Christ's execution at the hands of the Romans in about 30AD must surely be the most famous death of all time. His cross became the central symbol of Christianity, but why was it so significant?
The apostle Paul, in a letter he wrote around 54AD to the Christians in Corinth, gave them a short summary of Christian belief in a structured, stylised sentence, designed to be committed to memory. It is the earliest 'creed' to have survived and is thought to have originated from the Jerusalem church within a few years of Christ's death. Paul introduces it by saying that he handed on for them to memorise what he in turn had committed to memory earlier (c35AD). This is what it says:
'As of first importance
Christ died for our sins,
in accordance with the scriptures,
and was buried:
he was raised on the third day,
in accordance with the scriptures,
to Peter and then to the Twelve.'
'As of first importance, Christ died for our sins'. In those few words, Paul relayed the crux of his message, at once both simple and profound. Of course, Christ's death can be seen as a great example of an innocent victim enduring a miscarriage of justice; of a courageous man suffering humiliation, rejection, pain and alienation; of the ultimate sacrifice of love in the teeth of evil. But that is not what this creed relays.
At the heart of the Gospel from its earliest proclamation, is a truth more disturbing and liberating, a truth that can be grasped by the simplest mind as well as the most sophisticated. It has to do with the moral responsibility we all carry before God for the lives we have lived and the deeds we have done. It concerns the moral character of God whose purity we are told is such that he cannot even look upon evil. It relates to God's just judgement upon each of us - which means that none of us can stand without shame in his presence. We are condemned even in our own judgement, for none of us has lived up to his own ideals. Even the most blunted consciences are troubled as we reflect on those things we have done which we ought not to have done, and those things we failed to do which we should have done.
Our guilt feelings of course, which can depress us and disturb our sleep, are not an accurate measure of our guilt as God sees it. The cross of Christ addresses our true guilt as seen by the all-knowing and morally pure God. It is that guilt, and the punishment it deserves, which was somehow laid upon the innocent Christ. In the eyes of men, he died the death he deserved for blasphemy. In the eyes of God, the innocent Christ died a death that we deserve.
Hundreds of years previously, the Jewish prophet Isaiah had foretold this event:
'Surely, he took up our sufferings and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, and struck down by him. He was pierced for our faults, he was crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace and through his wounds we are healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each of us turning his own way, and the Lord has burdened him with the sins of all of us.'
The message of the Gospel for the world is that each of us can be forgiven by God, and have our relationship with him restored, no matter what horrendous crimes against God and humanity we may have committed. The only condition is that we turn away from our wickedness and put our trust in Jesus, which implies that we become his committed followers.
This offer of forgiveness has nothing to do with whether we have ever behaved like 'nice' people! It is offered by God to the whole human race, solely on the basis of Christ's death in our place on the cross, the innocent dying in the place of the guilty. To refuse this offer of forgiveness means that we chose to face the judgement of God unforgiven.