Teaching and learning from the final BUILD module with local leaders is a humbling and enriching experience, not least because of the contexts they face. A recent residential with learners from Burundi, Congo, South Sudan and Uganda led to additions to the module as we explored why the cross of Christ is the key to history.
An excerpt from a book by John Stott drove the discussion. The BUILD materials rarely quote from western authors, preferring to draw on comments and insights from participants in the curriculum development process. But given the relevance of the material and the stage learners have reached in the curriculum and their personal development, it seemed right to quote the book, and at length. What follows is drawn from the materials. The introduction and the discussion questions that follow top and tail an extended quote. The hope is that our readers will also be challenged and encouraged.
The cross of Christ as the key to history
In one section of his book The Incomparable Christ, John Stott considers Revelation chapter 5, just as we have done in an earlier learning unit. He draws attention to the truth we have already discovered: only Jesus, the Lamb of God, can break open the scroll of God’s purposes. “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals (5:5).”
John Stott then asks and then answers these questions: “Why is Jesus Christ the only person who is worthy to open and explain the scroll? What is it about the Lamb of God which uniquely qualifies him to interpret it? Clearly it is because he was slain, and because of what he achieved by his death.”
We have already been learning that lesson together, but it is important to reinforce it: Jesus is the only one who is truly qualified to shed light on history because of his death on the cross. But we need to now go deeper and Stott recognises that. He continues by adding this question: “But what is it about the cross that makes it the key to history?”
We have grown a great deal in our understanding as we have gone through the BUILD curriculum. This is a good moment to test and to stretch that ability by reading John Stott’s answer carefully and by considering the questions that follow. Why is the cross of Christ the key to history? John Stott explains what that is the case by making four main points:
“First, the cross illumines history because it speaks of victory. The reason why the Lamb was able to open the scroll is because he has triumphed (5:5). The same verb has been used at the conclusion of each of the seven letters to the churches. A promise is given to him who overcomes. For example, ‘To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne’ (3:21). Thus the cross is represented in the New Testament as victory not defeat, as triumph not tragedy. For, as Paul wrote, on the cross Christ dethroned and disarmed the principalities and powers of evil, triumphing over them in the cross (Col. 2:15). True, they are still alive and active, for they have not yet conceded defeat. Nevertheless, they have been conquered and are under Christ’s feet (e.g. Eph. 1:22). This is the great truth of Christus Victor, which the church has sometimes forgotten. The first reason why the Lamb alone can interpret history with all its evil is that he triumphed over evil at the cross.
“Secondly, the cross illumines history because it speaks of redemption. The repeated use of the title ‘the Lamb’ will immediately have reminded Jewish readers of the Passover. For just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed, its blood sprinkled and the people spared, so Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, so that we might be redeemed and might celebrate the festival of redemption. Thus history has a twofold plot-line. There is world history (the rise and fall of empires) and there is salvation history (the story of the redeemed people of God). Moreover, we dare to say that the former is explicable only in the light of the latter; that what God is doing against the backdrop of world history is to call out from every nation a people for himself; and that only the cross makes this possible.
“Thirdly, the cross illumines history because it speaks of suffering. For the sufferings of the Christ, although unique in their redemptive significance, were nevertheless the prototype of the sufferings of the people of God. Because he suffered, his people are called to suffer. Because he went to the cross, he calls us to take up our cross and follow him. So John moves on from the Lamb slain (in ch. 5) to the souls of the martyrs, slain because of their faithful testimony (in ch. 6). Thus those who are called to suffer for Christ, whose sufferings are so hard to understand and to bear, learn to see them in the light of the sufferings of Christ.
“Fourthly, the cross illumines history because it speaks of weakness, and specifically of power through weakness. This paradox is seen in its most dramatic form in Christ and the cross, and in John’s vision in Revelation 4 and 5. For at the centre of God’s throne (symbol of power) stands a slain Lamb (symbol of weakness). In other words, power through weakness, dramatized in God on the cross and the Lamb on the throne, lies at the heart of ultimate reality, even of the mystery of almighty God himself.” (Inter-Varsity Press 2001, pp. 185-187.)
- Look at John Stott’s first point, “the great truth of Christus Victor” (Latin for the Victorious Christ or Christ the Conqueror). Consider his argument carefully and then explain how the cross – an event that appears to be one of humiliation and defeat – qualifies Jesus to teach us about the turbulent history of our world.
- Think about Stott’s second point, “history has a twofold plot-line.” Explain what he means by that and then go on to discuss how this truth can help us as Christians to live through the difficulties of human history and to stand firm in our faith.
- Now turn to point three. A “prototype” is a first example of something that then becomes the basis for later models or versions. How do Christ’s sufferings explain and help us in some of our own sufferings (see also 2 Peter 2:21)?
- Finally, look at the last paragraph and point. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of power in and through weakness. Explain and describe some of the ways in which that can help Christians in the midst of the struggles they face.
Featured picture: South Sudanese BUILD trainees in a refugee settlement learning together.