If any event that has transpired on this planet is too high and too holy for us to comprehend, it is the passion of Christ—His death, His atonement, and His forsakenness by the Father. We would be totally intimidated to speak of it at all were it not for the fact that God in His Word has set before us the revelation of its meaning. In this section, I want to focus on the biblical interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross.
Any time we discuss a historical event, we review the facts, and sometimes we argue about what really took place, what was said, what was observed. However, once we agree on the facts (or agree to disagree), we are still left with the most important question we can ask: What is the meaning of the event?
The people who witnessed Christ stumbling toward Golgotha, who saw Him delivered to the Romans, and who watched His crucifixion, understood the significance of this event in a variety of ways. There were those present who thought that they were viewing the just execution of a criminal. Caiaphas, the high priest, said that Christ’s death was expedient and that He had to die for the good of the nation. He saw the crucifixion as an act of political appeasement. A centurion who watched how Jesus died said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). Pontius Pilate, the two thieves who were crucified next to Jesus—everyone, it seems, had a different understanding of what the cross signified.
The cross has been a favorite theme of theological speculation for two thousand years. If we would peruse the various theological schools of thought today, we would find a multitude of competing theories as to what really happened on the cross. Some say it was the supreme illustration of sacrificial love. Others say it was the supreme act of existential courage, while still others say it was a cosmic act of redemption. The dispute goes on.
However, we have not only the record of the events in the Scriptures, primarily in the Gospels, but we also have God’s interpretation of those events, primarily in the Epistles. In Galatians 3:13, Paul discusses the meaning of the cross, summarizing the entire teaching of the chapter in a single verse: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
This curse motif would have been understood clearly by a knowledgeable Jew in the ancient world, but in our day it has a foreign sound to it. To us, the very concept of “curse” smacks of something superstitious. When I hear the word curse, I think of Oil Can Harry in The Perils of Pauline, who says, “Curses, foiled again” when the hero saves the heroine from his clutches. Someone else may think of the behavior of primitive tribes who practice voodoo, in which tiny replica dolls are punctured by pins as a curse is put on an enemy. We may think of the curse of the mummy’s tomb in Hollywood horror movies with Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. A curse in our day and age is considered something that belongs in the realm of superstition.
In biblical categories, a curse has quite a different meaning. In the Old Testament, the curse refers to the negative judgment of God. It is the antonym, the opposite, of the word blessing. Its roots go back to accounts of the giving of the law in the book of Deuteronomy when the covenant was established with Israel. There was no covenant without sanctions attached to it, provisions for reward for those who kept the terms of the covenant and punishment for those who violated it. God said to His people, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26–28, NIV). The curse is the judgment of God on disobedience, on violations of His holy law.
The meaning of the curse may be grasped more fully by viewing it in contrast with its opposite. The word blessed is often defined in Hebrew terms quite concretely. In the Old Testament, after fellowship with God was violated in Eden, people could still have a proximate relationship with God, but there was one absolute prohibition. No one was allowed to look into the face of God. That privilege, the beatific vision, was reserved for the final fulfillment of our redemption. This is the hope that we have, that someday we will be able to gaze unveiled directly into the face of God. We are still under the mandate, “man shall not see [God] and live” (Ex. 33:20). It was always the Jewish hope, however, that someday this punishment for the fall of man would be removed. The Hebrew benediction illustrates this:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Num. 6:24–26)
This is an example of Hebrew parallelism. Each of the three stanzas says the same thing: May the Lord bless; may the Lord make His face shine; may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you. The Israelite understood blessedness concretely: to be blessed was to be able to behold the face of God. One could enjoy the blessing only in relative degrees: the closer one got to the ultimate face-to-face relationship, the more blessed he was. Conversely, the farther removed from that face-to-face relationship, the greater the curse. So by contrast, in the Old Testament the curse of God involved being removed from His presence altogether. The full curse precluded a glimpse, even at a distance, of the light of His countenance. It forbade even the refracted glory of one ray of the beaming light radiating from the face of Yahweh. To be cursed was to enter the place of absolute darkness outside the presence of God.
This symbolism was carried out through the history of Israel and extended to the liturgy of the Jewish people. It applied to the position of the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, which was designed to symbolize the promise that God would be in the midst of His people. God ordained that the people would pitch their tents by tribes in such a way that they were gathered around the central point of the community, where stood the tabernacle, the dwelling place of Yahweh. Only the high priest was permitted to enter into the midst of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Even then, he could enter the sacred place only after lengthy ablutions and cleansing rites. God was in the midst of His people, but they could not enter the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, which symbolized His dwelling place.
On the Day of Atonement, two animals were involved in the liturgical ceremonies, a lamb and a scapegoat. The priest sacrificed the lamb on the altar for the sins of the people. The priest also took the scapegoat and placed his hands on it, symbolizing the transfer of the sins of the nation to the back of the goat. Immediately the scapegoat was driven outside the camp into the wilderness, that barren place of remote desolation—to the outer darkness away from any proximity to the presence of God. The scapegoat received the curse. He was cut off from the land of the living, cut off from the presence of God.
In order to grasp the significance of this action as it relates to Christ’s death, we must turn to the New Testament. John begins his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The mystery of the Trinity has puzzled our minds for centuries. We know that there is a sense in which the Father and the Son are one, yet they are to be distinguished, and they exist in a unique relationship. The relationship, as John explained it, is described by the word with. The Word was with God. Literally, John was saying that Father and Son have a face-to-face relationship, precisely the type of relationship Jews were denied with the Father. The Old Testament Jew could go into the tabernacle and be “with” (Greek sun, meaning “with” in the sense of present in a group) God, but no one could ever be face to face with (Greek pros, meaning “with” in a face-to-face sense) God.
When we examine the crucifixion, it is important for us to remember that Jesus’ relationship with the Father represents the ultimate in blessedness and that its absence was the essence of the curse. When we read the narrative of the passion of Jesus, certain things stand out. The Old Testament teaches us that His own people delivered Him to the Gentiles, to strangers and foreigners to the covenant. After His trial before the Jewish authorities, He was sent to the Romans for judgment. He was not executed by the Jewish method of stoning, for the circumstances of world history at that time precluded that option. When capital punishment was exercised under the Roman occupation, it had to be done by the Roman courts, so execution had to be by the Roman method of crucifixion. It is significant that Jesus was killed at the hands of the Gentiles outside the camp. His death took place outside the city of Jerusalem; He was taken to Golgotha. All of these activities, when woven together, indicate the reenactment of the drama of the scapegoat who received the curse.
Paul tells us that in the Deuteronomic law, the curse of God is on anyone who hangs from a tree, a curse not necessarily given to those who suffer death by stoning. Jesus hangs on a tree, fulfilling in minute detail all of the Old Testament provisions for the execution of divine judgment. The New Testament sees the death of Jesus as more than an isolated act or illustration of courage or love, though His death may illustrate those things. Rather, it is a cosmic event, an atoning death; it is a curse that is poured out on Christ for us.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that the most important word in the whole New Testament is the little Greek word huper. The word huper means simply “in behalf of.” The death of Jesus is in behalf of us. He takes the curse of the law for me and for you. Jesus Himself said it in many different ways: “I lay down my life for the sheep … No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:15, 18); “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NIV). These New Testament images underscore the concept of substitution.
I once delivered a public lecture on the relationship between the old and new covenants. In the middle of my lecture, a man jumped up in the back of the room. He became outraged when I suggested that Jesus Christ’s death was an atoning death, a substitutionary death on behalf of other people. He shouted from the back of the room, “That’s primitive and obscene!” After I got over my surprise and collected my thoughts, I replied, “Those are the two best descriptive words I have heard to characterize the cross.
What could be more primitive? A bloody enactment like this, with all the drama and ritual, is reminiscent of primitive taboos. It is so simple that even the most uneducated, the most simpleminded person, can understand it. God provides a way of redemption for us that is not limited to an intellectual elite but is so crass, so crude, that the primitive person can comprehend it, and, at the same time, so sublime that it brings consternation to the most brilliant theologians.
I particularly liked the second word, obscene. It is a most appropriate word because the cross of Christ was the most obscene event in human history. Jesus Christ became an obscenity. The moment that He was on the cross, the sin of the world was imputed to Him as it was to the scapegoat. The obscenity of the murderer, the obscenity of the prostitute, the obscenity of the kidnapper, the obscenity of the slanderer, the obscenity of all those sins, as they violate people in this world, were at one moment focused on one man. Once Christ embraced that, He became the incarnation of sin, the absolute paragon of obscenity.
There is a sense in which Christ on the cross was the most filthy and grotesque person in the history of the world. In and of Himself, He was a lamb without blemish—sinless, perfect, and majestic. But by imputation, all of the ugliness of human violence was concentrated on His person.
Once sin was concentrated on Jesus, God cursed Him. When the curse of the law was poured out on Jesus, He experienced pain that had never been suffered in the annals of history. I have heard graphic sermons about the excruciating pain of the nails in the hands, of hanging on a cross, and of the torturous dimensions of crucifixion. I am sure that they are all accurate and that it was a dreadful way to be executed, but thousands of people in world history have undergone the excruciating pain of crucifixion. Only one man has ever felt the pain of the fullness of the unmitigated curse of God on Him. When He felt it, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, NIV). Some say He did that simply to quote Psalm 22. Others say He was disoriented by His pain and didn’t understand what was happening. God certainly did forsake Him. That is the whole point of the atonement. Without forsakenness, there is no curse. God, at that moment in space and time, turned His back on His Son.
The intimacy of the pros relationship that Jesus experienced with the Father was ruptured (in His human nature). At that moment God turned out the lights. The Bible tells us that the world was encompassed with darkness, God Himself bearing witness to the trauma of the hour. Jesus was forsaken, He was cursed, and He felt it. The word passion means “feeling.” In the midst of His forsakenness, I doubt He was even aware of the nails in His hands or the thorns in His brow. He was cut off from the Father. It was obscene, yet it was beautiful, because by it we can someday experience the fullness of the benediction of Israel. We will look unveiled into the light of the countenance of God.