Heidelbasics: Brief Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. David Fagrey, Pastor of Grace Reformed Church of Rapid City, SD
37. What do you understand by the word suffered?
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
Questions 37-44 explain the biblical basis of article 4 of the Apostles Creed: “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.” We begin with the word “suffered.” From the moment of His birth to the hour of His death, Jesus Christ suffered all the miseries and weaknesses of our humanity, except for sin (Heb. 4:15). He hungered, thirsted, was fatigued, and afflicted with sadness and grief. “He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). His most bitter anguish of soul was on the cross, where He suffered the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. It was this that caused Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have Your forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). “Christ suffered… according to the human nature only, both in body and soul; for the divine nature is immutable, impassible [incapable of suffering or feeling pain], immortal, and life itself, and so cannot die” (Ursinus, 215). Christ suffered and was forsaken in His humanity in the place of humanity, so all who believe in Him will never be forsaken.
38. Why did He suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?
That He, being innocent, might be condemned by the temporal judge, and thereby deliver us from the severe judgment of God, to which we were exposed.
Jesus Christ suffered the grossest injustice under Pontius Pilate, because Pilate officially declared Him innocent (“I find no fault with this man”), but then condemned Him to die by crucifixion! This was God’s plan (John 19:11), so that it might be perfectly clear that Jesus Christ was condemned to die–not for his own sins, but for the sins of all who would believe in Him. The innocent was declared guilty so that the guilty might be declared innocent, as it says in 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ has suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.”
39. Is there anything more in His having been crucified than if He had suffered some other death?
Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me, because the death of the cross was accursed of God.
It was necessary for Jesus Christ to die by crucifixion (being nailed to a cross made of two pieces of wood), because it was an Old Testament curse for a criminal’s dead body to be hung on a tree; as a warning to others that “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23). If Jesus had died in some other way, then “His death would not have been counted as accursed of God, a punishment for sin on behalf of you and me” (Jones, Study Helps, 87). “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree)” (Gal. 3:13). Christ’s accursed death on the cross saved us from God’s eternal curse upon sin!