This article is “part 3” of a series on the cross of Christ, answering the question, “What happened on the cross?”
But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.Isaiah 53:10a
In His crucifiction, Christ propitiated the anger God held for the sins which Christ was blamed. “God displayed [Christ] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:25a). A “propitiation” is a sacrifice that appeases wrath. God put Christ on the cross (Acts 2:23) in order to publicly manifest Him as a sacrificial lamb satisfying the Law’s demand for the death of sinners.
Old Covenant offerings, as prescribed by God, were a pleasing aroma to God (e.g. Leviticus 1:9). In like manner, Christ’s death was a pleasing aroma to God, in the sense that it appeased His thirst for justice. “And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2).
More than the Roman nails, the Jewish scoffing, the thieves’ taunting, Christ suffered the true wrath of God. Isaiah foretold this: “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10a). As a grain of wheat is rolled between two great millstones, so Christ was crushed. As a small animal is toppled by a bursting dam, so Christ was destroyed. As a lamb is strapped to the altar and put beneath the edge of a knife, so Christ was killed.
It is important to see the relationship between Christ being “Declared a Sinner” and “Treated as a Sinner.” He was not aimlessly and accidently treated in such a way. He was crushed under God’s wrath because He was declared guilty for sin. For those sins imputed to Christ, He received full compensation.
The suffering Christ experienced was not a blind bet, as though to estimate how much righteous indignation would be provoked by sin. Nor was His suffering an intentional overestimate, so as to bury a hatchet that would one day be dug-up and used again. Rather, His suffering was a calculated punishment, in accordance with the guilt pronounced on Him: guilt for specific sins.
Thus, technically speaking, the weight of wrath under which Christ was crushed could have been lighter or heavier, depending on the quantity and quality of sin He was blamed for. However, such a calculation is beyond our own estimates and understanding. For not only are our many sins unquantifiable and unsearchable, but further, one sin is deserving of an eternal measure of wrath, such that to remove or add any is not a helpful or understandable consideration.
In His crucifiction, Christ propitiated the anger God held for the sins which Christ was blamed. I do not know what the full, untampered wrath of God felt like upon the cross. I am at a loss for how to describe it, other than to point you towards Scriptural examples.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; He dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; the blossoms of Lebanon wither. Mountains quake because of Him and the hills dissolve; indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence, the world and all the inhabitants in it. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him.Nahum 1:4-6
Then the kings of the earth and the great man and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”Revelation 6:15-17
What horrors were thrown upon Jesus? What agony did He experience? Scripture clearly explains that something crushed Christ, distinct from the relational abandonment and Roman torture He experienced. That the details of His divine suffering remain somewhat mysterious to us is a merciful ignorance. If one desires to know, he may spurn the blood of the Covenant and leap towards Hell. There in the flames, sulphur, darkness, unquenchable thirst, and gnashing of teeth, he may find an answer. By God’s grace, some of us shall never know the depths of Christ’s agony.
A chalice is used in Scripture to represent God’s anger against the wicked and their deeds. “For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, and the wine foams; it is well mixed, and He pours out of this; surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs” (Psalm 75:8). “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the Lord’s hand the cup of His anger; the chalice of reeling you have drained to the dregs” (Isaiah 51:17). (footnote 1)
In Gethsemane, Christ thrice prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:36-46). Such language correlates Christ’s suffering on the cross with Biblical expressions of God’s fierce and tangible hatred against sin.
Christ, in obedience to the will of His Father (John 3:16; Philippians 2:5-8), willingly and freely put Himself beneath the full weight of Heavenly justice, as it poured forth from the battlements of Zion. He truly suffered, truly died, and truly appeased the wrath He received in such manner that it does not persist beyond His blood. He drank the chalice of God’s wrath, meant for the sins of His people, to the dregs.
Christ suffered to such an effect due to the substitutionary and divine qualities of His death. We will consider Christ as a substitute in the next chapter, so for now let us focus upon the divine. For anyone thinking metaphysically, alarm may sound at the notion that God the Son died on the cross. Yet this truth is necessary, reasonable, and merciful.
First, the death of Christ, the incarnate God, was necessary in respect to the weight of sin He bore. Christ’s lot was one of eternal torment, a million times over, in several hours. The multitude no man can number stands before the throne only because the Lamb bore their sins, which more-so cannot be numbered (Revelation 7:9). If one man were subjected to such torment, a mere son of Adam, he would be dismembered and obliterated before the task was complete. Christ, the incarnate God, was not a mere son of Adam. In order to finish the work, His humanity was strengthened by (not mixed with) His divinity. Christ was not simply passive, therefore, upon the cross, suffering the wrath of God due sinners. Rather, Christ was perpetually strengthening Himself to bear the full weight of His people’s sin.
Second, the death of Christ, the incarnate God, was reasonable – which is to say, there is nothing illogical therein. First, death is not the cessation of existence. A man does not cease to be when he dies, but his body no longer lives. In death, believers are at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8 ESV). Second, when we say “Christ died,” we do not mean His divine nature suffered loss. God by definition cannot experience pain or undergo suffering. The Messiah is God and man in hypostatic union. This is not to say He is 100% God and 100% man, or “fully God, fully man.” These descriptions are incorrect and nonsensical. Rather, we say Christ is truly God, truly man. His divinity and humanity occupy distinct categories, such that they never mix nor infuse, in any way. This is how Christ could live life as a man yet remain very God of God – He chose never to assert His divinity. Therefore, as the Messiah breathed His last on the cross, His body truly and actually died but His divinity experienced no loss or death.
Third, the death of Christ, the incarnate God, was merciful, for as God He had every right to refuse such suffering. Rather than assert His prerogatives as God, He took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7 ESV) and subjected Himself to death on a cross (v.8). This is the grace of condescension, which is the bedrock mercy of all blessings we enjoy. From the beginning of time, every interaction we have had with God – every glimpse of His majesty, every glorious revelation – has been an act of divine, merciful condescension. The sovereign Creator stoops low to fellowship with the lowly creature. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:18 ESV). “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (19:11 ESV).
John elsewhere reveals the identity of Who Isaiah saw in his vision (Isaiah 6:1-5). The holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts (v.3), who rightfully receives the praise and worship of heaven (vv.2-4), is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him,” (John 12:41 ESV). Isaiah saw Christ’s glory – the majesty of his Creator – and immediately recognized his sinfulness. So he pronounced a curse on himself: “Woe is me!” Hundreds of years later, on a wooden cross in the eastern corner of the Roman empire, Christ would silence Isaiah and take up the task Himself. “I shall be cursed, you shall be blessed. I shall be pitied – in you My Father shall exult. I shall be humiliated, you shall be exalted. My lot shall be confusion, frustration, and destruction; yours shall be wisdom, delight, and life. I shall have pestilence and disease, drought and dust; you shall have health and cool rain, warmth and comfort.”
Christ, our God, became accursed for us on the cross. What else can we do but praise Him? What sacrifices should we offer to Him in worship, but our lives and whole-hearted obedience? Who has ever loved us so? What better friend have we found in all the world? What a terrible thing He endured – freely, willingly, humbly, voluntarily.
Footnote 1: See also Job 21:20, Psalm 11:6, 60:3, 63:6, Jeremiah 25:15, 49:12, Revelation 14:10, 16:19.