It is not uncommon for Christians to believe something passionately and then discover later that they have been wrong. Convinced that they have grasped the true teaching of the Bible, they are amazed that others can’t see it. But eventually their eyes are opened and they realise that they have been mistaken.
The apostle Peter passed through just such a revolution in belief. From his earliest childhood he had been taught that the promised Christ would perform a work of national deliverance.
The nation of Israel was under Roman occupation. It had lost its independence. It was no longer what it had been in the great days of David and Solomon. But when the Christ came, things would be different! He would deliver his people from their enemies, and under his rule Israel would again be a great and glorious nation.
That being so, there was no place in Peter’s thinking for a Messiah who would suffer and die. That was impossible! If the Christ were to be taken and put to death, it would mean the end of Israel’s hopes. It must not happen! This explains his reaction when Jesus said that he was going to suffer and die. ‘Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ (Matthew 16:22).
A new insight
But eventually the revolution came. Peter’s thinking about the Christ – deeply entrenched as it was – underwent a profound change. He came to see Jesus’ death as a necessary part of his work. It was something that had to be. And as we read for ourselves what Peter preached and wrote on the subject, we can see how great his insight into the death of Christ became.
We have an outstanding example of this in 1 Peter 3:18, where he tells us that ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’. This is one of the key statements in the New Testament about the death of Christ, and throws a flood of light on what took place at Calvary.
If it were not for statements like Peter’s, Calvary would be a dark and inexplicable event. People would make all kinds of suggestions as to what it meant, but no one could be sure. Peter, however, sheds light on Calvary, and the darkness disappears. We are able to see clearly what was happening.
In this first article we are going to focus on what Peter tells us was the true cause of Jesus’ death – not his own sins, as his enemies alleged, but the sins of others.
Sin and its results
In Psalm 55:21, writing about someone he had regarded as a friend, David says: ‘His speech is smoother than butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords’. The ‘friend’ was not what he appeared to be!
It was like that when Satan approached Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had plainly warned that the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit was death. ‘Not so’, said Satan. Disguising himself as Eve’s friend, and pretending to have her best interests at heart, he said, ‘you will not surely die’.
But it was a lie. In the mercy of God, our first parents were permitted to live for a long time after their sin. But the seeds of mortality had been sown, and eventually death came. To dust they both returned.
It has been exactly the same for all their descendants. Sin has resulted in death. If we were sinless it would be different, but we are not. Back there in the Garden of Eden, we sinned in our father Adam, and for that reason were born sinners. And we have sinned in the course of our lives. No one is without sin and, therefore, no one escapes death (a truth taught clearly in Romans 5).
A righteous man
It is against this background that we have to account for Jesus’ death. There is no doubt, on the one hand, that he died. And, on the other hand, there is no doubt that sin is the cause of death. What, then, are we to make of it all? Was he a sinner like ourselves? Or is there some other explanation?
Let us hear first of all from Jesus’ enemies. What did they think? Was Jesus a sinner? Yes! In their eyes, a direct line could be drawn from the way in which Jesus lived to the death that he ultimately died.
They repeatedly charged him with being a Sabbath-breaker and a blasphemer; a man who not only disregarded God’s law but had the audacity to claim equality with God. He deserved to die! If he hadn’t deserved such a fate, God would surely have intervened, either to prevent the crucifixion altogether or to deliver Jesus when he was dying.
When Peter shines his light on Calvary, however, we see something very different. This is not a sinful man dying for his own sins, but a righteous man, dying for the sins of others.
When we think about Jesus as a man we are thinking about someone who was exactly the same as ourselves in almost every respect. He had a body; he had a soul; he got hungry and thirsty and tired; he felt joy and sorrow, pain and disappointment – just like ourselves.
In one respect, however, his humanity was different from our own: Jesus never sinned. He was accused of sinning, as we have seen, but in every instance the accusation was groundless. He was neither a Sabbath-breaker nor a blasphemer. Peter calls him ‘the righteous one’, and that is what Jesus was from the beginning to the end of his life. ‘In him’, writes John, ‘is no sin’ (1 John 3:5).
Paul speaks of him being ‘obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:8), while Jesus himself could say that he always did what pleased his Father in heaven (John 8:29).
Clearly, then, when Jesus came to die it was not for his own sins, for he had none! The death of Jesus climaxed a life that been perfectly pleasing to God. It can only be explained by his bearing the sins of others.
How are we saved?
Which brings us to ourselves. How were we, who are Christians now, saved from our sins? It was quite impossible for any of us to bring about our own salvation, try as we may. Our case was utterly hopeless.
If we are ever to be delivered from sin and destruction, and enjoy God’s favour and friendship, God himself must come to our rescue! And that is exactly what he did in the life and death of Jesus.
The perfect life he lived was for us. And so also was his death. He died, says Peter, for the unrighteous, taking our sins upon himself and suffering on our behalf the punishment that should have been ours. The true cause of his death was very different from what his enemies supposed.
They imagined that he died for his own sins. We know that he died for ours. ‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned he stood’. This truth takes us to the very heart of Calvary. Jesus was there for us.
In the clear light of Peter’s words, Calvary stands out as a place of amazing substitution; a place where the righteous One died for the unrighteous, bearing their sins, to bring them to God.
One wonders why Peter and the rest of the disciples found it so difficult to see this at the outset. Wasn’t this what the Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to, those animals without blemish that were slain in the place of sinners? And wasn’t it what Isaiah prophesied when he spoke so movingly about God’s ‘righteous servant’ who would ‘bear the iniquities of the many’? There was much in the Old Testament to awaken expectations of a Christ who would die for sinners.
But while the light was long in coming, it did dawn on them at last. As Christians we are grateful to God that, in our Bibles, that light continues to shine. We know what Calvary means. Above all, we are grateful for the event itself.
Where would we be if Christ had not taken our sin and died in our place? It is because of his death that we have been ‘brought to God’ and now enjoy his favour and friendship. And, therefore, to that Righteous One who bore our sins in his own body, we give all honour and all praise.