Partaking of holiness at the table.
The best reason why the cross was necessary is given us to in Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Once a month at the church where I serve, we follow the Scriptures in honoring and commemorating what our Lord Jesus established the night before he was crucified by partaking of the bread and the cup as a means of remembering what he finished on the cross (Luke 22:14–20). We can debate and discuss the frequency with which churches observe this ordinance, but, how often one participates in communion isn’t the most crucial aspect of communion. It’s one’s heart. Such is what St. Paul makes plain in his seminal treatment of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. Nonetheless, the communion service is an integral moment for any church family, in which the saints gather to corporately recognize their utter need for a Savior. And, through the elements of the bread and the cup, the church is shown how that need was perfectly met in the passion of the Christ.
The bread and the cup are there to memorialize, to use Christ’s own words, his body given for you and his blood shed for you (Luke 22:19–20). If you’re a sinner who believes in Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection as the means of your salvation and remission from sin, then this Supper is here to aid your memory, augment your faith, and remind you of who it was that saved you. This meal is meant to stir you by bringing to your mind the horrors endured in order to accomplish your redemption. I’ve been thinking, though, that another fundamental aspect of the communion service ought to be a consideration of what moved Jesus to endure such atrocities. What moved him to withstand the weight of Calvary? You likely have a number of answers that flood your mind, all of them likely good and right in their own way; but I submit to you that, perhaps, the best reason why the cross happened at all is given us to in Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s prophecy is among the least visited and studied books in the entire Bible. Its forty-eight chapters boast sundry topics and themes that have served as theological debate fodder for centuries. Indeed, one of the enduring legacies of Ezekiel is its enigmatic prophetic messages. Resolving these troublesome passages isn’t my objective, though. Instead, I’m burdened to show you that nestled within Ezekiels obscure and often coarse oracle is, perhaps, the clearest motivation as to why something as gruesome as the cross would ever be utilized. Ezekiel 36 is a momentous section which contains one of the messages signaling Israel’s future restoration. However, this oracle doesn’t begin quite to hopefully, with God reminding his people why they’ve endured such grievous these long years:
Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own way and by their doings: their way was before me as the uncleanness of a removed woman. Wherefore I poured my fury upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for their idols wherewith they had polluted it: and I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them. And when they entered unto the heathen, whither they went, they profaned my holy name, when they said to them, These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of his land. But I had pity for mine holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the heathen, whither they went. (Ezek. 36:16–21)
They were made to feel God’s fury because they had “profaned his holy name among the heathen” (Ezk. 36:20–22). Israel had developed a pitiful testimony, which reflected even more pitifully on their God. Rather than living according to the Lord’s holiness, as was his design, God’s covenant people lived lives which defiled and desecrated their Lord’s name through their indulgent idolatry. Israel’s conduct, you see, was a blight on the very character of God.
You and I might feel offended when our name is called into question or drug through the mud. Multiply that times a billion and you’d still only have calculated a fraction of how offensive sin is in the face of a holy God. Such is the scene before us. But what is God’s response to all of this? What does he promise to do with those who have “profaned his holy name”? This wretched offense certainly deserved all the fury that God had poured out on them already. Yet in response to his people’s continued misery, the Lord God does the most unexpected thing imaginable:
And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the Lord, saith the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses: and I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of the tree, and the increase of the field, that ye shall receive no more reproach of famine among the heathen. Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations. Not for your sakes do I this, saith the Lord God, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel. Thus saith the Lord God; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be builded. And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited. Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I the Lord build the ruined places, and plant that that was desolate: I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it. Thus saith the Lord God; I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them; I will increase them with men like a flock. As the holy flock, as the flock of Jerusalem in her solemn feasts; so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of men: and they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 36:23–38)
That phrase “I will,” or some variation, occurs some twenty-four times in those verses. Over and over and over again, Yahweh assures his people that he will bring something about and do something on their behalf. Each of these “I will’s” constitutes God’s redemptive and restorative activity for his people. Their exile will end and they will be brought into their “own land” (Ezek. 36:24). Their filthiness and uncleanness will be removed and they “will be clean” (Ezek. 36:25, 29). The time of famine will be over and the fruit of the trees and harvest of the fields will flourish once more (Ezek. 36:29–30). All the desolate ruins of their former lives will be remade — “the wastes shall be builded” (Ezek. 36:33). And, what’s more, they won’t merely be reconstructed, they’ll be entirely restored as in the days of Eden (Ezek. 36:35). Such are blessed, manifest results of God’s redemptive design.
But what moved God to execute this plan of redemption so sweet and restoration so sweeping? We don’t have to wonder: God himself tells us that it wasn’t for Israel’s sake “but for mine holy name’s sake” (Ezek. 36:22, 32). God was moved by holiness. His holy name had been polluted by his own chosen people, who had further defiled their Lord’s holiness in the minds and mouths of the heathen around them. In response to this profanity, God determines to “sanctify his great name” (Ezek. 36:23). He resolves to make his name holy so that all will “know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 36:23, 38). He takes the initiative in loving those who are unlovable — in sanctifying those who are poor, wretched, miserable sinners.
There is nothing inherent in us that moves him, save for our incorrigible desperation. “Sinners are attractive because they are loved,” the reformer Martin Luther affirms, “they are not loved because they are attractive” (113). “Never forget,” Scottish divine Thomas Guthrie similarly attests, “that the magnet, which drew a Saviour from the skies, was not your merit, but your misery” (146–47). And what’s so thrilling about this declaration is how God determines “sanctify his great name.” Had judgment been the only way God demonstrated his holiness, then God’s righteous fury and holy severity would have never ceased. The breach of God’s holiness demands a penalty as exhaustive as God’s holiness itself, which is infinite.
In the divine wisdom of the One True God there comes a better, fuller demonstration of his holiness. Not by exacting more punishment on his people for their unholiness, but by making holy those who are utterly unholy. Such is the net result of all those “I will’s.” In the mystery of redemption, then, we learn far more about who our God truly is. Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar says as much when he writes in The Story of Grace:
A world unfallen reveals but half of God. The deep recesses of his character only come out in connection with a world [that is] fallen. The heights and depths of his infinite nature were not manifested till that which is opposed to them occurred to bring them forth. To learn what holiness is, and how holy God is, we need not merely to see his feelings towards the holy but towards the unholy. (47–48)
By redeeming profane and polluted sinners — and making them holy — God reveals all the more the boundlessness of his love, the immensity of his mercy, and the inexhaustibility of his grace. “In creation,” Bonar writes elsewhere, “it was seen that he could love the holy; in redemption, it is declared that he can love the unholy, and yet be holy himself” (Kelso Tracts, 4). Our Lord is moved with a gracious holiness, a righteous grace, which sees mankind in the ruin of his own making, of his choosing, and instead of obliterating him (as was his right), instead of leaving him there (as he could have done), he puts himself under the law’s demands and takes on the very punishment that his people deserved. Such is the marvelous scheme of grace.
God puts himself in the gap of unfulfilled righteousness to fulfill righteousness by himself (Matt. 3:15). Through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, the holiness broken at the Fall (Gen. 3) has been restored and offered to everyone as a free gift. The breach has been repaired. The law has been appeased. And now, by faith alone, sinners are transformed into saints — precisely because the One who did not have anything to do with sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). The good news for you and for me and the whole world is that we have been invited to have a share in the very holiness of God the Father. Such is the marvelous “ministry of reconciliation” which Jesus fulfills (2 Cor. 5:18–19). Such is what we come to remember at God’s Table.
Horatius Bonar, “God’s Purpose of Grace,” Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857).
Martin Luther, quoted in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Thomas Guthrie, The Gospel in Ezekiel: Illustrated in a Series of Discourses (London: Isbister & Co., 1878).