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The Cross as a Pulpit

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
Ephesians 5:1-2

The passage from Ephesians 5 quoted above is an important one in the context of the Apostle Paul’s letter to this beloved church. In light of beginning our recent study in the book of Leviticus, there is no doubt that the Apostle is bringing to mind the language of the burnt sacrifice offering of Leviticus 1 where we read: “And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.” As we noted this past Lord’s Day, that language reminded the priest and the worshiper that God was satisfied with the worship He had commanded as the people came with their sacrifice to make atonement for their sins. His wrath and justice were satisfied through the offering of the animal on the altar. What the Apostle is saying in Ephesians 5, as we see it in the light of all of Scripture, is that the reason why these Old Testament/Covenant sacrifices burned on the altar rose up as a sweet smelling aroma to the Lord was because of what was still to come in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. It was not as if the wrath and justice of almighty God could be satisfied and set aside by the offering of animals on the altar—“for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). And so, for the Old Covenant believer it was necessary that they see by faith beyond the animal sacrifice to the promise of God that He would provide the spotless Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world. And in believing on that Lamb their sins were forgiven. The same is true, of course, for all who come after Christ, that all who with eyes of faith behold the spotless Lamb provided by God Himself, their sins are washed away and they are set free from the bondage of sin and from the wrath to be revealed on the last Day.

The main point that the Apostle Paul is pressing home in this practical section of his letter to the Ephesians is this: that as Christ has fully satisfied the Father’s wrath against us sinners by His atoning death on the cross, so He has set us free to live lives of holiness and righteousness to the praise of His glorious grace! And that life is marked out by several defining characteristics. At the end of chapter 4, Paul warns us against grieving the Holy Spirit of God by Whom we were sealed for the day of redemption (4:30). One of the ways we can do that is by refusing to forgive one another even as God in Christ has forgiven us. In those verses (4:1-32), Paul is speaking mainly to believers about how they live their lives with one another in the body of Christ. Beginning in chapter 5, his attention turns to how they are to conduct themselves in this fallen world. Believers are to be different (“set apart,” or holy) because Christ has satisfied God’s wrath on their behalf! We have been set free from the dominion of sin (see Romans 6:1-14). It is precisely because we have been set free from the wrath to come through the atoning death of Christ that we are able to present ourselves to God as being alive from the dead—living sacrifices, pleasing to God because of Jesus!

This truth is why our study in Leviticus is so profitable as we see from many vantage points the necessity of the death of Christ that God’s wrath may be satisfied. Augustine once wrote, “The cross was the pulpit in which Christ preached His love to the world.” He was no doubt echoing the teachings of Jesus in John 3 where He spoke of God’s love to the world in the giving (as an atoning sacrifice, as the Lamb of God) of His only begotten Son. The great theologian John Owen noted the same when he wrote of Christ on the cross, “He was lifted up between heaven and earth, that all creatures might see that God had set Him forth to be a propitiation.” A “propitiation” is the word used in the Bible to describe a “wrath-bearer by whose death God is satisfied.” The only sacrifice that God found to be a sweet smelling aroma was the sacrifice of His one and only Son.

But was there no other way? Was there no other way that a holy God could have redeemed sinners like you and me? The straightforward answer is: “No—there was no other way!” Romans 3 perhaps puts it best:

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

In order for God to remain righteous, He had to have His wrath satisfied—He had to punish sin. If that punishment was not to fall upon us (though we surely deserve it!), then it must fall upon an acceptable substitute. According the Hebrews 2, the One to make propitiation for the sins of the people must be made like His brethren. And so, the eternal Son of God took on human flesh and was made like us in order that He Who knew no sin could be made sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). And this brings us back again to our text above: because of all that Christ has done as our propitiation, let us walk in love as dear children of God, holy and beloved.

Consider these things prayerfully before the Lord, giving thanks to Him for such a great and acceptable sacrifice on your behalf. Come to the Table this Lord’s Day with faith in your hearts, being thankful to Him. Heed the instructions of the Apostle in Ephesians 5 as you seek to live your life worthy of your calling. Finally, come to receive the grace you and I need—grace He so freely offers to all who believe—that we may walk worthy of Him until He comes from glory to take us home.

Giving thanks to God for the sacrifice of His Son,
Pastor Ted Trefsgar

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