The title of this message, “So Great a Salvation,” is from Hebrews 2:3, which rhetorically asks, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” From John’s eyewitness description of Jesus’ death we learn three things about our great salvation:
1. God planned Christ’s death for our great salvation.
John wants us to see that the cross was no accident. From start to finish it was in accordance with God’s foreordained purpose, even in the seemingly minor details. John shows this through Jesus’ fulfillment of types and prophecies; through Pilate’s inscription; and through the soldiers’ gambling.
A. God’s plan for our salvation is evident in Jesus’ fulfillment of types and prophecies.
John 19:17: “They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.” (The Latin for “Skull” is “Calvary.”) The phrase, “He went out,” points back to the Old Testament sacrificial system, where the sin offering was taken outside the camp. Leviticus 16:27 states, “But the bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp, and they shall burn their hides, their flesh, and their refuse in the fire.” Hebrews 13:11-13 applies this type to Jesus:
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.
Also, John notes that Jesus bore His own cross. This probably refers to the horizontal crossbeam, not to the entire cross. The upright portion was already put in the ground. The other Gospels (Luke 23:26, parallels) report that the soldiers forced a man named Simon of Cyrene to bear Jesus’ cross. There is no contradiction: Jesus carried His cross from the place of judgment as long as He was able. But His bodily weakness due to the scourging and other mistreatment caused Jesus to stumble under the load. At that point, the soldiers conscripted Simon. But John wants to emphasize that Jesus bore the cross to show the Father’s sovereign plan and the Son’s obedience to that plan (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John[Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 609).
Also, when God gave the startling command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac was a type of Christ. In that moving story, we are told that Abraham put the wood for the sacrifice on Isaac his son, who submitted to his father (Gen. 22:6). Even so, John wants us to see that Jesus, the Son of God, bore His own cross in obedience to the Father.
Also, Jesus was crucified between two others. John does not mention specifically the fact that they were criminals or tell us as Luke does about the repentance of the one thief. But still, in dying between two thieves, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53:12, which predicted that Messiah would be “numbered with the transgressors” as He bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors. This brings out “the truth that Jesus was one with sinners in His death” (Leon Morris, The Gospel of John [Eerdmans], p. 806).
The other gospels report that when they arrived at Golgotha, just before they crucified Jesus, they gave Him wine to drink mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23; or gall, Matt. 27:34); but after tasting it, He refused to drink it. It is often said that this was a narcotic to ease the pain, but D. A. Carson (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 8:575) argues that it was a form of torment that amused the soldiers, because the myrrh made the wine so bitter that it tasted like gall and was undrinkable.
John 19:28 reports that later, as He hung on the cross, Jesus cried out, “I am thirsty.” This time someone gave Him some sour wine (or vinegar) on a sponge to drink. The two references together (to gall and sour wine) fulfilled the Messianic Psalm 69:21, where David complained, “They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Also, inPsalm 22 David depicts the details of a death by crucifixion hundreds of years before that cruel punishment was devised. In Psalm 22:15 the sufferer describes his thirst: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and You lay me in the dust of death.” John 19:29 also says that they used a stalk of hyssop to lift the sponge to Jesus’ lips. Hyssop was what Israel used to put the blood on the doorposts of their homes at Passover (Exod. 12:22).
Jesus’ thirst not only fulfilled Scripture, but it also shows His full humanity. His suffering was not mitigated by the fact that He also is God. Docetism, a heresy that plagued the early church, taught that Jesus wasn’t truly human. He was God, but just seemed to be human. But as John 1:14 states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Hebrews 2:17 explains, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson (www.sljinstitute.net, sermon “Pilate and the Jews”) suggested that Jesus’ thirst also represented His spiritual condition as He who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf. Like the psalmist whose soul was parched as he felt separated from God (Ps. 42:1-2; Ps. 63:1), so Jesus was spiritually thirsty as He cried out (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” How ironic that the One who promised the woman at the well living water that would quench her thirst forever died crying out, “I am thirsty”! So Jesus’ fulfillment of types and prophecies shows that His death was no accident. God predicted it and planned it all for our salvation. (I’ll treat one other fulfilled prophecy, that of the soldiers’ gambling, in a moment.)
B. God’s plan for our salvation is evident in Pilate’s inscription.
None of the gospels, including John, describe the horrific details of death by crucifixion. It is one of the most tortuous forms of execution ever devised. After the brutal scourging, which killed some before they were crucified, the victim was forced to carry his own crossbeam to the site of execution. A man would walk ahead carrying the placard stating the charges, which served as a solemn warning to others not to commit the same crime. The victim was stripped naked and laid out on ground, where his hands or wrists were fasted to the crossbeam with large nails. The crossbeam was then hoisted up and fastened to the upright. The man’s two feet were forced together and nailed with one nail. There was sometimes a peg used as a supporting seat, not to alleviate pain, but to prolong it, as it allowed him to push up to gasp for air. Sometimes a man would suffer on the cross two or three days before expiring.
The placard would be attached to the cross for all to read. Only John mentions the three languages that Pilate had the charges written in: Hebrew (or Aramaic); Latin, and Greek. Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people in Israel. Latin was the language of the ruling Roman government. Greek was the lingua franca of commerce and trade. John wants us to see that Jesus’ death was not just for the Jews, but for the whole world, a theme that he has emphasized throughout his Gospel (John 1:29; 3:16; 4:42; 12:20-21).
The charge that Pilate wrote was (John 19:19), “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Pilate wrote the inscription to mock the Jews: “This is what we Romans do with you Jews: We crucify your king. This miserable man on the cross is a fitting king for you despicable Jews!” The chief priests felt the barb and objected (John 19:21), “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” But at this point, Pilate had been manipulated enough by the Jews, so he retorted (John 19:22), “What I have written I have written.”
But what Pilate meant in sarcasm, God meant in truth. Jesus really was the promised King of the Jews. When He was born, magi from the east came to Jerusalem asking (Matt. 2:2), “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would be with child through the Holy Spirit, he said regarding Jesus (Luke 1:32-33), “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Although in His first coming, He died as the sacrifice for our sins, in His second coming, He will rule the nations with a rod of iron as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:15-16). So, like Caiaphas who inadvertently prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, so Pilate unknowingly proclaimed the truth that Jesus is the King of the Jews and of all nations. Make sure He’s your king!
C. God’s plan for our salvation is evident in the soldier’s gambling for Jesus’ garments.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be”; this was to fulfill the Scripture: “They divided My outer garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.” Therefore the soldiers did these things.
The prophecy that the soldiers inadvertently fulfilled was Psalm 22:18, “They divide my garments among them; and for my clothing they cast lots.” None of these pagan soldiers were aware of that psalm or of the fact that they were fulfilling a prophecy made 1,000 years before. But John points this out to let us know that these were not random happenstance. Although these soldiers were not pre-programmed robots and were only doing what soldiers tend to do, the sovereign hand of God behind the scenes was controlling even these minor details surrounding Jesus’ death. While Jesus died naked to bear our shame, He clothes us who believe with His robe of perfect righteousness!
Perhaps as Mary and the other women stood there in horror and grief watching these events unfold, they thought, “Some of us made those garments for Jesus and now these heartless men who do not know God and do not care at all about Jesus are gambling for them. Where is God in all this?” But if they knew and could recall the Scriptures, they would have marveled at God’s sovereign hand fulfilling even these peripheral details at this horrible scene!
As I mentioned recently, some theologians and pastors (called open theists) try to absolve God of the problem of evil and suffering by arguing that He is not sovereign and omnipotent over the evil things people do. Rather, He is as surprised and upset by it as you are. Years ago I attended a funeral for a young woman at another church here in town where the pastor said, “This tragedy was not in the will of God.” He meant to offer comfort by saying that God had nothing to do with her death, but he really robbed the grieving family of the only comfort we have in such difficult circumstances, namely, that the sovereign God who cares about every sparrow that falls to the ground cares for you in your troubles (1 Pet. 5:6-7).
The way that the minute details of Jesus’ death fulfilled these many types and prophecies teaches us that we can trust the Bible, even when we don’t fully understand it. I’m sure that David and Isaiah and many other Old Testament authors did not fully understand the things that they wrote which later would be fulfilled specifically in Christ’s death for our sins. As 1 Peter 1:10-12 explains:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.
But even when we don’t understand why God is allowing our suffering, we can trust in the promises of His Word. Someday in heaven we will look back even on the puzzling minor details and see how He worked them together for our good.
We also can rest in God’s faithfulness as we realize that there is no such thing as luck for us as God’s children. The soldiers believed in good luck as they cast lots for Jesus’ garments, but as believers we know that God was working even the rolling of the dice to accomplish His sovereign purpose (Prov. 16:33). They were responsible for their sin, but God overruled it for His purpose.
Also, when we submit to God’s mighty hand through the trials He brings into our lives, He uses them to conform us to the image of His Son, who learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8). God uses tribulation to produce in us perseverance, proven character, and hope (Rom. 5:3-4; see, also James 1:3-4). Just like that arch that had a wise architect who planned it, so the Father planned our salvation.
2. The great salvation that God provided through Christ’s death is sufficient and lacks nothing.
The arch that that architect so carefully designed did not need a column to support it. The column only detracted from the sufficiency and beauty of the arch. In the same way, the salvation that God provides through Christ’s death is complete and sufficient. Any attempts to add human merit or works only detracts from the wisdom and glory of its architect.
As the cross loomed ahead of Him, Jesus prayed the night before (John 17:4), “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Here, just before He utters His final words (Luke 23:46, citing Ps. 31:5), “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” Jesus cries out (John 19:30), “It is finished!” (The Greek verb for “accomplished” and “finished” is the same.) Then (John 19:30), “He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” No one took His life from Him; as the good shepherd, He laid it down on His own initiative for His sheep (John 10:11, 18).
The fact that Jesus finished or accomplished our salvation on the cross means that we cannot add anything to what He did. To add human works or merit to the finished work of Christ is like building a column to support an arch that doesn’t need any support. It detracts from the architect’s design and skill, as well as from the beauty of the arch he made. As Paul put it (1 Cor. 1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Or (Eph. 2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The only way to respond to God’s gift of salvation through Christ’s finished work is to receive it by faith alone.
But while we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves always produces fruit. Through Christ’s death God planned and provided totally for our great salvation. But, also …
3. Our great salvation results in good works.
Just as the arch in the Escorial served a practical function, so our salvation is not just for looks. God designed it to bring Him glory as we engage in good deeds. As Ephesians 2:10 adds, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
This is exemplified in our Lord’s compassion for His mother as He hung on the cross. Although He was going through unimaginable agony and understandably could have thought only of Himself, He tenderly committed His mother’s care to the apostle John (John 19:26-27). Apparently Joseph had already died, leaving Mary as a widow. In that culture, widows had difficulty supporting themselves. Jesus’ brothers, who were not yet believers, were probably not present at the cross. John was Mary’s nephew and had the special designation of being the one whom Jesus loved. Jesus knew that John would be responsible to take care of Mary. So He demonstrated from the cross both the need to honor our parents and also to care for widows (Exod. 20:12; 1 Tim. 5:3-16).
The Bible is full of commands which show that our salvation is not just for our personal benefit, but is to work itself out in practical good deeds:
Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Titus 3:1: “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed.”
Romans 15:1-2: “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.”
Commenting on John’s account of our Savior’s suffering here, J. C. Ryle remarks (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], pp. 290-291):
He that can read a passage like this without a deep sense of man’s debt to Christ, must have a very cold, or a very thoughtless heart. Great must be the love of the Lord Jesus to sinners, when He could voluntarily endure such sufferings for their salvation. Great must be the sinfulness of sin, when such an amount of vicarious suffering was needed in order to provide redemption.
I conclude by going back once more to Hebrews 2:3: “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” Answer: We won’t escape! Make sure that you do not neglect the great salvation that our gracious God and Savior provided at the cross! Trust in Him and serve Him with all your heart!
- A critic asks, “How could God plan the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time hold those who did it accountable for their sin?” Your answer?
- What are the practical implications of believing that there is no such thing as good luck or bad luck for believers?
- What’s wrong with the Roman Catholic view that we must add our merit or works to faith in Christ in order to be saved? They would use James to support this. How would you counter it?
- Many argue that we should come together as Catholics and Protestants on the areas where we agree and set aside matters where we disagree, such as justification by faith alone. What biblical book counters this argument? (Try Galatians.)
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation