April 6, 2012
Looking back in his old age, the apostle John reflected on the cross of Christ and the love of God. At Calvary, Alistair Begg teaches, Jesus satisfied God’s wrath, which stood against us. We must understand this in order to rejoice in God’s mercy. By nature, we are estranged from God and exposed to His judgment, yet through the cross, God loves sinners without compromising His holiness. Now God looks on us without displeasure, and we can look on Him without fear.
Sermon Transcript: Print
John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
We pray briefly:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
That simple prayer, which is familiar to us now as a congregation, was actually written in the form of a song—a song that I learned as a boy in Glasgow. It was written by a man called Hudson Pope, who was, in the first half of the twentieth century, a most singularly used man in helping to speak to children, to boys and girls, about the profound truths that are in the Bible in a way that it would make it possible for them first of all to understand and then in turn to believe.
And what the prayer is simply asking is for God the Holy Spirit to do for us in the reading and meditating upon the Bible what only God can do—namely, to illumine the page to us and at the same time to open our hearts to its truth. That’s why I use it so often before we study the Bible together. It’s an appropriate prayer whenever we’re studying the Bible. I think it’s particularly appropriate when we are considering, as we are this evening, the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Because for many, if not all of us, it is a familiar theme. It is a well-walked path. Many of us, even though we may be distant from the application of its truth, may at the same time be able to articulate the very essence of the Christian story. And our text is there in front of you in the bulletin. I’ve just quoted from it—1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This is one of the summary statements that we find in the New Testament letters that clarify large chunks of the Gospel narratives. And this particular truth, this measureless theme, has provided the source for limitless numbers of poems and of songs, many of which we sing here.
We’re introduced by John—who is, of course, the disciple that Jesus loved and one who writes extensively about love both in his Gospel and in his letters—he introduces us to a love that is unconstrained by anything in us. In other words, it’s not like human love, whereby we set our affections on someone because we found something lovable in them or something that attracted us to them. This love has no such attraction. It is a love that takes the initiative in crossing the vast chasm which exists between God and his holiness and men and women in their sin.
And it is a love which, as you will note, is expressed at great cost. Kendrick we have sung already, but these are his words:
My Lord, what love is this
That pays so dearly,
That I, the guilty one,
[Should] go free?
That doesn’t seem right, does it? If I am the guilty one, surely I must pay. And so what we profess as adults we teach to our children in words that, hopefully, they’ll be able to retain as they grow older:
Wide, wide as the ocean
[And] high as the heaven above
[And] deep, deep as the deepest sea
Is my Savior’s love.
[And] I, though so unworthy,
Still am a child of his care,
For his Word teaches me
That his love reaches me everywhere.
And it is this glorious theme of the love of God that is expressed here by John.
Now, there is a big word in the text. There is a theological word in the text. I’m glad that we now are able to use the ESV and have the word put back in, and for a number of reasons I won’t go into this evening. But one of them is simply this: that this word is frequently shied away from. And if you haven’t found the word, it is “propitiation.” It’s so big, I stumbled over trying to say it myself. But this word is shied away from by preachers for the simple reason that what it means is setting aside the wrath of God.
We have already sung of that this evening and once again in Townend and Getty’s words, “On that cross [where] Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” And this, of course, is a very strange notion and a very unappealing notion not simply to people who are distanced from any consideration of Christianity but for some who apparently are the proponents and professors of Christianity. They feel that somehow or another, there’s a real difficulty in speaking to anyone about the wrath of God. But in actual fact, it is only when we realize how justifiably God hates sin—that his wrath is not capricious. It’s not volatile. It’s not a nasty, hasty volatile outburst. His wrath is the inevitability of his holiness. It is the only way that because of who he is, he can respond to sin in all of its dimensions.
And so, it demands that we think ourselves through to that so that we then may be amazed at the mercy of God. But until we have any sense of God’s displeasure with us in our sin, there is no real reason for us to rejoice in his mercy. If we think that we’re just rather outstanding individuals and that God, whoever he is, has shown up just to help us a little bit in our lives—just, if you like, to be our life coach—then, of course, there will be no wonder. There will be no mystery. There will be no worship. There will be no bowing down. There will be no tears. Whyever should there be?
You know, I think it is partly because sin doesn’t incur our wrath that we have difficulty believing that sin provokes the wrath of God. If we don’t care about filthiness, if we don’t care about hatred, if we don’t care about abuse, if we don’t care about slander, if we don’t care about rebellion, why would we ever imagine that a holy God would?
So the reason that we go to this simple summary statement is because it is just that. You have, if you like, essentially, not exclusively, but nevertheless present in the Epistles, statements that help us to understand large chunks of the Gospels. And, of course, we come tonight, many of us, with our minds already turned in the direction of the passion narratives. And some of us throughout these past weeks have been reading in anticipation of tonight and anticipation of Easter Sunday. And it would be tedious for me to try and work my way through that entire story. But what I want to do is just note a couple of scenes in which we have a description of what is taking place in what John is explaining has taken place.
You understand that? John says, now that he’s an old man looking back on it, “In this is love. Now I get it,” he says. “This is love: that God himself has loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” But when he was in the thick of it all with Peter and with James and with the rest of them, he would never have been able to articulate this. And that will become apparent even as we look at the descriptions. If you want to turn to them, I will tell you where I am. If you don’t and just want to listen, I will understand perfectly.
It is obvious that the Gospel writers give a disproportionate amount of time to the final days of the life of the Lord Jesus—to his death and to his resurrection. And in each case, they cover material that is duplicated, and in certain cases, they have material that is unique. I just want to point out to you three simple scenes, largely without exposition.
First of all, in John 18:4. I’m trying to stay with John, since we’re using 1 John. John 18:4. Essentially, I’m just pointing out to you things that have struck me in my reading. They might strike you, and you may have occasion to think of them afterwards. Here it is: “Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’” “Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said …, ‘[Who are you looking for]?’”
You will notice that he did this having crossed the Kidron Valley and gone into the garden, the place that he and his disciples, we’re told, loved to go; a place that was familiar to them; a place that was precious to them; a place that was filled with all kinds of good and wonderful memories of time spent in each other’s company. And it is to that garden that he goes, not haphazardly but purposefully and according to the set plan of God himself. He goes into a garden that was so familiar that it would be easy for anybody to find. So he clearly hasn’t gone to the garden to hide. And if he had gone to the garden to hide, why would he step forward and say, “Here I am; I think it’s probably me you’re looking for”?
Jesus throughout the whole of John’s Gospel, we’re told, has been operating on the basis of a time plan that was known from all of eternity. That’s why when you read John’s Gospel, you will every so often find him saying, “My time has not yet come,” or “My hour is not yet here.” He says it, actually… It’s recorded for the first time in the changing of water into wine, when he says to his mother—when she says we have a problem here, and he says, “Woman, what is that to me? This isn’t time for me. My time has not yet come.” And when he is going up to Jerusalem and tells his disciples that he is not going to go with them up to the feast, but they should go (I think it’s in chapter 8), he says (or in probably chapter 7), he says to them, “I’m not going to go up to the feast, and the reason I’m not going up to the feast is because my hour has not yet come.”
But interestingly, he says to his disciples in the prospect of this event, “Now is the hour. Now is the hour of darkness. Now is the hour, the appointed hour.” And I must leave you to think this out for yourselves, but it is quite mysterious—namely, that the free action of his opponents and the sovereign purpose of God coalesce in this; that all the events—all of the events—in the preceding centuries have been ordered by God himself in such a way that this hour would unfold as planned from all of eternity. And if you doubt that, you only need to read Peter when he has finally got the picture, and he’s preaching on the day of Pentecost, and he says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” It’s mysterious, isn’t it? It’s phenomenal. And then they cuffed him and led him away.
Chapter 19 and verse 5. He has been brought before Pilate. Pilate finds no guilt in him, but the soldiers have been doing their evil deed. And here’s the phrase: “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.” “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.”
Let me read it to you in Matthew, because it comes across with great clarity: “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him.” Well, that’s humiliating for a start, isn’t it? And they “put a scarlet robe on him,” so that he would kind of look like a king. And they “twist[ed] together a crown of thorns,” and “they put it on his head,” and they “put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.” And when they had danced around him like this, “they stripped him of the robe and put [on] his own clothes [again] and [took] him away to [be crucified].” So you have injustice at the level of the courts, and you have inhumanity at the place of punishment. The sense of cruelty, the sense of mockery, the vile and hellish elements that are represented in this ought to be difficult to miss: clothesless, friendless, betrayed, forsaken.
Third and final scene is still in chapter 19 and in verse 18: “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.” That’s pretty well it for the actual crucifixion in terms of the Gospel records. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? Especially when you think about the fuss that people tend to make of the physical sufferings of Christ—not that they weren’t physical but that many people had experienced the same, not least of all the two individuals who were on either side of him. And there is an understated way in which the Gospel writers handle this.
But the thing that stood out to me was again the fact that he was crucified in between two bandits. He was crucified in between two thieves. He was crucified in between two people who, according to the rights of justice, deserved, according to Roman jurisprudence, to be crucified. And in actual fact, that was exactly what Isaiah had prophesied: that he would be “numbered with the transgressors”; that when it all came down, he would find himself right in the middle of that mess.
And you will remember the Jewish leaders had asked the disciples, when they found that this was going to be part and parcel of this Jesus of Nazareth’s modus operandi—going to the house of sinners like the tax collector Levi, and setting free the woman taken in adultery, and reaching out with living water to the woman at the well, who’d had five husbands and was totally messed up, looking for love in all the wrong places—and you remember from the religious jury box, as it were, they pronounced upon him: “Why does your master eat with these sinners?” they said—the inference being, “If he was a messiah of God, he would be with us. He wouldn’t be with them.” And Jesus, knowing what they were saying, says, “Hey, how many times do you find people who are really well going to the doctor? It’s not the healthy that need a doctor,” he says. “It’s the sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous. I came to call sinners to repentance. So who do you expect me to be? Where do you expect me to be? This is my job. This is what I do.”
And in his death, he’s still at it. Still at it! Fantastic! Before his hands were bound, what was the last thing he did? Quiz. Healed the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus. Before they bound him, he put his ear back together. You would think before all of that was about to come down on you, you wouldn’t have time for anybody who lost an ear in the business. What’s an ear between friends, in light of all of the ignominy that he now faces? But no, he has time. He is a gentle Shepherd. He is a kind Savior. He is a loving Lord. So before his hands were bound, he healed the ear, and before his voice was silent, he invited a guest to come home with him: “Will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” “Sure I will. I’m up here for guys like you. That’s why I’m here.”
Now, we’re coming to the explanation. We’ll come to our verse in a moment. But just let me say this by way of transition: Are you beginning to see why it is a strange and unbiblical notion to suggest that the death of Jesus is simply to reinforce the fact that men and women are somehow or another already okay with God and that this is just, if you like, a little extra to show how much, you know, he loves and cares? No, it’s not. No, it’s not.
Peter puts it this way, doesn’t he? He says that he died for sin, “the righteous for the unrighteous,” to “bring us to God.” In other words, to effect a reconciliation—that there is a huge quarrel that has been going on since the garden of Eden; that Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden, and the angels with flaming swords were set at the entry to the garden so that they could not return; that there was no longer any access to God by that route. And all the way through the Old Testament, you find that this distance remains. And that’s why when you see that scene on the occasion of his death, and the curtain that shuts man off from God in the Holy of Holies is torn from top to bottom, what has been happening? Well, this: “In this is love, not that we … loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Well, isn’t it wonderful that we have a Bible that unfolds in this way? Jesus had promised his disciples—he said, “I’ve other things to tell you,” he says in John 16, in the Upper Room Discourse. “I’ve other things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. But eventually, you’ll get the whole picture. When the Holy Spirit comes, he will guide you into all truth.” So he guides the apostles into all truth, and the apostles write the truth down for us so that we tonight might actually know the truth, and the truth that can set us free.
The reason for propitiation is because by nature, we as men and women are estranged from God, and we are exposed to the wrath of God. The estrangement is mutual. On our side, we’re estranged from God on account of our sin. On his side, he is estranged from us on account of his holiness or his wrath. And the fundamental question, then—the problem, if you like—is: How is it possible for God to love sinners without compromising his holiness, and how can he exercise his wrath without diminishing his love? That’s the issue: How can he be true in terms of justice by executing punishment on sin and true in terms of love in expression of his character?
And the answer, in a word, is propitiation. For that is simply the technical term for the reconciling effects of the cross. In the cross, God in Christ took the punishment upon himself. He took the initiative for the ungodly, for his enemies. “God shows his love [towards] us,” says Paul in Romans 5, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ didn’t die for good people. He died for bad people. But you see what the point is: unless I understand who I am— “Show me myself and show me my Savior”—then it’ll be a little bit like the Charlie Brown cartoon where Charlie Brown is holding a sign that says, “Christ is the answer,” and Linus is holding a sign that says, “What is the question?” Any sensible person has to get there. What would this strange story of Calvary be about if it were not this?
And the wonder of it is simply this: that in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, my sin is overcome, God’s wrath is averted, and because of what happened on Calvary, God then can look on man without displeasure, and we as men and women can look on God without fear. But until the Spirit of God reveals to me the ugliness of my rebellious heart, then I will have no interest in the story of his amazing mercy. The wonder of it, as we’ve sung of it tonight, is simply this: that the reason that you and I do not have to bear our sins ourselves is because Christ bore them in our place.
And if anybody should have grasped the wonder of that notion of substitution in all of the characters involved in the events of these days, it surely must have been Barabbas. For he’s the fellow that was set free in exchange for Jesus. And I’ve often wondered if Barabbas went there to that cross, in the scene on that day. Because he had every right to look up on the cross and say to himself, “That’s where I would have been if he had not been put there in my place.” That’s really what the Christian says. That’s what Communion’s all about. That’s what happens every time you take this cup and take this bread. You’re really saying, “It was my sin that [put] him there until it was accomplished.” No, God hasn’t just come to add to the sum of our total happiness. He’s come to save us.
Well, you have the description in the Gospels. You have the explanation in this verse. And just one word by way of application. You will notice that it is set in a context where the application is very down to earth. It’s frequent that this happens, actually. In the Epistles, in Corinthians, you have that great verse about “He who was rich became poor in order that we through his poverty might become rich.” It’s a fantastic verse in 2 Corinthians 8:9, and it is set there in order to encourage people with the grace of giving—to be generous to one another. So you have this profound theological statement set within the context of the offering. And you have this profound theological statement set within the context of a twofold exhortation: “Beloved, let us love one another.” That’s how it starts in verse 7. And that’s how it ends in verse 12 and 11: “If God … loved us [like this], we also ought to love one another. No one[’s] ever seen God; [but] if we love [each other], God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
In other words, by this means, says John, the invisible God becomes visible in the world. Tonight, when we take this cup, when we eat this bread, we see again that God’s wrath is turned away, not by any external gift but by his own self-giving. It is God who dies upon the cross—God the Son. It’s not that God the Father injures the Son, and the Son is reluctant. The Father gives the Son, and the Son gives himself up. It is the appeasement of the wrath of God, through the love of God, by the gift of God.
Let us pray:
Father, how easy it is for us to skate over the surface of these things, nodding our heads to well-worn truths and repeating some of our clichés. But we want to ask you now that as we come around this Table, as we sing and as we eat and as we break bread together, that you will first of all bring us to yourself—that you have affected a reconciliation, you have provided reconciliation, but we recognize that that reconciliation that you’ve provided is not possessed by us until we receive it, until we come to you and acknowledge, “Yes, I am that sinner, and you are my only Savior.”
Give me a sight, O Savior,
Of [your] wondrous love [for] me,
Of the love that brought [you] down to earth
To die on Calvary.
Oh, make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant [for] thee, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.
Hear our prayer, O God, as we come to you. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
 See John 13:23.
 Graham Kendrick, “Amazing Love” (1989).
 Charles Austin Miles, “Wide, Wide as the Ocean” (1914).
 Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “In Christ Alone” (2001).
 John 2:4 (paraphrased).
 John 7:8 (paraphrased).
 Luke 22:53 (paraphrased).
 Acts 2:23 (ESV).
 Matthew 27:27–31 (ESV).
 Isaiah 53:12 (ESV).
 Matthew 9:11–13 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:42–43 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 3:18 (ESV).
 John 16:12–13 (paraphrased).
 See John 8:32.
 Romans 5:8 (ESV).
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love” (1995).
 2 Corinthians 8:9 (paraphrased).
 1 John 4:7 (ESV).
 Katherine Kelly, “O Make Me Understand It” (1944).
Copyright © 2023, 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.