(Some notes from the message shared when we gathered as a church last Sunday)
"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be a propitiation for our sin." (1 John 4v10)
If you're wondering what a "propitiation" is, don't panic - we'll get to it later! We're in the middle of a short series looking at the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Last week, we considered his life and it's significance for us today - this week we focus on his death. What does John tell us about the death of Jesus?
1. Jesus came to die on a cross
The death of Christ was part of God's plan. John tells us God "sent his Son" (4v10). Jesus was "obedient to the point of death" (Philp 2v8), and after his resurrection, he explained what had happened using "all the scriptures" (Luke 24v27). God had planned Christ's death from the very beginning, and we find outlines of His plan spread across the Old Testament.
Also, Christ submitted to the plan willingly. John tells us Jesus "laid down his life" (3v16). Jesus said he had authority to lay down his life - no one could take it from him (John 10v17-18). When Jesus died on the cross, it was God's plan and Jesus' choice.
But why did Jesus choose to die on the cross? Why did God send his Son to die?
2. Jesus came to die on a cross so that God's anger could be absorbed
Some find it difficult to imagine God being loving and angry. If He's loving, He won't get angry; and if He's angry, He can't be loving. But the Bible tells us He is both! How do we understand that?
Well, consider this: I think everyone has a cause they feel passionate about. Maybe it's something local, like fox hunting. Perhaps it's global, like pollution. Or it could be related to people, like the refugee crisis. We probably all react to issues like these, but I suspect everyone has a particular issue they feel passionate about.
When you watch the news, for example, you'll feel varying degrees of emotion because of different situations, but there'll probably be one particular story that will grab you, because you feel passionate about that issue. You'll react with anger to an injustice being reported on, more strongly than with any other part of the news.
You'll feel the hurt of those being hurt because you care passionately about that group of people, or that part of the planet; your heart will cry out in anger against the injustice, and you'll want those causing the hurt to face justice.
Now imagine a person who cares passionately about the whole of humanity and the whole of the planet - someone who loves every single person and every single atom. How would that person react while watching the news? I imagine he would be angry with all of it, with all of the injustice and pain and hurt that's being caused.
But what if this person didn't only see things on the news? What if, instead, he saw everything? Not just the big things that make the headlines, but every little injustice across the globe.
Imagine he saw every unjust action that you and I carry out; he heard every harsh word that we have spoken; he felt every selfish motive that has driven us. Imagine he saw all the pain and suffering that we all cause to each other, and the harm we all cause to this world.
If he was loving, he would have to be angry. If he was truly loving, he would have to be angry over the hurt we cause each other and the harm we cause to this world. In fact, the more loving he was, the more angry he would be. If he wasn't angry, he wouldn't really be loving.
God can't be a loving God without being an angry God - not while there is still selfishness and injustice in the world.
But he could be an angry God without being a loving God. That's a possibility, too.
So how do we know what God we're dealing with? How do we know that He's a loving God who is angry, and not an angry God who isn't loving?
Because He sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins.
What is a propitiation? In a nutshell, it's a substitute that redirects anger towards itself. I'll use an event in my childhood as an illustration.
I remember playing at school one day when I was about 8 years old. At the edge of the playground, there was a strip of gravel with some bushes and shrubs, then a low fence, and then the pavement and road beyond. I was feeling bored, so I picked up a piece of gravel and threw it over the fence. it bounced along the bonnet of a car parked on the road.
Thinking this was fun, I threw another stone, and watched that one bounce across the bonnet again. Then I threw another couple of stones! At that moment, two things happened simultaneously. My friend, Stuart, walked over to see what I was doing, and a woman got out of the car I'd been throwing stones at!
I ran away immediately, leaving my friend Stuart standing where I had stood! I looked back to see the woman shouting over the fence at Stuart, threatening to speak to the headmaster! At that moment, Stuart became a propitiation for my wrongdoing.
He was facing the anger I should have faced. He was facing the wrath that was meant for me. He was being a propitiation for the wrong I had done.
What Stuart did unwittingly for me, Jesus did knowingly for me. What my school friend faced on a playground, my saviour faced on a cosmic scale as he absorbed the anger of an almighty God.
Why would God send His Son to face that? Why would Jesus choose to face that?
3. Jesus came to die on a cross so that God's anger could be absorbed, and God's love could be outpoured.
John tells us Jesus died as a propitiation because "God so loved us" (4v11). He puts it more clearly just before that: "In this the love of God was made known among us" (4v9).
It's only when we recognise how great God's anger must be that we can begin to understand how great His love for us must be. Not a sentimental, ill-informed love, but a deliberate, courageous love that meant, in spite of His anger, He determined to find a way to save people, even at the cost of His Son.
God planned a way to punish injustice and still show mercy; a way to put sin to death without putting us to death; a way that would reveal His love to the world.
How do we know that God is loving, and not just angry? The evidence of God's love is presented at the cross. Paul writes that "God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom 5v8).
So, when I trust Jesus as my Saviour and my Lord, I understand by faith that God loves me because He gave His Son for me. God's love is secured not by my future performance, but by the irreversible death of Christ for me. The love that is poured out at the cross never runs dry.
So, Jesus came to die on a cross so that God's anger could be absorbed, and God's love could be outpoured. But what impact should that have on my life now?
a. I'll stand against sin, but alongside sinners. I won't be able to treat sin lightly, because I know how much suffering it caused to Jesus. So I'll stand against sin, but at the same time I'll remember it was my sin that Jesus suffered for, and so I can't think of myself as being better than other people. Instead, I will begin to esteem others as better than myself.
Therefore, while I stand against sin, I will be able to stand alongside sinners, and determine to show them the same love that Jesus showed to me while I was still a lost sinner.
b. I'll love other Christians, even if they don't come to my church. John's emphasis in his letter is the community that forms around the cross. He talks about "us", not "me". His response to the death of Christ is "that he lay down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (3v16). Inspired by the love of God, "we also ought to love one another" (4v11).
We should strive to love and serve each other within a church - but it shouldn't stop there. I am not called to love only members of my own church, but all those for whom Christ was a propitiation. We'll consider what that means in practice on another occasion.
c. When I remember the Lord's death, I'll feel sorrow and joy. At the end of our Sunday service, we have a meal together. It is the Lord who has called us together, and so it is the Lord's table at which we sit and have our meal. Therefore, at the start of the meal we share bread, and at the end of the meal we share grape juice - symbols that remind us of the Lord's death and the blessings we share in as a spiritual family.
As we break bread and drink grape juice, our aim is to remember both the gravity and the glory of the cross. We feel sorrow because of the blood that is shed, and joy because of the love that is poured out. As we share the meal, we joyfully remember that, as a community of God's people, we share in a new covenant - a new promise of God's love demonstrated through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.