“I’ve heard sermons about the nails and the thorns. Granted, the physical agony of crucifixion is a ghastly thing. But thousands of people have died on crosses, and others have had even more painful, excruciating deaths than that. But only One received the full measure of the curse of God while on a cross.”
If we look at the intricacy of the drama of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see that some amazing things took place so that Old Testament prophetic utterances were fulfilled to the minutest detail. In the first instance, the Old Testament said that the Messiah would be delivered to the Gentiles (“dogs” or “congregation of the wicked”) for judgment (Ps. 22:16). It just so happened in the course of history that Jesus was put on trial during a time of Roman occupation of Palestine. The Romans allowed a certain amount of home rule by their conquered vassals, but they did not permit the death penalty to be imposed by the local rulers, so the Jews did not have the authority to put Christ to death. The only thing they could do was to meet in council and take Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asking him to carry out the execution. So Jesus was delivered from His own people to the Gentiles—those who were “outside the camp.” He was delivered into the hands of pagans who dwelt outside the arena in which the face of God shone, outside the circle of the light of His countenance.
Second, the site of Jesus’ execution was outside Jerusalem. Once He was judged by the Gentiles and condemned to be executed, He was led out of the fortress, onto the Via Dolorosa, and outside the walls of the city. Just as the scapegoat was driven outside the camp, Jesus was taken outside Zion, outside the holy city where the presence of God was concentrated. He was sent into the outer darkness.
Third, whereas the Jews did their executions by stoning, the Romans did them by crucifixion. That determined the method of Jesus’ death: He would hang on a tree—a cross made of wood. The Bible doesn’t say, “Cursed is everyone who is stoned.” It says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
Fourth, when Jesus was put on the cross, there was an astronomical perturbation. In the middle of the afternoon, it became dark. Darkness descended on the land. By some method, perhaps by an eclipse, the sun was blotted out. It was as if God had veiled the light of His countenance.
In the midst of the intensity of this darkness, Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This was one of the most striking utterances that came from the lips of Jesus while He was on the cross, and there have been all kinds of interpretations of it. Albert Schweitzer looked at that cry and said it was proof positive that Jesus died in disillusionment. According to Schweitzer, Jesus had expectations that God would deliver Him, but God let Him down in the final moments, so Jesus died as a disillusioned, tragic Shakespearean hero. Others have noticed that these words are found verbatim in Psalm 22, and they conclude that Jesus was identifying Himself with the Suffering Servant of Psalm 22 and was reciting poetry at His death. But that misses all the indications—Jesus’ executioners, the place of His execution, the manner of His execution, the darkness that fell—that so clearly tell us that Jesus cried out to His Father because He actually had been forsaken.
The sign of the old covenant was circumcision. This cutting of the foreskin had two significances, one positive and one negative, corresponding to the two sanctions. On the positive side, the cutting of the foreskin symbolized that God was cutting out a group of people from the rest, separating them, setting them apart to be a holy nation. The negative aspect was that the Jew who underwent circumcision was saying, “Oh, God, if I fail to keep every one of the terms of this covenant, may I be cut off from You, cut off from Your presence, cut off from the light of Your countenance, cut off from Your blessedness, just as I have now ritually cut off the foreskin of my flesh.”
The cross was the supreme circumcision. When Jesus took the curse on Himself and so identified with our sin that He became a curse, God cut Him off, and justly so. At the moment when Christ took on Himself the sin of the world, His figure on the cross was the most grotesque, most obscene mass of concentrated sin in the history of the world. God is too holy to look on iniquity, so when Christ hung on the cross, the Father, as it were, turned His back. He averted His face and He cut off His Son. Jesus, Who, touching His human nature, had been in a perfect, blessed relationship with God throughout His ministry, now bore the sin of God’s people, and so He was forsaken by God.
Imagine how agonizing that was for Christ. Thomas Aquinas argued that throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus remained in a constant state of intimate communion with His Father. Aquinas speculated that the Beatific Vision, the vision of the unveiled glory of God, was something Jesus had enjoyed every minute of His life until the cross, when the light was turned off. The world was plunged into darkness, and Christ was exposed to the curse of the wrath of God. To experience the curse, according to Jewish categories, was to experience what it means to be forsaken.
I’ve heard sermons about the nails and the thorns. Granted, the physical agony of crucifixion is a ghastly thing. But thousands of people have died on crosses, and others have had even more painful, excruciating deaths than that. But only One received the full measure of the curse of God while on a cross. Because of that, I wonder whether Jesus was even aware of the nails and the thorns. He was overwhelmed by the outer darkness. On the cross, He was in hell, totally bereft of the grace and the presence of God, utterly separated from all blessedness of the Father. He became a curse for us so that we one day will be able to see the face of God. God turned His back on His Son so that the light of His countenance will fall on us. It’s no wonder Jesus screamed from the depths of His soul.
Finally, Jesus said, “‘It is finished!’” (John 19:30b). What was finished? His life? The pain of the nails? No. The lights had come back on; God’s countenance had turned back. So Jesus could say, “‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (Luke 23:46b).
The hard reality is this: if Jesus was not forsaken on the cross, we are still in our sins. We have no redemption, no salvation. The whole point of the cross was for Jesus to bear our sins and bear the sanctions of the covenant. In order to do that, He had to be forsaken. Jesus submitted Himself to His Father’s will and endured the curse, that we, His people, might experience the ultimate blessedness.
This article previously appeared on Ligonier.org, and is used with permission.