************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 39 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on April 2, 2006

Q & A 39
Luke 23:26-43
"He was Crucified"

With the church of all ages you and I say, "I believe ... in Jesus Christ ... who ... was crucified."

"We preach Christ crucified." That's how Paul explained his ministry at Corinth (1 Cor 1:23). In fact, he goes on to say, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Christians today sing enthusiastically about "The Old Rugged Cross" not realizing that preaching "Christ crucified" was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). Jews expected a political Messiah who would bring military victory not someone who hung on a cross. Greeks and Romans did not crucify respectable people they thought it lunacy to worship a criminal and his cross.

Yet, the Christian church believes in Jesus Who was crucified.

Don't forget, we are talking about true faith, saving faith, comforted faith. True faith, saving faith, comforted faith believes that Jesus was crucified, that the eternal Son of God was murdered on a Roman tree. To be saved, to have eternal life, to be reconciled to God, to be comforted, we need to believe that Jesus died on the cross.

I An Ugly Cross - A Horrible Death
We have heard about the cross so much in sermons, in church school and catechism lessons, during devotions that it is easy to forget what a horrible death it is.

Crucifixion took place by elevating a condemned person in some way on a tree, a pole, or a kind of scaffold. At least twenty different types of crosses have been identified, all of them variations of vertical and horizontal beams or poles crisscrossing each other. Two kinds of tee-shaped crosses were commonly used. One was shaped like a capital "T" and the other was shaped more like a plus sign ("+"). Most artists of ancient times have Jesus crucified on a cross shaped like a plus sign.

After the judgment and punishment was announced, the condemned person was required to carry the horizontal beam of his own cross. The weight of such a beam is estimated at thirty to forty pounds. The condemned person was expected to carry it to the place of execution, which was always outside the city. The leader of a four-man execution squad led the procession, carrying a sign indicating the charges against the victim. The person sentenced to death was usually flogged at the place of execution before being hung on the cross. Jesus was flogged before Pilate handed Him over to be crucified; that is one of the reasons He needed the help of Simon of Cyrene (Mt 27:26-32; Mk 15:15,21; Lk 23:22,26).

With arms outstretched the victim was attached to the horizontal beam with nails or ropes. Then the beam with the victim was raised and attached to the vertical post, which was sometimes left there permanently both for future executions and as a warning. Also, a small board or peg was sometimes provided as a sort of seat to bear some of the weight of the condemned person; this was used to prolong the suffering and postpone the death. The person's feet were then attached to the vertical post with nails or ropes in such a way that the knees were forced into a bent position.

Ordinarily a cross stood only a little above an ordinary person's height so that the prisoner's feet were only a few inches above the ground. The sign indicating the charges was then attached to the cross. Death usually came slowly; sometimes a person hung on the cross for several day before dying. The causes of death were exposure, disease, hunger, shock, and exhaustion. Sometimes death was mercifully hastened by breaking the legs (cf Jn 19:31-36; Mk 15:44).

The Romans usually left the bodies of their crucified victims unburied. As a result they were often eaten by birds and beasts, thus adding to the disgrace of crucifixion.

There was always an audience for such an event. And, those who passed by could also watch the gruesome scene. They would add to the suffering. The audience at Jesus' crucifixion, for instance, added to His suffering. Matthew reports that "those who passed by hurled insults at him"; and, "the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him (Mt 27:39,41; cf Lk 23:35-36, 39-43). Since death came slowly to a crucified person, there was ample opportunity for onlookers to add to the suffering.

All in all, the cross is an ugly way to die; yes, it involved unspeakable pain and suffering; yes, we would not wish this kind of death on our worst enemy. Yet, to be saved, to have eternal life, to be reconciled to God, to be comforted, we need to believe that Jesus died this kind of a death. Because, as I already said, true faith believes that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Crucifixion was such a horrible way to die that Roman law forbade the crucifixion of a Roman citizen. Crucifixion was used by the Romans to execute slaves and foreigners who were found guilty of a crime.

Seen in this light, it was an ugly cross that Jesus had to carry. It was an ugly cross upon which He was hung. It was an ugly cross that ended His life.

Imagine that the eternal Son of God died an ugly death upon an ugly cross.

II An Ugly Cross - A Cursed Death
A There is more to the cross than its physical suffering and pain. Deuteronomy 21 speaks to this:
(Deut 21:22-23) If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, (23) you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

In talking about Christ in Galatians 3, Paul quotes from this passage in Deuteronomy. Paul writes, "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" (Gal 3:13b).

We need to spend a few moments looking at this quote: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." The verses preceding this statement in Deuteronomy refer to a son who does not honor his parents, one who is "stubborn and rebellious." The parents are instructed to report this serious transgression of the fifth commandment to the town elders, and then "all the men" of the town "shall stone him to death."

You need to realize that among the Jews capital punishment was by stoning. Sometimes after death they would hang the dead body on a tree, or they would expose it impaled on a pole. But they would never leave the body there overnight because, says Deuteronomy, that will "desecrate the land."

It all comes down to God's curse. Crucifixion is a sign of God's curse.

B Scripture makes clear that the ultimate authority to bless and to curse belongs to God. So, for example, it was God Who blessed Abraham and passed that blessing on to Jacob but not to Esau. In another instance, when Balaam tried to curse Israel, the blessed nation, he found out that no man can curse those whom God has blessed (Num 22-24).

"Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." The curse of God rested on Jesus when He hung on the wooden cross on Golgotha Hill. He was unclean. He bore the burden of the curse of God. It wasn't only Pilate who sent Him to the place of execution. It wasn't merely the Jews who cried, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" It was also God. For it is God Who has the ultimate authority to curse and to bless.

C What does it mean to be cursed? To be cursed means to be visited by the judgment of God. It means God wants nothing more to do with a person, a nation, a thing, or a place. To be cursed by God means to be abandoned by God. To be cursed by God, therefore, is something to be feared and shunned.

"Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." This is the worst part of the cross to be cursed by God. This is worse, far worse, than the physical suffering and pain.

Once again, we have to conclude that it was an ugly cross that Jesus had to carry. It was an ugly cross upon which He was hung. It was an ugly cross that ended His life.

Imagine that the eternal Son of God died an ugly death upon an ugly cross.

III A Beautiful Cross - Salvation in the Cross
A The New Testament tells us why Jesus was willing to die an ugly death upon an ugly cross. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us," says Galatians, "for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" (Gal 3:13). As sinful people living in a sinful world, it is you and I who should be cursed by God. By Christ took our place and took our curse. He became a curse for us. The Catechism says,
This death convinces me
that he shouldered the curse
which lay on me,
since death by crucifixion was accursed by God.

Christ "shouldered the curse which lay on me." The curse was not forced upon Him, an unwilling victim. The curse was not something given to Him. The curse was something that He took upon Himself.
Topic: Cross of Christ
Index: 891-892
Date: 3/2006.101

It was May 21, 1946. The place - Los Alamos.
A young and daring scientist was carrying out a necessary experiment in preparation for at atomic test. He had successfully performed such an experiment many times before. In his effort to determine the amount of U-235 necessary for a chain reaction--scientists call it the critical mass--he would push two hemispheres of uranium together. Then, just as the mass became critical, he would push them apart with his screwdriver, thus instantly stopping the chain reaction.
But that day, just as the material became critical, the screwdriver slipped! The hemispheres of uranium came too close together. Instantly the room was filled with a dazzling bluish haze. The young scientist, instead of ducking and thereby possibly saving himself, tore the two hemispheres apart with his hands and thus interrupted the chain reaction. By his instant, self-forgetful daring, he saved the lives of the seven other persons in the room.
As he waited for the car that was to take him to the hospital, he said quietly to his companion, "You'll come through all right. But I haven't the faintest chance myself."
It was only too true. Nine days later he died in agony.

George Vandeman in "Planet In Rebellion"
In the same way, Jesus was not helplessly caught up in a mesh of circumstances from which He could not break free. He did not lose his life; He gave it. The Cross was not thrust upon Him; He willingly accepted it. The curse was not something He deserved; it was something He willingly took upon Himself.

B Christ "shouldered the curse which lay on me." Think about that for a moment. Think about the three crosses that the Gospel of Luke mentions in our Scripture reading. Do you realize what we see? One cross portrays a thief dying IN sin. Another cross depicts a thief dying TO sin. But the center cross speaks of the Redeemer dying FOR sin. "He shouldered the curse which lay on me."

The ugly death upon the ugly cross means salvation, it means deliverance, it means redemption.
Topic: Cross of Christ
Index: 891-892
Date: 3/1986.7
Title: Pledge of Forgiveness

I read the story recently of how Louis XII of France treated his enemies after he ascended to the throne. Before coming to power, he had been cast into prison and kept in chains. Later when he did become king, he was urged to seek revenge but he refused. Instead, he prepared a scroll on which he listed all who had perpetrated crimes against him. Behind every man's name he placed a cross in red ink. When the guilty heard about this, they feared for their lives and fled. Then the king explained, "The cross which I drew beside each name was not a sign of punishment, but a pledge of forgiveness extended for the sake of the crucified Savior, who upon His cross forgave His enemies and prayed for them."
The cross means forgiven, forgiven, forgiven.

I want to ask you: Will the mark of the cross be put by your name? Will God say to you, "Forgiven, forgiven, forgiven"? Or will God say to you, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41)?

C For those who believe, for those with true faith, for those with saving faith, the ugly cross has now become a beautiful cross. We are singing about this in a few minutes when we sing "The Old Rugged Cross."

D The Apostle Paul realizes that the ugly cross is a beautiful cross for those who believe. That is why Paul says, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6:14).

Paul could boast of many things. In fact, before his conversion he did boast of many things:
(Phil 3:5-6) circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; (6) as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
And, in the first chapter of Galatians Paul can write,
(Gal 1:14) I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

After his conversion, Paul had many other things he could have boasted about. After all, he was the foremost missionary of the early church. He had started more churches than the rest of the apostles put together. He had gained more converts for the Christian faith than anyone else. He raised people from the dead, healed the sick, and foretold the future. Yet, Paul boasts in nothing but the cross of Jesus.

Paul boasts in the cross because it means salvation. Paul boasts in the cross because it means Jesus has shouldered the curse which lay on me.

People today boast about many things: their income, the money in the bank, their children, their cholesterol, their physical fitness, their ability in sports, their grades, their beauty, the size of their house, their busyness, their position, even their Bible knowledge. What do you boast about? What do you glory in? I hope that with Paul your boast is in the cross of Christ.

An ugly cross, yes. A beautiful cross, also yes.

With the church of all ages you and I confess the cross. With the church of all ages you and I confess to "believe ... in Jesus Christ ... who ... was crucified." With the church of all ages you and I love the old rugged cross.
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