And so to bring the essay full circle and to revert to a statement made regarding the early Church Fathers in the Introduction, we may note that that view was essentially that of Tertullian, who wrote, (34)
"Christ, when crucified, spontaneously dismissed His spirit with a word, thus preventing the office of the executioner."
Origen observed that when continued life was no longer needed "the One who had the power of laying down His life laid it down when He chose.
This prodigy astonished the centurion who said, 'Truly this was the Son of God.'" (35)
Jerome, commenting on Matthew 27:50, likewise noted that when the centurion heard Him saying to His Father, "Into Thy hands I commend My spirit," and perceived that He immediately dismissed His spirit of His own accord, he was struck with the greatness of the miracle and acknowledged Him to be truly the Son of God. (36)
Many others have similarly sought to express this profound truth, and yet, it seems, only a few modern theologians acknowledge it.
It is by no means necessary to have a theological grasp of these things in order to become a child of God. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge; not even when that knowledge is biblical theology.
But just because the Gospel can be believed to the saving of the soul by the simplest mind, we should not suppose that the possibility of saving a man's soul was made possible by a simple act of self sacrifice.
One of the problems with truth is that it is apparently so simple. The more complicated we make the way of salvation, the easier it is apt to be to obtain a hearing.
It offends man's intellectual pride to ask him to give serious attention to a truth which he is told he has only to believe without first trying to understand the rational grounds for it.
For this reason, in fact, the simpler among men are more likely to exercise faith unto salvation.
But the apparent simplicity of the plan of salvation, of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord, like all else that God has wrought, is deceiving.
It seems so easy to find parallels to what the Lord did when, for our sakes, He laid down His life on the Cross.
History superficially presents us with numerous similar examples of noble self-sacrifice: men in war sacrifice themselves for one another or for their loved ones.
Almost every day someone gives his or her life to save someone else.
In what way, then, is there a complication here which makes Calvary so unique?
Wherein was this sacrifice entirely unlike any other?
It is not, surely, in the attendant circumstances per se.
After all Jesus was not entirely deserted by His friends at the moment of His death, whereas many men have died alone as martyrs without anyone to mourn their passing and without any comfort in the knowledge that those especially dear to them would be cared for. Nor had He suffered more physically than other men have suffered, like those who, for example, deliberately chose to be crucified upside down or were crucified only after enduring the most appalling mutilation of body -- even to virtual disembowelment. There is no doubt also that there are more cruel deaths than crucifixion.
I think the uniqueness of Calvary lies in two circumstances. The first of these is spiritual, and although it has to do only indirectly with the subject of this Paper, which is the how of the Lord's death, nevertheless it does have a bearing upon it and must therefore be considered briefly here.
In writing to the Corinthians Paul said (2 Corinthians 5:21): "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made [become] the righteousness of God in him."
In the original Paul uses a Greek verb
(poieo) which has the basic meaning of doing or making, with a number of extensions of meaning depending upon the words associated with it.
Thayer says that the verb when joined with a noun denoting state or condition has the meaning "to be the author of" or "to be the cause of." (37)
Olshausen in his Commentary on the New Testament notes in connection with 2 Corinthians 5:21: "It is here evident that
(hamartia) indicates a condition." (38)
In other words what Paul is stating is that in some way the Lord Jesus on the Cross as the Lamb of God enduring those hours of darkness when He was under judgment was actually made to be the author and the cause of sin.
He somehow became identified with and held responsible for everything that is wicked, ugly, hateful, cruel, pitiless, spiteful utterly abhorrent to God; in short, everything that man has been or done or planned to do as a sinner.
It is not as though He was merely blamed for what had gone wrong, though undoubtedly this was part of the judgment of God, for God laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.
He did not merely assume responsibility.
He in effect became identified with the very wickedness itself.
The reason I am innocent in God's sight is that He actually assumed my guilt.
The "identification," the priestly ritual of establishing identity in which the sins of a whole people were somehow laid upon an innocent creature, had to be completed before the victim was slain.
The victim's "time" was not come until that absolute identity had been established.
All this had been symbolic, foreshadowing what was to happen in due time when God provided Himself a Lamb.
This Lamb, unlike the victim of the Atonement, was not merely a passive participant that could have no possible consciousness of what was to be the outcome of the ritual, but he was One who knew from the beginning of His public ministry -- and perhaps much earlier than that -- what that outcome was going to be.
The agony of soul in the Garden of Gethsemane must surely have stemmed from this foreknowledge.
The Lord Jesus must have known with fearful certainty that the Cross was to be a stage, a setting, an occasion, a time in which the judgment of God would exhaust itself upon Him, in which the righteousness of God would be preserved and forgiveness made possible in the process.
We can have no idea of what it meant to the Lord who had never harboured a sinful thought nor ever committed a sinful act, to wait as it were on the Cross in anticipation of the sudden falling of the judgment of God which was to come upon His soul, the turning away of His Father as He condemned Him for the wickedness of man and judged Him to be its cause. He must have known in those first three hours that at any moment that blow would fall. Death would have been a merciful intervention, something infinitely to be preferred if, by it, the eternity of judgment could have been evaded. He had the power to dismiss His spirit and thus to terminate that part of His ministry in which He identified Himself with man. But He did not do so.
But after the eternity of judgment and separation was over, when God had said, in effect, "It is enough," when the light burst forth once more and the relationship between the Father and the Son was restored again, then the Lord cried out triumphantly, "It is finished"! The Greek word sounds even more like a shout of triumph, "Tetelestai"! Then, in the very nature of the circumstances, the physical burden of crucifixion made itself felt once more, and He cried out, "I thirst" (John 19:28). But there was no need now for the Lord to sustain life any longer. His work was done, and in one single gesture which demonstrated His complete dominion over life itself, He sent away His spirit, committing it into His Father's hands.
I think it is not without significance that the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 53:6, according to the Bagster critical edition, reads: "All we like sheep have gone astray: every one has gone astray in his way: and the Lord gave Himself up for our sins" [italics mine]. In this version the italicized words are in the Greek the now familiar paradidomi. Perhaps it is not without significance, on precisely the same grounds, that in writing to the Galatians, in what must surely be one of the most revealing of all passages of Scripture, Paul said: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself [delivered Himself up] for me" (Galatians 2:20). And once again we find the verb paradidomi. It is clear, therefore, that the use of this word in John 19:30 is not incidental, not merely an alternative to those words employed by the other Gospel writers. It is a word which sheds a tremendous light on the nature of the Lord's death and a word chosen to be used in a number of very important and directly related passages, as in Ephesians 5:2 for example. This verb achieved a very special significance.
And the second unique aspect of the Lord's death lies in the fact that He died on the Cross, but not because of it. He chose not merely the time to die, but He chose dying, when He need never have died at all. He died actively, not passively. He was not humbled in death as we are, but He humbled Himself. He was not offered as the lamb was offered (by someone else), but He offered Himself. He did not surrender to the tyranny of death, but He embraced it. He died with a ruptured heart, but surely not because of it. He was not by nature subject to the law of natural death as man now is, but rather He became obedient unto death. His death did not indicate the final triumph of flesh over spirit, but of spirit over flesh.
In short, He did not "yield up" His spirit as man is called upon to do, but rather dismissed His life voluntarily, at one and the same moment committing His spirit into the Father's hands and passing out of the confines of incarnation into an entirely new level of existence, made finally and fully complete with the resurrection and glorification of His body.
Such, then, though still viewed very much through a glass darkly, was the how of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.