READ : Isaiah 53:3-6
There is one other word that sums up for Christians the entire life of Christ, and it’s one that might not readily occur to us. It is the word suffering.
Have you ever played “word-association”? That’s where I say a word and you say the first word that comes to mind. So what would be the first word that would come to your mind if I said “Jesus Christ”? There are a lot of good possibilities: God, Savior, Lord; love, grace, holy. But there is one other word that sums up for Christians the entire life of Christ, and it’s one that might not readily occur to us. It is the word suffering.
In the Apostles’ Creed Christians say together what we believe about Jesus Christ. We believe that he is God’s only Son, our Lord. We believe that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. We believe that he was crucified and buried, and also that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and finally that he is coming again to judge all the living and the dead. But in between all those great, miraculous words describing Christ’s divine identity and saving work, we confess one other truth about him. We confess our faith that he “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” One single word in the Creed, and only one, to sum up the entire life of Christ — and it’s the word suffered. He was born, he suffered, and he died. That’s it for Jesus’ life, as far as the Apostles’ Creed is concerned.
Now in saying this, of course, in summarizing our faith this way we don’t mean to say that nothing else about the life of Christ matters, that his words of truth and acts of compassion and miraculous works are all unimportant. We’re not rejecting the Sermon on the Mount, for example, or disregarding Jesus’ ministry of compassion. It’s just that, when you are paring things down to the absolute essentials about Jesus Christ, when you are committing to memory the handful of crucial verbs that describe his saving acts, then “suffered” has to be one of them. This is the most important thing there is to know about the life of Jesus Christ.
A Man of Sorrows
In isolating this fact about Jesus the Creed is simply following the testimony and example of the biblical witnesses to him. Think, for example, of the moving portrait of the coming Messiah in the 53rd chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah:
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hid their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
Listen to how the prophet piles up the tortured verbs and the awful nouns that paint the picture of a pain-filled life: despised, rejected, stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, crushed; sorrows, grief, chastisement, stripes. As the old gospel hymn exclaims,
“Man of Sorrows,” what a name!
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim,
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
The New Testament Gospels focus equally upon the suffering of Jesus. In Latin, the word for suffering is passio, or passion: the passion of Jesus Christ. That refers to the events of the last few days of his life, culminating in his betrayal, arrest, condemnation, scourging, and crucifixion. These are the events dramatized in the famous “Passion Play” of Oberammergau, or in Mel Gibson’s remarkable film, “The Passion of the Christ.” And it is just here, on these terrible, brutal, bloody last hours of Jesus’ life, that the Creed and the Gospels all tell us our attention should be fixed. This is what the four Gospels themselves do. They tell us about the wonderful words and works of Christ, true, but they do so by way of introduction to a more important subject. Jesus’ birth, his teaching, his miracles, his parables, his signs and his sermons — all serve as a preamble to the drama of his suffering and death, his passion. In fact, someone has described the four Gospels as passion stories with extended introductions. Each Gospel writer devotes anywhere from a third to a half of his space to the account of just the last few days and hours of Jesus’ life.
Wounded for our Transgressions
So Jesus’ suffering is first of all a matter of biographical fact. It happened throughout his whole life. Jesus knew what it was like to be cold and hungry and tired. He knew what pain felt like, both physical pain and the deeper hurt of heart and mind and spirit. He was misunderstood by his own family, betrayed by one close to him, and abandoned by most of his friends in the hour of his greatest need. But especially at the very end. He knew depths of suffering that no one else has ever shared. The crowds he had taught and fed and healed turned against him. The religious and political leaders of his society conspired to destroy him, and he was finally tortured and executed in the most hideous way.
But beyond all this, scripture tells us, the deepest of all his anguish and suffering was the fact that God had laid on him the iniquity of us all. And all of this happened to one who, we believe and confess, was at the same time the Son of God and the Lord of the universe. This is an astonishing thing to say. It’s another reason why I don’t think anyone could ever have invented the gospel story. There were plenty of mythical tales in the ancient world that talked of gods assuming human form and living for a time in the world of men. But their humanity was always apparent, not real, and they always came to inflict punishment and pain, not to accept it. The ancient pagan gods were invulnerable to human suffering. The real God, when he came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, was not.
The most important point, though, is not that Jesus’ life was marked by various kinds of sorrow and pain, but the reason this was so. The real issue, you see, is not just that he suffered but why he suffered. To understand that we have to ask a prior question: Why does anyone suffer? In other words, why is there so much trouble and hurt in the world? Why is life so painful, so often, for so many? It seems like something is wrong with the world. All of us long for love and peace and health and happiness, and instead we find, all too often, brokenness, disappointment, grief, sickness, and loss. The short answer why this is so is sin. Humanity has turned against God the Creator, and we live now in rebellion against him.
The results are plain: estrangement from God, animosity between people, and even disruption in the creation itself. We have sown the seeds of sin, and we reap a harvest of tears and death.
But this is the gospel message: God in Christ has become one of us. In the man Jesus of Nazareth God himself entered our broken, grief-stricken world to share our suffering. Because of that our God knows first-hand what it’s like to hurt. “We do not have a high priest” (that is, a Savior), says the writer of the Hebrews, “who is unable to sympathize with [us]” (Hebrews 4:15). But more than that, Christ came to identify with us in suffering, and in doing that he has taken our suffering, all of the bitter fruit of humanity’s rebellion upon himself. When Jesus accepted baptism in the Jordan River at the hands of John the Baptist he did so, not because he had sins to repent of, but in order to identify with his sinful people. In becoming one of us Jesus takes all that sin and its wages upon himself. And not just ours only. “Behold the Lamb of God,” said this same John the Baptizer, “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). When we by faith identify ourselves with this Lamb of God, then we are united with him in his suffering and death, and our sins are taken away forever.
Under Pontius Pilate
There is one more thing to notice about our creed. Did you ever notice that besides Jesus, two and only two people are mentioned by name in the Apostles’ Creed. One of those is his mother, the blessed Virgin Mary. But the other one is his judge: “Jesus,” we say every time we confess our faith, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” What a thing to be remembered for! Pilate was the man who, though he knew better, caved in to the pressure of worldly fear and condemned the Son of God. In a real sense you and I face the same decision Pilate did. “What shall I do with . . . the king of the Jews?” he cried (Mark 15:12). So we too must choose. We can reject him, turn away from him, condemn him all over again. Or we can identify with him, joining what the apostle called “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). That’s a choice that could possibly result in even more suffering for us here on earth, but it is also the way that leads to eternal life.