If Christians were not so familiar with these things because of 2000 years of tradition and liturgy, they might feel how utterly unlikely it was that this death would be the basis of a world-transforming faith. How could it be that a convicted, condemned, executed pretender to the throne of Rome would unleash in the next three centuries a power to suffer and to love that shaped the empire?
The Christian answer is that the passion of Jesus Christ was absolutely unique, and his resurrection from the dead three days later was an act of God to vindicate what his death achieved. The uniqueness is not necessarily in the length or intensity of the physical pain. That was unspeakably terrible. But I would not want to minimize the horrors of others who died gruesomely. The uniqueness lies elsewhere.
The passion of Jesus Christ was unique because he was one of a kind. When asked, “Are you the Christ [=Messiah], the Son of the Blessed [=God]?” Jesus said, “I am.” It was an almost incredible claim. The Messiah was expected to be powerful and glorious. But here was Jesus about to be crucified, saying openly what he had pointed toward so often during his ministry: I am the Messiah, the king of Israel . He said it openly at the very moment when it was least likely to be credible. Then he adds words that explain how a crucified Christ can reign as the King of Israel: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). In other words, he expects to reign at God's right hand and someday come back to earth in glory.
He was more than a mere human. Not less. He was, as the ancient Nicene Creed says, “very God of very God.” Christ existed before creation. He is co-eternal with God the Father. He was not created. There was no point when he did not exist. Forever and ever in the past God has existed with one divine essence in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the testimony of those who knew and were inspired by him to explain who he is.
For example, the apostle John referred to Christ as the “Word” and wrote:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)
Jesus himself said things that only make sense if he was both God and man. For example, he forgave sin: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This sort of thing is what finally got him killed. The outraged response was understandable: “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).
It's an understandable reaction. C. S. Lewis the British scholar who wrote timeless children's' books and superb defenses of Christianity, explains: “If somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, ‘Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it.' What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, ‘That is all right, I forgive him'?” 1 Sin is sin because it is against God. If Jesus was not a lunatic, then he forgave sins against God because he was God.
This is what his words and deeds pointed toward. Once he said, “I and the Father are one,” which almost got him stoned on the spot (John 10:30-31). Another time he said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The words “I am” not only signaled his existence before Abraham, who lived 2000 years earlier, but was also a reference to the name that God gave himself in the Old Testament. “God said to Moses, ‘ I Am Who I Am .' And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel , ‘ I Am has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14).
Jesus foretold his own betrayal as if he knew the future as well as the past, and then explained what this meant with another breathtaking claim: “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am” (John 13:19). Jesus was “I am”—the God of Israel, the Lord of the universe in human form. This is why his passion is unparalleled. Only the death of the divine Son of God could achieve what God intended to do by this death.
The passion of Christ was unique also because he was totally innocent. Not just innocent of the crimes of blasphemy and sedition, but of all sin. He once asked his enemies, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). Whatever they thought, he knew that no charge would stick. His disciple, Peter, who knew his own sin so well, said that Jesus' death was the death “of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Jesus' refusal to fight back as he was unjustly condemned and killed, cemented the conviction for his followers that he was sinless.
Peter expressed it for the rest: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23). The reason Jesus' death brought all Jewish animal sacrifices to an end is that he became the final sacrifice himself and “offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). His death was unparalleled because he was sinless.
Christ's passion was unparalleled in human history because it was planned and predestined by God for our salvation. Beneath all the controversy over who actually killed Jesus, the deepest truth is: It was God who planned it, and saw to it that it came to pass. As the terrifying events unfolded the night before he died, Jesus said, “All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:56). All the details, down to the fact that they rolled dice for his clothes (John 19:24), and pierced him with a spear, rather than breaking his legs (John 19:36)—all of it was planned by his Father and predicted in the Scriptures.
The early church summed it up like this in prayer: “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place ” (Acts 4:27-28). Central to Christianity is the truth that God sent his Son to die. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus death was unique because there is only one Son and only one divine plan for salvation.
Unparalleled Authority in Death
The passion of Christ was unique also because Jesus not only submitted willingly to his Father's plan (“Not my will, but yours, be done” Luke 22:42); he also embraced it and pursued it with his own divine authority. One of the most stunning statements Jesus ever made was about his own death and resurrection: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). No one ever spoke about his own life and death this way. The overwhelming testimony of the New Testament is that the controversy about who killed Jesus is marginal. He chose to die. His Father ordained it. He embraced it. One ordered all things, the other obeyed. The authority was in God's hands. And it was in Jesus' hands. Because Jesus is God.
Unparalleled Meaning for the World
Finally, the passion of Christ was unparalleled because it was accompanied by unique events full of meaning for the world. First, there were the statements of incomparable love and authority from Jesus on the cross. No crucified man, dying in agony, ever spoke like this. One of the thieves who was crucified with Jesus finally repented and said, astonishingly, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a moment to see a kingdom being established! Jesus did not correct him. Instead he said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise ” (Luke 23:43). This was the voice of one who decides where thieves spend eternity.
The thief was not the only one who received the mercy of Christ as he died. Jesus looked out over those who crucified him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They could make him bleed and weep, but they could not make him hate.
And when the moment of his death was near, Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” and bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30). By this he meant more than “my life is over.” He meant, “I have fully accomplished the redeeming work my Father sent me to do.” A lifetime of sinless obedience to God, followed by a horrific suffering and death—that was why he came. It was finished.
The meaning of what he accomplished was symbolized by a surprising event nearby in Jerusalem . In the holy place of the Jewish temple, where only the high priest could go and meet God once a year, the curtain split as Jesus died. “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50-51). The meaning is this: When Jesus died—when his flesh was torn—God tore (from top to bottom) the curtain separating ordinary people from himself. The death of Jesus opened the way for the world into intimate, holy, personal, forgiven, joyful fellowship with God. No human mediator is needed any longer. Jesus split open the way for direct access to God. He has become the only necessary Mediator between us and God. The early church said it like this: “Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
The work of redemption was finished. The payment for reconciliation between God and man was. Now it only remained for God to confirm the achievement by raising Jesus from the dead. This is the way Jesus had predicted and planned it. More than once he said, “We are going up to Jerusalem , and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise” (Luke 18:31-33).
It happened three days later (parts of days were reckoned as days: Friday, Saturday,and Sunday). Early Sunday morning he rose from the dead. For forty days he appeared numerous times to his disciples before his ascension to heaven. The physician Luke, who wrote the New Testament book by that name, said that “he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
The disciples were slow to believe that it had really happened. These were not gullible primitives. They were down-to-earth tradesmen. They knew people did not rise from the dead. At one point Jesus insisted on eating fish to prove to them that he was not a ghost.
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:39-43)
This was not the resuscitation of a corpse. It was the resurrection of the God-Man, into an indestructible new life of kingly rule at God's right hand. The early church acclaimed him Lord of heaven and earth. They said, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus had finished the unparalleled work God gave him to do, and the resurrection was the proof that God was satisfied.
C. S. Lewis, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London : HarperCollins, 2000), 39. ↩