Crucifixion accounts


Messiah dying for our sins is a ‘non-Jewish idea.’

In Reason 14 of his book Asher Norman rejects the idea of the Messiah dying for sin as a ‘non-Jewish idea.’  He says that the Jewish Messiah ben David is not supposed to die before fulfilling his mission.   

This is not the whole truth on this matter.  There is a view within Judaism of two Messiahs, one known as Messiah ben Joseph, who suffers and dies, and the other known as Messiah ben David, who reigns and brings peace and justice to the world. The suffering Messiah is given the name ‘Son of Joseph’ because he suffers rejection and humiliation like Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 37-41).  The reigning Messiah is given the name ‘Son of David’ because he reigns like King David.  Here are some evidences of this:

Commenting on Zechariah 12:10, where the prophet says Israel will ‘look upon me whom they have pierced’, Rabbi Alshech writes:  “For they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance when they see him whom they have pierced, that is Messiah, the Son of Joseph.  For our rabbis of blessed memory have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and then shall be slain in the war to make an atonement, in such a manner, that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died, and therefore in order that it may be reckoned to them as a perfect atonement, they will repent, and look to the Blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sin; this is the meaning of ‘They shall look upon me.’”  That this passage (Zechariah 12:10) refers to the Messiah is admitted by Aben Ezra and Abarbanel, and also by Rashi in his commentary on the Talmud.

Rabbi Alshech’s mention of ‘Messiah, the Son of Joseph’ is a reference to the view held by early Talmudists that there are two Messiahs, one called Messiah son of Joseph who suffers and dies and one called Messiah son of David, who rules and reigns. On this subject David Baron writes:  ‘The doctrine or theory of two Messiahs – a Messiah ben Joseph who should suffer and die and a Messiah ben David who shall reign in power – can be traced back to the third or fourth century CE and very probably originated in the perplexity of the Talmudists at the apparently irreconcilable pictures of a suffering and yet a glorious Messiah, which they found in the scriptures.  Instead of finding a solution in two advents of the one person they explained the scriptures as referring to two different persons.’  (‘Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah’ by David Baron page 442.)

A prayer written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in around the 7th century reads:  ‘Messiah our righteousness is departed from us; horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us.  He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sin upon his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities.  We shall be healed by his wound at the time the Eternal will create him  (the Messiah) as a new creature.  O bring him up from the circle of the earth.  Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.’ (Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement (New York Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931) page 239).

This prayer quotes from Isaiah 53 and connects this passage to Messiah who ‘bears our sin’ and who has ‘departed from us’ which has become a matter of horror because now ‘we have none to justify us’.  Yinnon is a name for Messiah so the prayer even speaks of Messiah coming a second time to ‘assemble us’.

Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas wrote in about 1575 that not only is Isaiah 53 about the Messiah, but those who refuse to believe this must suffer for their sins themselves:  ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the meaning of which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.’  (The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 386.)

For more on this subject go to our articles:

The Alternative Messianic Programme
The Suffering Servant

So did Jesus die as a sacrifice for our sins and rise again from the dead?  

Clearly this is the heart of the message of the New Testament.  Concerning the crucifixion and resurrection we find that:

  • Jesus frequently told the disciples that this was going to happen.
  • It is the climax of all four Gospels.
  • The apostles preached this message as they spread the faith in Jesus as Messiah.

However according to Asher Norman (Reason 14)

  1. Jesus’ disciples reacted to the news that Jesus must die with total incomprehension.
  2. Certain verses show that Jesus did not want to die.
  3. Jesus tried to talk Pilate out of executing him.
  4. Jesus’ words from the cross are those of a ‘man who had failed in his mission.’

We will look at these objections.

1.  The disciples’ response to Jesus’ words about his coming death.

Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.  For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.  They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”   But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. Luke 18.31-34.  See also Matthew 16.21-22, Mark 8.31-32.

From this Asher Norman concludes that the disciples were ‘not aware of any messianic prophecy that required Messiah ben David to die’.   This is really quite a trivial objection.  The disciples were on a training course during their time with Jesus.  If a pupil misunderstands or ‘doesn’t get’ what the teacher is telling him, does that mean what the teacher says is not true?  The fact that they did not understand this prophecy is easily explained by their lack of knowledge and their desire to see the triumph of Jesus’ Messianic mission.  At this point they probably thought this would mean the Kingdom of God being brought in immediately.  On a human level they did not want to see Jesus die and be taken from them.  

Following the resurrection Luke records that Jesus explained to them the things concerning His death and resurrection:

‘“These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”  And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.  Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”’  Luke 24.44-47.  

Asher Norman may dispute that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms (NB the three divisions of the Tenach – torah, neviim and chetuvim) speak about Jesus.  However by this time the disciples now understood the meaning of Jesus’ previous words about going to Jerusalem to be killed and rise again on the third day.   Following this they were to obey His command and go into the world to preach this message which would see multitudes coming to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, through whom our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life.

2.  Jesus did not want to die.

Asher Norman bases this on the verses which record Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane just before Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.  

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.”  And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed.  Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”  He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”  Matthew 26.37-39.

Asher Norman assumes from Jesus’ words ‘Take this cup (i.e. the coming suffering) from me’ that He didn’t want to die.

He says ‘Jesus clearly stated that his own death was ‘not as I will’.’   As we have already seen Jesus has foretold that events would come to this situation long before they happened, so it is hard to see how He would be trying to ‘get out of it’ at this point in time.  The explanation for this prayer is that in his humanity He was shrinking from the pain and agony of the coming crucifixion.  Even more terrible was the prospect of bearing the sin of the world upon Himself as the words of Isaiah 53.6 would be fulfilled:  ‘The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’   Jesus was about to fulfil the prophecies of Messiah ben Joseph and become the sin offering for the world.

From the point of view of the believer his prayer in the Garden was not the desperate cry of a man trying to get out of something he did not want to do, but a demonstration of his love and commitment to the task.  He did not pray ‘Get me out of this’ but ‘O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.’  There was no other way for the sin of the world to be atoned for and the Lord Jesus accepted His coming suffering as the will of the Father and submitted to it.

3.  Jesus tried to talk Pilate out of executing him.

This one is really quite silly.  Asher Norman bases this on John 18.36-37, saying that in these verses ‘Jesus cleverly tried to deflect the idea that his claim of ‘kingship’ was a threat to Pilate by claiming he was only interested in an ‘otherworldly kingdom.’  He says this ‘sounds more like a man trying to talk Pilate out of executing him.’  

In fact the text goes on to say that Jesus refuses to speak to Pilate at one point, when Pilate is trying to release him (John 19.8-11).  He says that the only reason Pilate has any power over Him is that it has been given to Pilate ‘from above’ – in other words God is overruling the human powers to bring about the crucifixion and death of Jesus in order to redeem humanity.  For more on the trial of Jesus before Pilate go to The trial of Jesus.

4.  Jesus’ words from the cross are those of a ‘man who had failed in his mission.’

Asher Norman interprets the words of Jesus from the cross recorded in Matthew’s Gospel ‘My God, my God why have You forsaken Me?’  as ‘the words of a man who had failed in his mission, was arrested, tried and condemned by the Romans and was forsaken by God.’  

Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22 here and on one level his words are meant to show that what was taking place ties in with this Psalm.  In Psalm 22 David begins by lamenting his own suffering but in this He is given revelation of the suffering of the Messiah to come.  The Psalm gives a graphic foretelling of the crucifixion long before this was known as a means of execution in Israel.  For more on this Psalm go to our article Psalm 22 – is it Messianic?

On another level this cry is revealing the worst agony of the cross when ‘the Lord lays on Him the iniquity of us all’ – in other words the sin of the world was placed upon the Lord Jesus and He who ‘knew no sin’ to become the ‘sin offering’ for us all (2 Corinthians 5.21).  This was not a cry of defeat or failure, because at this moment the purpose of Messiah’s coming into the world was being fulfilled.  

In his later chapter (Reason 22 – The Resurrection accounts are deeply conflicted) Asher Norman again comes back to this quote and says that the Gospels disagree on what are Jesus’ last words from the cross.  In Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34 it is the verse already quoted, ‘My God, my God why have You forsaken Me?’  In John 19.30 it is ‘It is finished.’  And in Luke 23.46 it is ‘Father into Your hands I commit My spirit.’  

In fact Matthew 27.50 tells us that at the finish ‘Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.’ Matthew does not tell us what Jesus cried out with a loud voice, after He had said ‘My God, my God why have You forsaken Me?’   John does tell us.  He said ‘It is finished. And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.’  By this Jesus meant that the work of redemption was finished.  He had paid the price for the sin of the world.   Because of this there was no longer any need for Him to remain on the cross.   The job was done, sin was paid for, so why hang there in pain any longer?  The next (and really the last thing He said) was recorded by Luke ‘Father into Your hands I commit My spirit.’  It was time for Jesus to return to the Father and so He chose the moment of His death.  

Significantly John records that when the Roman soldiers came to break Jesus’ legs in order to hasten the moment of His death, they found that He was already dead (John 19.33).  This would have been a surprise to them as crucifixion victims often lingered a long time on the cross.   John connects this to the Passover sacrifice where we read that the bones of the sacrificed lamb were not to be broken (Exodus 12.46, John 19.36).

Sadly in his desire to rubbish the claims of Jesus as the Messiah, Asher Norman misses the deep significance of Jesus’ words from the cross and the meaning of His sacrifice for the sins of the world.  In doing this he and all who heed his words miss the only way of redemption from sin now open to the human race, Jewish or Gentile.  

The crucifixion accounts. (Reason 22)

Asher Norman has a number of objections to the Gospel account of the crucifixion based on the timing of the event.  

  1. Was it the day before the Passover (14th Nissan) or the day after the Passover (15th Nissan)?
  2. Was it the third hour (9 am) or the sixth hour (12 noon)?
  3. Jesus could not have been three days and nights in the tomb.

1.  Which day?

The issue here relates to an apparent difference between John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).   The Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus was crucified on the Preparation day, the day before the Sabbath (i.e. Friday).  Mark makes it clear that Jesus was already dead and his burial was being arranged during this day:

‘Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marvelled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.  So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.’  Mark 15.42-45.

See also Matthew 27:62, Luke 23:54.  

On the previous evening Jesus had eaten the Passover with his disciples (Mark 14.12-25).  This would be the Thursday evening by the Gentile reckoning of days, but the same day by the Jewish reckoning.  

The Synoptic Gospels indicate that the timetable was that:

  • The Passover lambs were killed (Thursday afternoon).
  • The Last Supper was eaten at the beginning of the Passover holiday (Thursday evening)
  • Jesus was crucified (Friday morning and afternoon)

John’s Gospel seems to indicate that Jesus was crucified right before the Jews would partake of Passover.  The reason for this is based on John 13.1,18.28 and 19.14.

The problem begins with John 13.1-2:  ‘Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.  And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him.’    

This verse is seen as a problem because it is assumed that it means that the supper and betrayal occurred before the Feast of the Passover.  But in fact we can separate verse one from verse two.  Jesus knew that the time of His departure from the world had come.  This event would begin with His arrest and crucifixion during the Feast of Passover.  He was aware of this ‘before the Feast of Passover’ began.  Verse two starts another section of the Gospel beginning with His betrayal by Judas.  

The next problem is John 18.28:  ‘Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.’

This implies that Caiaphas and those with him have yet to eat the Passover.   So the Last Supper was not eaten at the normal time, or else someone is making a mistake.   However to ‘eat the Passover’ may refer to the entire week of the Passover, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread. During this feast, there were still sacrifices being offered so the priests would disqualify themselves from by being in the place of a Gentile.

Another possible explanation is given by Alfred Edersheim in his book ‘The Temple.’  He says that the ‘Passover’ that they were afraid to miss eating was the obligatory Chagigah offering. This was a required ‘peace-type’ offering on the 15th Nissan which required Levitical purity to offer and to eat.

Finally we come to John 19:14. Dr. Gleason L. Archer has given the following explanation of this verse in his book, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties:  ‘John 19.14 says (according to NASB): ‘Now it was the day of preparation [paraskeue] for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your king!’’ The NIV suggests a somewhat less difficult handling of the apparent discrepancy: ‘It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.’ This latter translation takes note of two very important matters of usage. First, the word paraskeue had already by the first century become a technical term for ‘Friday,’ since every Friday was the day of preparation for Saturday, that is, the Sabbath. In Modern Greek the word for ‘Friday’ is paraskeue.

Second, the Greek term tou pascha (lit., ‘of the Passover’) is taken to be equivalent to the Passover Week. This refers to the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (Heb. massot) that immediately followed the initial slaughtering and eating of the Passover lamb on the evening of the fourteenth day of the month Abib, which by Hebrew reckoning would mean the commencement of the fifteenth day, right after sunset. The week of massot, coming right after on the heels of Passover itself (during which massot were actually eaten, along with the lamb, bitter herbs, etc.) very naturally came to be known as Passover Week.  Therefore, that which might be translated literally as ‘the preparation of the Passover’ must in this context be rendered ‘Friday of Passover Week.’

From this he concludes that John affirms just as clearly as the Synoptics that Jesus was crucified on Friday and that His sacrificial death was seen as a type of the Passover sacrifice.  

2.  What time of day?

As Asher Norman notes Mark reports the crucifixion at the third hour (Mark 15:25) while John says the sixth (John 19.14-15).  There is a relatively simple explanation for this.  

Mark and the other Synoptic Gospels are using Jewish time (sunset to sunset; third hour = 9am); John is using some form of Roman time, saying the crucifixion took place at ‘about the sixth hour.’  We know from the Synoptics that the crucifixion took over 6 hours. If John’s sixth hour is really the Jewish sixth hour (noon), then the crucifixion lasted past the time when the Sabbath started.   John 19:31 says that the Jews did not want the bodies left up over the Sabbath, which obviously means that the Sabbath had not started yet.   

There is an even more clear indication that John is using some form of Roman time. In John 1:39 we are told that Andrew and Peter met Jesus and ‘spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.’ If this were Jewish time, that would make it 4 pm – too late to spend the ‘day’ with someone.  But by the other chronology, it is 10 am – ample time to spend the day. This is a pretty clear indication of how John is reckoning things.

3.  Three days and three nights.

‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’  (Matthew 12.40).  

Asher Norman says that this is contradicted by the Gospels.   He says Jesus was two days and two nights in the tomb according to John 20.1 and three days and two nights according to Matthew 28.1, Mark 16.2, and Luke 24.1.

The quote from Matthew 12.40 is the only reference to ‘three days and three nights’ in the New Testament and it is linked to Jonah.  The main point Jesus is making here is to compare His death and burial with Jonah being in the belly of the great fish.  The end result in both cases was to be released from this place of confinement – Jonah by being vomited put of the belly of the fish, Jesus by being resurrected from the tomb.  The more normal expression which Jesus used about His resurrection was ‘the third day.’  Jesus prophesied that He would rise again on ‘the third day’ in Matthew 16.21, 20.19, Mark 9.31, 10.34, Luke 9.22, 18.33, 24.7,46.  Paul speaks of Him being raised on the ‘third day’ in 1 Corinthians 15.4.  

For us, three days and three nights generally means 72 hours, but we must understand the Bible historically and culturally. For the Jewish mind, this could mean any part of the first day, all of the second day, and any part of the third day.   This lines up with the traditional view that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and was in the grave part of Friday (Luke 23.54-55), all of Saturday (Luke 23.56), and part of Sunday, the first day of the week (Luke 24.1).  So He was raised ‘on the third day.’    

Asher Norman is implying that John contradicts this by saying that Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb ‘while it was still dark’ and saw that the stone had been rolled away.  By this he concludes that John is saying that Jesus arose before daybreak on the Sunday.   One explanation for this is that it was still dark when Mary set off for the tomb, but not when she arrived.  So John agrees with Luke 24.1 that it was very early in the morning when the women set off, and by the time they arrived it was already daybreak and the stone had been rolled away.  

Regarding the problem of ‘three nights’ we find that the Tenach speaks of periods of ‘three days and three nights’ when it actually means the event was concluded ‘on the third day.’  

In Esther 4.16 we read: ‘Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’’ And then in 5.1: On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. ‘ In this case, ‘on the third day’ is equivalent to ‘for three days, night or day’.

1 Samuel 30.12: ‘He ate and was revived, for he had not eaten any food or drunk any water for three days and three nights. 13 David asked him, ‘To whom do you belong, and where do you come from?’ He said, ‘I am an Egyptian, the slave of an Amalekite. My master abandoned me when I became ill three days ago. ‘ In this case ‘for three days and three nights’ somehow was fulfilled when his master left him ‘three days ago’.

In these cases ‘three days,’ ‘the third day,’ and ‘three days and three nights’ are used to signify the same period of time.’

Interestingly Rabbinical literature also manifests this use of measuring time:  Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, tenth in the descent from Ezra was very specific: ‘A day and a night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it [J.Talmud, Shabbath 9.3 and b.Talmud, Pesahim 4a]

Matthew uses this Jewish idiom:  ‘‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day.’ (Matthew 27.63-64).   Note that ‘after three days’ was somehow equivalent to ‘until the third day’ not ‘until the fourth day’.  

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Minor discrepancies.

Asher Norman gives three other discrepancies in the Gospels over some details in the crucifixion account.  

1.  Who carried the cross on the way to Golgotha?  

Jesus himself (John 19.17) or Simon, a Cyrenian (Matthew 27.32, Mark 15.21, Luke 23.26).   John does not record Simon as a bearer of the cross, but he does not record other details from the Synoptic Gospels either.  A simple explanation for this is that Jesus began carrying the cross (probably only the beam of the cross), stumbled on the way and the Romans made Simon carry it the rest of the way.

2.  The two brigands on the cross – did one believe?

 Luke 23.39-41 records that one did. Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Messiah, save Yourself and us.”  But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Neither Matthew nor Mark record this. In fact Matthew says the ‘the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults upon him.’  So Asher Norman puts this down as a discrepancy.  The repentant criminal may have started in this way, but then changed his mind, as he heard Jesus say, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23.34).    The fact that Matthew did not mention the criminal turning to Jesus at the end of his life does not mean it did not happen as Luke records it.  As we have already seen the Gospel writers were selective in what they put in and what they left out of their accounts.  John records that no one has written all that Jesus said and did (John 21.25).  

Significantly if we compare the history given in the Book of Kings and Chronicles, we find that 2 Chronicles 33 records that the wicked king Manasseh repented at the end of his reign, whereas 2 Kings 21 does not say anything about Manasseh repenting.  Is this a discrepancy?  Or did the writer of Kings leave out a detail which the writer of Chronicles included?

It is actually entirely consistent with Luke that he is the one who records this action of Jesus, even bringing salvation to a dying thief while He hung on the cross.  Of all the Gospels Luke is the one who is most interested in Jesus’ forgiving sinners and bringing in outcasts.   For example only Luke contains the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which has the forgiveness and acceptance by the father of repentant sinners as its theme.  Only Luke contains the words of Jesus from the cross ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’  

3.  Did the Roman soldiers guard the tomb?   

 No (John 20.1).  Yes (Matthew 28.4).   John does not mention the Roman soldiers and Matthew does.  Again, so what?  John does not say there were no Roman soldiers there.   He just does not record this detail.  Matthew actually has quite a bit to say about this subject, including what happens after the resurrection and the lie the soldiers were told to say ‘The disciples came and stole the body while we were asleep.’ Matthew 28.13.  He also says that this story has been widely circulated amongst the Jews until this day (28.15).  This verse argues for an early date to the writing of Matthew’s gospel (not the 150 years after the event which Asher Norman claims – see our article When were the Gospels written?).  Also it means that if the story were not true Matthew was opening himself up to being contradicted by those who would say, ‘That is not what happened.’

In conclusion the Gospels give us a portrait from four different viewpoints of the event of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If all their accounts were exactly the same they would be a waste of space and probably Asher Norman would accuse them of collusion.  As it is they all point us to the Messiah who died for our sins and rose again from the dead and the fact that through faith in His name we can have forgiveness of sin, the knowledge of God and eternal life.