In the first half of John’s gospel, we have looked at the 7 signs that reveal and establish the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.
In the second half, and particularly in the upper room discourse, we see Jesus preparing His disciples for His departure back to the Father. What is significant is that the departure is via the cross and resurrection, climaxing with the ascension to the Father’s right hand.
The cross features prominently in the second half of the gospel: in the reference to the ‘grain of wheat must die’ in chapter 12, the Lord was definitely looking to the cross and His impending crucifixion; in chapter 13, in the washing of the feet of the disciples, it is also ‘speaking’ of the cross when God Himself in the person of the Son condescends to the role of a servant and ‘serves’ humanity by dying on the cross as a substitute for the sins of humankind and reverses the results of the Fall, and recreates humanity and the whole of creation by destroying the work of the devil, the penalty, guilt and power of sin and transferring those who believe from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
As He faced the cross and He was deeply disturbed, He still cared for His followers and sought to assure them and comfort them, although He Himself agonised and His heart was heavy with the cross in view.
With the cross in focus, it is helpful for us to crystallise again some of the pertinent issues surrounding the meaning and centrality of the cross as we study the second half of the gospel of John.
The cross enforces three truths – about ourselves, about God and about Jesus Christ.
Ourselves: We must realise that our sin must be terribly horrible. The cross reveals the gravity of sin in man. Although we may conclude that what sent Jesus to the cross was the greed of Judas or the envy of the priests and Pharisees or the cowardice of Pontius Pilate – but what ultimately sent Jesus to the cross was our own greed, envy, cowardice and other sins, and Christ’s determination in love and mercy to bear our judgement and to put them away.
Let us note that apathy, selfishness and complacency blossom everywhere in the world except at the cross; it is impossible for us to face the cross of Christ with integrity and not feel ashamed of ourselves.
If there was no way at all by which the righteous God could righteously forgive our unrighteousness, except that He should bear it Himself in Christ, our sin and predicament must be very serious indeed.
It is only when we see this truth clearly, stripped of our self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, we are ready to put our trust in Jesus Christ as the Saviour we urgently need.
God: God’s love must be so wonderful beyond comprehension – He could quite justly abandon us to our own fate. He could have left us to reap the fruit of our own wrong-doing and to perish eternally for our sin and rebellion. This is exactly what we deserved – but God did not allow it. Because He loved us, He came after us in Christ; He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where He bore our sin, guilt, judgement and death, until ‘it is finished’. If we remain unmoved by this love, our hearts must truly be hard and ugly. But what God did in Christ is more than love – it is ‘grace’ which is love to the undeserving.
Christ: Christ’s salvation must be a free gift. He ‘purchased’ it for us at the high price of His own life blood so that there is nothing left for us to pay, absolutely nothing. There is nothing for us to contribute. But that does not mean that we have a licence to sin and can always count on God to forgive. In fact, the same cross of Christ, which is the ground of a free salvation, is also the most powerful incentive to a holy life and a grateful and thankful heart.
Men resent the idea that they cannot contribute, even a bit, to their salvation. They find it hard to humble themselves at the foot of the cross and confess that they cannot earn their salvation and that there is nothing at all they can give or contribute to their own salvation.
When we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God, and acknowledge what we are, namely ‘hell-deserving sinners’, only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished that we have never seen it before.
So as we focus on the centrality of the cross in the gospel of John and see the determination of the Lord Jesus to fulfil His mission at the cross, despite knowing the agony and pain awaiting Him, let us adore and worship Him for who He is, and in contrast, we bow down in deep gratefulness and contriteness.
God, the Father, in giving HIs Son, was giving Himself. It is the Judge Himself who in holy love assumed the role of the innocent victim, for in and through the person of His Son God Himself bore the penalty which He Himself inflicted. For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy Himself, God through Christ substituted Himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.
For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man; man puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices HImself for man and puts HImself where only man deserves to be.
Sacrifice, love, mercy, grace – these are the ‘virtues’ seen in God, in Christ, when we think of the cross. As we recall Christ telling the disciples that He, as Lord and Master, washed their feet, they ought to wash one another’s feet, we see the call of Jesus ringing in our ears and hearts: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me”. Here is a call to love God and the brethren sacrificially; it is a call to ‘die to self’ and to be a ‘servant’ to God and others. It is also a call to be gracious and merciful to others as we follow the example and modelling of Christ our Lord. If we are unwilling to do these and we complain, grumble, and moan about our need to give up our rights, our legitimate needs as we follow the Lord, we have not fully appreciated and comprehended what the cross means to us as believers.
More meditations on the ‘cross’ in the second half of John’s gospel
We must note that it is both God and Christ who took the initiative together to save us sinners. Whatever happened on the cross in terms of ‘God-forsakenness’ was voluntarily accepted by both in the same holy love which made atonement necessary. It was ‘God in our nature forsaken of God’. If the Father ‘gave the Son’, the Son ‘gave Himself’. If the cup symbolised the wrath of God, it was nevertheless ‘given’ by the Father (John 1 8:11) and voluntarily ‘taken’ by the Son. If the Father ‘sent’ the Son, the Son ‘came’ Himself; there was no unwillingness in either. The wills of the Father and Son coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love. We must see this clearly when we look at the cross.
The cross which appeared to be ‘shame’ and ‘weakness’ was in fact ‘glory’. It is the glorification of the Son and the Father. So Father and Son are revealed by the cross – it is the revelation of the self-humbling and self-giving of love in both. It is also the revelation of the holiness of that love, which made it necessary for the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world and the Good Shepherd to lay down His life for His sheep.
Only one act of pure love has ever been performed in the history of the world,namely the self-giving of God in Christ on the cross for undeserving sinners. True love is God’s love, not ours, and He showed it among us (Rom. 3:9) by sending HIs one and only Son into the world that He might die for us and we might live through Him. Because we were sinners, we deserved to die under the righteous anger of God. But God sent His only Son, and in sending Him came Himself, to die that death and bear that wrath instead of us. It was an act of sheer, pure, unmerited love!
When we look at the cross we see the justice, love, wisdom and power of God. It is not easy to decide which is the most brightly revealed, whether the justice of God in judging sin, or the love of God in bearing the judgement in our place, or the wisdom of God perfectly combining the two, or the power of God in saving those who believe. For the cross is indeed equally an act and demonstration of God’s justice, love, wisdom and power. The cross assures us that this God is the reality within, behind and beyond the universe.
So like the disciples of old, we must learn that the servant is not greater than the Master. For the apostles, suffering was the means to glory. More than that, suffering was glory, and whenever they were ‘insulted’ because of the name of Christ, then ‘the Spirit of glory’ rested upon them (John 12:23-24). Where faith sees glory, unbelief sees only disgrace. What was foolishness to men, and continues to be to modern intellectuals who trust in their own wisdom is nevertheless the wisdom of God. And what remains a stumbling-block to those who trust in their righteousness, like the Pharisees of the first century, proves to be the saving power of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25).