The Crucial Moment
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 22 Feb 2018
Lee Gatiss unwraps the next lines of the Apostles’ Creed, which focus on how Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them…
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit… when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.
So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:1-42).
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
So far the Apostles’ Creed has been mind-blowing in its claims about God’s power and authority. He is the Father Almighty, the creator of everything. And we have heard about Jesus, the Son of this Almighty God, and our Lord and Master, who took human flesh in a breathtaking miracle of humility. But today we are looking at the most awe-inspiring teaching of Christianity — that when God became man, he did it in order to suffer and die for us.
The Creed says Jesus suffered, in a particular time and place, “under Pontius Pilate.” Pilate was the Prefect of the province of Judea from AD 26 to 36, under the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Jesus’s public ministry took place during his time in charge of the area, centred on Jerusalem. This all happened to a real person at a specific moment in history.
We are not simply thinking of the execution of Jesus here, but of all his suffering during that time. That could refer to his whole life: suffering all the stresses and indignities of physical human existence; the opposition of sinful men and women who hated him and plotted against him throughout his ministry, despite his great miracles of power and kindness; his temptation and his trial; and the flogging Jesus received from Pilate, even when he had been found innocent of all charges. As the apostle Peter says, to all those who suffer in this life, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). He suffered without ever sinning.
It is noteworthy that the Creed has very little on Jesus’s life. It goes straight from his birth almost immediately to his death. In the Gospels, there is also a huge amount of space given to the final week of his life. This is the crucial moment for world history, and for our faith: the immortal Son of God, died. There’s a reason that the cross is the sign of our faith.
Crucifixion was a painfully brutal way to die, though the Bible doesn’t dwell on the gory details so much as on the plain fact. The Romans used this form of execution many times. A crucified messiah wasn’t a very popular idea in a context where crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of the low. “The utterly vile death of the cross” as some called it, wasn’t spoken of at all in polite society without a twinge of disgust. Crucifixion was reserved for barbarians, slaves, and peasants—the scum of the earth. So to worship a crucified God was simply madness in this context— this is why ancient writers called Christianity a “sick delusion” and “a senseless and crazy superstition.” Why would anyone want to worship a crucified God?
It is also particularly significant biblically that Jesus was crucified. Because in the Old Testament it says that anyone executed and hung on a tree like this was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). “They have pierced my hands and feet” says the man under attack who feels forsaken by God (Psalm 22:16). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that because of this, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). What he did, he did “for us and for our salvation” as the Nicene Creed puts it — he didn’t have to die at all, but “he was pierced for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), to absorb the curse of God that we deserve, in our place, so we don’t have to.
The Creed is explicit that Jesus wasn’t just crucified. Sometimes, it was possible to survive a few hours of crucifixion and to live on for a while. Though it would take some time to recover. But Jesus died. Some have suggested that he may have just fainted, and people thought he was dead. But that is hard to square with the eyewitness testimony that his death was confirmed by hardened Roman soldiers who knew death when they saw it and pierced Jesus’s side with a spear just to make sure. That little detail in John’s Gospel, that blood and water came out when they did this, confirms that he was gone, because this is what happens when a body expires.
Jesus was then buried in the usual way for Jewish people at that time. He descended to the place of the dead. He tasted death in all its physical and spiritual horror, and drank it to the dregs. There is no aspect of that terrible final curtain that he did not experience. So we know that when we face it one day ourselves, Jesus has emptied it of its ultimate power. As he himself now says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
Questions for reflection:
1. How can Jesus’s sinless suffering be an example to us in our suffering?
2. How did God turn something so evil — the murder of his Son — into something so good?
3. Why is it important to stress that Jesus really died, was buried, and descended to the dead?
Prayer: Almighty God, look with mercy upon your people, for whom our Lord Jesus suffered death upon the cross: grant us strength to take our cross up daily and put to death our sinful desires that being united with him in his death, we may rise with him glory, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.
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