For four years of my life I would drive home by going west on I-84 into Portland and then out the other side on Hwy 26. I’d follow the sweep around from 82nd Avenue and pull onto the Interstate for just the last few miles into town. Every day I would have no choice but to subconsciously or consciously register the image presented to the right of the road. There was a big building with a vast billboard on its side. I can’t even guess its size, but it seemed to loom large as I drove that road day after day, sometimes prayerfully trying to not see the image plastered on it!
Paul was perplexed and distressed by the Galatians. So soon after visiting and seeing such fruit in that region, he heard about false teachers coming in and undermining his position as apostle, and the gospel he had preached. In the third chapter he remembers his ministry among them: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
It is as if Paul is saying to them, “Come on, what happened? When I was there I preached Christ and Him crucified! It was like I cleared the front wall of the church (forgive the anachronisms here), shifted the furniture and the musical instruments and pasted up the largest poster ever with Christ crucified right there in front of you! Why have you turned away from that?”
Why did Paul seek to paint the most vivid picture of Calvary that he could in his ministry?
Firstly because the passion of the Christ is the theological centre of the gospel. Paul knew that the gospel was not about praying a prayer, repent and believe, turn your life over to Jesus, open the door of your heart, etc. That is all language for response, but the gospel itself is Jesus crucified and risen. The gospel itself is what God has done in Christ, and the focal point of that is the cross. Paul trusted in that work, not in his own rhetorical brilliance to manipulate or bring about response in his listeners. So he simply preached Christ, because Jesus is the good news; and Him crucified, because that is centre of gravity for what God has done in Christ.
Since the cross looms so large in the gospel presented by the New Testament, how is it that people get their eyes off it? Where can you look when your whole view is filled with a billboard of Christ crucified? If that is all you can see, surely all will be well? Not quite:
The second reason that Paul placarded Christ crucified so vividly is because of the human tendency to look elsewhere. Where did they look, even after Paul’s great presentation of Christ crucified? They looked within. They had been duped by the false teachers who critiqued Paul as a mini-apostle and his message as a half-gospel. If they wanted to be born again and not just born a bit, and if they wanted to really please God in how they lived, then they needed to put some effort in and start striving with the law as their guide (and circumcision as the entry point).
Paul pulls no punches in Galatians. Someone had cast a spell on them. They were being so foolish. Their turn from trusting to striving was no indicator of maturity and progress. In fact, it was a dangerous trap. Back in the first chapter Paul seemed to scream at them in his distress over their turn. They had turned from the One who had called them! They had not turned to vice or to a competing religion. They had turned from trusting Christ to striving. They had turned from New to Old. They had turned from the gospel to the Law. And in their decision to become more religious, they had turned from God himself.
This is the Genesis 3 impulse within all of us. “I can handle this, stand back God. . . . now if I can just get these fig leaves to hold together . . . ”
The solution to this self-orientation, to this self-trusting self-love that says I can take care of this; the solution is to be captured by the shocking glory of God crucified.
That is why Paul’s gospel seemed so incomplete to the religious anti-gospel teachers. Paul’s gospel didn’t take seriously all the personal integrity commitments and religio-legal demands. In fact, Paul’s “grace-of-God-placarded-on-the-cross” gospel didn’t make the necessary demands for personal determination which everyone knows must be central in any true religious endeavour. Genesis 3. Fig leaves. Hopeless.
Jesus came and died in our place because fig leaves never worked.
This Easter let’s all take the opportunity to pause and reflect, imagining the largest ever billboard of Christ crucified right before our eyes, and let’s ask God, by His Spirit, to keep our hearts living in the shadow of that. Moving from there is never progress.
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.