. . . the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is, to this day, a stumbling block to many; it defies human comprehension. It is an event that can be understood only as it is explained to us by God through His word

At the center of the Christian faith lies a picture. Christian art and architecture, literature and hymns, are dominated by the symbol of the cross. A symbol, however, both invites and demands thought and reflection. What are we to make of this symbol? What does it tell us about God and the world, or about our nature and ultimate destiny? Why is it that at the center of a faith in a loving God lies a symbol of death and despair – the dreadful picture of a man dying through crucifixion? The cross is indeed a mystery, something difficult to understand, but charged with meaning for those who despair of the apparent pointlessness of human existence, who feel lost in the world and overwhelmed by its concerns and anxieties

So writes Alister McGrath at the beginning of his book, The Mystery of the Cross. Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is, to this day, a stumbling block to many. It defies human comprehension. It is an event that can be understood only as it is explained to us by God through His word. In fact, even Isaiah acknowledges its mystery even as he explains it to us in Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As manywere astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

Jesus indeed was an enigma. He came to his own people, but they refused to recognize him as the Son of God, the Messiah, for he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. Even his own disciples misunderstood him. Sure enough, huge crowds followed him but only because of what they could get out of him. When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to dance to their tune, the “Hosannas”  turned to “Crucify him!” and so Jesus was crucified for treason and blasphemy. Yet the truth of the matter was this:

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Far from Jesus’ suffering being his own punishment, he was crucified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God laid on him the sins of his people and punished him on their behalf. He was the sacrifice and substitute for the sins of his people. In Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousnessof God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In this, we are confronted with the essence of our predicament: our own sin. In calling our sin “transgression” we are revealed to be in willful revolt against our lawful Lord, deliberately flouting his law; in calling our sin “iniquity” the deep perversion of our souls is exposed. It is the result of Adam’s fall, the reason we deliberately turn away from God, each in our own way. And for our own willfulness, we live broken lives filled with hurt and confusion of our own making. Worse, at the end of our lives, we will face the judgment of God, to whom we ultimately must give account.

Therein is the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He himself addresses our need, giving his only begotten Son. This grace is revealed to be even more amazing when we realize that Jesus willingly gave himself to be the sin-bearer, for Isaiah continues:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

But even as Isaiah explains the reason behind Jesus’ crucifixion, unresolved tension remains: Even if Jesus willingly submitted himself to crucifixion, how could God tolerate what even Isaiah recognizes as a miscarriage of justice? Was this a miscalculation on the part of Jesus, or a case of God making the best of a botched mess? Isaiah says

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

The crucifixion of Jesus was nothing but the fulfillment of what God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. It was God’s will that Jesus suffer for he was God’s appointed offering for the sin of his people. In the eyes of God, Jesus’ substitutionary death satisfied the demands of his righteous justice and holy wrath. God himself punished Jesus in his people’s stead as the righteous Judge. But that is not the end of the story, for Isaiah continues:

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Notice the contrast between the anguish of the cross and the triumph of vindication, for the cross was not a defeat for Jesus, but the means of his victory. It was through the cross that he, the righteous sufferer, procured the justification of all that would trust in him. And God did reverse the miscarriage of justice that took place on the cross when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him at his own right hand, the Savior and intercessor of his people, the Lord of all. The cross, indeed, is a mystery hard to understand. This much, though, is clear: it speaks of God’s righteousness, a righteousness so demanding it could be satisfied only by the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It speaks of divine love that demands a response of repentance and faith.