Ques. 39. Is there anything more in His being crucified, than if He had died some other death?
Ans. Yes (there is); for thereby I am assured that He took on Him the curse which lay upon me: for the death of the cross was accursed of God.
Ques. 44. Why is there added, ‘He descended into hell”?
Ans. That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell. Heid. Cat. Lord’s Days 15 and 16.
“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” Gal. 6:14
The world glories in her life of shame, the Pharisee in his self-righteousness, the false teacher in the number of those whom he has deceived. But as for the apostle Paul, there is only one thing in which he glories, namely, the cross of Jesus Christ! This confession the Holy Spirit laid on the lips of our fathers who composed these beautiful statements mentioned above. Thereby we also learn to confess: I am assured!
I am assured that my Lord Jesus Christ took my curse upon Himself, and delivered me from it. I am assured, even in the dark hour of temptation, when all the sinfulness of my depraved nature asserts itself, and my conscience condemns me as being worthy of everlasting anguish and torment of hell, that even then I may find comfort in Him Who bore my hellish torments all His life, yes, especially on the cross.
“I believe in Jesus . . . crucified!”
Although our Book of Instruction places four other questions between the two that are quoted above, it is obvious from the contents of both of the above mentioned, that they belong together. Our fathers are discussing the Apostles’ Creed, and therefore follows the order found there. But our fathers also clearly saw that the confession, “He descended into hell” can have no other meaning but that Christ suffered the torments of hell particularly during the three hours of darkness on the cross. Therefore we depart for the moment from the order of the Catechism to fix our attention on the two related questions and answers.
“Where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” John 19:18
Crucifixion was a very painful death. In our day criminal is executed, whether in the gas chamber, or in the electric chair, or on the scaffold, as swiftly and as painlessly as possible. But the Roman form of punishment by crucifixion was the very opposite. It was intended that the victim should suffer as long and as agonizingly as possible. The cross was laid upon the ground and the condemned person was laid upon it with arms outstretched. The hands were either bound by ropes or nailed with spikes to the cross beam, while the feet were either bound or nailed to the upright shaft. Then the cross with its victim was raised up and the base jammed into a hole in the ground. The weight of the body tore at the nails in the hands and feet, caused the arms to be drawn upward and the knees to sag, so that the back pressed hard against the rough wood, the shoulder blades and ribs crowded the heart and lungs, making breathing extremely difficult. The words uttered from the cross, either by Jesus or by the malefactors were few and but short utterances. Meanwhile the naked body was exposed to the sun. Before very long fevers racked the body.
Crucifixion was also a shameful death. Only foreigners and slaves were subjected by the Romans to such mistreatment. The naked body of the victim was exposed as a spectacle for all to look upon in scorn. Here on the Place of the Skull hung three who were condemned as criminals, with their accusations written above their heads. Here as helpless victims of their own “crime” they suffered while the wayfarer stopped a moment to shed a tear of pretended condolence, to breathe a self-righteous sigh, or to make a sarcastic remark. Crucifixion was a sign of being rejected of God and of men; it was a slow, painful and shameful death.
But was this not equally true of the two malefactors, as well as of Jesus? To ask the question is to answer it. Surely the agony of the cross was painful for the other two, but far more agonizing for our Lord. We recall that He had been captured in the garden after His bitter struggle on the previous evening. All night long He had stood on trial. No rest or consideration was shown to Him. Instead, He had been slapped, spit upon, beaten, and generally mistreated. The cross was but a climax of all the torture that He had undergone in the last hours of His earthly life.
Christ’s shame was also far worse than that of the malefactors. Our sinless Lord was spiritually far more sensitive than were Adam and Eve when they sought covering for their nakedness. He was certainly far more conscious of the shame of sin and the stare of sinful men than the children of our age, who glory in it. He was deeply aware that He was made the gazing stock of all who passed by. The ribaldry, the cutting sarcasm, the bold challenges to come down, the mockery of His power and His ministry of mercy, and even of His trust in God, cut as so many sharp knives into His soul. The chief priests and rulers, who in the depths of their hearts knew better, gloated with far more wicked satisfaction than the Philistines when they watched the helpless and blind Samson as he groped before them.
But all this does not explain the inexpressible anguish, pains, torments and hellish agonies of which our fathers speak. The Catechism refers to the death of the cross as “accursed of God.” This refers to the practice in the Old Testament, when Israel hung the bodies of the slain leaders of the enemy upon a tree as a spectacle of disgrace. This is what Joshua did to the five kings of Canaan (Joshua 10:26). According to the law of Moses, those bodies might not remain upon the tree over night, because that kind of exposure was an expression of God’s curse upon His enemies.
God’s curse is the expression of His righteous judgment upon the guilty sinner. God declares, Cursed be he that conformeth not to all the words this law to do them” (Deut. 27:26). Let none of us think lightly of that curse. From the time of our conception, that curse rests upon us. Every moment of every day we only add to that curse by our evil desires, sinful thoughts, corrupt words, and wicked deeds. We transgress all of God’s commandments. We keep none of them. Our conscience accuses us, along with the Word of God, that we are guilty of sinning against the Most High Majesty of God, and therefore deserve His righteous condemnation even to the everlasting torment of hell.
Our Savior hung between the two malefactors, representatives of the fallen human race, also of you and of me. Above their heads was written their names and their crimes. Whatever the offense, these two had transgressed God’s law, even as we daily. As the repentant sinner confessed, they deserved to die even as we do. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled, that “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
This is our assurance and comfort in all our misery, that God made Christ a curse for us (Gal. 13). All our sins were laid upon Christ. All your and my guilt was reckoned to His account. As the Innocent One He bore the eternal wrath of God against our sins. He bore that wrath all his life, in ever-increasing measure, but especially during the three hours of darkness on the cross,. How can we express this better than by sayng, “He descended into hell”? During the morning hours of that particular Friday the Lord was deeply aware of those round about Him. He prayed that God might forgive, and thus lay upon Him the horrible sin that also His own people were committing against Him that very hour. He extended His forgiving mercy the repentant murderer. He made /separation between His sheep and the world by that! assurance mercy. He showed His concern for His mother. But at noon darkness descended upon the cross and surrounding area. The sun was hidden, even as a sign that God’s face was hidden from His obedient Servant. The mouths of His mockers were silenced. The crowd stood in awe. For this was plainly the hand of the Almighty. Here on Golgotha Judgment Day had descended as far as Christ was concerned. Our Lord experienced “inexpressible anguish, pains, torments and hellish agonies.” The inspired Poet of Psalm 42 expresses it this way, “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of Thy waterspouts; Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me.” Our Lord was cast out, cast out of God. In His holy wrath God said to His Son, “Depart from Me, I know Thee not”! Only the Son who rested eternally in the intimate fellowship with the Father could fully understand the horror of isolation in being cast out, sent away from the Fountain of Life and Blessing. Only the Christ, to whom the approval of God meant more than life itself, could drink to the full the dreg of the cup of God’s holy wrath against our sins. In perfect Self-surrender He gave Himself up unto the horrors of hell until His soul cried out, “My God, My GOD, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Only once, and never again, there arose a cry from hell that penetrated to the righteous judgment of God for the sins of His people. God in heaven heard, and responded by delivering His Son from the depths. For God was in Christ reconciling us unto Himself, nevermore to reckon our transgressions against us. God gave His Son. The Son gave His life. Greater love than that is inconceivable. We stand rooted to the ground in holy amazement. God loved us when we were still enemies, and loves us still!
“And Jesus in the midst.”
That cross of Jesus still makes separation. It is a savor of life unto life and a savor of death unto death. For the Word of the cross is foolishness to those perishing, but is the power of God unto all who believe.
As we stand at the foot of the cross we confess anew: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . crucified!”
In all our greatest temptations we may comfort ourselves in this, that our Lord Jesus Christ has delivered us from the depths of hell unto eternal life. Confessing and forsaking our sins we find mercy, ever again. During the severest onslaughts of the powers of darkness we can rest assured that our Savior still overcomes sin, still is mighty to save, and still preserves us by His almighty power. Although we would certainly perish if left to ourselves, we confidently look for deliverance and the ultimate victory with Him in His Kingdom.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!