READ : Isaiah 50:6
The entire life of Christ, from birth to death, can be summed up in one word – he suffered.
In the spring of 1885 Ulysses S. Grant was dying of a painful and incurable cancer. He had been president of the United States and, before that, the victorious commander of the Union army in the American Civil War. But now he was fighting his last battle against time. Mustering his strength, he worked determinedly, despite the pain, to complete his memoirs before death overtook him. During his last weeks Grant wrote to someone, “A verb signifies to be, to do, or to suffer. I signify all three.”
Those words could even more truly be said of Jesus Christ. If anyone’s life ever signified suffering, it was his. He knew by experience every kind of sorrow and grief. He felt the pain of loss and loneliness and rejection. The Apostles’ Creed, the most ancient summary of Christian belief, describes the entire earthly life of Jesus between his birth and death with just one word: he suffered.
When the Bible speaks of the suffering of Christ, it is referring above all to what happened to him at the end of his life in the experience Christians refer to as his passion (passio is Latin for “suffer”). The passion of Jesus Christ is the final torment he endured when he was condemned, tortured and crucified by the authorities in Jerusalem. This is the suffering to which Isaiah points in the heart of his 53rd chapter. He speaks in verse 5 of the wounding and the bruising of the Lord’s servant, the Messiah. He writes of the stripes that will be made on his back by the torturer’s lash. In these Old Testament verses, we see most clearly a portrait not just of the life but of the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
HOW HE SUFFERED: SPIRITUALLY
In his passion, Jesus suffered in three different ways. The most important and profound way he suffered was spiritually. The deepest pain he experienced was the agony of soul he underwent in paying the penalty of sin. This spiritual suffering was most clearly expressed in Jesus’ haunting cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When Jesus spoke those words he was doing more than just giving vent to his feelings or quoting words from the Bible; he was testifying to something that was actually happening. In some mysterious way beyond our understanding, beyond even our imagining, God had forsaken him. Jesus was experiencing hel – the absence of God – as the punishment of sin. But it was our sins he was paying for, not his own. As Isaiah had prophesied centuries before, “He was wounded for our transgressions . . . upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isa. 53:5). The suffering of Christ for the sins of the world is the very heart of the gospel. It is the core truth upon which the whole Christian faith rests, and we will consider it in more detail in a subsequent study.
. . . PHYSICALLY
If his spiritual agony was the most profound, Jesus’ physical pain was the most obvious way he suffered. From his arrest in the middle of the night to his crucifixion the following day, Jesus endured a physical torment rarely equaled and probably never surpassed in all of human experience. There were the minor hurts inflicted by rough handling: the stings of slaps and blows, the gashes inflicted by spiky thorns on his head and brow. Then there was the terribly brutal flogging with a Roman lash, made of strips of leather fastened to a handle with bits of metal or bone in the ends, and plied mercilessly across his back by a strong-armed legionnaire.
But all of this was merely a prelude to the unspeakable torture of crucifixion itself. It began with the searing shock of spikes pounded through skin, nerves, tendons and bone in wrists and feet, followed by wrenching, jarring pain as the cross was hoisted upright and fixed in place. But at that point the victim’s physical hell had only just started. His real agony built up over hours of trying to breathe while hanging suspended from his arms. The only way to postpone death by asphyxiation was by pushing oneself up on wounded feet and gasping for each breathe with aching lungs, which is why, when the Roman soldiers decided to finish a victim off, they moved in and broke his legs.
We ought not to forget that this is what Jesus actually suffered on the cross. He was a real man. Crucifixion was not somehow easier on him because he was God. He had a normal physiology, the same bones and muscles and ligaments and nerves we all have. His body reacted to the cross just as ours would have done. His nervous system sent the same signals to the brain’s pain center in response to the horrific stimuli it received. Trauma, loss of blood, and shock produced a fever that parched his throat, tormenting him with an unbearable thirst – exactly as would have happened if you or I hung there on that cross. Jesus truly suffered in body as well as soul; his physical pain was all too real. There was nothing illusory about the cross; the crucifixion of Christ was not a divine “special effect.”
It is interesting, though, that the New Testament writers don’t make a great deal of Jesus’ physical suffering on the cross. They never dwell on it; in fact, they consistently understate it. There are no lurid details in the gospel history, no vivid descriptions of torture, pain and blood. Those things all come much later in Christian art and popular piety. In fact, Jesus’ blood is not even mentioned in the gospel account until after his death, when his body was pierced by a spear – and it’s only mentioned there as confirmation that he had really died.
. . . AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY
I said before that Jesus’ passion involved three different kinds of suffering and so far I have only mentioned two: his physical suffering from the Roman torture and execution, and the spiritual suffering involved in paying the penalty of God’s judgment upon sin. You might find the third form of his suffering surprising. It was psychological. In addition to all the pain he felt in body and soul, Jesus also was forced, right up to the moment of his death, to endure mocking and humiliation.
Isaiah had prophesied that Christ would be subjected to taunts, insults, scorn and spitting during his passion. In chapter 50, the prophet is quoting the Messiah’s words:
The Lord God opened my ears and I did not disobey or turn back in defiance. I offered my back to the lash, and let my beard be plucked from my chin, I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
(vv. 5,6 reb)
And this is exactly what happened to Jesus. It began at his hearing before the high priest, where the bystanders blindfolded him, then struck him and called upon him to prophesy which one of them had hit him. A hilarious joke on the upstart prophet from Galilee!
The jeering really got going in the Roman governor’s courtyard after Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate. First came the flogging. Then the soldiers decided to have some fun with him, so they dragged him to his feet, jammed a “crown” of sharp thorns down on his head, draped a cloak over his lacerated shoulders and shoved a stick into his hand to complete the mock coronation. Somehow these Roman legionnaires had picked up on the charge that Jesus was a sort of king, so they were indulging in crude barracks’ humor at his expense. “They began to salute him,” states Mark the evangelist in his account of the passion:
Hail, king of the Jews!” They beat him about the head with a stick and spat at him, and then knelt and paid homage to him. When they had finished their mockery, they stripped off the purple robe and dressed him in his own clothes.
(Mark 15:18-20, reb)
The taunting of Jesus didn’t end there. It continued even on the cross, where most of the onlookers joined in.
The passers-by wagged their heads and jeered at him: “Bravo!” they cried, “So you are the man who was to pull down the temple, and rebuild it in three days! Save yourself and come down from the cross.” The chief priests and scribes joined in, jesting with one another: “He saved others,” they said, “but he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the king of Israel, come down now from the cross. If we see that, we shall believe.” Even those who were crucified with him taunted him.
Mark 15:29-32, reb
Anyone who has ever been helplessly made fun of or been the butt of cruel jokes knows exactly what Jesus suffered. Anyone who has had to stand there while the crowd was laughing at him, and the laughter was mean-spirited and vicious, knows what Jesus went through. This is neither the most profound nor the most obvious form of Jesus’ suffering, but it is the one we can most easily identify with.
As I reflect upon the passion of Jesus Christ, I must confess once more to being astonished at all he endured. The truth is, he didn’t have to go through any of it. When the crowd mockingly urged him to come down from the cross, he could have done so. Do you think a few nails could have held back one whom the grave itself could not contain? But he chose to stay. He suffered voluntarily. He displayed not only infinite love but perfect patience and self-restraint.
Remember this the next time you suffer humiliation. Whenever I sense that I’m being mocked or insulted, I react with anger. I feel rage and a desire to hit back, if not literally then at least verbally. But Jesus has left us a different example, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23, niv).
But there’s more to it even than that. Jesus has not only borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and transgressions, he has also taken our humiliation upon himself. All cruel mockery is, at bottom, devilish, not only because it hurts, but because it offers an echo of Satan the accuser. (We would do well to remember this the next time we are tempted to ridicule another person.) The devil inspires taunting because he seeks always to humiliate, expose, embarrass, shame, and eventually to destroy us. But Jesus has taken even this upon himself for our sake. By his passion and death on the cross, Jesus has silenced forever the accuser; no one now can bring any charge against those who belong to Christ (see Rom. 8:33). Because he suffered humiliation for us, we will never endure eternal shame.
Can you possibly thank him enough for everything that he has done for you?