By Keith Thompson
Around 30 A.D. Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross. He died for our sin appeasing the wrath of God and taking it upon himself. He lived a perfect sinless life of obedience to the Father; a life that we could not live. Because of that as well as the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh; Jesus’ crucifixion was of infinite value or worth. God has infinite value and worth. Since Jesus is God, Jesus’ crucifixion is of infinite value and worth and thus his atoning death as a sacrifice is sufficient to pay for the sins of humanity. This is the good news (gospel) that has come down from heaven for humanity. This is what the first-century scriptures teach. This is the earliest view of Christians. There are early secular sources outside of the Bible that speak about the crucifixion of Christ as a historical event which gives validity to Christian belief.(1)
However, 600 years after Jesus died on the cross for our sins a false prophet named Muhammad started receiving revelations or messages from a being that he believed to be the angel Gabriel. Many theologians recognize that this was a demonic encounter, perhaps even Satan himself appearing as an angel to Muhammad to deceive him so that he will create a false religion which denies the real truth about Jesus and Christianity – including Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. Muhammad received a message about Jesus’ crucifixion which was put into the Islamic (un)holy book – the Quran. It states:
"because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain" (Quran 4:157, Pickthall Translation).
It is because of this one verse in the Quran that was written 600 years after Jesus was alive, in another language and culture that Muslims deny that Jesus died for the sins of the world. Contrary to the testimony of first-century scriptures, early first-century extra-biblical Christian testimony from Polycarp, 1 Clement, and Ignatius,(2) as well as the early non-biblical secular attestation, we are led to believe that this one verse in the Quran is enough to overthrow this evidence. To the outsider looking at this from a purely historical perspective it’s clear that the Muslim proposition is obviously absurd. Even critical atheist, agnostic and liberal scholars agree that Jesus’ death on the cross is a historical fact.(3)
Because of this dilemma Muslims will try to prove that the Bible doesn’t actually teach that Jesus died on the cross for our sins but instead was raised up by God prior to the event and that someone else (Judas?) was put in his place to go on the cross and made to look like Jesus. Therefore according to Islam there is no atonement for our sin on the cross at all because Jesus never died for us. The Muslim apologist will isolate certain biblical texts that, when removed of their immediate context, may appear give the impression that Jesus didn’t actually die. One such abused text is Hebrews 5:7 and this is what we will be examining to see if it teaches that Jesus never died for our sin, as various Muslims contend, or if these Muslims are guilty of misusing this text. Hebrews 5:7 states:
"In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence" (Hebrews 5:7, ESV).
When Muslims look at this verse many of them incorrectly understand the words “him who was able to save him from death” as affirming the Islamic position that Jesus was raised into heaven before the crucifixion could take place and that someone else was put on the cross to look like Jesus. One can find hundreds of Muslim articles on the web that appeal to this verse as evidence that Jesus was not crucified. But is this what the author of the book of Hebrews is telling us? This verse can be understood in two ways. 1.) Jesus was saved from dying – thus he never died at all. 2.) Jesus did die and was saved from death by being raised from the dead – the resurrection from the dead. When one reads the book of Hebrews cover to cover they will see that this author held the position of interpretation 2. If we can demonstrate that the context of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus died for our sins as a sacrifice then we have to understand Hebrews 5:7 as Jesus dying and then being saved from death by rising from the dead – the way Christians have always believed.
So does the book of Hebrews teach that Jesus died for our sins? All throughout this book it either indicates crucifixion for the propitiation of sin or explicitly makes reference to Jesus’ death on the cross. For example, right in the first chapter we read:
"…After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… (Hebrews 1:3)
Christians hold that Jesus made purification for sins by dying on the cross as a sacrifice so that whoever believes in Jesus will be regenerated by God and will be saved. Moving further, we read in Hebrews 2:
"But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:9-10, 14-17).
Then, in Hebrews 6 we receive a warning passage about those who learn the truth but live in sin with no fruit:
"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt" (Hebrews 6:4-6, ESV).
Notice the phrase “they are crucifying once again the Son of God.” This necessitates Jesus already having died for our sin the past. The only way he can be crucified again is if he was already crucified once. This proves that the author believed that Jesus died on the cross. In Hebrews chapter 7 Jesus’ priestly role is discussed as being final and absolute in that his own sacrifice perfectly atones for our sin as opposed to the previous priestly sacrifices to God for the sins of the people of Israel being temporary sacrifices. It was always the high priest who first offered a sacrifice for his own sin and then one for the people so as to pay for their sin. However, Jesus is the high priest for all of humanity as well as the sacrifice itself. This sacrifice would atone for all sin forever.
"For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself" (Hebrews 7:26-27, ESV).
Notice this verse affirms that he offered himself up as a sacrifice for our sin. How did he achieve this? He achieved this by being crucified on our behalf. In Hebrews chapter 9 we see more passages which support the crucifixion of Jesus:
"But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 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. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant … But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Hebrews 9:11-15, 25-28, ESV).
In the next chapter we read:
"And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God … Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water … For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:10-12, 19-22, 26-29, ESV)
In chapter 12 we read:
"looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2, ESV).
And finally the last chapter of Hebrews states:
"So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood" (Hebrews 13:12, ESV).
Notice in the next verse it states that the Father brought Jesus from the dead:
"Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen" (Hebrews 13:20-21, ESV).
The book of Hebrews clearly teaches that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We see this before and after Hebrews 5:7, the verse in question. We also see in Hebrews 13:20 that God brought Jesus from the dead. Therefore when deciding between interpretation 1 (that Jesus was saved from dying and thus didn’t die), and interpretation 2 (that Jesus was saved from death after dying by resurrecting from the dead), we must go with interpretation 2. In light of the context of the book of Hebrews we should understand the words “Him who was able to save him from death” in Hebrews 5:7 as a reference to the Father raising Jesus from the dead after he was crucified on our behalf as the worthy and willing substitute.
Christ has risen, He is Lord, Amen.
1.) Early non-Christian non-biblical sources for Jesus’ crucifixion include Stoic philosopher Mara Bar-Serapion who wrote: “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished.” (Mara Bar-Serapion, cited from F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981], p. 114). In his historical work Annals XV.44 written around 117 A.D. the early second-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” The second-century satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11–13 in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, translated by H. W. Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949) vol. 4). The Babylonian Talmud reports: “It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that "[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him." But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. 70-200 A.D.).
2.) Early non-biblical Christian testimony of the crucifixion includes 1 Clement: “On account of the love He bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.” (1 Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, Ch. 49, 95-97 A.D.) Ignatius of Antioch in his epistle to Smyrna states: “I glorify Jesus Christ as God, who has made you so wise. For I have observed that you are perfected in an immoveable faith, just as if you were nailed on the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love in the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded unto our Lord that he was truly from the seed of David according to the flesh, son of God according to the will and power, truly born from a virgin, baptized by John in order that all justice might be fulfilled by him.” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1.1, 107 A.D.). Student of the Apostle John, Polycarp of Smyrna wrote: “For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil …” (Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 7, 110-135 A.D.)
3.) Atheist, Agnostic and liberal scholars who affirm that Jesus died on the cross include Gert Lüdemann who stated: “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.” (Gert Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, p. 17). Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman states: “In any event, Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” (Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2000], p. 197). Liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan states: “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” (John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145).