How did Calvary look to the disciples of Jesus in the hours after his death? The question can be easily answered. In the disciples’ eyes, Calvary was a tragedy. It was a place where good was defeated, hopes crushed, and evil won the day.
Two of them expressed their feelings plaintively: ‘We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21). Expectations had been running high. Jesus, they were sure, was the nation’s promised Redeemer!
And then it all began to unravel. First the arrest, then the trial, then the sentence, and finally the crucifixion. It was the cruellest blow, and every disciple felt it. Their great Redeemer was dead! The future was suddenly dark.
By the time Peter sat down to write his first letter, however, the darkness has completely gone. Calvary was no longer a place of tragedy and defeat, but the scene of a stupendous triumph.
Christ was victor in his death. In the NIV this is brought out for us in three small words: ‘once for all’. ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). More simply – and better reflecting the Greek – ‘Christ died for sins once’.
Throughout the Old Testament period the sacrifice of animals was repeated endlessly. Every morning and evening; once a year on the Day of Atonement; annually at the time of the Passover; and on numerous other occasions; animals were offered in sacrifice to God.
Why was there no end to it all? The Bible tells us. Their effect was limited. They served a purpose as pictures of Christ. But in themselves they could never get to the heart of the problem. They could never deal with sin.
The letter to the Hebrews makes this crystal clear: ‘The law … can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:1-4).
But what was impossible through the death of bulls and goats was achieved in the death of Jesus. So perfect was his sacrifice: so adequate for its intended purpose, that there was no need for it to be repeated.
He died once! And that was enough. By that one sacrifice the whole of what was required for the salvation of his people was accomplished. Let us examine some of the biblical proofs for this assertion.
There is, firstly, Christ’s triumphant cry from the cross: ‘It is finished!’ His Father had given him a great and arduous task. There was much for him to do and suffer, if those his Father had given him were to be saved from their sins. He must ‘fulfil all righteousness’ on their behalf. He must serve. He must ‘give his life a ransom for many’.
And it was hard. It was painful. But at last it was done. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the final stage, and by it his work was brought to completion. It is finished!
Then there was the resurrection. The Emmaus-bound disciples had clearly heard rumours of it, but this had done nothing to lift their spirits. They seem to have thought it too good to be true.
But Jesus had risen from the dead. They were actually talking to him at that very moment! And very soon they would know it. ‘When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him’ (Luke 24:30-31). He was alive!
A living Saviour
Jesus’ resurrection is an event that is full of significance for his work. It tells us that it really was finished. It is the testimony of God to a completed task, to a purchased salvation, to a sacrifice that dealt with sin once for all.
Interpreting Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, it means that, for those of us who believe, neither our gospel preaching nor our faith is useless. We are no longer in our sins. Christian loved-ones who have passed away are not lost. And we are not to be pitied more than all men. Not remotely! We have a living Saviour who, in fulfilment of God’s promise, saves all who call on his name.
A third proof is that having died for sins, Christ ‘sat down’. Hebrews says, ‘Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin. But when this priest [the Lord Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God’ (Hebrews 10:11-12).
It has often been pointed out that there were no chairs in the Old Testament Tabernacle or the Temple. The priests remained standing, a symbol of their never-completed work. But Jesus was different. Having offered his sacrifice he sat down at the right hand of God.
It points to a completed work. Though ceaselessly active in heaven as our Prophet, Priest, and King, he is at the same time resting from his sacrificial work on earth. It was perfectly done. It does not need to be repeated.
Reconciled to God
Finally, the New Testament uses the language of accomplishment when it speaks of reconciliation. It was to reconcile us to God – to ‘bring us to God’ – that Jesus died. And on the cross of Calvary that reconciliation was actually achieved.
This is stated clearly in Romans 5:10: ‘When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son’. The same note is struck in Colossians 1:22: ‘God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight’. This is the language of accomplishment. There and then, on the cross, God’s chosen people were reconciled to him.
It is a most remarkable thing. Jesus died nearly 2000 years ago. And yet every Christian who reads these words was reconciled to God at that very time. The ground of disharmony was removed. As James Denney says, ‘at infinite cost he put away all that on his part stood between you and peace’.
And by grace we have now entered into the benefit of it. We have ‘received reconciliation’ (Romans 5:11). Repentance and faith have brought us into a living experience of the favour and friendship obtained for us by Jesus’ death.
That is why believers are such privileged people. We have our problems, difficulties and sorrows like everyone else. Life is hard at times. But in and through it all we have the friendship of God.
We are no longer separated from him. We are united to him and nothing will sever that union. People can be reconciled to each other only to find the relationship breaking down again.
But that will never happen between God and those whom Christ has reconciled. He may hide his face from us because of our sins, and withhold for a while the felt comforts of his friendship. But nothing can ever separate us from God and from his great love to us in Christ.
By the light of Peter’s words, then, we see what a place of perfect triumph Calvary was. The sacrifice offered there was so complete and so adequate that it has brought us to God for ever.
But what about the world; the vast numbers still separated from God, living and dying without hope? What is there in this for them? The apostle Paul gives us the answer: ‘We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Paul appealed to people not to stay separated from God, but rather to be reconciled to him. And we must make the same appeal today. We must urge people to go to God, with their sins, seeking his forgiveness. To go humbly and penitently, believing that Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring them to God.
And if they do, they go at God’s own invitation and with the assurance that God will not turn them away. He will welcome them, as we have been welcomed, into the enjoyment of his eternal friendship in Christ.