THE DEATH OF DEATHS
Death is an evil that evokes deep emotions in man. Many fear death so deeply that they are “all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb 2:15). Many, who appear not to fear their own deaths, are nevertheless deeply moved when it comes to the death of friends or foes. Abraham wept for Sarah when she died (Gen 23:2); the people of Israel wept and mourned for Moses (Deut 34:8); David mourned, wept and fasted when his friend Jonathan and Saul his pursuer died (2 Sam 1:12); and the Lord Himself wept when He was being shown to Lazarus’ tomb (Jn 11:35).
The death of Christ holds great significance for Christians, and ought to move us with deep feeling too, especially when we come to the Lord’s Table. However, this is often not the case. Why is this so? I believe the reason often lies in the fact that few of us actually take time to mediate on what the Lord went through. Moreover, we know that the Lord rose from the dead, three days after He died, so that whenever we think about the death of Christ, we will no doubt recall His resurrection. This is not wrong, but it does often mitigate the feeling of grief which we may otherwise experience as we meditate on what Christ went through for us.
That notwithstanding, I believe it is always needful for us to be constantly reminded of the death of Christ and to meditate on it. When the Lord teaches us to partake of the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24–25), He is not teaching us to remember Him or His teaching generally. How could we forget Him if we are under a regular Gospel ministry in which preaching the Gospel is (or ought to be) preaching Christ? To remember Christ at the Lord’s Supper must specifically refer to an affectionate meditation on the death and sufferings of Christ (see WLC 174) in order to stir up ourselves to love Him the more deeply. For this reason, it is important for us to be reminded concerning the details surrounding the death of Christ, that our hearts may be bestirred to meditate on what He went through, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The death of Christ is, after all, “the sum of the Gospel, the foundation of Christianity, the root and spring of all our comforts and hopes, of all our happiness here and hereafter” (David Clarkson, “Christ’s Dying for Sinners” in Works, 3.64).
A Real Death
The first fact concerning the death of Christ that we must remind ourselves of is that it was a real death. There were many in the early church, such as the Gnostics, who for various reasons would deny that Christ really died. Some argued that Christ could not have died because He only appeared in human form, but was never really human. These were the Docetists, with whom the Apostle John had to contend (1 Jn 4:2). Others, such as the old Gnostic heretic Basilides of the 2nd century, insisted that Christ swooped form with Simon of Cyrene who was crucified in His stead. After him, in the 7th century, Mohammed, who founded Islam in AD 622, claimed that it was either Pilate or Judas Iscariot who was crucified! Modern liberals also refuse to believe in the resurrection of Christ, and so proposed many theories, such as the swoon theory, which claims that Christ only fainted and was revived in the cool of the tomb.
But these were all based on fables and over-fertile imaginations, not only having no foundations in the Scriptures but also blatantly contradicting the Scriptures. The death of Christ was prophesied in the Old Testament. If Christ did not really die, then the Old Testament was in error and the Lord was lying to His disciples (cf. Ps 16:8–11, Acts 2:27–28; Lk 24:25–27). The plain language of the Gospel accounts indicates that Christ did really die. If Christ merely swooned, the embalming process, which involved a hundred pounds of spices (Jn 19:39), would no doubt have killed Him. There is no way that any theory that Christ did not really die could be reconciled with sacred history, or with analogy of Scripture from which all Christian theology is derived.
Christ did really die. Death is the separation of soul from body. At the Lord’s death, He commended His spirit unto the Father and “gave up the ghost” (i.e., “breath his last”—Grk. ekpneô). He then entered into paradise, and no doubt met the penitent thief as He had promised (Lk 23:43).
A Violent Death
The death of Christ was, moreover, a violent and unnatural death in that He was “cut off” (Dan 9:26) in His prime. It is not without reason that Moses instructs us that “the days of our years are threescore years and ten” (Ps 90:10), for the Son of Man would be cut off just before He reached the mid-way mark, so as to indicate that death was the purpose of His living.
Although the death of Christ was a violent death, it was not that He had no choice or had to grudgingly submit to being killed. The Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and He was perfectly able to prevent death to Himself as He did when His time was not up yet (Lk 4:29–30; Jn 8:59). Thus, He told His disciples:
Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father (Jn 10:17–18).
This agrees well with the fact that the Lord came in the first place to be a propitiation for the sin of His people. He says, according to the Greek Psalter:
Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God (Heb 10:5–7, cf. Ps 40:6–8).
This fact is important for us to remember, for it reminds us that our salvation is from beginning to end the work of God’s initiative. And though those who crucified the Lord were used of God for His higher purpose, we must never ascribe an iota of gratitude to those who crucified our Lord. Indeed, the Lord says concerning Judas: “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mt 26:24).
An Undeserved Death
Seven hundred years before Christ was born, His death was already prophesied by Isaiah: “He made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa 53:9). He would die a criminal’s death, but not because He deserved it at all. He was at all points tempted like as we are, and yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
A Cruel Death
The Lord Jesus Christ died through the torture of one of the most cruel forms of punishment ever invented by man. It has been said that a person who was crucified “died a thousand deaths.”
The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP) puts it this way:
Among the torturous penalties noted in the literature of antiquity, crucifixion was particularly heinous. The act itself damaged no vital organs, nor did it result in excessive bleeding. Hence, death came slowly, sometimes after several days, through shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing suffered increasing fatigue. Often, as a further disgrace, the person was denied burial and the body was left on the cross to serve as carrion for the birds or to rot.
Christ our Lord, the Lord of glory, willingly underwent such a cruel and shameful death on our behalf. He not only endured the cross, but despised the shame thereof (Heb 12:2).
A Cursed Death
The death on the cross was not only cruel and shameful, it was a cursed death. The Apostle Paul proclaimed: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal 3:13). He was referring to Deuteronomy 21:23 where Moses, under divine inspiration, instructs concerning the disposal of executed criminals, who were hung on a tree:
His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (Deut 21:23).
Without the benefit of Paul’s commentary, the parenthetical explanation: “for he that is hanged is accursed of God,” makes little sense. Why should the action of the people in hanging the criminal render him accursed of God? The answer is found in the fact that Christ, the end of all Scriptures, would be hung on the tree as a curse for us to redeem us from the curse of the Law.
The curse of the Law (for breaking the Law) is death and separation from God. Christ so fully endured the curse of the Law, that He is said to be a curse for us. He did so not only to demonstrate the depth to which the thrice-holy God abhors sin, but to show His infinite love for us.
A Necessary Death
If Christ had not died and risen, then our faith is vain and we are yet in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). It was necessary for Christ to die, not because He had no choice. If He had sinned, He would have no choice, for the Law of justice would demand that He pays for His sins. But He sinned not at all. It was necessary for Christ to die because it was the only way by which He could ransom a people unto Himself, by which divine justice would be perfectly satisfied and sinners forgiven. Thus He taught His disciples that “it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead” (Lk 24:46); and the Apostle Paul repeats the same doctrine, saying that “Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead” (Acts 17:3).
John Owen, insisting that Christ died only for the elect and that His death is efficacious for them, points out that:
The Father and His Son intended by the death of Christ to redeem, purge, sanctify, purify, deliver from death, Satan, the curse of the law, to quit of all sin, to make righteousness in Christ, to bring nigh unto God, all those for whom He died… (Death of death in the Death of Christ [BOT, 1967], 99).
It is possible to show that all these intentions of Christ’s death can only be accomplished by the death of Christ, the God-Man, alone without a travesty of the revealed will of God. The death of Christ is necessary for the existence of the Church. If Christ had not died, there were no Church, no Christian, and no Christianity.
An Extraordinarily Painful Death
“The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). This refers not only to the first or physical death, but also to the second, or eternal and spiritual, death. The Lord Jesus Christ tasted both deaths on behalf of His Church. In tasting physical death, Christ destroyed the sting of death, made death no more a punishment for believers, and procured for believers the right to be raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:55–57). Christ also tasted the second death on behalf of the elect. This was the reason for the terrible apprehensions that Christ felt as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and perspired great drops of sweat like unto blood. This was the reason for His exclaiming “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” Also as the God-Man, Christ needs only suffer the pains associated with the second death momentarily to have paid sufficiently the eternal death due to the members of His Church. Clarkson explains beautifully:
The worm of conscience indeed did not touch Him: for that’s the effect, not of imputed sin, but of personal guilt, wherewith He was not in the least tainted. Eternal sufferings are in the sentence of the Law, not absolutely, but with respect to a finite creature, who could not suffer all that was due in less than eternity. But Christ being God, His temporary sufferings were equivalent to eternal: He could pay down the whole sum at once. What it wanted in duration was made up in the value: His suffering for a time was of more weight and worth than the eternal sufferings of sinners; and it was far more for the Son of God to suffer for a while, than for all creatures to suffer everlastingly.
But as to the substance, He endured the pains of the second death, so far as was consistent with the perfection of His nature. The sufferings of that death are punishments of loss and of sense. Punishment of loss is separation from God, of this He complains (Mt 27:46; Ps 22). The Personal union was not dissolved, but the sense and effects of divine love and favour was withheld. His Father appeared as a severe and incensed Judge, and dealt with Him, not as His Son, but as an undertaker for sinners (op. cit., 65).
Through the history of the Church many martyrs appeared to have suffered greater physical pain than the Lord Himself, as men under the inspiration of Satan continued to invent more and more evil means of torture. Some were burned alive in slow fire, some were torn apart by wild animals, some had their tongues or their finger nails yanked out, etc. But we must have no doubt that no one suffered as greatly as did the Lord, because no one ever experienced physical torment as the God-Man, nor endured in his soul, the infinite wrath of God against the sin of an innumerable multitude of saints throughout the ages.
The death of Christ is truly extraordinarily painful. Yet He endured all these, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col 2:14). The Lord of glory endured alone, all the punishment which is due to each one of us for our rebellion against Him who is the transcendently holy God.
The death of Christ is the death of deaths in two senses of the phrase. It is the death of deaths, in the first place, because no other deaths can be compared to it. It is extraordinary in its subject, its torment, its purpose and its accomplishment. It is the death of deaths, in the second place, because by His death, He put to death the power of death and secures life for His Church. It is because Christ died for us and was raised again that we may be alive spiritually today and alive spiritually and physically in all eternity.
May our meditation on the death of Christ fill our hearts with love and gratitude for our Lord, with grief for our sins, and with longing for the day when we shall meet our blessed Redeemer face to face.