The Weight of the Cross

Many times I have considered the weight of the cross as Jesus bore it. By that I don’t mean just physical weight, say 250 lbs or whatever; rather, I have in view the ontological weight. By that I mean the weight that came with becoming a substitute for us when he who knew no sin became a curse for us who are by our fallen nature sinners. In one sense I don’t think we will ever fully grasp the immense cost (i.e. weight) of this act – even after God brings things back to rights in the future. For all eternity we will dwell and we will grow immensely in our knowledge and understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice due to our exposure to God’s holiness, but I doubt that we as finite beings will ever grasp that which is infinite in value becoming a sacrifice and then the turmoil it must have caused in his being as God Jesus took on the task of the cross.

At the same time, I think it is an appropriate exercise to consider this question because Scripture gives us hints which communicate the depths of the pain and suffering that Jesus went through on the cross. For example, we know that Jesus cried “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34) And this one example is one apple in a barrel of examples of excruciating biblical examples that pound into us the reality that the cross was a cosmically cataclysmic difficult task that the Son of Man carried out.

In my devotional time there is a thought that has brought me closer to grasping this weight perhaps more than any other. To set it up, you have to understand how Jewish thought worked throughout biblical times. Specifically I have in view the way Hebrews would communicate superlatives in Hebrew and then by extension in thought even if they were speaking in Aramaic or Greek.

While Ancient Hebrew also shares many of the same linguistic tools we have to show emphasis and make superlatives comparisons/statements they also utilized something we don’t – namely, they would repeat the word twice in a row. For example, in Psalm 148:4 creation is instructed to “Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!” The phrase “highest heavens” is what has my attention here. In Hebrew, it reads woodenly  “heaven heaven” or “sky, sky” depending on context. The idea is even to the highest heights imaginable, even these heights are under God’s sovereignty and thus are due to give him praise. What I want you to get from this is the superlative nature of the use of the repetitive nature of the syntax. Specifically, there is no higher heaven than that which the Hebrew has in mind. It is an “est” superlative, not an “er” one – like “strongest” not “stronger.” Does that make sense? I hope so, because you have to get this clarification to go where I’m going and I want you to come on this journey with me.  (Cf Dt 10:14; 1 Kgs 8:27;  2 Chr 6:18; Neh 9:6. Oh, also check out Gen 2:17 where “die” is repeated twice in the Hebrew at the end making a very interesting statement about what kind of death comes with eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.)

In the Old Testament we have a multitude of various ideas that are furthered like this – and we even see it evidenced in Jewish thought in the New Testament. This is what is happening when Jesus says the powerful proclamation of “truly, truly” throughout the Gospels. This is lagniappe, but worth the diversion – in the first century after a rabbi would issue a teaching the listening rabbis, scribes and religious leaders would say “amen” (meaning truly; its the same word Jesus says – gives depth to when you say “amen”) giving their seal of approval on the teaching. Then the common listener would accept the teaching as trustworthy. But when Jesus says “Amen, amen” at the beginning of his teachings he is making a declarative statement in both its placement in the teaching and his repeating of it. Jesus means to communicate that he speaks truth and has authority to validate its authenticity without the input of the religious leaders. It was shocking to hear for the first century Jew. (Back from the rabbit trail) What it does for us is show that this thinking was still very much part of Jewish communication even when speaking in Aramaic or Greek.

Back to the Old Testament, there is only one attribute of God that gets the superlative royal treatment and that is God’s holiness. And it is not repeated twice in a row, but three times in a row! It is the Hebrew superlative of all superlatives. The Bible doesn’t claim “God is love, love, love” nor does it say that “God is mercy, mercy, mercy” nor does it say that “God is justice, justice, justice” but it does say that God is holy, holy, holy. Isaiah 6:3 gives us that grand picture in the throne room of Heaven where the Seraphim are crying out, “And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!'”

I lament my inability to convey the depth and width of this amazing claim that communicates to us just how holy God is because we struggle to grasp holiness in all its otherness to what we are, but to get sin you must first get God’s holiness. And of course, this is where any hope of understanding the weight of the cross must begin. It is not by accident then that there is a connection between holiness and glory, for glory in Hebrew has behind it the sense of weight literally carrying the connotation of heaviness. God’s glory is a heavy thing indeed.

With this in mind, now perhaps hear the precious words of the world’s only Savior as he tells us how much our sins weighed upon him with the looming cross drawing ever nearer. Matthew 26:37-45

And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.  Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”  And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Many things from this text are important – the fact that Jesus is looking for comfort and encouragement from his human companions, some of the very sheep for whom he will be slaughtered, and their constant inability to stay away after having their fill of food and wine from the passover feast.  But I want to focus on his time with his father as he comes before the Father’s throne. The very purpose he came to earth about to culminate into the climax of the cross – a path God had set before the foundation of the world and something Jesus did willingly and of his own volition. No one made him give up his own life; it was his to give and he gave it of his own accord. But the joy of the cross as it was set before him was the conquering of death. But now, in the Garden of Gethsemane the looming of the pain of his anticipation of being a substitutionary atonement who is sacrificed while incurring a debt that was not his brought a weight that caused him to the superlative of all superlatives. It is by no mistake we are given a different superlative this night – where Peter denies to the third degree, but Jesus will not deny the Father. Still, he comes into communion with the Father and asks not once, not twice but three times that the cup of the cross pass from him.

How much did the cross weigh on Jesus’ mind? More than anything has weighed on the mind of anyone else ever. It is the superlative that conveys the weight of the cross as only a Jew could communicate. “Take this cup from me!” Again, “Take this cup from me!” and again, “Take this cup from me.” What can conquer such a burden? How does Jesus fight through this terrible anxiety that he is experiencing?

“But not my will be done, but yours.”

Again, “Not my will be done, but yours.”

And again, “Not my will be done, but yours.”

And yet again for a fourth time for that is what is behind Jesus words when he says “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

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