On the one hand, we hold death at arm’s length; on the other hand, we revel in the death and carnage portrayed in movies and video games. Like the Romans with their gladiator games, we too have a bloodlust now satisfied by simulation rather than reality. But when death hits close to home, when the dark edges of its cloak brush past us, we shiver and run away. That’s because death reminds us that we are bound and enslaved by it. If you’re like me, you have a hard time meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus. It can be difficult to understand how one man’s suffering and death two thousand years ago has been saving and transforming lives ever since. On the other hand, perhaps it makes us feel too guilty. It’s easy to skip over thinking about Jesus’ death and focus instead on his life and resurrection.
However, Jesus’ suffering and death must be impressed upon our hearts if we are to fully understand the liberation it means for us. Why? Here are two reasons to consider.
1. Jesus’ death was necessary.
From the very beginning, Jesus had to die. For the Israelites death was an everyday experience, because it was necessary. The regular sacrifice of animals at the temple was required to make atonement for sin, a constant reminder of what their sin deserved (Exod. 29:36). However, Israel’s animal sacrifices never really took sin away. They could only represent what was needed, the death of a man for man’s disobedience.
God himself provided his own Son as the sacrifice that would finally satisfy God’s wrath and justice for sin. As Abraham approached the alter to sacrifice his own son, he prophetically spoke of God’s provision in Christ:
And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Gen. 22:7–8)
God himself provided the sacrifice, sacrificing his own Son to satisfy his divine wrath (1 Cor. 5:7; Rom. 3:25).
The Romans knew what they were doing when they wanted to make a spectacle of someone. There was no quick slitting of the throat. And yet, as Christ’s blood flowed forth from his head, his hands and feet, and from his side, we are reminded of the flow of blood from the animal’s neck that was slit as a sacrifice. Christ the warrior strode toward the altar where he would offer his own body as the ultimate sacrifice. The altar was then sprinkled with this blood as were the people, thereby bonding God to his people through the blood (Exod. 24:6–8). By blood the Old Covenant was made and by blood a better covenant was made (Heb. 7:27–28; Heb. 9:12).
2. Jesus’ suffering and death was a battle.
Jesus’ suffering and death was not only a sacrifice but a great battle. David, stepping forward as the great representative warrior against Goliath, prefigured Christ’s own warrior identity. Christ did battle against the forces of evil when he carried his cross up to Golgotha. The nails driven into his hands and feet demonstrated the clash of Satan’s power with the incarnate Son of God. As he hung on the tree, Jesus was conquering the invisible enemies of God and indeed of the whole human race. Who could conceive of victory in death? Who could have imagined a great warrior doing battle by submitting himself to the whip of the very people he was fighting to save? This is not only contrary to everything the world defines as victory but is ludicrous to our sinful minds. It is unheard of, nonsensical!
For the disciples, Jesus’ death was heart-wrenching and disappointing in the extreme. Surely they thought their lives were over. They were so certain Jesus was the promised Messiah, and yet the great warrior king they were expecting allowed himself to be whipped, to have a crown of thorns jammed into his skull, and to die the worst kind of death. Wars are not won without fighting; so Jesus, unknown to the disciples, walked the warrior’s path and shocked the world. He went willingly, voluntarily shouldering the great burden of the world. Standing as the representative for God’s people, Christ the lion, the great warrior, fought with Satan and conquered him (Rev. 5:5).
Today, many people see this as a great story that moves them to compassion for the suffering of Jesus. But if we truly understand what Christ was doing when he suffered and died, our minds should be blown by the absurdity of it all. God walked through the valley of the shadow of death as both sacrifice and king. The king died and so he conquered. The declaration that our sins were laid upon Christ, simultaneously the great sacrificial lamb and warrior king, is the most liberating news the world has ever heard.
An Anglo Saxon poet once wrote,
May the Lord be a friend to me, he who here on earth suffered previously
on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.
He redeemed us, and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with dignity and with joy for those who suffered burning there.
The Son was victorious in that undertaking,
powerful and successful, when he came with the multitudes,
a troop of souls, into God’s kingdom.
(“The Dream of the Rood” in Old and Middle English: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Elaine Treharne [Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000], lines 144–152)
Christ had to die, but he went willingly. He knowingly and willingly endured the pain and the shame for you and me. From the very beginning, he knew he had to die; he knew the battle he had to fight, and he fought it for us. Where we would have failed, he succeeded. And so we should not be afraid of contemplating Jesus’ death. We need not feel the guilt of our sin when our evil conscience accuses us. The great Accuser has been thrown out of heaven. The chains are broken, we are set free, and Christ sits on his throne a victorious king.