So in imagination let’s go to the cross and watch Jesus die. First of all, did He really die? The soldiers were surprised to find he was already dead. Crucifixion was usually a very slow way of dying. Evidently something else had happened. Is it true that Jesus was dying the death of a sinner, to show us how the sinner really dies? That’s what we find in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (RSV). So Jesus died the death of a sinner. And what caused Jesus to die? As you watch him dying on the cross, is God killing His Son? Is he torturing his Son to death? Is God pouring out His wrath on His Son; something the Bible so often pictures God doing toward sinners for whom there is no further hope?
Well it all depends on the meaning of wrath. What does the Bible mean when it talks about God’s wrath? One of the clearest explanations is in Romans 1. The entire chapter is worth reading, but let’s at least look at the following four verses:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . . Therefore, God gave them up . . .For this reason God gave them up . . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up. (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28, RSV)
The “truth” Paul is talking about in 1:18 is the truth about God. Three times it states in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is simply His turning away, in loving disappointment, from those who do not want Him anyway. God’s wrath is leaving them to the inevitable and awful consequences of their own rebellious choices. Is that what happened to Jesus on the cross? Was Jesus given up? Look at Romans 4:25: “. . . Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses” (RSV).
There is nothing in the Greek, actually, that says He was “put to death.” The Greek word translated “put to death” is actually paredothê, exactly the same word translated “gave them up” in Romans 1:24, 26, 28. Translators ought to leave them the same to show that Jesus died under the wrath of His Father. But the real meaning of God’s wrath is His turning away, leaving sinners to the inevitable and awful consequences of sin. And this concept was not new with Paul. It’s all through the Old Testament, most dramatically in Hosea, chapter eleven: “My people are bent on turning away from me . . . . How, oh how can I give you up, Ephraim! How, oh how, can I hand you over Israel!” (Hos 11:7-8, Phillips).
Did Jesus understand that this was the experience He was passing through? Did Jesus know He was being given up as Hosea and Paul describe it? What did Jesus cry just before He died? Did He say, “My God, my God, why are You beating Me up? Why are you torturing Me? Why are you killing Me?” No! “Why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). In other words, “Why have you given me up?” Jesus knew.
This part of Jesus’ journey began in Gethsemane. There He began to demonstrate the truth about God’s gracious but awful warning, that the wages of sin is death. There Jesus fell to the ground, dying. And the angels were watching too. Was God killing his Son in the Garden of Gethsemane, or did Jesus feel the unity with His Father breaking up? There He began to feel the awesome loneliness of being given up. Had Jesus died in the Garden of Gethsemane, could anyone say that the Father had killed the Son? Jesus Himself made that clear earlier in John 10:18: “No one takes My life from Me. No one can. I lay it down of Myself. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up.”
The angels knew who Jesus was. They knew that He was God. And they knew the meaning of His words when He said, “No one takes My life from Me.” The angels knew that was the truth. And if Jesus had died in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would not have been because His Father had killed Him. Instead, the Father was giving Him up, and both of them suffered together. As in Hosea the Father was crying, “How can I give you up?” The Son who had assumed humanity was the One who died. And so two questions were answered in Gethsemane. Is death the result of sin? Indeed it is. Is it because God kills his wayward children? No, He did not lay a hand on His Son.