It may seem strange, as many people as the Romans crucified in the first century A.D., including a good number of Christians, but the death of Christ on the cross has caused more problems for non-Christians, for instance many Muslims, and Jehovah Witnesses, than the resurrection of Jesus. Good Friday is the appropriate day to reflect on these things for sure. And part of the problem is indeed the mystery of the Son of God on the cross, crying out to God the Father ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabbactani’, the first line of Psalm 22 in Aramaic— “my God, my God why have you forsaken me’. And this is precisely the rub for Muslims. God would never abandoned his holy prophet Jesus, would never let him die such a horrible death, and therefore they deny the crucifixion ever happened. What is behind this conclusion is the Islamic notion that whatever actually happens turns out to be Allah’s will, a form of religious fatalism. With Jehovah’s Witnesses they think Jesus died on a stake, not a cross, in part due to a misinterpretation of the Deuteronomy text ‘cursed be he who hangs upon a tree’ which was about the displaying of a dead person’s body in public to shame the person and his kin, a text which, in a homiletical and somewhat loose use of the OT Paul relates to the death of Jesus, but he is clear enough that he is talking about Christ crucified (cf. Gal. 2 and 1 Cor. 15).
So what then should we think about Jesus’ death on the cross? And how could the death of a human being, which is not referred to in most of the OT as some sort of atoning for sins act (human sacrifice being abhorred by Jews), be viewed as the act which pays the price for the sins of the world? These are the proper questions to ask. And the proper answer is, we do not entirely understand how this could be the case. But the writers of the NT are adamant that it is the case. Obviously, Jesus’ death is a human death, but Jesus was more than mere mortal. So one question regularly asked is what happened to Christ’s divine nature while he was on the cross? Did the death of Jesus somehow involve the divinity of Christ? One of the best books I’ve ever read that deals with this subject is Jurgen Moltmann’s classic The Crucified God, which had a powerful impact on me when I read it in seminary in the late 70s. I would commend it to you as a thought experiment that asks lots of the right questions. How exactly could the sacrificial death of a human being atone for all sins past present and future if the divine side of Christ was not involved?
And then there is this. The only word from the cross in both Matthew and Mark is the cry of dereliction— ‘My God, my God…’ and it’s no good saying read to the end of the Psalm. It has a better ending. Jesus only cites the first verse. Period. We don’t have the right to assume he fast forwarded to the end of the Psalm but didn’t mention it. And while we are on the idea of God the Father abandoning Christ on the cross, or not being able to look on sin (since Paul says in 2 Cor. 5.21 ‘he who had no sin, was made sin for us’), what do we make of Jesus’ request in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me’. I don’t think it’s adequate to say Jesus is afraid of dying, since after all he seems very resolute in his passion predictions that the Son of Man must suffer many things, be killed and on the third day rise’. He believed there would be a reversal by God after his death. So back to the cup— this seems clearly to allude to the cup references in the OT, which refer to God’s cup of judgment or wrath poured out on sin (which seems to be the inference in 1 Pet. 2.24, and Gal. 3.3 and see Rev. 16). We find this described in Jeremiah 25.15, and Isaiah 51.7 cf. Rev. 14.9-10. While many Christians have a hard time with the idea of judgment, never mind judgment on Christ for somebody else’s sin, and of course behind that an objection to the God of Wrath, Jesus himself did not have a problem with the idea of a righteous God who cannot pass over sin forever but must judge it. Jesus has more to say about such things, including about Gehenna or Hell that Paul. The issue here is that God is both just and loving, and so he provided a substitute in his Son to atone for our sins, so we would not have to face such a judgment, since animal sacrifices in the OT didn’t even cover various sorts of premeditated sins like murder or adultery (cf. what Paul says in his speech in Acts 13). I would suggest that the cry of dereliction is Jesus, who called God Abba and had the most intimate possible relationship with Abba, as part of his ‘being made sin’ identified with our plight and briefly experienced our sense of abandonment by God when on the cross.
Like I said there is a lot of mystery to what actually happened on the cross, and what it’s benefits were, but one thing is certain. Had Jesus not been raised from the dead on Sunday, there would have been no atonement benefits for anyone, and the human race would still be as guilty as they were before. Our salvation depends on the incarnation of the divine Son of God in the person of Jesus, the death of Jesus of the cross as an atonement for sin, the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to various people, including two who were not disciples of him (Saul of Tarsus, and his brother James, see John 7.5), and then the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower and enlighten the disciples, and convict, convince and convert people they preached to. All this was necessary for the Good News of salvation to be shared and become a reality. And no, a God who was both righteous and merciful, both just and loving, could not just wave his hand and forgive sins without dealing with the sin problem. It would have been a violation of the fundamental nature of God’s unchanging moral character.
Think on these things on this day.