THE SUFFERING OF OUR SAVIOUR

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His heavenly glory before His incarnation was incapable of suffering, because He was "over all, God blessed for ever" (Rom 9:5). But in His incarnation, Christ took to Himself a true body and a human soul, as He was "made of a woman" (Gal 4:4). He remains fully God. But He was no more God only. He was "God… manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim 3:16), and "in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col 2:9). He became the God-Man: fully God, fully man.

His Suffering Prophesied

About 700 years before Christ was born in a manger in Bethlehem, the Prophet Isaiah had prophesied about His birth and life in these words: "For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (Isa 53:2–3). Christ, the Messiah, would be a suffering Servant from the time of His birth. The Apostle Paul echoes this thought: "Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil 2:5–8).

His Suffering Not Natural

Most of us would think that since Christ became a man, it is natural that He should suffer. However, if we think further, we realise that this is not the case. All the suffering of man can be traced to the Fall of Adam when God pronounced: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen 3:17–19). All men, descending from Adam by natural generation, will suffer not only on account of the fact that Creation has been cursed because of Adam; but also on account of Original Sin—they being imputed with the guilt of Adam (Rom 5:12), and being sinners from the time of their birth (Ps 51:5; Job 14:4). In other words, all ordinary men not only suffer by necessity, but suffer on account of sin, they being under the wrath and curse of God, and so made liable to all miseries in this life (see WSC 19). But the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, and was neither imputed with Adam’s sin, nor did He inherit a sinful nature. He was "without sin" (Heb 4:15). He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb 7:26).

His Suffering From Infancy

Why then should Christ suffer? Most of us know that Christ died to pay for the penalty of sin on behalf of His Church (Jn 10:11, 15; 11:50–52; Rom 5:6–8; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Jn 3:16; and etc.). What we often fail to realise is that the sufferings of Christ on the Cross or in the events leading up to the Cross cannot be cleanly dichotomised from His sufferings throughout His earthly life. Christ was suffering for our sakes (i.e., vicariously) throughout His life. This suffering culminated at the Cross with His substitutionary atonement for His Church, and so the Cross is referred to in every account of the suffering of Christ, but it begins from the time He was born, as Isaiah suggests.

The suffering of Christ for our sakes is an intensifying one. He began to suffer in His infancy, and it increased more and more as He drew near to the Cross. Though little is known about Christ’s childhood, we can be quite sure that His suffering after He began His public ministry was more than before. And as His popularity increased so did His suffering, as more and more of the Jews heard Him or heard about Him, hated Him and plotted against Him. The Lord did not mitigate His messages with clever diplomacy which dilutes the truth. He was the most politically incorrect man. For this, He was hated. Why? "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (Jn 3:19). The more He spoke against sin and exposed hypocrisies, the more enemies He made, and the more enraged they became.

His Suffering Intensifying

Soon, death loomed at the horizon, and the Lord began to prepare His disciples for His death (Mt 16:21; 17:22; 20:18). Soon, the disciples began to realise it themselves that their Master’s life was in danger, so that when the Lord suggested that they go back to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples objected: "Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?" (Jn 11:8). The Lord admonished them gently. They went, but with a mixture of resignation and loyalty that is best expressed by Thomas’ words: "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (Jn 11:16).

We can only speculate on how the Lord must have felt in the last weeks leading up to the Cross. But surely real temptations to turn away from the course that would lead Him to the Cross would have assailed Him. For He "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15b). But as the days towards the Cross grew fewer and fewer, the Lord’s agony in anticipation of the Cross would have grown more and more intense.

Two days before the Lord was betrayed, He told His disciples: "Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified" (Mt 26:2). Contrary to what some may think, knowing the exact moment of one’s death is no comforting thought. This is especially so in the case of our Lord, who knew all things, He being fully God. He knew the kind of humiliation and pain that He would experience under the hands of the Roman soldiers. He knew that Isaiah 53:5 would be fulfilled in Him: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." He knew also that He would be betrayed not only by Judas Iscariot, but by His chief Apostle Peter (Mt 26:31–35). Humanly, Christ no doubt would have dreaded the thought.

But far worst than the physical torment, He knew that He was going to the Cross as a sinner in the sight of God—not for His own sin, but for the sin of His Church throughout the ages. He knew that God would lay upon Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). He knew also that God is of "purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab 1:13). He knew very well the words of Isaiah: "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isa 59:2). He knew that as He would be bearing the sin of the world, He would experience something painfully terrible and frightful, which He had never experienced before, namely, a diminishing of and finally being devoid of the consciousness of His own deity and of divine favour.

His Suffering in Gethsemane

This must have been the thought that drove Him to agonising prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. He had taken Peter, James and John with Him to the garden to pray with Him, but needed to pray alone, for He "began to be sorrowful and very heavy" (Mt 26:37). He told His disciples: "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me" (Mt 26:38). Going a distance from them, He fell on His face and, being in great agony, prayed so earnestly that "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Lk 22:44). His prayer, which He repeated three times, was: "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk 14:36). It was a simple prayer, but it revealed the great agony that our Lord was experiencing. It also revealed that Christ’s consciousness of His godhood was beginning to eclipsed by the fearful thought of abandonment on the Cross. "The weakness of the flesh, which was formerly concealed, shows itself, and the secret feelings are abundantly displayed" (Calvin).

Earlier, the Lord had comforted His disciples with the words: "Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me" (Jn 14:10–11a). While Christ has a single self-consciousness, He has two natures and two wills: one divine and the other human. His divine will is the same as the will of the Father because He is one in essence with the Father. Throughout His earthly sojourn, up to this point in the garden of Gethsemane, there is a consensus in His human will and divine will, so that His two wills are not distinguishable and so His work is the work of the Father. But now, for a moment, in His prayer, we see that His human will is distinguished from His divine will (which is the same as the will of His Father). Humanly, the Lord was tempted to shrink from the Cross. He overcame the temptation, of course. None of His affections were accompanied by sin, as Calvin has well stated: "Christ, amidst fear and sadness, was weak without any taint of sin; but that all our affections are sinful, because they rise to an extravagant height."

His Suffering Culminated on the Cross

Christ headed towards the Cross, and we see Him suffering in one way after another. First, He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot; second, He was arrested and bounded; third, His disciples forsook Him; fourth, He was tried before Annas where He was slapped by one of the officers; fifth, He was tried before Caiaphas, at which time Peter denied Him three times; sixth, He was brought before the Sanhedrin where false witnesses were brought against Him; seventh, He was tried before Pilate where He was again falsely accused of many things; eighth, He was tried before Herod Antipas where He was mocked and arrayed in purple; ninth, He was brought before Pilate again and was cruelly scourged with the ‘cat of nine tails’ and unjustly sentenced to crucifixion; tenth, He was stripped, forced to wear the crown of thorns, and mocked and spitted at by a whole band of Roman soldiers; eleventh, He was made to carry the cross along the via dolorosa until He stumbled under its weight; and twelve, His hands and feet were nailed to the cross and He was crucified between two thieves.

Our Lord hung on the cross from the third hour (9 am; Mk 15:25). At the sixth hour a deep darkness enveloped the land for the next three hours (Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44). This spell of darkness must have accentuated the Lord’s agony and fear, for at the ninth hour, He cried out with a loud voice: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46). The Lord was bearing the sin of His people. He was accounted a sinner for our sakes. But the thrice holy God is of "purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab 1:13), and so for a moment it was as if God had turned His face from Christ. For a moment, the God-Man was not conscious that He was God nor conscious of any divine favour. He cried out: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It was a cry of anguish, not of anger. It was a cry of distress, not of distrust. But it was a cry of infinite suffering nevertheless. He was suffering infinitely on account of sin not His own.

Many martyrs have been crucified as Christ was, or burned at the stake, and treated in a worst manner, humanly speaking; but yet their souls have not been so overwhelmed, nor their suffering so intense. Christ suffered as the God-Man, never man suffered in this way. As God is an infinitely just God, the intensity of His suffering had to be commensurate with the cumulative suffering which all the elect owe on account of sin.

Conclusion

Dearly beloved, words cannot fully describe how much Christ suffered in His life and death. As I began to write this article, I had a gnawing fear that I would not even have painted sufficiently any of the horrors that Christ experienced. As I end this article, I know my fears are founded. But it is my prayer that we will at least be made aware that Christ did not just suffer pain such as would be experienced by a martyr. No, He suffered much more. And He suffered for our sakes! May God grant us that our lives will be filled with gratitude and genuinely manifest a deep love towards the Lord Jesus Christ for all that He underwent and undertook for us. Amen.