Crucifixion is a cruel form of execution, generally reserved for slaves and rebels. Death is agonizing and slow, the result of shock, exposure and, eventually, suffocation.
For Jesus, though, the pain of the cross pales in the face of a greater anguish. There is a deeper torment that cannot be seen, one no words can adequately express. It’s more excruciating than the lashes tearing Jesus’ flesh from His frame, more dreadful than the nails that pin His body to the timbers. It is a dark, terrible, incalculable agony—an infinite misery—that God the Father unleashes upon His sinless Son as if He were guilty of an immeasurable evil.
Why punish the innocent One?
Nailed to the top of the cross is an official notice, a certificate of debt to Caesar, posted at the place of punishment as a public notification of Jesus’ crime of sedition. It reads, “King of the Jews.” The cross is payment for this debt. When punishment is complete, Caesar’s court will cancel the debt with a single Greek word stamped upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai. Paid, completed, done, finished.
Of course, being king of the Jews is not the real crime Jesus pays for. Hidden to all but the Father is another decree of debt nailed to that cross, identifying our crimes—the “decrees against us”—before our Sovereign.
In the darkness that shrouds Calvary from the sixth to the ninth hour, the divine transaction takes place. Jesus makes a trade with the Father. Punishment adequate for all the crimes of all humanity—every murder, every theft, every lustful glance, every hidden act of vice, every modest moment of pride, every monstrous deed of evil—punishment adequate for every crime of every person who ever lived—Jesus takes upon Himself as if guilty of all.
And in the end, the cross does not take Jesus’ life. He does not die of exposure, or loss of blood, or suffocation. Rather, when the full payment is made, when the last of the debt melts away and the justice of God is fully satisfied, Jesus dismisses His spirit and dies.
But before He does, a single Greek word escapes His lips: Tetelestai. It’s translated, “It is finished,” but this is not a sigh of relief. It is a “loud cry” of victory. The divine transaction is complete.
Jesus took our guilt so we could take His goodness. That’s the trade. Paul put it this way, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
The story is told of a king who, having discovered a theft in the royal treasury, decrees that the criminal be publicly flogged for this affront to the crown. When soldiers haul the thief before the king as he sits in his judgment seat, there in chains stands the frail form of the king’s own mother.
Without flinching, he orders the old woman to be bound to the whipping post in front of him. When she is secured, he stands up, lays down his imperial scepter, sets aside his jeweled crown, removes his royal robes, steps down to the whipping post, and enfolds the tiny old woman with his own nearly naked body. Bearing his back to the whip, he orders that the punishment commence. Every blow meant for the criminal—his mother—lands with full force upon the bare back of the king, until the last lash falls.
In like manner, during those dark hours when Jesus hung from the cross, the Father took those who would put their trust in Christ and wrapped us in His Son who shields us, taking every blow that we deserve.
This was not an accident. It was planned. The prophet Isaiah described it 700 years earlier:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore….He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
In case it has not occurred to you, this is the reason Jesus is “the only way.” He is the only one who solved the problem by paying the debt we owed. No other man did this. No other man could. Jesus alone, the perfect Son of God, canceled the debt for whoever trusts in Him. Without Him, we cannot be saved from our overwhelming guilt. Without Him, every one of us would have to pay for our own crimes. And that would take forever.
That is the miracle of the cross, the miracle that couldn’t be seen, the trade. For those who find shelter in Jesus, the anger of God has been spent, unleashed on the body of Christ. The result: God is not angry at us anymore.
Let that thought sink into your soul. For those under the cross, God is not angry anymore. He cannot be angry. Since He already poured all His anger out on His Son, He is emptied of His wrath and is satisfied:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we exult in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 5:1-2)
Of course, this news sounds wonderful to us in hindsight. On that Friday night, though, there were no poetic reflections on atonement or justification. There was just a bloody, brutally beaten corpse hanging from a cross.
Jesus was dead. And he was taken down, and he was buried. And the women were weeping, and the men were hiding. And it was night. And it was day. And it was night again. And it all seemed over. That was the end of it.
And then, something remarkable happened. Exactly what happened has mystified historians. Whatever it was, it changed everything.