There are some aspects of our Lord’s sufferings on the cross that are frequently dwelt upon. His prayer of forgiveness; His concern for His mother; His cries in the darkness; His dealings with the dying thief; His last shout of triumphant achievement – all these are frequently mentioned. We do well to make much of these highlights of our Saviour’s work upon the cross, yet behind these outward events were the happenings in the unseen realm. These are often overlooked, yet if we can see these too, they will give us added insight into what was involved in the salvation that comes to us through the One who suffered these things in the sinner’s stead.
A closer look at Calvary will reveal that our Lord suffered two deaths; this is also the portion of the unsaved sinner. It is a true saying that states that to be born once is to die twice, but to be born twice is to die once, so we can rightly talk about the deaths of the sinner. The sad truth is that such die first of all and are buried; they will die the second time when they perish eternally. This second death is plainly maintained in Revelation 2. 11; 20. 14; 21. 8, and the New Testament Scriptures seem to refer much more to the second than to the first death. When we read such verses as “the wages of sin is death”, and numerous others where death is associated with sin, it is not the death of the body that is in view. Rather it is the second death; cf. Matt. 10. 28. This is because the first death is not the penalty of sin but the consequence of it. The second death of Revelation 20. 14 is the penalty of sin. And it is just here that a closer look at Calvary makes us more fully realise that the One on the central cross was the sinless Son of God – and yet He died! How can we explain His dying when death – as a consequence of sin – should never come upon Him?
The truth is that our Lord laid down His life voluntarily in fulfilment of His words, “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again”, John 10. 17, 18. It follows that all the cruel agonies that Christ suffered could never have terminated His earthly life. Had it been in the plan of salvation, Christ could have performed yet another miracle and come down from the cross. But we should remember that the Lord Jesus was only here as One who came from a vastly superior scene to lodge amongst us for a little while. It is written, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”, John 1. 14 j.n.d. Thus it was to be expected that, after doing the mighty work He had come to do, our Lord could triumphantly shout “finished”, and bowing His head, should take His exit from this scene; see Luke 9. 31.
Those who stood around the cross and saw Christ die that death did not realise that He was using His divine power to dismiss His spirit. Perhaps they hardly heard His quiet prayer, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, Luke 23. 46. They probably thought that His death physically was no different from that of the other two who were crucified with Him. But although it was different, there was no atoning value in it. This was not the death referred to in Scripture, “Christ died for us”, Rom. 5. 8. The death that satisfied God’s claims against us came upon our Saviour when God shrouded the scene in thick darkness for three hours. Because He was the Son of God in human flesh, our Saviour in His atoning work could reverse the order to which all mankind is subject, and – stupendous fact! - He died the second death before He died the first. During these dread hours Christ was heard to cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”. This was because those tremendous words “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin”, 2 Cor. 5. 21, were being fulfilled. It was then that Christ tasted death for every man, Heb. 2. 9, and was experiencing that awful separation from God which the sinner who dies in his sins will know eternally.
When God’s righteous wrath against sin had been exhausted by His own Son, the darkness gave way to light again. It now only remained for Christ to leave His pain-racked body which He knew would shortly be cared for by His friends; this He did with the loud cry “finished”. Did those whose loving hands took the Saviour’s body down from the cross realise then that the seemingly helpless One had exercised divine power in dismissing His spirit? Or did they realise that in the space of just over three hours the Lord Jesus had died twice?