It is all too easy to jump from Palm Sunday with its story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to Easter Day, with Jesus triumphant over the power of sin and death, without taking in the slow horror of Holy Week. Alas, most Baptist-Christians fail to observe Holy Week, and as a result are surely weaker in their devotion to the crucified Saviour. We need to spend time focussing on the pain Jesus endured: the pain of hate, the pain of misunderstanding, the pain of rejection, the pain isolation, let alone the pain of crucifixion. Jesus certainly ‘suffered’ for us (1 Peter 3.18).
But there is another form of pain Jesus suffered, which makes all the other pain seem of little consequence. Jesus suffered the ‘spiritual’ pain of sin-bearing. The Cross of Calvary was made all the more intolerable, because when Jesus died he took upon himself the sin of the world – as the Apostle Peter put it: “Christ himself carried our sins in his body to the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. It is by his wounds that you have been healed” (1 Peter 2.24). Jesus – in a way that is beyond our understanding – took upon himself the punishment due to us – he died for our sins.
In theological circles today it is no longer fashionable to talk of ‘penal substitution’ – indeed, some have scathingly described this way of looking at the Cross as ‘cosmic child abuse’. And yet this is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5.21)
This thought is present in Gethsemane. For there Jesus prayed: “Father, my Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup [the GNB adds ‘of suffering’] away from me” (Mark 14.36). What was this cup of suffering? In the Old Testament the’ cup’ was often used as a metaphor for the judgment of God. For example we read in Isaiah 51.17: “Jerusalem… you have drunk the cup of punishment that the Lord in his anger gave you to drink.”
In other words the Cross was the moment when Jesus drank from the cup of God’s wrath, the cup of God’s punishment. Jesus experienced to the full the holy wrath of God against all that is wrong in this world. Needless to say, when we speak of God’s wrath, we must not confuse his ‘wrath’ with ours: the wrath of God
contains no element of spitefulness, pettiness or hypocrisy, but is the reaction of the altogether holy and loving God to sin. (CEB Cranfield)
No wonder “distress and anguish” came over Jesus in Gethsemane; no wonder he said “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me” (Mark 14.33). The thought of drinking such a cup of suffering was appalling. But the day came when drink it he did. We see something of that suffering involved in that sin-bearing in his shattering cry from the Cross: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” (Mark 15.34) Jesus was not just experiencing physical pain, but spiritual pain. Jesus in dying on the Cross experienced the full horror of separation from God, separation brought about by bearing in his body the sins of the world. He ‘suffered’ for us. He went through ‘hell’ for us, that we might ‘go to heaven, saved by his precious blood’.
The technical term for this sin-bearing is ‘expiation’: Jesus through dying on the Cross became the means whereby the sin of the world was dealt with. “This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins our forgiven” (NRSV to be the expiation for our sins)” (1 John 4.10).
What a way to love! Words cannot do it justice! John Milton once wrote an exquisite poem on the birth of Jesus, entitled, ‘An Ode On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. He planned a companion poem on the death of Jesus. But only a few lines were written and have come down to us. With them is the significant comment:
This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.
There comes a stage when words fail. Jesus suffered unimaginable pain for us.