As lousy moments go, it was one of the lousiest. It was during a visit to Stordahl Lutheran Cemetery. Not much there. The church building is gone. Only the bell and cemetery remain. From that forlorn spot of prairie, I could see my grandfather’s homestead across the terrain and my father’s grave at my feet. We had buried him a couple weeks earlier.
Death is bad enough all by itself, but Paul speaks of its sting. “The sting of death is sin.” (1 Corinthians 15:56) “Sin is the point of the spear that kills us.”1 Who wants to think that his father died because, due to his sin, he deserved it? I hope no one.
Yet, for every one of us, it is the bitter truth. “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) For us to die is not humiliation because we have earned it. Harsh? Yes. Reality? Yes. Every spiritual autopsy comes to the same answer: the cause of death is sin.
Still, there is something worse: the death of a righteous man, an innocent man. For Jesus to die is quite a different thing than it is for us to die. He had not earned death. Death was not due him. For Jesus, to die was an injustice. “In his humiliation justice was denied him.” (Acts 8:33)
Practically everyone knew it. “He went about doing good,” (Acts 10:38) Yet leaders sought testimony to put him to death. They found none. Many bore false witness, but their testimony did not agree. (Mark 14:55-56) While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man.” (Matthew 27:19) Pilate said, “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod. Nothing deserving death has been done by him.” (Luke 23:14-15)
But Pilate’s judgment contradicted his verdict. Jesus died under condemnation of guilt, and He was counted with transgressors “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” (Luke 23:32)
Judas told the authorities, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They replied, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” (Matthew 27:4)
When Jesus died, “the centurion … praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” (Luke 23:47-48) Lenski says, “They came to witness a show, they left with feelings of woe.”2
Luther relates in a sermon the many testimonies to the innocence of Christ by characters in the history of his passion. Then he says,
But of what use is this testimony? Why do the Evangelists so carefully relate it? … They wish, in view of the abundant proof that Christ was innocent and did not deserve to die, to make us firmer in our faith. They desire to convince us that whatever our blessed Lord Jesus suffered, He suffered for us; and that God laid these afflictions upon Him, and, although He was innocent, would not remove them, so that, by His bearing them, sin might be removed from us and we might be reconciled again to God.3
When these are our thoughts we shall have such comfort that our hearts cannot despair on account of their sin, and that we shall not flee from God as though He were a tyrant or an executioner; but that we shall turn to Him with heartfelt confidence and praise and glorify His mercy,4
Jesus volunteered to humiliate himself in the death we deserved. He volunteered for the injustice of it. Only because He was our substitute, justice slayed him. As we sing in the hymn, “Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, “The deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that justice gave.”5
“Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:8) “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) The injustice done to him makes us righteous.
1. The Lutheran Study Bible, note at 1 Corinthians 15:56 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), p. 1977.
2. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946), p. 1157.
3. Martin Luther, The Sufferings of Jesus Christ for Sinners: a Series of Sermons Delivered by Martin Luther, edited by Chris Rosebrough, Pirate Christian Media, Kindle Edition,4-27-2011, Locations 1258-1263.
4. Martin Luther, The Sufferings of Jesus Christ for Sinners: a Series of Sermons Delivered by Martin Luther, edited by Chris Rosebrough, Pirate Christian Media, Kindle Edition,4-27-2011, Locations 1268-1270.
5 Thomas Kelly, 1804 (1769-1855) alt.