Once, at our Wednesday Night Bible Study, we were reading John's gospel, chapters 18–19. They give an account of Christ's passion and death. One of those in attendance asked a poignant question: "But why did Jesus have to suffer so much? Why did His death have to be such a torture? Why couldn't they have just killed Him quickly and gotten it over with?" Good question. Every year on Good Friday when we read the story of Christ's passion, I cry. I can tell myself, in my head, that it had to be this way because it was God's plan. Christ had to die according to the scriptures, and the prophet said He would be "marred beyond human semblance" (Is.52.14). He couldn't just die peacefully in His sleep. He couldn't have an arrow pierce His heart and suffer a clean quick death. It had to be ugly, and the suffering had to be prolonged. But knowing this was God's plan doesn't make it any easier to accept. In some ways it makes it harder. You have to wonder, "What's wrong with God that he would demand this of his only Son?" There's always for me a brief moment on Good Friday when I feel angry at God for not rescuing Jesus from His cruel fate. But then I calm down and remember that there's nothing wrong with God. We are the ones with the problem. We are the ones torturing Christ. We are the murderers. Jesus willingly endured unspeakable torment in order to teach the world a lesson. He wants us all to contemplate his gruesome death, because in the darkness of that death is a revelation of God's wisdom.
I think of Christ carrying a heavy wooden cross up a hill after having been beaten, whipped, and mocked, and I wonder, "What was the purpose of the Incarnation? Why did God become a man?" Answer: to pull back the curtain covering eternity and make the invisible visible; to show us what God is like as a person; to remind those who had forgotten God that God had not forgotten them, so that through the the Son's Incarnation, various miracles, teaching, passion, death, and Resurrection we would believe in God again. Christ came into the world to show us something transcendent, something we couldn't see without God's revelation. And so the question: what did he want us to see in the slaughter of Our Lord?
Part of the curse of Adam's and Eve's exile from Eden meant that human beings would no longer see God face to face. We lost that privilege. Sin brought an end to that kind of intimacy with our Maker. As they left Paradise, Adam and Eve took with them memories of God. They handed that knowledge down to their children. And each succeeding generation passed on to the following generation the knowledge of God contained in those memories. But as centuries passed those memories became dimmer until for all practical purposes human beings forgot entirely who God is and what God is like.
The story of salvation, the story that the Bible relates from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God revealing once again to a world that had forgotten him who he actually is, what he's like, and what his intentions are for human beings. Up until Christ came into the world, God remained largely a mystery. God came to Israel and dwelled among them, but his presence among them was only as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He was among them in the Ark of the Covenant and his glory filled the Temple, but he was not among them in the flesh. Israel's knowledge of him was similar to knowing the CEO is in the building where you work, but since he's not on the shop floor he is effectively invisible.
Christ came into the world as a CEO coming to work on the shop floor. And by so doing He made the terrible Mystery of the transcendent God a lot less terrifying. He revealed in His flesh that God who "dwells in unapproachable light" (1Tim.6.16) is not so different from His subjects after all. He showed us that, like many of us, He liked working with his hands. Jesus was an apprentice carpenter. He gave us through the image of Himself a point of entry into the eternal Mystery. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" ( Jn.1.14), not as a powerbroker but as a politically powerless peasant. God could have come down from heaven and assumed any social status He desired. Why did He come and dwell at the bottom of the ladder, among the class of no account? He became a humble man so that we who had forgotten Him might come to know Him again as one who is on the side of the least among us. He made the invisible Creator of Heaven visible to the creatures of earth in a way that was guaranteed to provoke and leave the learned bewildered. He showed us that God has a servant's heart.
His humble lifestyle revealed the way to true happiness: be a servant of God and your fellow human beings. His suffering revealed the punishment that awaits those who choose instead to ignore God, exploit their neighbors, and betray their friends. His suffering and death made the invisible realm of condemnation—hell—for a moment in time visible. Not that hell is a place of physical torture. An immortal soul cannot be physically tortured. But a soul endowed with emotion, conscience, and memory will find in hell an eternity of anguish and regret, shame, guilt, and remorse (Lk.16.19-31). Physical torture by comparison might be easier to endure. On Easter Sunday Christ revealed the hope of heaven, but on Good Friday His wounds revealed the dark side of hell. He suffered the condemnation that all souls suffer who offend God and live with a prideful indifference to God's sovereignty over us. What is God like? God is like Christ going through hell wearing a crown of thorns to let us see what awaits us on the other side of the grave if we choose to live in this world unrepentant and indifferent to the commands of our Maker. If we wish to know what hell is like, we have only to look at His body: broken, bruised, and bloodied. What happened to His body is what will happen to the souls of those who die faithless and unrepentant. Sin has serious consequences. Christ by his suffering showed us in dramatic fashion what those consequences are. Hell is very real. Christ suffered and died to save us from it.
Christ's passion and death were extreme because of the work He came to do—to expiate in His body the original sin of mankind—was so extremely important. He died in a way that was guaranteed to get the world's attention, so that the world would never forget Him; so that the world would understand that sin is the root problem of all the social evils and injustices in this world; so that the world would see there is only one antidote for sin and that is Jesus Christ, lifted up on a cross. In a world filled with gods and goddesses, religions, cults, and philosophies of every imaginable variety, there is only one religion that actually matters to God: that is the one that keeps the focus of its devotion on the Son of God carrying His cross up Calvary Mount and dying on it. Sometimes you have to take extreme action to get the attention of self-absorbed people. I think that history would say that Christ more than accomplished His objective. No one has ever captured the world's attention so thoroughly and universally as He has.
As we meditate on the events of Good Friday, we cannot begin to imagine what Christ suffered. We can empathize with his physical pain, up to a point. But we cannot know what emotional and psychological anguish God's only Son, who before His birth in Bethlehem beheld the face of His Father, endured. All we know is that He who was one with God (Jn.10.30) cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt.27.46 & Ps.22.1). Whatever Christ experienced on the way to Golgotha and on the cross, it felt to Him, the very embodiment of hope, like despair. He who could walk on water felt like He was drowning; He who once offered the woman at the well "living water" was now reduced to crying out, "I thirst" (Jn.19.28) "But I am a worm and no man, and not human, scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock me, they make mouths at me, they shake their heads, "Commit your cause to the Lord, let him deliver him; let him rescue the one in whom he delights! (Ps.22.6-8) The scriptures tell us what Christ was feeling. He felt like a worm; like bait on someone's fishing hook. But not just on anyone's hook, Satan had Him on the hook. He knew that the day would come when the world would marginalize those who believe in the existence of evil sprits, of demons, and Satan as superstitious simpletons. Christ suffered as He did at the hands of Satan as a warning to the wise ( Mt.12.43-45).
What can we say to that? Can we say, "I know the feeling"? It is so demeaning for someone who is not bearing your cross to tell you that they know what you're going through. Without intending to, they are trivializing your experience and condescending to your pain. You want to shout out, "You have no idea what it's like!" No matter what we have suffered, or think we know of suffering, no one on earth can know what Christ suffered on our account because we have no way of comprehending what it's like to carry the burden of the world's sin in our exhausted, bruised bodies. But that is what Christ did for us. He took the entire punishment for human sin up to and including the punishment of execution on himself. We might say of another, "Poor chap, he looks like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders." It's a figure of speech: the weight of the world. But in Christ's case it was no figure of speech. As He walked up the hill carrying a cross beam on his bleeding back, he literally was bearing the weight of this world's sin on his shoulders. No one has ever suffered what He suffered. Still, it was all there in the scriptures. Centuries before the event, God announced what would happen to the Christ: "I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint...My hands and feet have shriveled, I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me, they divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots." (Ps.22. 14-18). There is only one response we can make to Christ's suffering, and that is not empathy for a level of pain we cannot imagine. The only response we can make is genuine sorrow and contrition for our sins. It is the humble recognition that except for our corruption, Christ would not have had to submit to such agony unto death.
It is impossible to imagine what went through Christ's mind as He looked down from the cross and saw the guards rolling dice for his clothes (Ps.22.18; Mt.27.35). How devastated he surely felt looking out over Jerusalem and seeing that none of His disciples—save his mother, John, and a few of the women—had the courage or loyalty to be there with Him. Still He revealed to the world the great profundity of his divine Spirit when He prayed for them all, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Lk.23.34). For in this way the promise of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was kept, "The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Judah...I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more" (Jer.31.31-34). That's the point: on the cross He was fulfilling the scriptures. Specifically, He was fulfilling the prophecy known as "the suffering servant" from Isaiah: "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows, Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53.5).
With the fulfillment in Christ of this scripture from Isaiah, we get to the heart of "the gospel of God, the gospel concerning his Son" (Rom.1.3). God accepted the death of his only begotten Son on a cross as the perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. But still, we wonder, "How could Christ's death atone for sin?" We struggle to understand the cross as an altar of expiation on which Christ laid Himself down as a sacrificial victim because few of us know enough about the practice of ritual sacrifice in ancient Israel to make the connection. Who among us has witnessed an animal or a human sacrifice ritually offered by a priest to God? When we go to church today, we sing hymns and pray, listen to the sermon, and receive communion. The only sacrifice we see is a bloodless sacrifice we make of praise and thanksgiving and of bread and wine offered to God. But had we gone to the temple in Jerusalem or a any of a thousand pagan temples scattered throughout the Roman Empire in Jesus's day, we would have seen something very different and very bloody transpiring on the altar.
Maybe we can approach the answer to this question by asking a related question: What one thing is required before there can be forgiveness of sin? We are tempted at first to say that we must first confess to the crime, show true repentance, make reparation, and demonstrate a sincere amendment of life. All of these things play a role in the absolution of sin but they are secondary. Before there can be forgiveness of sin, blood must be shed on the altar. There can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. This is the law God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. That is why, on that first Easter Sunday when Christ opened the minds of His disciples to everything written about Him in the scriptures, He began with the command to Moses, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement" (Lev.17.11).
Atonement has to be made before man can be in communion with God because even the least sin creates an infinite abyss separating the sinner from God. Because God is holy, there is no sin in heaven. The sinner loses the privilege of communion with God. Like someone with a highly contagious fatal disease who needs to be quarantined, the sinner can no longer dwell in Paradise. That is the tragedy of Adam and Eve. They had perfection, they had communion with the Holy God and then, by their own action, by their own foolish choice, they lost it. And we who are their descendants are likewise separated from God because of it. We have inherited the infection of sin from them. It's in our blood.
God could have given up on human beings and abandoned us like garbage. But he didn't. He created the universe with us in mind, and he put his heart and soul into giving us life. God loves human beings. Love is relentless. Therefore, God devised a plan to rescue human beings from the fatal sickness of sin. God gave his people a way out. That amnesty, the way out, would come in the way of a bloody sacrifice. If God demanded that every sinner shed his or her own blood to atone for his or her own sin, there soon would have been no one left, for we are all sinners in God's sight; we're all guilty. Therefore, God allowed the people of Israel to offer him a living animal as a sacrifice for their sins as a substitute for themselves. This animal would serve as a scapegoat for their sins, an innocent victim onto which the sins of the guilty person would be imputed. God would accept the blood of the animal, a goat or bull or ram or dove, in place of their own blood, and so atonement would be made (and hopefully a lesson learned as the sinner watched an innocent animal suffer for his trespasses).
There was however an obvious shortcoming to this system. Because the people kept sinning, the blood of animals kept flowing and nothing actually changed. People were having their sins forgiven, but for all the sacrifices offered and all the bloodshed, no one was becoming holy as a consequence. That would require something more than the shed blood of a bull or a goat. That would require a sacrifice to literally end all sacrifices. But who could offer such a sacrifice? What creature's blood would God accept as expiation for the original sin of all mankind? No mortal creature could serve this purpose. if this ultimate, perfect sacrifice were to be made, God would have to make it himself. The immortal God would have to become a mortal creature of flesh and blood in order to sacrifice himself. God would have to do the impossible (Lk.1.37). God would have to shed his own blood for humankind (1Pt.1.19-20).
As Christ led his disciples in the great Easter Bible study, He turned again to Moses, this time to the book of the Exodus: "You are to take a lamb without blemish and slaughter it... the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live. When I see the blood I will pass over you and no plague shall destroy you" ( Ex.12.1-13). This is the commandment and the promise that God gave the Israelites on the eve of the Passover. He promised them that if they had the blood of the lamb, "a lamb without blemish", on the door post of their home, the angel of death who passed over Egypt would spare them; they would not die as would all those who did not have the protection of the blood of the lamb. God told them that when the Egyptians began to die, the Israelites could make their escape from Egypt in the ensuing panic. God promised then to lead them to freedom and a new life in a new land.
Jesus taught his disciples to see in the Passover a type of the greater Redemption that God would bring to the whole world through the blood of another lamb. But where would God find a suitable sacrifice? John the Baptist knew where to find it. When he saw Jesus come to him on the banks of the Jordan River he proclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1.29). Jesus is "the Lamb of God," the sacrificial lamb whose shed blood would do for all mankind what the Passover lamb did for the Jews alone.
This is why Jesus's death at Passover in Jerusalem was no coincidence. For it was then, in that context, that he instituted the Holy Eucharist, the new Passover—His greatest gift to mankind. The old Passover was a memorial to the deliverance of one nation from slavery. The new Passover, the Holy Eucharist, is a living memorial to the deliverance of all mankind from sin. Both the old and the new Passover require the shedding of blood of a lamb without blemish. The Old Passover required men and women to purchase and slaughter a lamb. But in the new Passover God provided the lamb: "Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed for us" (1 Cor.5.7). Only Christ, the Son of God, could be the Lamb of God because He alone was without the blemish of sin. He alone was perfect. Therefore the offering of His life, the shedding of His blood, could do what the blood of a mere mortal animal could never do—atone for, expiate and, propitiate the sins of the whole world. That grace is still offered to world through the Church whenever the Holy Eucharist is faithfully offered up to God.
That is why Jesus offered His body separately from His blood at the Last Supper. It was to indicate that His body, separated from his blood, as it would be on the cross, would be a true Paschal sacrifice. And when He said "This is my blood of the covenant shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin," He indicated that two prophecies would be fulfilled. The first, as we already saw, from Jeremiah, "The days are surely coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel...for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more." (Jer.31.31-34. see also Hebrews 8-10); the second from Isaiah 53.11, "The righteous one my servant shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities." What they both mean is that the shedding of Christ's blood would once and for all accomplish the forgiveness of sin.
But still, Christ's sacrificial death as a scapegoat for sin, as a new universal Passover lamb, leaves us feeling bewildered. If he was the King of the Jews, the one whom the prophet Nathan said would rule forever (2 Sam.7.13), wouldn't it have been easier on him and on His disciples if He had listened to those who were taunting him on Calvary by challenging Him to come down from the cross? Why didn't He come down off his cross as they called out for Him to do and amaze everyone? Why did He hang there to the bitter end, crying," My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" Why did He insist on suffering and dying? How could He expect his disciples to continue the mission and preach, "The kingdom of God is upon you!" when the king of that kingdom was dead? Not only was He dead but He had died on a tree, which meant according to scripture He had died under a curse (Dt.21.23; Gal.3.13). How could a man who died cursed by God be the king of God's people?
But that is precisely the point: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2Cor.5.21), thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, "The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Is.53.11). Christ took the full curse of human sin upon Himself and because He was fully God, He alone could bear it. When He took it to the grave with Him in death, He put it to an end and thereby permanently lifted the curse of spiritual death that God had imposed on human beings from the day of Adam's sin. He ended the curse by taking the curse upon himself. In other words, the Son of God, God made man, became the perfect scapegoat for "the sins of the whole world" ( 1Jn.2.1). And thus the scripture was fulfilled: "I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn." (Zech.12.10; Rev.1.7) So spoke the prophet Zechariah, centuries before it came to pass that the people of Jerusalem would slay the Christ, the very one sent by God to be their Savior. Christ willingly accepted death at the hands of His own people in order to accomplish a new Passover for the whole world by His precious blood shed on a cross (Col.2.13-14). Ironically the death of the Savior at the hands of His own people would become to those people a source of unimaginable blessing. As Zechariah foresaw, "On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity" (Zech.12.10-13.1). Christ's death, though tragic, would accomplish the forgiveness of sin. His death would mark the beginning of a new chapter of hope in mankind's relationship to God.
"It is finished!" (John 19.31) Christ proclaimed with His last breath. What did He mean? Were His last words a cry of regret from one whose life was being tragically cut short by an untimely death? Was it the cry of a man who felt like a failure, who went to his death saying in effect, "I give up. I'm beaten. I'm finished." ? Many people have had their lives cut short by tragic accidents and by political persecution from dictators hell bent against them. The world is full of victims who never lived long enough to fulfill their dreams because they were stopped short by violence. Having been a victim of torture and persecution, Christ's heart is with all those victims who suffer unjustly, whose lives are cut short. But Jesus was not one of them. When Christ said, "It is finished," He was declaring victory. Everyone of us comes into the world with the same goal: to avoid suffering and to live as long as we can. Death is the enemy that keeps us from doing all we would like to do. But in Christ's case death was not an obstacle to his success. Death was the goal. He called his death, "my hour" and He embraced it on the cross heroically. When Christ died on the cross He did so willingly. "I will lay down my life, and I will take it up again" He told his disciples. We all have a time to die and when the time comes, we are powerless to change it. But He who was timeless set the time of His own death. When he exclaimed, "It is finished," He knew he had accomplished his goal—"not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them" ( Mt.5.20). On the cross he offered himself to God as both victim and priest, as the scapegoat and the Redeemer, the Lamb of God and the Savior. The cross of Christ is therefore not a symbol of shame and defeat but a symbol of all Christ came to earth to do. And when He saw that his hour was up, and that He had accomplished all He had been sent to do, he declared, "It is finished."