He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.
He was like someone people turned away from;[b]
He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.
4 Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. 6 We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all. - Isaiah 53:4-6
I still vividly remember the first time I went to speak with an older, wiser Christian about some significant personal pain. I remember, afterward, feeling the joy of a burden lifted. I remember why I went to see that particular mentor rather than someone else. First, I knew that this friend had suffered. He had already described for me his own dark times in which he had cried and prayed to God for relief. Second, I knew my friend had somehow journeyed on beyond where I was. It was the combination—suffering and godly maturity—that made me want to confide in my friend.
This experience illustrates why many Christians throughout the ages have wanted to affirm two things about God’s saving relationship to us. Placing their faith in a crucified Savior, the early Christians declared that God has suffered. It was, in the words of the church fathers, precisely one of the Trinity who bled and died for us. But, in the same breath, our Christian forebears also declared that God—the same God who hung on a tree for our salvation—didn’t give up his transcendent majesty when he did so. God remained who he always had been: the One who is beyond human change, suffering, and death.
Thinking back to my time with my older friend, I knew I needed to talk with someone who would be a sensitive fellow sufferer. But I also knew that no amount of “I’ve been there too” camaraderie would be enough if my mentor couldn’t also somehow pull me out of the mire I’d fallen into. The same is true with God—albeit in a qualitatively different way. The reason the death of Jesus is able to defeat death, rather than capitulate to it, is that Jesus is God. He is the same God who told Moses from the burning bush, “I Am Who I Am” (Ex. 3:14). He is the One who stands beyond time and the waves of human vacillation and defenselessness. That is the One who carried his own cross to Calvary. If that One died, his death could never be mere sympathetic cosuffering with us. That death was the end of death. That death broke death’s power forever because it was the death of the Deathless One.
Wesley Hill teaches New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and is the author of several books, including Spiritual Friendship.