But another thought comes in connection with it, and it is this: if God is supreme, God cannot allow man’s challenge to go without response, because God cannot allow man’s sin to frustrate the purpose that He had in placing man upon the earth. But the two things bring us to a focal point, the problem bound up with reconciliation. How can God, while maintaining His own principles of righteousness and maintaining His own supremacy (which involves that man should be sentenced with death) yet achieve the purpose in harmony with that, whereby men who should die because of their sin, can at last, be sharers in the eternal purpose of God. But listen to these expressions from Isaiah chapter 43 verse 22: “But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel. Thou hast not brought ME… ” (We must emphasise the “Me” to bring out the sense. They had been following the practices of sacrifice and so on, but they hadn’t done it according to God’s will and in real service to Him.) “Thou hast not brought me the small cattle of thy burnt offerings; neither hast thou honoured me with thy sacrifices. I have not caused thee to serve with an offering, nor wearied thee with incense. Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: BUT [and mark these words] thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities”; and yet despite that, God said: “I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake and will not remember thy sins.”

In the 45th chapter the prophet gives what is the final reason for the folly of idolatry. Reading at the 20th verse, “Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations”, and say unto the nation: “they have no knowledge that set up the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save.” For a god that cannot save has abdicated his position as god. Since an image cannot save it is proved to be no god. So God announces Himself as the Saviour. “Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the Lord? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” There is brought together, in that juxtaposition of terms, the very nerve of this problem: that God is at once a just God and a Saviour. The prophet goes on to speak of all being brought to bow the knee to God; which you will remember the Apostle takes up and applies to God’s work in Christ in his letter to the Philippians. How then can He save? What has He done that we might be saved? Well, we know that He has raised up Jesus, who lived a life of perfect obedience to Him; an obedience which in his case, took him to the cross. “For,” said Paul, “He was obedient in all things, even to the death of the cross.”

Made like us yet without sin

And now we must press beyond the mere externals in the declaration of the facts accomplished, to ask what was there about the death of Jesus that made it possible for God to forgive us our sins; and to receive us into His favour? We must look at Jesus and see first of all, with all the emphasis that the Apostle puts upon it, that he shared our nature. To cite one passage: (Heb. 2:14) – “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he took part of the same.” But the Apostle is not content with that, he says: “He also took part of the same”, and even that isn’t sufficient: “He also, himself, took part of the same”, and even that isn’t enough: “He also himself, likewise, took part of the same.” With that assertion of the likeness of Jesus to us, in his nature, we may be content here. But because of that it is affirmed of him: “for he was tempted in all points like as we are”; but with this difference: “yet without sin”. He was beset by trials and difficulties, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Yet in the words of the prophet Isaiah, verse 8 of the 50th chapter, he could say: “He is near that justifieth me”: and to justify is to pronounce righteous. Jesus is the only one that could lay claim to the fact, that God would justify him in the primary sense of the word; that God would pronounce him to be righteous. So Peter, who had looked on Jesus when he stood before his judges, could recognise by revelation afterwards, that when he stood there, reviled and threatened, but not threatening in return, that he was committing himself to Him that judgeth righteously. The righteous judge pronounced His son to be righteous by raising him up from death.

But he was there, one of us, and God raised up one who was like us, and yet who, because he was the son of God, was able to live a perfectly obedient life. Thus, upon the very conditions that had brought death through sin, He provided the way for resurrection from the dead and the bestowal of immortality upon the beloved son of God.

A propitiation or mercy seat

But what was done by Jesus that he might be the saviour? There is a passage in the letter to the Romans, which I think is the key passage and I’m going to dwell principally on this. Will you turn to Romans chapter 3 verse 23? The Apostle says: “For all have sinned, and come short of the Glory of God; being justified [or pronounced righteous] freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (You notice how these words come in, that I listed at the beginning, all of which need explaining.) “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Here is the key passage to this subject. Let us look at it a little more closely. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation.” The word is an adjective, “a propitiatory” and the noun has to be supplied. Some have suggested supplying the word “gift”, that is, “a propitiatory gift.” But the identical word is used in the letter to the Hebrews of the place of propitiation. The propitiatory place, the Mercy Seat; and the word is translated “mercy seat” in the letter to the Hebrews.

But at once we are led back to the symbolism of the O.T. ritual. What was the mercy seat? God himself defined it as the place of meeting. “There will I meet with thee and there will I commune with thee.” But that meeting with God was not one of free access at that time. Only once every year, the high priest, stripped of the regalia of his office and not as the head of the Levitical system; but in white robes symbolic of the white righteousness of the man who would enter, pulled aside the veil to go in, with blood which was sprinkled upon the mercy seat. It was a prophecy of the opening of the way to God: but it was a declaration of the fact that the way was not then opened. For the high priest came out and the curtain fell to, and the act was repeated year by year, a testimony, as the Apostle says, to the inefficacy of the ritual. But it was a prophecy of one to come, through whom the way would be opened and the significance of that fact was when the Lord died, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top to bottom. It was God’s work and it was a declaration of the fact that, through the death of Jesus, the way was open to access to the Father. As the Apostle says in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Romans verse 2, “We have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand.” So Jesus has been set forth as a propitiation. There, upon the basis of one coming with shed blood, there, as the throne of God, and although a throne, the place where God the King had his abode, it was there the place of mercy. So the Apostle brings together the fact that we are to come boldly to the throne of grace. It was a throne, let us not forget that. A throne in which the principles of God’s holiness were upheld as a condition of man’s approach through the ritual ceremony of shed blood. So in Romans 3:25 the Apostle goes on: “to be a propitiation [mercy seat] through faith” [that is our response to what God has done] “in his blood”. At once we must go back to the ritual type again and ask what does this mean? The blood of the animal was a token of life taken and an identification of the man with the animal; by placing his hands upon its head and saying in effect: ‘This is what ought to happen to me; I’m taking its life but I’m the sinner and death is due to me.’ It becomes the ritual expression of the fact that the man recognises that death was due for sin.

God’s righteousness declared

What did the Lord do in his sacrifice? The Apostle goes on to explain: “to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” “To declare His righteousness”, leads us to consider in this connection, a phrase closely akin to it, which was used by the Lord himself, when He came to the baptism of John: “suffer it to be so now for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” What did the Lord mean by that? Let our imagination play around the circumstances just a little. Here was John calling upon men to repent of their sins and to be baptised; and a procession of men, day by day, while he was preaching, wade out into the Jordan to be baptised of him. What was John preaching? The gospels do not tell us specifically, but the prophecy in Isaiah 40:6 tells us that the voice who was the herald of the Lord, had to cry: “and he said, What shall I cry?” and the message he had to give was: “all flesh is grass and the glory of man as the flower of the field; the grass withereth, and the flower thereof fadeth away. Surely the people is grass.” We in England with our evergreen fields, cannot appreciate the force of the figure used. I’ve been in Palestine in Autumn time and the green and flowered fields of spring have all passed away and all you see is the brown bare hillsides. Here and there, there may be a goat or a camel eating, you cannot tell what, but it’s just the tufts of dried herbage. The grass has come and gone and to people familiar with such a cycle of life, there comes home with a terrific message, the comparison of man with grass. He is here and then gone. Man is mortal. That was the message John had to give.

Now we go back to John in Jordan and one day, perhaps the last of many people who had gone down into the water, there steps forward a grave young man in the fullness of his powers, with a quiet reserve and dignity. When all others had said to John: I confess my sins and my iniquities and my transgressions, for the Hebrew language was rich in words descriptive of man’s falling short of God’s standard; and this man says what? We do not know. It may be he said something like this: ‘I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.’ But we may be sure that he said something like that and we can understand John’s recoil as he said: “I have need to be baptised of thee and comest thou to me?” Then comes the answer of Jesus, “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” The Lord, against the background of the message of John that all flesh is grass, that man is mortal and Jesus is the sharer of our mortality, witnesses to his acknowledgment of the fact by the symbolic baptism, as he goes down into this symbolic death, fulfilling all righteousness. It was only a symbol but what was there a symbol was wrought out in fact, three and a half years later, when he voluntarily went to the cross.

There is a convergence of all kinds of things in connection with the cross, but isolating for the moment this particular aspect, the Lord could have turned back at any time. Did he not plead in his agony in the garden: “if it be possible let this cup pass, but not my will but thine be done”, and he went forward in the stern consciousness that he must do his Father’s will and voluntarily accepted crucifixion. Paul said (Rom 3:25) that God set him forth “to declare His righteousness”, to provide the conditions whereby God could forgive sins. Paul emphasises the fact that it was to declare the righteousness of God by repeating it as you notice, “To declare, I say at this time, His righteousness; that He might be just.” And now we must stop to point out that the word “just” and its cognate word “justifier” and the related word “justification”, are a build up in English from one root. We have the word “righteous” and we have the word “righteousness”, but we have no verb from the same root. We cannot say “to righteousify”, and so the translators have taken words from two roots where Paul used one word. Let us paraphrase then the Apostle: “To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be righteous Himself and the bestower of righteousness on him which believeth in Jesus.”

So Paul emphasises that the essential fact is, that Jesus declared the righteousness of God.

The basis of our forgiveness

Now we have been led along the way to understand what he did, as we considered his baptism. Here he was, a mortal man. Was it right that he was related to death as a member of the race? Was God righteous in His decrees? The answer is in the voluntary submission to that on the part of Jesus; that God was right and he upheld the law of God and vindicated the righteousness of God. He did it as one of us, as a representative man and in the very fact that he was a representative man we have that which provides the nexus between himself and God. While God has set him forth to be the place of meeting, in a man who thus upheld His righteousness; God said if you will identify yourself with him for his sake, I will forgive you your sins and receive you to favour. Therefore it is that when the Apostle (Rom 6:4) would speak of the significance of our baptism, he said, “we are buried with him by baptism into death” but before our baptism there is something else, and it is an important fact in connection with it. We come to baptism with the recognition that we are being baptised for the remission of our sins; and with a consciousness that we are sinners in God’s sight. We come with a consciousness that we have done wrong and we repent, and that we are willing to turn our back on sin and turn our faces to righteousness. That is our contribution in the first instance to this problem of reconciliation. For such is the nature of sin that you cannot pass it by lightly.

Our identification with Christ

How tragic has been many a home life, when one of the children of the home has followed the course of waywardness and the parents have lightly passed it by. What an anguished problem a parent has when one of the children takes wrong ways. How much they enter, in their love for the offspring, into the question of how the one gone astray can be reclaimed, in order that they might turn back from the evil and turn their paths into right. That in a dim sort of way, brethren and sisters, is what is involved in our approach to God. We should turn our backs on sin and recognise it for what it is, and recognise ourselves as sinners; then we reach out to an appreciation of the fact that God will forgive us our sins for Christ’s sake. We are identified with him and buried with him, by baptism into his death, “that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father: so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4). It is in the use of that word “with” which recurs in the 6th chapter of the letter to the Romans, that we have this principle of our identification with him in the recognition of the principles that he upheld. So we are identified “with” him as the second Adam. As in the first Adam, by our inheritance in him, we receive this mortality, so in the second one we receive this hope of life; the forgiveness of sins; the hope of resurrection from the dead; and emancipation from this body of corruption to which we are subject.

Crucified with Christ

There is a passage in the letter to the Galatians, where the Apostle expresses in rather different terms this fact of identification with Christ. In the 2nd Chapter, 19th verse, he says: “I, through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.” We might point out that this is part of the reply of Paul to Peter, when Peter and Barnabas dissembled in Antioch, but the point of Paul’s citation, of what he told Peter, was that the ecclesias in Galatia had defected from the Truth and were turning to the beggarly elements, away from the cross of Christ as the means of their redemption. The Apostle had set forth Christ among them, as he said in the opening verse of chapter three, “Before whose eyes Jesus” has been PLACARDED before you, that is “crucified among you” and now they were turning back to life by the law. Since when Paul had met Peter and recited to Peter the same fact, in reciting it his mind travelled back to his address in Galatia. We have the little bit of biography, so full of emotion, yet never, never straying from the sheerly logical presentation of this work in Paul through Christ’s sacrifice. “I through the Law am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” So Paul could say, “I am crucified with Christ.”

It is written in the gospels, there were two other crucified with Christ. There you have on the stake the central figure, and two other crucified with him. Paul who was well known to the Jewish authorities, the favourite pupil of Gamaliel, a man presently to have a seat in the Sanhedrin, had been fully aware of this work of Jesus during his ministry. Why, Josephus tells us that there were two million Jews in Jerusalem at the Passover and the news of Jesus and his ministry had travelled throughout Jewry and throughout the world. Not merely those in Israel were agog with excitement as to whether Jesus was the Messiah or not; the whole nation was alive with it. Well indeed might the authorities say, not at the feast day lest there be a tumult, when you think of the numbers in the city. Paul, although living in Tarsus, knew all about it, we may be sure. He had assented to what the authorities had done. In thought he stood with the crowd around and jeered as the rulers had jeered. “He saved others, himself he cannot save.” Then when Paul was on his persecuting work to Damascus, he met the risen Lord and Paul’s whole thought world came shattering down in ruins as he thought, that he was wrong and these Christians in their belief in Christ were right, for Christ was risen. Therefore Christ had received God’s approval and the only way for Paul was to start and rethink his whole thought and change his allegiance. It means that Paul who stood around and jeered must now step across, whatever the rest of the jeerers might think, must step across the space and take his place with “other crucified with him.” Paul must be crucified with him.

That is what Paul means; and it is with all the vividness of a man who had seen crucifixion enacted again and again in the Holy Land, that he can use the figure. There is no glamour about it such as we see sometimes associated with the cross of Christ. It was a sheer stark disagreeable awkward thing, that a man was crucified and Paul had to take his place with him; with all the shame that was associated with it in men’s minds. But it was God’s way, God’s principles upheld and Paul must be there, identified with God’s principles upheld in Christ.

Alive in Christ

Then Paul found something else: that though he was crucified with Christ he says, “yet I live”. How did he live? “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Or as he puts it in his letter to the Corinthians (2Cor 5:14), “The love of Christ constraineth me, for I thus judge that if one died for all, then all died.” Immediately we begin to see this effect of the love of God in Christ; we realise that here is an emancipation from that thraldom of sin that we found was part of the problem, that sin had become ourselves and how could we be delivered from it? Here is the answer: our sins are forgiven and a new motive power is brought into our life, whereby, reconciled to God, we can live as unto God to the Glory of His name. This, brethren and sisters, is the way God reconciles us. It is all bound up with the personal relationship between ourselves and Him.

He has wrought in Christ to provide us a Redeemer, who, sharing our nature, went to the cross to declare the righteousness of God; and we identify ourselves with him in upholding God’s righteousness and God is honoured, as God will be honoured in all His ways. “I will be sanctified in them that draw nigh unto me.” Sanctifying him in our humble approach, in submitting to the symbol of death, which is our due in identification with Christ in baptism; we rise, not to our old selves, but to walk in newness of life as men and women reconciled to God, in hope of the great salvation that is established in Christ Jesus.