April 10, 2020

Hebrews 2:9

“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Once the public ministry of Jesus commenced the pressures upon him, the ways in which he would suffer seem to begin immediately. He suffers in the desert through the unrelenting attacks and temptations of the evil one. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told that Jesus was tempted “in every way” that is common to us. And let us not sentimentalize this. For his entire life Jesus was dogged and harassed by Satan. I think we can be sure that Jesus, the Son of God, was battered with outward temptations unlike any man has ever known.

But Jesus was also the subject of more common sufferings as well. He was a man whose physical appearance was nothing to desire. We have no record of Jesus laughing. Did he ever laugh? I imagine he probably did. But the fact that we don’t know for sure highlights the very sobering circumstances of Jesus’ life. He did not have the luxury to be lighthearted or frivolous. Jesus bore the heavy weight of his mission every day.

Jesus was poor. He had no permanent home. He had to humbly rely upon the kindness of friends and strangers. Can you imagine the humility of the King of Creation voluntarily requiring the assistance of others?

Jesus was treated as a circus performer by many to whom he had shown great kindness. They demanded constant signs but showed no interest in following him as Lord. Those for whom he labored so diligently to teach remained willfully ignorant. Even his closest followers failed to believe his clear instructions. In his greatest moments of need they failed him.

Jesus was misunderstood by his family who for a time, figured he must be mentally ill. He was constantly pursued by people who had enormous needs. He was followed and stalked by the religious leaders who slandered him and plotted to kill him.

His whole life followed a pattern of rejection – rejection in his hometown, rejection by the religious authorities, rejection by the public who sought only to use him, and rejection by his disciples who all fled at his time of greatest need. Add to all of this the fact that Jesus, the Holy One of God, the eternal Son, chose to live among the sinful and immoral and corrupt. The One who is holy, holy, holy pitched his tent among the profane.

But the greatest burden Jesus bore was the knowledge that he came to die. Jesus would be executed as a criminal and blasphemer. And beyond the obvious physical tortures of crucifixion was the spiritual torment of the event.

Remember God’s command to Abraham – “Take your son, your only son – Isaac…and sacrifice him…” (Gen 22:2). But before the act could be completed God intervened and offered a substitute. Jesus came to be our Heavenly Father’s Isaac. And this time there would be no stay of execution. This time there would be no substitute in Jesus’ place because Jesus was the substitute. As John announced at Jesus’ baptism – “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Jesus taught his slow believing disciples this repeatedly – “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:31-32)

In Martin Hengel’s classic work on crucifixion in the ancient world we learn that crucifixion was practiced by various cultures. It was such a brutal and degrading form of execution that by the time of Jesus the Jews had rejected it as a form of execution. Crucifixion continued to be practiced by the Romans and other cultures precisely because it was recognized as both unusually painful and degrading. Hengel writes that in crucifixion “the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein.” (p. 25). He wrote that it “satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers of the masses.” (p. 89) Crucifixion, “is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality.” (p. 87)

And yet even in crucifixion the Father placed certain restraints upon the indignities that would be suffered by His Son. Once Jesus breathed his last – once he cried out “it is finished” the indignities came to an end. Jesus’ body was honorably entombed rather than being thrown to the dogs. His body suffered no decomposition. He was dead for the briefest way to calculate three days.

But the details of Jesus’ death were as harrowing as any death ever was. As one Scottish theologian put it – “Jesus was not crucified in a Cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.” Jesus was executed on a well-worn killing ground polluted with the decay and detritus left behind by countless executions.

In Mark 15 we are told that Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh – a common practice among the Romans to offer the condemned a way to reduce some of the physical pain. Jesus refused the offer. We’re not told why. Perhaps it had to do with Jesus’ commitment to drink the full cup of God’s wrath for sin.

All the while Jesus is taunted by some of his torturers and even by one of the men crucified next to him. “If you’re the Son of God come down from the cross!” And what they didn’t see was that he was nailed to a cross precisely because he was the Son of God. Donald Macleod writes: “Moment by moment he must repel Satan’s insidious suggestions, summon all his own strength, choose the pain and continue his journey into the terrifying unknown.”

There could be no relief for Jesus because we are told in Hebrews 2, “He must taste death.” What an important choice of words. Jesus did not come merely to die but to “taste death.” He was to experience it in the fullest sense. His death was a cruel and long process. He died un-anesthetized. He daily walked, as we do, through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus’ life did not ebb away slowly and peacefully. His death was not sudden and accidental. His whole life was a long tasting of death which culminated on the cross.

But the final words he uttered ensure that we know the death of Jesus was not a tragic loss but a deliberately planned victory. His last words were not ones of anguish and defeat. Jesus did not offer up his life in angry dismay. He offered up his life with a shout of victory – “It is finished!” – and in that moment dismissed himself into the loving hands of his Father. Jesus did not die as a pathetic victim. He died the Victor in the long war for the souls of God’s people.

In my place condemned he stood
Hallelujah, what a Savior