Matthew 26:39 “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (ESV)
I love this verse. To be fair, I love the Bible as a whole, but there are a few passages that say so much that I can’t help but love them a little bit more than the rest. Romans 12:2, Galatians 1:10, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Philippians 1:21; these are but a few of the verses that I treasure. As amazing as they are, Matthew 26:39 is the best of the lot.
As I post this, in my timezone we are in the early hours of Good Friday. Over the next 45 hours or so, Christians all over the world will be joining together to remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Combined with the resurrection, the cross forms the foundation of the Christian faith. Paul describes this sacrifice in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV). These are familiar words, and yet it seems that so often we view them through a human lens. This is understandable – we are, after all, human – but I feel that we sometimes miss the full meaning of this sacrifice as a result.
If you were to ask the average Christian what Christ did on the cross, the most likely answer would something to the effect of “Jesus died to forgive my sin”. The images of the cross that we find most striking are those that depict the magnitude of Christ’s physical suffering; the images of his body beaten, bruised and bleeding for us. This is pain as we understand it; this is the sort of pain we fear most. As mortal beings, death seems a horrifying transition into the unknown. So, when we look at the cross, we understand the suffering primarily through the lens of Christ’s broken body and his eventual death.
Christ knew what he was going to be experiencing on the cross well in advance of his arrest. He outright predicts his own death (John 2:19). Christ understood the Old Testament prophecies; he knew that Isaiah 53 was to be fulfilled through him. When we look at the account of the Garden of Gethsemane, it then seems obvious to us why Christ is so “sorrowful and troubled” (Matt 26:37). Wouldn’t anybody facing such a horrifying death because of a false accusation react the same way?
Oddly though, this is not the approach to death that we see from God’s faithful servants in the rest of scripture. Prior to his martyrdom, recorded in Acts 7, Stephen steadfastly proclaims the Gospel and received confidence from the presence of the Holy Spirit. Such a response is not exclusive to the New Testament: Daniel (Dan 6:10-16), Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah (Dan 3:12-23) all face death in the service of God without fear (although in their case, God miraculously delivers them from death). While Stephen had the evidence of Christ’s resurrection to give him confidence that his death would not be the end, Daniel and his companions were relying upon faith alone. Christ predicted his own resurrection at the same time he predicted his death (John 2:19), and had faith surpassing any other man. Would we not expect the same sort of confidence from him if all he was facing was the death of the body?
The key to understanding the full magnitude of Christ’s suffering comes in Matthew 27:46, when he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ESV). Why would God forsake Christ, his perfect son? Here we come back to 2 Corinthians 5:21 – Christ was made sin for us. He did not merely die, but was made sin. Yes, the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23), and thus Christ’s death was a necessary part and the culmination of Christ’s sacrifice, but it was not the entire sacrifice. Sin does not merely lead to death, but to isolation from God (Isa 59:2). While hanging on the cross, Christ bore the weight of the sin of the whole world; so great was the sin that all became dark during this three hour period (Matt 27:45).
Even then, as humans, we are prone to underestimating the price that Christ paid. Separation from God is, after all, our default state (Rom 3:23). It is more natural to us than God’s presence is. But this wasn’t the case for Christ. He was God’s son, the son in whom God was well pleased (Matt 3:17). 2 Corinthians 5:21 affirms that Christ was without sin. The Spirit was with Christ for the entire duration of his ministry (Matt 3:16); separation from God was not something that Christ knew. Even more than this though, Christ is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. Before Abraham was, he is (John 8:58), along with the Father and the Spirit. God is love (1 John 4:8); perfect, eternal love between the three persons of the one, Trinity God. Before the world existed until after it is perfected, complete love existed, exists and will exist between Father, Son and Spirit. But there is one exception: the once in an eternity event that is the cross.
On the cross, Christ became sin for us and experienced separation from God the Father. The perfect love of the Trinity knew damage for the first and only time in all of eternity so that we could be forgiven. Christ did nothing to deserve the experience of separation from the Father, nor did the Father do anything to deserve the experience of separation from the Son. There was no obligation for Christ to be on that cross; if humankind were to be condemned, they had well and truly earned it. And yet, the Father wanted to forgive us. The Father did not wish that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9), and even in pronouncing the curse after the Fall, he gave the first proclamation that it was a curse with an end (Gen 3:15). However, he was not going to force Christ to make the sacrifice; no, Christ voluntarily came into the world, taking on the form of man than man might be saved (Phil 2:7-8).
And now we return to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here is the litmus test of Christ’s submission. Faced with what was to come; faced with the once in eternity suffering he was about to endure, he is experiencing the greatest of sorrows. So he prays. He prays to the Father, asking if there is another way. Of course, he knows that there isn’t. He said it himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV) He knows that the only way for mankind to be saved is through him. And so, demonstrating the ultimate, self-sacrificial love of God for us, he submits to the Father’s will. He says to the Father, “not as I will, but as you will”; he goes to the cross.
Any time I stop and contemplate this, I find myself overwhelmed in a new way by the sacrifice that Christ made for us. And as Good Friday comes around again for another year, I find myself contemplating it anew. It took a once in eternity suffering for us to be saved from an eternity of suffering. Do we, as those who have been saved, respond accordingly? If Christ could say “not as I will, but as you will” to that sort of suffering, what sort of suffering is great enough that we have an excuse for not saying the same? As Good Friday begins and I reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, I am then left with one final question: where in my life is God asking me to say “not as I will, but as you will”?