Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus ‘endured the cross’. Loch Ness is a narrow stretch of water, yet it reaches depths exceeding two hundred metres. The brevity of that biblical phrase is similarly deceiving. Often perhaps, we read it quickly, barely pausing to consider its fathomless content.
Part of the problem is that words become debased. Although we might speak of someone ‘enduring’ an horrific disaster, the term is also used in less momentous contexts. A headline might read, ‘Arsenal defence endures a torrid afternoon’. Being so accustomed to relatively trivial ‘endurances’, we are not inclined to be stopped in our tracks by the mere occurrence of the word.
But there are other reasons we rush past the Hebrews phrase without feeling its weight. We overlook its broader biblical context. It is crucial that we bring with us to this text several key truths.
First, Jesus was human. The cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. Jesus could only be the substitute for humans if he himself was human. That does not simply mean that he, the Son of God, had to assume a real human nature in the virgin’s womb; it also means he had to conduct his mission within the parameters of that human nature. At no point could he dip into his divine resources to make his task easier. That would have disqualified him from his substitutionary role.
At the cross then, no performance-enhancing supernaturalism coursed through his veins. No heavenly aura surrounded Jesus, cushioning him from Golgotha’s horrors. He faced those horrors with the same physical, emotional and psychological frailty common to us all. Like us in our crises he had to depend helplessly on the Spirit’s enabling (Hebrews 9:14). For this genuinely human Saviour, the cross was not a routine day’s work he could breeze through; it was an ordeal that had to be endured.
Secondly, Jesus was tempted. A difficult undertaking becomes vastly more difficult when there is an inviting alternative. It is already a struggle to sit in your bedroom doing algebra homework, but much more so when through the open window you can hear friends playing outside! In Jesus’ case the cross of Calvary did not lack inviting alternatives. Nor did those alternatives lack an enthusiastic advocate. Satan was desperate to keep Jesus from the cross, and summoned all his hellish craft to tempt him with beguiling possibilities.
At one point he offered Jesus a route to his inheritance that bypassed Golgotha: a quick, painless act of worship would suffice (Matthew 4:8-9)! At another point, using Peter as his mouthpiece, he proposed that Jesus simply disregard the cross as a preposterous idea (Matthew 16:21-23). Then, during the crucifixion itself, he made one last, enticing suggestion: ‘Come down from the cross’ (Matthew 27:40; the preceding ‘If you are the Son of God’, echoing the wilderness temptations, betrays Satan’s involvement here).
These instances are doubtless recorded as a sample of what Jesus constantly faced. From the Jordan baptism to the final ‘It is finished’, his entire journey was into a headwind of satanic resistance. Each step was an effort. Alluring diversions had to be doggedly rejected at every turn. In such circumstances the cross of Calvary was truly a feat of endurance.
Thirdly, Jesus was damned. Many Christians have studied accounts of first-century crucifixion. However, while having some value, such research affords little insight into our Saviour’s suffering. Rather, the closest analogies to Calvary are to be found within the Bible itself: in the experiences of the rich man ‘in torment’ (Luke 16:23), the ‘goats’ banished to ‘the eternal fire’ (Matthew 25:41), and the grapes thrown ‘into the great wine press of the wrath of God’ (Revelation 14:19). Jesus did not merely suffer capital punishment; he suffered hell. He did not merely contend with Roman execution; ‘The LORD…put him to grief’ (Isaiah 53:10). That is what he endured.
Those three words in Hebrews 12:2 may be simple. Their scope, however, is incomprehensibly profound.
Dan Peters is pastor of Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church