The Cross: The Suffering Of GodErwin W. Lutzer | November 17, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
Skeptics always question God’s love. But we must point them to the cross where the Son of God suffered and died.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit decided that the Son would give up His life in our place, and suffer to redeem sinners. The weight of the Father’s justice fell upon the Son, and Jesus submissively bore it as our substitute.
That’s how much God cares for us. He loves us, and we can only be sure of this when we sit at the foot of the cross.
God cares about the world. Now there’s a statement that is part of evangelical theology. Everyone knows that God cares about the world. But what if you meet a skeptic, somebody who doesn’t believe that? To what are you going to point? Are you going to point to nature and say, “Well, God gives us rain and sun and crops so that we can eat?” Well, that’s wonderful, but nature also gives us tornadoes and floods and hailstorms and earthquakes that devastate and that tear, and He gives us drought. You can’t look at nature and believe that God loves us.
Are you going to point to other human beings and say, “Well, we know that God loves the world because we see love in others, and therefore there must be love in God?” Well, you and I know that for every person who is generous there’s one who is not generous, somebody who is stingy and greedy and small minded. We read the newspaper and we look at television and we see all of the devastation, the wars, the heartache and the terrible things that have been done by human beings, and nobody can convince me that God is love just because I look at a person or persons.
Where do we look when we see love and say, “That’s it? It’s there.” There’s only one point in which we can do that and that is the cross. It’s the cross, because it is there at the cross that God overcame our skepticism. It is there that God demonstrated His love toward us finally and completely and unambiguously.
Now we live in a very cynical age, don’t we? There are many people who believe that Christianity has failed the world and they think that we have to get a new religion. And some of us struggle because we see that God does not intervene in the heartaches of life, and we are tempted to wonder what kind of a God it is in whom we have come to trust.
I agree completely with C. S. Lewis when he said his fear is not to wake up some morning and disbelieve in God. “That will probably not happen,” Lewis said. His greater fear is to wake up and realize that he believes such dreadful things about Him. That’s our problem. Have not all of us, as we have seen the carnage of this world, and we’ve seen the suffering and the injustice, sometimes cried out in the depths of our heart, “Oh God, You can’t really care? You don’t care.” We’ve all said it, have we not? And yet we are commanded to take the cross into the world, and that is the emphasis in this series of messages. What kind of a cross do we set before the world? What do we say to a world of people who say, “I don’t matter?” How can we look them in the eye and say, “Yes, you matter because God cares?”
Well, today we’re going to hopefully see why the cross of Christ is the answer to the inner turmoil of finding a God to whom we really do matter. Now as we go on this journey I’m going to begin with some very familiar territory, but as we progress, the territory will become more unfamiliar I believe. And I want you to be with me all the way. Don’t stop to smell the flowers along the way. Stick with us.
First of all, let’s look at two very familiar passages of Scripture, and then I shall ask you to turn to Isaiah 53. In fact, if you wish to, you can turn to Isaiah 53 right now. But two familiar passages! The first is 2 Corinthians 5:19. Just listen to it. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” And then another: “He bore in His own body our sins upon the tree.”
As I look at Isaiah 53 I see three descriptive words. They are not found in the text but they are words that describe what is happening here, a passage of Scripture, which, someone says, Isaiah wrote as if he were sitting at the very foot of the cross. And there he sits, and he writes about Jesus Christ dying there for us.
The first word that I see is the word substitution. Now you know, of course, the idea of substitution is found throughout the whole Bible. In the early chapters of Genesis when God killed animals and clothed Adam and Eve, those animals were a substitute. They died so that Adam and Even would have a covering. And then you get to Isaac. Abraham was willing to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah, and when he found a ram instead, the Scripture says he offered the ram in the place of his son, a type of Jesus Christ who is to come. And we get to the Passover, and the lamb that was slain, and the blood that was put upon the doorposts of the houses. That lamb was killed in the place of the firstborn. But of course, lambs and rams do not take away sin. Only God can do that. And so here we have now the language of substitution.
I pick it up in verse 3. Speaking of Christ it says: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” He did it for us.
Now when God looked around, if we may use human language, and was looking for a substitute for humanity, animals couldn’t do it. Human beings couldn’t do it. God says that He is going to have to do it Himself. If mankind is to have a qualified substitute, the Son of God will have to pay the penalty so that that penalty will be sufficient. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.
An author by the name of Canfield wrote, “God proposed to direct against His very own self in the person of His Son the full weight of the righteous wrath which we deserved.” You see, God became both a judge and the substitute. He condemned us. He pointed out our sin, and then He paid for the sin that He brought to our attention. That’s the heart of the Gospel. He bore our sins in His own body on the tree.
Now isn’t it true that just a week or two ago there was a woman who threw herself over the body of her son as a car was coming toward them, and she was killed and the son lived? That’s substitution.
Jehovah, bad His sword awake
Oh Christ it woke ‘gainst Thee.
Thy open bosom was its ward,
Brave the storm for me.
Christ took the hit that belongs to us. And that’s the essence of the Gospel. Yesterday, coming back from St. Louis on an airplane, God put me next to a woman who needed to hear this. We had a wonderful talk about her life, but it soon drifted to Christ. And she said, “How can you be so sure that if this plane goes down you are going to be in heaven? Where does the assurance lie?” She was a good woman. I told her lovingly that she was a good woman but not good enough for God, and that she needed to trust Christ. Wherein is the assurance? I said that it is the deep settled conviction that when Jesus died on the cross He did everything that God will ever demand of me, and that there is nothing that God will demand that Christ has not already done on my behalf, and I have embraced that as my own. Now that is assurance – the language of substitution.
There’s a second descriptive word for Isaiah 53, and that is the word submission. Speaking of Christ, it says in verse 7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
Now when the Bible says that Jesus went to His death like a lamb, don’t think that this means that Jesus was as weak as a lamb. Oh no, no! He had all kinds of options that He didn’t take, but it was the symbol of submission. He submitted to the will of the Father, and He submitted therefore to the violence and to the injustice, and to the cruelty of man, and allowed Himself to be nailed to the cross without so much as really a whimper. He did not try to get out of the cross on which He knew He must die.
But now we come to (What shall we say?) a misrepresentation that many of us are easily guilty of. It is easy for us to think that it was Christ’s idea to redeem humanity, and the benevolent Lord Jesus convinced God, the Father, that if He (that is to say Christ) were to die, then the Father could be appeased, and a reluctant Father said, “Alright, if You want to die for these people, fine. I will accept Your sacrifice.” It’s easy to fall into that error, and to think that somehow God was not involved in this. All that He did is He took all of His anger against us and He directed it toward Christ, and He was appeased, but He was not really a part of the loving process. It’s easy to think that. Well, that’s wrong.
Do you realize that the Bible repeatedly says, “It is because of God’s loving kindness toward us that we are redeemed?” The most famous verse, John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world that He gave…” God was not simply the recipient of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, though He was that. He was a part of the love that drew salvation’s plan.
John Stott put it very succinctly. He said, “The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal He was reluctant to bear. Nor did the Son extract from the Father as salvation He was reluctant to bestow.” Think about this. The Trinity was united at creation, wasn’t it? The Trinity was united with one will and one voice and one purpose of creation. How much more so in something much more grand, namely redemption? The entire Godhead was involved. The will of the Father, and the will of the Son coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love. God loved the world. There is the language here of submission, but it is a mutual submission to accomplish the task of redemption.
There’s a third word and that is, of course, the word suffering. I won’t reread any of these passages, and unfortunately we don’t have time to go through the entire chapter, but clearly it is a story of suffering. Jesus Christ suffered. He bore our griefs. He was stricken. He was smitten of God, yes, and afflicted. It pleased the Lord to bruise Him. Clearly Christ suffered.
Now I want to ask you a question. Did God, the Father, suffer? Did He or did He not? You know, throughout the centuries theologians have debated this, and they have come up with the impassability of God – not impossibility but impassability. Theologians love big words so that you and I can come along and try to figure out what it is that they mean, but there’s an idea there. The word impassable means that He is unaffected either by pleasure or pain. And they argue that based on the immutability of God, the fact that the Lord does not change, that therefore He cannot be subject to the pushes and pulls of emotions like we as human beings, and therefore God is beyond all of the pleasures and the pains of this world. And actually that error, and it is an error, has led to the idea that somehow Jesus is compassionate, but the Father isn’t.
Well, let me ask you a question today. Is the Father compassionate, or is the Father passive and detached and unaffected by our humanness and our dilemma? There is a passage, and there are many passages, but let me simply read one to you. Now listen. This is God the Father. This is Jehovah speaking, and you answer whether or not God is a God of deep pathos and emotion.
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat like Zeboiim? My heart is turned over within me. All my compassions are kindled. I will not execute my fierce anger. I will not destroy Ephraim again, for I am God and not a man, the Holy One who is in your midst, and I will not come in My wrath.”
Does God have emotion? He is a being with deep emotion. Far from being untouched by the human dilemma, He is one who not only knows what we are going through, but He is keenly aware of pain, having endured it Himself.
You say, “Well, does not this impinge on the sovereignty of God? I mean, is God the victim of emotions, just like we are?” The answer is no. Here’s the difference. You see, you and I are subject to emotions because of circumstances that we cannot control. God is not a jilted lover. He’s not someone who wishes he wouldn’t have to endure pain, but things kind of got out of control and what is He to do? He has to endure it as best as He can. No! God is one who has voluntarily and willingly chosen to suffer. It was a choice. He did not have to. He had the option of creating a whole bunch of other worlds, worlds in which there was no sin, worlds in which there was no fall, but He chose this particular world because He said, “I voluntarily choose suffering.” And that’s why He remains God. He remains God completely. He remains God because it was the consent of the Godhead to suffer. Let us just simply say boldly that when you see Christ on the cross, you see God on the cross. Jesus said, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.”
Is it true to say that God died for man? P. T. Forsythe said, “God dying for man! I am not afraid of that phrase. In fact, I cannot do without it. It is unthinkable a Son would suffer on the cross and the Father would not suffer.”
Are you all with me today? I hope so. Parents, think about this. Think of your son being crucified. Think about your daughter being crucified. Are you telling me that a child could be crucified and go through that terrible ordeal, and we simply say, “Well, you know the child suffered, but the parents didn’t suffer?” Oh no! What kind of a parent would that be if he didn’t suffer more than the child who is being crucified?
When Jesus said, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?” that was the suffering of Christ, but it was also the suffering of God. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself. There’s an Italian church in which there is a picture of the crucifixion, and Jesus is dying there on the cross. And there is a nail through His hand, but behind the picture there is this shadow that represents God the Father. And the same nail that goes through the hand of Christ goes through the hand of God.
Let me draw some conclusions from what we have said so far today. First of all, God feels our pain. He really does. He was the chief actor. He was the chief player. It is because of the mercy of God toward us that His Son was given. God cares.
Phil Donohue, that great interpreter of American culture, was giving some reasons of why he was disillusioned with Christianity, and here are his words. “How could an all-knowing, all-loving God allow His Son to be murdered on the cross to redeem my sins? If God, the Father, is so loving, why didn’t the Father go to Calvary and do it Himself?” And the answer is, “Phil, in Christ, He did. He did it Himself. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”
And then there was the little girl who prayed and said, “Oh, I love Jesus, but I’m really scared of God.” She needs her theology corrected because it is impossible to separate the heart of Jesus and the heart of God, as if to say that God is stern and uncaring and unloving and demanding, and Jesus is sweet and compassionate and loving and kind, and is touched with the feelings of our infirmities. That is a false theology, and it is that kind of theology that sometimes makes us think dreadful things about God that we should never think. “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” You see, God hasn’t turned His back on the human race in anger. Someday He will, but not during this era of grace when people can come to Him and repent. And God is one who was willingly subjected to the rejection of His creation, and He willed that He would be rejected, and He chose that path. And as a result of that, we can say today with integrity that God cares and is touched and moved by your pain.
There’s a second conclusion, and that is that God suffers with us, even today. It’s not just limited to the cross. He said already in Isaiah 43 that when you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and the floods will not overtake you because I will walk with you through the furnace of affliction. In Deuteronomy 31:8 the Lord says He goes ahead of His people in their suffering. And in the New Testament, God, of course, is the silent sufferer. When Jesus came out of heaven and said to Paul, “Why persecutest thou Me?” it wasn’t just that Jesus was feeling the pain of His people who were going through all that terror. And you know today, there is more persecution and more heartache and more deaths on account of Jesus Christ than ever before in history, as people are dying for their faith. It is not as if this goes unnoticed in heaven by a calloused God who has seen evil for so many centuries that He has gotten used to it and it doesn’t affect Him anymore.
Let me tell you something. If you love somebody and they are suffering, you suffer with them, and God loves us and He suffers with His people. The reason I preach this message is that I want to say something to that young man who was a disciple of Christ, who witnessed for Christ, but when his sister was brutally raped and murdered, the boy decided to leave the faith and to say, “If that’s the way God is I’m not going to have anything to do with Him again. If He could be in heaven, and if He could see what is happening and not intervene, I will not serve Him.” And I want to put my arm around him and say, “God cares. God cares.”
A woman, in anger, whose son had died in a truck accident, said to her pastor, “Where was your God when my son was killed?” to which he replied, “He was in the same place where He was when His Son was killed.” We have a suffering God. Now that doesn’t answer all of our questions. It doesn’t relieve the mystery. It’s not that we can now look at a circumstance and we can see in it everything that we would want to see. What is means is that there is an explanation, and someday God may give it to us. And it also means that since God chose suffering and willed it with all of these different options, there must be some grand worthwhile purpose to which all of it moves, and with that we can have confidence that God is involved and there is a purpose. There is no place, my friend, today, where your sorrows are more keenly felt than heaven. People may not feel it on earth. You may think that people have become calloused, and you have been neglected in your need, but God knows and He cares, and He has felt what you have gone through.
There’s a third lesson, and that is that our calling is to really suffer in the world. That’s our calling. You know, we’re talking about taking the cross into the world, and later on we’ll talk about that more specifically as to what it means, and the implications of the cross in daily living, but suffering is to be the mark of the Christian. All who live godly lives in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. I like the words of Bonhoeffer who said that suffering is not some interruption that is brought into our life. Bonhoeffer said, “Suffering is our calling.” We are to fill up the sufferings of Christ, the Scripture says. We are to share in His suffering. And that’s what troubles me sometimes when our rights are taken away, and when things happen in society where we feel that we are going to lose whatever it is that we consider valuable in this life. We become angry, and we become defensive, and we become very unChristlike – very unChristlike.
You know, I wish that all that the world needed was words. We’ve got plenty of words. We’ve got words in books. We’ve got words on tapes. We’ve got words in churches. We’ve got words on the radio and on television. Why don’t we just give them words? God ordained it in such a way that most people will not believe the Gospel simply because they have heard it. They need to see it lived out to give it its authenticity.
Michael Baumgarten - how in the world would you know that he is German? Baum in German means tree, and garten means garden. So you have a tree garden. Michael Treegarden, a Lutheran pastor, after being excommunicated from his church for standing for what he believed to be right, said this: “There are times in which lectures and publications will no longer suffice to communicate the necessary truth. At such times the deeds and the sufferings of the saints create a new alphabet in order to reveal the secret truth. The gospel of suffering puts the Good News in entirely different light, and it communicates it with authenticity.”
You see, maybe the time will come in America when no one will listen until we have students at our universities willing to fail because they will not accept what is (quote) politically correct. Perhaps there will be no transformation until nurses are willing to lose their jobs rather than participate in abortions. Maybe our witness will not be authenticated until there are those who are willing to go through hardship at work, even when you have politically correct laws in the workplace, who nevertheless will witness for Christ and thereby be punished, but will take it with a sense of tranquility and a sense of joy – not with a victim mentality but as the early Apostles who rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for His name. We represent a suffering God.
A missionary in Kenya said this about some of the believers there who had been through death and mutilation. He said, “I am constantly humbled by their patience and lack of bitterness, which springs from an acceptance of the cross in their lives.” That’s what the cross enables us to do.
Jesus, who when He was reviled, reviled not again. When He suffered, He uttered no threats but committed Himself unto Him that judges righteously. That is our example. That is our model of suffering, and what we must be willing to do is to, in some way, endure at least a part of what He endured. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My name’s sake. Great is your reward in heaven.” God suffered. We should suffer, and in doing so, if we do it correctly, we represent God.
You say, “Well, shouldn’t we change everything we can change?” Yes, of course. I have no better advice than the old adage that says, “Change everything that you can change except what you cannot change, and pray to God that you know the difference.” Blessed are those who see God in their suffering.
You know, of course, that we talk about seeing God more mightily in America. I told you about England in a previous message in great spiritual need during the 1800s, and how God raised up two men. And one was Charles Wesley, and the other was his brother, John. And the Wesley brothers preached throughout the length and breadth of England, and of course, in the 1700s they came here as well, and they preached over in New England. And God did mighty works. What they believed is what we need to believe – that at the end of the day, what America really needs is to see the cross, borne lovingly and joyfully by Christians who are called by His name.
One of the brothers, that is, Charles, loved to write hymns, and he wrote the hymn with which we are going to conclude today. Can you sing it? Can we sing it authentically?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
And if God did that, we must be like Him in our willingness to suffer. Before we turn to the hymn, would you bow with me in prayer?
Our Father, we do want to thank You today that we do have a God with wounds. We thank You, Father, that You do love us, and therefore You do care for us. We thank You that You are not unaffected by those who cry to You, victims of injustice, those who seek You in times of great need and bitter, bitter disappointment. We thank You, Father, that Jesus cares and You care. And we rejoice today that there is one God – Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is one – and we affirm today that we have believed in a God who has chosen to voluntarily suffer, and to bear our penalty, to be both judge and substitute.
Before I close this prayer, if you have never believed on Christ, you can do that right now. If you’ve heard the Word today, and you say, “Yes, I embrace Jesus now as my Savior,” you tell Him that because He is listening, and He knows.
Father, we thank You today that because You care, people matter. Thank You that we have a message of hope to those who feel so lonely, so rejected and so hurt. Grant us today the grace to represent You well. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.