Suspended Between Heaven and Earth: A Good Friday Reflection on the Cross of Christ
War is a brutal business. Military historian Victor David Hanson describes war as an event that cuts, destroys, and maims flesh. As we observe and read of the horrors of war, we can become numb to the inhumanity and accept the carnage among combatants as a sad but nevertheless grim reality in a sin-fallen world. But in war there are typically limits that combatants draw. As deadly as war is, soldiers in the West generally refrain from desecrating the dead, for example. Opposing armies recognize that a fallen soldier has fought and paid the ultimate price and, thus, once fallen, deserves respect. Despite this common Western practice, this was not the case in the ancient Near East. When Israel’s King Saul fell in battle, the Philistines did not hesitate to desecrate his body. Philistine soldiers were reconnoitering the battlefield to strip the dead and discovered the bodies of Saul and his three sons on Mt. Gilboa (1 Sam. 31:8). They took Saul’s body, decapitated him, seized his armor, but worst of all, they “fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan” (1 Sam. 31:10). Saul’s downward spiral began with his jealousy and murderous pursuit of David but culminated with his disobedience to God’s command to destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). He added compounding sin to his disobedience by consulting the witch of Endor and engaging in necromancy (1 Sam. 28:7). These events led to his wounds in battle, attempted suicide, death, beheading, and suspension on the wall of Beth-shan. The Hebrew text specifically states that Saul’s body was fastened, which is a word used for setting up tents, or the thrust of a sword or javelin into another person.
When word of Saul’s death and suspension reached his troops, they knew what this meant—Saul was cursed by God (Deut. 21:22–23). The Philistines did not hang Saul from a tree, but they nevertheless hung him from a wall and left him suspended past sunset. Saul’s “valiant men” were willing to risk their lives in the middle of the night to retrieve the body of their slain king (1 Sam. 31:11–13). They unfastened Saul’s body and retrieved the bodies of his three sons and then burned and buried them in Jabesh-Gilead. Saul’s suspension spoke volumes to the people—it revealed that Saul was cursed and was worthy neither of heaven nor of earth as he hung suspended on the wall.
But Saul’s cursed state was not the last time one of Israel’s kings would hang suspended between heaven and earth—his suspension pointed to the crucifixion of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus the righteous King hung suspended between heaven and earth because he willingly bore the sins and curse due his Bride, and through the ministrations of his cross he reconciled heaven and earth so that sinners would once again have access to our holy and righteous God.
This Good Friday, let’s consider Christ’s suspension by exploring three themes surrounding the crucifixion of Christ: (1) the fact that heaven and earth meet in the temple; (2) that Christ was suspended between heaven and earth in his crucifixion, revealing he was counted unworthy of either; and (3) the result of Christ’s suspension—the rending of the temple veil. Through his crucifixion Christ brought salvation, forgiveness, and restoration so that all who believe in Jesus can dwell eternally in the presence of God.
Heaven and Earth Meet in the Temple
Eden was the first earthly temple simply by virtue of God’s presence. When Moses approached the burning bush, God told him to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. The place was ordinary and mundane in and of itself, but God’s presence made it holy (Exod. 3:5). When God appeared in the garden on the heels of the fall, his presence was not out of the ordinary, rather the presence of sin was (Gen. 3:8). Before God exiled Adam and Eve from Eden, he clothed them in the “garments of skins,” which signaled two things (Gen. 3:21). First, it meant that he gave Adam and Eve demerited grace—his favor in spite of their demerit, their sin. He was discretely revealing that he would build other meeting places, more temples, and enable humans once again to fellowship with him. Second, Adam and Eve’s investiture required the death of an animal, which means that redemption and restoration would come through the seed of the woman, but it would come at a price. God wrote a check that would be cashed in the shed blood and suffering of the Messiah. Despite the outpouring of grace upon Adam and Eve, the fall narrative ends on an ominous note: “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). The couple were cast out of the garden-temple of Eden. For the first time, the sun set upon them as they wandered into the darkness of exile.
In his great mercy God gave his people other temples. He descended from the heavens in dark ominous clouds at Mt. Sinai, but he kept the people at a distance under the threat of death (Heb. 12:18–20). He later instructed Moses to build the desert tabernacle. The Holy of Holies was guarded by the Levites, and, like the gates of the garden, the two cherubim embroidered on the tabernacle veil between the inner and outer tent reminded the priests that the way into the presence of God was still closed. God repeated the same architecture in the Solomonic temple but instead of the fabric of the tent of meeting, he built this temple out of stone. These various temples were all pointing to the final temple that God gave through the incarnation of his Son. John provocatively writes in his gospel: “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, trans. mine).
But how would God reconcile heaven and earth? How would he reunite these two realms given that the path from earth to heaven had been closed? Heaven and earth would be reunited through the shed blood of the Son of God. Temple and sacrifice converge in Jesus. When Jesus was walking in the temple confines teaching the crowds, they demanded a sign from him and so he responded: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jews were incredulous because they knew that the Herodian temple had taken forty-six years to build, so they doubted that Christ could rebuild it in a mere three days (John 2:20). But John notes that Jesus was “speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus would bring salvation through his crucifixion, through his suspension between heaven and earth.
Suspended Between Heaven and Earth
The Jewish and Roman authorities suspended Jesus between heaven and earth, which signaled he was unworthy of both realms. The religious authorities believed Jesus was guilty of blasphemy and thus cursed. Through his crucifixion Jesus was under God’s curse like other sinners in the Old Testament hung from trees, whether the Gentile king of Ai (Josh. 8:29), the five Gentile kings of Canaan (Josh. 10:26), or Israel’s king Saul as he was suspended on the wall of Beth-shan. But Christ’s suspension was part of his heavenly Father’s plan, as Isaiah informs us: “But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief” (Isa. 53:10, NLTSE). Conversely, Christ willingly laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). He voluntarily carried his cross, was suspended upon it, and was stripped of his clothes (John 19:23; Ps. 22:18).
Christ hung naked upon the cross, which reminds us of Adam’s nakedness; in the pre-fall state Adam’s nakedness was good (Gen. 1:31; 2:25) but in his sin-fallen state it was now a sign of sin and shame (Gen. 3:7). Christ’s nakedness and ignominy caused people to turn and hide their faces (Isa. 53:3). Family, disciples, and his fellow Israelites abandoned him and he was even seemingly abandoned by his heavenly Father. Even though Christ had a sense of abandonment, he did not cease to believe in his Father nor did his Father forsake him. Although his Father was silent, Jesus could “see his offspring” and knew that his Father would “prolong his days.” In fact, “out of the anguish of his soul he” saw and was “satisfied” (Isa. 53:10–11).
As darkness fell upon the land, the creation mourned as the Creator was suspended between heaven and earth. The blanket of darkness was no coincidence, but a harbinger of curse and judgment. This was the primeval darkness that was over the face of the deep before God created light and it was the blackness that fell upon Egypt for Pharaoh’s stubborn rebellion against God—the absence of light signaled that the primordial chaos and judgment had fallen upon Christ as he hung suspended between heaven and earth, unworthy of both realms (Exod. 10:21–23; Deut. 28:29). Christ’s suspension, however, was how God would reunite heaven and earth and once again open the way to his presence.
Rending the Temple Veil
In the wake of the darkness that fell upon the land, something amazing occurred: God tore open the veil of the temple: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). The rending of the veil may not seem all that significant until we ponder two important facts. First, Mark clearly tells us that the veil was torn “from top to bottom,” which means it did not wear out, nor did a human being tear it. The temple veil was sixty feet long, thirty feet wide, and roughly six inches thick. According to the Talmud (post-first century collection of Jewish civil and ceremonial laws and stories), it took three hundred priests to manipulate the curtains. These facts tell us the rending of the veil was a supernatural event—God tore the curtain. Second, the veil’s significance and function is important. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, the curtain was blue to represent the sky, scarlet to denote fire, and purple to symbolize the sea. In other words, the curtain represented the heavens, the dwelling place of God. The curtain separated the outer temple from the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s throne. The temple was the nexus between heaven and earth. Additionally, there were two cherubim embroidered on the curtain, a reminder of the two cherubim that stood guard at the gates of Eden, at the gates of the first temple’s Holy of Holies. No one was allowed past the veil unless it was the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). But now, because of Christ’s suspension God tore the temple veil in two, which meant that the way into the Holy of Holies was once again open—heaven and earth were reunited. Rather than humans trying to scale the heights of heaven to gain access to God, he rent the heavens and came down to humans. Christ’s suspension was the way that he “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12).
In Christ’s suspension he willingly suffered darkness and exile on behalf of all who believe in him—he “was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The rending of the veil heralded that the triune God was now bursting forth upon the creation and reuniting heaven and earth—God once again dwells among humans. As Paul writes: “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:18–22).
Christ’s suspension between heaven and earth was a horrible thing for Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism plumbs the depths of Christ’s sufferings through the famous words of the Apostles’ Creed “he descended into hell.” The catechism explains that this phrase in the creed assures us during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ our Lord by “suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered” us from “hellish anguish and torment” (q. 44). Not only did Christ’s suffering deliver us from God’s righteous condemnation, it also gave us the gift of eternal life. Rejoice, therefore, in the cross of Christ, our Savior’s suspension between heaven and earth! This Good Friday, consider the familiar words of Isaac Watts’s hymn,
Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
John V. Fesko is Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and author or editor of more than twenty books, most recently Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith.