Because the process of crucifixion is foreign to our experience, it is easy to overlook just how terribly painful this method of death was. It could take days for the crucified person to die from a combination of asphyxiation and exposure. People were hung on a cross in a position that forced them to use their arms to lift their body weight in order to draw a breath, causing the nails driven through their wrists and feet to tear at their flesh. If Rome wanted to prolong suffering, rope was used instead of nails to attach the person to the cross.
God’s condemnation of our sin in the flesh of Jesus (Rom. 8:3) was signified by the physical pain our Lord endured on the cross. At the same time the Romans were nailing Jesus to the cross, the Father was pouring His wrath upon Christ. Yet we cannot limit Jesus’ experience of His Father’s wrath to bodily pain. Our Savior also suffered spiritually as God punished the sin of His people in His Son, as Matthew 27:46 reveals. In fact, the physical suffering of crucifixion was nothing compared to the God-forsakenness Jesus experienced. Reckoning the sin of His children to Christ on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21), the Father cursed Jesus in our place (Gal. 3:10–14). After centuries of passing over His people’s transgressions (Rom. 3:21–26), God satisfied His wrath, pouring upon Jesus His unmitigated anger over the sins of His elect. In Jesus’ offering up of Himself as a substitute, the Father lays upon Him all the curses of His covenant with Israel (Deut. 28:15–68; Isa. 53; Rom. 5:12–21). Our holy Creator would compromise His character if He forgave us without removing our sin and demanding that the curses of His covenant be fulfilled. His faithfulness to that covenant requires that we be punished for rejecting Him (Prov. 16:5), but God condemned our sin in Christ, and therefore His pardon of us does not violate His faithfulness. John Calvin writes, “In order that Christ might satisfy for us, it was necessary that he should be placed as a guilty person at the judgment seat of God.”
Furthermore, Calvin also reminds us, “nothing is more dreadful than to feel that God, whose wrath is worse than all deaths, is the Judge.” In His marvelous grace, Jesus, not we His family, bore the wrath of God for us.
The darkness over the land in the three hours before Jesus dies (Matt. 27:45) is a sign of God’s anger at those who kill His Son as well as the curse upon humanity. “The darkness [cries] out against the blackness of our sin and [testifies] to the tremendous cost to God of our redemption” (James Boice, The Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 2, p. 623). Let us never take for granted the high price of the curse Jesus took in our place.
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