Having died on a cross, Jesus was buried. He was laid in a tomb hewn out of rock, and a stone was rolled in front of the tomb to secure it.
When the death of the Son of God was accomplished, the question remained: Why had this happened to Him?
No greater question can be asked. As one writer has noted, “What Christ did on the cross is the heart of the Christian faith.” It is no wonder that Jesus and His cross are the victims of countless attacks. New Testament scholar Robert Funk demands the church abandon the doctrine of atonement through the shedding of blood, noting that the time has come to “give Jesus a demotion.” The contemporary culture despises the cross of Christ because the cross of Christ condemns it.
The New Testament uses a particular word to speak of what the cross accomplished. The word is propitiation. We find the word propitiation in Romans 3:25: Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.
Propitiation is not a common word in our everyday language. It means to satisfy the wrath of God through sacrifice.
The necessity of propitiation indicates that our relationship with God is broken. It reminds us that God is not apathetic about our sin. It tells us that God hates sin, that He is angry with sinners, and that His wrath, if not appeased, will consume sinners in the fires of eternal judgment.
Immediately, we see why the doctrine of the atonement as a propitiation is so hateful to modern man. We do not like to think of ourselves as sinners. We do not like to think of ourselves as under the wrath of a holy God. We like to think we are basically good, decent people.
If Jesus’ death is a propitiation, we must be hateful, vile sinners. Nothing is more intolerable today than to describe humanity as evil and sinful, our natural desires as worthy of divine wrath and eternal judgment.
The cross, however, demands we come face to face with the reality of our sin. We might try to redefine the cross, to say it only is meant to influence us to be better, or to say that Jesus only died to show how much God loves us. But Jesus was displayed publicly as a propitiation – a sacrifice in blood to appease the wrath of a holy God against ungodly people.
The cross tells us that we are sinners and worthy of divine wrath, but it goes further and tells us of a holy God who is love. God, filled with wrath as He is not only at sin but toward sinners, is love.
Pagan deities that the ancient heathens worshiped were thought to be wrathful, although their wrath was unpredictable and often more like childish temper tantrums. The only way to appease such idols was through sacrifice, although what to sacrifice and how to sacrifice it was left unknown. Only through a series of trial and error could the worshiper appease the angry god, who might break out in anger again at any moment for any reason, or no reason.
The true and living God’s wrath is not like the gods of the heathen. His wrath is directed at sin, and appeasing that wrath is not something any human being can do. That is why, in His love, God has taken the initiative. God has provided the sacrifice. God has given His one and only Son. He has not left us to wonder how we might satisfy His holy anger; He has satisfied it Himself.
The Lord showed this was His plan when Adam sinned. After Adam sinned, the Lord Himself made Adam and his wife garments of skin, slaying the first animal, shedding blood and clothing naked, sinful man.
God, because of His love, provides the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is God Himself in the person of His Son. This sacrifice overcomes our sin, nails it to the cross, and satisfies the wrath of God for all who believe in His Son.
The satisfying of God’s wrath explains why Jesus was so much in dread at the prospect of the cross. Martin Luther noted concerning Jesus, “No man feared death like this Man.” Why did Jesus dread the cross? J. I. Packer explains, “The unique dreadfulness of His death lies in the fact that He tasted on Calvary the wrath of God that was our due, so making propitiation for our sins.”
The wrath of God was poured out on Him. He was crushed for our sin, crushed by the eternal and infinite and holy wrath of His Father.
The dreadful and terrible cross thus becomes a wonderful cross for those who believe. Through the cross, we are reconciled to God. His wrath is spent. The enmity is exhausted. Love is poured out. Life is given.
Jesus went to the cross, and in our place condemned He stood.