The body of God and the scandal of our dying brother.
How Jesus Christ tastes death and sets a trap for the devil’s defeat.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
One of the most affecting texts in the entire Bible appears in Paul’s first Corinthian letter, where the apostle divulges that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). In all, from verse 18 to 25 of that first chapter, Paul alludes to the apparent “folly” or “foolishness” of the wisdom of God on four different occasions. This type of vulnerability from a preacher is almost unheard of, but it gets to the heart of what makes the gospel so powerful and so potent. Paul’s message, that which the apostles so stubbornly proclaimed, was a message of pure folly in men’s ears. His insistence on preaching Christ crucified almost sounded like a joke (1 Cor. 1:23). Indeed, the church’s message — the gospel — is a message of madness and scandal, at least in terms of the world’s wisdom.
The word “stumbling block” is, in fact, one word in Greek; that is, skandalon, meaning, “offensive” or “scandalous.” As the beloved apostle discloses, preaching the Christ of God crucified on a criminal’s cross on behalf of a world chock-full of sinners is quite an outrages venture. And yet, even still, it is precisely that message which demonstrates how “the foolishness of God is wiser than” the wisdom of men (1 Cor. 1:25). What was it, though, that made Paul’s message so scandalous? Why would Jews and Greeks find the Christian gospel so offensive? These questions are answered by the writer to the Hebrews, who, in chapter 2 of his epistle, wonderfully explains why (and how) the Son of God becomes our dying Brother.
In Hebrews 2:6–8, the Hebrew writer continues his method of quoting extensively from the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, carried over from the first chapter. He begins by citing the familiar words of Psalm 8: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor putting everything in subjection under his feet” (Heb. 2:6–8; cf. Ps. 8:4–6). What leaves the psalmist spellbound is the fact that God is “mindful” of him. Despite the infinite vastness and unknowable-ness of the universe, the Creator of it all is attentive to him, so much so that he cares for him. For David, this wasn’t “mere poetry.” He had first-hand experience of the care and concern of God — of God condescending to his place of need and desperation. His days of adversity were only tempered by the sustaining hand of God. The same hands that formed worlds were holding onto him.
The Hebrew writer, however, offers a new way to understand this text by making it all about Jesus. In his re-expression of the psalmist’s thought, the Hebrew writer makes a distinct connection between the “mindfulness of God” and the Son of God. After directly quoting from the psalter, he adds: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:8–9). Jesus, you see, is the embodiment of God’s kindness for, and mindfulness of, sinful men and women.
The Son of God descends to make known (John 1:18) the depths of the Father’s care and concern for those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Therefore, in order to rescue those shackled by the power of death, he makes himself “a little lower than the angels,” so that by “tasting death for everyone” he might put God’s grace on display for the whole world. In Jesus, we are made to see the descent of God himself to our world, to our frame. God, through him, shares in “the same things” that we experience, the writer says (Heb. 2:14). He comes down “in flesh and blood,” as a tangible, afflictable person, whose body is susceptible to sorrow and suffering. He is “made like his brothers in every respect,” in every way, except without sin. Why? In order that he might help “the offspring of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16).
The simplest condensation of the gospel is the announcement that God has come down. The Creator become incarnate paradigm touches on the inherent scandal of Paul’s message mentioned earlier. If you were to scour the mythologies of the gods of ancient Greece and/or Rome, you’d be hard-pressed to find any overt differences between those deities and the rest of humanity. The gods of Olympus often conducted themselves more like vagrants than any sort of venerated deity you’d want your kids to emulate. They were impulsive, acting upon their lust, anger, and vice. Zeus or Jupiter, and the rest of their cohort, did little to actually help mankind prosper. And yet, what were the apostles preaching? Their message was entirely encapsulated with the fact — not the myth — that Jehovah himself had descended to this world of ruin and woe. And not only that, but that he took on flesh in order that he might run to the aid of hopeless humanity.
For the learned scholars of Greece and Rome, all of that sounded more than a little far-fetched — but that’s precisely the point. The message of the gospel is the scandalous announcement that Yahweh has stooped to our frame, to where we are. That alone is madness enough, but it’s what he does when he gets here that serves as the ultimate scandal.
The writer’s words in the rest of verse 9 and into verse 10 provide for us the necessary details to discern what’s involved in that divine scandal:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Heb. 2:9–10)
According to him, what is it that precipitates Jesus being “crowned with glory and honor”? Namely, his “suffering of death.” What is it that “perfects,” or brings to completion, the salvation of all mankind? “Their salvation,” he maintains, is made “perfect through suffering.” These, to be sure, are the points which certainly left everyone gobsmacked. That God would descend to earth was moderately agreeable, to a certain extent, with that story filling some Roman myths. However, proclaiming that God would suffer — willingly, it should be added — was quite another matter entirely. But to say that God not only suffered but actually died, well, that was pure madness.
This gets to the heart of why Paul refers to “the word of cross” as utter foolishness. Every demographic in his day was understandably offended by that rhetoric. For the Jew, the cross was the ultimate disgrace. The notion of God, therefore, participating in the “suffering of death” on a cross not only associated him with the severest form of condemnation, it meant he was cursed (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). For the Roman, the cross was the ultimate defeat. Roman society and culture revolved around the virtues of strength and dominance and power. Dying on a cross, therefore, was the ultimate form of losing. Thus, in their minds, the God of the cross was a God who was a loser. For the Greek, the cross was the ultimate degradation. Greek idealism and intellectualism was hyper-focused on the perfection of the inner man, which meant that anyone who was subjected to the grotesqueness of the cross was the epitome of imperfection. To them, God was gross. But to each of these skeptics, Paul definitively declares, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Declaring that God’s Son willingly suffers for those he loves isn’t strange at all. In fact, as the Hebrew writer says, it is entirely “fitting” — that is, “proper” or “appropriate” — that he would suffer (Heb. 2:10). To save those who are shackled by the chains of suffering and death, God in Christ “partook of the same things,” that is, he shared in our suffering and death. Ours is a God who is uniquely familiar with all the sorrows and pains that plague us. The glorious albeit scandalous news of the gospel says that God’s “glory and honor” are primarily seen and known in Jesus’s willing surrender to the agony and defeat of death. If you want to see who God is, if you want to see what God values, if you want to see what is most indicative of God’s character, if you want to see what God thinks of you, take one look at the Christ on the cross. It is precisely in and through “the suffering of death” that we are introduced to God our Savior, our Redeemer, our Lord. His battered and bruised frame is the divine insignia, saying, “God loves the world in this way.” Or, as Paul puts it, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Verse 16 is the nail-in-the-coffin for the writer’s argument from chapter 1 that Jesus is superior to angels. “For surely it is not angels that he helps,” the writer concludes, “but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” The host of heaven didn’t receive this help; Heaven’s Prince didn’t run to their aid. Rather, it is human beings who are uniquely and remarkably the objects of heaven’s love. And in order to make this help effectual, the writer goes a step further, and says that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). God in Christ shares in the same things we share in — namely, flesh and blood and sorrow and death — in order to put death to death. This is what astounds the heavenly host.
In 1 Peter 1:10–12, the apostle Peter alludes to the fact that the angels “long to look” into the things concerning salvation. That is, they have an earnest desire and interest in the extraordinary fact of grace. The good news stupefies them, sending a surge of heavenly curiosity through them as God’s salvation of sinners is freely given through God’s own Son’s suffering. And with that, we are brought back to the staggering question of verse 6: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” Who are we that we should be the recipients of such condescending grace and one-way love? This, you see, is the scandal of heaven. It’s not that God is scandalized by the world’s hatred and sin and malice, but that he scandalizes the world by his love, stopping at nothing, not even death on a cross, in order to bring those who are lost back home, and those who are dead back to life
The Son of God demonstrates the Father’s grace by willingly “tasting death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). By “tasting death,” it is meant that the Son shares and experiences all of the bitterness and pain and lose of death. Which is just to say, he really died. “Jesus tasted death,” R. C. H. Lenski notes, “not by merely sipping, but by fulling draining the cup” (77). In the ultimate demonstration of humility and love, Jesus freely subjected himself to the defeat of death. As he says in the Gospels, no one is able to take his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord (John 10:18). In grace, the Son chooses to die. Why? So that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15). The magnificent purpose of Jesus’s death is so that by dying he might abolish death’s power and sting, along with the one who wields that power. Which brings me to, perhaps, my favorite part of this text.
Satan, of course, is “the one who has the power of death.” He is, as Jesus says, “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Ever since the Garden, the devil has been deceiving men and women into embracing death (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, in the ultimate show of power and mercy, Jesus surrenders to “the suffering of death,” in order that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.” On the cross, you see, Jesus disarms and defeats the devil by using the very weapon he thinks he is the master of: death itself. Early church father Augustine of Hippo calls this “the devil’s mousetrap”:
The devil exulted when Christ died, but by this very death of Christ the devil is vanquished, as if he had swallowed the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced in Christ’s death . . . [but] what he rejoiced in was then his own undoing. The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death. (182)
The underlings of hell surely rejoiced when they saw the Son of God expire on that cross. But that rejoicing was merely the prelude to hell’s undoing, as the momentary shame of Christ’s cross gave way to sin’s everlasting ruin. In the Christ of God, the cross becomes the spot where all the minions of death and darkness are put to an open shame, as the defeated God triumphs over them (Col. 2:15). Jesus embarrasses Satan by subjecting himself to the embarrassment of the cross. It is reminiscent of the scene in 1 Samuel, where the scrappy shepherd-boy David wields Goliath’s own sword to cut off Goliath’s head, the ultimate act of triumph over the enemy (1 Sam. 17:51). “Jesus’ death,” Lenski comments, “shattered the murderer’s might; in the power of Jesus’ death we escape” (92). This is what the Son does on the cross: he takes the devil’s blade of death from its scabbard and uses it to put death to death, thereby free those who “through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). At Golgotha, the true and better David has won the field. H. A. Ironside concurs:
Having thus become Man, though sinless, our Lord became man’s Champion and went forth as our David to destroy or annul the great Goliath who had terrorized the world ever since the fall, ‘him that had the power of death, that is, the Devil.’ The cross was for Christ a Valley of Elah where He met our cruel foe and put an end to his authority over the souls of all who believe the gospel, thus delivering us even now, who in times past through fear of death were held in bitter bondage all our lives. (52)
This is the scandal of God’s gospel, which announces that God himself has taken on a body in order to become our dying Brother. He has familiarized himself with our places of need and grief and suffering and sorrow, and, in so doing, he has delivered us out of our need by taking all of our needs as his own. There is no need so great, no hurt so deep, no grief so low that Christ cannot meet. He met them all at the cross. Your mammoth sins have been taken care of in Christ who, in and of himself, has paid for every single one of them by subjecting himself to the “suffering of death.” This is the gospel’s beautiful contradiction. “The statement is paradoxical,” Lenski concludes, “death freed from death; but it is the fact. One might think that Jesus’ death wrecked him as death wrecks other men, but the extreme opposite is the fact — it saved us from death” (89). The Son of God took upon himself the nature that belongs to us in order that, through him, we might be reconciled, redeemed, and remade.
H. A. Ironside, Hebrews, James, and Peter (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1985).
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
Augustine, quoted in Meyer Schapiro, “‘Muscipula Diaboli,’ The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece,” The Art Bulletin 27:3 (September 1945).
Very good. A beautiful exposition of the Scandal of the Cross. I enjoyed every word.