By Robert J. Wieland
When I was a youth I heard the story of the cross of Jesus, with all the harrowing details. I had also heard stories of martyrs who had died in the Dark Ages for their faith. My young mind found it hard to distinguish between the suffering Jesus endured on His Cross and the suffering endured by the faithful martyrs. In fact, it seemed that some of the tortures the martyrs endured might have been more painful than Jesus` flogging and crucifixion, and longer in duration as well.
As I became older, I began to appreciate a little more the pain of His sufferings in that I could sense the shame and loneliness He had to endure. His disciples and friends all forsook Him and fled, whereas most of the martyrs had at least someone to cheer them in their last hours. But still I found it difficult to see how Christ`s sufferings were more severe than those of some people I could imagine who suffered both excruciating physical torture and the loneliness of rejection.
It also seemed obvious to me that anyone could better endure unpleasantness and pain if he could look forward to a bright furture of reward. I had learned that when a person died, if he were good he went at once to heaven for such a reward; and if he were bad, to an opposite place of torture and punishment. Jesus was undeniably good. Therefore, I reasoned to myself, as soon as He died He must have gone straight to heaven for an enjoyable weekend in reunion with His Father and the angels. The assurance that He was going there seemed expressed in the promise to the dying thief,"Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." Luke 23:43
Jesus died about three o`clock Friday afternoon and was resurrected early Sunday morning. I assumed He must have spent the intervening time in heaven. Such an anticipation could well have buoyed up His spirits during His severe trials. It is almost incredible what people can endure when they are certain of an almost immediate reward. Where was the unique "glory" in Christ`s cross.
Further, the length of time during which He suffered His physical pain did not seem to be long. All the floggings and the final agony hardly lasted more than twelve or fifteen hours. Long enough, indeed; I shouldn`t want to endure such pain for a fraction of that time. But many good people have been forced to endure it for longer periods, and without the hope of an imminent happy weekend such as I supposed Christ looked forward to.
Try as I could, I found it difficult to see anything very wonderful in Jesus` cross. Perhaps, I thought, what makes it so wonderful is the fact that the sufferer was the Son of God enduring all these agonies we poor humans somtimes know. I could sense a certain feeling of awe, much as I would feel if the president of my country were to condescend to sleep under our family roof, toil in our garden with us, and eat at our humble board. I could look and wonder, but I could hardly understand.
It troubled me that I could not induce within myself those feelings of deep heart appreciation for the cross that others seemed to feel. According to what I had heard, I should "glory" in the cross of Christ, feel some unusual emotion or profound movings of heart. I saw some people actually cry about it. I felt worried because I couldn`t. It seemed I couldn`t touch with my fingertips what Paul sensed when he said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Galatians 6:14.
I tried very hard to be impressed as I thought I should be impressed. But I couldn`t help reasoning that if the Sufferer were the Son of God, knowledge of that fact should certainly have made it easier for Him to endure trials that to us in our finiteness and partial ignorance are so distressing and painful. He knew all things, knew that He had come from God and went to God. Surely He could stand for a short time the physical discomforts and pain we knew without the trials being too much to bear!
I remembered reading an experiance of a man who in my boyhood was one of the world`s richest men-Henry Ford, the builder of both the famous "Model T" and the luxurious Lincoln automobiles. Traveling incognito with a party of friends on some back roads, Mr. Ford had whimsically chosen to drive one of his little Model T`s. The "fivver" broke down -an event many of his less wealthy customers also experiaenced-and he was obliged to seek repairs at a country garage. Although he was inconvenienced a short time, the story indicated that he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I felt sure that one reason was his inner knowledge that he didn`t have to depend on that balky Model T to get him home. Any moment he wished he could have telegraphed for a fleet of his Lincolns to come and rescue him. With confidence others could not know, Mr. Ford might have enjoyed what the ordinary motorist of that day would have endured only with much anxiety.
Wasn`t Christ in much the same situation? I reasoned. At any moment in His trials, He told Peter, He could pray to His Father, and He would presently give Him more than twelve legions of angels. Matthew 26:53. A soldier in bulletproof armor should be expected to show more courage than one without it.
"Saved by Faith" Perplexes Me
I had heard it said that we are saved by faith. But I apparently couldn`t get it. Was there something wrong with me, or had God given me the brush-off, leaving me to be lost for want of a proper appreciation of what His Son had done for me? Or should I force myself to say I felt something that I didn`t feel? Would that do the trick? It was terribly difficult for me to confess a feeling I didn`t have. I desperatly wanted to be saved, but I also wanted to be honest.
Certain writers and speakers say that we human beings cannot comprehend the real meaning of the cross or appreciate what it meant to Jesus. We shall have to wait until eternity to learn. But these remarks, instead of bringing me comfort, made me feel more disturbed. I had understood from the New Testament that the apostles, including Paul, had been profoundly moved in their human lifetime by an appreciation of the cross. Something phenomenal got hold of them. They were willing to suffer "the loss of all things," and instead of crying about it, they were actually "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ`s sake." 2Corinthians 12:10, TEV.
I knew no such willingness to suffer for Christ`s sake, certainly not to the extent of taking pleasure in suffering for Him! The apostles had something I didn`t have; and apparently I wouldn`t get it until I got to heaven. But the distressing point was that I probably wouldn`t be able to get to heaven unless first of all I had the experience! I was revolving in a hopeless circle.
Someone may want to interrupt me here and say, "Too bad I couldn`t have been there to help you out. You didn`t need to feel any particular sense of appreciation for the cross. Just accept Christ as your Saviour as you would sign up for an insurance policy. You don`t shed any tears of gratitude or emotion when you sign on the dotted line. And yet you are `covered` the moment you sign up. That`s how you are saved."
I had thought of that. I knew that many Christian people look at it that way. But their complacency seemed to me a far cry from the apostles` burning devotion to Christ. Paul actually "gloried" in bearing a cross of sacrifice like Jesus bore: "Three times I was whipped by Romans, and once I was stoned [with rocks!]; I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. In my many travels I have been in danger from floods and from robbers, in danger from fellow Jews and from Gentiles; there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing.... If I must boast, I will boast of things that show how weak I am." 2 Corinthians 11:25-30, TEV.
The "insurance policy" kind of faith had barely enough power to drag its abherents out to sit on cushioned pews in church once a week. Jesus said, "None of you can be My disciple unless he gives up everything he has." "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." Luke 14:33,27, TEV. That deeply impressed me. Either one finds the power to serve Christ as those apostles did, or he isn`t a real Christian.
Those misgivings I had were right, and the fact that I had them was probably evidence the Holy Spirit had not forsaken me. Being a sinner, I was no better than anybody else; but neither was I worse than others. I had the potential for a true heart appreciation of Christ`s cross. What I lacked was an understanding of what the cross meant to Him.
Since my childhood, my parents and pastors had ignorantly taught me an error that obscured the love of Christ and hid from me the full extent of its beauty and power. This error obscured the cross as heavy smog obscures one`s view of the mountains. The apostles in the New Testament had been seeing something I had never seen, and what they saw moved them to their astounding heart devotion to Christ. I was spiritually paralyzed because I couldn`t see what they saw.
This error was the common idea of the natural immortality of the soul, the teaching that one cannot really die, that what we call death is merely an immediate release to another level of life. As a host of physical ills can result from a simple vitamin deficiency, so this basic error based in ancient heathenism triggered a chain reaction of confusion in my understanding.
In the Garden of Eden the Creator had plainly told Adam and Eve that if they should sin, "in the day" of transgression "thou shalt surely die." Genesis 2:17. He said exactly what He meant. It was the devil who flatly contradicted Him, telling us: "Ye shall not surely die." Genesis 3:5. In effect, the tempter said, "There is no such thing as death itself. No man can utterly perish. The soul possesses a natural immortality."
This idea became the cornerstone of many Christian churches. The error may seem innocent enough at first thought; but consider what it does to our understanding of the cross of Christ. It effectively contradicts the Scriptural statements, "Christ died for the ungodly" "Christ died for us." Romans 5:6,8.
In other words, the way Satan wants us to understand it, Christ didn`t really die for us at all. He merely endured physical pain in which He was sustained throughtout by the assurance that He had nothing to risk, nothing to lose, since He could not really die. If He had nothing to lose, He therefore had nothing to give of any value beyond the endurance of physical pain. As soon as He cried out, "It is finished," He went to heaven. (Some say He went to "hell" in order to preach to the "spirits in prison" ; but I reasoned that if He did, He went as a visting missionary and not as one suffering the expected torments of the lost. Either way one looks at it, He didn`t really die at all. He merely entered into a larger existence.)
Where is the sacifice? Gone! And that helpless vanity is precisely what Satan wanted me to feel regarding the cross of Christ. In comparison with the sufferings of martyrs or soldiers who die for their country, or heroes who die for their friends, there was nothing very special about what Jesus did. In fact, His sacrifice lacked one guality of nobility inherent in the self-sacifice of soldiers and heroes: Though it all He held fast to His own security, whereas they sacrifice their security. Jesus didn`t really give up anything, least of all Himself. And when John 3:16 says that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son," it really means that the Father only lent Him.
This error of the natural immortality of the soul is intended by Satan to cast a suspicion of make-believe into the story of Calvary-just enough to paralyze the devotion of those who profess to follow Christ. If their appreciation of Jesus' cross is beclouded, their love will be stifled.
The sufferings of Jesus were incomparably greater than the endurance of physical pain, or the torture of any of the martyrs. There was no sham or make-believe about the burden He bore. Scripture says, "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Isaish 53:6.
What is "iniquity" ? "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you." Isaiah 59:2. Iniquity separates from God, leaves the soul desperately bereft and alone, destroys all sense of security. The Lord did indeed lay upon Christ "the iniquity of us all." This means that He laid upon Him the same feelings of guilt, loneliness, insecurity, and despair that we know so well. It was this that separated Christ from His Father. Before I learned the truth, it had seemed that Christ could not possibly have really felt forsaken. The Bible says He cried out, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" Was this a dramatic actor wailing his lines on the stage, or was this an honest cry from a heart wrung with bitter anguish?
Christ did not bear this burden as a man might carry a heavy load on his shoulders. He bore the burden deep within His own soul. Peter says, "Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree." 1Peter 2:24. It was therefore within His own nervous system, in His mind and soul, that Jesus bore the killing load. Paul is even more explicit: "He [the Father] hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin." 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Christ was not a sinner, for He was sinless. But He was " made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree." Galatians 3: 13. The "sin" and the "curse" are here identical. Paul`s statements indicate that Christ`s identity with sin as He bore was something terrifingly real. " The wages of sin is death." Romans 6:23. If Christ was " made to be sin," "made a curse for us," it is clear that He was likewise made to suffer the wages of death. Christ is very close to us, "for both He [the sinless Christ] that sanctifieth and they who are sancified [sinners] are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren." Hebrews 2:11.
What is death, the wages of sin which Christ suffered? There are two kinds of death in Scripture, one called sleep (See John 11:11, 13), which is the death we commonly speak of; and the other the real thing, the second death. See Revelation 2:11; 20:6; 21:8). The latter is eternal separation from God--good-bye to light, joy, and life forever.
It was this " second death" that Jesus tasted. " He by the grace of God should taste death for every man." Hebrews 2:9. Since He tasted it for every man, this sleep that we call death cannot be what He tasted, because every man tastes that kind of death for himself. Whatever it was that Jesus tasted, it was that we might not have to taste it ourselves. Christ died the death that the Creator promised Adem and Eve they should die if they sinned, the death that sin will bring to the lost at last. Jesus felt it much as any human being can feel it, because "in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren... He Himself hath suffered being tempted." Verses 17, 18. Therefore that death that Jesus died on the cross was the full bitter cup of despair and ruin that is the eventual wages of sin.
This had to involve the hiding of his Father`s face. There is no hope, no light, in the second death, neither is there expectation of a resurrection to brighten its despair. If Jesus "died for our sins" or "died for us" (1 Corintians 15:3; Romans 5:8), He experienced in His final suffering a darkness that veiled from His sight the expectation of a resurrection. Had He been buoyed up by the hope of resurrection, to that extent He would have come short of " tasting death for every man" or truly giving Himself " for our sins." At best He could only have lent Himself.
No wonder Christ`s human nature recoiled against that terrifing experience when He flung Himself on the ground in Gethsemane! " My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." He groaned. " And He went a little farther, and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt." Matthew 26:38, 39. The cup which He drank was somthing no other human being before or since has fully tasted. In fact, since time began, He is the only person ever to have truly died. The full terror of hopelessness in the second death is what He tasted in the full consciousness of its killing reality. Neither the nails driven through His hands and feet nor the floggings killed Him. He scarcely felt the physical pain on the cross. What killed Him was the intense soul suffering that evoked a perspiration of blood in Gethsemane and at last literally broke His heart on the cross. " Reproach hath broken My heart; and I am full of heaviness." Psalm 69:20.
Throughtout His life and even through a large part of His final passion, Jesus knew a bright confidence in His resurrection. He lived as in the very sight of His Father`s smiling face. In that divine sunshine no shadows could terrify Him. Even when the repentant thief asked Him to remember him, Jesus still retained His joyful confidence, for He promised, Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise. Luke 23:43. (There is no comma in the original.) But not yet had Christ drained the cup to its bitter dregs. There was to come a change.
To press that bitter cup deeply to the Saviour`s lips, the wicked tempter used as his agency the people Christ had come to save. While on the cross, Jesus could not help hearing the people say to each other, " If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him: for He said, I am the Son of God." Some challenged Him directly, "If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross." Matthew 27:42, 43, 40. We have no right to think that Jesus was unaffected by these taunts. That tempting if was terrible to bear in His hour of extreme humiliation. " Let God deliver Him now, If He will have Him!" His hands nailed to the bars, Jesus had no way to shut His ears to their taunts and insinuations. All He could do was pray. But it seemed that no one in heaven would listen to Him. " Thou hearest not," He complained. Psalm 22:2.
For hours He wrestled with the awful burden. Some time after those malicious ifs " there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour" (three o`clock in the afternoon), when Jesus " cried with a loud voice" those words of forsaken loneliness that indicated He now felt the terror of entire separation from His Father. Matthew 27:45, 46. Like a barbed arrow tipped with poison, that last temptation of despair caused Him His most bitter anguish.
Darkness mercifully veiled His agony when He was unable to use His cruified hands to hide His tear-stained face from the gaze of the mocking crowds. Only His broken, sobbing voice could be heard in the pitch blackness that enveloped Calvary. How cruel humans can be! And how merciful was the Father to wrap His tortured Son in folds of darkness while He suffered so! No angel even was allowed to see the sight of His anguished face as He uttered those despairing words, nor was Christ permitted to feel the kiss of love and loyalty the Father longed to press upon Him in the gloom. The Father was there with Him, suffering with Him, for " God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself." 2Corinthians 5:19. But Christ must be left to feel forsaken, to " tread the winepress alone," fearfully so.
But although hope died, love endured. There is a strange psalm that describes the horrible experience that Christ went through. It opens a window for us that we might peer into Christ`s heart as He hangs on the cross in the long hours of darkness. He hears the taunts of the people and ponders the mysterious silence of His Father. Psalm 22 tells how He recalls that His ancestors got answers when they prayed. Why counldn`t He? "They trusted, and Thou didst deliever them. They cried unto Thee, and were delivered: they trusted in Thee, and were not confounded. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people." " I cry in the daytime, but Thou hearest not."
That`s a terrible way for anyone to feel! When you feel that no one cares, not even God, despair is distilled into its final death-dealing potion. The truth is that no other human soul has ever had to drink that same cup of pure despair mingled with the guilt of the whole world`s sin. Christ is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9) and sustains every man in his darkset hours with a clear-shining ray of hope. The Holy Spirit presses upon our souls the assurance, "Someboby cares!"
But Jesus must feel no such assurance. "I have trodden the winepress alone," He says. Isaiah 63:3. He drinks the cup to its bitterest dregs.
Neverthless, He must find some way to bridge the dark gulf between His forsaken soul and the Father. He must overcome this conviction of separation. He must achive an atonement, a reconciliation with Him.
The inspired psalm tells what happened. Christ`s mind goes back to His human infancy in Bethlehem. Though now "Thou hearest not," yet " Thou art He that took Me out of the womb: Thou didst make Me hope when I was upon My mother`s breasts. I was cast upon Thee from the womb: Thou art My God from My mother`s belly." Tortured in spirit, the Son of God relies on the events in His life that prove the Father`s care for Him. If God heard the prayers of " our fathers" and protected the infant Jesus since the stable days in Bethlehem, surely He will not turn away now! Christ understands His mercy and great love; surely it will not fail now! "By faith" the anguished Son of God will bridge the chasm-as a human being He will believe His Father`s love in the darkness and in the torments of hell.
As the final moment of endurance comes, He feels like one being tossed on the horns of savage beasts: " Save Me from the lion`s mouth: for Thou hast heard Me from the horns of the unicorns [wild buffalo]." Psalm 22:21. In that last desperate moment His faith triumphs. Like Jacob wresting with the Angel in the darkness, Christ grasps the Father who is not permitted to embrace Him and clings to Him by faith: " Thou hast heard Me!" The Father may forsake Him, but He will not forsake the Father! Christ`s faith endures, even through the horrors of the second death." "Herein is love."
When once the error had been cleared away, I saw the cross as it is. I began " to understand how broad and long and high and deep is Christ`s love.... Although it can never be fully know." Ephesians 3:18, 19, TEV. The picture that had been so foggy, now was in sharp focus. Here was the love that moved the aposties so wonderfully. No longer did their self-sacrificing devotion appear so phenomenal or impossible. The love they knew appears more and more to be the normal, proper response of any honest human heart to the sacrifice Christ made. Yes, " in the cross of Christ I glory."
But still a gulf in understanding remains that tends to separate us from that full fellowship with Christ that the apostles knew. Let us now find the truth that by faith spans that chasm.
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