“Jesus’ Suffering and Death”
CXLI. Expositions of the Gospel According to Luke
June 14, 2015
31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (Lk 18:31-34)
Once again, Jesus informs His disciples of His impending death. Typically this is regarded as Jesus’ third passion prediction, but actually it is the seventh that Luke records (5:35; 9:22, 43-45; 12:50; 13:32f.;17:25). It follows upon the heels of Peter’s assertion that the disciples had given up much in order to follow Jesus. Jesus shows that they had not given up much compared to what He was soon to sacrifice, the point being, it seems, that suffering is endemic to Jesus’ mission and to the life of the disciple of Christ. From this seventh prediction we learn of the centrality of Jesus’ death, its cost, and its enigma.
And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. (v. 31)
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus repeats. Jerusalem has been the goal from early on (9:31; 9:51, 53; 13:33; cf. 17:11). Back in chapter nine Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). The next ten chapters are about the journey to the cross. These chapters are followed by four chapters covering the events of the cross itself (roughly chapters 20-23). A final chapter is about the aftermath of the cross, that is, the resurrection and ascension. Luke builds fully 15 of 24 chapters around the cross, or nearly two-thirds of Luke’s entire gospel.
Why does Luke devote so much space to the theme of the cross? Why is Jesus’ death so important? Because this is what He came to do. He came to die. Certainly He was a preacher of the kingdom of God: its characteristics, its entrance, its ethics, its finality. Certainly He was a miracle worker who provided a taste of that kingdom through His healings and other works of wonder. Certainly He led an exemplary life, showing us how to live if we would but “follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). Still, the frequency of Jesus’ predictions of His death, as well as the length of the passion narratives and space allotted to Jesus’ last week emphasize the importance of His death. It was the central event of His ministry, the principle task He came to accomplish. He came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). He gave His flesh over to death “for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). He shed the blood of the new covenant for the forgiveness of our sins (Mt 26:28; Lk 22:20).
Why did the Son of God become Man? The Bible tells us, “He came to save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). He came to “seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10). He “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Why is Jesus’ death so important? Because it was more than a death. It was no mere death. His death was an atoning sacrifice. God requires blood sacrifice, that is, death, as payment for sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). Death, even eternal death, a penalty of infinite duration, is what the infinite God demands for infinite guilt. God for a time permitted the penitent to offer substitutionary deaths: lambs, bulls, and goats slain on behalf of sinners. Yet this was allowed only for a time because of the inadequacy of the offering. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (Heb 10:4). The cost incurred by the worshiper offering the sacrifice was insufficient. As Gurnall explains, “There is no proportion betwixt the blood of beasts, though it could swell into a river – a sea, and the demerit of the least sin.”1 “Eternal death of both body and soul,” he continues, “is the price God hath set upon the head of every sin.”2 These animals were accepted in anticipation of “the lamb of God” who would “take away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Jesus’ sacrifice was the final and complete sacrifice. By offering up Himself upon the cross, He “offered one sacrifice for sin for all time” (Heb 10:12). That which the Apostle Peter calls “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:19) “is as far above the price that divine justice demands for man’s sin,” says Gurnall, “as the blood of bulls and beasts was beneath it.”3 His was a “once for all” atonement, opening the path to forgiveness and reconciliation to the whole world (Heb 10:12; cf. 7:27; 9:12, 28; 10:14).
Listen to the Apostle John. We have an “advocate with the Father,” he tells us, “Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1).
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn 2:2)
Jesus, we say again, is not primarily our example, even our example of costly love (though He is that). Jesus is not primarily our prophet or teacher, bringing wise advice and good ethics in order to better life on earth (though He is that too). Jesus is not primarily our helper, there to meet our needs as they arise (ultimately, He is that too). Jesus is primarily a Savior, whose death is a “propitiation,” a sacrifice that satisfies the just requirements of God opening the door to reconciliation with God. While we were yet “enemies,” “sinners,” and “helpless,” “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8-10). Jesus’ death is central because forgiveness and reconciliation with God is our fundamental need. All other needs are secondary and flow from the primary. I don’t need riches or friends or fun. I don’t need wealth or health or happiness. I have lots of wants but only one true need. I need the peace with God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
Jesus says further, “Everything that is written” about the Messiah “by the prophets will be accomplished.” None of the tragic events that will unfold will be accidental. Jesus’ execution will not signal that the world is spinning out of control, or that God is off His throne, or like Baal, has fallen asleep. The purposes of God, revealed through the prophets, will be fulfilled. The death of the “Son of Man,” Jesus’ favorite, because neutral, self-designation, is predicted and planned. It is the goal of the Scripture and the central event of redemptive history. From the promise of the seed of the woman who would bruise the heel of the serpent (Gen 3:15); to the choosing of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons; from Moses and the Exodus, to Joshua and the conquest of Canaan; from Samuel and the judges to David and the Kings of Judah and Israel; from the exile in Babylon to Ezra and Nehemiah and the return, the whole history was designed to bring forth the Messiah who would save the world. Israel’s history, its institutions of kings, prophets, and priests, and the whole apparatus of temple and sacrifice were all designed to point to the Messiah, the Christ to come. After the resurrection Jesus will demonstrate to the disciples “the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk 24:27). Ultimately, it’s all about Jesus the Messiah. Want to understand your Bible? It’s all about Christ. “All the prophets announce these days,” said Peter (Acts 3:24). “Moses wrote of me,” Jesus declared (Jn 5:46). The whole Bible reveals a gracious God who from eternity planned to provide a Savior, and “in the fullness of time” sent His Son to redeem us (Gal 4:6).
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus declares. There can be no discussion, no debate, no equivocation. “The Son of Man must go,” Jesus says elsewhere, indicating divine necessity ( Mt 16:21; Lk 13:33). Jesus is resolute, though Jerusalem means confrontation with official Judaism and certain death. One commentator, noting the certainty of suffering, says, “If Jesus was nothing else He would still be one of the most heroic figures of all time.”4 What will happen there?
For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (vv. 32, 33)
This is the first time that the participation of the Gentiles in the crucifixion has been mentioned. Jesus will be “delivered over,” presumably by the Jewish leadership, to the Gentiles (see 9:22). Luke is building “a composite picture of Jesus’ passion,” says Green, emphasizing the culpability of different groups at different times.5
Jesus speaks of four types of suffering. First, He will be mocked. He will be ridiculed for His Messianic claims. A robe will be placed upon His shoulders, a crown of thorns upon His head, a reed placed in His hand as a mock-scepter. The guards will bow down before Him. “Hail, King of the Jews,” they mocked (Mk 15:16-20; Mt 27:27-31).
Second, He will be humiliated. He will be “shamefully treated,” including “spat upon” as a sign of utter contempt and hatred. Crucifixion, and the process leading up to it, was designed to humiliate. What Jesus describes is not what ends the life of the victim, but what disgraces Him while He is still alive.
Third, He will endure “flogging,” a beating inflicted by a flagellum, a whip of leather thongs in which were embedded pieces of bone or metal. Finally, He will be executed, dying a disgraceful and torturous death by crucifixion.
Jesus knew. He knew what lay ahead. Jesus’ resolute purpose to die demonstrates the depth of His love for sinners. He knew what was coming, yet He never swerved from His path. “Great is my distress until it is accomplished,” yet He never altered His course (Lk 12:50). “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Heb 5:7a). It was love that took Him to the cross. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” (Rom 5:7). Yet, “God shows His love for us,” says the Apostle, “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Yet, the death of Christ is not the end of the story. “On the third day he will rise,” Jesus promises. Death will not hold Him (Acts 2:24). He will conquer sin and death. He will be “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). His resurrection will vindicate His claims. His resurrection will confirm His identity. He will be “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). Consequently, we can be confident of the love of God. His death was not an exercise in futility, but a triumph. We can be confident of the efficacy of His life, His death, and His resurrection. We can be confident of His claims and His demands and respond wholeheartedly in complete surrender. We can follow the suffering One into a life of suffering and sacrifice, and “follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). We can take up our crosses and follow Him (Mt 16:24).
But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (v. 34)
Despite Jesus’ graphic description, they do not understand. They can’t believe that He means what He is saying. Perhaps He is speaking paradoxically, or figuratively, or ironically. Perhaps this is another of His parables, they may be reasoning. He must be speaking in riddles, they assume. Consequently they “understood none of these things.” They can’t make Jesus’ words fit in with their concept of a conquering, vindicating, ruling Messiah and a glorious kingdom. Their preconceptions close their ears. They have no categories of thought with which to understand Him. “Their prejudices were so strong,” says Matthew Henry, “that they would not understand them literally, and they could not understand them otherwise, so that they did not understand them at all.”6 This is another aspect of the cost of redemption. Jesus is alone, isolated, surrounded by hostile enemies and uncomprehending friends. This is the “man of sorrows acquainted with all grief” (Isa 53:3).
We have a way of hearing only what we want to hear; of listening but not hearing; of thinking that unpleasant truth cannot happen because it is unpleasant; that what we don’t want to happen cannot happen. Wishful thinking inhibits our hearing. Yet even their failure to grasp Jesus’ meaning is part of the plan of God. His meaning “was hidden from them” and “they did not grasp what was said.” Only later, on the Emmaus Road, did Jesus open their eyes to recognize and understand who He was and what He had done (Lk 24:31, 35, 45).
So it is today, that we continue to be dependent on the Holy Spirit, that we might understand the Scriptures and the gospel. Only those who are “born again” can “see” the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). Someone might say, “I don’t get it about the cross. I was hoping today to hear something practical and relevant. Instead, all the preacher spoke about was Jesus’ death.” We won’t and don’t “get it” until God by the Holy Spirit opens our blind eyes to see the glory of His gospel. Only then will we understand that our fundamental need, our need above all needs, is for reconciliation with God. Only when we embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior, can life begin to make sense.
Gurnall, Christian in Complete Armour, I:523.
Ibid., (my emphasis).
Henry, commenting on Luke 18:34.