Beyond Belief
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

Chapter 8 – The Cross and the Atonement

Far more happened at the cross than shame, suffering, and death.  On the face of it, Jesus’ cruel fate appeared to be a triumph for Satan.  But God took this apparent defeat and turned it into a glorious victory by which the whole human race could be saved.

Paul said:  “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” [1 Corinthians 1:23-25].

In this chapter we will look beyond the terrible physical suffering of Christ on the cross to an even more terrible anguish He endured there.  His physical suffering, awful as it was, played no part in our atonement.  Jesus’ physical pain came from Satan and the cruel men he inspired.  But the supreme sacrifice, the means by which sinners are reconciled to a holy and righteous God, came from another source.

Not only did the cross fully reveal Satan’s malignant hatred, it also revealed the depths of God’s agape love.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” [John 1:14].

At the cross of Christ, God’s glory, His self-sacrificing love, was fully displayed.  Like the disciples, we too must behold that glory if we are to grow into the fullness of His image.  “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” [2 Corinthians 3:18].  Against the cross’ dark background of sin and Satan, God manifested His glory in all its brilliance.  Let’s examine that glory — what it was and what it means to us.  As we do so, let’s lay aside all preconceived ideas and behold the truth as it is in Christ and Him crucified.

We can appreciate the significance of the cross only as we realize what sin has done to us.  Sin separates us from God [see Isaiah 59:2].  It makes us enemies of God [see Romans 5:10].  Thus we need to be reconciled to God, brought into harmony and oneness with Him.  That is what the word atonement means — that sinful human beings have been reconciled to God, brought into “oneness” with Him.  Scripture is clear that it is Christ who has reconciled us to God and that He accomplished this at the cross [see 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Hebrews 2:17; Ephesians 2:16; Romans 5:10].  How did He do this?  How did the death of Christ reconcile us to God?

Besides being something that God hates and cannot tolerate, sin is “lawlessness” [1 John 3:4].  He has made it absolutely clear that “the wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23, cf. Genesis 2:16-17; Ezekiel 18:4, 20].  And this penalty of sin is not just death, but eternal death.

Scripture brings to view two kinds of death.  There is the first death, which the Bible refers to as a “sleep” [see John 11:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:14].  This is the common experience of all humanity, saved and lost alike.  Then there is the second death, which is an eternal death.  It is goodbye to life forever.  This is the death that the lost will experience at the end of the millennium [see Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8].  The first death, terrible as it appears to us, is not the wages of sin.  It is only the consequence of sin.  Therefore, all who die the first death will be resurrected — the saved to eternal life, and the lost to face the second death, the wages of sin.  In the second death, God, the Source of all life, abandons the unrepentant to their own choice of unbelief, leaving them without any hope whatsoever.  Christ’s death on the cross was “to sin” [Romans 6:10].  This simply means that, as our substitute and representative, He experienced on the cross the “second death,” the eternal death that the Bible describes as “the wages of sin” [Romans 6:23].  As Hebrews 2:9 puts it, He “by the grace of God ... might taste death for everyone.”

The Scripture promises that those who have accepted by faith their position in Christ, and who will be raised in the first resurrection, will escape the second death.  “Blessed and holy are those who have part in the second resurrection.  The second death has no power over them...” [Revelation 20:6].  Why do these avoid the second death?  It is because Christ, their Sin Bearer, has already “tasted” the second death for them [Hebrews 2:9].  On the cross, Christ actually experienced the second death on behalf of fallen humanity.  It was this that constituted the supreme sacrifice.

By deceiving the church into believing that men and women have immortal souls, Satan has enshrouded in darkness the glorious truth of what really happened on the cross.  You see, if we possess an immortal soul, then death simply becomes a separation of the soul from the body.  The second death — eternal death — becomes impossible, for the soul continues to live after the body dies.  That is why the Christian church as a whole has focused on Christ’s physical suffering at the crucifixion as His supreme sacrifice for mankind, although, in reality, His physical suffering was no different in nature or degree than that suffered by many humans throughout history.  This is the reason, too, that most Christians believe the wages of sin to be not eternal death but eternal torture in the flames of hell.

By causing the church to view the cross from the Roman perspective, Satan has obscured the real sacrifice of Christ.  Only when we look at the cross from the Jewish point of view, as did the New Testament writers, can we realize its full significance.  The Roman cross was doubtless the most painful and shameful instrument of execution ever devised.  First invented by the Phoenicians around 600 B.C., it was adopted by the Egyptians, who passed it on to the Romans.  The Romans refined the method and used it to execute runaway slaves and the worst class of criminals.  But to the Jews, the cross meant something altogether different than it did to the Romans, something that gives significance to their demand that Christ be crucified.

According to John 19:5-7, the Jews insisted that Christ be crucified because “he claimed to be the Son of God” [verse 7].  However, when we examine the penalty prescribed for blasphemy in the Old Testament, we discover that the law stipulated death by stoning, not crucifixion [see Leviticus 24:16].  Weren’t the Jews in Pilate’s courtyard aware of this?  They certainly were.  Earlier, when Christ declared, “I and the Father are one,” the Jews “picked up stones to stone him” [John 10:30-31].  Why, then, did they demand that Pilate crucify Him, especially when crucifixion was not practiced by the Jews?

The answer is that they had more in mind than merely putting Christ to death.  The Jews equated crucifixion with hanging on a tree, which to them meant that the person so executed was under the irrevocable curse of God [see Deuteronomy 21:23].  For them, this was the same as the second death, eternal death, for remember that the Jews did not believe in the immortality of the human soul.

A good example of the Jews’ idea that hanging someone on a tree represented God’s eternal curse is found in the book of Joshua.  God had told Abraham that He would give the Amorites (an ancient term for the Canaanites) 400 years’ probation in which to accept Him.  During this time, Abraham’s descendants would be slaves in Egypt [see Genesis 15:13-16].  When Joshua was leading the Jews into Canaan at the end of this probationary period, five Canaanite kings joined forces to attack him.  God gave Joshua the victory, and when the five kings were captured, Joshua killed them and had them hanged on five trees as evidence of God’s eternal curse on those who knowingly and deliberately reject Him [see Joshua 10:25-27].

So, to the Jews, Christ being crucified meant much more than mere physical death.  It meant that He was cursed by God, the equivalent of the second death [see Isaiah 53:4, 10].  The curse of God did indeed rest upon Christ at the cross, but not because of blasphemy, as the Jews accused Him.  Christ suffered the second death because God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up [to the full wages of sin] for us all” [Romans 8:32].  Therefore, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written:  ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” [Galatians 3:13]. 

At this point, the question arises, “How could Christ possibly experience the second death, since He was divine?”  Besides, He predicted His own resurrection and actually did rise from the dead.  How could He experience “eternal death”?

Of course, the divinity of Christ did not die on the cross.  Christ died as a man and as our Substitute.  It was our corporate human life, which He assumed at the incarnation and which stood condemned, that died.  Divinity is immortal and, therefore, cannot die either the first or the second death.

But what about His resurrection?  How can we reconcile eternal death with the fact that He rose again?  The answer lies in the “self-emptying” that took place at His incarnation.

When Christ, the second person of the Godhead, was made flesh and became the Son of Man, He “made himself nothing,” “humbled himself,” in order to represent the humanity He came to redeem [Philippians 2:6-8].  What did this actually involve?  Clearly, in order to be our Saviour, Christ placed His entire being, along with every divine prerogative or power, entirely into the hands of the Father.  He willingly, voluntarily made Himself a slave to the Father.  The Father, in turn, took Christ and placed Him in the womb of Mary through the Holy Spirit [see Luke 1:26-35].

This meant that Christ still retained His divinity, but He gave up the independent use of that divinity while living on this earth as our representative and substitute.  That is why the Scripture says that, as a child, Jesus grew in wisdom [see Luke 2:40, 52], something that would not have been possible had He retained His divine prerogatives.  As a man, He declared that He could do nothing apart from the Father [see John 5:19, 30; 6:57].  He had to live on this earth as men have to live:  totally dependent on God by faith alone.

Note the following comparisons between Christ as God and Christ as man:

Immortal.  John 1:4; 5:26.  Mortal.  Romans 10:5; 5:6; 1 Corinthians 15:3.
Creator.  John 1:3; Colossians 1:16.  Made human.  Matthew 2:1; Hebrews 2:9; 10:5.
Knows all things.  John 2:24-25; 16:30.  Must acquire knowledge.  Luke 2:40, 52.
Independent.  John 10:18.  Dependent.  John 5:19, 30; 6:57; 8:28.

As God, all that is true of God the Father is true of Christ.  Likewise, as man, all that is true of humanity was true of Christ [see Hebrews 2:14-17].  Therefore, for Christ, as God, to become like us, He had to empty Himself completely of all His divine prerogatives.  Only then could He be made in all points like as we are and qualify to be our Saviour and Substitute.

This throws important light on His death at the cross.  As the Son of Man, Christ was dependent on His Father not only for His every need, but also for His resurrection.  Even though Christ possessed His own uncreated, unborrowed, divine life, He could not raise Himself from the dead without the authority and direction of the Father.  Scripture clearly teaches that Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father [see Romans 6:4; Acts 2:24, 32; Ephesians 1:20].

Let’s look again at the death of Christ on the cross, this time in the light of the truth about His dependence on His Father.  We have already seen what Satan did to Christ on the cross through evil men.  But besides that, and apart from it, God also did something to His beloved Son on the cross.  Isaiah says that He “laid on him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:6].  The wrath of God against all sin was heaped upon Christ our Sin Bearer as He hung on the cross.  That is why the Bible says that God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” [Romans 8:32; cf. Isaiah 53:4, 10; Romans 4:25].

The sanctuary service revealed this truth when the sacrificial lamb, representing Christ, was consumed by divine fire on the altar [see Leviticus 9:24].  The fire represented God’s wrath against sin [see Hebrews 12:29].  Christ implied this same truth when He instituted the first communion service at the Last Supper in the upper room.  He took the cup and said, “Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Matthew 26:27-28].  Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we hear Him pray in agony three times, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will” [Matthew 26:39].

What did Jesus mean by “this cup”?  The answer is found in the Three Angels’ Message of Revelation 14.

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice:  “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.”

The cup is the irrevocable curse of God, the second death, eternal death.

All during His life on earth, Christ had lived by faith, depending totally upon His Father.  Apart from the Father, Christ could do nothing.  This was part of the price He had to pay in order to be the second Adam, the Saviour of the world.  But at the cross, something terrible happened to Him.  The Father abandoned Him [see Matthew 27:46]!  Christ was left alone and without hope.  Without the hope of the resurrection.  Without the hope of ever seeing His Father again.

The eternal life Christ possessed, and which He had placed in the Father’s charge at the incarnation, was now being taken from Him in order that God might give it to the fallen human race.  In turn, the second death, which rightfully belonged to us, was now being experienced by our Lord [see Hebrews 2:9].  In the ultimate sense, this is what Paul meant when he said, “God made [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us” [2 Corinthians 5:21].

This was the supreme sacrifice Christ had to make in order to save us.  The Good Shepherd was laying down His life for His sheep, not for three days, but for eternity [see John 10:11, 15].  In this context, we can understand what Christ meant when He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave [not lent] his one and only Son” [John 3:16].  When the disciples realized this clearly, it transformed them from a group of self-centered men into truly converted followers, ready to turn the world upside down with the gospel [see Acts 17:6].  This same transformation will take place in our lives when we fully realize the meaning of the cross [see 2 Corinthians 5:14-15].

Unseen by human eyes, Satan watched the great drama play itself out at the cross.  He was aware of the issues involved.  And although he was responsible for putting Christ on the cross, he didn’t want to see the human race saved, nor did he want God to display His unconditional agape love.  So while Christ was suffering incomprehensible mental anguish under the wrath of God, Satan came to Him once more with fierce temptations beyond anything we can understand.  “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One,” Satan inspired his human agents to mock.  “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” [Luke 23:35-37].

How can we understand such superhuman temptations?  From the human point of view, Christ had every reason to save Himself and let the ungrateful world be lost.  But no!  Christ’s love for the sinful race was greater than His love for Himself.  “This is how we know what love [agape] is:  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” [1 John 3:16].  At the cross, Christ had to make a decision that would determine the destiny of the whole human race:  Would He go against the will of His Father and exercise His own divine power to come down from the cross and save Himself?  Or would He make a total, eternal sacrifice of Himself and save the world by submitting to the just wages of sin?  This was the real issue facing Him.  He could not save Himself and the world at the same time; it must be one or the other.

Christ chose to say goodbye to eternal life so that you and I could have it.  In exchange, He accepted the second death, the just penalty for sin, which you and I deserve.  Christ’s divine life didn’t end at the cross, but He laid it down for you and me in exchange for the second death that rightfully belongs to us.

He gave up His eternal life, not just for three days, but forever.  This is the supreme sacrifice of the cross; this is the bitter cup Christ had to drink and that produced great drops of blood at Gethsemane as He pleaded in His humanity for the Father to release Him.

Once He made the self-sacrificing choice that as the second Adam He would accept the second death for every human being, Christ cried out, “It is finished!” [John 19:30].  Then He bowed His head and died.  What was finished?  The sacrifice of the atonement.  The price for every sin was fully paid once and for all [see Romans 6:10].  While we were yet sinners and enemies of God, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son [see Romans 5:8, 10].  “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” [2 Corinthians 5:19].

In no way did Christ ever yield to sin while He was in human flesh.  Therefore, He did not deserve to be punished by the second death.  Although Christ chose to assume our sins and to experience the second death on our behalf, God was perfectly just in returning to Him His divine life, which He had laid aside for sinful human beings.  Yet this returned life no longer belonged to Christ alone.  Through His sacrifice on the cross, Christ’s eternal life has become a shared life.

Before the cross, Scripture refers to Christ as “the One and Only,” or “the only begotten of the Father” [John 1:14].  The Greek word translated “only begotten” actually means “unique” or “one of a kind.”  After the cross, and in the resurrection, Christ becomes “the firstborn from the dead” or “the first begotten of the dead” [Revelation 1:5].  This is an important distinction.  “Only begotten” can apply to no one but an only child, but “first begotten” applies to the first among many children.  This is the difference the cross has made.  Before the cross, God had only one beloved Son.  Now, through the supreme sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God has many beloved sons and daughters, of whom Christ is the first [see 1 John 3:1-2; 1 Peter 1:3-4].  What a wonderful Saviour we have!  Christ has become the head of a new redeemed humanity; He is the firstfruits, or firstborn, of all who are in Him [see 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23].  In the resurrection, Christ, who sanctifies, and the believers who are sanctified, “are of the same family” or “are all of one” [Hebrews 2:11], that is, they share the same life.

Not only has Christ delivered us from the condemnation of sin and death, but much more, He has raised us up and made us to be the very sons and daughters of God.  One day, we will share His very throne in heaven and in the earth made new [see Revelation 20:6; 22:5].  No wonder Paul was lost for words when he declared, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” [2 Corinthians 9:15].  No wonder Paul could glory in nothing by Christ and Him crucified [see Galatians 6:14].

Key Points in Chapter 8
• The Cross and the Atonement •
  1. Christ’s physical suffering on the cross, terrible as it was, played no part in our atonement.

  2. The cross not only fully revealed Satan’s malignant hatred, it also revealed the depths of God’s agape love.

  3. The wages of sin is not merely death, but the second death, which is eternal death.  This is the death Christ experienced on the cross.

  4. For the Jews, crucifying Christ meant more than mere physical death.  It demonstrated that He was under God’s curse [see Isaiah 53:4, 10; Deuteronomy 21:33].

  5. Christ’s divinity did not die on the cross.  It was our corporate human life that He assumed at the incarnation that died the eternal death.

  6. God did something to Christ on the cross:  He “laid on him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:6].  God’s wrath against sin was heaped upon Christ as our Sin Bearer.

  7. At the cross, the Father abandoned His Son, leaving Christ alone and without hope — without hope of the resurrection; without hope of ever seeing the Father again.  The second death that rightfully belonged to us was placed upon Him.  He gave up His eternal life forever for us.

  8. Before the cross, Jesus is called the “only begotten of the Father” [John 1:14], meaning “unique” or “one of a kind.”  After the cross and the resurrection, He is called the “first begotten of the dead” [Revelation 1:5].  Before the cross, God had only one beloved Son.  Through the supreme sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God has many beloved sons and daughters, of whom Christ is first [see 1 John 3:1-2; 2 Peter 1:3-4].
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