suffered under Pontius Pilate
In the incarnation, the Son of God plunges into the very depths of the human condition - fallen, fragmented, frail and perverse - embracing it fully by taking its nature in order to redeem it. In the incarnation, the Son of God stands in solidarity with sinful humanity and the sinful world.
The Creed appears to leapfrog from the account of Jesus' virginal birth to the final phase of his earthly life when in the next statement it refers to Jesus' suffering under Pontius Pilate. Although it is the intention of the Creed to highlight the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, it would be wrong to conclude that the life and ministry of Jesus Christ that came between the two major events described here are unimportant. The synoptic Gospels have much to say about Jesus' ministry and teaching, indicating that the redemption that Jesus came to bring about was not only effected by his death and resurrection but by his entire life. The salvation of God is not merely bound up with certain events in the life of the man Jesus from Nazareth. Rather this salvation has to do with the very person of Jesus Christ - his birth, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection - the God-Man. Salvation is therefore as much bound up with who Jesus was and is as it is with what Jesus did.
The theologians of the Heidelberg Confession Olevian and Ursin were surely right when they insisted that the suffering of Jesus here does not only refer to that which Jesus' endured 'under Pontius Pilate'. It refers to the suffering that Jesus endured throughout his entire life. Indeed, 'suffering' can be said to characterise the life of Jesus. The Heidelberg Confession puts it like this. Question 37 asks: 'What understandest thou by the little word "suffered"'? The answer: 'That He all the time of his life on earth, but especially at the end thereof, hath borne in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race'. This assertion, that suffering is that which characterises 'all the time of [Jesus'] life on earth', is theologically pregnant, and we shall explore its theological ramifications, albeit briefly, in the rest of this essay.
In the first place this statement provides insight regarding the incarnation itself, pointing to the extent of the Son of God's identification with sinful humanity when he took upon himself sinful human flesh. In the incarnation, the Son of God plunges into the very depths of the human condition - fallen, fragmented, frail and perverse - embracing it fully by taking its nature in order to redeem it. In the incarnation, the Son of God stands in solidarity with sinful humanity and the sinful world.
This truth is given its clearest expression in Hebrews, particularly 2:14-18. In verse 14 the writer of Hebrews brings out the depth of the incarnation by asserting that Jesus Christ in the incarnation partook the same human nature that all of us possess. In the incarnation, the Redeemer is united with the redeemed in the reality of the human brotherhood. In the incarnation Jesus Christ entered into our world, became one of us, and experienced our pain-filled and fragmented existence. Verse 17 tells us that the Son was 'made like his brothers in every way', thus making the fullness of Jesus' identification with sinful humanity very clear.
This identification is indeed necessary in order that Jesus might be our high priest (2:17b). It is also necessary for him to face the ultimate enemy, death, so that he might destroy the devil who holds the power over death. In other words, Jesus identified himself fully with sinful humanity in order to save it from sin, death and the devil.
This brings us to the second point regarding the suffering of Jesus. Theology's reflection on the passion of Jesus Christ must not give rise to a form of morbid preoccupation with suffering. There are some such tendencies in certain literature on spirituality and Christian counselling. The emphasis, to be sure, is to some extent true and valid. In the incarnation, Jesus enters fully into our human condition, and therefore understands our pain. However, the purpose of the incarnation is not just identification, but redemption and deliverance. The Son of God took upon himself human flesh in order to bring salvation to human beings and rescue them from the destructive forces of sin and evil.
The incarnation therefore should not merely lead to the assurance that Jesus understands our pain and suffering, however therapeutic that in itself may be. If that is all there is to it, then there is no hope, no Gospel. For although it is assuring to know that we are not alone in our suffering, that God himself knows intimately what we are experiencing, the God who only identifies with us but is impotent to save cannot bring any real hope. More importantly, this 'God' is not the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour: he plunges into our situation and takes up our human sinful condition so that he can cleanse us from the filth of sin and transfigure us into his image and likeness.
'Suffered under Pontius Pilate', thirdly, tells us that it was God who entered into our world and it was God who subjected himself to our sinful state. The suffering of God in the incarnation points to the severity of sin and the extent of the divine love for humankind. We mentioned earlier that suffering characterises the entire life of Jesus. We saw also that Jesus suffered because of his full identification with fallen humanity in the incarnation. But God in Jesus suffered because of the sinful human condition: he suffered because of the rebellion of his creatures, and because those whom he has created in his image have rejected him.
Throughout his life, from Bethlehem to the Cross, Jesus had suffered this rejection. The Cross is the climax of humankind's rejection of God - the creature's defiant and rebellious 'No!' Anti-Semitism has sometimes led the Church to point a blaming finger at Israel. It was Israel, God's people, who rejected their Messiah and delivered him into the hands of the heathen to be crucified. It was the Jews who killed Jesus Christ. But the account in the Gospels point in a different direction. The Jews, to be sure, were guilty of this. But so were the Gentiles who were represented by Pilate and the Roman authorities.
Thus, it was humanity as a whole, both Jews and Gentiles who killed the Messiah. It is also interesting to note that it was not just the pagan Roman authorities that were responsible for the suffering and execution of Jesus. All the symbols of political power - religion, the State and the people - were involved in the sentencing, torture and execution of the Messiah. Thus all of humanity and every form of power in human society and culture came against Jesus Christ, de-monstrating the extent and perverseness of man's 'No' to God.
The suffering of God in the incarnation points to the severity of sin and the extent of the divine love for humankind. We mentioned earlier that suffering characterises the entire life of Jesus . . . . Jesus suffered because of his full identification with fallen humanity in the incarnation. But God in Jesus suffered because of the sinful human condition: he suffered because of the rebellion of his creatures, and because those whom he has created in his image have rejected him.
But 'suffered under Pontius Pilate' points to the 'Yes' of God despite the 'No' of his creature. Thus, 'suffered under Pontius Pilate' has to do with the Gospel, for in the incarnation, suffering and death of Jesus Christ God demonstrated his profound love for his creatures. The completeness of Jesus' identification with sinful humanity that is embodied in his suffering points to the immeasurable greatness of God's love for human beings. It demonstrates just how far God is willing to go to rescue his fallen creature. This is a truth that is too deep to grasp, a love too wonderful to understand. Such ineffable love evokes expressions of wonderment, awe and gratitude, none so eloquent as those penned by Isaac Watts:
Alas! And did my Saviour bleed, and did my Saviour die?
Would he devote that sacred head, for sinners such as I?
Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut its glories in,
when God, the mighty maker died, for his own creature's sin.