April 2, 2021
Romans 4:25 tells us that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Do we truly understand what that means? In this Good Friday message, Alistair Begg looks at how Christ was betrayed, denied, mocked, crucified, and buried to atone for our sins and reconcile us to God. Believers are spared from God’s wrath not by our deeds but by Jesus’ blood and merit alone. Credited with His righteousness, we can rest in full assurance that Christ will never fail us.
I’m going to read from the Bible, from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 15, and beginning to read at the twenty-first verse. Mark 15:21. And here we have Mark’s account of the events that we read briefly from Matthew on:
“And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’
“There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God for his Word.
A brief prayer:
Here we find ourselves this evening by your providence, gracious God. You know every single one of us, all about us—the good, the bad, the ugly. And we bow before you, a God who loved the world so much that you gave your only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Thank you that whoever comes to the Lord Jesus, he will never turn away. And so we pray that in these moments of meditation, before we share together in Communion, that the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts may be found acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Well, the man was an Ethiopian. He was in a chariot—probably part of his civil privileges in the position that he held within the government of Candace, who was the queen. He had been in Jerusalem, listening to things that were being said and pondering questions of his own heart. And somewhere along the road he had picked up a copy of a scroll, part of the scroll of Isaiah the prophet. And as he was making his journey, he was reading in his chariot and from this scroll. And presumably, as was common in those days, he was reading out loud. He was not to know that God had dispatched a messenger to come and find him. He actually was a God-fearer. He was clear about the fact that there was a God and that he was interested in God, but he had no notion that God, the living God, would send somebody to seek him out—just like some of us who perhaps are here this evening: God-fearers, yet but with no notion that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ seeks us out individually, knows our names, knows our needs, and comes to us. And so the evangelist draws alongside the chariot, and hearing him, he says to the man, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” To which the man replied, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”—which was a very good response.
And what I want to do in the moments that we have is take Philip’s question—because it was Philip who asked the question—to take it, if you like, to be posed to us. To us. So I find myself reading the material I’m about to read with you and saying, “Alistair, do you understand what you are reading? Do you?” That’s the question. And hopefully our response, in the words of the hymn writer, will be,
Oh, make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant for you, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.
Three points, briefly.
First of all, that in the Gospels, part of which we’ve read, there is provided for us a description of the events as they took place. Obviously, you will have been reading on your own—at least I hope so, or that you will, even in the weekend as it proceeds. And what we discover when we read this: that there is nothing Hollywood about these Gospel records. In fact, it is distinctly solemn in the way in which it reads, which is why I’ve tried to read it with a due sense of solemnity, even as you have listened in the same way.
The material is described in a way that is unmistakable. But it is at the same time, if you like, understated, or perhaps we would say restrained. And so, if we were to go from scene to scene to scene, this would either bear out what I’m suggesting, or it would contradict it. So, for example—and I don’t know how many of you will want to follow in your Bible, but I will just mention where I am in case you choose to. Back in chapter 14, we have the description of Christ “distressed” in the garden. In fact, we’re told by Mark that he was “greatly distressed” and he was “troubled.” In fact, he was prepared to say to his friends that he was “very sorrowful,” even to the point of death.
Now, there is nothing remotely superficial about that. It is a flesh-and-blood reality. And it speaks to the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some people have problems with the divinity of Jesus, which is unmistakable in the Bible. Others have problems, and they have a Jesus who is less than human. But here we see him, in all of the majesty of his humanity, overwhelmed—and giving, if you like, to each of us the go-ahead to be overwhelmed, the go-ahead to be distressed, the go-ahead to be troubled. If Christ was, we may too—not on account of the same issues, but nevertheless. And so, when we say, “I wonder if anybody knows what I’m going through, I wonder if anybody knows and cares,” we may be certain that the distressed Christ knows and the distressed Christ cares.
Not only do we see him distressed, but we find him also betrayed. Betrayed. Betrayed for cash and betrayed by a kiss—cash and a kiss by an enemy living in the disguise of a friend. Judas was Christ’s enemy. He pretended to be his friend. And you will remember that in that scene in the upper room, when Jesus announces the fact that “one of you will betray me,” they didn’t all immediately look at one person in the room. In fact, they all said individually, “Is it I?” “Is it I?” It is possible to go through the motions of Christianity, appearing to all intents and purposes to be the friend of Jesus and yet, in your heart, not to be.
Distressed, betrayed, denied. Denied. What a tragedy that the man with the big mouth and the foot first and the person who got most of the questions right and most of the questions wrong should collapse like a broken deck chair when everything went south. And the context is this: it says in the Gospel, “And some began to spit on [Jesus],” and they covered his face—they blindfolded him—and then they struck him when he couldn’t see what they were doing. And they said to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards all “received him with blows.” And it immediately says, “And … Peter was below in the courtyard.” He was below more ways than one—the betrayer.
Distressed, betrayed, denied, mocked. Mocked by the soldiers. The soldiers. And so they said, “Let’s put a crown of thorns on him. Let’s salute him.” And they struck his head with a reed, and they spat on him, and they knelt down to honor him. And when they had mocked him, they tore off the purple and put his own clothes back on him, and they led him out. But they weren’t alone in that, because the passersby were actually doing the same thing: “And those who passed by derided him.” They wagged their heads, saying, “Oh-ho! You’d destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. We listened to what you said.” Yes, they heard what he said, but they didn’t hear what he said. He wasn’t talking about the temple. He was talking about the temple of his body. And they mocked him.
You would think the religious people would have enough in them to say, “This is not the kind of thing that we should be involved in.” No! Not for a moment. No, they were right there with them. The chief priests and the scribes, they mocked him to one another. They said, “He saved others. He can’t save himself. Let him come down from the cross, that we may see and believe.” The only possibility that you would ever see and believe is not a Christ who has come down but a Christ who hangs there.
And then Christ crucified, when the sixth hour had come and the darkness was there. You know, what I find quite striking about the thing is the absence of any of the material that mostly finds its way into the movies. I mean, you will look in vain for any detail in any of the Gospels. Here, in Mark’s Gospel, it says, “And it was the third hour when they crucified him.” That’s it. “Well,” you say, “but the people understood what crucifixion was. It was so brutal and so on.” Yeah, but nevertheless.
And they crucified him between two thieves. One was penitent, and one was impenitent. Staggering, isn’t it? So close to Jesus, in the dying embers of your life, and still you’re prepared to cuss him out. Amazing. And yet amazing love! One says to the other, “You know, I’m not sure we should keep on with this stuff, because we are up here getting what our sins deserve, but the man on the middle has done nothing wrong.” And then he says, “Lord, would you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” And essentially, Jesus says, “I’ll do much better than that. Today—today, in my presence…”
And then buried. Buried. Joseph of Arimathea has gotta be a hero for some of us. This man, coming in from the country, braves himself to go to Pilate and asks for the body. You read the record; it says that “Pilate was surprised.” “You mean he’s already dead?” Well, yes. Pilate says to one of the centurions, “Can you confirm that?” The centurion says, “Absolutely.” That was his business. They knew the difference between alive and being dead. There wasn’t any question about it. So Joseph makes a brave request, Pilate makes a surprised response, and the centurion leaves him in no doubt.
That is the end of the description section. Let me ask you: Do you understand what you are reading? What does this mean? And why, for goodness’ sake, would it ever matter?
Second, by way of explanation. We know this, those of us who are together regularly, because it has become something of a mantra: that in the Gospels, Jesus is revealed; in the Acts, he’s preached; and in the Epistles, he’s explained. And so, true to our standard, I want to go just to one little phrase in one of the Epistles, in Romans chapter 4, where, in what is actually half a sentence, we have this amazing statement: that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” So somebody says, “Okay, well, I have read the record in the Gospels, and I realize what has taken place.” There are many places that we can go later on in the Bible for a succinct expression of what it’s all about, but this is about as good as exists. In fact, John Murray, the late John Murray, says, “The apostle provides us with a statement, unsurpassed in its succinctness, of what is comprised in the gospel.” It’s an apt summary of what has been taking place.
And here it is, in straightforward terms. What has happened? Jesus was “delivered up.” “Delivered up.”
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That he [would deliver up] his only Son.
He was delivered up in order to atone for our sins; the sinless one dies in the sinner’s place. And he was “raised for our justification.”
Now, what is actually being done here by Paul—in fact, being done throughout the whole letter of the Romans—is an explanation of the gospel itself. And he’s declaring throughout the letter, and here in great brevity: a person’s acceptance with God—a person’s acceptance with God—is entirely—is entirely—on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. In this fourth chapter (which you can read for homework on your own), in this fourth chapter, Paul is addressing the fact that the Jews of his day—and he himself as a converted Jew—that the Jews of his day thought that a person was justified by the things they did. They thought they were justified, put right with God, by the things they did—by what they were in themselves and by what they do or did.
So Paul introduces to them an illustration to disavow them of that idea. And what he does is he says, “Let me ask you a question about Abraham.” Because Abraham is the daddy of them all, if we might say so kindly. In fact, he is the daddy of us all who believe in Jesus. But he says to them, “And let me ask you about Abraham. Let me ask you if Abraham was put right with God before he was circumcised or after he was circumcised.” Now, what he’s pointing out there is that that work, which was a work—it was something that was done—was either before or after God declared him righteous. And, of course, the answer is that it was many years before he was circumcised that the encounter took place, which you can read for yourselves in Genesis and in chapter 15. It’s an amazing encounter, and the way in which it unfolds is as dramatic as anything.
Remember that Abram at this point is a hundred years old. And God comes and he says, “I’m going to make you the father of many people. I’m going to make you the father of a great nation.” Okay. “And he brought him outside and [he] said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you[’re] able to number them.’ [And] then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Now, here’s the verse: “And [Abraham] believed [God], and he counted it to him as righteousness.” So Paul says, “Now, was Abraham put right with God by something he did, or was it simply because he believed?”
Now, that is a fundamental question, and it was very, very important for the people to whom he was writing. And I want to show you in a moment, it’s important for us too. Because as he goes on in his letter, he acknowledges the fact that the Jews, for whom he longs… You can read that in chapters 9, 10 and 11. He says, “I wish that, myself, I could be accursed, if only my Jewish people would actually come to understand who Jesus is.” He identifies the fact that they were ignorant, “ignorant of the righteousness of God,” and so they sought to “establish their own.” It’s inevitable.
Now, I can see, you’re looking at me, and some of you are saying, “Wait a minute, Alistair. Have you forgotten this is Good Friday? Now you’re in Genesis, you’re in Romans, you’ve got Abraham here, and everything else.” No, I haven’t forgotten. Hold it for just a moment. Stay with me. Stay with me. I’m gonna show you why this matters.
In this chapter, where he’s using Abraham as an illustration and leading up to the phrase that we have read just a moment or two ago, he identifies the fact that although it was humanly impossible that what God said would happen could happen, Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words”—here we go—“but the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.”
So, here’s the point, and it’s a vital point. The relevance of this ought to be clear to anyone who’s still thinking. Because the fundamental issue of religion, if you like, at whatever level and in whatever place, is, How is it possible for humanity to relate to divinity? In Christian terms: How is it possible for sinful men and women to be brought into a reconciled position with God, who made them, and flourish under God’s purposes? That is the question. On what possible basis may we be counted right with God? Now, let me tell you that the default position, the default position of the human heart, is the exact position that was true of the Jewish people, and that is to believe that my acceptance with God lies in who I am, or in what I am, or in what I do.
So if you ask people things like “So, do you know God?”—“No,” they’ll say, “I’d like to know him.” “Do you have any assurance of God’s forgiveness?” “No, but I’m working on it.” They haven’t a clue about the nature of the gospel. The nature of the gospel challenges that. “I’m a good person. I don’t lie. I don’t cheat on my income tax returns.” Or someone says, “Well, I’m a religious person,” or “I’m a spiritual person,” or perhaps, you know, “My Uncle Joe was a priest at St. Aloysius,” or, you know, “My grandpa was old Pastor Williams in the Baptist Tabernacle.” I hear it all the time: “I’m a man of conviction. I have connections.” Well, what they’re saying is, “I figure that that probably counts for something in finding acceptance with God.”
Well, let me ask you: If it does, remember the description? Why, then, the distressed, betrayed, denied, mocked, crucified, buried Christ? Why? That is the question. Why did Christ die? He didn’t die as an example so that we could go out and die. He died as a substitute. And that is the point that Paul is making. And that’s the significance of it all. He was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Do you understand what you’re reading?
Finally, just a word of application.
I think it’s correct that Evangelism Explosion started down with James Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale a long time ago. I remember those books while I was still in Scotland. And I think I’m right that what you were supposed to do when you invited yourself into somebody’s home and began to ask them questions about Christian faith, the question went along the lines of “If you were to die tonight and God should ask you, ‘Why should I allow you into my heaven?’ what, then, would you say?” I think that’s essentially the question: “What would you say?”
Well, what is the default position? “Well, I’m a pretty good person. I’ve tried to do my best. I’ve been quite religious. I certainly was in my younger years.” And then you can go back to the other stuff, as well: you know, Father Joe at St. Aloysius and Pastor Williams at the Tabernacle.
Let me tell you what the Christian’s answer is to that question. “Why should I allow you into heaven?” Answer: “There is no earthly reason why you should allow me into heaven. I am by nature selfish, sinful, devoted to my own agenda, and prepared to pay lip service to you on a passing basis. In fact, there is no reason at all. Nothing that has been done by me would make it feasible.” And the Christian would also be prepared to say, “And I would not want to claim anything that has been done in me. In me.”
This is the real issue for the believer, and with this I’m going to close. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you understand what you’re reading? Do you? You see, because fear and failure lives down this street. We are all sinful: in Christ, and yet sinners. And so when we sin, which we do, and when we fail, which we do, and when the Evil One attacks us, which he does, the real question then is: Do you understand what happened in the cross? That he was “delivered up for our trespasses” and he was “raised for our justification.”
That isn’t simply about the fact that as believers we are forgiven. It’s actually more than that: that he has not only paid the debt that we owe, about which we sang, but he didn’t get us back to a zero balance. He didn’t just get it back to zero. No, the righteous standing that is ours in Christ is not infused in us. It is imputed to us, so that that which I am is lost, if you like—the trespassing one—in all the work of the atonement, and all that God is to us in Jesus is now accredited to our account.
You see, it’s only in the awareness of God’s free grace that we have reason, then, not to stand upon my faith. I mean, if somebody asks you, “How did you become a Christian?” and you answer, “Because I… Because I… Because I…,” you’re almost inevitably off on the wrong track. The answer doesn’t start in the first person. The answer starts in the third person. If you had asked the thief on the cross who ended up in paradise with Jesus, what do you think he would have said? “So, how did you get to go to heaven?” “Because he… Because he… Because he… Because of what he did. Because of what he said. Because of what he is.”
You see what happens? I’m talking to believing people now. We feel bad. We’re aware of our sinfulness. We start to talk about “Yes, but my faith is quite strong. You know, I’m doing better than I did last Tuesday. My life is not all that it might be, but it’s getting a little better.” What are we doing? Are we pleading this to the Father or something? “Father, you know I was trying to read my Bible. Father, you know I was trying to be a witness.” The Father says, “What are you talking about? My Son was delivered up for your trespasses and he was raised for your justification!” You find it, and I find it, more impossible to believe that than to believe what Abraham had to believe when the Father told him that at a hundred years he was gonna be the father of a great nation. Is it not true? I’ll tell you what, try it out. Try it out.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
… passing over [our] transgression[s] …?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Let me end with this. This is my favorite reading from Spurgeon, and I think this gets it in a way that perhaps you say by the time I finish, “Maybe you should just have read Spurgeon in the first place.” But that’s fine too. That’s all right. This is Spurgeon, June 28, the morning of:
It is always the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self to Jesus. But Satan’s work is just the opposite; he[’s] constantly trying to make us look at ourselves instead of Christ. [And so] he insinuates, “Your sins are too great for pardon; you have no faith; you do not repent enough; you will never be able to continue to the end; you do not have the joy of His children; you have such a wavering hold on Jesus.” All these are thoughts about self, and we will never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: He tells us that we are nothing, but that Christ is everything. Remember, therefore, it is not your hold of Christ that saves you—it is Christ; it is not your … instrument—it is Christ’s blood and merits. Therefore, do not look so much to your hand with which you are grasping Christ as to Christ; do not look to your hope but to Jesus, the source of your hope; do not look to your faith, but to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith. We will never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our deeds, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we are to overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking to Jesus.” Keep your eye simply on Him; let His death, His sufferings, His merits, His glories, His intercession be fresh upon your mind. When you waken in the morning look to Him; when you lie down at night look to Him. Do not let your hopes or fears come between you and Jesus; follow hard after Him, and He will never fail you.
He “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Let’s just pause for a moment in silence, and then we’ll sing together once again.
Father, out of a multitude of words, may we hear your voice. I pray, Lord, for some who have come here actually trusting—even trusting in the fact that they’ve come here, trusting in the fact that it’s Communion. Lord, help us to understand that it is in Christ alone that our hope is found. And thank you that
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath [the] flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
 See John 3:16.
 See John 6:37.
 See Psalm 19:14.
 See Acts 8:27–31.
 Katherine A. M. Kelly, “Make Me Understand.”
 Mark 14:33–34 (ESV).
 Matthew 26:21–22 (ESV).
 Mark 14:65–66 (ESV).
 See Mark 15:17–20.
 See John 2:21.
 Luke 23:41–43 (paraphrased).
 Mark 15:44 (ESV).
 Romans 4:25 (ESV).
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 1:154.
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love” (1995).
 See Romans 4:16.
 Romans 4:10 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 15:5–6 (ESV).
 Romans 9:3 (paraphrased).
 Romans 10:3 (ESV).
 Romans 4:21–24 (ESV).
 Micah 7:18–19 (ESV).
 Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), June 28 morning reading.
 William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (1772).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.