Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 15 - Suffered Under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified
Question 37: What do you confess when you say
that he suffered?
Answer 37: During all the time he lived on earth,
but especially at the end,
Christ bore in body and soul
the wrath of God against the sin
of the whole human race.
Thus, by his suffering,
as the only atoning sacrifice,
he has redeemed our body and soul
from everlasting damnation,
and obtained for us
the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
It is as if the Apostolicum skips the major part in its description of Jesus’ life. It mentions that he was born of the virgin Mary and then suddenly notes that he suffered under Pontius Pilate. That suffering was at the end of his life because he did not get to deal with Pilate until the morning of the day of his death. But between being born and suffering there are approximately thirty years of his life. The last three of these he preached and performed miracles. Four books in the NT tell us about that. Why does the Creed not say anything about that period?
Of course it is inconceivable that the Creed forgot that part of Jesus’ life or didn't think it was important enough. There is only one explanation for this quick transition from his birth to his suffering: he suffered all the time of his life on earth, starting from when he was born. This suffering was already there when there was no room for him in the inn and when, as a baby, he had to flee to Egypt because Herod was seeking his life. Therefore, when we speak about Christ’s suffering we are not talking about the last part but about all of his lifetime. His life consisted of suffering. But it was not only the duration of his suffering in which Jesus surpassed all men. Christians, too, sometimes had to go through much suffering from childhood onwards. But they did not come into the world in order to be arrested, mocked and tortured to death. If that did happen it was a sad consequence of their faithfulness to God, but not the purpose of their lives. They were looking for life and not seeking death.
It was different with Jesus: he came specifically to suffer and thus to carry God’s wrath against sin.1 Suffering was not his lot in life, but it was his achievement in life. With deliberate intent he met the fury of God’s wrath against our sins. That is what made his life on earth so incomparable. That is why the Apostolicum rightly uses that heavy-laden word: to describe the entire accomplishment of Jesus’ life: he suffered.
What Makes His Suffering So Special
What Jesus bore was the burden of God’s anger against sin. And nothing else. The Catechism does not mention a single word about the many people who oppressed him, while in the accounts of the Evangelists we come across many such people: the Jews who rejected him, the Sanhedrin that brooded and argued until he was dead, the soldiers who tortured him, Judas, and Peter. But even Pilate remains out of the picture here.
Why is all the emphasis placed so unilaterally on the wrath of God?
Because that is the only thing we have to deal with now. The people of that time no longer play any role in our lives, but God’s wrath is still a burning reality today. And that will remain so because our sins continue to evoke God’s holy indignation, with all the consequences of it.
That is why life is so perilous on earth. Not because of nuclear weapons and diseases or damage to the ozone layer, but because God's wrath descends from heaven.2 No one can take effective measures against this. All efforts to keep the earth liveable cannot turn this tide. That is why a perfectly happy world remains a utopia. But just as a lightning rod draws the fire of heaven to itself and thereby protects the surroundings, so Jesus drew this wrath upon himself, which was destined for us. Whoever believes in him can already live in the safety zone where all things — even any setback — are to work out for our good.
Criticism On the Doctrine Of the Atonement
Is God really so outraged on account of our sins? And is an appeal to Jesus until today the only way to escape his wrath? Did Jesus really come to earth some 2,000 years ago specifically to bear that wrath for us? Does the Bible say so? There are evil tongues that claim that God’s wrath is not all that bad. He does not demand full restitution from us. Not even through Jesus. True, he did die — but wicked people have that on their conscience. God did not want it, let alone that he demanded such a thing. They reject any thought that God demanded payment for our sins from his Son. Even without dying on the cross, Jesus could have been our saviour, so they claim.3 The Bible strongly refutes these thoughts that have become popular. Jesus was not the helpless victim of circumstances for he could have asked for twelve legions of angels. He would have been granted them.4 That he refrained from doing so was because he purposefully accepted his suffering as the cup that the Father gave him to drink.5 Therefore, “in His suffering he was fully active and conscious from beginning to end, and even on the cross he refused the narcotic drink of myrrh and accepted the sour wine”.6 On his part, too, God himself ultimately and intentionally abandoned him.7 In the end, the hatred of men ultimately played only a minor role. That is the testimony of the NT.
And the OT speaks no differently.
According to Isaiah, it was the LORD’s will to crush the man of sorrows — that is Jesus — and to put him to grief.8 And that this man of sorrows sought the suffering for a purpose is evident in that same passage of Scripture: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and sicknesses.”9He took it upon himself willingly.
Both the OT and the NT assure us that Jesus came to bear God’s wrath for us.
To our sense of justice, this is not easily explained. We regard it as inconceivable that a father would knowingly punish his one son for what someone else has done wrong. It is impossible for him to be seriously angry with the child who is not at fault, while indulging the wrongdoer. But what is impossible with men is what God has done. He has brought down his wrath on our sin upon the One who had neither part nor parcel of it. How could he be seriously angry with his own beloved Son? How could he abandon him in the very worst desolation? How could the divine indignation about our crimes burst forth against Jesus who was perfectly innocent? To all these questions there is only one answer: because he wanted it. And his will is also the highest law. According to that right, another was allowed to pay for us.10
Let that divine right be the end of all contradiction — and the start of our amazement.
Only adoration is fitting here:
O Jesus Christ, our God and Lord,
Son of the heavenly Father,
O thou, who hast our peace restored,
The straying sheep dost gather;
Thou Lamb of God, to thee on high
Out of the depths we sinners cry:
Have mercy on us, Jesus! 11
Of the Whole Human Race
Jesus bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. That has a generous sound to it. Will all people be saved after all? No, but only those who truly believe.12 That sounds less generous. However, we need to keep two things clearly apart: that not all people are saved is not because Christ’s sacrifice would be insufficient. God’s grace is abundant. More than enough. For everyone. There is never a need to declare a stop in churches or on mission fields because the maximum number of people who can be saved has been reached. And no one ever has to worry about knocking too often on God’s door for forgiveness. There is no maximum limit to this. Those who repeatedly submit expensive bills to their insurance company run the risk of being rejected in the long run. Here, never! Never because of bills being too steep. The mercy fund that Jesus founded never gets overloaded. Because his death is more than enough to atone for the sins of the entire world.13 Pass it on — spread the word!14
Question 38: Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?
Answer 38: Though innocent, Christ was condemned
by an earthly judge,
and so he freed us
from the severe judgment of God
that was to fall on us.
The suffering of Jesus involved many more people but only Pilate is mentioned by name in the Twelve Articles. Why him? Not because Pilate had the greatest guilt for that is not true.15 Nor because he was the best informed about Jesus, for he understood virtually nothing about him. He did not even know that Jesus came from Galilee.16
The Catechism calls Pilate the earthly judge and that will be the reason for his mention. As a judge he did two things: he officially established Jesus’ innocence, and yet he condemned him. Both the one and the other are of the greatest significance to us.
Pilate Found No Guilt in Jesus
Judge Pilate’s final verdict was: “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him”.17
Perhaps a strange question, but what value did that judgment have, even if the man was absolutely right? He was a pagan who based his judgment not on God’s Law but on Roman law. And further, he was only concerned with the question of whether Jesus had rebelled against the emperor of Rome. That charge he radically rejected. He did not pronounce more. Nor was more presented to him. In his eyes, Jesus was no danger to Rome. Case closed! That was all. But he would just as easily have declared Caiaphas or Judas innocent in that way.
The NT therefore does not state anywhere that Jesus was not guilty because Pilate pronounced it to be so. His statement had little value in terms of content. It was far too limited and, above all, far too superficial for that.
Yet Jesus saw in him more than the stupid heathen whose judgment was worthless. Pilate had received his power from God.18 Ultimately he was the man who was authorized and obligated to pronounce, on behalf of God, the binding final verdict against Jesus. When, based on his pagan considerations he ruled that Jesus was not guilty, this was in spite of him the public and official final judgment of the heavenly court.19
Why Else Was Pilate’s Judgment Important?
Jesus was led before two entirely different courts: that of the Jewish Sanhedrin and that of the Roman Pilate. The Sanhedrin pronounced: he is guilty and deserves to die. Pilate, on the other hand, found no guilt in him. But which judge was most competent and capable of pronouncing a judgment on Jesus?
The Sanhedrin knew God’s Law. Pilate did not. Pilate had no understanding of the Jewish religion and he was too proud to get himself involved with it.20
Should the judgment of the Sanhedrin not weigh much more heavily for us than that of the heathen judge? The Jewish court was the appropriate body to demonstrate unambiguously from the word of God what the guilt of Jesus was. Its members were given every opportunity to do so. If there ever was the right time, they had to show from the law why Jesus had to be rejected. We may therefore be curious to learn what they brought against Jesus. After all, this became the hour of truth!
But how did it go? Ideally, they would have accused Jesus of some violation of the law. To accomplish this, they called in false witnesses. They accused Jesus of all sorts of things. If they had succeeded, Jesus would have gone down in history as an ordinary lawbreaker. The deepest cause of their hatred of him — that he was the Messiah — would then have remained hidden from the eyes of the world.
But God blew away that smokescreen.
They could not manage to come up with a charge.21 They got stuck. This forced them to abandon all devious side-paths and focus, through their high priest, on the heart of the matter: “are you the Christ, the Son of God?”22 Then it became crystal clear that Jesus was condemned simply because he was the Christ, the Son of God. And because he was indeed, he was condemned entirely innocently. The whole world needed to know forever both the one and the other.
Immediately afterwards, this clarity threatened to disappear again. For the Jews realized that they were forced to have Pilate pronounce the death sentence. According to a fairly widespread view this was necessary because they themselves did not have the authority to carry out the death penalty. It is also defended that they had such authority, but that the procedure according to Jewish law would take too much time in this case. Their fierce desire to kill Jesus before the Sabbath — and so at the latest on (Good) Friday — was then impracticable to carry out. Therefore, for this time they would hand over the procedure to Pilate who could apply summary justice without any hassles.23 Be that as it may, the Jews needed Pilate. But this man was completely insensitive to the grounds of the Jewish verdict. He did not care if Jesus had spoken any blasphemies. The Jews knew that. That is why they kept silent about it to him. Instead, they came up with the political charge that Jesus, as king of the Jews, was stirring up the people against the emperor of Rome.24 By doing so, they were trying to put pressure on Pilate.
But that was not their actual grievance against Jesus. Not at all! Again, the real charge threatened to end up being sidetracked.
That is why God caused Pilate to stubbornly declare this political charge was entirely unfounded. So the Jews were once again forced to reveal their true motives: “We have a law and according to that law he ought to die, because (!) he has made himself the Son of God.”25
This real motive for his death was not to be hidden. The whole world had to know what ultimately moved the Jews to have Jesus condemned. It was his confession that he was God’s Son. That had to become public. Thus God made sure that the true reason for Jesus’ death became perfectly obvious. All kinds of future whispering campaigns were quashed in advance.
Jesus was not condemned for all sorts of obscure reasons, but because he was the Christ, the Son of God. Pilate had to cooperate to achieve this clarity, 26 even though he then formally condemned Jesus on political grounds according to Roman law.
Question 39: Does it have a special meaning
that Christ was crucified
and did not die in a different way?
Answer 39: Yes.
Thereby I am assured
that he took upon himself
the curse which lay on me,
for a crucified one
was cursed by God.
Jesus could only die in one way. The death by crucifixion was a prolonged and painful torture. With deep emotion we learn how he suffered for us. The Catechism later speaks of unspeakable anguish, pain, terror and agony.27 The NT, however, does not put the emphasis on the physical pain. It calls us to believe in Christ crucified and not to pity him. If that were the case, the ministers would have to preach about the crucifixion in such a graphic way that the hearers would be moved to deep sorrows. Then we would have to concentrate so deeply on his suffering that it was as if we were present. But the Lord spares us from what his own mother did have to witness. There was no video recording that shocks us and there were no photographers yet. What is more telling is that God has not given us a detailed account of his hours of suffering. Many questions that we might ask based on our feelings are not answered. One question about the cross is important for the expectation of our faith. That is what the Catechism asks it.
Why Was He Crucified?
Jesus could have been stoned to death. Sometimes it was a close call or he would have been.28 But God drove the Jews to Judge Pilate and in that way worked out his intention for Jesus to undergo the Roman punishment of death on the cross. He had to. It does in fact have a special meaning. Anyone who was hung on a wood was cursed by God. Therefore this applied to Christ as well.29 That was a foregone conclusion. And therefore it is equally an inescapable conclusion that Jesus transferred the curse that was on me to himself.
Being “cursed” belongs to the darkest words of the Bible. A curse penetrates our lives like an all-destructive force. It continues to work through us, even in times of prosperity and well-being. It pushes us toward eternal destruction.
It concerns here a harsh reality that every human being has to deal with. The Catechism speaks about "the curse which lay on me”. That came shockingly close: on me. I was weighed down by it and took it with me wherever I went. I could not shake it off. Even though I would travel all over the world, no one would be able to take that curse away from me. There was nowhere to get rid of it. That was the reality.
Yet faith expects that this curse is gone from my life. And will stay away — in spite of lingering faults.
The basis for that expectation is the death on the cross of Christ, which is proof that he took the curse that was meant for us upon himself.
I will forever glory in the cross of my Lord!