Rev. Smit is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa.
Who can fathom the words, “He suffered”? These words concerning our suffering Savior are briefly explained in Lord’s Day 15 of the Heidelberg Catechism on the basis of the Scriptures. Having read and studied this exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, can you understand that the Son of God, who possesses all glory and power, and who is the righteous and holy One, suffered in the flesh? The God of all comfort, the Resurrection and the Life, the Light, suffered as though He were the unrighteous one under the curse of death in which He would be cast into outer darkness?
Surely, Scripture foretold that this suffering would come to pass. The Old Testament, and in particular passages like Isaiah 53, showed the nature and the extent of Christ’s suffering as determined by Jehovah. Yet, even reading it over and over a hundred times, who can fathom the words, “He suffered”? And then, having fathomed those words, what believer can also fathom the words, “He suffered for me”?
As we are humbled under the mighty hand of our heavenly Father, we do well to meditate on our Savior’s sufferings and how this truth affects our own sufferings.
The Scriptures declare that the man Jesus Christ suffered in our human nature. He suffered hunger, thirst, exhaustion, pain, and death in His body. In His body He suffered the reality of the weight of God’s wrath in His agony upon the cross. Christ also suffered in His soul. InIsaiah 53 we read that His soul was poured out like water upon the ground. His soul was gripped by the sorrows and miseries of this life. Just as we would grip a sponge with our hand and squeeze out all the water, so the sufferings of this life squeezed out of His soul all His life until His soul was completely dry, like the parched wilderness, in complete agony and absolute loneliness.
Except for a few breaks, like His transfiguration, Christ suffered in body and soul His entire earthly life. He was born into the suffering of poverty and the rejection of men. He suffered at His baptism because it signified the depths of suffering to which He would have to go. The water with which He was baptized signified that His own blood would have to be poured out as an atonement. Immediately after His baptism, Christ suffered because of the temptations of the Devil. Christ suffered rejection by many. In addition to that, Christ suffered even when He performed miracles. All His miracles constantly reminded Him more and more clearly of the absolute necessity of the miracle He had to accomplish on the cross. His touching of lepers and His fellowship with sinners reminded Him that He had taken upon Himself our spiritual sickness and disease in order to remove it through His atoning sacrifice. Finally, at the end of His life, Christ suffered betrayal, reproach, rejection, and the inexpressible anguish and torments of the cross.
In all of His suffering, the Righteous One in the flesh was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. From the viewpoint of His Father, Christ did enjoy blessedness in His earthly life. It was His joy to do the Father’s business. Nevertheless, the earthly life of the only begotten Son of God in the flesh was one of sorrow and grief. He had for lifelong companions: sorrow, misery, and grief.
Why did Christ suffer all of this? He suffered because He was accursed. He was declared to be guilty by God through Pilate. That meant that Christ as our Mediator became the object of God’s wrath. That meant that Christ had to dwell with that curse all the days of His earthly life. The result was that Christ’s earthly life was a hellish sojourn of punishment. It was a life which led and prepared Him for the accursed death of the cross.
Christ was cursed by God because of our sin. We sinned, not Christ. We went astray; Christ was always righteous and holy. We trespassed and transgressed completely. We are the sinners. All of our horrible sin, God laid upon Christ as our Scapegoat. As a result, Christ for only His people sojourned through a wilderness of being constantly prepared for the moment when He would suffer the full weight and force of God’s eternal wrath against our sin.
Christ suffered that willingly in order to free us from God’s wrath. He removed from you and me the curse that lay upon us; and, under that curse, He suffered all of it for us.
The knowledge of the curse is something with which we wrestle. As our sins rise up against us in our consciousness, we understand that our sin puts us on the wrong side of God’s righteous law. We understand that our sin justly deserves the penalty and punishment of God. The weight of the knowledge of that sin and the curse lay upon His soul. It often squeezes our soul like a crimping fist on a wet sponge.
Christ came into our flesh and walked a hellish sojourn in order to remove that curse which lay upon us. He took our place under that curse of God. In our place, He became the one upon whom God declared the eternal death sentence. Christ took our place in that spiritual spot where all of God’s wrath would be aimed and unleashed. Although our sin does merit the penalty and punishment of God’s wrath, Christ took that upon Himself and suffered the complete penalty and punishment for our sin.
In so doing, He freed us from that “severe judgment of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15, A. 38). That simply means that Christ freed us from going to hell. Because of Christ, there is no coming wrath upon the righteous in Christ. The curse is gone. The wrath has been removed completely from us.
In His suffering, Christ freely obtained for us the favor of God, righteousness with God, and eternal life. Once we were aliens of the Father’s House. But God, who is rich in mercy, made His only begotten Son an alien and an outcast of His own house in order that we might be called the sons of God and in that sonship inherit righteousness and everlasting life with the Father and enjoy His blessings in Christ Jesus.
For the suffering saint, this truth of Christ’s redemptive suffering assures him of the forgiveness of his sin. Certainly, we may suffer the consequences of our sin. That way of the chastising hand of the Father may be very difficult indeed. Nevertheless, the Father affirms that our sin is forgiven because Christ suffered for us. Because of Christ, our innocence before the Father remains unchangeable. This forgiveness the Lord freely gives, freely bestows, and freely establishes in us by His sovereign and almighty grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even when the Lord chastises us and so teaches us the blessedness of obedience, He does so in His love and favor.
Furthermore, the truth of Christ’s suffering assures the suffering saint that his earthly sufferings and afflictions have been changed by Christ.
Who of us has not wrestled, or does not wrestle, with the afflictions and sufferings of this life? It is especially in the midst of our suffering that we are prone to ask: Is the Father angry with me? Is His mercy gone? Is He punishing me with this affliction?
What are the answers to those questions?
Certainly, in those questionings, we are worthy of the Lord’s rebuke: “O ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” With that the Lord in His mercy also answers that, because of Him and His redemptive suffering, our suffering is a blessing for us!
How can being blind, childless, deaf, noticeably disfigured, unable to walk, full of cancer, in the darkness of depression, in the valley of the shadow of death, lonely, confined to waste away on a deathbed be a blessing? All our suffering from our afflictions and the battles with our sin… a blessing?
We cannot comprehend how all of our suffering is a blessing and works for our good.
But we do know this because Christ tells us so: our suffering is a blessing from the hand of our heavenly Father. Because Christ suffered punishment His whole life long for you and thereby removed the curse from you, the Father sent, sends, and will send suffering upon you as a blessing. Yes, the Father for Christ’s sake sends every one of them to you in His favor.
In His favor, the Father’s purpose of all our suffering is our present and everlasting good. The Father does not sovereignly send you suffering in this life to defeat and destroy you into everlasting misery. His purpose in leading you through suffering is victory, heavenly glory, and everlasting joy with our Lord Jesus Christ!
In that confident expectation of faith, we may then be assured that our present suffering is only temporary. In our impatience and in the weakness of our faith, not only do we easily lose sight of the truth that our suffering is a blessing, but we also lose sight of the promise that our suffering will cease very soon. Yes, cease soon it will—even that specific affliction which you must bear now to your grave at the appointed moment.
That moment has been established in Christ. Remember, Christ came to the end of His suffering. That moment came when on the cross He finished His suffering and when in body and soul He arose triumphantly in life and immortality. Because Christ finished His suffering for us and thereby redeemed us fully in body and soul, so there shall certainly come the moment when our suffering shall be finished, and we shall be delivered by our merciful and faithful Father to everlasting comfort and peace.
Suffering saint, there is certain hope under that pressing weight of your suffering! Because Christ suffered for you, your light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for you a far more exceeding weight of eternal glory! (II Cor. 4:17)