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Lesson 13: The Meaning Of The Cross (1 Peter 2:24-25)

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My subject today--”The Meaning of the Cross”--may strike you as being a bit theological and impractical. It sounds like the kind of thing that theology professors may enjoy discussing, but not the sort of thing that will help you work out problems in your marriage or raise your kids or pay your bills or overcome personal problems.

But in reality, there is no more practical subject in all the Bible. The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith. The cross reveals to us the character of God: His love for lost sinners and His perfect justice meet at the cross. If we want to grow in our love for God, which is the first and greatest commandment, then we must be growing to understand and appreciate of the cross, which shows us His great love. If we want to grow in godliness, we must grow in understanding the significance of the cross, which confronts the most prevalent and insidious of all sins, namely, pride.

The cross is the place where all the wounds of sin are healed. If you suffer from emotional problems--guilt, anxiety, depression, anger, or whatever--there is healing in the cross of Christ. If you are going through tragedy or suffering, there is comfort in abundance as you contemplate the sufferings of the spotless Savior on your behalf. After all, Peter wrote these very words to slaves who were suffering unjustly under cruel masters. The words about Christ’s wound (referring to the welts produced by whipping) must have spoken to the hearts of these slaves who were whipped unjustly. Peter knew that meditating on the cross would produce in them a heart of overflowing gratitude to the One who bore so much on their behalf.

Keeping the cross of Christ central will protect you from the many winds of false doctrine blowing in our day. Satan hates the cross because it sealed his doom and he is relentless in his attacks to undermine and thwart the cross. Every cult or false teaching in some way diminishes the work of Christ on the cross and magnifies human ability. I believe that the doctrine which Satan is currently working to erode in American Christianity is the doctrine of sin. If he can convince people that they are not sinners who deserve God’s wrath, then they don’t need a crucified Savior. If he can convince Christians that they are not ongoing sinners in daily need of repentance and the cleansing blood of Jesus, then they don’t need to go deeper in appropriating the message of the cross. Thus the centrality of the cross is crucial to all sound doctrine.

First Peter 2:24-25 shows us that

Through Christ’s death on the cross, those who turn to Him are delivered from both the penalty and the power of sin.

All of our problems stem from sin--from our own sin or from the sin of others against us (and our sinful reaction to it) or from the fallen world in which we live. Thus the solutions to our problems center in the cross of Christ.

1. Through Christ’s death on the cross, those who turn to Him are delivered from the penalty of sin.

This is clearly the meaning of the words, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” By using the word “tree” rather than “cross,” Peter no doubt had in mind Deuteronomy 21:22-23, where it prescribes the penalty for a condemned criminal, that his body be hanged on a tree: “For he who is hanged is accursed of God.” The apostle Paul refers to the same text in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Both apostles are saying that Christ took on Himself as our substitute the condemnation which we deserved.

When Peter says that Christ bore our sins, he is citing from Isaiah 53:12 (LXX). (Isaiah 53 permeates 1 Pet. 2:21-25; see Isa. 53:4, 5, 6, 8b, 11b.) The holiness and justice of God demand that a penalty be paid for sin; Christ took that penalty on Himself on the cross. By mentioning Christ’s body, Peter calls attention to the fact of His humanity. Since the human race sinned, a member of the race had to pay the just penalty God demands. But only one who was sinless Himself could pay such a penalty, since others would have to pay for their own sin. Jesus Christ, who alone among the human race committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22; Isa. 53:9), is the only one capable of bearing the sins of the human race. This bearing of sins was a legal transaction in which God the Father transferred to God the Son the penalty we deserve.

That God sent Christ to bear our sins means that God does not just shrug off our sin. We live in a day of loose justice at best. People commit horrible crimes and get off with a slap on the wrist. A man admits to sexually molesting, killing and dismembering numerous boys, but pleads insanity and will likely end up spending some time in a mental ward. We all know that that is not justice.

Yet I talk to people all the time, many of them Christians, who think that God’s justice is like that. They shrug off sin as if it’s no big deal to God. They think He will just overlook it. But the Bible is very clear: All sin must be judged! Either your sin is on you and you will bear the penalty; or your sin is on Christ who bore the penalty. Either way, God does not take sin lightly! The just penalty must be paid.

During the Napoleonic Wars, men were conscripted into the French army by a lottery system. If your name was drawn, you had to go off to battle. But in the rare case that you could get someone else to take your place, you were exempt.

On one occasion the authorities came to a certain man and told him that his name had been drawn. But he refused to go, saying, “I was killed two years ago.” At first they questioned his sanity, but he insisted that this was in fact the case. He claimed that the records would show that he had been conscripted two years previously and that he had been killed in action. “How can that be?” they questioned. “You are alive now.” He explained that when his name came up, a close friend said to him, “You have a large family, but I’m not married and nobody is dependent on me. I’ll take your name and address and go in your place.” The records upheld the man’s claim. The case was referred to Napoleon himself, who decided that the country had no legal claim on that man. He was free because another man had died in his place. (In “Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1980.)

Jesus Christ bore your sin on the cross, but you must take Him up on the offer. If you turn to Him, you will be delivered from the penalty of sin which God justly must impose. That’s what Peter means when he says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.”

But that’s not the end of the matter. Peter goes on to show that Christ’s death not only delivers us from the penalty of sin, but also from its power:

2. Through Christ’s death on the cross, those who turn to Him are delivered from the power of sin.

“... that having died to sins, we might live to righteousness; for by His wound you were healed.” Some have wrongly applied the word “healing” to physical healing. But clearly that is not in the context (neither here nor in Isa. 53:5). The “for” (2:25) is explanatory; Peter is explaining further what he means by the healing effected by Christ’s death: Rather than straying like sheep, as we formerly lived, we now have been turned (passive verb in Greek) to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. In other words, Christ’s death delivers us from the ongoing power of sin.

There are three facts about the power of sin which we must grasp from these verses:

A. The power of sin caused us to stray continually as sheep.

“For you were continually straying like sheep” (2:25). Peter uses a verb construction that emphasizes the continual past action of straying. Before we turned to Jesus Christ as our sin bearer, we were characterized by straying from the Good Shepherd, going our own way. We were lost even though we may not have known it. We were in danger of harm and even death, although perhaps we were oblivious to it.

Although I am not a shepherd or farmer, I understand that God did not do us a big favor by comparing us to sheep. Domestic sheep are some of the dumbest animals around. They must be under the care of a shepherd or they will fall prey to carnivorous beasts. If they get lost in bad weather, they are not smart enough or hardy enough to survive. But they’re not even smart enough to know that they’re not smart, so they’re continually wandering off and getting themselves into trouble.

Why do sheep do that? Well, for one thing, they don’t appreciate the intelligence or caring commitment of the shepherd. He knows of better pasture higher up on the slopes, but the sheep don’t know that he knows what he’s doing when he tries to get them to climb the hill. All they know is that it’s difficult and they’re hungry. They see a little patch of grass off the trail and think, “Why go to all the trouble of climbing this hill? This patch of grass looks good enough.” So, following their appetites and ignoring the shepherd, they turn aside for momentary gratification and miss the bountiful provision they would receive if they only followed him to higher ground. Sounds kind of like people, doesn’t it!

Sheep aren’t even smart enough to know that they’re lost or to find their own way back to the shepherd if they wanted to. The only way they come back to him is if he takes the initiative in going out looking for them. This is implied in Peter’s use of the passive verb, “have been turned to the Shepherd.” It is explicit in the parable Jesus told of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep in the fold and went out looking for the one that was lost. This means that none of us can boast in our smarts in coming to Christ. If we have turned to Him, it’s because He came looking for us. If you have not yet come to Him, you cannot save yourself. But the Shepherd is seeking you, even today. He wants to deliver you from the power of sin that causes you to stray from His loving care and protection.

B. The power of sin required death and new life for deliverance.

The power of sin is so great that we can’t be delivered from it by promising to turn over a new leaf or by sheer will power. There had to be a death of our old man toward sin and a resurrection to new life in Jesus Christ: “... that, having died to sins, we might live to righteousness.” This is the same truth that Paul teaches in Romans 6-8, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:1-4, and many other places: That when Christ died, we who believe in Him died with Him. We were identified with Him in His death. When He rose from the dead, we, too, were raised to newness of life, so that the power of sin over us was broken.

This sounds wonderful, of course, but the rub is that as a Christian, I don’t feel very dead to sin. To be honest, I don’t even feel faint or weak toward sin! The same evil lusts which formerly controlled my life rear up and entice me with the same force as they did before my conversion. So it sounds like a denial of reality to say that I’m dead to sin. What does the Bible mean?

Two things, as I understand it. First, being dead to sin is an accomplished fact that takes place the instant I am united with Christ at conversion. Most Christians don’t know about it at the time, but it is still true positionally. The moment you trusted in Christ as Savior, you were identified with Him in His death on the cross, so that all the benefits of His death became yours. As Paul puts it (Rom. 6:6, 10-11),

Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be rendered inoperative [lit.], that we should no longer be slaves to sin; ... For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

It’s true, so believe it! “But, still,” you say, “I don’t feel dead. So how can I believe something contrary to my experience?” The key for me is to understand that by death the Bible never means cessation of existence, but rather, separation. When you die physically, your soul is separated from your body. To be identified with Christ in His death means that I am separated from the power of the old nature and from this evil world system. I am now separated from that which formerly had a stranglehold on me. I can choose to obey God rather than the lusts of the flesh.

This idea of separation is brought out by the word Peter uses for death, which occurs only here in the New Testament. It meant to be removed from or to depart, and thus was used euphemistically of death, much as we speak of a departed one. Thayer (Greek lexicon, p. 60) says that Peter means “that we might be utterly alienated from our sins.” My old nature is not eradicated as long as I’m in this body. But it’s power over me has been broken by the cross, so that I can live separately from it.

If you’ve ever jacked up a car so that the drive wheels are off the ground and then stepped on the gas, you know what it means to have a source of power which seems very much alive, but it is rendered inoperative through separation. You can rev up the engine with the car in gear, and the wheels spin like crazy. But the car isn’t going anywhere, because the wheels have been separated from the pavement. That’s one aspect of our union with Christ, that we have been separated from the power of sin, even though it still revs like crazy inside of us.

The second aspect of death involves something I must do, not something that is already done by virtue of my union with Christ. We see these two aspects in Colossians 3:1-5, where Paul says that we have died (3:3) and then turns around and says, “Therefore, put to death ...” (3:5). By this he means that we must take radical action to separate ourselves from various sins that tempt us. It points to the decisive and often painful action of denying ourselves in obedience to God. It must start at the thought level if we want to live in holiness before God.

Peter is referring to the first aspect of death, to the separation that takes place positionally when we trust Christ (“die” is an aorist passive participle whose action precedes that of the main verb, “live”). Having died to sins (in Christ’s death), we are now to go on living to righteousness, which means obedience to the commands of the Bible. If you as a believer in Christ are continually defeated by sin, then you need to enter in a deeper way into the meaning of His death on the cross, which separates you from the power of sin.

Thus the power of sin caused us to stray continually as sheep; it required death and new life for deliverance. Third,

C. The power of sin requires the ongoing care of our great Shepherd and Overseer.

You have been turned “to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” What a beautiful picture this is, especially for the slaves to whom Peter was writing, who were being mistreated by their earthly masters! Peter tells them that they are under the tender care of the Good Shepherd, who has the welfare of all His sheep in view. The word “Guardian” is “episkopos,” which later came to be translated, “bishop.” In fact, both shepherd and bishop are applied to church leaders as functions they must fulfill (1 Pet. 5:1-2; Acts 20:28). “Episkopos” means to watch over in the sense of guarding. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, watches over the souls of His sheep.

Does the fact that Jesus is watching everything you think, say, and do make you uncomfortable or comforted? If you’re seeking to live to righteousness, if your focus is on the cross where the Good Shepherd laid down His life for you as one of His sheep, then it ought to be a comforting thought, that He is keeping watch over your soul. That doesn’t eliminate the need for church leaders to keep watch, nor for you to guard yourself from sin. But if we seek to follow Him, we can know that He will feed, lead, and guard us as our Shepherd and Overseer.

Thus through Christ’s death, we are delivered both from the penalty and from the power of sin. But we must turn to Him.

3. To be delivered from the penalty and power of sin, we must turn to Christ.

As I mentioned, the passive verb points to God’s initiative in turning us. We don’t turn to Christ because of our intelligence or strong will power. If we turn, it’s because God graciously turned us (Ps. 80:17-19; Jer. 24:7). And yet, at the same time, we are responsible to turn from sin to God (Isa. 55:7). It involves, according to 1 Peter 2:25, a turning from the self-willed life that seeks our own way (“straying like sheep”) to a life yielded to the shepherding and oversight of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake: True conversion is not just intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel. Saving faith always involves an exchange of masters, from self to Jesus Christ. While we spend a lifetime growing in our submission to Christ, if we are not seeking to live under His Lordship, our claim to faith is suspect.

Conclusion

A mother of three children went to a counselor. In the course of the session he asked, “Which of your three children do you love the most?” She answered instantly, “I love all three of my children just the same.” The answer seemed too quick, too glib, so the counselor probed, “Come, now! You love all three just the same?” “Yes,” she affirmed, “I love all of them equally.” He replied, “But that’s psychologically impossible. If you’re not willing to level with me, we’ll have to end this session.”

With this the young woman broke down, cried a bit, and said, “All right, I do not love all three of my children the same. When one of my three children is sick, I love that child more. When one of my children is in pain, or lost, I love that child more. When one of my children is confused, I love that child more. And when one of my children is bad--really bad--I love that child more. But except for those exceptions, I do love all three of my children just the same.”

The cross says that God especially loves those who are hurting--those who are under the penalty and power of sin. If you will turn to Jesus Christ and put your trust in what He did for you in taking your just penalty for sin on the cross, He will deliver you from sin’s penalty and from its power. He wants to be your Shepherd and Overseer. He loves you just as you are, but He loves you too much to leave you that way. He wants to heal you from the devastating effects of sin. Will you turn to Him?

Discussion Questions

  1. Since Christians have been delivered from sin’s penalty, is it ever right to feel guilt?
  2. How would you answer a non-Christian who asked, “Why can’t God just forgive everyone apart from the cross?”
  3. Can a true Christian be continually defeated by sin? How would you help such a person?
  4. Does the power of sin grow weaker the longer we walk with Christ? Give biblical support.

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)