Last week I spent an evening reading Rick Warren’s soon-to-be-published book The Purpose of Christmas. It is a mostly-original work that, while it draws heavily from The Purpose Driven Life is at least not entirely derived from it. An evangelistic gift book, it is meant to be given as a Christmas gift. I have written a review of it that I will post a little closer to the release date. For now, though, I wanted to deal with one of the statements inside it. It’s one I’ve seen Warren write in the past and one that always bothers me. Here it is. “[T]he baby born in Bethlehem did not stay a baby. Jesus grew to manhood, modeled for us the kind of life that pleases God, taught us the truth, paid for every sin we commit by dying on a cross, then proved he was God and could save us by coming back to life. This is the Good News. When the Romans nailed Jesus to a cross, they stretched his arms as wide as they could. With his arms wide open, Jesus was physically demonstrating, “I love you this much! I love you so much it hurts! I’d rather die than live without you!” The next time you see a picture or statue of Jesus with outstretched arms on the cross, remember, he is saying ‘I love you this much!’”
Now clearly it is true that Jesus died as an expression of his love for his people. The Bible tells us as much and it tells us so repeatedly. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus’ death was as great an expression of love to us as he could offer and it was far greater than anything you or I could offer. I might die for a friend, but I could not suffer the Father’s wrath on his behalf. Jesus, though, died and faced the Father’s wrath so that I would not need to. There is no greater imaginable act of love than that. I would never wish to minimize the love of the Son for his people.
But when that is all there is to the Lord’s death, we miss a critical element. When we go no further and see ourselves as the ultimate object of Jesus’ love, we raise ourselves far too high. We may inadvertently make Jesus’ death a kind of idolatry.
Before he was raised on that cross, Jesus had been asked for his view on which was the most important of the commandments. He did not hesitate for a moment, but answered “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Love for one another comes only second to love for God. If we do not first love and treasure God, we cannot properly or fully love our neighbors. If we do not first love and treasure God, we make every other kind of love into a form of idolatry–we raise them higher than God in our hearts.
So what we miss in the “I love you this much” story of the cross is that Jesus’ death was not primarily an expression of love for us, but for his Father. It had to be this way. Jesus greatest love is not for us, but for his Father. His sacrificial death was not first for us, but first for his Father, so that he might ransom those whom his Father loved. Though there is no doubt that the cross is an expression of love for us, it is first an expression of love for the Father and an expression of obedience to the Father. There is abundant proof for this in Scripture. Jesus said, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). So that the world may know I love you? No, so that the world may know I love the Father. It was this love and obedience that sustained Jesus, even on the cross. Early in his ministry he had said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Addressing his disciples shortly before his death, Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:9-10). The Apostle Paul says the same: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In all these things, and especially in his obedience, Jesus expressed a heartfelt love to his Father.
Bruce Ware says “If Christ’s obedience to the Father was the truest and necessary expression of the reality of his love for the Father, then the severity of what was asked of him and his willingness to obey at a cost beyond human comprehension indicate a love that is so great, so pure, so deep, and so passionate, that we can only grasp in miniscule part what this truest of all loves really is. But this much we can know: such love would never, could never, be love were it not for costly obedience. This is the hallmark of Jesus’ love for the Father.”
So does Jesus love us “this much?” Of course he does. He loves us enough to take our sin upon himself and to face the father’s infinite wrath. Jesus could never have made his love more plain than this. But more foundational to this is Jesus’ love for the Father. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate expression of love to his Father.
Now let me ask you: do you think I am making a false distinction here and fabricating some kind of controversy? Or is it really important to us that we position the cross first and foremost as an expression of love to the Father and only secondarily as an act of love toward us?