Our close look at the victim ought to convince us that the crucifixion of Jesus should never have taken place. Not only was he innocent of every charge brought against him, but he was without fault of any kind. Now we need to dig even deeper, because the Bible makes it clear that in order to grasp the meaning of his death we need to go back to his birth — and beyond that. This will explain what really happened on the cross and why Jesus chose to go through with it. The Bible takes us there with this stupendous statement:
… though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
In these two sentences there are eight great truths; we dare not miss one of them.
• Jesus was ‘in the form of God'. This does not mean that he had the same size or shape as God, as ‘God is spirit' (John 4:24) and has neither of these. It means that even before time began Jesus had all of God's attributes and nature. To put it simply, he was eternally, truly and totally God.
• He ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped'. Glorious as his heavenly existence was, he did not cling to it as if nothing else mattered, but relinquished it in the interests of others.
• He ‘made himself nothing'. The phrase literally means ‘he emptied himself', underlining what we have just seen. He laid aside the majesty and glory that were eternally his in heaven — though without giving up any of his divine nature.
• He ‘[took] the form of a servant'. Just as he was truly God, so he truly became a servant, not only of his heavenly Father, but also of mankind. As he himself told his followers, ‘I am among you as the one who serves' (Luke 22:27).
• He was ‘born in the likeness of men'. He became what he had never been before. He remained fully divine, yet became fully human. As the British theologian J. I. Packer writes:
God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught like any other child… The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets.6
• He was ‘found in human form'. Although his outward appearance was normal (he did not have a halo or wings), there was more to him than met the eye. Those who called him ‘the carpenter's son' (Matthew 13:55) missed a far greater truth. Although he remained divine, he was a real man, not merely disguised as one.
• He ‘humbled himself'. In leaving heaven for earth Jesus was not a conscript but a volunteer. He chose to leave eternity and submit himself to the limitations of time and space.
• He became ‘obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross'. He knew exactly what would be involved in his earthly mission. He was not trapped in a Catch-22 situation and forced into something against his will. Though he would need to die to accomplish his life's mission, he never flinched from paying that price. Death on a cross was a barbaric form of execution, not practised by his own people, the Jews, and reserved by the Romans for those they considered the scum of society.
Then why did God, in the person of Jesus Christ, leave heaven, become a human being, submit to all the hardships and pressures of life on earth, and allow himself to be reviled, persecuted, tortured and eventually put to death in the most degrading way known to man? The answer is summed up in something the apostle Paul wrote to a group of early Christians at Corinth:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Examining this statement phrase by phrase will give us the answer we need.
To say of Jesus that ‘he was rich' before he was born may be the greatest understatement of all time, as his riches were far beyond our understanding.
He was rich in possessions
The Bible tells us, ‘For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him' (Colossians 1:16, emphasis added). Every created thing, from the vastest galaxy to the tiniest particle in the universe, owes its existence to him. There is not an atom, a molecule, a neutron, a proton, a photon, an electron, a quasar or a quark which is not his by right of creation. As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!"'7
He was rich in authority
Centuries before Jesus was born Isaiah prophesied:
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness,
from this time forth and for evermore
Another prophecy acknowledged him as a king whose throne is ‘as the days of the heavens' (Psalm 89:29), while in the New Testament we read of ‘angels, authorities, and powers' being ‘subjected to him' (1 Peter 3:22).
He was rich in power
The universe is not a haphazard collection of unrelated objects, but is governed by natural laws that give it order and integrity. The Bible tells us that these laws are determined and maintained by Jesus Christ, the one in whom ‘all things hold together' (Colossians 1:17). It is his awesome power that prevents the cosmos from disintegrating into chaos. As the modern French author Guy Appéré puts it, ‘It is impossible to explain either the future or the past, the end or the beginning of the universe … apart from Jesus Christ.'8
He was rich in honour
In the last book of the Bible we find every living creature worshipping Jesus and ascribing to him ‘blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever' (Revelation 5:13). If all the honours and awards, tributes and trophies, decorations and distinctions given in human history could be valued, they would be like cheap costume jewellery compared to the infinite honour eternally due to Jesus.
He was rich in glory
Praying to God the Father, Jesus spoke of ‘the glory that I had with you before the world existed' (John 17:5). Again, we are out of our depth. Our minds are incapable of grasping the splendour of God's glory, which is so wonderful that even the highest angelic beings cover their faces in his presence (see Isaiah 6:2).
We are then told that Jesus ‘became poor', another massive understatement beyond our reach. When he added human nature to his divine nature this brought poverty, something he had never known before. He exchanged the perfect harmony of heaven for the turmoil of life on earth, with its pressures and pains, trials and tensions, conflicts and crises. He exchanged being worshipped by angels for being reviled by his enemies. The one by whom ‘all things were created' (Colossians 1:16) had to borrow a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee (see Mark 4:35-41), a donkey to ride into Jerusalem (see Luke 19:28-40) and a coin to give an illustration (see Luke 20:19-26). The one who owned every square inch of Earth was so poor that he had ‘nowhere to lay his head' (Luke 9:58). The one who created water as a liquid compound with its molecule made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms (H2O) had to ask someone to give him a drink when he became thirsty (see John 4:1-7). Even in death his corpse was laid in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:57-61).
These are vivid illustrations of what it meant for the one who created all time, space and matter to step into their limitations. It was a humiliation without parallel. To raise awareness of the city's homeless problem, Britain's Prince William once opted to spend the night in an old sleeping bag on a ‘mattress' of cardboard boxes in an alleyway near Blackfriars Bridge, London. The overnight temperature fell to -4°C and a spokesman said that the prince may have only had ‘a couple of hours' sleep'. Yet the spot was carefully chosen for safety, the prince was accompanied by an armed personal protection officer, his private secretary and the chief executive of Centrepoint, the charity of which he was patron — and, as the Daily Mail commented, ‘He did have the prospect of a big lunch at Buckingham Palace the next day to keep his spirits up.'9 His gesture was highly commendable, but it does not bear any resemblance to what Jesus did in becoming a man.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, ‘The Eternal Being who knows everything and who created the whole universe became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a [foetus] inside a woman's body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.'10 Yet even this gets nowhere near the staggering truth of what happened when Jesus laid aside his heavenly glory and chose to become human, a truth made even more amazing when we read that he did this ‘for your sake'. Jesus had nothing to gain from humbling himself, restricting himself to time and space, exposing himself to trauma and temptation and allowing himself to be mocked and rejected, tortured and crucified. Instead, he did all this for others.
[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from "Why the Cross?" by Dr. John Blanchard (EP Books, 2011). To read part 1 of this article series, please click here, for part 2 click here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here.] For a complete copy of this series now, click here.