The death of God

The ancient Roman statesman Cicero wrote of crucifixion: “There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.” Anyone who has sat through all 127 minutes of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ would no doubt agree with that description. The torture and execution of the Son of God was brutal (our English word ‘excruciating’ can be literally translated ‘the overwhelmingly intense pain of the cross’).

It isn’t the manger – or even the empty tomb – that is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. It’s the cross. This has been the case ever since the second Century. In his classic book The Cross of Christ (IVP), John Stott argues: “The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of the ridicule, to discard it in favour of something less offensive, can have only one explanation. It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself.”

Jesus predicted the passion in all four Gospels. He was clear that the Son of Man “must suffer many things” (Mark 8:31), and we’re told he was “resolute” in setting out for Jerusalem (Mark 9:51). While it is true that the religious leaders of the time played a part in his death, it is also the case that Jesus chose to die: “I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily” (John 10:18, NLT).

As Good Friday approaches, RT Kendall has written a reflection on the emotional and spiritual pain that Jesus willingly submitted himself to, so that we can have peace with God (p30). Our cover this month is deliberately bleak and sparse, designed to provoke meditation on the God who suffers.

Christ’s suffering on the cross was not abstract or futile. It was full of purpose, and the meaning of it is deeply personal. That’s why Paul could write about “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, my italics). That verse alone must surely lead us to awe, wonder and worship this Easter. The lockdowns we have experienced continue to take their toll (see p46 for a helpful article on that subject), but there are still so many reasons to praise God. I was deeply encouraged to read Sara Flanner’s story of how God delivered her from alcoholism (p52) during the first lockdown. I was also inspired by my encounter with the British actor David Oyelowo (p24), who in sharing his testimony with me has also, perhaps inadvertedly, summed up the message of the cross: “palpably I heard [God] say: ‘There is nothing you can do to make me love you less.’ That flew in the face of all of my preconceptions…”