The Greatest Event in History
Two Paradoxes in the Death of Christ
Not surprisingly the greatest event in the history of the world is complex.
1) For example, since Jesus Christ is man and God in one person, was his death the death of God? To answer this we must speak of the two natures of Christ, one divine and one human. Ever since AD 451 the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s two natures in one person has been accepted as the orthodox teaching of Scripture. The Council of Chalcedon said,
We, then, . . . teach men to confess . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and One Subsistence, nor parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The divine nature is immortal (Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17). It cannot die. That is part of what it means to be God. Therefore, when Christ died, it was his human nature that suffered death. The mystery of the union between the divine and the human natures, in that experience of death, is not revealed to us. What we know is that Christ died, and that in the same day he went to Paradise ("Today you will be with me in Paradise," Luke 23:43). Therefore there seems to have been consciousness in death, so that the ongoing union between the human and divine natures need not have been interrupted, though Christ, only in his human nature, died.
2) Another example of the complexity of the event of Christ’s death is how God the Father experienced it. The most common evangelical teaching is that the death of Christ is Christ’s experience of the Father’s curse. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’" (Galatians 3:13). Whose curse? One could soften it by saying, "the curse of the law." But the law is not a person to curse anyone. A curse is a curse if there is one who curses. The one who curses through the law is God, who wrote the law. Therefore the death of Christ for our sin and for our law breaking was the experience of the Father’s curse.
This is why Jesus said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). In the death of Christ God laid on him the sins of his people (Isaiah 53:6) which he hated. And in hatred for that sin, God turned away from his sin-laden Son and gave him up to suffer the full force of death and cursing. The Father’s wrath was poured out on him instead of us so that his wrath toward us was "propitiated" (Romans 3:25) and removed.
But here is the paradox. God deeply and joyfully approved of what the Son was doing in that hour of sacrifice. In fact, he had planned it all together with the Son. And his love for the God-Man, Jesus Christ, on earth was owing to the very obedience that took Jesus to the cross. The cross was Jesus’ crowning act of obedience and love. And this obedience and love the Father profoundly approved and enjoyed. Therefore Paul says this amazing thing: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2). The death of Jesus was a fragrance to God.
So here we have one more glorious complexity. The death of Christ was the curse of God and the wrath of God; and yet, at the same time, it was pleasing to God and a sweet fragrance. While turning from his Son and giving him up to die laden with our sin, he delighted in the obedience and love and perfection of the Son.
Therefore, let us stand in awe and look with trembling joy on the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is no greater event in history. There is no greater thing for our minds to ponder or our hearts to admire. Stay close to this. Everything important and good gathers here. It is a wise and weighty and happy place to be.
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