A couple of months a go, for a friend's birthday I went to Go-Ape. Go-Ape, if you're not familiar is a high level ropes course. The scariest thing isn't being up in the tree tops. The scariest thing is being responsible for your own harness and ropes. Even though they're really easy to use when faced with valley floor over 100ft below with only a thin steel wire to between you and it you tend to be fairly cautious. Check, double check, triple check you did clip yourself in...jump.
Tonight as we get to the heart of the Apostles Creed with this line describing Jesus' death. As we do so we're looking at something which like that harness isn't difficult to understand but does requires us to be absolutely sure about. Why? Well because the consequences are truly massive. Knowing that Jesus died and knowing why Jesus died is truly a matter of life and death.
Two very simple points for us tonight, simple but essential.
1. Jesus died 2. Jesus died for sinners
1. Jesus died
That's the claim made emphatically by this line of the creed:
'He (Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead'
This Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus who the creed says is the Son of God the Father Almighty: died. The creed wants to make this crystal clear and so it doesn't just say: 'Jesus died' it also gives us the historical context, the cause of death and even details of what happened to Jesus immediately after he died. In doing so it is validating the accounts of the gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, James and John and refuting those who would claim that either Jesus wasn't an historical figure or that he didn't die in the way that the gospel writers describe.
So let's take a look at the trustworthiness of one of the gospel writer's account of Jesus' suffering, crucifixion, death and burial. Take a look at Mark 15 on p720.
Verse 1 tells us that the religious elite: the chief priest, the elders and the teachers of the law handed Jesus over to Pilate. In v2-14 Jesus is put on trial before Pilate until in v15 we are told that:
15Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Mark tells us that before being crucified Jesus was interrogated by Pilate and then flogged. Roman floggings were brutal: the third century historian: Eusebius described victims of floggings as having their vains laid bare, the very muscles, sinews and bowels of the victim left open to exposure. Many people never made it to crucifixion such was the severity of the floggings imposed upon them.
Then Jesus was handed over to be crucified. Mark gives us details of how the soldiers dressed Jesus up as a mock king with a purple robe and a crown of thorns before striking, and spitting on, him. Let's pick Mark's account up again at v20:
20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
21A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.22They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull).23Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. 25It was the third hour when they crucified him.26The written notice of the charge against him read: "The King of the Jews".
Notice the details that Mark drops in. The cross beam of Jesus' cross is carried by a named individual: Simon which Simon? Simon from Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Mark is footnoting, naming his sources. He's inviting the reader to go and fact-check his account. We're also given the place and time of Jesus' crucifixion.
Mark's account is clearly presented as history to us; it contains precise details even inviting us to seek out it's sources to check if what Mark was writing was true. Remember too that Mark is claiming that Jesus' died a very public death - there are multiple witnesses listed here. If Jesus didn't suffer under Pontius Pilate, if he wasn't crucified then it would have been very easy to dismiss Mark's account.
Instead Mark's account is corroborated by contemporary non-biblical sources. The Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historians Tacitus and Pleny all record that Jesus suffered under Pilate and was then crucified. So for example Tacitus writing about Christians suffering under the Roman Emperor Nero in AD64 says this:
'Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty (crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus'
Jesus 'the Christ' suffered and was crucified at the hands of Pontius Pilate. It is a matter of historical record. But did Jesus die? Mark is unambiguous look at v33ff:
33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"–which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."
36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
Mark is clear he says in v37 Jesus breathed his last, in v39 a Roman centurion a trained killer remarks on Jesus' identity when he 'saw how he died'. John's account includes the detail that when a centurion thrust a spear into Jesus' side to check if he was dead blood and water flowed out. John wouldn't have known what that mean but modern medicine tells us that this was a sure sign of a pericardial effusion (fluid collecting in the membrane around the heart) the result of heart failure.
Mark lists two incredible external signs of Jesus' death as well. He writes that darkness came over the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour that's from 12noon to 3pm in the Roman method of timekeeping in addition the thick curtain in the temple across the city was torn from top to bottom. Matthew adds that the earth shook and rocks split.
Remarkable, incredible events but remarkable and incredible events which are recorded in other histories a historian called Thallus writing in AD52 less than twenty years after these events is records darkness falling at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Phlegon a Greek scholar writes that:
'it became night in the sixth hour of the day so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia and many things overturned in Nicaea.'
Jesus died in an incredible fashion but the creed and Mark are keen to stress that Jesus died in the fullest sense of that word. ' He... was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.' Let's pick Mark's account up again at v42:
42It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached,43Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body.44Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.45When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.46So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Again Mark names those involved it is Joseph of Arimathea, a public figure, a member of the council who asks for Jesus body. Pilate is surprised to hear that Jesus has died so quickly so he checks with an expert - a centurion. We're then told that Jesus was laid in a tomb cut out of rock and that a stone was rolled against the entrance to the tomb. Jesus dies and is then buried.
The creed then asserts that Jesus 'descended to the dead', in earlier versions 'descended to hell'. There has been much debate about what the creed is claiming at this point and much speculation about what Jesus did between his burial and resurrection particularly with regard to passages such as 1 Peter 3. These are difficult passages to understand but it does seem clear that what the passage is trying to say is that Jesus really and completely died. We say 'He descended to the dead' because the word 'Hell' in English now refers exclusively to a place of suffering under God's wrath. In this context 'descended to the dead/hell' is best understood as meaning Jesus' soul and body were separated, his soul going to another whilst it awaited the resurrection of the body.
This makes sense when we remember that the creed was written to summarise and defend the essentials of the Christian faith rather than to elaborate on finer details. It also make sense as a robust rebuttal of claims such as the so-called swoon theory which claim that Jesus didn't really die on the cross but merely fell unconscious later to come round and appear as a 'resurrected man' to the disciples. The creed won't allow for this underlying the fact that Jesus really did die. The reality of what Jesus endured through his flogging Jesus and the crucifixion itself make this theory incredibly difficult to believe. The idea that a crucified victim could spend three days without food and water in a tomb cut into the rock, push open the rock sealing the tomb and then defeat a guard of Roman soldiers whose lives depended on defending that tomb is at best fanciful.
The creed wants us to be clear. Jesus Christ really did as a matter of historical fact suffer under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, physically died such that his body was buried and his spirit left him. We've seen that the gospel writers labour these points too and that extra-biblical evidence corroborates what they say. But why is it so important to Christians that the central figure of their faith? Why is it something to celebrate? Why is the cross something which we cling to as the very symbol and centre of our faith. That's what our second point is all about: Jesus died for sinners.
2. Jesus died for sinners
Jesus' death is vital because it is the only thing that can reconcile sinners to God. Jesus' death was no accident still less the end of a remarkable man's life rather Jesus' death is the climax of God's plan from before the creation of the world to bring sinners like you and me back into right relationship with himself.
How do we know this? Well if you were to flick back a couple of pages in your bibles you'll see that in Mark 8:31 Jesus himself is very clear that he must die a particular type of death:
31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Jesus knew that he would not just have to die but to suffer many things and then be killed. So why did Jesus go toJerusalem, his place of death, willingly, knowing this was going to happen? Our first reading gives us the answer. Romans 5:6 on p796 says this:
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus Christ died for sinners, for us. His death was a death on behalf of, for someone else. It was a death died for us. In dying on the cross Jesus displays God's immeasurable love for us by choosing to die for us v10 goes on to tell us whilst we were still enemies of God so that we can be reconciled, to bring back into restored relationship with, God.
Jesus' death is vital because it isn't just a metaphor, or an example for us to follow. Jesus' death is the means of salvation, it is not just a symbol of victory it is the thing that brings victory.
This summer at the London Olympics two woman from Saudi Arabia Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani were allowed to compete. There was much excitement as now for the first time since the modern Olympics began every competing country would be represented by at least one woman. It was a massive symbolic victory. Many hope will lead to significant changes in the freedoms women enjoy in places like Saudi Arabia. However there's no guarantee that because these two women competed that change will happen. There are still massive obstacles to overcome, these women's remarkable efforts are, perhaps, a sign of what is to come but they are only a sign.
Jesus' death isn't just a metaphor. Jesus' death is the means of salvation, not just a symbol of victory but the very thing that brings victory. Jesus' death on the cross two thousand years ago is the (all caps, triple underscored, the) thing that saves us, it has achieved reconciliation between man and God. There are no more obstacles to overcome. It's happened, it's done, it is finished.
How can this be? How can Jesus death be the thing that restores everyone who will trust in him relationships with God? Romans 5:12-15 explains that just as Adam's sin has affected everyone not least by bringing death in the world so the grace that comes through Jesus will flow out to many:
12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned...
...15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
The grace, the unmerited favour that is shown in the one man, Jesus Christ is that he would live a perfect life and then die on behalf of sinners, taking the punishment that they deserved. Death came through one man: Adam. Now God's grace which brings life comes through one man: the God-Man Jesus Christ
Koran 4:157 says: They said in boast 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary the messenger of Allah,' but they killed Him not nor crucified Him but so it was made to appear to them. For those who differ therein are full of doubts with no certain knowledge but only conjecture to follow for of a surety they killed Him not."
The idea that Jesus the Christ would die is a difficult one. For it is the essence of God's grace, his unmerited favour and love. And it is the destroyer of man's religion and man's pride. Jesus died for you and you did not deserve it. So difficult is it that the Koran denies Jesus' crucifixion all together despite as we've already seen the overwhelming evidence that Jesus suffered, was crucified and did die.
The objection to Jesus dying is often not based on a lack of historical evidence but on a prideful rejection of God's unconditional and unmerited love for us. But that is the clear, consistent and wonderful message of the Bible. That is the Gospel, the good news. Isaiah puts it like this:
5But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Jesus was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that he suffered, the wounds that he endured bring us peace. The cruel flogging, the jeering and beating the excruciating (literally 'out of the cross') pain that Jesus endured was for us. The darkness that covered the earth symbolising the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus was for us. For God's enemies, for those who had gone astray, who rejected God. Jesus died in painful humiliation so that these worthless rebels could be washed clean and know the God who has loved them to death.
Death is the required penalty for sin. In the Old Testament animals would be sacrificed to temporarily mitigate for the peoples sin for without blood there could be no forgiveness. But now God's own Son dies, his blood is shed so that sin could be dealt with permanently and so that the guarantee of forgiveness could be offered to all who would trust in Jesus.
'He (Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead'
So that sinners could know that they are loved by God, so that they could now that they are forgiven and can stand before God blameless, washed clean by Jesus' blood shed on the cross. It's done, it is certain. It does not depend on our efforts, on our understanding, on our moral virtue. Jesus' death has won victory for us.
So we cling to it. We cling to the cross as the unbreakable, eternal guarantee of God's love for us. We cling to Jesus' death as our certain means of access to God and our certain hope of eternal life. We we eat this bread and drink this wine remembering Jesus' body broken for us, Jesus' blood spilt for us, Jesus death died for us. For the wages of sin are death but through Jesus' death they are paid in full and the gift of God is eternal life through him.