Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One question that has always plagued me is “Why did Jesus have to suffer before his death?” I understand why he had to die (to fulfill the sacrificial system; which you can read more about in Leviticus and Hebrews if you’re curious); but specifically why did Jesus have to endure torture? I suspect my lack of understanding is one of the main reasons I’ve never had an interest in checking out “The Passion of the Christ;” because…well…why? Isaiah offers his well-known phrase:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
But no matter how many times I’ve read it or heard a pastor use it in a sermon, that passage has never done anything for me. The reason why not is because it never really gets to the base of the question: Why did Christ have to suffer? Finally, the Holy Spirit explained it to me. And so, if you’ve ever been curious, read on!
As the Israelites finished their campaign on Canaan and went to settle in their newly-acquired land, Joshua bid them farewell with a warning:
But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you (Joshua 23:12-13).
As I read this, the Holy Spirit caused me to trip over and re-read and re-examine what Joshua said the remaining Canaanites would become: whips and thorns. Whips and thorns are what Jesus faced right before he was crucified. History records,
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said (Matthew 27:26-29).
Our Lord literally had his back whipped and thorns shoved down on his head near (maybe even touching) his eyes. The flogging I could see as a coincidence as worldwide it’s been a common punishment, but the thorns tell me that there’s a connection between the two passages.
But how do the Canaanites connect to Christ? Although the people of Canaan were real people in history, for us they represent sin; the sins of our life before Christ, and the sins that might crop up post-salvation (as the Canaanites were still in the land after Joshua’s conquest). This is why God takes such a blood stance on the inhabitants of Canaan in the Bible; ordering the Israelites,
When the lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations- the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).
Likewise, the Lord wants us to take up a similar policy when it comes to the sins in our lives. James writes, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21). Jude says not to even put up with things that have been involved in sin, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear- hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 1:22-23). And why? Because, just like the Canaanites would trip up Israel (which they did), so will sin trip you up (which it does). We read,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1).
So, what the passage in Joshua says is that we should shut sin out of our lives, lest it becomes whips on our backs and thorns in our eyes.
But wait, I’ve sinned plenty of times and experienced nothing like that. This is where Jesus comes into the picture. Isaiah writes,
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
And he will divide the spoils with the strong,
Because he poured out his life unto death,
And was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12).
Jesus bore our sins and the repercussions thereof. He did more than fulfill the sacrificial system, he literally carried on his body the result of our continued sins (I suspect this is a passage largely for believers who keep sinning, since the Israelites coming to Canaan is a model of salvation). Through Christ we’re saved from more than just hell, we’re also saved from the divine repercussions of our sins. Wisdom states, “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being” (Proverbs 20:30). However, Jesus took our beatings for us (though we still may face natural consequences for our actions), so instead we’re called to keep this in mind and live on as though we had received the punishment. Peter put it like this,
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do- living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry (1 Peter 4:1-3).
You have done all of those sinful things enough, now live for Christ, who suffered for you. Instead, when you do sin, remember what Jesus did for you and how protected you are because of him. Because of Christ and his sacrifice you are saved, given eternal life, and free from divine retribution. This means that you face, through the grace of God, none of the curses and all of the blessings of the Bible. So we read,
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:24-25).
Where Christ suffered on your behalf, you flourish and receive all of God’s good promises. Surely we have a great and merciful Lord!
Rock on God!