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The Meaning of His Death

It is a fact that in the midst of life we are faced with death. It’s also a strange kind of irony that after a lifetime of defeat sprinkled with a few thrills of victory, we gather at the memorial service or graveside of the “dearly departed” with eloquent eulogies and tributes. At such times, it seems that all the deceased’s works were not only good, they were magnificent. Their virtues are magnified and shortcomings overlooked as if they were never part of the relational equation. Due to its permanent nature and the toll the loss takes on the living, it is difficult to find virtue or meaning in death. Yet, when it comes to Jesus, there are many meanings of his death. For instance, he died to reconcile us to God (Rom. 5:9-11), to destroy the power and works of the devil (Col. 1:13, 2:15), to take away sin (John 1:29; Heb. 9:26-28), and to give us eternal life (John 3:14-16).
The Greek word thanatos (death) has two significant meanings. One describes the separation of the soul (the spiritual part that returns to God – Ecclesiastes 12:7) from the body (the material part that ceases to function, is buried in the grave, and turns to dust. This is referred to as the death of sleep – John 11:11-13). The other is the second death (the separation of humans from God spiritually – Gen. 2:17, and physically – Rev. 20:14). From the fall of Adam and Eve, all people have had a spiritual condition that puts them in jeopardy of experiencing the second death (Rom. 5:12, 14, 17, 21). Only those who reject Christ as their personal Savior will not be delivered from it (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14). In spite of that, although all humans, from Adam to the present, have died the death of sleep, no one has experienced the second death, except Jesus, the God-man, who did so we won’t. When speaking to Martha about the death and resurrection of her brother, Lazarus, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the [eternal] life; he [or she] who believes in Me will live [eternally] even if he [or she] dies [physically]” (John 11:25).
All decisions for or against Christ must and will be made before the death of sleep. However, in his case, Jesus experienced the second death before entering the death of sleep. Jesus died the second death so that no one should perish, but all have eternal life. This means that his was an atoning death, a substitutionary sacrifice to redeem humanity from sin and the second death.
It was by an extraordinary light that the birth of Jesus was announced (Matt.2:2; Luke 2:9), and on the cross, by an exceptional period of darkness, the universe was notified that he was entering the second death. All nature, brought into being by his power of creation, fled in aversion from the sight of its Creator in anguish of the soul, cut off from the eternal presence of the other members of the Trinity in a great crisis for the redemption of humanity. The mysterious separation of soul from body was taking place during that time (Isa. 53:10-11). “He was bearing the sins of the whole world; the Lord had laid on him the inequity of us all; there was no one to comfort him in his heaviness; and the light of God was for the time withdrawn from him” (The Pulpit Commentary).
His encounter with the second death took place “from the sixth hour (noon) . . . until the ninth hour” (3 p.m. – Matt. 27:45) as he hung on the cross that fateful Friday centuries ago. Not a word is written about his experience during those three hours. They are simply reported as hours of silent suffering to the human observer. We can only imagine the loneliness, faintness, confusion of mind, and despair as all the despicable assertions of sin culminated in one bold assault on the Son of God who endeared himself to the world as the Son of Man who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21). When the struggle was over and victory attained, the silence was broken by a “loud cry” from Jesus. The Greek word for “loud cry” emphasizes the fact that he out-cried the loud cry. It was a roar not previously known or since spoken by anyone who has traversed this rocky road called life. It was at once a cry of dereliction and victory as Jesus used the words of the Psalmist (22:1) to convey his passion and fulfill Scripture (Joel 3:15-16).
Matthew and Mark report the words that accompanied his anguished cry, “ELI ELI LAMA SABBACTHANI?” That is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). We cannot ever expect to know exactly what this cry meant to Jesus. We, however, understand that it was a cry that expressed the torment of his soul from being cut off from his Father, compared to which the cruel torture of his body was nothing. It’s also noticeable that Jesus did not refer to his father as “Abba,” as he had done on numerous occasions, especially during his agony in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). The reason is that, while on the cross, he was carrying out the work of redemption as a man and referred to his Father as “My God,” while he was doing His will (Isa. 49:4).
The words of his loud cry validate the proposition that it is his second death that has meaning for our salvation. He faced and conquered it during those pivotal three hours on the cross.
For example:
First, he himself declared he was “forsaken” – or abandoned – by God during that time. When his soul was troubled, a voice from heaven comforted him (John 12:27-28). In his agony in the Garden, an angel appeared from heaven to strengthen him (Luke 22:43), but on that occasion, he was alone – forsaken.
Second, the verb forsaken is not in the Greek present tense, as is translated in some versions. It is in the aorist (once for all time), and it implies that during the three hours of darkness Jesus had been in utter desolation at that one time only. Being forsaken by his Father was the most grievous of all his sufferings since his arrest; in that instance after recovering from those three hours he gave the most doleful, soul-wrenching cry (Ps. 69:1-3).
Third, while Matthew gave the Hebrew form of the loud cry, Mark reported in the Aramaic language, which was the lingua franca of Jesus’ childhood. Just as he recited Psalm 22 from his early years, so he retreated to this common vernacular at that crucial moment.
Fourth and most significant, since the dead know nothing (Eccles. 9:5), even in the case of Jesus, the plan of salvation had to be fulfilled before he died the death of sleep and was buried in the grave. Only after Jesus was assured of the success of his mission to save humanity did he turn to his own human needs. “After knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture (Isa. 53:4-6), [Jesus] said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28). Prior to that, he had refused all attempts to ease the excruciating agony (Matt. 27:34), but fully conscious of the meaning and successful completion of his atoning death, he sought remedy for his physical depravation, took the vinegar (v. 29), and received or imbibed it (v. 30). Then he declared that his mission was finished and the wages of sin “paid in full” (Tetelestai) or “it is finished,” which rightly means “to complete, perfect, carry out what is said” or “to fulfill a promise.” Having completed his mission to atone for the sin of the world (John 3:16) and declared it a success, Jesus died physically, dying the death of sleep (Matt. 27:50-51).
Finally, redemption, or re-creation week, ends the same as creation week, with the Sabbath. When Jesus had completed the plan of salvation, for the first time since his birth, he entered into a Sabbath rest, just as reported in Genesis 2:1-3. This all means that our salvation was bought and wrought on the cross, not in the grave. When Jesus had “finished” his works of salvation for the restoration of humanity on the sixth day, just as he did after creation of humans on the sixth day, he rested (Heb. 4:10).
Hyveth Williams is senior pastor of the Campus Hill Church, in Loma Linda, California.

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