Because Christmas and Easter are central to Christianity, it is not surprising that Christians over the centuries have written numerous songs about them. Many of these songs commemorating the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are greatly loved by Christians and have been sung in churches for hundreds of years.
Some of the Christmas songs (carols) are known and loved even in the wider community. Indeed, attendances at Carols by Candlelight concerts in hundreds of parks around the nation during the Christmas season point to the ongoing popularity of Christmas carols among people generally.
However, there is no corresponding appreciation in the community at large for the Easter songs of the Christian faith. Although a few of these songs have been covered by popular singers,1 they remain virtually unknown outside Christian circles. This is a pity because many of these Easter songs are deeply moving in their descriptions, insights, empathies and adorations.
One of my favourite Easter songs, “A Green Hill Far Away”, was written for children by an Irish woman, Cecil Francis Alexander, over 150 years ago, in the mid 1840s. Alexander wrote nearly 400 Christian songs and poems, including the famous Christmas carol, “Once in Royal David’s City”, and the familiar creation-celebration song, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”.
“A Green Hill Far Away” is not one of Alexander’s better known works, but it deserves to be. In this Easter song, she draws our attention in a simple but insightful way to the setting, the mystery, the purpose, the necessity and the challenge of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the first Good Friday 2,000 years ago.
1. The setting and scope of the crucifixion
The opening verse of Alexander’s song portrays the setting and indicates the scope of the crucifixion.
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
The first two lines provide an emotional, as well as an actual, setting. They picture Golgotha (Calvary), the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was executed. But more than this, they allude to the loneliness Jesus experienced during his sufferings and are symbolic of his rejection by society. They echo the words of the Bible that Jesus “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12).2
The third line mentions the manner of Jesus’ execution. He was crucified, nailed hand and foot to a wooden cross, lifted up and left to die. This was a particularly cruel and humiliating form of execution.
The last line of the first verse indicates the scope of Jesus’ sacrifice: he “died to save us all”. As the Bible says, Jesus went to the cross so that “he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9); “he gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6); “he died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15). There is provision at the cross for everyone. This is not to say that everyone will be saved. Only those who commit themselves to the Lord Jesus in repentance and faith will benefit eternally from his death. Nonetheless, by dying to save us all, Jesus demonstrated that we all need a Saviour and that we all may find a Saviour in him.
2. The magnitude and mystery of the crucifixion
The second verse of the song draws attention to the magnitude and mystery of Jesus’ suffering.
What pains He had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
The first two lines remind us that there is a depth to Jesus’ suffering that is beyond our comprehension. We can only dimly imagine the physical torture he suffered during his trial and crucifixion. Yet the physical torment was only part of his suffering, and a lesser part, at that. The spiritual torment he endured was far more dreadful.
Because we are so comfortable with sin, Jesus’ spiritual suffering is quite beyond our understanding. We cannot begin to imagine the revulsion he suffered when he was violated by our sins—when he who knew no sin was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). We cannot begin to imagine the agony he suffered when he endured God’s wrath on our behalf. We cannot begin to imagine the depths of loneliness, horror and despair that caused him on the cross to cry out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Although we do not know the depths of Jesus’ agony, we do know the beneficiaries of it: “we believe it was for us/ He hung and suffered there”. And, like Cecil Alexander, we can believe this because God’s word teaches as a matter “of first importance” that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “[H]e was wounded for our transgressions … the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Jesus died on our behalf and in our place.
3. The purpose of the crucifixion
“[W]hile we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But why? What did he hope to achieve? Alexander explains the purpose of Jesus’ death in the third verse of her song:
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by His precious blood.
Here we discover three reasons, three purposes, for the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Firstly, “He died that we might be forgiven”—forgiven by God for all that we have done wrong. The Bible states that “every one who believes in him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). By his death, Jesus made amends for our sins, so that they need not be held against us anymore.
Secondly, “He died to make us good”. We are not good in ourselves and we cannot make ourselves good. If left to our own merits and efforts, we could never avert God’s judgment or obtain his approval. That is why God himself sent Jesus, his Son, to be our substitute. At Calvary our badness was transferred to him so that at conversion his goodness could be transferred to us. Our salvation begins with a borrowed goodness, but it does not end there. Having covered us with his goodness, the Lord Jesus then requires and assists us to become actually good. Hence, the Bible declares: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Thirdly, Jesus died so “That we might go at last to heaven”. Although hell is our dessert, it need not be our destiny, thanks to Jesus and his sacrifice for us. He promises eternal life to all who believe: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
The last line of the third verse—”Saved by His precious blood”—draws together the thoughts of the previous three lines. Forgiveness, goodness, heaven—all these amount to “salvation” and they have been made available to us by Jesus’ death.
Alexander depicts his death, his blood, as “precious”. And so it is: precious not only in its own right but also in its incalculable benefit to mankind. Jesus’ sacrifice cost him his life and bought us eternal life. There can be no greater price and no greater purchase than that! The apostle Peter reminds Christians, “you were ransomed … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
4. The necessity of the crucifixion
In the fourth verse of her song, Alexander explains the necessity of Jesus’ death:
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.
Jesus was the only one who could make amends for the wrongs we have desired, thought, said and done. Excluding Jesus himself, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Jesus alone was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He alone “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He alone “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). This is why he, and he alone, could atone for our sins and become “the source of eternal salvation” for us (Hebrews 5:9).
“There was no other good enough” to do what had to be done to accomplish our salvation. This is one reason why Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” By virtue of his unique and complete goodness and purity, Jesus is the only one who could “pay the price of sin” for us, and thereby “unlock the gate/ Of heaven, and let us in”.
5. The challenge of the crucifixion
In the fifth and final verse, Cecil Francis Alexander explains the challenge of Jesus’ death:
And we must love Him too,
And trust in His redeeming blood,
And try His works to do.
By his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus showed us how dearly he loves us. And we ought to respond to his love in three ways. Firstly, we ought to love him. Secondly, we ought to trust him. Thirdly, we ought to serve him.
This is the challenge that Easter presents to everyone. Bearing in mind that the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20), we should strive to love him in return, trust him without reserve, and serve him with vigour.
1. Three appealing collections of traditional Christian songs by popular singers are: My Mother’s Hymnbook by Johnny Cash, Worship and Faith by Randy Travis and Precious Memories by Alan Jackson. Each of these collections has one or two Easter songs.
2. The quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version. The name in brackets after each quotation refers to one of the sixty-six books that make up the Bible, while the numbers refer to the chapter and verse of that book.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown 2007