The Nature of Christ’s Suffering and Death

Someone once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It is a truth acknowledged but often forgotten. Have you ever been in a conversation when someone acted as though postmodernism was a new problem faced by the church? That is what I mean. So, I am writing this article as a reminder. We need to keep our wits about us. In part, that means remembering Solomon’s dictum, “There is nothing new under the sun” and taking it seriously.

Let me give you an example that fits the season. Take N. T. Wright for instance, who understands the atoning death of Jesus and his self-identification with Israel in metaphorical terms.[1] As such, on the cross Jesus thought of himself as taking on himself “the direct consequences…of the…failure and sin of Israel.”[2] In other words, according to Wright, Jesus was literally shouldering the direct result of political, social, personal, moral, and emotional manifestations of evil and he saw himself doing it metaphorically for the nation of Israel.[3] And of course, Wright contends that Jesus didn’t do these things for Israel alone. Wright maintains that Jesus “is Israel’s and the world’s representative” such that “he can stand in for all.”[4]

Now, do you see what that does? It reduces the wrath of God to the details of history. So, Pilate’s failure to render justice, the religious leader’s failure to see Jesus as the Messiah, the crowd’s willingness to be swayed should all be interpreted as the wrath of God. Now, let me be clear, there is a sense in which this is true. It’s true but it’s incomplete. The penal substitutionary death of Christ taught in Scripture has a dimension of truly unimaginable distress making every other painful aspect of Christ’s death pale by comparison.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the suffering of Christ in the text that does not come from Pilate and a corrupt legal system, societal sins and moral failures, or from the corruption of religion. I’m talking about the suffering that came as a result of Christ being our sin bearer before God. In the prophesy of Isaiah, the divinely inspired prophet explains what happens when sin comes between God and man. He says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.”[5]

Now, with that in mind think of Matthew 27:45. It says that darkness fell over the face of the land from the sixth to the ninth hour. In other words, from noon to 3 PM darkness canvassed the land and then, at 3 O’clock Christ cried out with a loud voice, “’Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, My God. Why have you forsaken Me?’” His cry is one of dereliction. The divinely loved Son, who could never lose the favor of God, has a sense of abandonment in His mediatorial office.

This is the very thing denied today. “Oh, of course not,” say Wright and folks like him. They might continue saying, “Christ did feel abandonment but he felt it precisely because of the political, societal, and religious isolation which had placed him on the cross.” Now, I need to be honest. I’m not buying their theological wares. But again, they might say, “If you deny what we are saying, how do you understand his cry of dereliction without falling into abstraction?”

Now, at this point it is important to listen to a voice from the past that reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Listen to Calvin’s comments on these very words from the Gospel. He says,

And certainly this [his cry of having been forsaken] was his chief conflict, and harder than all the other tortures, that in his anguish he was so far from being soothed by the assistance or favour of his Father, that he felt himself to be in some measure estranged from him. For not only did he offer his body as the price of our reconciliation with God, but in his soul also he endured the punishments due to us; and thus he became, as Isaiah speaks, a man of sorrows. Those interpreters are widely mistaken who, laying aside this part of redemption, attend solely to the outward punishment of the flesh; for in order that Christ might satisfy for us, it was necessary that he should be placed as a guilty person at the judgement seat of God.”

In the Institutes he’s even more emphatic, “If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual.[6] Did you hear that? If the suffering of Christ is simply a bodily death due to political, social, and moral forces, then as a sacrifice for sins it would have been ineffectual.

Brothers and sisters, there is nothing new under the sun. Solomon’s dictum reminds us of another, “Read at least one old book for every new book that you read.” But my reason for writing this article goes far beyond a simple desire to help us to see that what is propounded as new is really not new at all. My reason has more to do with the very nature of Christ’s work. And Rabbi Duncan said it simply and said it best. He asked his class, “Do you know what Calvary was? What? What? What? ” With tears in his eyes, he said, “It was damnation; and Christ took it lovingly.” The nature of Christ’s worst suffering was damnation and he took it for me.

[1] Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 86.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Isaiah, 59:2.

[6] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.10.

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