The last two lessons were about the humiliation of the Son of God. He gave up his heavenly glory and became a man; as the Bible says, he “took the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). He suffered, not unintentionally, but deliberately. The way of humiliation went very deep, to being condemned as if he were a wicked criminal, to a terrible and shameful execution. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8)
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world and the hope of all nations, died. The dreams of his followers were squashed. The disciples from Emmaus tearfully confessed: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) But what Jesus’ disciples had to learn yet, we know. It is the heart of our Christian faith. When Jesus died, the victory was won. Because his death on the cross dealt the decisive blow to the powers of evil, the guilt of sin, and to Satan himself. You might say that in the death of the Son of God, death itself died.
The death of death.
1. The death of the Son of God
2. The death of our physical death
3. The death of our old self
The death of the Son of God
Jesus of Nazareth was born like a normal baby, and walked the earth as a man among other men, yet he was the eternal Son of God. This miracle of the Incarnation is so wonderful that we can hardly understand it. How can someone who is God in his very Person, take upon himself the limitations and weaknesses of human existence? But the mystery does not end there; Jesus also shared in the deepest suffering, and faced the grimmest enemy that every man and woman must face at the end of natural life: he faced death and actually died.
The Son of God died. This fact in key; without it, there is no real gospel, no actual salvation, no Christian hope. We cannot believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t first believe in his death. This message of the cross, says Paul, is “a stumbling block for Jews and folly for the Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:22) Throughout history, people have tried to soften this teaching. Some have argued that the body on the cross was not really Jesus of Nazareth anymore, but a mere material shell. Others say that when Jesus died, only his body went through the physiology of dying, but his soul and spirit remained unaffected. But the Bible does not give us this way out. Just as Jesus was a complete human being, so also he fully died. He suffered in body and soul, said Lord’s Day 15. When he breathed his last, his spirit was separated from his body (Luke 23:46). The apostle John reports that a soldier stuck a spear in Jesus’ side and saw watery blood come out, a clear sign of death (John 19:34). Jesus really died.
The gospels also highlight Jesus’ burial. The catechism says: “His burial testified that he had really died.” (q&a 41) This is not the only meaning of Jesus’ burial, but it is true: the placement of his lifeless, cold body in a dark cave underground powerfully shows that Jesus was really dead.
The rest of the Bible is equally clear. Jesus told his disciples early on that he had to be killed. (Mat. 16:21) In Romans 5, Paul twice says bluntly: “Christ died,” and a few chapters later: “Christ is the one who died!” (Rom. 8:34)
We emphasise the reality of Jesus’ death because it is all important. As the catechism says (q&a 40), it was necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death. There was no other way to save sinners like you and me. Remember that our sin deserves nothing less than eternal condemnation and punishment in body and soul. Paul says it powerfully: “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) Sin demands destruction of the sinner, nothing less. We all should have died because of our rebellion against God; and the only reason why we do not receive this punishment, is that Jesus took it all upon himself, and underwent that destructive process of death itself.
Only by dying did Jesus really become the sacrificial Lamb that atones for our sins and restores peace with God. The catechism uses the language of sacrifice in q. 43. There are many aspects to Jesus’ death, but the sacrificial aspect is the most important. The Old Testament practices in tabernacle and temple all centred at animal sacrifices. An animal would be killed, and its blood sprinkled, to cover the sins of people. Once again, the prophecy of Isaiah 53 makes a powerful point: “His soul makes an offering of guilt,” that is, “The sacrifice of his life is a sin offering.”
And in the New Testament the message is just as clear. The Lord’s Supper is the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus, and connects us to his death. In the sacrament, the broken bread is his mangled body, and the wine is his poured out blood. Only when we have fellowship with Jesus’ death, through a living faith, are we saved and free from our sin. Only in this way the justice and truth of God are satisfied.
The death of our physical death
But if Jesus died on our behalf, why do we still have to die? The catechism asks this question for a practical reason. We discussed some of this in the previous lesson: Jesus suffered, but there is still suffering in the life of Christians. But at the heart of human suffering is our dying, and our fear of death, and our struggle to escape death. Why do we still deal with all that, if Jesus died for us?
Our physical death is real, even if we are Christians. It is a true separation of body and soul; and when believers are buried, their bodies do decay. Yet the Bible calls their death “falling asleep”; and Paul sings in 1 Cor. 15:54-55: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” As if for Christians, death doesn’t even matter anymore.
Most of us have stood at the graveside of people we loved, and their death is very real for us. They are gone from this world, and they won’t come back. That is real. But the Bible teaches us to see it in a bigger perspective that takes the sting out of death. “The sting of death is sin,” Paul observes, and since Jesus has dealt with our sin, the sting of death is gone. Our dying is no longer linked to the wrath of God. Our death is not a payment for our sin. Yes, death came into the world because of human sin, and it is still an ugly thing, a last enemy we must face, it does not in any way reflect God’s hatred of us.
When the criminal on the cross next to Jesus asked for forgiveness, Jesus promised: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Our bodies may be buried, but our “self” will be with God in glory. Our death becomes, as it were, a door from this life of sin and suffering to the very presence of God: it is an entrance into eternal life. Paul uses the following picture: “We know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1)
Dying will never be easy, and it is still an ugly thing. But for Christians it is not a punishment, not a bad thing, not a loss, but (as Paul wrote) “to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21) The catechism observes that our physical death puts an end to sin, and for anyone who is truly sorry about offending God and who has fought a lifelong fight against his sinful inclinations, this is a great promise. Here is a profound test of our faith and our Christian hope: Are you still afraid of death? Or do you trust that, by God’s grace, a better and greater life is waiting after you pass through that door? Many Christians have found peace in that fact on their deathbeds.
Christians should not fear physical death. The only death that we should be truly afraid of is what the Bible calls the “second death” (Rev. 20:14). “This is the second death, the lake of fire.” When the Lord will eventually judge all people, the living and the dead, those whose sins are not covered by the blood of Jesus will undergo this eternal death and condemnation to hell. We will discuss this more in later lessons.
The death of our old self
So when Jesus died on the cross, he brought the perfect sacrifice for sin. If we have faith in him, our death is no longer a punishment, but an entrance into eternal life. We can now live without worry or fear about the future.
But that does not mean that we can now live as if nothing happened. The death of Christ does not leave us unaffected. On the contrary. Because faith, true saving faith, means an active commitment to following Jesus. In the previous lesson, I mentioned that we follow Jesus on his way of suffering. Jesus said: “Take up your cross and follow me.” (e.g. Mat. 16:24) That means that we also follow him in his death. The apostles Paul uses the same language. He tells us that “we were buried with him by baptism into death” and “united with him in a death like his.” (Rom. 6:4-5)
Paul then explains more clearly: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Rom. 6:6-7)
When we think about Jesus dying on the cross, we should think of it as the death of all that is sinful in our human life. Our sinful self, our “flesh”, as the Bible often calls it. Our old nature, as we inherited it from our Adam and Eve, every part of us that has been affected by sin and enslaved by the powers of evil. If we belong to Jesus, then that part of us died on the cross along with him. In the words of the catechism: Through Christ’s death, our old nature is crucified, put to death, and buried with him.
This is powerful language and it must become a powerful reality in the life of every Christian. “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:11) We cannot be content with our old life; if we are, we are disobedient and uncommitted to our Lord, and essentially deny his sacrifice on the cross; then our faith is not real and we still live in our sin.
Our calling is to follow Jesus and take up our cross. That does not just mean passive suffering, but we must actively crucify our old self. The evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us, no longer dictate our lives. “Put to death what is earthly in you,” says Col. 3:5. That includes “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness” and other things that God hates. Being a Christian is hard and painful work, because it means ripping yourself away from all that your sinful self wants. This is so difficult that we only learn this step by step, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the way of continual prayer.
In the end, it is not only Jesus who offered his life as a sacrifice. We, too, must offer our lives as a sacrifice to God. Not as a guilt offering or sin offering—Jesus did that already, and his sacrifice is perfect. But as a sacrifice of thankfulness. In the well-known words of Romans 12:1: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As we put to death and burn away whatever is unholy and against God in our lives, a new self grows in us, which is holy and directed to God. Because not only have we died with Jesus; he also gives us a new life through his resurrection from the dead. We will discuss this in an upcoming lesson.
The death of the Son of God is so important, that Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) By becoming the perfect sacrifice, Jesus made satisfaction for our sins. That sacrifice applies to us if only we belong to Jesus in faith.
When he was crucified on the cross, our old nature was crucified with him. When he died, our sinful self was put to death. When he was buried, our unholiness was buried as well. This death of our old self must become reality in our everyday life, as we work hard not to live in sin but embrace the new life that Jesus’s Spirit gives us.
If we embrace our Lord Jesus in his death, all is well. Then we are dead to sin, and the devil has no claim on us. Then we can face our physical death without fear, because it has become an entrance into eternal life with God. Then even our everyday life, though still affected by sin, is worth living because it becomes a sacrifice of thankfulness to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
- Did only Jesus’ body die on the cross, or was his soul/spirit also involved? Why does that matter?
- Why could Jesus only be our Saviour by dying?
- What is the importance of Jesus’ burial?
- How is the death of a believer different from that of an unbeliever?
- In what was does Jesus’ death become our death, even while we are alive?
- Our Christians lives must become a sacrifice—but how is this different from the sacrifice that Jesus offered?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Matthew 27:45-56. What is special about the way Jesus died? How did the people around Jesus react?|
|Tuesday||Matthew 27:57-66. How did Jesus’ followers try to honour him after his death? How did the Jewish leaders react?|
|Wednesday||Romans 5:1-11. What meaning does the death of Jesus have for us?|
|Thursday||1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. How does Paul apply Jesus’ death to Christian living? What does he mean by “whether we are awake or asleep”? (v. 10; see also v. 4:13)|
|Friday||Romans 6:1-14. What does it mean practically to “have died with Christ” and to “be untied with him in death”?|
|Saturday||Revelation 5. How does the Lord Jesus appear to John in his vision? What is the meaning of this? How do v. 9-10 summarize the gospel?|