My question for you is this: How do you see yourself? What do you think of you? We're often told that we all need self-esteem. Well, how would you sum up what you're like and what you're worth? Think about that for a moment and sum up how you see yourself in a few words. You can be honest because noone else is going to know…
As you'll see from the outline on the sheet, my title this evening is 'The Cross of Christ'. The death of Jesus affects everything, but I want to focus on one aspect of its significance, and that is the impact that the death of Jesus has on the way we see ourselves. In a minute we'll look at two verses in Galatians 3.
A student called Pete (not a student in Newcastle) attended a Christian talk and afterwards introduced himself to the speaker. He explained that he had been a cocaine addict. He was trapped in his situation with no means of escape, and he knew it. It seemed that nothing he was able to do could change the way things were. It was as if invisible forces were moulding his life, bending his will to fit their needs.
He admitted that he had been tempted to kill if it would ensure a regular supply of the white powder that had become the focus of his existence. All his hopes and fears centred on his craving. It was destroying him. But he couldn't kick the habit. An utterly bleak and desolate future seemed to lie ahead.
'Sounds grim, doesn't it?' Pete said to the speaker. But he continued: 'Well, I'm free now. I've broken the habit. Do you want to know how?' And he told of how Jesus had taken hold of his life. The forces which had compelled him to addiction had been neutralised. He was set free. The clouds lifted from his life. His parting words to the speaker were, 'I guess I got hooked on Jesus instead – and I just wanted you to know it's truly awesome!'
You may not be addicted to cocaine. But there is an addiction that each one of us needs to be delivered from – the addiction to self-centredness. It is an addiction that the cross of Christ breaks. It is an addiction that is replaced in an awesome way with a new perspective on ourselves that is centred on Christ and not on us.
That new perspective is just one aspect of the blessing of the redemption that Jesus won for us by his death on the cross. Look at Galatians 3.13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
What's going on here? The apostle Paul is desparately worried about the young Christians of Colossae. He's afraid that even though they've only been Christians for a very short time, they're already losing sight of the heart of the their faith. He is afraid that they're forgetting all that Jesus had done for them through his death on the cross. They're listening instead to new teachers who are causing them to take their eyes off Jesus and his death. So look at 1.6:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.
And again at 3.1:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
So then in 3.13-14 he takes them back to the very heart of the gospel. The 'law' that he speaks of is God's law. Why does he describe God's law as a curse? Because we all break that law. And that makes us justly subject to condemnation. There is no soft way of saying this, but the truth is we all deserve damnation. That is the curse that hangs over us.
But Jesus 'redeemed us from the curse of the law'. In other words he paid for us to be set free from that condemnation. How? By 'becoming a curse for us'. That is, when he died on that cross he was taking on himself the damnation that we deserve, so that we don't have to.
And what is the outcome? We find ourselves on the receiving end of 'the blessing given to Abraham'. What's that? In short, it is the gift of God's Spirit to live with us and in us, and the promise of eternal life.
And who exactly is on the receiving end of that blessing? It comes 'through Christ Jesus… by faith'. That is, it comes to anyone who entrusts his or her present life and future destiny entirely to Christ. Every other consideration is beside the point. Respectable or criminal, rich or poor, strings of letters after your name or not a GCSE to call your own, whatever your language or nation, the only thing that counts is a living faith in Christ.
Now as we think about how we see ourselves, let me spell out some of the implications of this gospel under three headings. First, We are humbled by the cross; secondly, Jesus is lifted up by the cross; thirdly, Keep your eyes on the cross.
First, WE ARE HUMBLED BY THE CROSS
We are often told that we need self-esteem. But self-esteem can be deeply self-centred. There are basically two different kinds of self-centred self-esteem: on the one hand self-centred high self-esteem; and on the other hand, self-centred low self-esteem. The cross of Christ chops both of those off at the roots. Why is that?
Well, for one thing, the cross brings low the self-satisfied. There is a huge movement around today that would persuade us that positive-thinking about ourselves is the answer to all our ills. The key to life is to fulfil your potential! An ad in a psychology magazine went like this: 'I love me. I am not conceited. I'm just a good friend to myself. And I like to do whatever makes me feel good…' There's a limerick that puts this attitude well:
There once was a nymph named Narcissus,
Who thought himself very delicious;
So he stared like a fool
At his face in a pool,
And his folly today is still with us.
The message of the cross is that we are under God's curse and deserve to die. But as well as bringing low the self-satisfied, the cross also cuts the ground from under those who see themselves as worthless.
The value of something depends upon what someone is willing to pay for it. Surely that's why we find it so hard to stomach the notion that health budgets should be limited. Isn't human life beyond price? And yet so many people regard themselves as a waste of space – unnecesarily using up oxygen that might be of value to someone else. Suicides – particularly amongst young men – have been on the increase.
But the message of the cross is that there is no limit to the price that God will pay for each one of us. Christ willingly gave himself to die for you. He considered you worth it. Whose valuation should we trust?
Many of us, I imagine, are inclined to swing between high and low self-esteem when we are thinking in a self-centred way. Some are more inclined to one – some to the other.
Dag Hammerskjold, the highly regarded first Secretary General of the UN was described as 'a great, good and loveable man'. But he looked into himself and he wrote of 'that dark counter-centre of evil in our nature' so that we make even our service of others 'the foundation of our own life-preserving self-esteem'.
We are not worthless. But we are unworthy. And that, too, is a fact that is brilliantly illuminated by the light of the cross.
The cross brings into sharp focus the reality of our sinfulness.
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…
… says the apostle Paul in Galatians 3.10. Remember: that curse is the curse of death as the just punishment for our sin and rebellion. Our self-image must include the fact, which is inescapable biblical teaching, that each one of us deserves the death penalty at the hands of God. Not a spell in prison. Let alone a suspended sentence and community service. The death penalty. That fact doesn't do much to strengthen self-centred self-esteem. It isn't meant to. It's meant to destroy it. The fact is that it's no good looking inwards to find peace of mind and heart. Someone has written:
"Alone, I am bored, I am weary, I hate myself, I am disgusted with myself… I cannot get away, for I love my prison and I hate it. For my prison is myself… I love and loath myself."
The cross puts an end to the inward search for peace, apart from Christ. A self-image that is centred inwards is a disaster. The cross destroys self-centred self-esteem. It humbles us.
Secondly, JESUS IS LIFTED UP BY THE CROSS
John Stott has said that 'the cross revolutionises our attitude to ourselves as well as to God'. He could have said that the cross revolutionises our attitude to ourselves by revolutionising our attitude to God. A right perspective on ourselves doesn't come by looking at ourselves. It comes by looking away from ourselves at Christ. And supremely it comes by looking at Christ as he gives himself up to death for us.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. (Galatians 3.13)
So what can we see as we meditate on the cross and as we listen to what God says about it in his word? Here are just five things. What does the cross show about Jesus?
First, the cross shows the perfection of Christ's holiness. There is a unique, pure obedience to the Father in the life of Jesus. Neither his most intimate friends nor his most bitter enemies could find a single flaw in him. And his obedience culminates at Gethsemane when he says to his Father, 'Not my will but yours be done.' In a different letter – Philippians – Paul says…
…[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (2.8)
Secondly, the cross shows the greatness of the love of Jesus. If you want to know that you are loved, you are likely to get a pretty mixed message if you look anywhere else but at Christ. But look at Jesus dying for you and it's hard to see how anyone could doubt his love for them. In the letter to the Romans Paul puts it in this way:
… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (5.8)
Thirdly, the cross shows the completeness of his salvation. Jesus substitutes himself for you and for me. He doesn't just plead our cause, or pay our legal fees, or be there for us when we need him, or reduce our sentence. He takes our place in the electric chair. Through him the whole of God's blessing is given to us. Nothing is withheld. Total salvation.
Fourthly, the cross shows the wideness of his mercy. Galatians 3.14:
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles…
And, again, what is the blessing given to Abraham? 3.8:
The Scripture… announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.'
This is no grudging concession or great sounding offer that doesn't live up to its promise. There is a river of blessing and mercy flowing from the cross that gets wider and wider all the time and reaches to the ends of the earth.
And fifthly, the cross shows us the ground of our security. We need security. We need a home to belong to that is immoveable and permanent. It is faith in Christ alone that gives us that.
So that's what we see when we gaze at the cross of Jesus. We see the perfection of his holiness – in his obedience; the greatness of his love – in his self-sacrifice; the completeness of his salvation – in his self-substitution; the wideness of his mercy – in the blessing of all nations; and the ground of our security – through faith in him. And all of that adds up to Jesus being lifted high.
Do you remember that reading from Numbers 21 that we heard earlier? The Israelites were dying from a plague of poisonous snakes sent among them by God as a punishment for their rebellion. They admitted their sin. Moses prayed for them. Numbers 21.8-9:
The Lord said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Jesus is like that bronze snake. He said that himself. John 3.14:
[Jesus said:] 'Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
On the cross Jesus is lifted high for all to see. The place where Satan thought he had snuffed out Jesus becomes the place where his magnificent glory shines at its brightest. And that leads me to my final heading:
Thirdly, KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE CROSS
We come back to the question: How do you see yourself? It matters. A false self-image will at best shackle your usefulness in the Kingdom of God. It will damage your effectiveness and reduce what God will do through you. At worst, it will lead you to reject the only path of salvation open to you.
We must develop a Christ-centred, cross-centred view of ourselves. As C.S.Lewis puts it in the mouth of his Narnia Christ-figure, the lion Aslan:
"You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth."
Let's remember that we begin to get our self-worth right when we take our eyes off ourselves and put our focus on Jesus. And it needs to be a steady gaze, not just an occasional glance in his direction. When we get him in focus then we get ourselves in focus. Lose sight of him, and our image of ourselves gets hopelessly and dangerously distorted.
You will have a right self-worth when you know your value to Jesus by keeping your eyes on the cross. Say you were kidnapped by the Mafia! I know you couldn't possibly be of any interest to them, but humour me for the sake of this thought experiment. How much would anyone give as a ransom to have you released? How much would they pay for you not to be released? Or – even more difficult – how much do you think they should pay?
A hypothetical fantasy, may be. But that calculation was no fantasy for Jesus. That was exactly what he had to decide for you. And the cross tells us the conclusion he came to. 'How much am I prepared to pay for him? How much do I value her? They are beyond price. I will give everything.'
But we must know more than just our value. We will have a right self-worth when we also have no illusions about our sinfulness. And how do we assess that? Keep your eyes on the cross.
The other day the body of James Hanratty was exhumed for DNA testing with a view to finding out whether he was guilty of the murder for which he was hanged forty or so years ago. Are you clear that in the sight of God we all deserve death?
Sometimes those in despair about themselves are told by friends, 'Don't be silly! You're not that bad! Look on the bright side!' But that is not the way to mental health and holiness. God says to us through the cross, 'Yes, your sin runs very deep. Deeper, in fact, than you know. But see what I have done about it! I have dealt with it. Trust in my Son, and you will be my child for ever.' Keep your eyes on the cross.
In the late Fifteenth Century, the Italian sculptor Agostina d'Antonio began work on a huge block of marble, with a view to producing a spectacular sculpture. After a few attempts to make something out of it, he gave it up as hopeless. The block of marble – now badly disfigured – lay idle for years.
Then Michelangelo took an interest in it. He saw beyond the ugly block of marble to the magnificent sculpture he knew he could create. He began work. The final statue – of King David – is regarded as one of the greatest sculptures of all time. The gift shops of Florence are awash with plastic replicas.
How do you see yourself? What matters is how God sees you. He sees your sin in all its ugliness. But he also sees what you can be through Christ. Abandon you r own idea, whether it's self-centred self-satisfaction or self-centred despair. Instead, learn to see yourself in the light of the death of Jesus. Keep your eyes on the cross.