On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gave a parting command to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” But love is not an abstract, sentimental idea. Jesus makes it clear that love is shown most powerfully in the act of self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” But Jesus wasn’t only talking about what we must do. He was also pointing to his death for us, the greatest of all acts of love.
Preaching on this text in 1873, Spurgeon gives seven reasons for why Christ’s laying down his life was infinitely greater and more glorious than any act of sacrifice that has ever been performed. For each one of these, Spurgeon calls for crowns of glory and worship to be placed upon Christ’s head.
Crown #1: Jesus was immortal and never needed to die
Christ’s death was utterly unique because it was an entirely voluntary act of love.
When a man lays down his life for his friend, he does not lay down what he could keep altogether; he could only have kept it for a while, even if he had lived as long as mortals can, till grey hairs are on their head, he must at last have yielded to the arrows of death. A substitutionary death for love’s sake in ordinary cases would be but a slightly premature payment of that debt of nature which must be paid by all. But such is not the case with Jesus. Jesus needed not die at all; there was no ground or reason why he should die apart from his laying down his life in the room and place and stead of his friends.
Crown #2: Jesus sacrificed himself knowing he had no chance of escape
Some people may volunteer to die for another and yet may still have hope that they will escape death. This was not the case for Jesus.
He knew that if he was to give a ransom for our souls he had no loophole for escape, he must surely die. Die he or his people must, there was no other alternative. If we were to escape from the pit through him, he must perish in the pit himself; there was no hope for him, there was no way by which the cup could pass from him. Men have risked their lives for their friends bravely; perhaps had they been certain that the risk would have ended in death they would have hesitated; Jesus was certain that our salvation involved death to him, the cup must be drained to the bottom, he must endure the mortal agony, and in all the sufferings of death extreme he must not be spared one jot or little; yet deliberately, for our sakes, he espoused death that he might espouse us.
Crown #3: Jesus’ sacrifice was motivated by pure, unmingled love
One person might die for another out of a sense of duty or gratitude or debt. But Jesus had no such motivation. His death was an act of pure love.
But still you can see a wide difference between that noble sacrifice and the nobler deed of Jesus laying down his life for those who never obliged him, never served him, who were infinitely his inferiors, and who could have no claims upon his gratitude… Jesus had no motive in his heart but that he loved us, loved us with all the greatness of his glorious nature, loved us, and therefore for love, pure love, and love alone, he gave himself up to bleed and die.
Crown #4: Jesus died for his enemies
Jesus called his disciples “friends,” but we are those who rejected God as our enemy.
Greater love a man may have than to lay down his life for his friends, namely, if he dies for his enemies. And herein is the greatness of Jesus’ love, that though he called us “friends,” the friendship was all on his side at the first. He called us friends, but our hearts called him enemy, for we were opposed to him. We loved not in return for his love… Oh the enmity of the human heart to Jesus! There is nothing like it. Of all enmities that have ever come from the pit that is bottomless, the enmity of the heart to the Christ of God is the strangest and most bitter of all; and yet for men polluted and depraved, for men hardened till their hearts are like the nether millstone, for men who could not return and could not reciprocate the love he felt, Jesus Christ gave himself to die.
Crown #5: Jesus died for those who caused the difficulty which required death
One might sacrifice himself for a friend knowing that it is not his fault that he is in trouble. But in our case, we brought this trouble upon ourselves.
In our case there would never have been a need for any one to die if we had not been the offenders, the wilful offenders; and who was the offended one, whose injured honor required the death? I speak not untruthfully if I say it was the Christ that died who was himself the offended one. Against God the sin had been committed, against the majesty of the divine Ruler; and in order to wipe the stain away from divine justice it was imperative that the penalty should be exacted and the sinful one should die. So he who was offended took the place of the offender and died, that the debt due to his own justice might be paid.
Crown #6: Christ not only died for us, but he bore our sin and guilt
It is one thing to die knowing that you are doing a noble and righteous act. But Christ’s death meant that he was condemned as a guilty sinner.
Now, far be it from our hearts to say that Christ was ever less than perfectly holy and spotless, and yet there had to be established a connection between him and sinners by the way of substitution, which must have been hard for his perfect nature to endure. For him to be hung up between two felons, for him to be accused of blasphemy, for him to be numbered with transgressors, for him to suffer, the just for the unjust, bearing his Father’s wrath as if he had been guilty, this is wonderful, and surpasses all thought!
Crown #7: Christ bore the wrath of God so that we will never bear it
This is why Christian martyrs can go to their deaths singing, while we see Christ in agony in Gethsemane and at the cross. We will never face what he had to face.
But ah, to die upon a cross without a pitying eye upon you, surrounded by a scoffing multitude, and to die there appealing to God, who turns away his face, to die with this as your requiem, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” to startle the midnight darkness with an “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” of awful anguish such as never had been heard before: this is terrible. The triumph of love in the death of Jesus rises clear above all other heroic acts of self-sacrifice! Even as we have seen the lone peak of the monarch of mountains rise out from all adjoining alps and pierce the clouds… , so does this love of Christ soar far above aught else in human history, or that can be conceived by the heart of man. His death was more terrible, his passing away more grievous by far.
The greatest act of love ever displayed in all of human history is found in Jesus Christ. If you are looking for the proof of God’s love for sinners, even for you, then look to Christ.
As those who have received Christ’s love, may we crown him with many crowns and devote our lives to living out his command, “Love one another as I have loved you.”