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Spring 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 1 · pp. 139–147 

We Preach Jesus Christ, the Crucified

A. H. Unruh and trans. Harold Jantz

“We preach Jesus Christ, the crucified,
the one for whom the prophets yearned and
of whom the disciples testified.”

1 The great Apostle Paul has for all times given the church of Jesus Christ the character and content of its message to the world, when he wrote to the church in Corinth: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This gospel, according to Romans 1:2, was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” However, divine illumination is needed for us to understand correctly the picture the Scriptures give us of Jesus the crucified. The Emmaus disciples gained such enlightenment when the risen Lord began to interpret for them, from Moses and the Prophets, the Scriptures that spoke of him. In this fashion, the disciples came to see that the Christ had to suffer and enter into his glory. The circle of apostles who had seen the risen Lord, through God’s leading gained an insight into the Scriptures in which it became clear to them that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead, and so enter into his glory. Thus for the early church the message of the crucified Christ was fully in harmony with the message of the prophets of the old covenant. And we are entirely right to testify: “We preach Jesus Christ, the crucified, the one for whom the prophets yearned and of whom the disciples testified.”

We preach a salvation we can only receive as repentant people, a salvation inseparably tied to love.

How prophets longed to see him

If we talk about longing, we’re entering into the realm of feelings—an intense yearning for someone or something. Before that happens, however, one must somehow have seen or recognized the object of that desire. This longing wasn’t something that grew out of their human inclinations; rather, it came as the result of divine revelation. Divine disclosure and inspiration formed the basis for that longing. The prophet stood in the midst of the story of his people and with an enlightened eye glimpsed the story’s outcome, which Hosea expresses in succinct terms in chapter 6, where he writes: “The Lord . . . it is he who has torn us, and he will heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Because of God’s judgments for her lawlessness, Israel suffered death and then became a people once again through the Goel (Hebrew for the rescuer, Messiah), the Redeemer. “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of Hosts in his name. He will surely plead their cause,” Jeremiah cries out in 50:34. Thus Israel’s story is inseparably linked to the Savior, the servant of God, the branch out of the house of David.

As prophecy ceased, scribalism became entrenched and suppressed the image of the Savior and influenced the people to such an extent that Israel could not recognize the Redeemer amid her fleshly expectations for the future. Thus, we rejoice all the more today because through the New Testament and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can once again see the pointers to the Redeemer in the writings of the prophets.

My assignment today does not involve showing how the prophets might have seen the Redeemer in terms of his claims to kingship, or to show how Israel might realize a glorious future through this Redeemer. The assignment given to me would have me show how the prophets might have longed for Jesus, the crucified one.

They were waiting for the Redeemer who would be God himself. The cited text, Jeremiah 50:34, states: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name.” In Isaiah 7:14 it is said of the Redeemer that he is to be born as a human being, but he will be Immanuel, God with us. The prophet is looking for a redeemer who is both God and man. Isaiah 9:6–7 announces the same when it says: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” This son is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These are names no ordinary person can carry. The prophets remained consistent in their predictions of the lofty position of the Redeemer, right from the first prophecy about the Redeemer in Genesis 3:15 where he is called the seed of the woman but will be stronger than the evil one. God himself wants to reach out from eternity to restore the relationship with mankind. It is toward this act of God that the prophets direct their hope: God coming to us and becoming one with us in the incarnation.

This doesn’t happen at a moment when Israel feels strong. He doesn’t come in order to unite his strength with Israel’s strength, so that he might make Israel a world ruler. No, he comes as everything in Israel has broken down, the throne, the temple, the state, and the people. He comes as a root out of dry ground. He comes when Israel hasn’t any reputation left, whether political, or religious or moral. At this moment the Son of God—whose glory Isaiah saw (chapter 6)—will become their Savior, not by assuming his glory: rather, he wants to accomplish the wonder of salvation by taking on the form of a servant. It is as the most despised that he will be the all-powerful.

To this the prophets answered that there would be a day on which this servant of God would take away the sin of Israel and also of the world. He would accomplish the atonement for sins. We see the Redeemer among the people, but he cannot give his Spirit until sin has first been atoned for. They understood that mankind could not come into real fellowship with God unaided. Whenever a person senses the presence of God, he or she cannot help but feel, “I’m too unclean to endure the presence of God.” “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143). “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6). Forgiving ourselves will not suffice in the presence of a holy God. The presence of God doesn’t by itself bring joy to the sinner. It brings fear, which in turn should lead to repentance. The one for whom God in his glory becomes a reality, dies. For this reason the basic question for the prophets—as Luther put it—was this: “Who can find a merciful God?” Thus it was their privilege to proclaim that the Redeemer would come as the Reconciler. The basis for this expectation was the system of sacrifice in Israel. That Old Testament system 2 became the dawning that announces the rising of the sun in the heavens. Just as Christ in the rock followed them, 3 so also the throne of grace was always in Israel’s midst. Isaiah views the servant of God as the one on whom all our sins are thrown, upon whom our punishment is laid, so we might have peace, and by whose wounds we are healed.

Death as Foundation

With prophetic foresight the prophets saw all aspects of the suffering Messiah: sold for thirty pieces of silver, humiliated and spat upon, his back flayed, suffering physically on the cross, the agony of his soul as he suffered, a mob surrounding his cross, his clothes divided; they heard his cry of suffering, his cry of victory. They saw his grave and the honor extended to him in the end. And above and behind all this shone the principle of substitution. In the Scriptures the idea of atonement is connected solely to the death of Jesus. His blood speaks more strongly than Abel’s blood. The blood of Abel and of all the prophets calls for judgment upon the murderers. And the murderers of Jesus were to experience that this blood of Jesus would come upon them too, as it did at the destruction of Jerusalem. They continued their deadly ways in the persecution and killing of the apostles, who were permitted to share both the humiliation and the glory of the prophets. The common center for all of these martyrs was the Lord Jesus in his death. It was the prophets’ role to explain the meaning of his death as an atoning death.

Thus the suffering of believers and the suffering of the Lord Jesus present world history with the great unanswered problem, if we don’t embrace their prophesied meaning. The noblest and best of our world will yield themselves up in place of others. Their death has preserving power for humanity; they give themselves as a kind of salt to preserve mankind. According to the prophets, on the other hand, Christ’s death has power to atone and doesn’t merely hold sin back, it takes the sin away.

The prophets see the death of Jesus as the foundation for his victorious kingship. “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). And Israel’s conversion too is linked to looking in faith at the crucified One (Zech. 12).

So, in the beauty of the cross and the power of the resurrection, the Redeemer emerged before the believing eyes of the prophets. They saw Israel’s future bound to the life and death of the Redeemer.

The glory of the Redeemer and his ultimate triumph over the enemy remained firm for the prophets. The trust brought about by their faith enthralled these prophet leaders. Only when this should all come about was hidden from them. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets . . . made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet. 1:10,11). Unhappily, the scribes later steered this inquiry in false directions. “In the divine plan, they became the keepers of the letter, and in the process lost the spirit of the Word.” 4 The messianic vision was transformed by fleshly hearts to a vision of earthly dominance. This fantasy occupied itself with the glowing conditions of the future state. Their god was their stomach and they became enemies of the cross of Christ. All their prophetic interpretations led them to give the people a false vision of the kingdom. And when the king came, they did not recognize him. With the Torah tucked under their arms, they rejected the king who called them to repent.

How difficult it was for the Lord to awaken in the disciples an understanding for the cross of Christ! “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter cries out when the Lord tells the disciples that he must suffer and die. In a three-year program of studies, the disciples could not grasp the lesson of the cross. And the teaching had to be continued after the resurrection of Jesus. That’s when they could grasp a kingdom with a crucified and resurrected king. The Son of God had to become the interpreter of the prophetic word. Of this expanded teaching, we read: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 23:45). After they had grasped Jesus’ mission on earth, the Lord ascended into heaven so he might continue to teach them through the Holy Spirit. If they had grasped the need for the atonement through the cross before the ascension, they now needed to gain a larger and wider sense of the far-reaching implications and power of the atonement. And only in the power of the Holy Spirit, without adding human strength, were they now able to proclaim Jesus the crucified One.

Witnessed to by the disciples

What a great moment in Israel’s story when John the Baptist called out, as he pointed to the wandering Jesus, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” And two of his disciples turned and followed Jesus.

It was another far greater moment when Peter, together with the eleven, stood up and witnessed to the crucified One.

He proclaimed Jesus as the man whom God confirmed in Israel by deeds and signs and wonders, while at the hands of the unrighteous in Israel he was assaulted and put to death. Ever since the cross of Christ, mankind is in the dock. Here the hatred of men and women for God finds its expression. They could not endure the light and loved darkness rather than light. Mankind showed what it was and what it wanted. At the cross, God and man stood over against each other: God wanted to draw near to us, but we pushed him away. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:14).

Despite such animosity, God remained true to his plan of salvation. The cross was a human discovery, but to accomplish salvation out of the cross, was a divine discovery. “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held by its power,” said Peter on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:24). The Lord Jesus could not see corruption as the holy One of God. Thereby the Lord is justified before God in Israel’s midst, and the rulers of the people recognize the resurrection as a solemn charge against them. Accusingly, they say to the disciples, “You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (Acts 5:28b).

And yet the resurrection of Jesus is intended to provide justification for us and salvation for the nations, as Peter says, according to Acts 5:31: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus, who is now raised to the right hand of God, has given us the promise of the Father as the crucified One—he was exalted and in his exaltation received the Holy Spirit for the church (Acts 2:33).

In his letters, Peter proclaims very clearly the substitutionary meaning of Christ’s death. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness: by his wounds you are healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

When he identifies false teaching, the Apostle Peter underscores the denial of the “Master who bought them” as the key concern (2 Pet. 2:1). Even his ethical exhortations are motivated by the substitutionary suffering of the Lord. “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin)” (1 Pet. 4:1). And in 1 Peter 1:18–25 the depiction of the suffering of Jesus draws us toward following in the footsteps of Jesus. Even the eschatological vision for Israel’s blessed future within the Kingdom of Israel has the cross of Christ as its starting point. Peter recognizes only one way for Israel’s restoration—through the forgiveness of sins on the basis of the death of Christ (Acts 3). In his address he offered forgiveness to the Jews as the way toward establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, in which, however, no one should disappear within the masses; rather, each should personally experience conversion: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). Anyone who wants an eternal experience with Jesus must first encounter him as Savior.

So, for Peter, the cross once uncomprehended became the core of his message. He knew only one Messiah, the One who had suffered an atoning death as substitute for his people and who now, on the basis of his death, was lord of life, the one who offered Israel repentance and forgiveness. The cross, against which he had once warned Jesus and in the face of which he had denied Jesus, now became the reason for his unflagging witness concerning God’s saving act.

Still, according to the law, everything is to be confirmed by two or three witnesses. In his Pentecost message, Peter underscored, “Of this we are witnesses.” He and the Apostle John maintained faithful company in this service of witness. The Apostle John was one of the first of the disciples to recognize Jesus as the Lamb of God. Three pictures of this Lamb of God are given in his writings. When John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, the Apostle John caught a vision of the mission of Jesus. This vision moved him to follow. He still hadn’t fully understood the meaning of the witness given by John the Baptist. Nonetheless, he followed Jesus. He lay at the breast of Jesus and gained profound insight into Jesus’ being. He listened to the words of Jesus, that his flesh and blood give life, that the Good Shepherd yields up his life for the sheep. He doesn’t protest against the cross as did Peter. He doesn’t deny Jesus; instead he remains close to Jesus at the foot of the cross. Yet all these words and the words of the prophets, as well as the Old Testament sacrificial system, first became truly clear to him when the Lord opened the Scriptures to him after his resurrection. He then took a second look at the Lord through the Word. Now he understood the Word, “None of his bones shall be broken,” and, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced” (John 19:36, 37).

Later on Patmos, when John had witnessed the struggle of the church with the kingdoms of this world and the Lord showed him the outcome of this contest, he gained his third insight into Jesus when he saw the crucified Jesus as the lamb of God who was put to death and then heard the words, “He has conquered the lion.” In the Spirit he sees the victorious hosts as those washed with the blood of Jesus, praising the Lord that they’ve been bought with the blood, and dressed in white robes made bright by the blood, and as having defeated the Devil through the blood of the lamb.

When John looks upon the weakness of the church as she struggles, he points to the blood of Jesus as the source of comfort and strength. Jesus cleanses from all sin (1 John 1:7) and he is the atonement for sin (1 John 2)—and on the basis of this fact he becomes the intercessor for the straying child.

To spur us to a life of love, John also points to the love of Jesus demonstrated in his death. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). The persistence of that love is not guaranteed to him by the church but by the love of God in Jesus. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

It is this great washed assembly that John sees, cleansed through the blood of Jesus. John is the only one to write: “He prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51, 52). With these words John points to the unity of the body of Christ, which Paul emphasizes so strongly later on. Thus the lifeblood and strength of the Johannine theology is also found in Christ the crucified.

The disciples of Jesus stood in harmony with the prophets and, indeed, with Jesus himself, who had repeatedly underscored the saving meaning of his death.

Proclaiming Jesus the crucified

It is this direction we too have taken. Today our conference would emphasize: We proclaim Jesus Christ the crucified, the one for whom the prophets yearned and of whom the disciples testified.

In our preaching we give witness to Jesus the crucified: “I believe, therefore I speak.” Faith cannot endure remaining merely a private matter. Motivated by the love of Jesus, we are driven to witness about Jesus. If Jesus has touched our heart, he also gives us in and with that faith the will and the power to testify; that is, he gives us the power to declare our solidarity with him. “Genuine witness is just as much the work of the Spirit as genuine faith. No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” 1 Cor. 12:3). “Without our spoken testimony, the faith in our hearts cannot remain healthy. Our inner person will collapse when inward conviction and outward conduct contradict one another.” 5

Our witness becomes a sermon. It is a freely shaped message. It isn’t the offering up of a number of edifying talking points; it is a clearly defined message that we have taken and incorporated into ourselves. The heathen prophets were like gushing fountains; the words spouted out from them, and they engaged in practices while their minds were switched off. The [Hebrew] prophets were no gushing fountains. Their minds remained under their control. God spoke something into their lives and they spoke clear and sensible words. The prophet possessed a message before he stood to speak, and the Apostles likewise. As should we. We have a message. We do not tell people what they desire to hear; rather, we speak what we must, whether it meets their desires or not.

We carry Jesus into the hearts of our listeners. The cross of Christ represents judgment on the flesh. It will bring all self-glorification down into the dust: philosophy, morality, Jewish, and Mennonite. All will be made to nothing. We do not use the cross as an opiate that acts as morphine to induce a fantasy yet leaves us in our sins.

It is Jesus, the crucified One, the Savior, who takes our sins away. He saves us from our sins. He offers repentance and forgiveness of sins. We take him among all classes of listeners and awaken remorse for all kinds of ungodly behavior. We do not preach a salvation that is like an object we can stick thoughtlessly into our pockets and go our way. No, we preach a salvation we can only receive as repentant people, a salvation inseparably tied to love. We preach Jesus the crucified, who draws us into his death. His attitude toward sin becomes ours, as does his attitude toward the world. We preach Jesus the crucified as the giver of eternal life. Whoever believes in him has eternal life.

We preach Jesus the crucified as the giver of the Spirit, given to all who believe in him. That leads to a new life rooted in a new way of thinking, a way of thinking tied firmly to the Word and directed by it.

And how do we preach Jesus? As witnesses, as ambassadors in Christ’s place, as people anchored in grace, and with love toward the world.

Notes

  1. A paper read at the District Conference in Main Centre, Saskatchewan, on July 7, 1935.
  2. Sanitorium.
  3. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says Israel drank from the rock that followed them and that the rock was Christ.
  4. Source unknown.
  5. Source unknown.
A formidable intellect and excellent speaker, Abraham H. Unruh (1878–1961) became the leading theologian among Canadian Mennonite Brethren of his era. He helped to found Winkler Bible School, and was the first president of Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Bible College. He served the Canadian Conference both as secretary and moderator. Harold Jantz edited the Mennonite Brethren Herald for two decades before founding ChristianWeek, a Canadian national evangelical news tabloid. His interest in Mennonite Brethren history was nurtured by stories he heard as a child of a great-grandfather, Jacob Jantz, the leading minister and elder of the Friedensfeld church in southern Russia. Harold is married to Neoma (Hinz) and they are members of the River East Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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