This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(37) Q. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
A. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.
(38) Q. Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
A. So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
(39) Q. Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?
A. Yes. By this death I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.
Jesus summarized eternal life like this: to know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ” whom he has sent (John 17:3). We know God through the revelation of his Son. And to know Jesus we must know his suffering. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Few things were more important to Paul than knowing “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He found unmatched confidence “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). In his time of ignorance, Peter was offended by Jesus’s talk of his suffering (Matt. 16:21–22). But when the Spirit awakened him and inspired him to write about his Savior, his first words praised the “sprinkling of his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2).
As sufferers living in a world of suffering, we need a suffering Savior.
Jesus Suffered Constantly
The only thing the Apostles’ Creed says about the time between Jesus’s life and his death is that he suffered. “During his whole life on earth . . . Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sins of the whole human race.” He took on humanity so that he could ache with us in a way that pure divinity could not. Jesus was hunted from the beginning. He was denied and deserted by friends, scorned by enemies, let down by parents, misunderstood by everyone. He was mocked while raising the dead (Matt. 9:24). He was falsely charged with serious sin (Matt. 11:19). He lost loved ones (John 11). He wept as he contemplated the destruction of those who would not believe in him (Luke 19:41). Temptation to sin aggravated Jesus far worse than it frustrates us.
His whole life Jesus expected the nightmarish climax of his suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries,” tormented by the imminence of being plunged into hell (Heb. 5:7). He begged his Father to deliver him from it. On the verge of death the worst thing happened—he lost his sense of God’s closeness.
Why would Jesus willingly endure this? “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience by what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8–9). By his active obedience, Jesus lived the life we need: he fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, and laid up for us a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:6–8; 1 Tim. 6:12–13). By his passive obedience, Jesus endured God’s wrath against sin so that we could experience his eternal love. There was no better way for God to assure us of his great love for us than by having his beloved Son suffer for us.
Jesus Suffered Legal Condemnation
It almost surprises us that Jesus lived long enough to have “suffered under Pontius Pilate”—his enemies constantly conspired to kill him quickly and quietly (e.g. John 10:31). By mentioning Pilate, the creed pinpoints the event on history’s timeline. Jesus’s suffering isn’t a religious metaphor but a historical reality that happened not in a corner but on a public stage (Acts 26:26).
But there is a more theological reason why Jesus “suffered ‘under Pontius Pilate’ as judge.” God condemned his Son through the public declaration of a legitimate government which he himself had instituted (Rom. 13:1). Pilate was “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Pilate had authority over Jesus because God gave him that authority (John 19:9–10). In Pilate, an ungodly judge officially confirmed that Jesus was suffering unjustly; three times Pilate told the crowd that he found no fault in Christ (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Yet he condemned him to death because “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa. 53:10).
Jesus’s death under Pontius Pilate is a great encouragement. Because Jesus was condemned under Pilate acting as God’s servant, carrying out “whatever [God’s] hand and [his] plan had determined to take place” (Acts 4:28), we can be assured that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). John Calvin put it this way, “This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God [Isa. 53:12]. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious through life—as if God’s righteous vengeance … still hung over us.”[i] It doesn’t. In God’s courtroom in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago he declared Jesus legally guilty of our sin.
Jesus Suffered under a Curse
Most obituaries don’t mention the cause of death. What matters, usually, is not how our loved one died but that they died. So why does the creed—which so rigorously condenses the Bible’s message—say that Christ was crucified? What if young Jesus had been killed by Herod (Matt. 2:16)? What if the synagogue leaders had succeeded in throwing him over the cliff of mount Jerusalem (Luke 4:29)? What if he had been stoned by an angry mob (John 10:31–39)? What if he had died by heart attack or sickness?
How Christ died helps us understand why he died. Thousands of years before Pilate, God said that “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23). Jesus died by crucifixion; he was hanged on a wooden structure by nails driven through his hands and feet. God preserved the life of his dear Son so that he could be killed, not in any way, but on a cross. Knowing that good people aren’t crucified, the crowd didn’t simply demand that Pilate kill Jesus, but that he crucify him.
You and I deserve to die an accursed death. “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). But “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). On the cross, Jesus heard the reverse of the Aaronic benediction (Num. 6:24–26): The Lord curse you and harm you. The Lord turn his face against you and be merciless toward you. The Lord frown upon you and make war against you. Christ completely absorbed God’s wrath against his children so that we could receive God’s blessing.
One day God will make an end to the suffering of his loved ones. Until that day, we trust in Christ who has suffered and been exalted. Because of Christ’s suffering, though we suffer now, one day we too will be exalted.
[i] Institutes, 2.16.5