|A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God|
|Part Five: ``... crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried...''|
|by Jared L. Olar|
With this installment of our series on the Creed, we come to the core of the Gospel, the fundamental historical fact of the Christian faith that only the most desperate of unbelievers have ever attempted to deny: Jesus Christ was ``crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried.'' Another elaboration upon this doctrine may be found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed: ``He was also crucified for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried.'' Or as it says in the modern form of the Apostles' Creed, Jesus
Of course our primary focus during the spring holy days has always been placed upon the awesome miracle of our redemption some 2,000 years ago, accomplished through the shed blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29; Rev. 5:6)-Christ our Passover who is sacrificed for us (I Cor. 5:7). Itis clear that over time our understanding of, and appreciation for, the salvation we now have through the Passover of Christ has grown immensely, but we have always had the most profound appreciation for everything that Jesus went through in order to save us from Sin and Death.
I do not think it is necessary, nor very practical, to cite specific examples of WCG literature devoted to this subject, because every springtime our magazines always used to highlight the way Jesus fulfills the typology of the Passover season. Instead, I wish to engage in a fresh examination of the historical event of the suffering, death, and burial of Jesus Christ under the government of Pontius Pilate. Because more than any other tragic event in human history, what happened to Christ has had the most important consequences on our lives here on earth.
|``Crucified Under Pontius Pilate...''|
The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, who was Roman procurator of Judaea during the latter years of the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Matt. 27:24-35; Mark 15:15-24; Luke 23:24-33; John 19:15-18). However, these historical facts can be verified not only from the writings of the New Testament, but also from the testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus , both of whom wrote in the last decade of the first century A.D. The text of Tacitus is clear and explicit, and is entirely trustworthy and conclusive regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ under Pontius Pilate. Writing of Emperor Nero's persecution of the Church that beganin 64 A.D., Tacitus tells his readers about:
|``Now, there was about this time, Jesus,||``At this time there was a wise man who was|
|a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a||called Jesus. And his conduct was good,|
|man, for he was a doer of wonderful||and he was known to be virtuous. And|
|works-a teacher of such men as receive||many people from among the Jews and the|
|the truth with pleasure. He drew over to||other nations became his disciples. Pilate|
|him both many of the Jews, and many of||condemned him to be crucified and to die.''|
|the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when|
|Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal|
|men among us, had condemned him to|
|the cross,....'' (Antiquities XVIII.3.3)|
|``Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried ...''|
Thus, the historicity of the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ under Pontius Pilate may be firmly established and substantiated, from both friendly witnesses (i.e., the New Testament and other early Christian sources) as well as from unfriendly witnesses (i.e., the Jew Josephus and the pagan Roman Tacitus). Therefore, whatever else one may think of the death of Jesus, we can be sure that His death was extremely painful and demeaning. Crucifixion as a method of punishment was intentionally designed to be ``cruel and unusual punishment.'' It was meant to be a horrid, agonising, shameful, undignified, and humiliating way to die. The death of Jesus is so offensive, so scandalous, that when artists portray the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, they always show Him wearing a loincloth. But in our base wickedness, we did not even allow our Savior the dignity of a simple loincloth. He died naked, bruised, and bloodied, His wrists and ankles impaled by metal spikes and His left side pierced by a spear.
This was a death that offended the Universe itself. As our Savior's death drew near, it was as if the sun hid her face in shame and grief (Matt. 27:45). And then at the moment of His death, the very earth shook violently, as if in spasms of intense sorrow and crying, while the Veil of God's Temple was torn in half-very much like the Hebrew custom of expressing grief at the loss of a loved one (Matt. 27:50-53). During the third century A.D. a Christian historian named Julius Africanus described these events, quoting from two pagan historians who were witnesses to these cosmic upheavals:
A gigantic pile of books have already been written providing excellent answers to those questions, and I have no desire or intention to write yet another one today. Instead, I think the best thing I could do at this point is to do what the Church has done from the very start of Her Mission, and direct our attention to God's marvelous prophecy of the Suffering Servant that is found in Isa. 52:13-53:12. In that prophecy,God foretold that He would raise up an Israelite man who would endure terrible suffering and an ignominious death. Despite His being completely sinless, this Servant would be regarded as a common criminal, but buried in the tomb of a rich man (Isa. 53:9, 12). Why? So that the sins of Israel, and of all other nations, could be atoned (Isa. 53:11-12).
In other words, Jesus died for our sins, paying the penalty that our own transgressions and wickedness have incurred (Rom. 6:23). His suffering and death made possible the restoration of our relationship with our holy and righteous Father in heaven (Isa. 59:1-2; II Cor. 5:18-21). When our first parents Adam and Eve disobeyed the Eternal God's commandment, we humans became bitter enemies of our Maker (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 8:7). Even more, pain and suffering and death entered into the world in which we live. But we can see all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that God, in His infinite love for us His Children, promised He would send His Servant-His very own Son-to save us from all of the consequences of sin. When Jesus was miraculously conceived by the holy Spirit in thewomb of the virgin Mary, that divine promise was fulfilled at last. The long-awaited Messiah had come to deliver His People from their enemies: Sin and Death.
Tragically, neither the Jews (represented by men like Herod and Caiaphas) nor the Gentiles (represented by men like Pilate and his soldiers) recognised the Messiah for who He really is. Instead, they cooperated in a satanic plot to murder the most important human being who has ever lived. Imagine what our Savior must have felt, to be subject to such abuse and hatred, coming from those He had come to save. But in the most blessed of all ironies, their wicked murder of the Incarnate King of the Universe made possible their own salvation. The death of Jesus was not the death of a mere mortal-it was the death of the pure and sinless Lamb of God (John 1:29), the perfect sacrifice atoning for all humansin-i.e., in Jewish theology, the perfect Kapparah . Since the Messiah Jesus is none other than the Eternal God of Israel, made flesh by the virgin Mary, that means that His death was able to destroy Death. By no means could the very source and embodiment of Immortality ever be conquered by Death. Therefore, those who put their trust in God Incarnate need no longer fear death.
In the second installment of this series, I observed that each Christian doctrine touches in some way, or overlaps with, every other doctrine. We can see another illustration of that truth in the doctrineof the Atonement-it is dependent upon and intermeshed with the doctrine of the Incarnation. We have seen in Isa. 63:4-9 that God declared Himself to be the one and only Savior of His People. The task of accomplishing our salvation is something no mere mortal could ever do. Even Jesus' own mother Mary, the greatest of God's saints, could not accomplish the Atonement. For although she was chosen by God to be the one who would bring us our Savior, she was only a human, not God. No, God said in Isa. 42:8 that He would not allow the credit for His victory to go to anyone else but Himself. By implication, that means the Savior would have to be God Incarnate-a mortal man who could feel the pain of Sin and Death like the rest of us, but also the Eternal God who could never been vanquished by Sin and Death.
|``He descended into Hell ....''|
At this point we must turn our attention to one of the most complicated and controversial doctrinal articles of the Apostles' Creed: Christ's descent into Hell. According to this doctrine, when Jesus died His soul descended into the realm of the dead, known as Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek, and misleadingly known as ``Hell'' in English. Because of human sin, even the souls of the righteous were confined in Sheol. Jewish legend refers to the ``region'' of Sheol in which the righteous were confined as Paradise-there they awaited their redemption at the hands of the Messiah, their Savior. While dead in Sheol (Luke 23:43), Jesus subjugated Satan and his minions, and ``preached to the spirits in prison''(I Pet. 3:18-19; 4:5-6), thereby rescuing the souls of the righteous from Hell. At the resurrection of Jesus the souls of the righteous were released from Hell and were able to ascend to Heaven, waiting patiently in God's Presence for their own resurrection. This doctrine thus serves to explain whether or not those who have died before the coming of Christ would ever be able to obtain salvation. (In addition to the scriptures cited above, the following texts have also traditionally been used tosupport this doctrine: Psa. 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31; Eph. 4:8-9; Phil.2:10; Col. 2:15; and Rev. 1:18)
Historically speaking, the ``descent into Hell'' refers to a belief that appears in both orthodox and heretical Christian literature about the middle of the second century A.D. Later, in the fourth century this doctrine was elaborated in the most fanciful way imaginable in apocryphal writings such as the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus. The ``descent into Hell'' does not seem to have appeared in the earliest versions of the Apostles' Creed, but various churches had begun to include it by the end of the 300s A.D.
Considering that the WCG has in the past adamantly denied that the human soul has consciousness after death (a belief known as ``conditional immortality'' or ``soul sleep''), obviously we could never have expressed assent to this doctrinal article. The earlier forms of the Creed that lacked this article would have posed no problem to us, but the modern version we would have regarded as ``unspeakable.'' In an attempt to resolve this thorny problem, in his article ``The Apostles' Creed'' (TheWorldwide News , September 1999, pp.8-9), Michael Morrison suggested that Christians who believe in conditional immortality might possibly reconcile themselves to this doctrinal article of the Creed by reinterpreting it. This is in fact what Conditionalist author Edward Fudge did in his book The Fire That Consumes (1994). In a footnote on page 143 of his book, Fudge writes:
In this overview of the Christian doctrine of the Messiah's death, we have seen that His death has atoned for our sins, and has rescued us from our ancient enemy Death. For that, every Christian should daily give thanks to God. How important are these truths we have studied in this installment? They are of the greatest importance, because the suffering and death of our Savior Jesus Christ is the very basis of all Christian faith and practice (Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 9:23-25; I Cor. 15:30-32; Rom.12:1-2). As members of Christ's mystical Body, we can rejoice in our steadfast hope in the glorious promise of His Kingdom. But just as the Son of God took on flesh and shared in our sufferings under theoppressive and unjust government of Pontius Pilate, so we His brothers and sisters must share in His sufferings (I Pet. 2:20-23). Otherwise we cannot expect to share in His victory over Sin and Death.
I will leave you with this: These words of the Creed that we have been studying-``crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried''-provide the best answer, really the only answer, to the question of why we must endure suffering and pain in this life. Apart from the suffering and death ofJesus, our suffering would be pointless-God really would be the uncaring, aloof Monster that many claim Him to be. Thank God for the historical fact of the crucifixion at Golgotha-an event that had, and continues to have, the most profound effect imaginable on every single one of us, whether living or dead. In Jesus Christ, we have a God who hurts when we hurt, who wants to save us so badly that He took all our pain on Himself at Golgotha, dying the same death that we die. When you think about it, would you really want any other kind of God?
|To be continued....|
About the Author: Jared Olar lives in Pekin, Illinois, with his wife Christina and son Alexander. Jared enjoys the study of ancient, biblical, ecclesiastical,and medieval history. Recently he was blessed with two opportunities to share with the Peoria congregation of the Worldwide Church of God some of the information he has gleaned from his studies: through his facilitation of a series of Bible Studies on Dr. Walter Kaiser's book The Messiah in the Old Testament (which he completed in November), and through a series of classes on the Apostolic Fathers (which he completed in January).