The cross is the symbol of the Christian religion. This is appropriate because the death of Jesus Christ is the heart of the Christian faith; however, the familiar nature of this symbol may cause us to forget the importance of the cross. Therefore, we need to pause to consider the reality and meaning behind the words that we believe and confess in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”
We confess that Jesus Christ suffered, and this suffering was of the entire person — body and soul. Q & A 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism states that “during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.” While the cross is the climax of the suffering, Jesus was despised and rejected throughout his life, even though the world was made through him. If family or friends reject us, we feel that they “stabbed us in the back.” Imagine having the very thing that you made to show and share your love metaphorically (and then literally) not only stab you in the back, but spit in your face! Jesus endured intense suffering for us, both body and soul, in life and in death..
Under Pontius Pilate
Why is Pontius Pilate mentioned in the Creed here? For one thing, it reminds us that this suffering happened in real time and space. But it is more than that, as Pontius Pilate is referenced — not the crowds or the leaders in Jerusalem. The Heidelberg Catechism also notes that his name points back to his office, in that he was an earthly judge who issued the judgment on Jesus and ordered the punishment upon him (see Q & A 38). This was not an accident or the action of a mob, but rather that of the earthly power of the day, condemning the innocent man. There is some irony in noting Pontius Pilate here as well, as we read in the Gospels that he was conflicted, but yet gave in to the pressures of the people and the political implications of his action. While forces might have led to Pilate’s reluctant verdict and decision, this does not excuse him or allow him to cast the blame on others; people and situations may influence our decisions, but the decisions we make are ultimately our choices.
Noting that Pontius Pilate ordered the death of Jesus is a reminder that Christianity started as a persecuted religion and was rejected by the political leaders of the day. This is important to remember as Christians often seek the support or approval of political leaders, believing the Christian faith should receive special treatment. Christians may even explicitly or implicitly state that the future of the Christian faith depends upon this favor. However, the rejection of Jesus and his followers did not lead to it being stomped out or defeated. Rather, the death of Jesus leads to our salvation and the persecution of the early church actually leads to it, effectively moving from a small group of Jewish believers to being a worldwide religion. Our hope is not in government or leaders but rather in the one who was condemned by the leaders of his day.
Crucified, Died, and Buried
While we need to remember all of Jesus’s life, the cross is the climax of the suffering and was designed to maximize suffering in body and soul before one died. While punishments today don’t seek to be cruel or unusual, being crucified was intentionally cruel in the physical toil it placed on a person and was a very painful way to die. Besides being painful, crucifixion was humiliating. Imagine hanging on a cross for all to see and so helpless that you are not even able to shoo away bugs or flies that might land on you. Romans and Jews didn’t agree about much, but they concurred that death by crucifixion was an act of tremendous shame and sign of guilt. For Romans, it was judgment by the governing authority, while Jews noted there was a curse that fell upon a person who died upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23; see Galatians 3:10-13). Jesus dying this way (and not another) was significant, as the Heidelberg Catechism states that, “By this I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.” This is what Jesus endured, this is how he suffered — and this is the symbol that we have as our faith. Our symbol is not a crown or a seat of power, but an instrument of death and humiliation showing us that Jesus has taken the punishment we deserve, which the world finds as foolishness and can stumble over (1 Corinthians 1:18-23).
The Benefit and the Challenge of These Words
The Heidelberg Catechism seeks to make sure these truths we confess in the Apostles’ Creed do not stay in our heads but move to our hearts, as Q & A 43 asks, “What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?” and answers, “By Christ’s power our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may offer ourselves as a sacrifice of gratitude to him.” These words highlight the union we have in Christ, in that because he died, we are to die to sin and the desires we have. His death frees us from those desires, so that we no longer need to live into them.
That is the benefit of Christ’s death and something we should remember when we confess it: because he died, I am now dead to the sinful desires I was born with. At the same time, another challenge that emerged as I reflected on the words of the Creed and the words found in the Heidelberg Catechism is that I should not be afraid of suffering in body or soul. This might be physical punishment or it might be rejection by the rulers or power-brokers of the world. May I not pursue comfort in this world, but rather may I follow the one who has suffered for me, knowing that his suffering in my place ultimately sets me free from the things that cause true suffering in body and soul for now and eternity. May I not view suffering in following Jesus as defeat or a sign of rejection, but rather as following the Savior, who brings victory over our sin through his death on the cross.
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