In New Zealand, today is Good Friday. It’s not meant to be the actual time of year that Jesus died, but it’s the day on which Christians commemorate the suffering and death of Christ. It’s a real shame, I think, that Christmas has become the giant of the year, and Easter has become its poor cousin. Easter is everything in Christian theology. Strike out Easter and what it means and you’ve struck out the Christian Gospel. Jesus gave his life to save sinners, standing in our place and bringing us back to a relationship with our maker.
I’ve heard the objection raised that for Jesus to come and die for us wasn’t really all that big a deal. It was temporary suffering, after which, Jesus was assured ahead of time, he would be resurrected to glory and everything would be alright. For reasons first suggested to me by Edward Fudge, I think this is quite wrong.
On the evening before Jesus was killed, the Gospels depict him in what is now a familiar scene, praying in Gethsemane. He fell to the ground in anguish and prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Matthew 26.29). This text is often explained as follows: Jesus was asking his Father if he could avoid going to the cross because it was so awful, but he accepted that if the Father insisted, he would go to the cross and die. It’s not a crazy interpretation. But I want to prompt you to ask if it is the correct one or not.
I put it to you that the cup of judgement did in fact pass from Jesus. We know this because he rose from the dead. Hebrews 5:7 suggests that Jesus was not praying to avoid the cross, but something else – something, I think – that is chilling in light of Jesus’ innocence and also very revealing of his love for sinners. The verse tells us that “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” God responded to Jesus’ prayers, and saved him from death, and Jesus submitted to the will of his father, whatever that will might have resulted in. Obviously, if Jesus had been praying to avoid the cross altogether if possible, it’s a bit tricky to say that he received what he prayed for, since was crucified, and here we are in 2009 remembering that fact.
Through-out the Old Testament, God’s punishment against sin is pictured as a “cup” which God himself mixes and hands to the person to be punished, who must “drink” it (see Psalm 60:3; 75:8; Isaiah 51:17, 22-23; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Obadiah 16). Sometimes a person drinks God’s cup and it sends them reeling, but God then takes the cup back from their hand and they recover (as in Psalm 60:3 and Isaiah 51:22). Sometimes, however, God does not take the cup back, and the person who drinks it falls to the ground and never rises again (as in Obadiah 16 and Jeremiah 25:27).
Jesus prays for the first scenario. He will drinkthe cup, for he knows that is God’s will (Matthew 26:42). He will die as the sacrificial Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (see John 10:11). He knows also, from Psalms 2 and 16 and 22, and from his constant intimate unity with the Father, that God will raise him from the dead (see John 10:17-18).
But there is an enormous difference between “knowing” something intellectually, and “knowing” the same thing in your gut. Jesus knew in the first sense that God would raise him, but not in the second sense. In his humanity, he had to trust God for that. If God did not raise him, Jesus would remain dead. And Jesus was willing to pay that price, if necessary, to save his people from their sins.
Jesus drank the cup and died. But God took the cup back from Jesus’ hand—he saved him out of death —and Jesus rose again in vindication of his own faith and of God’s faithfulness. “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed. And it did!
Jesus, the man praying at Gethsemane, was willing to offer more than an evening and a morning of scorn and suffering, followed by death. We often hear Christians reminding each other, correctly, that Jesus gave it all. I think in this prayer we really see how true that is. The possibility that Jesus was contemplating was truly horrible, and even then, his love for us compelled him to submit to the will of his father if that is what was needed. That is sacrifice in the face of incomprehensible fear. He wasn’t praying to avoid the cross – that’s why he came in the first place. He was showing his horror – and yet his willingness – to literally and completely give himself for us. God accepted the work of Christ on the cross in tasting death for all (Hebrews), and (figuratively) took the cup of judgement from him. How much sweeter that makes Jesus’ words, “I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Revelation 1:18)
Happy Easter 🙂