sacrifice to which God calls us.
There was a legend of a man walking along, carrying his cross, and it got rather heavy, especially the older he got. And maybe that’s the way you feel today. You say, “When I was younger I used to be able to bear the cross more easily, but my cross seems to be getting a little heavy.” And so the story goes that he was walking along and he met a woodsman who happened to be chopping some trees. And the man said, “You know, I have this cross, but the cross is too heavy. I wonder if you would let me use your ax so I could chop some of it off.” The woodsman said, “Sure,” so the man did that, and he carried his cross and it was much lighter.
Then the story goes that the man came to the Promised Land and noticed that there was a gulf between him and the Promised Land that only the cross could bridge. His cross was too short. And may I say to you today that when we make our cross lighter through our own selfishness, our own advancement, and our own agendas – the lighter we make our cross the weaker our witness to the world.
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that if you are here and you’ve never accepted Christ as Savior that the way to get saved is through suffering or taking up your cross. That’s a challenge for Christians. The way you get saved is to accept the expensive cross that God gives us where Jesus died for sinners as a sin bearer. And if you believe in Him you can be saved today – freely saved. Then the challenge to you and to me is to “take up your cross and follow Me.”
And so I end today by asking you the question, “What do we do with Nietzsche’s challenge? The answer of Philippians 2 is that when we have this mind in us, which was in Christ, voluntarily choosing the low road, the humble path, the path of abuse, and the path of brokenness, and the path of One who had humbly given Himself into the hand of God to be crucified, it is out of that death that life comes. It is the cross with all of its weight that changes us and makes us members of the redeemed who actually look redeemed.
I end with a question. Who is there now (perhaps the person sitting beside you or maybe it’s in your home, your neighborhood, your community, your sphere of influence) to whom you can be Christ? Who is Christ to you today, and this week?
And now I invite you to pray.
Our Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that you will break down the selfishness that exists in my heart and in the hearts of all those who have heard this message. How unlike Jesus we really are. We ask that graciously, Father, you might work in us a deep work. May we be willing to serve unrecognized, unknown humbly, and then, Father, may we be willing to suffer on behalf of those for whom we don’t have to suffer, but we choose to lighten their load for our own sacrifice. Help all of us, Father, to look like our Redeemer.
Now if God has spoken to you, you tell Him whatever is on your mind and heart right now. Invite Him to begin in you a work that will take the rest of your lifetime, begin a work that will change you and make us [you?] like Jesus.
Hear our prayer, oh Lord, for we are needy. Amen.