Victory on Earth Day – part 1

The victory Jesus won for us on the cross

As Christians, we believe that Jesus won a massive victory for all humanity when he died on the Cross. It was a VE Day for us, a Victory on Earth Day.

The original VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, harks back to World War 2 and the celebration on May 8, 1945, when victory at last was won over Nazi Germany. VE Day was all about victory, which fits in perfectly with Christ’s death being a great victory too. But his victory was even bigger. He won a victory for the whole Earth. So rather than the ‘E’ in VE Day meaning Europe, or even ‘E’ standing for Easter, can we use the letter ‘E’ instead to pinpoint what Jesus accomplished for everyone on the day he died. It was very much a victory on ‘E’ for Earth day.

It was the day the dark forces that had been ruling this planet since the time of Adam and Eve were soundly defeated, never to rise again. It was the ultimate VE Day when the evil powers BEHIND the likes of Adolf Hitler and his cronies were dealt a final and permanent death blow.

Every time we take the bread and wine, therefore, or set a week aside at the traditional ‘Easter’ time to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, we are celebrating our very own VE Day. And when I say, “OUR very own VE Day,” I mean humanity as a whole, not just us in the Christian Church – because Jesus died for everyone. So while the world as a whole isn’t celebrating Jesus’ VE Day yet, we can celebrate it for them in the meanwhile, until they too understand what Jesus accomplished for all humanity on the Cross.

But what happened on the Cross, amazingly, was a victory no one actually saw coming, even though it was clearly spelled out in the Scriptures, and by Jesus himself. It even took Jesus’ very own disciples several weeks after he died to catch on to what he’d just done on the Cross, and then it needed the help of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to make it clear to them. None of the Jewish religious leaders saw it coming either, nor did their scholars of the Scriptures, nor did the other Jewish leaders, and – most importantly – NOR did the dark evil forces. They were ALL caught completely by surprise. It was all done and dusted before anyone realized what had happened.

As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “None of the rulers of this age understood it; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

There it is, plainly stated by Paul, that the powers controlling the world had no clue as to what they would be unleashing by killing Jesus. And notice how it’s the “rulers” who wish they’d never killed him? THEY were the ones who took the greatest hit from his death, which offers us a tantalizing clue as to what happened when Jesus died, and what he died for.

Jesus died because he was in a battle for rulership of this planet. He came to topple “the rulers of this age,” the age that began when Adam and Eve let the dark forces take control. His death, therefore, was actually a massive POLITICAL victory, that threw the ruling dynasty of dark forces out of power, and in their place Jesus launched the Kingdom of God on Earth instead.

But why didn’t the dark forces – WITH all their cunning – see it coming? How they did bungle things so badly? Well, that’s God’s genius, because who would have guessed that by Jesus dying evil would be defeated, or that death would bring victory? On the surface it made no sense at all.

It made no sense to the disciples either. When Jesus “began to speak plainly to his disciples” in Matthew 16:21, “about going to Jerusalem and what would happen there, that he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, be killed, and three days later would be raised to life again,” Peter yelled out, “Heaven forbid (Jesus); this is not going to happen to you.” Why on earth did Jesus have to DIE? But as Luke tells us in Luke 9:45, the reason for Jesus dying was still hidden from them, and they were too scared to ask Jesus for further explanation because what he was saying didn’t sound good at all.

But the prophets who made the actual predictions about the Messiah dying couldn’t put the two together either. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:10-12, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to the prophets that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who have preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

As soon as his suffering and death on the cross was all over, though, Jesus didn’t waste any time explaining what had just happened – first of all to the little group of ladies gathered at his tomb, and then with two men on the road to Emmaus. The two men were deeply saddened by Jesus’ death, because, Luke 24:21, they thought Jesus “was the glorious Messiah who’d come to rescue Israel,” but now he was dead. It was all thoroughly confusing.

It must have been quite a shock, then, when Jesus burst out with, “You are such foolish, foolish people,” verse 25 (Living Bible), because “you find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted by the prophets that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his time of glory?”

It was? But where in their Scriptures was the Messiah’s suffering predicted? Well, they didn’t have to wait long to find out because in verse 27, “Jesus quoted them passage after passage from the writings of the prophets, beginning with the book of Genesis and right on through the Scriptures, explaining what the passages meant and what they said about him.”

The two men were so excited by what was in their Scriptures all along that they asked Jesus to stay over that night to explain more. But during supper, when it suddenly dawned on them who Jesus was, he disappeared. So they packed their bags and headed straight back to Jerusalem, to report to the remaining eleven disciples what had just happened.

But half way through their report to the disciples Jesus appears out of nowhere (36). They don’t know whether to celebrate or to run. So Jesus asks for something to eat and while munching away he says, “When I was with you before,” verse 44, “don’t you remember my telling you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true?”

Well, yes, that IS what he’d told them, back in Luke 18:31, when he’d said they were all going to Jerusalem, and when they got there “all the predictions of the ancient prophets concerning me will come true.’” And in John 5:45-46 he’d also mentioned one of the prophets by name too, when he told the Jews who wanted to have him killed, “Your accuser is Moses,” because “he wrote about me, but you refuse to believe him, so you refuse to believe in me.” So again, it was in their Scriptures all along, starting with the writings of Moses, that Jesus would be coming – and what he was coming for.

It was in Deuteronomy 18:15, for instance, when Moses told the Israelites, “God, your God, is going to raise up a prophet for you. God will raise him up from among your kinsmen, a prophet like me. Listen obediently to him.” Moses then repeated those same words in verses 18 and 19 – so did Peter in Acts 3:22, and so did Stephen in Acts 7:37.

The Jews of Jesus’ day KNEW, therefore, that a great prophet like Moses would arise again. They were looking for him too, as we see in Philip’s excited shout to Nathaniel in John 1:45, “We’ve FOUND the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth.” But even though Philip was absolutely right in pinpointing Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, he, like everyone else, had no clue that the One Moses wrote about would also suffer and die, or why his suffering and death were necessary, or what would actually be accomplished by his suffering and death as well. It was still a total mystery.

But how did they MISS it, when only two hundred years earlier an amazing book had hit their Jewish bookstores specifically predicting the Messiah’s arrival, including actual dates they could work out for themselves, that also PREDICTED HIS DEATH as well? There it was in Daniel 9, that great prediction of an “Anointed One” who would put an end to sin and “set things right forever” (24), BUT who would also be killed (26).

Surely that had to ring a bell or two in their heads taking them right back to the prophecies they were already familiar with in Isaiah – like the one in Isaiah 49:5-6 that spoke of a great Servant whom God had chosen to “recover the tribes of Israel” so that Israel would become “a light for the nations to make God’s salvation global.” And how that Servant, in the process of saving Israel and the whole world, would also suffer and die – mentioned in considerable detail just four chapters later in Isaiah 53?

Did all these clear scriptures ring any bells? No, they didn’t. Even when Caiaphas the High Priest prophesied in John 11:51-52 that “Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for their nation but also for all the scattered children of God to bring them together and make them one” – it still didn’t ring any bells that what he’d just said was straight out of Isaiah as the sign pinpointing who the Messiah was, what he’d come for, and how his death would accomplish it. And Caiaphas was just about to have Jesus killed in fulfillment of that prophecy too, but it wouldn’t mean a thing to him. How could that be?

Well, we know from verse 48, that Caiaphas wasn’t really thinking about what Jesus’ death would accomplish for the whole world; he was thinking about what it would do for him. Caiaphas was in a difficult spot. If the movement Jesus began got any bigger the Romans might move in to crush it and in the process kick out Caiaphas and his cronies too. Jesus’ death, therefore, didn’t mean anything more to Caiaphas than saving his own skin. He said as much in verse 48, when he openly stated his concern that if too many people followed Jesus the Romans would remove “what little power and privilege WE (priests) still have.”

What Caiaphas saw in Jesus’ death, therefore, was the chance to save himself and his own political future. And that’s all he saw. But most of his fellow Jews were just as short sighted and self-centred as he was, because all they saw in Jesus was a great conquering hero who would save them from the Romans and make them a great nation again. In other words, they ALL saw Jesus in purely selfish terms, as to what he would do for them, personally.

But let’s lift this up to us today, because at some point in our lives WE were faced with Jesus dying on a cross as well. And what did that register in OUR heads? Was it along the lines of something like this: – that we sinned and brought down the penalty of eternal death on ourselves, but God unleashed his wrath on Jesus on the cross instead, so that our sins could be forgiven, and if we led a reasonably good life after that our souls would be taken up to heaven?

That, as we hear often in Christian hymns, sermons and funerals, is the prevailing belief of many Christians today. But what difference is there between that belief and what the Jews and Caiaphas thought? What Jesus represented to the Jews, either in his conquering hero outfit or in his death, was the saving of their skins and the hope of a secure and glorious future for their nation. But the picture of Jesus being presented by much of Christianity today is remarkably similar, that he’s the Saviour of our skins from hell, and the provider of a one way ticket to a secure and glorious future in Heaven. In other words, just like Caiaphas and the Jews, we Christians can be into Jesus for selfish reasons too.

Missing in this picture is the great victory Jesus won over the dark forces, how he won it by dying on the Cross, and what new and wonderful things began to happen on this planet because of it. The focus of much of Christianity by contrast is on our sinful bodies and this troubled Earth being such a mess that God is going to wipe them out forever; he’s going to burn the Earth up, pack all the bad people off to hell, but whisk the souls of all the good people off to Heaven to live forever with Jesus.

Fortunately for us humans that’s NOT what Jesus died for. He didn’t die to get us OFF the Earth; he died to give us victory ON the Earth. He died to give us a great political victory over the dark forces ruling Planet Earth, because everything on this planet comes down to rulership. It’s not about dumping our responsibilities of ruling this Earth and disappearing off to Heaven; it’s about getting back to the business of rulership that God created us and this planet for, and that’s why Jesus died.

Jesus died to win back rulership of this Earth for us humans again. We lost it in a cunning political manoeuvre by the dark forces that offered us instant self-gratification and self-fulfillment off a tree. And we fell for it. We happily handed over the reigns of rulership to a serpent in exchange for chasing our own dreams of grandeur. We were just like Esau, trading our birthright for a bowl of soup.

And from that point on our focus has mostly been ourselves, and what this planet and our God-given abilities can do FOR US. We became utterly and horribly selfish, and like leopards we haven’t changed our spots much since. Even Christianity has largely become a quest for self, of saving our skins and feathering our nests with the best reward and position we can get in Heaven, much like Jesus’ disciples wanting the best positions in his Kingdom.

The idea that Christ died to win back our rightful position as kings and priests and administrators of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth – as God’s very own children too – is almost as foreign to many Christians as it is to the rest of the world. We’ve been cleverly distracted from our Father’s amazing purpose for us – right here on the Earth – into treading water until “God calls us home” to our eternal reward in Heaven. And for some odd reason we prize that over what God made possible through his Son’s death. We’d rather strum harps and sing in choirs in some far off, distant “heaven” than think about what being restored BACK to our job as kings and priests on this Earth means, and what possibilities that has opened up for all humanity right in the here and now.

One has to wonder why we as Christians became so focused on leaving this Earth and going to Heaven, when Jesus’ focus was on the Kingdom of Heaven coming here. Right at the start of his ministry in Mark 1:15 he announced, “At last the time has come; God’s Kingdom has arrived,” and from then on, Matthew 9:35, he “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.” And in Luke 4:43 he said, “I must preach the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And did the Jews immediately interpret that as, “Great, we’re all going to heaven”?

No, they didn’t. The mention of the word ‘Kingdom’ – in the minds of the people Jesus was talking to – was the great Victory ON EARTH predicted in the book of Daniel two hundred years earlier. There it was in Daniel 7:13-14 that spoke of “one like a son of man,” a human being no less, who “was given authority, glory and sovereign power” – the power, that is, to create and rule an unending Kingdom involving “all peoples and nations” here on the Earth. When the Jews heard the word ‘Kingdom’, therefore, that’s what it meant to them, that God was setting up his Kingdom here under the rulership of humans again, just as he originally intended.

JESUS’ focus, in other words, was on the VICTORY for God’s Kingdom on this Earth that his arrival brought. Never did Jesus traipse round the towns and villages yelling out, “OK everybody, gather round, I’ve got great news; the time has come for you to repent of your sins so you can all go to Heaven.”

His focus was entirely on the launching of God’s Kingdom here, not saving souls for Heaven. But for many Christians the announcing of God’s Kingdom is a bit of a mystery, because if we’re all going to heaven one day, why does it matter what happens down here, except that by doing good works and being good church members we get ourselves a decent-sized reward when we arrive at the Pearly Gates?

We’re living in a Christian culture where little attention is being given to the connection between Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom and why he died on the Cross. That’s not meant to condemn anybody because we all make mistakes, and Christians all through the ages have said and done some really stupid things, and we’d readily confess our own embarrassing contributions to that too, right? But admit it; we’ve got ourselves in a pickle, and painted ourselves into a corner, because entire denominations representing the heart and soul of Christian preaching, and many well known preachers on TV too, have got stuck in a groove that leaves out a whole chunk of why Jesus came here and why he died.

We can’t criticize the Jews, then, can we, for missing the connection between the Kingdom and why Christ died, when many of us Christians have missed it too. The Jews knew about the Kingdom, yes, but they didn’t connect it to Jesus having to die. We Christians, meanwhile, believe in Christ’s death, but we can’t see how it connects to his preaching about the Kingdom. The Jews, therefore, got a huge surprise when Christ died, but Christians get a huge surprise too, on discovering that Jesus’ death has nothing to do with going to heaven.

And on both scores the surprise happens because the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross is STILL a bit of a mystery. How would you answer the question, for instance, “Why did Jesus die on the Cross?” If you say, “He died to forgive our sins,” yes, that’s true, but what if you were then asked, “What has the forgiveness of sins got to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on this Earth?” What would you say then?

For many Christians the forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on the Earth. Instead, they say, our sins are forgiven so our souls get a free ticket to Heaven. To the Jews, however, forgiveness of sins had nothing to do with saving their souls for Heaven. To them, forgiveness of their sins was totally connected to the setting up of God’s Kingdom – because who was God setting up his Kingdom through? It was through them. But Israel had sinned badly and put a halt to God setting up his Kingdom through them. For God, therefore, to continue his work of setting up his Kingdom through Israel, Israel was in desperate need of forgiveness. The future of the entire world now rested on Israel being forgiven.

Which explains why Jesus’ death was such a great victory, because it was through his death that Israel’s sins were forgiven.

But even though the Jews knew that forgiveness of their sins was the key to God’s plan getting back on track through them, they still didn’t connect it to Jesus’ death. We see that in Acts 1:6 – which is now several weeks after Jesus died on the Cross – and the main concern of Jesus’ disciples is: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom in Israel?”

They still didn’t get it, that when Jesus died to forgive their sins, it meant the Kingdom had ALREADY been restored in Israel. That’s what Jesus had died for. That’s what their sins had been forgiven for. His death meant their sins had been forgiven, and that meant they were back on the job God had called them to do, of spreading God’s Kingdom to all nations.

But it took the Holy Spirit to get that through their heads, as we see in Acts 3:17, when Peter acknowledges the Jews’ ignorance in killing Jesus, “BUT,” he adds in verse 18, “this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” It was the death of Christ that had flung open all those prophecies in the Old Testament about God’s Kingdom being restored for the whole world through Israel. That’s why Christ’s death was such a victory, because the Kingdom promised through Israel had begun already.

Thanks to Peter, we can now see the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross, because it was Christ’s death forgiving the sins of Israel that launched God’s Kingdom. And thanks to Peter again, in Acts 3:26, he made it clear where it all began: “When God raised up his Servant, he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from YOUR wicked ways.” God’s Kingdom had been launched afresh in Israel because God had dealt with THEIR sins first.

And how had God dealt with Israel’s sins? Through Christ toppling the dark forces that had caused Israel to sin in the first place.

And how did he do that? Three things won the battle for Jesus: First off, as Israel’s representative, he did what Israel didn’t do – he stayed utterly loyal to God and never strayed from his purpose. Secondly, he took the death that Israel had brought on itself, from chasing other gods, on himself. And thirdly, by his death the sins of Israel were forgiven. All three dealt a deathblow on the evil forces, but the third one especially, forgiveness, because forgiveness destroys evil’s power.

Evil has no power left where there is forgiveness. If you’ve done something horribly wrong to me, for instance, but I forgive you, the power of evil to make me bitter and angry at what you’ve done is broken. That’s the power of forgiveness, and through Jesus’ death forgiving Israel’s sin, the power of evil over Israel was broken too, freeing them up to fulfill their calling again. And they got off to a great start too, because thousands of Jews responded to Peter’s message, launching the Kingdom of God in the Church, that reached out next to the Gentiles, just as God promised to Abraham.

It was a great victory that now includes us Gentiles in it too, because all nations would be blessed through Israel after Israel’s sins were forgiven. So now it’s our turn to ask, “What has Christ’s death got to do with the good news of the Kingdom?” And if it’s a tough connection to make, it’s understandable, because the evil powers didn’t make the connection either. If they had they would never have crucified him.

But we now have the key that unlocks the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross: It’s in that word ‘Forgiveness’. Through Christ’s death we’re all forgiven, but the purpose of that forgiveness is to free us up from the dark forces so we can live the ways of God’s Kingdom that Jesus launched at his death, and by doing so prove in our own lives that his victory was real.

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