The Day God Died: “Crucified, Died”
March 21, 2004
The Apostles’ Creed contains four phrases that refer to the death of Jesus Christ:
Descended into Hell.
If you think about it, this seems redundant, especially in a Creed where the entire Christian faith is presented in approximately 110 words. Why are six words used to describe the death of Christ when one would have told the story—”died.” Why doesn’t the Creed simply say “suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, on the third day he rose from the dead?” What additional truth is added by the piling up of phrases relating to his death? Consider the first three phrases: “crucified, died, buried.” Repeat that out loud several times:
If you say it rapidly, it sounds like a hammer nailing the lid of a coffin. It’s meant to sound that way so that we will pause to think about what actually happened to our Lord. Since the Creed uses four phrases to describe the death of Christ, we’re going to take our time to consider what they mean. Today we’ll consider the first two words: “crucified, died.” Next week we’ll look at just one word: “buried.” Then in two weeks we’ll discuss the most controversial phrase in the entire Creed: “descended into hell.”
But for the moment let’s ask again why the Creed describes the death of Christ in four different ways. If you study the history of the Christian church, you discover that from the very beginning, there have always been critics and skeptics who attacked Christianity by claiming that Jesus never rose from the dead. There are various ways to make that claim, one of them being that Jesus was never really dead. While that may sound odd to us, in the early church a group of people called the Gnostics claimed that Jesus never really died in the literal sense. They said the Spirit of God entered Jesus at his baptism and left before his crucifixion. They concocted this theory because they couldn’t conceive of the Son of God literally dying on the cross.
Hundreds of years later the prophet Mohammed gave birth to the religion of Islam, which teaches that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. When I had my radio discussion with the Muslim cleric shortly before Christmas, he made that exact statement on the air. He said that the Koran states that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross. This of course means that since he didn’t really die, he didn’t really rise from the dead. Muslim scholars differ over what exactly happened to Jesus. Some say that at the last second, another person took his place on the cross—perhaps Judas, perhaps Simon of Cyrene. They suggest that God cast a spell over the enemies of Jesus so the switch could take place without them knowing about it. That’s a clever idea with absolutely no basis in historical fact.
About 30 years ago a man named Hugh Schonfield wrote a widely-read book called The Passover Plot. He claims that Jesus never really died on the cross. He fainted or swooned or passed out from the beatings and the crucifixion so that the disciples and the Jews and the Romans all thought he was dead when his body was taken down from the cross. Later when his body was placed in the cool tomb, he revived, regained his strength, cleaned himself off, somehow rolled the massive stone away, and walked out on Sunday morning, looking fresh, healthy, strong, revived, and totally recovered—so much so that his disciples mistakenly thought he had risen from the dead. That theory is both ingenious and preposterous. If you understand the brutal nature of crucifixion, you must conclude that it takes more faith to believe that than to believe than Jesus actually died and rose from the dead.
I. The Certainty of His Death
On Friday morning I got a call from Moody radio asking if I would do an interview on Primetime America that afternoon. Since Holy Week is only a few days away, they wanted me to talk about Lent and what it means for evangelical Christians. I told them I would be glad to do that. After I hung up, I realized that there was only one tiny problem. I was raised Southern Baptist, which meant that when I grew up, we never even heard the word Lent and never observed it in any form. So I did what I usually do in situations like this—I turned to the Internet for the help I needed. It took me only a couple of minutes to find the online Catholic Encyclopedia. I quickly learned more about Lent than I had known in my entire life. Basically I discovered that the tradition of observing Lent is very ancient. It has its roots in the earliest days of the Christian church when the weeks leading up to Easter were used to prepare new converts for baptism. This included a time of spiritual preparation and fasting that eventually included the whole congregation. Over the centuries a variety of elaborate traditions and customs developed in various branches of the Christian church. Even to this day, Lenten customs vary widely around the world. When Greg Wheatley interviewed me, I commented that while there is no biblical command to observe Lent, the concept of preparing oneself spiritually for the events of Holy Week is certainly commendable. Since we are told to follow in the steps of Jesus (I Peter 2:21), it is reasonable for Christians to journey with Jesus as he makes his way to the cross. The concept of “giving up” something for Lent is really beside the point. We face a deeper problem in that the world is too much with us and we are too much with the world. Anything that helps us break the stranglehold of the world will ultimately bring us closer to God.
When Greg asked me how the movie “The Passion of the Christ” had impacted my spiritual preparations for Good Friday and Easter, I told him that after seeing the movie, I kept finding myself drawn not to the gospels, but to Isaiah 53—the greatest Old Testament description of our Lord’s death. That chapter emphasizes God’s activity in the events surrounding the crucifixion. It was the Lord who laid on Jesus the sins of us all. Isaiah 53:10 says that the Lord was pleased to crush his own Son. I ponder that word “pleased” and wonder what it means. What sort of father would be pleased to crush his son? There are only two choices here. Either the father hates his own son and wishes to see him suffer, or the father understands that the suffering is necessary to gain some greater good that cannot come any other way. In the case of Christ, the Father ordains the death of his Son in order that salvation might come to the world. And the Son willingly goes as a lamb to the slaughter. He endures the cross and despises the shame, looking to the joy that will come later through the redemption of the world (Hebrews 12:1-2). He enters the crucible of eternal pain because in the end, “when he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11 NLT). This truth has come home to me in a new way this year. What happened to Jesus did not happen by accident or even by the fortuitous combination of circumstances. All of it came to pass by God’s predetermined plan. He was crucified because God willed that his Son be crucified. He died because God willed it to be so. He was buried because God ordained that his Son be buried. He fully entered into the realm of death—not by accident but by divine design. The writers of the Apostles’ Creed understood this and that’s why they used four phrases to describe his death.
Did Jesus Really Die?
If we ask the question, “did Jesus really die?” the New Testament offers a clear, unambiguous answer. First, Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death. In Matthew 20:18-19 he told his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” He was even more specific in Mark 10:33-34, “We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.” Nothing that happened to Jesus was a surprise to him. He saw it all coming, knew it was part of the Father’s plan for him, and warned his disciples about what would happen to him in Jerusalem.
Second, Pilate delivered Jesus over to be crucified. Although he tried to wash his hands of any guilt, he could not wash the blood of Jesus away. He knew what he was doing when he caved in to the crowd. They wanted Jesus dead—and he gave in to their hatred and bloodlust.
Third, the Romans designed crucifixion as a particularly terrible way to die. Over the centuries, the Romans developed a number of ways to kill people. Of the various options, crucifixion was the worst, reserved for the worst criminals and for traitors against the state. No Roman citizen could be crucified—and no freedman either. It is said that the Romans crucified 250,000 Jews. Sometimes we read the gospels and think that what happened to Jesus was a unique form of punishment. Actually it was so common that on some occasions the Romans crucified hundreds of people at a time. If they desired to send a message to a rebellious populace, they might crucify men without first scourging them so they would last longer on the cross. Some men would hang in agony for 24, 48, or even 72 hours—exposed to the elements, to the wild animals, to the birds that might peck their eyes out—and exposed to passers-by who would taunt them as they screamed and as their loved ones watched in horror.
Fourth, the Romans scourged Jesus as part of the preparation for crucifixion. This involved beating him with wooden rods and with leather belts embedded with pieces of stone, metal and glass. The beating not only weakened the victim, it lacerated him until his flesh hung in tatters.
Fifth, the centurions declared that Jesus was already dead—which is why they didn’t break his bones. The centurions were professional soldiers who didn’t care about Jesus one way or the other. They had a job to do and they did it. Over time they became good judges of the people they crucified. They knew the difference between a coma and death. After all Jesus had been through, they knew he could not possibly be alive. They saw him die, they knew he was dead, and they declared him dead.
Sixth, the soldiers pierced his side with a spear to be certain he was dead. Most authorities believe the “water and blood” that gushed forth came from the sac around Jesus’ heart. The effusion of liquid provided another proof he was dead.
Seventh, the women prepared his body for burial following accepted Jewish practices. This involved cleaning the body (a difficult job because of Jesus’ many wounds), wrapping it tightly with a linen cloth, and sprinkling spices and aromatic resins between the linen wrappings. The spices and resins hardened to form a kind of cocoon around the dead body both to preserve it and to deter grave robbers.
Eighth, the tomb was sealed with an enormous boulder weighing 3-5 tons.
Ninth, the Roman guard at the tomb ensured that no one could attempt to steal the body.
Tenth, on Saturday night the Romans, the Jewish leaders, and the disciples agreed on just one point—Jesus was dead. No one believed for a moment that he had somehow survived the beating, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the severe blood loss, the exhaustion, the crucifixion, the exposure, the incredible physical suffering, and the gradual collapse of all his bodily systems. Jesus didn’t die in some corner. He died in public, outside the walls of Jerusalem, surrounded by soldiers who had seen many men die, with his mother nearby, the Jewish leaders watching, and a large crowd of onlookers. No one could have faked his own death in that situation. Jesus was truly dead. All the evidence points in that direction—and the evidence is overwhelming.
The Romans were good at killing people. It was one of their specialties. They knew the difference between a dead man and an unconscious man.
I realize that in a sense, I am “preaching to the choir.” We don’t think much about this question because it’s not a question at all to those who read the gospels. And for those of us who have seen “The Passion of the Christ,” we know the truth because we were forced to watch it in horrifying detail. Whatever else you may think about the movie, remember this. It’s just a movie. What actually happened to Jesus was much, much worse.
II. The Significance of His Death
Let’s take a quick look at six verses from Hebrews 9 & 10 that reveal the true significance of Jesus’ death.
A) No blood, no forgiveness. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
B) Animal blood won’t do. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
C) Jesus sacrificed himself for us. “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
D) His sacrifice takes away our sin. “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Hebrews 9:28).
E) There is only one sacrifice for sin. “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12).
F) His sacrifice makes us holy. “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).
Ponder these verses and consider their cumulative impact:
No blood, no forgiveness … animal blood won’t do … Christ took away sin by sacrificing himself … His sacrifice takes away our sin forever … He died once to take away our sin … His sacrifice makes us holy. Thus we see the centrality of the cross. Start anywhere in the Bible and the result is the same—all roads lead inexorably to the cross. The cross is God’s solution to man’s sin. And since sin is the ultimate problem of the human race, the cross is God’s ultimate answer.
There is one sacrifice for sin—and only one.
That sacrifice was offered once for all time—never to be repeated.
Jesus offered himself to take away sin—no one else could do what he did.
His sacrifice solves the sin problem—there is no other solution.
His sacrifice makes us holy—there is no other way to be holy.
The death of Jesus Christ is therefore the most important event in world history. Everything before it leads up to it. Everything after it looks back upon it. Nothing else that has ever happened has had the impact of the cross of Jesus Christ. How important is it? We see the answer in our day. Mel Gibson makes a movie about the death of Jesus—and people can’t stop talking about it.
Let’s wrap things up with three statements of application:
1) God only has one plan of salvation for the whole human race.
There is one plan—and only one.
2) There is only one way to heaven—Jesus Christ our Lord.
There is one plan and one way—no other plan, no other way.
3) There is only one sacrifice that can take away our sin and make us holy.
One plan, one way, one man, one sacrifice. That’s the real meaning of these verses. That’s why the writer of Hebrews repeats it over and over again. Jesus was offered once for all as God’s perfect sacrifice that takes away our sin. He alone can make us holy. In case we miss the point, Hebrews 10 even quotes a famous passage (famous to first-century Jews, at least) from Jeremiah 31, where God promises two wonderful gifts to his people: “‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:16-17). Since this may not be as clear to us as it was to the original readers, let me lay it out this way:
Jeremiah 31 (written 500 years before the birth of Christ) is quoted in
Hebrews 10 (written around AD 65) to help us understand
what the cross of Christ (AD 33)
means in 2004.
You have an Old Testament quotation used in the New Testament to explain the death of Christ so that 2,000 years later we would know what it really means for us. The whole point is that the death of Christ procures two things for us we could not get any other way:
1) A brand-new heart (the law written in our hearts),
2) Total forgiveness (God remembers our sins no more).
And that’s why verse 18 tells us that where sin is forgiven (through the death of Christ), “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” Jesus has done everything necessary for your sins to be forgiven. If his death is not enough for you, there isn’t a Plan B. God doesn’t say, “If you don’t like what my Son did for you, can I interest you in some other religion? How about some animal sacrifice? Maybe you’d like to be a Hindu or a Buddhist and see if that works out.” No, it doesn’t work that way. If Jesus isn’t enough for you, God has nothing else to offer. If you refuse to come to Christ as Lord and Savior, then the door of heaven will remain shut to you.
Now that Jesus has died, no other sacrifice is necessary. None will be accepted. None is possible. It’s Jesus only and only Jesus. Without his death, there is no forgiveness, no salvation, and no hope of heaven.
Do you want to go to heaven? If the answer is yes, then here are three things you need to know. First, you can’t do it on your own. You can try, but you will surely fail. You will “die trying.” Self-effort will get you nowhere—in fact, you will end up farther from heaven than you are today. You cannot make your own way to heaven. God won’t allow it, and you can’t do it. Second, God has done it for you. This is the wonderful, life-saving good news of the gospel. What you could not do for yourself, God has done for you through Jesus Christ his only Son. In his bloody death on the cross, Jesus paid the full price for your sins. That’s what he meant when he cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). The work of salvation has been completed. Nothing can be added to the value of what Jesus did when he died on the cross. The price has been paid; our Lord has taken our punishment upon himself. The heavy blows of judgment fell on the Lamb of God.
Third, when you come to Jesus, his blood washes away your sin. Yesterday, my wife Marlene spent several hours cleaning out several closets. When she was finished, she put a few printed items on our dining room table that she happened to find while she was going through the closets. When I looked at the items, I saw the folder from Gary Olson’s memorial service in November, 1999. It had his picture on the front and the order of service inside. I hadn’t seen it in over four years. Almost immediately a memory came floating back to me. Just before I delivered the message that day, Gary Pigg sang. He and Gary Olson had been good friends, and although he had moved to Nashville, it happened that he was in town the week Gary died suddenly, so Dawn Olson asked him to sing. A few minutes before the service started, as Marlene and I walked through the chapel area, we saw Gary Pigg trying to decide what song to sing. After we talked for a moment, Marlene said, “Gary was a simple man who loved gospel music. Sing something with the gospel in it.” We walked on into the Sanctuary and the service started a few minutes later. Eventually the time came for Gary Pigg to sing. I’ll never forget what he did. As the piano played in the background, he walked to the front of the platform and said, “I’m going to sing a question to you, and I want you to sing the answer back to me.” Then he began to sing, “What can wash away my sin?” And the whole congregation—hundreds of people—sang in reply, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “What can make me whole again?” Again the answer came, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Then Gary sang the chorus,
Oh, precious is the flow,
That makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Have your sins been washed away by the blood of Jesus? If so, then rejoice and give thanks to God. But if the answer is no, or if you are not sure, open your heart to Jesus Christ. Come to Jesus now. Run to the cross. Don’t walk—run to the cross! Embrace the bloody cross of Jesus. Lay hold of Christ by faith. Trust the One who shed his blood for you. May God help you to do it—and do it now.
Gracious God, as we contemplate these simple words, open our eyes to see the wonders of your grace. Help us to believe the facts of your gospel and to embrace your only Son, Jesus Christ, as our Lord and Savior. May those who know him love him more and more. Draw the lost to Jesus and please, Lord, do it now, for Christ’s sake, Amen.