Strange as it might seem, the Christian Church has always summed up the whole earthly existence of her Lord in the two simple words: He suffered.
Many others have attempted to write a glowing biography on the “life of Jesus”. Yet the Church has insistently confessed only this “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered. . . . , was crucified, dead and buried.”
Many have pointed to the exemplary life of the Man of Galilee. Many have referred to His teachings, marking Him as the greatest of all the world’s philosophers and teachers. Many have spoken of His miracles as the mighty works of the “sympathetic Jesus”. Yet the Church brushed all these aside and tenaciously clung to her confession: He suffered!
If we would call it a biography, it is beyond a doubt the most unique biography that has ever been written.
Strange it might seem, that in a world of suffering humanity it should be said of Him that He suffered. Who of all mankind has not suffered? Who has not known the struggle for existence, tasted the horror of disease and devastation, or shared the constant dread of those who walk in the midst of death? Why should He be distinguished as the one who suffered?
Strange, that a more glowing account should not be written of the thirty-three years of His sojourn among us. Although He repeatedly exposed the sins of those about Him, He Himself knew no sin. Although He dwelt among us in the weakness of sinful flesh, He performed so many mighty works that all the people marveled, and when He taught them they were forced to say that no man ever spoke as this Man did.
And although He was not understood, but even cast out by the people of His time. He was approved of God as a faithful Servant, even when He died.
Would it not be more proper after all to tell of His exemplary life and emphasize His mighty works. His zeal for His cause and His principles? More fitting to write a volume on the “sympathetic Jesus”?
Yet the Church of Jesus Christ stands rock-firm on her confession, summing up all His life and words and works in that one confession: He suffered.
And properly so.
She has all the Scriptures on her side when she makes this unique confession. All the types and shadows with their bloody sacrifices pointed to Him as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. All the prophets spoke of Him as the Man of sorrows, the suffering Servant of God. Jesus Himself continuously spoke with many signs and wonders of His suffering and death on the cross and the glories that would follow. And the apostles preach only Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. They went out into the world with the Word of the Cross, which is foolishness to those perishing, but a power of God to all who believe.
Jesus’ sojourn on earth was nothing but a continual suffering. He was born in abject poverty and never claimed more of the goods of this world than was needed for His bare existence. He was the sinless One among sinners, never understood, always despised, hated, rejected and cast out. The cross cast its shadow over His whole life, for from His early youth He knew that He must do His Father’s business. Who can fathom the anguish of soul that accompanied even the signs of the miracles He performed? He came, not to do His own will, but the will of His Father Who sent Him. And the zeal of God’s house devoured Him.
His suffering was unique, for He willingly bore the wrath of God against the sin of mankind. He willfully took our sins upon Himself and became a curse, for us. Because He was the sinless One, the obedient Servant, He could pay the ransom for our sins. He destroyed the power of sin and death and merited for us eternal life. All His life He suffered to bring us to God.
The Church glories in her confession.
Jesus is not a mere example, that we should follow in His steps. No man, born of sin, can ever imitate the life of the suffering Servant of God. We need more than an example. We need a Redeemer, a Saviour.
He is not the greatest of all teachers. He is the Word which became flesh: the greatest of all the prophets, of Whom God says: Hear ye Him. He is the Way, for He is the Truth and the Life.
He was not a great philanthropist, or the world’s greatest humanist, who came to improve conditions in this world of iniquity. He came to deliver us from darkness to light, and from death into life eternal.
He did not merely make salvation possible. He redeemed us and saves us from our sins. He is the good Shepherd Who laid down His life for His sheep, so that He may gather them unto Himself into the folds of heavenly glory.
He accomplished all suffering. He made an end of all our sufferings in the flesh, so that we can glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation works patience, and patience works a hope that will not be put to shame.
In Him we are more than conquerors, even in the midst of all the sufferings of this present time. For we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him.
This is a faithful saying: He suffered!
Note the interpretation of this article in Lord’s Day 37 of our Heidelberg Catechism. The question is asked: What dost thou understand by these words. “He suffered”? To which the answer is given: That He. all the time that He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.
Yes, indeed, power Christ had to lay down His life in order that He might take it again! Had it not been so, His death would still have been vain, and could not have had the value of a sacrifice blotting out our sins. No one could possibly offer His life as a vicarious sacrifice, unless he had been authorized by the Judge of heaven and earth. Christ, however, had power so to lay down His life that he might take it again in glory, and that by this voluntary death He might obtain forgiveness, eternal righteousness and life for His own.
The idea that must have the emphasis here, according to the meaning of the original, is that Christ had received authority to lay down His life, and to take it again. To be sure, Christ also had power in the sense of ability and strength to lay down His life as a sacrifice; for He is the eternal Son of God, and as such He is the Lord of life and death. And He was in position to give His life as a sacrifice for sin, for He was without sin, and was not Himself under the sentence of death. We have no life to give away or to offer as a sacrifice to God. We are under the death sentence. How could a criminal, sentenced to death and about to die on the gallows, stipulate that his death should be received as a sacrifice for his fellow criminals? But the Saviour knew no sin. He was, therefore, in a position to offer His life to God as a sacrifice for the sins of others. And He was capable of bringing the perfect sacrifice as an act of perfect obedience, because it was His meat to do the Father’s will. He was the perfect High Priest, Who not only had a sacrifice to offer without blemish, but Who could also make the offering an act of perfect love of God. And even as He was capable of laying down His life as a sacrifice, so He had power to take it again, for He is the life and the resurrection!
Yet, the idea that He had authority to lay down His life and to take it again, must have all the emphasis. Of what avail would it be that a man would deprive himself of his life, or take the place of another on the gallows, if such a sacrifice were not authorized and accepted by the judge? Christ was authorized, officially appointed and empowered to lay down His life and to take it again. He was God’s High Priest, appointed to bring the atoning sacrifice instead of His people.
And so, the cross is indeed the manifestation of the great love of the Good Shepherd for His sheep, but it is ultimately the revelation of the unfathomable, eternal, and unchangeable love of God to us. The cross is not the cause of the love of God to His people, but the outflow and central revelation of that love. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Surveying the wondrous cross by faith, we are assured that on that accursed tree “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” II Cor. 5:19. And relying on that eternal love of God revealed in the cross of His Son, we have righteousness in the midst of our present sin and guilt; peace with God, transcendent, victorious peace, in the midst of the present unrest; and eternal life and glory even while we still lie in the midst of our present death!
This article by Rev. C. Hanko originally appeared in the April, 1944 issue of the Beacon Lights.