The Centrality of the Cross

John 12:20-33; Jer.31:31:34

On the15th February 1597, 26 Christians were crucified at Niz-hiz-aka Hill in Nagasaki, Japan. Among them was a young seventeen year old boy, Thomas Kosaki, who had been sentenced to die for his Christian witness – along with his father. He wrote a letter to his mother the evening before his crucifixion.

“Mother, we are supposed to be crucified tomorrow in Nagaski. Please do not worry about anything because we will be waiting for you to come to heaven. Everything in the world vanishes like a dream. Be sure that you never lose the happiness of heaven. Be patient and show love to many people. Most of all, about my little brothers Mansho and Philipo, please see to it that they are not delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. Mother, I commit you to the Lord.”

Read John 12 verses 20-32. I don’t think this is an easy passage to understand. It focuses – perhaps like no other Gospel passage on the Cross of Jesus – an event we of course remember and give thanks for on Good Friday. Perhaps we can best understand it by looking at three themes that emerge from it.

 

  1. A BROADENING OF JESUS’ MISSION

Jn 12:20 opens with Greeks who come to see Jesus. And for the first time we get a glimpse of Jesus’ mission widening from  “the lost sheep of Israel” of Mt 15:24 (in the story of the Faith of the Canaanite woman)to “all men” of John 12:32. For Jesus’ Gospel is for both Jew and Greek. It reminds us that the salvation Jesus offers is offered to those in the Church and those outside. And if Jesus had a heart for those outside the Church –then we must have a heart for them too – if we want to truly be his disciples .

But the message that Jesus brings is a radically different one to what the Jews or Greeks expected. The coming of the Kingdom of God (expressed as a New Covenant) was prophesied 600 years earlier by the prophet Jeremiah when he said:

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” (Jer. 31:31). The Gospel is, therefore, not a linear extension either of Jewish religious enthusiasm or of Greek intellectual curiosity. Rather Jesus reveals to us a third way – the way of the Cross, which St Paul describes as a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” (1 Cor. 1:23)

And as an aside – perhaps this is a warning to us to be careful ∙ not to trust in the power of our rituals to reveal God (as the Jews did); nor to seek him by the might of human intellect – divorced from divine revelation (as the Greeks did).

Nowhere does Jesus point more clearly to his death than in John 12 verse 32 in where he is recorded as saying: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Jesus himself reveals that the Cross is paramount to the Christian Gospel. Jesus’ Gospel is not simply his moral teaching –as some in Christian circles claim and no more. We cannot avoid the centrality of the Cross if we are going to truly reflect to the world the true Gospel of Jesus. The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection is a spiritual singularity where Satan is defeated, the brokenness of the past and the folly of the present are redeemed and hope for the future restored.

2. THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Jesus came to this earth to herald in the coming of the Kingdom of God (see Jn. 3:3). And the cross is our means of access to that Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is a particularly New Testament concept. Three of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark and John – use the term “Kingdom of God” and Luke uses an equivalent: “the Kingdom of heaven.” We don’t however find the term “Kingdom of God” used in the Old Testament – though it is mentioned in the OT Apocrypha (Wisdom 10:10).  The term, however, was around in Jesus’ day – misunderstood by the Jews in much the same way as the term “Messiah” was.

For the expectation of the Jews of Jesus’ day was that God’s kingdom would be an earthly kingdom (Israel). And that it would be a kingdom where God would send his Messiah to come and punish their enemies (in particular the Roman oppressors) and reward the just (i.e. the Jews). For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom at all. Rather as one commentator has put it – the Kingdom of God is “God’s sovereign and dynamic rule” ushering in the end of history and time.

We also see in John’s Gospel that membership of the kingdom of God brings with it the benefit of eternal life. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus recorded in John 3 – where Jesus said:“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again, (Jn 3:3).”

3. THE COST OF THE KINGDOM

There is however a cost to the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus summed it up when he said, using an agrarian analogy: 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

His point is that just as the single wheat has to die before the useful fruit – the grain can be harvested, so Jesus had to die on the Cross before the Kingdom of God could be made accessible to mankind. Or put another way, the Church was birthed through the Cross of Jesus.

But there is also a personal cost to us if we are to be part of God’s Kingdom – reflected in Jesus’ own words:

25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.

There was a real cost too for the first disciples. The Early Church was mercilessly persecuted by the Roman State in the first two centuries of the first Millenium with many martyrdoms. Indeed if they had not paid the price, we would not have the Bible today. Thomas Kosaki and his fellow Christians in the 16th century accepted the price. The Church of England was also founded on the blood of martyrs. Christian men – such as Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Latimer and Ridley  were all burnt at the stake in Oxford for the sake of Christ about 450 years ago – died to safeguard the Gospel.

How prophetic were Hugh Latimer’s words to Nicholas Ridley at the stake when he said: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”

Jesus asks us the question: Are we willing to be disciples prepared to pay the cost of giving up our selfish desires? Are we indeed prepared to give up our whole lives to Him? As  indeed many are today; with faithful Christians dying in many parts of the world, especially Egypt and Syria. 

As Jim Eliot put the matter:
“He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose”

Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself on the cross, his defeat of Satan and death in the resurrection are at the very core of the Christian faith. Any attempt to dilute it or reduce its significance, as is often the case today in a seeming attempt to make the Gospel “more credible”, corrupts the Gospel message and insults those who have given their lives to preserve its integrity. Why should I believe in a Jesus who died a failure, like a criminal, on the cross? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead what can he offer me? What is the basis of life after death if Jesus is not our champion; winning it for us?

Without the cross mankind is without hope, and doomed to live in a failing earthly kingdom ultimately destined for extinction!

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