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Jesus' suffering: This year, Christians won't gloss over Christ's death

“Embrace Jesus crucified, loving and beloved, and in him you will find true life because He is God made man. Let your heart and your soul burn with the fire of love drawn from Jesus on the Cross!”- Catherine of Siena, 14th Century mystic during the Great Bubonic Plague

Penitents hang on crosses as they are crucified during Good Friday Lenten rites in Cutud, San Fernando Pampanga in northern Philippines April 22, 2011.
Penitents hang on crosses as they are crucified during Good Friday Lenten rites in Cutud, San Fernando Pampanga in northern Philippines April 22, 2011. | REUTERS/Erik de Castro

This year’s Holy Week has arrived with solemnity amid global calamity. COVID-19 is forcing all of us to confront our mortality. Trepidation has gripped millions of hearts. Many are desperately ill; others are compelled to have difficult end-of-life conversations with their families. Holy Week reminds Christians that through the Crucifixion of Christ, God identifies with humankind in suffering and death. 

Traditionally, Christians gloss over the death of Christ with an eager eye on the resurrection (Easter). But there is a story before the glory! Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Before we meet Christ in His glory, we endure the story of life.

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Have we paid too little attention to Jesus’ suffering? Before He was a resurrected Christ, He was a suffering human being (Philippians 2:7-8).

Recently, a young man at Walmart asked me, “Hey, do you know about the Passover?” From the short conversation, the man was eager to promote ideology similar to that of Black Hebrew Israelites, a growing religion among mainly African Americans who believe black people are among the lost tribes of Israel.[1] Our short, intense exchange revealed that the man wanted to show me that Christians are deceived, and it was his duty to enlighten me of truth. As the man and I parted ways, I couldn’t shake the thought: “How well do contemporary Christians understand the faith’s theological connection with ancient Hebrew history?”

Passover and Yom Kippur (Exodus 12) are antecedent religious festivals from which Christians draw theological meaning for the Crucifixion. Both commemorate suffering lambs. The Messiah embodied God’s work for humanity in four ways:

1.  The Paschal Lamb. As Israel is held hostage in Egypt (Exodus 12), God instructs them to quarantine a spotless lamb for a few days and then slay it on the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. They were to splatter the lamb’s blood on their home's doorposts. God promised that death would spread through Egypt but pass over the houses with the blood. It happened as God promised. Thus, the Hebrew tradition is to celebrate Pesach (Passover) because the lamb’s blood protected their households.

Similarly, Jesus’ blood shed on the cross protects humanity from adverse consequences of sinful nature. Theologian Karl Barth suggests that Jesus on the cross is God’s self-revealed, redeeming “yes” in the middle of humanity’s “no.”[2] This means that Jesus, as Paschal Lamb, is our hope in despair. In Christ, distress is not our destination.

2.  The Vicarious Lamb. The innocent lamb in the Exodus story died so that God’s people could live.

Jesus is the Lamb of God that died so that we don’t have to die but have eternal life. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann notes, “The cross, the overcoming of sin by vicarious expiation, is the centre of the gospel.”[3] Paul writes, “[Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:15). The Lamb died for us so that we might live beyond the grave.  

3.  The Atoning Lamb. In Exodus 30:10, God tells Moses, “Throughout your generations he [Aaron] shall perform the atonement … with the blood of the atoning sin offering.” Each fall, Israelites historically sacrificed a lamb whose blood would purge their sins.

The Fourth Gospel tells us of a revelation that John the Baptist had upon seeing Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). In essence, John declares Jesus as the penultimate Atoning Lamb!

4.  The Passible Lamb. Some theologians say God is impassible, meaning that God is not moved by what happens. This theology is influenced by Hellenistic thought. Other scholars insist otherwise.

Moltmann, for example, notes, “By the secular cross on Golgotha, understood as open vulnerability and as the love of God for loveless and unloved, dehumanized [human beings], God’s being and God’s life is open to …[humanity].”[4]

The term ‘Passible Lamb’ means that the Lamb of God is touched by human vulnerability; Jesus identifies with us in our suffering and death for the purpose of birthing new life.

In Philippians 3:10, Paul recognizes the impossibility of experiencing resurrection power without solidarity with Christ’s abode in human distress. Christ culminates the Incarnation in death. We cannot grasp the power of the risen Lord until we appreciate the suffering Lamb

To be like Christ in death involves the attitude He exhibited in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Luke 22:42 Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus didn’t want to go through the pain; so, He understands our struggle with it. Gethsemane reveals that when God does not deliver us from misery, God is able to deliver us through it: “An angel from heaven … gave him strength” (Luke 22:43). 

Although Holy Week invites us to meditate on the sacrificial Lamb, the week ends with resurrection hope. Indeed, Jesus is the Lamb that was slain. He is also the risen Lord who reigns. Praise the Lord!

We sit in mysterious stillness, “sheltering in place.” We await realized hope of the resurrection as manifested in the cure for COVID-19. In Paul’s words, we “share in [Christ’s] sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Remembering global victims of COVID-19, their families and friends, and the healthcare teams, may angels from heaven provide strength throughout this (hopefully short) season.

Come, Lord Jesus; may the Holy Spirit bring to us Your resurrection power!

[1]. See, Jacob S. Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford University Press, 2016), 3-8.

[2]. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, translated by Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns (Oxford University Press, 1968), 229.

[3]. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1993), 259.

[4]. Moltmann,249.

Antipas L. Harris, D.Min., Ph.D., the president-dean of Jakes Divinity School and associate pastor at The Potter’s House of Dallas, TX.

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