Big Idea: Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life, but because of what he accomplished in his death.
Purpose: To show the beauty of the cross, so that people will be drawn to Jesus.
In the next few minutes, I want to open an important passage of Scripture that helps us understand why we're here tonight. It's found in John 12. It's just days until Jesus is crucified, and in this passage Jesus sets his sight on the cross, and helps us understand why it's so important that he died.
The Sunday before Jesus died, something happened that made Jesus announce that it was time for him to die. Not only did he announce that it was time for him to die, but he explained the meaning of his death. Let’s read the passage together, and then consider what it means for us.
[Read John 12:20-36]
This is God’s holy Word.
We are gathered here tonight, over a thousand of us, in memory of someone who accomplished shockingly little with his life.
Think about it. Most times, when we remember the life of someone famous, we are able to list their accomplishments:
- Abraham Lincoln was a self-educated lawyer who rose from poverty to become the President of the United States, leading it through one of its greatest crisis and abolishing slavery.
- Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
- Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who became the first black President of South Africa, and who led the country to dismantle apartheid.
Unlike Lincoln, Einstein, and Mandela, Jesus accomplished shockingly little with his life. Think about Jesus’ accomplishments, or rather, his lack of accomplishments:
- He had no military, political, or financial power.
- The only followers he scraped together are peasants.
- He was executed in his thirties, probably at the age of 37.
- He was penniless when he is killed. His only possession, a robe, was taken away from him when he was killed.
- At the very end, he was abandoned by his friends and by God himself.
And yet despite all of that, he has become the most influential figure in the history of the world.
Tonight, in the few minutes that we have, I want to ask why. Why is Jesus, who accomplished so little with his life, so compelling?
We don’t have to guess what the answer is, because Jesus tells us himself. Here's what Jesus tells us. It’s very simple, and it’s in the passage that we just read.
What Jesus tells us in this passage is this: Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not denigrating Jesus’ life. Jesus lived a sinless life. He taught and performed miracles. But if Jesus had not gone to the cross, his life would have counted for nothing. If Jesus hadn’t have died on the cross, his life would be a footnote in history. In this passage, Jesus says that if he didn't die, his life wouldn’t have accomplished its purpose. He would have failed in his mission and his life would have had very limited impact. There would not be millions of people around the world who have been completely changed by him. The reason that Jesus is compelling is not because of what he accomplished in his life, as great a life as it was; it’s because of what he accomplished by his death.
You may be thinking, what did Jesus accomplish by his death? Jesus tells us in this passage. There are three things that Jesus accomplished by his death that make him so compelling:
- By dying, Jesus revealed the operating system of the universe
- By dying, Jesus brought God glory
- By dying, Jesus judged the world and defeated the devil
Let’s look at each of these, and how we should respond.
What did Jesus accomplish by his death?
1. By dying, Jesus reveals the operating system of the universe (24-26)
You may have seen the video going around called “Kids react to Walkmans.” These kids are handed a Sony Walkman from thirty years ago, and they have no idea what they’re holding. They think it’s a walkie talkie or something so old that it’s running IOS 4. They’ve never seen a Walkman, and they’ve only heard about cassette tapes. They have no idea what to do with it. They know the “operating system” of iPads or anything else you could throw at them today, but they don’t know what to do with an ancient device like a Walkman.
It’s the same when I get together with some of my friends. I used to be a Windows user; now I use a Mac. I have no idea how to use Windows anymore, no matter how much Julian or Joe to help me. The thing is: operating systems matter. No matter what computer or device you have, you need to know how to use it.
It’s the same in this world. To live well, we have to live according to the operating system of the universe. The problem is: What is the operating system of the universe? Our news cycles are full of stories of killings, identity theft, and political maneuvering. Our lives are full of the stress of making a living and, in the end, in making a life that will have been worth living. In order to live well, we need to have an idea of how this world operates, but it’s not always clear what that operating system is. We need to have it revealed to us.
In his book The Call of Jesus, Derek Worthington describes the default operating system of post-Christian spirituality. The operating system has three components to it:
- a distant God who is far-off, detached, remote, and inaccessible, and not involved with our daily lives;
- ourselves as the ones who have authority in our lives; since God is far-off; it’s up to us to make things happen;
- consumerism as the path to fulfillment; the way to a good life is to buy goods and services that make us happy
That’s how most of us live. We believe in God, but that he’s distant. We take charge of our own lives, and live to consume. “We are our god. The market, our sanctuary. Our religious practice is buying; consuming. Retail therapy.” We live according to this operating system, but it never delivers the happiness that it promised.
But that’s where the cross comes in. The cross shows us that this is not the operating system of the world. Jesus shows us the true operating system of the universe in verses 24-26:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
According to Jesus, this is how the world operates:
- You have a God who is not distant. You have a God who is present in the person of Jesus Christ, and who is very involved in our lives.
- You have a God who then pushes us out of the position of control in our lives. God is God, and we aren’t; we take action, but only under his sovereignty and control.
- The path to fulfillment is not consumption; it’s self-giving love seen most clearly in Jesus, who offered up his life in service and love.
You see this everywhere.
You see this in agriculture. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The purpose of a grain of wheat is that it dies, germinates, and produces a great crop. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the best writers on food and agriculture, devotes a whole chapter in his book Cooked to the importance of dying in agriculture and food. Whether you’re talking about fermentation or plants and animals in general, there’s a whole lot of life that comes from death.
You see this in movies. In Armageddon, the character played by Bruce Willis tries to stop an asteroid from destroying earth. They prepare a nuclear bomb to blow the asteroid apart, but something goes wrong. The character played by Willis has to stay behind and manually detonate the bomb, giving up his life so that others can live. You see this in movies all over the place. You see this in Gravity: George Clooney’s character gives up his life so that Sandra Bullock’s character can live. Harry Potter’s mother offers her life to save Harry. Dumbledore says to Potter, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.”
You see this in life. Mindy Tran is 5-foot-1 and 130-pounds. In other words, she’s a lot smaller than the one-ton Honda Accord that she drives. But when that car has her two-year-old twins in it, and that car begins to roll towards traffic, she didn’t think twice. She grabbed onto the car and was pinned under the right axel, stopping the car before it hit the traffic. She suffered a fractured pelvis, severe injuries to her legs and a separated left shoulder. She is unable to walk, and months of rehabilitation lie ahead. The newspaper that reported the story editorialized at the end: “What better role model could they have, once they are old enough to truly understand, than a mother who was willing to lay down her own life to preserve theirs?”
Most powerfully, you see this at the cross. The reason that this is the operating system of the universe is that it is the operating system of God himself. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tells us that his whole purpose is to fall to the ground and die, to lay down his life so that others could live. At the heart of the universe is a God who willingly lays down his life for us. When Jesus died for us, he revealed that self-giving love lies at the heart of the universe. At the heart of the universe is a Savior who willingly went to the cross for you. “On the cross Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away” (Tim Keller).
This makes Jesus different from anyone else. Jesus died willingly in our place so that we could live. Most kingdoms do anything they can to protect their king. This is even true in chess. When the king falls, the kingdom is lost. Therefore, the king must be protected at all costs. When the Allies invaded Normandy on D-Day, June 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill desperately wanted to watch the invasion from the bridge of a battleship in the English Channel. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was desperate to stop him, for fear that the Prime Minister might be killed in battle.
When it became apparent that Churchill would not be dissuaded, Eisenhower appealed to a higher authority: King George VI. The king went and told Churchill that if it was the Prime Minister's duty to witness the invasion, he could only conclude that it was also his own duty as king to join him on the battleship. At this point Churchill reluctantly agreed to back down, for he knew that he could never expose the King of England to such danger.
King Jesus did exactly the opposite. With royal courage he surrendered his body to be crucified. On the cross he fell to the ground and died so that he could bear much fruit, so that we could live. He says that we can stake our lives on this: that he died so that we could live. He reveals this as the operating system of the universe. C.S. Lewis says:
In self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives himself in sacrifice. When he was crucified he “did that in the wild weather of his outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness” from before the foundation of the world…This is not a…law which we can escape…What is outside the system of self-giving is…simply and solely Hell…that fierce imprisonment in the self…Self-giving is absolute reality.
The cross shows us that self-giving love is at the heart of God. It’s at the heart of the universe he created. And he calls us to live this way too.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:25-26)
Do you want to know the way to make your life count? Lay it down as Jesus did. George Müller, a man who cared for over 10,000 orphans in England during his life, was once asked, “What has been the secret of your life?” He replied, “There was a day when I died, utterly died — died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes, and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends — and since then I have only to show myself approved to God.” Dying is a daily requirement for spiritual vitality. The way to be rich is to be generous. The way to power is to serve. The way to real influence is to not seek influence. The way up is down. The pathway to glory is through death. Jesus’ dying for our salvation is also a pattern for our imitation.
Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death. And in this passage, he explains what his death accomplished: by dying, he gave us life. There was a debt to be paid: God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be borne: God himself bore it.
But that's not all. There's something else that Jesus accomplished by his death. At the cross, Jesus reveals the operating system of the universe. But Jesus accomplished something else that made his death so compelling:
2. By dying, Jesus brought God glory (27-28)
We’re a little late, but we've become fans of Downtown Abbey. We’re only in season two; don’t tell us what happens. One of my favorite characters is John Bates, valet to Lord Grantham. John Bates has an estranged wife who shows up one day threatening to reveal something that would dishonor Lord Grantham and his family unless Bates quits. Bates willingly takes the fall to preserve the honor of the Grantham name.
There is something compelling about paying the price for the sake of the other. We’ve already seen that this is what Jesus does at the cross: he dies to reveal his self-giving love for us. This is the very nature of God. But there’s more. We read in verses 27 and 28 that Jesus dies not just out of self-giving love for us, but out of a desire to bring glory to his Father. Read verses 27 and 28: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour." You get a sense here of how daunting the cross is to Jesus. In a few days, Jesus would bear the world's sins and suffer separation from his Father. As he looked ahead, he understood that he would be paying an infinite cost for our sins. As he looked ahead to the cross, he stumbled. He knew this would not be easy.
So what kept him going to the cross? When the way gets hard, it's always important to go back to why, and that's exactly what Jesus did here. His sacrificial death has always been the primary purpose of his mission to the world. The whole reason he came is the cross. It was his destiny, his burden, his pursuit. We've already seen one reason why: because his death reveals the self-giving love of God that’s at the centre of the universe. But there's more.
What other reason did Jesus have in going to the cross? Jesus tells us in verse 28: “‘Father, glorify your name.’” Jesus is totally committed to the glory of God. He will do whatever it takes to bring that glory about, even to die. God's glory is the principle that controlled his life and ministry. Why did Jesus go to the cross? Because the cross would bring God glory.
What happens next is amazing. For only the third time in Jesus' ministry, God speaks audibly. God the Father affirms what God the Son says: that the cross is a powerful demonstration of the glory of God. You want to see the glory of God? The birth of a baby shows the glory of God. The beauty of mountains displays the glory of God. The beauty of the stars on a clear, dark night displays the glory of God. But the cross shows you more of God's glory than all the stars and mountains. When you look at the cross, you see the very glory of God.
This is the irony of the cross. The cross is an instrument of torture and disgrace. As he went to the cross, Jesus was beaten, mocked, stripped, and humiliated. The cross was not just designed to execute; it was designed to humiliate. The irony, though, is that the cross becomes a means to glorify God. Isaiah 52, written hundreds of years before, speaks of Jesus:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
Jesus will be glorified. Jesus picks up up this in verse 23: “And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” How will he be glorified? Jesus tells us in verses 32-33: “‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.:” (John 12:32-33)
How is God glorified? How is Jesus going to be high and lifted up? By being mocked, stripped, and nailed to the cross. If you want to see the glory of God, look at the crucified Savior. If you want to see the glory of God, look at the God who is wiling to die for you. The death of Jesus Christ is the supreme manifestation of the glory of God.
How does the cross show God's glory? The cross reveals the holiness of God. It demonstrates his righteousness. It reveals that God could not simply ignore or overlook sin. Sin has a cost, a real cost, and someone had to pay it. God would be unjust if he did not judge evil. The cross shows us the holiness of God who is righteous and who has to deal with sin.
But the cross also reveals the love and mercy of God. At the cross, we see both the holiness and the mercy of God. When the living creatures and elders worship Jesus in heaven, they look to the cross. They say:
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.
(Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)
Jesus is so committed to God’s glory that he is willing to give up his life and die. The cross reveals the glory of God like nothing else, because it reveals his holiness and his mercy, and the extent of his self-giving love.
Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death. Jesus' death reveals that self-giving love is at the heart of the universe, and it also brought glory to God. But's not all:
3. By dying, Jesus judged the world and defeated the devil (31)
Just over a year ago we moved into a condo. I was so excited to move into our condo. The real estate listing said the unit is huge, stunning, includes many upgrades. I looked over the listing this week and couldn’t find anything negative about your place at all. It sounded great! And make no mistake about it: we love it.
The only problem is that the management company keeps sending us these letters asking if the deficiencies have been corrected yet. The seller never mentioned any deficiencies. So I contacted the seller, and he couldn't remember any deficiencies. I contacted the management company, and asked them to tell me what's wrong with our place. I heard nothing back. Eventually I got an email back from the management company, and eventually an inspector showed up with a binder with all the details. All I wanted is two things: for someone to tell me what's wrong, and for someone to make it right. I needed someone to to tell me the deficiencies in our place, and for someone to correct those deficiencies.
It turns out that this is exactly what Jesus does for the world. Jesus says in verse 31. Listen to what the death of Jesus does. It's two things. First, it reveals what's wrong with the world. When the world exercised judgment on Jesus by sending him to the cross, it judged itself. When Jesus comes to the world and the world rejects him, it reveals what's wrong with the world. In the murder of Jesus, evil is exposed in its most extreme form. The worst about us is revealed. It exposes our deficiencies. "The cross is a judgment on the way the world thinks, on the values of the world, on the very epistemology of the world, the way the world knows and thinks" (Tim Keller). That's why there is no hope for those who reject Jesus, because the cross is a judgment on those who reject him.
But it's not enough to expose deficiencies. The deficiencies need to be fixed. And at the cross, this is what Jesus does. Jesus says that the world is judged, and the prince of the world is cast out. In this present world, in its fallen state, the ruler is Satan. Ephesians 2:2 calls him the prince of the power of the air. At the cross, he thought he had achieved his greatest victory. Think about it: Satan had Jesus on the cross. Satan had succeeded in killing Jesus. But what looked like Satan's triumph was in fact his defeat. Colossians 2:15 says, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." When Jesus was glorified, "lifted up" on the cross, Satan was dethroned. The death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus mark the end of Satan's dominion, and brings his defeat. It's like a lot of Leafs games I've watched: the defeat has already happened; it's just that the clock is running out. At the cross, Jesus administered the death blow that will ultimately still the movements of Satan.
That's why Jesus is so compelling. Jesus lived a great life. But we're here not because of what Jesus accomplished with his life. That's why when the Greeks come looking for him, he says that it's time to go to the cross. He understands that if the nations are going to come to him, he must finish the work he set out to do. The world awaits; if he's going to be the Savior of the world, he has to die.
We're here because of what he accomplished with his death. At the cross, Jesus died to bring us life; he died to bring God glory; Jesus died to reveal what's wrong with this world and to fix it.
That's why Jesus says in verse 32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” You see, the cross isn’t just true; it’s beautiful. It’s not just factual; it’s beautiful. When you see the cross,
If you want to see something beautiful, look to the cross. Look at Jesus, who deserved love, glory, wealth, crowns, songs, choruses, pageantry, and delight. Look at him who gave all of that up and went to the cross; who fell into nothingness so that you could fall into his delight, so you could fall into his honor.
R.A. Torrey said, "Preach any Christ but a crucified Christ, and you will not draw men for long." But look at a crucified Christ and you will see the sheer beauty of what he's done — what he's done for you.
But a response is needed. Jesus says in 35-36:
The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
The light will not always be available. There is a finite, limited time in which each individual has an opportunity to respond to Jesus. After that comes the darkness. One's response to the light decisively determines one's judgment for eternity. If you want to walk with certainty, you should act at once. We have a limited time; looked to Jesus who died to give you life; who died to bring glory to God; who died to defeat evil, and who draws all people to himself.
Jesus accomplished shockingly little with his life from a human level, but he accomplished everything with his death. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit...And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." It could be today that you are being drawn by Jesus tonight. Look to him tonight and be drawn to Jesus by the beauty of the cross.
Father, thank you for Jesus. Thank you for a God who would give up riches and glory and honor and go to the cross to die so that we could live, so that you could be glorified, and so that evil could be defeated.
We see the beauty of the cross tonight — not just the truth of the cross, but the beauty of the cross. Draw all of us to Jesus tonight. Our prayer is that as we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, that you would draw all people to him. So draw them to Jesus right here, right now. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.