Sitting in a theatre, we become engrossed in the two-hour drama on the screen as we appreciate the finished work of actors, actresses, and directors. Standing in a stadium, we celebrate three hours of athleticism and competition as players and coaches match skill and strategy. Walking through an art museum, our eyes are fixed upon finished paintings & sculptures that demonstrate the creative giftedness of the painter & sculptor. As much as we enjoy the finished work of actors, players, and painters, we often ignore the years of behind-the-curtain detailed planning and practice-facility repetitions that are required from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peyton Manning, and Michelangelo. Yet, it is rehearsals and repetitions that make the experience in the theatre, stadium and art gallery so remarkable and memorable.
Those six hours on Good Friday provide the point of all reference for the Church. The finished work of Christ on the cross deserves and demands the believer’s full attention and amazement. It is true that any attempt to view and understand Christmas without Calvary’s cross is a foolish and futile effort. Christ on the cross is heaven’s deepest, richest, and loudest “I love you” cry to earth. Christ on the cross reveals that cheap grace and the God of the Scriptures are removed from one another as far as the east is from the west. Christ on the cross demonstrates most visibly the reality that God’s holiness demands God’s wrath against sinners, a reality that many in more liberal circles vehemently react against today. Christ on the cross boggles the mind with the truth that the God-Man being crucified is God saving us from God, his wrath that is to come. Again, Christ on the cross and Christmas can never be divorced. The cross must remain the focus of the Church.
However, Christmas provides an opportunity for the Church to reflect on and appreciate the life of Christ that leads up to the cross. While gazing in amazement at the eternal implications of the six-hour crucifixion, we must at the same time be awed by Divinity’s plan enacted before the foundation of the world that the Lamb would be slain. Without Jesus’ Spirit-conceived virgin birth and obedient life, Christ on the cross becomes nothing more than a cruel, unjustified homicide. It is both Jesus’ living and dying that provides for us what is needed for a restored relationship with our Creator.
We need both atonement for sin (his substitutionary death) and a perfect righteousness that comes from outside ourselves (his righteous life). As Spurgeon says:
“Remember, young believers, that from the first moment when Christ did lie in the cradle until the time when he ascended up on high, he was at work for his people; and from the moment when he was seen in Mary’s arms, till the instant when in the arms of death he bowed his head and gave up the ghost, he was at work for your salvation and mine…You have as much to thank Christ for living as for dying, and you should be as reverently and devoutly grateful for his spotless life as for his terrible and fearful death.”
This Christmas, I pray that our homes and churches will worship the greatest Gift ever given as we celebrate the righteous life of Christ and the wrath-bearing death of Christ. The two can never be separated.
Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross, 20.
R.C. Sproul, Romans: The Righteous Shall Live by Faith, 103.
Note Philippians 3:9 where the Apostle Paul says, “(That I may) be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Charles Spurgeon, A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of Our Lord, Volume II, 216.