Last week we saw how the church had come to affirm that in the one person we know as Jesus, he has two natures both united and bound in perfection, yet neither one diminishing the other. These two natures show us that Jesus is both fully human, as well as fully divine. We also saw that in relation to his human nature, he came to fulfil a messianic mission. In other words, the title given to him which we know as Christ literally is a anglicised version of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. But what did this mission look like?
The Creed tells us that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The paradox of this confession is that it has come to mean victory, rather than defeat, in Christian tradition. But how can the suffering of an innocent Galilean preacher be, firstly victorious; and secondly, this being in fulfilment of the messianic expectation? This week we will look at how Jesus’ suffering brought about God’s decisive victory over the powers of darkness and evil, and especially how this provided for the platform of the greatest exodus in history: the redemption of God’s people from the bondage to sin.
No Gospel without Suffering
When the Creed affirms that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” it is affirming a real historical event that involved real people. This is a great declaration of the actual death of Jesus, the Jewish preacher from Galilee. This is an important point because of what the Creed affirms about the nature of Jesus’ death, that it was suffering. What does this mean?
It has been commonly said “that the Gospels are passion narratives with long introductions.” In other words, while the Gospels certainly give us some details concerning Jesus’ life, a bit more about his ministry, they are particularly interested in the last week of his life that leads up to his death. This is because of the central role that Jesus’ death came to play in his own mission, as well as in the life of the church. In a very real sense, Jesus came to suffer and die. Three times in Luke Jesus foretells of his own death (9:21-22, 43-45; 18:31-34). A third of Mark is devoted to the final week of Jesus’ life, and devotes a significant portion of this to his suffering, death, and burial. So too, Matthew spends much time preparing the reader for the climactic moment of Jesus’ death beginning with the plot by the religious leaders to kill Jesus (26:1-5); followed by an anointing ceremony scene which Jesus says is in preparation for his burial (26:12); with this leading to the description of Judas’ betrayal (26:14-16); and climaxing with Jesus’ Passover meal with his own disciples, interpreting the elements in sacrificial terms and relating this to an institution of a new covenant that will be ratified by his own blood (26:28). We can therefore see from the gospel authors’ own narratives, that there is no gospel (i.e. good news) without the suffering and death of Jesus.
But why is this so? Why did the suffering that Jesus undertook to accomplish in Jerusalem become the basis for the proclamation of the good news of the early church? There are two major answers given to this in the history of the church.
Jesus and the Victory of God
A very early understanding of Jesus’ death which has found a resurgence in Christian theology is the conquering of the cosmic powers through the death of the Christ on the Cross. This narrative begins in Genesis 3:15 with the promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. One can say, since the garden experience of our first parents, the Serpent’s intention is to destroy the image of God reflected in the image bearing creatures of God, humanity. And since our first parents failed to withstand the evil intention of the Serpent and destroy it in the garden, their offspring now born into a world of suffering and shame are perpetually tormented by the evil that seeks to oppose God and his design. We as humans are thus held in bondage to the cosmic powers, and are powerless against its attacks. It was, therefore, for this reason that God had to take on flesh and become a human being in order to suffer on our behalf and conquer Satan and his emissaries as a human being. In a very real sense, therefore, God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ as a plan from before the foundations of the earth to redeem mankind from the powers of darkness
Scripture is very clear that the people of God are opposed by an enemy. We see this in Genesis 3 with the Serpent coming against the woman and causing her and Adam to fall into corruption, we see this in the account of Job, and some cryptic passages Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and then in the cosmic battle scene in Revelation 12. But also in passages such as 1 Peter 5:8 where Peter writes, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Therefore we see in the ministry of Jesus that he came to oppose the forces of darkness when the gospels record his temptation narratives (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) and his casting out of demons (Mark 1:21-28, etc.). Furthermore, the authors of the New Testament explicitly stated that this was one of the reasons Jesus came: to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
But we also know from Scripture that often the means Satan uses to oppose the people of God are corrupt political entities and even the good intents of people. We see this very clearly in the account of Egypt and Israel’s bondage to her, with God coming to rescue her through Moses and the series of plagues being a judgment upon the spiritual darkness that rules over Egypt; also we see this with Babylon and Israel’s exile, with Babylon becoming a metaphor in Revelation for the Roman Empire which stands in opposition to the floundering church. The concept of the Antichrist of 1 John 2:18 and the woman who is drunk with the blood of the saints in Revelation 17:6 are all examples of large powers coming under the influence of Satan and opposing God’s people. Furthermore, we see individuals coming under the influence to serve the purposes of Satan in Judas Iscariot, when the gospels report that Satan entered Judas to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3), or even that the good intentions of Peter attempting to prevent Jesus from going to the cross was seen as Peter, in that moment, serving the purposes of Satan (Matthew 16:23). Furthermore, the Pharisees are called the sons of the devil by Jesus in John 8:44. In this sense, the influence of Satan has infiltrated every sphere of human existence, and thus it was necessary that it be defeated by One who was more powerful than it, since humanity is unable to do so on its own. But why through suffering? Could God not overthrow Satan by pure force? Why did Jesus have to suffer?
Jesus and the Victims of Sin
We have just seen that we have an enemy that opposes us from without, but we also have an enemy that opposes us from within: sin. Ever since our first parents fell into sin, they brought distortion to every part of creation into what was an otherwise perfect paradise. Theologians have called this original sin, which means that every person born into this world is born with an already sinful disposition. In other words, we cannot but help to sin because sin has affected every part of our being. This means that though we still reflect the image of a beautiful and glorious God (Genesis 1:26-27), this image is now distorted. As a result, our rational faculties, our emotional faculties, our sexual appetites, everything is distorted by sin. Even our motivations are distorted, resulting in our even doing good out of impure desires. This doesn’t mean that people cannot do good deeds, since people still bear the image of God which enables them to reflect some of his characteristics into the world (such as fighting for justice, being merciful, loving others, etc.). However, the problem is that because of the fall into sin, even our good deeds are tainted by corruption, and are thus distorted. And the greatest distortion is our relationship to God himself, from whom we are now estranged because of the Fall. Because of this, our lives that were to be devoted to His glory, are now lived for our own, even if it’s for our collective selves as humanity (see Babel in Genesis 11). So while we may seek the good of others, the problem is that we may now seek the good of humanity over and above the good that God requires of us. And for this reason, our good works are rendered insufficient for reaching God, in fact, they might drive a further wedge between us and Him since we may think that our good deeds toward others are sufficient in themselves for our own salvation. People talk like this all the time, “I am a good person, so why should God not approve of me?” But what if what you consider to be “good” is insufficient? How would you know this if your own ability to reason and see clearly is clouded by your own judgment that is, in a large part, distorted?
Therefore, what we need most is an objective standard given from without by which we can measure ourselves, not created from within. We need a higher law, a greater good. And this is what was given to our first parents in the garden and later reflected in the 10 commandments. It was this standard that was transgressed, bringing death and destruction to the world where there was once goodness, beauty, and truth. This is why the punishment for transgression of this initial law was death (Genesis 2:16-17), because it brought death into a world where only life existed, transgressing the law of life itself. The only solution to the plight of man now was for mankind to suffer death or atone for the transgression, but there was no man who could pay the debt since all men were now born into corruption and death, and are tainted by the Fall and distorted in our various passions as image bearers (see Romans 3:9-23). What was now necessary was for one from outside to offer up the penalty for sin and death, and this outsider had to be both perfect as well as man. It was for this reason that God, the lawgiver, took on flesh and became man, to pay the penalty for mankind. This is why Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” In other words, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Galatians 2:13). And since we are guilty by virtue of our first parents in the garden, there is one requirement required on our part in order to receive this free gift offered in the death of Christ: we must acknowledge our guilt and place our trust in Him by faith. For when we measure ourselves by the objective law of God given from without, we realise that we fall far short of God’s glorious standard (Romans 3:23) and need redemption.
This is no trivial requirement, for in acknowledging our guilt we also acknowledge our need for deliverance. This is a humbling act that places God back on the throne and us as his subjects. It moves us away from the thought that we can make things right ourselves by our own good deeds, and acknowledges that we need grace from without. We thus come to God humbly and needy. For this reason Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” In other words, Jesus suffered the death that we deserved under the law, in order that through his suffering and death he may justify (i.e. declare to be in the right) those who trust in his sacrifice on our behalf. Peter writes remarkably, “For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18). In this sense, Jesus redeems all those who have fallen victim to sin and recognise that they need deliverance and so cry out to God for help. Calvin writes, “For because God was provoked to wrath by man’s disobedience, by Christ’s own obedience he wiped out ours, showing himself obedient to his Father even unto death. And by his death he offered himself as a sacrifice to his Father, in order that his justice might once for all be appeased for all time, in order that believers might be eternally sanctified, in order that the eternal satisfaction might be fulfilled. He poured out his sacred blood in payment for our redemption, in order that God’s anger, kindled against us, might be extinguished and our iniquity might be cleansed.”
Conclusion: The Paradox of Strength through Suffering
In concluding, it is important to understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die. As we saw above, he came to defeat the cosmic powers of evil and injustice. But he also came to atone for the sins of mankind and to bring restitution between God and man by giving up his own perfect body in payment for the death that man deserves. In other words, he came to save us from both Satan and the justice of God required in the law.
The mystery of the defeat of the cosmic powers in the suffering of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice on behalf of sinners is remarkable. C.S. Lewis captures the paradox well in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Aslan explains to the two young girls the mystery of the atonement as defeat of evil and payment for the guilty, “‘It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Lewis, in literary form, attempts to capture the mystery of both the defeat of Satan and the atoning sacrifice on behalf of believers in the death of Christ, which Paul describes in Colossians 2:13-15 in this way, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
This is why the Creed affirms the suffering and death of Christ. He suffered on our behalf, and died a death we could not die, and through the weakness of the cross he triumphed over the powers of evil and delivered us from our bondage to these powers that enslaved us. This is the significance of the atonement, and the mystery of the power in the cross of Christ displayed through weakness, the greatest paradox in history. Therefore the suffering and death of Jesus is Gospel, or in other words, good news to the Christian. It reminds us that the power of God is not the power of mankind, and the mystery of the gospel is that the suffering of the Son of God on behalf of mankind has brought about the deliverance of many from both Satan and sin. Through his suffering we are set free, and are now able to glorify God as we ought to with our entire lives. Soli Deo Gloria.
 Horton, M. 2011. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 492.
 See Alen, G. 1953. Christus Victor (trans. Herbert, A.G.). London: S.P.C.K. & Wright, N.T. 2006. Evil and the Justice of God. London: S.P.C.K. for two excellent modern treatments of this position.
 See Horton, M. 2011. The Christian Faith, pg. 502ff.
 Calvin, J. Catechism:
 Martin Luther called this a theology of the cross. See this article by Carl Truman for an excellent explanation on this theology: http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH05/10b.html
 Lewis, C.S. 1950. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. London: Harper Collins, pg. 148.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.