I Believe in: Suffering of Christ
I believe in...
...Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
We come to one of the most important parts of the Apostles creed. While everything in the creed is important, here we get into the crux of it. Our faith is about Jesus Christ. We are Christians. So what we believe about who Jesus is and what He did will influence every part of our faith.
This section of the creed, along with the next one, summarise the events that we celebrate at Easter. This is the high point of the church calendar! Everything that Jesus did in the flesh from incarnation to ascension is integral to accomplishing salvation, but this sequence of events over that fateful Passover a couple thousand years ago is the climax of salvation history. It is the key point on which all of history turns.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Jesus suffered. As Jesus himself said on several occasions: "The Son of Man must suffer many things" (Lk 9:22). Suffering was part of the programme, planned from long ago.
"He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain." (Is 53:3).
He suffered as an example for us (1 Pe 2:21), but most significantly He suffered in the place of the Christian: "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (1 Pe 3:18). He took our place. He took our position to suffer through shame and pain, ridicule and death, all to bring us to God.
We should suffer for our own sins - yet God loved us such that He would suffer in Himself to ensure that justice is met and grace poured out.
"He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross." (Col 2:13–14).
We'll come back to that cross in a moment, but before we do, what's with the mention of Pontius Pilate in the creed?
Well, this locates these events in time and history. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus, suffering to save His people, is not a mere spiritual concept. This was not merely a mythological or psychological phenomena that does not rely on fact for meaning, rather these events took place in time and space under the oversight of a real Roman prefect who really existed.
The ancient historians Philo, Josephus, Tacitus and Eusebius all testify to the existence and activities of Pontius Pilate from the time of Jesus. If that were not enough, we even have his name carved into a stone from the period where he is titled "Prefect of Judea".
Just as we often remember events in our own history on the basis of who was the king/queen/prime minister/premier of the day, so too the suffering of Christ happened in Judea while Pontius was prefect.
Jesus was crucified. This was a Roman form of execution where the criminal was nailed to a large wooden stake - usually with a cross piece, forming the classic cross symbol.
Once nailed there, the offenders were left exposed to the elements to die. With their arms outstretched they would have to pull against their hand/wrist wounds to take the weight off their feet wounds, or push against their feet to take the weight off the wrists.
On top of this, there was the indignity of being stripped of your clothes and not being able excuse oneself to perform bodily functions.
It was horrendous. It appears to have been used due to the fact it was a particularly awful, long way to die. It would have been a deterrent to insurrectionists and criminals.
They crucified Jesus between two criminals (Luke 23:32–33).
"anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse." (Dt 21:23).
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”" (Ga 3:13).
Although Christ was not a criminal, nor a sinner, He took on our sins, becoming a curse for us, suffering in our place, so that we might be freed from that sin and take on Christ's righteousness!
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Co 5:21).
Muslims famously object to the fact that Jesus died on the cross. They believe him to be a prophet, but not God incarnate or a divine being. It seems they feel the shame of such a death could not possibly be connected to a Prophet of God.
Yet the shame for such a perfect man was not the most outlandish aspect of these events.
It is very surprising that he would die, because he is God incarnate.
How can God die?
It is rather unsurprising that a man who had been beaten and tortured, then crucified, would die. But this was no ordinary man. He was the one through whom the world was created!
The death of God the Son is still somewhat a mystery to us, that creator of life could somehow enter into death. Yet it was the plan that the Father would send the Son to die.
"[Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Ac 2:23).
And in death Jesus was buried. He literally entered the grave with His body, while He spiritually entered the grave with His life.
"Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away" (Mt 27:59–60).
He was buried in the tomb of a rich man (fulfilling prophecy, e.g. Isaiah 53:9), but in the midst of those moments after Jesus died and was buried, all seemed lost. His followers forgot his promises of what would come next. It seemed like their hopes of a glorious Kingdom of God on earth under the reign of a Davidic king had been buried along with Jesus' cold dead body. Their Messiah had died.
Jesus went down into the grave.
(Reference: Massey, Michael Brandon. “Pontius Pilate.” Edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.)