By Tom M. Roberts
The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus faced the prospect of crucifixion with much dread and agony of spirit. Matthew states that Jesus was “sorrowful and sore troubled,” “exceeding sorrowful,” and prayed that, “if it be possible, let this cup pass away” (Mt. 26:37ff). Luke adds that He was “in an agony,” that He prayed at length and that His “sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” Without question, this is language that dramatizes the inner feelings of Jesus as He anticipated the hours that faced Him. Yet, with all due respect to the suffering and death that would be His, there seems to be an incongruity between the attitude exhibited by Jesus as He faced death and the attitude that Scripture and Jesus Himself tells us that should characterize the disciples who face death.
Consider these scriptures. “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28); “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (v. 39). Again, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations” (James 1:2) and verse 12, “blessed is the man that endureth temptation.” Revelation 2:10 puts it clearly: “Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.” Disciples should not shrink back from death itself and the apostles themselves left the council of the Jews “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer . . .” (Acts 5:41).
My point is that there seems to be a disparity between the attitude Jesus exhibited when He faced death and the attitude that is recommended when we face death, yes even a death of suffering. Was Jesus not able to face death with the same equanimity that He suggests for us? Are we being expected to be more noble in the face of suffering than He? No! To ask such a question is to answer it. Jesus did not and does not expect something of us that He was not willing to bear. It is this fact and the seeming incompatibility between this fact and the obvious dread of Jesus as He faced death that has led me to understand something about the cross and the death of Jesus on it that might escape us without due consideration. I believe you will agree with me as we study together and both have a deeper appreciation of not just death on the cross (a common event) but the “shame of the cross” (Heb. 12:2), a situation unique to Him.
Consider The Nature Of Deity
I believe the reason why the cross and its death held so much more dread than death should seem to hold for even us is that Jesus knew He was going to the cross to be treated as a sinner and to have to hang on the cross as though He carried the guilt of all humanity. This treatment was not only abhorrent to Jesus because of His holiness and purity but also because He would have to be treated by Jehovah, His father, as a sinner would have to be treated, “having become a curse for us” as Paul put it in Galatians 3:13. We cannot appreciate the character and attributes of God without realizing just what this meant to Jesus. Jehovah is described in the Bible in the absolute sense of holiness, goodness, perfection. As Habbakkuk said, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil” (1:13). It is said of God that He cannot lie, that He swears by Himself since He can swear by none greater (Heb. 6:13-18), that He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and the source of all good. At the same time, God hates all kinds of evil (Psa. 45:6-7; Prov. 6:16f; et al). Reflect on this as it relates to Jesus’ death on the cross and it becomes doubly significant. You see, God was going to have to treat Jesus, His own son, as though He had sinned! Nor can we overlook the fact that Jesus Himself is truly God and has the same holiness and purity as well as hatred of sin. When this is driven home, it becomes evident that there is much more to the death of Jesus than death alone. In fact, I believe that the agony that faced Jesus was directly connected to his forthcoming treatment in two senses: first, that he would have to be treated as a sinner – a condition abhorrent to Him; secondly, that He would be treated as a sinner by God, His father, between whom existed perfect unity and harmony in sinless perfection. In the light of this knowledge, how much more poignant and pitiful is the cry of Jesus on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46).
This is in keeping with all that the rest of the Bible teaches about the suffering and death of Jesus. One Scripture that comes readily to mind is Isaiah 53 which is filled with prophecies of the Messianic death of Jesus. Some phrases that leap out of the text at us are: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (v. 4); “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed” (v. 5); “The Lord hath lain on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6); “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due” (v. 8); “Yet it pleased Jehovah to bruise him . . . when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (v. 10); “He shall see the travail of his soul, and be satisfied . . . he shall bear their iniquities” (v. 11) and “was numbered with the transgressors yet he bare the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12). The writer of the Hebrew letter also adds: “Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears (cf. Mt. 26:37; Mt. 27:46) unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear . . . ” (Heb. 5:7). All of these Scriptures and much more indicate that Jesus feared the cross but not because He feared death itself. He feared and dreaded the cross because on it he would be treated as though He were stained with the sins and transgressions of all mankind. His father would have to turn away from Him as though He were being separated from His own son by sin (Isa. 59:1, 2; Ezek. 18:4). Herein lies the shame of the cross. Herein lies the agony that Jesus anticipated. The first three chapters of Romans reveal the sorry plight of mankind as he plunged deeper and deeper into the morass of sin. There was nothing that he had not done. There was not depth to which he would not plunge.
A crude but fitting way of illustrating how God must feel toward sin and how Jesus must have dreaded to be regarded as a sinner by his father lies in the true story of a neighbor boy of my family. Years ago at Halloween, it was the practice of some boys to go around the community turning over outhouses. These toilets were simple buildings erected over pits that were dug into the ground to be used as cesspools. The pranksters thought it the height of joking to turn over these outdoor toilets. Can you imagine how one of these boys must have felt the dark night that, after turning over the outdoor privy, he made a misstep and fell into the cesspool beneath? Try to imagine how he must have felt to be covered with all that filth! Imagine how his father would have felt to have observed his son covered with this corruption. This is a crude illustration, indeed, but it aptly brings to mind to some extent how Jesus must have felt to be covered (not actually, but metaphorically) with the sins of mankind. He was treated as though He were the murderer, the fornicator, liar, homosexual, atheist. He had to hang on the cross suspended before the God of heaven, His own Father, in that sinful condition. No wonder that God turned away from Him. He had to treat His own Son as though He were a sinner and deserved to die a cursed death.
Brethren, consider if you will that this is the very thing that Jesus dreaded as He prayed in the garden. He knew that shortly He would stand before God as though He were the rankest sinner, as though He were dripping with the sins of all mankind accumulated from Adam until the end of the world. To us who are more or less accustomed to being a sinner and to some degree calloused to sin, this might not seem such a dreadful thing. But to one who is holy, pure and good in the absolute, it is quite another thing.
Why Accept This Shame?
The disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection of Jesus were asked, “Ought the Christ to have suffered these things?” (Lk. 24:26). From our vantage point this side of the New Testament, we can state with conviction that only by Jesus being willing to go to the cross and suffer the shame of it could man hope to have eternal life. But by how much more does our knowledge of the true shame of the cross elevate our appreciation of His sacrifice. Jesus loved us enough that He was willing to stand before His Father as though He were guilty mankind and be our substitute. He endured this shame as a sinner that we could become sons of God. How deep are the riches of Christ and the wisdom of God! How deep is our debt! Is it any wonder, then, that because Jesus was willing to suffer the shame of the cross that “God hath also highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 3, pp. 67-68
February 3, 1983