When something hideous happens these days, we are accustomed to reactions of outrage or pity. But neither of these reactions suit what happens to Jesus.
His death on a cross hardly seems right. But everything that takes place here is what God wants to happen (Acts 2:23).
It’s by announcing the news of Christ’s death and resurrection that God is revealing his righteousness. It’s how he is exerting his power (Romans 1:16).
If you’re asking the question, ‘What is God doing about all the evil in the world?’ here’s the answer. He’s looked at it, summed it up and dealt with it. All of it. Including what you and I have done.
Let’s have a look at this. First, the clues Jesus gives us about what happens to him. And then, what the apostles tell us after the event.
When Jesus is born, an announcement is made that he will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). This must mean more than him just teaching us better ways to live. There’s a weight we carry that needs to be lifted from us.
Jesus does teach many things, but everything leads up to his great work—what he has come to do. He talks about going to Jerusalem and being killed there. His life will be a ‘ransom for many’—that is, he will pay a price to save others (Mark 10:33-34, 45). He is claiming to do what a Psalmist said is impossible—redeem the soul of another person (Psa. 49:7-9).
In fact, Jesus says if we don’t let him pay what we owe, we’ll die (Mark 8:37-38). The stakes are high. If he doesn’t die for us, we will. Offending God is not a light weight offence. Who can stand if his anger is roused (Psa. 76:7; Nahum 1:6)?
What Jesus says is very much what God has already promised to do through his suffering Servant: ‘the Lord makes his life a guilt offering’ (Isa. 53:10). Jesus knows he is this Servant. He is bearing the griefs of others (Matt. 8:16-17). He will be numbered with transgressors (Luke 22:37).
The day comes for all this to happen. Jesus asks his Father to be spared drinking ‘this cup’ (Luke 22:42-44). This term describes judgements from God on sin (Psa. 75:8). Jesus knows this, and the terror of it makes him sweat blood. He asks if there is another way. He doesn’t flinch from his task but reveals the horror of what is going to happen.
Then, when Jesus is being led out to be crucified, he says, ‘Don’t weep for me. Weep for yourselves…’ (Luke 23:28-31). This is an astonishing statement in the circumstances. He has in mind how awful it is going to be for anyone who doesn’t believe in what he is doing for the world.
And then, from his cross, Jesus cries, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ He is bearing our sin and what ought to happen to us. ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’, and he is ‘wounded for our transgressions’ (Isa. 53:4-6).
As he dies, Jesus says, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30)! God has done to sin and sinners what sinners deserve. Jesus is no victim. He has done what he was given to do, what he wanted to do, and what we need. Through him, God has done what is right—for him, and for us.
Now, Paul shows us what is meant by God’s righteousness, or being right—particularly in his letter to the Romans.
For a start, God judges what is wrong (2:2). He wouldn’t be God if he didn’t! And he certainly wouldn’t be right. But this is just the beginning.
God’s made a world and still loves it. He has plans for it, and importantly, loves it. So, he’s made promises about what he will do. And he’s keeping them. He’s not a legalist who’s only interested in him being right.
So, he reveals his rightness by doing something for us. If we trust his Son, he judges us to be righteous (1:16-17; 4:1-25; 5:17; 8:4).
This is why the death of Jesus is so important. God can’t call black white, or bad good. But his Son has owned us as his own. Our wrong has become his. All of it.
And when God made him to be sin—someone who’d never thought of doing wrong—God poured out all the rightful distain and condemnation and rejection on him. All of it.
God hasn’t swept anything under the carpet but sent his Son to bear it in our place—and its penalty. That’s what we call propitiation. Christ averts wrath from us by bearing it himself.
If you’re wondering about all the things God lets us get away with, Paul says that, up until Jesus died, he had ‘passed over’ earlier sins. But not now. What sin deserves, it gets.
And God approves and accepts what Jesus does and raises him from the dead. He’s the beginning of something entirely new—a new creation. If we acknowledge we can’t justify ourselves, and trust in Christ’s offering for us, we are credited with the rightness Jesus showed in his life and in his death. All of it.
There’s nothing as exhilarating as this (Romans 5:1-5). It’s then we realise how unconvincing our self-justification has been.
And now, there’s another way God reveals his rightness. We who are grateful recipients of God’s gift in Christ, are eager to do what is right because we have been made right with God (6:16-18).
People who don’t have this gift of righteousness are hobbled and can’t live truly. They remain self-focused and self-justifying. They call right whatever the life-style is that they have chosen.
But God shows he can get things right by pointing us to what his Son does on the cross. Here’s something that’s true, and works. It comes straight from God. It takes us to God. And it sends us out into life with delight, and with an eye for what others need from us.