Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. XXVI.—Of the cross, and other tortures of Jesus, and of the figure of the lamb under the law
Chap. XXVI.—Of the Cross, and Other Tortures of Jesus, and of the Figure of the Lamb Under the Law.
I have spoken of humiliation, and frailty, and suffering—why God thought fit to undergo them. Now an account must be taken of the cross itself, and its meaning must be related. What the Most High Father arranged from the beginning, and how He ordained all things which were accomplished, not only the foretelling by the prophets, which preceded and was proved true 834 in Christ, but also the manner of His suffering itself teaches. For whatever sufferings He underwent were not without meaning; 835 but they had a figurative meaning 836 and great significance, as had also those divine works which He performed, the strength and power of which had some weight indeed for the present, but also declared something for the future. Heavenly influence opened the eyes of the blind, and gave light to those who did not see; and by this deed He signified that it would come to pass that, turning to the nations which were ignorant of God, He might enlighten the breasts of the foolish with the light of wisdom, and open the eyes of their understanding to the contemplation of the truth. For they are truly blind who, not seeing heavenly things, and surrounded with the darkness of ignorance, worship earthly and frail things. He opened the ears of the deaf. It is plain that this divine power did not limit its exercise to this point; 837 but He declared that it would shortly come to pass, that they who were destitute of the truth would both hear and understand the divine words of God. For you may truly call those deaf who do not hear the things which are heavenly and true, and worthy of being performed. He loosed the tongues of the dumb, so that they spake plainly. 838 A power worthy of admiration, 839 even when it was in operation: but there was contained in this display 840 of power another meaning, which showed that it would shortly come to pass that those who were lately ignorant of heavenly things, having received the instruction of wisdom, might speak respecting God and the truth. For he who is ignorant of the divine nature, he truly is speechless and dumb, although he is the most eloquent of all men. For when the tongue has begun to speak truth—that is, to set forth the excellency and majesty of the one God—then only does it discharge the office of its nature; but as long as it speaks false things it is not rightly employed: 841 and therefore he must necessarily be speechless who cannot utter divine things. He also renewed the feet of the lame to the office of walking,—a strength of divine work worthy of praise; but the figure implied this, that the errors of a worldly and wandering life being restrained, the path of truth was opened by which men might walk to attain the favour of God. For He is truly to be considered lame, who, being enwrapped in the gloom and darkness of folly, and ignorant in what direction to go, with feet liable to stumble and fall, walks in the way of death.
Likewise He cleansed the stains and blemishes of defiled bodies,—no slight exercise of immortal power; but this strength prefigured that by the instruction of righteousness His doctrine was about to purify those defiled by the stains of sins and the blemishes of vices. For they ought truly to be accounted as leprous and unclean, 842 whom either boundless lusts compel to crimes, or insatiable pleasures to disgraceful deeds, and affect with an everlasting stain those who are branded with the marks of dishonourable p. 128 actions. He raised the bodies of the dead as they lay prostrate; and calling them aloud by their names, He brought them back from death. What is more suitable to God, what more worthy of the wonder of all ages, than to have recalled 843 the life which has run its course, to have added times to the completed times of men, to have revealed the secrets of death? But this unspeakable power was the image of a greater energy, which showed that His teaching was about to have such might, that the nations throughout the world, which were estranged from God and subject to death, being animated by the knowledge of the true light, might arrive at the rewards of immortality. For you may rightly deem those to be dead, who, not knowing God the giver of life, and depressing their souls from heaven to earth, run into the snares of eternal death. The actions, therefore, which He then performed for the present, were representations of future things; the things which He displayed in injured and diseased bodies were figures 844 of spiritual things, that at present He might display to us the works of an energy which was not of earth, and for the future might show the power of His heavenly majesty. 845
Therefore, as His works had a signification also of greater power, so also His passion did not go before us as simple, or superfluous, or by chance. But as those things which He did signified the great efficacy and power of His teaching, so those things which He suffered announced that wisdom would be held in hatred. For the vinegar which they gave Him to drink, and the gall which they gave Him to eat, held forth hardships and severities 846 in this life to the followers of truth. And although His passion, which was harsh and severe in itself, gave to us a sample of the future torments which virtue itself proposes to those who linger in this world, yet drink and food of this kind, coming into the mouth of our teacher, afforded us an example of pressures, and labours, and miseries. All which things must be undergone and suffered by those who follow the truth; since the truth is bitter, and detested by all who, being destitute of virtue, give up their life to deadly pleasures. For the placing of a crown of thorns upon His head, declared that it would come to pass that He would gather to Himself a holy people from those who were guilty. For people standing around in a circle are called a corona. 847 But we, who before that we knew God were unjust, were thorns—that is, evil and guilty, not knowing what was good; and estranged from the conception and the works of righteousness, polluted all things with wickedness and lust. Being taken, therefore, from briars and thorns, we surround the sacred head of God; for, being called by Himself, and spread around Him, we stand beside God, who is our Master and Teacher, and crown Him King of the world, and Lord of all the living.
But with reference to the cross, it has great force and meaning, which I will now endeavour to show. For God (as I have before explained), when He had determined to set man free, sent as His ambassador to the earth a teacher of virtue, who might both by salutary precepts train men to innocence, and by works and deeds before their eyes 848 might open the way of righteousness, by walking in which, and following his teacher, man might attain to eternal life. He therefore assumed a body, and was clothed in a garment of flesh, that He might hold out to man, for whose instruction He had come, examples of virtue and incitements to its practice. But when He had afforded an example of righteousness in all the duties of life, in order that He might teach man also the patient endurance of pain and contempt of death, by which virtue is rendered perfect and complete, He came into the hands of an impious nation, when, by the knowledge of the future which He had, He might have avoided them, and by the same power by which He did wonderful works He might have repelled them. Therefore He endured tortures, and stripes, and thorns. At last He did not refuse even to undergo death, that under His guidance man might triumph over death, subdued and bound in chains with all its terrors. But the reason why the Most High Father chose that kind of death in preference to others, with which He should permit Him to be visited, is this. For some one may perchance say: Why, if He was God, and chose to die, did He not at least suffer by some honourable kind of death? why was it by the cross especially? why by an infamous kind of punishment, which may appear unworthy even of a man if he is free, 849 although guilty? First of all, because He, who had come in humility that He might bring assistance to the humble and men of low degree, and might hold out to all the hope of safety, was to suffer by that kind of punishment by which the humble and low usually suffer, that there might be no one at all who might not be able to imitate Him. In the next place, it was in order that His body might be p. 129 kept unmutilated, 850 since He must rise again from the dead on the third day.
Nor ought any one to be ignorant of this, that He Himself, speaking before of His passion, also made it known that He had the power, when He willed it, of laying down His life and of taking it again. Therefore, because He had laid down His life while fastened to the cross, His executioners did not think it necessary to break His bones (as was their prevailing custom), but they only pierced His side. Thus His unbroken body was taken down from the cross, and carefully enclosed in a tomb. Now all these things were done lest His body, being injured and broken, should be rendered unsuitable 851 for rising again. That also was a principal cause why God chose the cross, because it was necessary that He should be lifted up on it, and the passion of God become known to all nations. For since he who is suspended upon a cross is both conspicuous to all and higher than others, the cross was especially chosen, which might signify that He would be so conspicuous, and so raised on high, that all nations from the whole world should meet together at once to know and worship Him. Lastly, no nation is so uncivilized, no region so remote, to which either His passion or the height of His majesty would be unknown. Therefore in His suffering He stretched forth His hands and measured out the world, that even then He might show that a great multitude, collected together out of all languages and tribes, from the rising of the sun even to his setting, was about to come under His wings, and to receive on their foreheads that great and lofty sign. 852 And the Jews even now exhibit a figure of this transaction when they mark their thresholds with the blood of a lamb. For when God was about to smite the Egyptians, to secure the Hebrews from that infliction He had enjoined them to slay a white 853 lamb without spot, and to place on their thresholds a mark from its blood. And thus, when the first-born of the Egyptians had perished in one night, the Hebrews alone were saved by the sign of the blood: not that the blood of a sheep had such efficacy in itself as to be the safety of men, but it was an image of things to come. For Christ was the white lamb without spot; that is, He was innocent, and just, and holy, who, being slain by the same Jews, is the salvation of all who have written on their foreheads the sign of blood—that is, of the cross, on which He shed His blood. For the forehead is the top of the threshold in man, and the wood sprinkled with blood is the emblem 854 of the cross. Lastly, the slaying of the lamb by those very persons who perform it is called the paschal feast, from the word “paschein,” 855 because it is a figure of the passion, which God, foreknowing the future, delivered by Moses to be celebrated by His people. But at that time the figure was efficacious at the present for averting the danger, that it may appear what great efficacy the truth itself is about to have for the protection of Gods people in the extreme necessity of the whole world. But in what manner or in what region all will be safe who have marked on the highest part of their body this sign of the true and divine blood, 856 I will show in the last book.
i.e., was shown by the event to be true, not doubtful or deceptive.127:835
Hactenus operata est.127:838
In eloquium solvit.127:839
See Matt. ix. 33, “The dumb spake, and the multitudes marvelled;” Mark vii. 37, “They were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: He maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.”127:840
Inerat huic virtuti.127:841
In usu suo non est.127:842
Elephantiaci, those afflicted with “elephantiasis,” a kind of leprosy, covering the skin with incrustations resembling the hide of an elephant.128:843
Resignasse, “to have unsealed or opened.”128:844
[It is undoubtedly true that all our Lords miracles are also parables. Such also is the entire history of the Hebrews.]128:846
Acerbitates et amaritudines.128:847
The word “corona” denotes a “crown,” and also, as here, a “ring” of persons standing around. The play on the word cannot be kept up in English. [Thus “corona tibi et judices defuerunt.” Cicero, Nat. Deor., ii. 1. So Ignatius, στέφανον του̑ πρεσβυτερίου = corona presbyterii, vol. i. p. 64, this series."]128:848
The cross was the usual punishment of slaves.129:850
A weak and senseless reason. The true cause is given by St. John xix. 36: “These things were done that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of Him shall not be broken.” [The previous question, however, remains: Why was the Paschal lamb to be of unbroken bones, and why the special providence that fulfilled the type? Doubtless He who raised up His body could have restored it, had the bones also been broken; but the preciousness of Christs body was thus indicated as in the new tomb, the fine linen and spices, and the ministry of “the rich in his death, because He had done no violence,” etc.—Isa. liii. 9.]129:852
The sign of the cross used in baptism.129:853
The account, Ex. xii., makes no mention of colour. “Without spot” is equivalent to “without blemish.” [But the whiteness implied. “Without spot” excludes “the ring-streaked and speckled,” and a black lamb a fortiori —1 Pet. i. 19. “Without spot” settles the case. Isa. i. 18 proves that the normal wool is white.]129:854
ὰπο του̑ πάσχειν, “from suffering” The word “pascha” is not derived from Greek, as Lactantius supposes, but from the Hebrew “pasach,” to pass over.129:856
[See book vii., and the Epitome, cap. li., infra.]
Next: Chap. XXVII.—Of the wonders effected by the power of the cross, and of demons
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