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
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
"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.