… As to your question, dear brother, it is a point of profound interest to follow the sufferings of the beloved Saviour. I find what you have said right in general. There is something to add, it seems to me, and I do not think that the “pains of death” mean that Christ suffered after His death and before His resurrection. He has “suffered”, as you say, as a righteous man exposed to the wickedness of men. There was also another side to His sufferings as Man, not only the isolation of His heart, which nobody understood, but the fact that, feeling every insult poured out upon Him, He looked for someone to have compassion upon Him and found nobody: this only adds the feeling of [His] heart to His sufferings as a righteous Man. Of the two following characters of the sufferings of the Saviour of which you speak, I have nothing to add. May God give us to feel them! I want to speak of His sufferings, as seeing the glory of His Father trodden under foot of men (and by the men whose cause He took up in becoming Man). To this suffering, however, was added, it seems to me, the profound sorrow of seeing the love of this Father despised and rejected by men. That must have been terrible for Him. At the tomb of Lazarus, His distress arose from the feeling that He had as to the way that death weighed on man, the terrible state in which man was found without being able to deliver himself. I believe that His sufferings in Gethsemane were different from His sufferings on the cross. He had been “tempted” at the beginning of His ministry by the enemy, who used things by which he hoped to entice Him into acting according to His [own] will: thanks be to God this [attack] was only to be defeated. The strong man has been bound, and the Victor has begun to spoil his goods. The enemy, it says, departed from Him for a time, Luke 4: 13. But not only was man bondman to the power of the enemy, from which a living Christ could deliver, but his own heart was enmity against God, and the Lord had to bear the consequences of this state, if He were to continue with the work of salvation. This enmity being fully developed and Satan having taken possession of men’s hearts through the manifestation of God that man did not want, Satan returns as prince of this world, and having the power of death, the fear of death, he comes to make all the horror of death, the fear of death as coming upon Him, bear down on the soul of the Lord as it is said: “My soul is very sorrowful even unto death”, Matt 26: 38.
Here, overwhelmed and in agony, His communion with His Father is not interrupted - His access to Him. He prays more intently. He undergoes the power of death inflicted by the enemy because we were there; but instead of being separated from God by this means, instead of being in despair, He addresses Himself to Him ardently. He overcomes; and while the outward instruments of Satan’s power come, it is they who fall to the ground (John 18: 6); but He delivers Himself up; it was their hour and the power of darkness. On the cross, death was not the power of Satan who used the fear of it to [try to] turn the Saviour aside from the way of obedience and of submission to the will of God; it was the cup itself that He drank, the forsaking of God when He was made sin. It is on the cross that the work itself was done. He combats at Gethsemane and appeals to God; He suffered on the cross, He suffered the forsaking of God for sin. But perfect in obedience, He drank this terrible cup and is able to commit His soul in peace into His Father’s hands.
There, I believe, dear brother, His sufferings ended, not that He had everything yet, nor that He was glorified before His resurrection; but it seems to me that in saying to the thief: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23: 43), it was to say: ’I am not waiting for my kingdom in order to bless, to give the fruits of my death’. The thief had said: “Remember me, Lord, when thou comest in thy kingdom”. He believed in the coming kingdom. The Lord’s answer implied: ’I do another work than that of acquiring the kingdom, I save souls: you will not have to wait until I have come in my kingdom to be blessed; you will be with me today, there where spirits, where souls can enjoy God’s delights’. While it says in Acts 2: 24: “having loosed the pains of death”, that is a figure; they are “the pains of death”. The word ‘pains’ here signifies ‘childbirth pains’, and I believe that it speaks in figure of giving birth to man in resurrection, for which death and the tomb were as the pains of childbirth: death could not hold Him. Thus, viewed as a whole, I do not think that it speaks of pain after death, but the pains of giving birth in death.
…There is still what we read in Hebrews 2: 18: “he… suffered being tempted” (KJV), in that all the attacks of Satan were directed against Him, pressed in all things by the enemy, so that He could not take a step in the spiritual life in which He was engaged without meeting an obstacle painful to His heart and without overcoming it. We can have fellowship fully with the sufferings as the expression of His love unto death. What He has borne for us in drinking the cup and passing through the darkness is not our portion, is not the fellowship of His sufferings: He has been our substitute there (cf 2 Tim 2: 10).
26th September 1855
Translated extract from a letter published in Le Messager Evangélique