“God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Pretty much every Christian accepts this. The problem, though, is that our understanding about what, exactly, love is remains obscure. Discussions on the nature of love can easily devolve into abstraction. But the crucifixion cuts through all ambiguity by defining love in one supreme, tangible, historical, definite (and definitive) act. “This is how we know what love is,” John the apostle says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 Jn 3:16). The love that characterizes God’s eternal nature looks, vividly and unequivocally, like Christ crucified on the cross.
Think about it. While we were yet undeserving enemies, God-the-Son set aside his blessed state, humbled himself by becoming a human, and, though he could have justly had twelve legions of warrior angels vanquish his foes, he instead selflessly offered himself up to be humiliated, tortured and crucified by them. And he did this in order to fully identify with our sin and our curse, thereby suffering the God-forsakenness and death consequences of sin that we deserved. (See Rom 5:8-10; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:53, 27:46; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13.) This is the kind of love that characterizes God’s eternal nature!
It’s a selfless love that is oriented toward the well-being of others, even when they could not deserve it less. It’s a love that is self-sacrificial and non-violent, choosing to suffer at the hands of his enemies and out of love for his enemies rather than to inflict suffering on his enemies. It’s a love that chooses to bear the guilt and the deserved punishment of foes rather than to justly punish foes for their guilt.
The cross uniquely reveals that God’s eternal nature is a love that ascribes worth to others, even at cost to self. In fact, this love was willing to make an unsurpassable sacrifice on behalf of others (us). There’s no greater extremity to which the all-holy God could have gone on our behalf than to become our sin. Nor is there a greater extremity to which the perfectly united God could have gone on our behalf than to become our God-forsaken curse. Indeed, as beautifully mysterious as it is, Paul is revealing that, on Calvary, God went to the extreme of, in some sense, experiencing his own antithesis! On the cross, God entered into “discontinuity with Himself” and stood “against Himself,” as Karl Barth put it.
Someone experiences pain to the degree that they must endure something contrary to their nature. For example, it’s terrifyingly painful to be unable to breathe for any duration of time, because nothing is more natural to us than breathing. Nothing could be more unnatural for the all-holy God than to experience sin, let alone the sin of every human throughout history! And nothing could be more unnatural for the perfectly united triune God than to experience separation from himself. The physical suffering of being crucified is as horrific as any human can imagine, but it pales in significance compared to the spiritual pain that Jesus, as well as the Father and the Spirit, suffered when Jesus was crucified. Yet, this is precisely what God chose to endure on Calvary out of love for us.
Once we grasp this unsurpassable price God paid to reconcile us to himself, we see why the cross must be regarded as the definitive, unsurpassable, revelation of God.
God could not have gone further or sacrificed more than he did for us on Calvary. This is why I claim that the cross must be regarded as the supreme—in fact, the unsurpassable—revelation of God. And this is why John defines the kind of love that God eternally is by pointing us to the cross. In all eternity, no event could reveal God’s true cruciform character more perfectly.
—Adapted from Cross Vision, page 35-37
Artwork Attributed to Thomas de Keyser