The Suffering of Christ
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15
Question 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?
Answer. That He, all the time that He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind; that so by His passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life.
Question 38. Why did He suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?
Answer. That He, being innocent, and yet condemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed.
Question 39. Is there anything more in His being crucified, than if He had died some other death?
Answer. Yes [there is]; for thereby I am assured that He took on Him the curse which lay upon me; for the death of the cross was accursed of God.
If you compare the Catechism to the Apostles’ Creed, you will notice that in this and the next Lord’s Day the Catechism moves very slowly through the creed, stopping at every word and asking a question. The reason is that here we are looking at the greatest historical event, which is also the grandest theological truth, in all of the world—the suffering and death of Christ.
The Catechism wants us to slow down and meditate on the suffering of Christ. Not only must we consider the physical suffering of His unjust trial, the cruel mocking and bloody scourgings, and His being nailed to a cross and suspended to die, but we must also drop our eyes into hell and see what He suffered in His soul. Many others have suffered physically, but Christ suffered the curse of sin and the agonies of hell. When we think of the cross of Christ, we must remember the darkness and the lonely cry of being forsaken, and in this way we understand the true character of His suffering and the reason He had to suffer and die, namely our sin.
But we should not think that this is a dreary and morbid subject. Rather, the cross is the victory of Christ over sin, death, and hell. And today He is risen and triumphant. There was an end to His suffering, but there is no end to the benefits from it for us.
This Lord’s Day deals with three more steps of Christ’s state of humiliation. The beginning of His humiliation was His incarnation, His coming into human flesh. This was shameful for the Son of God. This humiliation and shame continued in His lifelong suffering, His unjust trial, and His death by crucifixion. All three of these refer to different aspects of His suffering.
The focus of Scripture and the gospels is the suffering of Christ. Of 89 chapters in the four New Testament gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, 30 chapters, that is one third, deal with the last week of Jesus’ life. Of the 33 years of Jesus’ life, that is approximately 1,700 weeks, a third of His biographical information is focused on His death. Paul determined, as a preacher, to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).
In this article we will try to understand something of the suffering of Christ, by looking at different characteristics of His suffering. However, we will never fully comprehend what Christ suffered, for He suffered the full weight of the infinite wrath of God. He suffered the eternal agonies and torments of hell for His people. He suffered an eternity’s worth of suffering for each of His own. In the three hours of darkness, God did something to His Son that man will never fully comprehend.
In Lamentations 1:12 the suffering Savior says, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”
Among all human suffering, and there is much human suffering, there is no pain like that which Christ bore in the day of God’s fierce anger. Every form of human suffering is measured by our experience. One suffers disease, another poverty, another grief, another death, and there’s a limit to this suffering, an end. But Christ’s suffering is beyond measure. It is entirely unique. It is beyond the experience of any other being. This is because of what Christ suffered—the just wrath of God against sin, and this was possible because of who suffered—the eternal Son of God.
The death of Christ was not an accident. He did not die as a religious leader whose dreams had failed. His death was more than just the result of an act of wicked men.
The death of Christ came about by a determined and deliberate act of God. Eternally God ordained to send His Son into human flesh as the one who would be punished for sin. This is why the Bible speaks of Him as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), “who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:20), and who was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” to be crucified and slain by wicked men (Acts 2:23).
Not only was the suffering of Christ planned by God, but it was God Himself who inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus. Too often we think of the suffering of Christ as a story of what Pilate, the soldiers, the Jews, and even the disciples did to Jesus. But the Catechism says that Christ “sustained the wrath of God.” All these were simply the rod of God’s hand to afflict His Son.
Isaiah 53 states this very plainly when it says that He was “smitten of God” (v. 4), that “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6), and that “it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief” (v. 10).
Perhaps you think that because Jesus is God, His suffering really amounted to nothing. Then you misunderstand.
It was a man, a real man, that suffered in our place. God cannot suffer, and God cannot suffer in our place. It had to be a real man that bore our punishment. This is what happened; all the suffering of the cross was experienced by a real man in His human body and human soul. Yes, He was God, but it was His human nature that suffered. The divine nature sustained the human, that is, kept it going to sustain all that sin deserved.
We were born into a world of suffering apart from any choice on our part. But Christ chose to come into the world of suffering. Philippians 2 tells us that, as God, He “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men and...humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (vv. 7-8). This choice to enter our suffering was a choice Christ pursued all the way to the cross. Every moment of His life, He chose the path of suffering. He who could have called legions of angels to His aid, silently went to the cross. He gave His back to the smiters and hid not His face from shame and spitting (Is. 50:6).
In the voluntary suffering of Christ we see His great love. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
When we think of the suffering of Christ, we should not think only of the end of His life and His death, but we should see that His entire life was one of suffering under the heavy hand of God’s wrath. Isaiah calls Him the “man of sorrows” (Is. 53:3). You can have a “man of wealth” or a “man of pleasure” or a “man of happiness.” Jesus was a man of sorrows. To look at Him was to see suffering. This is because all suffering and death are the result of sin, and so, in every bit of suffering, Jesus was experiencing the wrath and curse of God against sin. When He was tired, when He was hungry, when He was rejected, when He was sick, when He cried, in every pain He experienced the results of sin and knew His task was to remove that curse.
Jesus Himself was innocent. The Catechism notes this when it points to His trial under Pontius Pilate. In His innocence, Jesus took the place of others who were guilty. He died as a substitute. “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). He stood in our place as the condemned, so that we might stand with Him as sons and daughters of the living God.
This doctrine of substitution is the greatest of all truths. What better news can the sinner hear than this, that the Savior has taken his sins and borne the wrath of God in his place? When you take this out of the gospel and make Jesus’ suffering a mere example or a display of commitment to a cause, then you have no gospel anymore. This is the gospel: Jesus died in our place!
Jesus’ suffering was definite in both purpose and effect. His purpose was to take the place of His elect people before the just God, and to pay the price of their sins so that their curse would be removed. He had a definite group of people in mind as He went to the cross. InJohn 10 He says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). The effect of His death is that all for whom He died are actually delivered from the guilt and power of sin. His suffering makes an actual payment for their sins.
This means He did not die to pay the price of the sins of all men. If He died for every person, then we can no longer say that He died as a substitute who took the place of others. Instead, the most we can say is that He made possible man’s salvation, and we must do our part now and come to Him. And that is contrary to the gospel.
Jesus died by crucifixion. The mode of His death points to the necessity of His death. Death by crucifixion, in Scripture, symbolizes that a person is accursed of God. Suspended between heaven and earth, it’s as though neither God nor man will have him (see Gal. 3:13). The curse came on man as a result of his fall into sin in paradise (Gen. 3:17-18). The curse was especially this, that he was separated and driven out from the fellowship of God. Separation from God, this is hell. Jesus bore this for us in the bitter agony of the cross.
The true believer makes this his personal confession. He understands that it was the curse of God against him that made necessary the suffering, death, and cross of Christ. “He took on Him the curse which lay upon me; for the death of the cross was accursed of God.” In the knowledge of my own sin, I depend entirely on the death and suffering of Christ for my salvation. “With his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5).
Questions for Discussion
1. How was Jesus’ suffering different from other human suffering?
2. What is meant by the “lifelong” suffering of Christ?
3. What does Acts 2:23 teach concerning the suffering of Christ?
4. What characteristic of Jesus’ suffering especially shows His love (John 15:13)?
5. What is the significance of Jesus’ being tried by an earthly judge?
6. Why was it necessary for Jesus to be crucified?
7. Why did God bring three hours of darkness while Jesus was on the cross? What happened in that darkness? (Matthew 27:45-46)
8. How do physical depictions of the suffering of Christ such as crucifixes or drama detract from the true nature of Christ’s suffering?
9. Why do many people hold to the false idea that Jesus intended to die for all men? How is this teaching inconsistent with the gospel?
10. What great comfort can believers take from the truth that Christ’s death was substitutionary and effective?
Rev. Rodney Kleyn (Wife: Elizabeth)
Ordained: Sept. 2002
Pastorates: Trinity, Hudsonville, MI - 2002; Covenant of Grace, Spokane, WA - 2009; First PRC, Grand Rapids, MI - Oct.2021Website: https://www.firstprc.org/
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