A Christian’s theology is minimally defined by two miraculous events.
The first miracle no one ever saw, because it could not be seen except by God alone. The second miracle only a few saw, but multitudes have experienced. These miracles happened within days of each other in the middle of the Jewish month of Nissan, in the spring of 33 A.D. It was the week of Jesus’ passion.
Best Christmas Verse You’ll Never Hear
Traditionally, Easter is the time we reflect on these two events. I think, however, we should start four months earlier, with Advent. It may seem odd to talk of Christ’s suffering at Christmas—it’s not very festive—but there’s a simple logic joining the two that’s often missed because of Yuletide habit.
Usually we focus on Nativity passages—shepherds, angels, wise men, “no room at the inn,” mangers, etc. But you will hear nothing of one of the most significant New Testament texts on the birth of Christ since it’s not in the birth narratives. It’s not even in the Gospels.
Here is the most important Christmas verse you’ll never hear on Christmas:
Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you have taken no pleasure." Then I said, “Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, oh God” (Heb. 10:5–7).
Note the opening words: “When He comes into the world...” Who is “He”? The babe in the manger. On that first Christmas, the eternal Son of God surrendered His perfect human self to His Father as the future unblemished offering for the sins of fallen human beings.
This verse tells us the precise reason the Son came to Earth. He did not come principally to teach love, peace, and pity for the poor. He came to submit Himself to something unspeakably violent and brutal. Every crèche ought to have a cross hanging over it, because Jesus was born to die.
“The Son of Man [came] to give His life a ransom for many,” Jesus said.1 A ransom is the price paid to purchase something. What would Jesus buy? Lost souls. At what price? “...a body you have prepared for Me.” He would give the life of His body to provide forgiveness for our souls.
And this you do find in the birth narratives—everywhere.
God speaks to Joseph in a dream telling him Mary will bear a son who “will save His people from their sins.”2 The angels appear to shepherds that first Christmas night and say, “Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”3 Days later Simeon encounters the infant Jesus at the temple: “Lord, you can let your bondservant depart in peace...for my eyes have seen Your salvation...”4
Earlier Zacharias had prophesied over his infant son, John the Baptist, that He would “...give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins...”5 This same John would point to Jesus 30 years later and say “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”6
Jesus came to save—to rescue from imminent danger. What was the threat? God Himself.7 How would Jesus rescue us from the Father? First, He lived the life we should have lived. Second, He died the death we all deserved. Third, He made a swap, a trade.
From the very beginning, this divine plan had been unfolding. Passion week was the pivot point of thousands of years of prophecy, promise, and expectation. A transaction would take place that had been planned since the dawn of time. For Jesus, though, this meant betrayal, humiliation, acute physical suffering, and unimaginable emotional agony.
The drama unfolded on a small outcropping outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. It was called Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” We know it as Calvary, the place of the cross. It was the place of the first miracle.
The First Miracle
Crucifixion is a cruel form of execution, generally reserved for slaves and rebels. Death is agonizing and slow, the result of shock, exposure and, eventually, suffocation.
For Jesus, though, the pain of the cross pales in the face of a greater anguish. There is a deeper torment that cannot be seen, one no words can adequately express. It’s more excruciating than the lashes tearing Jesus’ flesh from His frame, more dreadful than the nails that pin His body to the timbers. It is a dark, terrible, incalculable agony—an infinite misery—that God the Father unleashes upon His sinless Son as if He were guilty of an immeasurable evil.
Why punish the innocent One?
Nailed to the top of the cross is an official notice, a certificate of debt to Caesar, posted at the place of punishment as a public notification of Jesus’ crime of sedition. It reads, “King of the Jews.” The cross is payment for this debt. When punishment is complete, Caesar’s court will cancel the debt with a single Greek word stamped upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai. Paid, completed, done, finished.
Of course, being king of the Jews is not the real crime Jesus pays for. Hidden to all but the Father is another decree of debt nailed to that cross, identifying our crimes—the “decrees against us”—before our Sovereign.8
In the darkness that shrouds Calvary from the sixth to the ninth hour, the divine transaction takes place. Jesus makes a trade with the Father. Punishment adequate for all the crimes of all humanity—every murder, every theft, every lustful glance, every hidden act of vice, every modest moment of pride, every monstrous deed of evil—punishment adequate for every crime of every person who ever lived—Jesus takes upon Himself as if guilty of all.
And in the end, the cross does not take Jesus’ life. He does not die of exposure, or loss of blood, or suffocation. Rather, when the full payment is made, when the last of the debt melts away and the justice of God is fully satisfied, Jesus dismisses His spirit and dies.9
But before He does, a single Greek word escapes His lips: Tetelestai. It’s translated, “It is finished,”10 but this is not a sigh of relief. It is a “loud cry” of victory.11 The divine transaction is complete.
Jesus took our guilt so we could take His goodness. That’s the trade.12 Paul put it this way, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”13
The story is told of a king who, having discovered a theft in the royal treasury, decrees that the criminal be publicly flogged for this affront to the crown. When soldiers haul the thief before the king as he sits in his judgment seat, there in chains stands the frail form of the king’s own mother.
Without flinching, he orders the old woman to be bound to the whipping post in front of him. When she is secured, he stands up, lays down his imperial scepter, sets aside his jeweled crown, removes his royal robes, steps down to the whipping post, and enfolds the tiny old woman with his own nearly naked body. Bearing his back to the whip, he orders that the punishment commence. Every blow meant for the criminal—his mother—lands with full force upon the bare back of the king, until the last lash falls.14
In like manner, during those dark hours when Jesus hung from the cross, the Father took those who would put their trust in Christ and wrapped us in His Son who shields us, taking every blow that we deserve.15
This was not an accident. It was planned. The prophet Isaiah described it 700 years earlier:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore.... He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4–6).
In case it has not occurred to you, this is the reason Jesus is “the only way.” He is the only one who solved the problem by paying the debt we owed. No other man did this. No other man could. Jesus alone, the perfect Son of God, canceled the debt for whoever trusts in Him. Without Him, we cannot be saved from our overwhelming guilt. Without Him, every one of us would have to pay for our own crimes. And that would take forever.
That is the miracle of the cross, the miracle that couldn’t be seen, the trade. For those who find shelter in Jesus, the anger of God has been spent, unleashed on the body of Christ. The result: God is not angry at us anymore.
Let that thought sink into your soul. For those under the cross, God is not angry anymore. He cannot be angry. Since He already poured all His anger out on His Son, He is emptied of His wrath and is satisfied:16
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God17 through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1–2).
Of course, this news sounds wonderful to us in hindsight. On that Friday night, though, there were no poetic reflections on atonement or justification. There was just a bloody, brutally beaten corpse hanging from a cross.
Jesus was dead. And he was taken down, and he was buried. And the women were weeping, and the men were hiding. And it was night. And it was day. And it was night again. And it all seemed over. That was the end of it.
And then, something remarkable happened. Exactly what happened has mystified historians. Whatever it was, it changed everything.
The Second Miracle
Here is what historians do agree on. Today, the vast majority of New Testament scholars—including secular/critical scholars—agree to four facts of history:18
- First, Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross and laid in a tomb.
- Second, the tomb was empty Sunday morning.
- Third, numerous individuals (including skeptics like James and hostiles like Saul of Tarsus) experienced what they took to be the resurrected Jesus.
- Fourth, belief in the resurrection transformed their lives and launched a movement that altered history.
What historians don’t agree on is what best explains these four facts, but there aren’t many options. Consider the handful of improbable scenarios meant to explain away those conclusions.
Some skeptics suggest Jesus never really died. Rather, He fainted on the cross, was taken for dead, was entombed alive, then revived in the coolness of the cave.
This would mean Jesus suffered all the physical abuse described in the historical accounts—being beaten, scourged, pinned to a cross with nails in hands and feet, exposed naked all afternoon in the April air, and speared through his chest—was declared dead by a battle-seasoned Roman centurion,19 embalmed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes,20 laid out on a cold stone slab, and sealed in the grave. Then, a couple of days later, Jesus felt a lot better, got up, rolled away the rock, eluded the Roman guard, and convinced his doubtful disciples He was the resurrected Lord of life.
Any skeptic who falls for that story is not skeptical enough.
Maybe the women went to the wrong tomb. That’s possible in principle, but it would have been an easy mistake to rectify. Since both the Jewish leaders and the Romans knew where Jesus was buried, and both groups wanted Him to stay dead,21 don’t you think someone would have quickly pointed to the correct tomb and ended the confusion? The story would have never gotten off the ground.
Instead of producing the corpse, though, the leaders manufactured a lie: The disciples stole the body.22 This was the earliest attempt to explain away the empty tomb,23 but it’s wildly implausible. The disciples who were hiding out of fear would have had to regroup, brave an armed Roman guard, quietly roll away the massive stone, and spirit off the body of Christ without waking the soldiers who were, amazingly, sleeping on duty. Not likely. And what would motivate the theft?
Worse, it would mean the disciples themselves knew Jesus had not, in fact, risen from the dead. Why would these men face so much suffering for a lie they manufactured? Common sense dictates that no one would contrive a tale that gains him nothing but misery. The basic rule regarding lying is this: Invent a lie that benefits you, not one that gets you beaten, whipped, scourged, stoned, drawn and quartered, or crucified upside down. Again, a skeptic who believes this is far too gullible.
Maybe the appearances were hallucinations. Really? A group hallucination? How exactly does that happen? Hallucinations are first-person private mental states, like dreams. How do you produce exactly the same detailed dream in the minds of a dozen people at exactly the same time, multiple times, especially in the minds of those who are complete doubters like Thomas, James, and Saul? By the way, do you know the difference between a dream and reality? I do. I suppose the disciples did, too.
No, hallucinations won’t do, either.
What would transform a group of shivering, shaking, terrified men who had abandoned Jesus—one even denying he knew Him—scattering, hiding from the authorities, door locked, lights out? What could account for their metamorphosis into vibrant witnesses for Jesus standing in the face of powers who threatened to scourge, imprison, and execute them for proclaiming a risen Christ?
What would change Saul of Tarsus, a man so dedicated to his religion he rounded up men and women to be bullied, beaten, and killed for following Jesus? What would cause such a man to turn on a dime and take his place with those he persecuted, eventually sacrificing his own life for the very Gospel he previously despised? What best explains that?
Only one answer will do, in Peter’s words, “This Jesus, God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.”24
And if risen, then Jesus is the son of God because He was declared to be so “with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). And if risen, we have been forgiven because “He who was delivered over for our transgressions...was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). And if risen, we now have no condemnation because Jesus “who was raised, who is at the right hand of God...intercedes for [us]” (Rom. 8:34).
Two miracles. The first miracle a trade that ends the battle with God, bringing mercy, forgiveness, and atonement. The second miracle a defeat of death that secures eternity of glory for those who put their trust in Christ.
The Open Door
One day we will lay hold of the promise of both miracles in their fullness. “The door on which we have been knocking all of our lives will open at last,” C.S. Lewis wrote.25
On that day because of the first miracle—the miracle of the cross—we will hear, “...and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17). On that day because of the second miracle—the miracle of the resurrection—we will hear, “Enter into the joy of the Lord” (Matthew 25:21).
It is the reason Jesus was born.