TO HELL AND BACK
By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the greatest paradoxes of history is the story of the young English sailor by the name of Noble. His job was to deliver a large cannon from Portsmouth, England to Boston in the Colonies in the mid 1700's. After two days on the ship HMS INTREPID, they encountered heavy weather. Ensign Noble hurriedly secured the cannon thinking these ropes should hold it, for it doesn't look like that much of a storm. But he was wrong. It was so intense that the cannon broke loose and began to rumble across the deck, and they could hear the sound of wood splintering below. Ensign Noble came on deck just as the loose weapon was rolling toward two sailors who were busy trying to untangle some sails. He threw himself in front of the cannon and stopped it before it hit its shipmates, but both his legs were broken by the weight of the cannon. This is where the saying "Under the gun" came from.
The next day, the entire crew assembled for a special ceremony as the captain of the ship bestowed on ensign Noble his countries highest award for heroism. He was in great pain as the cheers went up, and the captain pinned on the metal. But then the captain called for silence, for he had a more solemn duty to perform. Since the young ensign was the cause for the problem in the first place for not securing the cannon properly, the captain pronounced him guilty of dereliction of duty and sentenced him to die before a firing squad; the sentence to be carried out immediately. He had just become a hero for saving lives, and then was shot for being guilty of endangering lives. What a paradox! He was a hero and a condemned criminal at the same time.
This same perplexing paradox confronts us as we look at the cross. Is Jesus dying as our hero saving us from the consequences of sin? Yes he is, and that is why we glory in the cross. On the other hand, is he dying because he deserved to die, and was actually guilty? Look at the circumstantial evidence against Jesus.
1. He was betrayed by one of his closest companions. It is suspicious when one of your own inner circle betrays you. It hints at something being known that is not available to the public.
2. The rest of his disciples fled and did not fight to release their master. There seems to be great doubt about his claims when he is so treated by his core group.
3. The highest court in the land convicted him of blasphemy. These were the most godly and learned leaders of Israel. If they can't be trusted, who can?
4. The mob of common people chose a known murderer to be released instead of Jesus. They wanted Barabbas set free and clamored for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Now this circumstantial evidence does not convince us because we know they were all blind, and Satan was pulling their strings. They were mere puppets for the forces of evil in their sinister plot to kill the only truly innocent man whoever lived. But then we come to the fourth word of Jesus on the cross, and we are shocked for it seems that God, the ultimate judge, has reviewed all of this evidence and agrees with the sentence. The supreme court of the universe let's the lower court's judgment stand.
When Jesus cries out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me!" He admits he has been forsaken by the one Person we expected to be his supporter to the end. But God cast his vote with the rest and says, guilty. How could his sinless Son be so godlessly guilty that he was worthy of the cross? How can our Savior hero be abandoned as a guilty criminal? The answer is, Jesus became our substitute. He took our place and became as guilty as the sinners he died for. Paul put it clearly in II Cor. 5:21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
What a paradox! The sinless one becomes the very embodiment of sin, and thus, is worthy of all the judgment that sin deserves. Jesus was, in fact, guilty of the sin of the whole world. He was God-forsaken because he was the object of all God's wrath on sin. He was worthy of all that sin deserved, and this means hell and total separation from God. The greatest punishment of history was inflicted on Jesus because he was guilty. He was as guilty as the sin he bore, and he bore the sins of the world. You may never have owed anybody a dime in your life, but if you take on my debts and the debts of others, you are responsible to pay them. Jesus never sinned, but when he took on your sin and mine, he was responsible to pay the penalty. Innocent? Yes! But still as guilty as sin. In the cross we have the perfect paradox, for we have two complete opposites, but both are true at the same time. He was innocent and guilty.
All of this background explains the most mysterious words ever uttered by Jesus, which is the fourth word from the cross about being forsaken by God. God forsaken by God! The Son abandoned by the Father! It can only make sense in the light of Jesus being made sin and becoming guilty for all the sin of the world. Spurgeon said, "At that moment the finite soul of the man Christ Jesus came into awful contact with the infinite justice of God." It was like two incompatible chemicals coming together that cause an explosion, and when the holiness of God confronted the soul bearing all the sin of the world, he was repulsed and abandoned that soul even though it was the soul of his own Son.
Had Jesus not suffered this abandonment he would not have paid for our sin, for that was the just penalty. He had to drink the full cup of judgment, and drink it dry to the last drop or man would still have hell to pay. Jesus could not atone for sin half way. He had to go all the way or there was no point in going any of the way. If you are going to build a bridge only half way across a river, you just as well not bother, for half a bridge is not an improvement over no bridge at all. Half an atonement for sin would be equally worthless. Had Jesus never been forsaken by God to endure hell for us, he never could have said the words, "It is finished." What good would it be had he said, "It is half done?"
So this horrible word out of the heart of a terrorized Savior is, in fact, good news. It is a paradox that such an awful experience can be the foundation for good news, but it is. Because Jesus was forsaken we can count on his promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." He took all the forsakenness necessary, and now can assure all who come to him that they will never need to taste of hell and be God forsaken. There is no need, for that penalty has been fully paid. Because of Jesus, man owes nothing to the kingdom of darkness. Hell is paid off, and man is debt free in Christ.
The fact that there was three hours of darkness before Jesus spoke this word reveals he had been in the darkness of hell, and the fact that his next word was, "I thirst" is symbolic of this as well. The one request of the rich man in hell was for a drink of water, or even one drop. Darkness and thirst are the two experiences of Jesus as he spoke these words. He was God-forsaken in darkness, and He was thirsty. Jesus was in hell for you and me.
Why did they nail him to Calvary's tree?
Why? Tell me, why was he there?
Jesus the Helper, the Healer, the Friend,
Why? Tell me, why was he there?
All my iniquities on him were laid,
He nailed them all to the tree;
Jesus the debt of my sin fully paid,
He paid the ransom for me.
And what was the price? It was hell. Is there hell on earth? There was for Jesus, for in those three agonizing hours of darkness Jesus experienced literal hell, which is separation from God that leaves one absolutely alone. This word is Jesus' Et tu Brute! as the Father joins all the others in forsaking him, leaving him to pay the penalty for the world's sin alone.
Hundreds of thousands of sermons have been preached on these words of despair, but no one pretends to be able to explain their depths fully, for we would have to go through hell ourselves to grasp them, and Jesus did this so we would never have to know or experience this depth of separation from God. Spurgeon says it for all the great preachers of history, "Well may I tell you that this unutterable darkness, this hiding of the Divine face, expresses more of the woes of Jesus than words can ever tell."
These three hours were the longest three hours of all history, for in them Jesus endured the eternal judgment on all sin. If time goes fast when you are having fun, how slow it must go to get through three hours of God forsakenness. But keep in mind that before the cross experience was over, and before Jesus died, he was back in the light of fellowship with God. He died saying, "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit." He was only forsaken for three hours, but it had to seem an eternity to Jesus who had never been out of fellowship with his Father for all eternity. There had never been a time like this in the infinite past, nor will there ever be in the infinite future. Here, and here only, for three hours we see the most momentous event in all the history of the universe. God was enduring hell to make it possible for man to escape hell.
This was the cup Jesus so dreaded drinking, but he yielded, for there was no other way to save man. Jesus went to hell and back to save us. The magnitude of God's love is here revealed to be so far beyond our comprehension that all we can do is stand in awe. The full answer to why God forsook Jesus is incomprehensible, but the essence of it is this: He forsook his Son that He might forgive fallen mankind, and have many sons and daughters in his eternal kingdom.
I do not know, I cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.
I only know, it was for me
He hung and suffered there.
The way to heaven was through hell, not for us, but for Jesus who had to endure our hell that we might enter heaven.
Martin Luther wrote, "So then gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned.....In that picture your hell is defeated..." You can be assured that after paying such a price Jesus will fight to redeem as many as possible. That is why his final words were to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Jesus is not willing that any should perish and suffer their own hell, when he has already suffered it for them.
Evangelism is not a top priority with those who have not paid anything for men to be saved. Jesus paid three hours of hell, and for the infinite and innocent Son of God that was a price beyond calculation. No wonder it is a top priority with him. Only as we begin to grasp something of the cost that Jesus paid can we begin to see why it is so important that we care to win those for whom he died. "There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ," says Paul. But what about those not in Christ? They shall face the judgment of God. His lightning of judgment will not strike twice in the same place, and so all who are in Christ are safe forever. In him there will never be another drop of the cup to drink. He drank it all. But outside of Christ people face judgment.
Imagine bombs falling on the city and you know where there is a safe bomb shelter where all who are there are safe. Would you not share that good news with those in danger as they hear the sirens screaming? So we need to sense the urgency of telling people of what Jesus provided for them: a shelter in the time of storm-a storm that can sweep them into the abyss of judgment. Sure it is hard and inconvenient, and there is a price to pay, but what is all this in the light of what Christ paid? To complain after what we have received in Christ by his sacrifice is like winning the lottery, and then complaining that you had to go out and feed the meter to collect it.
We should be embarrassed to ever complain that it is hard to obey Christ. In light of this fourth word from the cross, the only response can be, so what if it is hard! If he suffered hell for us, we can suffer hard for him. In this word we see the power of love as nowhere else. God so loved the world, and here is the measure of that word so. How much is so? He so loved that he gave his only begotten Son. But even that great text of John 3:16 does not tell us how fully he gave, and how completely the Son gave. Only in this fourth word do we get to see how measureless was his love. God could have blown up the whole universe in a mega-explosion that would make a super movie seem like a lady finger firecracker, and it would not have saved a single soul. Power was not the answer to the sin problem. Only love could do the job, and Jesus did it. He so loved that he bore the hell of what all sinners were worthy of, and this made it possible for all sinners to be set free from condemnation.
Even though this was the greatest act of love ever, and the greatest show on earth, there will be no Jesus II, or a series of sequels, for what he did he did once and for all, and there is nothing more to do to accomplish what is necessary for all men to be saved. That is why he could say before he died, "It is finished." Hell has no claim on those in Christ, for all penalty has been paid in full. This is the only one of the seven last words that is recorded twice in the Gospels. Both Matthew and Mark record it. None of the other six are recorded twice. This is the central word of the seven. There are three before and three after. Even these trivial details support the view that this is the most profound sentence ever uttered. Herbert Lockyer, author of dozens of books on the Bible, says of these words, "The most appalling utterance that has ever fallen upon human ears." Yet when we see the depth of love that led to this being uttered, we can add they are also the most appealing that has ever fallen upon human ears. Because he uttered them no one else ever has too.
Paul makes it clear in Gal. 3:13, "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 cross." What a perplexing complex paradox. The only sinless one ever to live, and yet he was made sin for us. The only perfect one ever to live, and yet he is cursed for us. This fourth word is the cry of the cursed, and the despair of the damned. To compare the death of Jesus with any other, as if he was just another martyr, is to reduce the sun by comparing it with a candle, or to reduce the sequoia by comparing it with a twig. To put Jesus in the same category with any other death is to totally miss the significance of the cross.
This word reveals the ultimate identification with man. In the incarnation Jesus took on the nature and the body and the mind of man. But now he takes upon himself even the depravity of man, and he becomes sin and, therefore, liable for all the penalty that sin deserves. He was in this state fit to be forsaken by God, for he represented all that God hated.
The scourge, the thorns, the deep disgrace,
These thou couldst bear nor once repine,
But when Jehovah veiled his face,
Unutterable pangs were thine.
Jesus was now feeling the full cost of the incarnation and his identification with man. When he was born in the night the sky was filled with holy light, but when he died in mid-day the heavens turn to horrible night. Being born was indeed a radical step down for the Son of God, but it was a mere step in comparison to the plunge he now takes into the very pit of hell. The principle God follows is, the lower we go in humility the higher we rise in God's eyes. This explains why Jesus was exalted to the highest place and given the name above all names, for he plunged to the lowest depth conceivable.
What a contrast between the biography of the Savior and Satan. Satan was among the highest and in pride sought to go higher to take the place of God, and he was plunged to the pit of hell in judgment. Jesus was the highest but was willing to go to the lowest level of hell to fulfill God's plan, and the result is he ends up the highest in the universe. The paradox is that Jesus has the record at both ends. We know his is the highest name, and he is equal with God, and there is none higher. But seldom do we think about it that Jesus was also the lowest. There will never be anyone lower in hell than Jesus was, for no matter how awful they were, they bear judgment for their own awfulness only. Jesus bore the awfulness of the world, and, therefore, takes the record of being the worst to ever enter hell, for he entered it with the sin of the world on him. The lowest place in hell will be ever held by our redeemer, and because of that price he will hold forever the highest place in heaven.
Jesus knows what it is to be on the bottom of the pile, and the lowest man on the totem pole. He also knows what it is to be number one, and king of the mountain. He holds all records and they will never be broken. What is startling is that Jesus knows by experience what it is to be lost, and not just lost in the woods, but to be cursed and damned, and God forsaken, and literally lost as a rejected soul. These three hours of darkness were not just the dark ages for Jesus, they were the doomed ages. He experienced lostness first hand, and he did it that we might never have to experience it. We can experience savedness and never lostness because he took our lostness for us. Robert M'Cheyne wrote,
When I stand before the throne
Dressed in beauty not my own.
When I see Thee as Thou art;
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know;
Not till then, how much I owe.
How much do we owe to someone who saved us by going to hell and back?