The suffering of the Christ
These thoughts were prompted partly by the lengthy and fascinating discussion thread ‘Don’t Forget to Grieve’ and partly by seeing, and being somewhat dissatisfied by, ‘The Passion of the Christ’. In the discussion Alario asks the question: ‘How does the Church live out its faith and communicate to the post-modern precisely the magnitude of the price paid by Jesus and demonstrated in His crucifixion?’ I went to see Gibson’s film with a friend who is not a believer. His immediate reaction was that a religion so obsessed with the infliction of pain was morally repugnant. Alario’s question, therefore, is highly pertinent. These brief and rather haphazard biblical notes are really only a preliminary to answering it – and may well need correcting.
The crucifixion in the Gospels
The Gospels are reticent about Jesus’ physical sufferings. There is much greater emphasis on the mockery and contempt expressed by Jews and Romans alike. Indeed, what is shocking about the crucifixion as it is presented in the Gospels is not the pain that Jesus endured but the absurdity and insolence of his claims to kingship. Nothing suggests that the scourging by the Romans was anything more than routine; we are given no reason to believe that he was treated any more brutally prior to the crucifixion than the two men executed alongside him, who would also have been scourged. Josephus describes the crucifixion of hundreds of Jewish prisoners during the Jewish War: they were ‘scourged and subjected to torture of every description… and then crucified opposite the city walls’.
There is little in the Gospel narratives to suggest that the pain Jesus endured had redemptive significance; the reader is not expressly invited to meditate upon – or even be moved by – his sufferings. Psalm 22, from which Jesus quotes (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’), looks forward to the salvation of the one who is afflicted by his enemies, and perhaps implicitly of the people, but we are not led to think that the suffering is redemptive or sacrificial: God saves because he is faithful towards Israel.
Jesus’ suffering for the sin of the people
The ‘destruction’ of Jesus’ body by the Romans prefigured or anticipated the destruction of the temple by the Romans (cf. Ezekiel’s prophetic suffering in Ezekiel 4:4-8). In that sense, he suffered the judgment that was about to come upon the people – he took upon himself the punishment for their sin, their rebellion against YHWH. He was destroyed so that those who believed in him, who had committed themselves to take this ‘way’ to the Father, might escape destruction and form the new community of the age to come. The point of his suffering is not that it was uniquely severe but that it was exactly the sort of treatment that the Jews could expect to receive from the Romans – in that sense, it was representative, and indeed prophetic, of what was to come.
But I wonder if a rather different logic does not apply in the case of the Gentiles. It makes less sense – historically at least – to say that Christ died in my place. But certainly, through his death a door has been opened for me to become part of the covenant people, to acknowledge the lordship of the ‘Son of God’, to share in the life of the age to come, to move from darkness into light, from condemnation to approval. As Paul puts it, through the ‘blood of Christ’ the wall dividing Jews and Gentiles has been broken down so that we all now ‘have access in one Spirit to the Father’ (Eph.3:18).
The sufferings of Christ in the New Testament church
Later reflection upon the suffering of Jesus in the New Testament is limited – and, more importantly, set within the context of the expectation that his followers were likely to suffer in a similar way. Paul says far more about his own sufferings than he does about Christ’s. When he speaks of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (eg. 2 Cor.1:5), it is because he is suffering as Christ suffered, and therefore receives the same consolation and has the same hope of resurrection. He does not encourage his readers to meditate upon – or grieve over – the torture and execution of Jesus as some sort of spiritual exercise.
Indeed, it seems to me that Paul harboured the desire – if not the ambition – to follow exactly in Christ’s footsteps. He renounced whatever ‘gain’ he had under the law in order to ‘know him and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, being conformed to his death’ (Phil.3:10). His uncertainty about attaining the resurrection from the dead (Phil.3:11) is not that he wasn’t sure of his salvation but that he wasn’t sure that he would die before the coming of Christ: if he did not die as Christ had died, he would not be raised as Christ had been raised. His argument in the difficult verse Colossians 1:24, if we read it correctly, is that he expects to suffer to the same extent that Christ suffered – that is to the point of death. Translations usually imply that there is some deficiency in Christ’s sufferings: ‘in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (RSV). The word order in the Greek is rather different, giving something like ‘I complete what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for the sake of his body, which is the church’. The deficiency is in his own flesh: he has not yet suffered in his own body to the extent that Christ suffered.