The Arrest of Christ, sketch by Rembrandt (1660)
(…continued) However, I think the man in the conversation I began with might still be troubled. I think he might say, yes, that is all well and good. But if God is God, couldn’t he have arranged for that forgiveness of sins and salvation in some other way? Why did he have to set Jesus up for death on a cross?
But perhaps it wasn’t a set up. Maybe that is not what God had intended. Now of course, reading through the Gospels, it certainly looks like it was all planned in advance. Many times the writer will say what happened and then will add, “And this happened to fulfill this prophecy, and that happened to fulfill that prophecy;” and then an Old Testament passage will be quoted. It does look very much like it was all scripted centuries before, and Jesus and Judas and Pilate and all the rest were just going through the motions. And that may well have been the case. That is the usual interpretation.
But some have wondered about that. If something is predicted in the Old Testament, does that necessarily mean God predetermined it would happen just that way; or, does it mean that in his infinite knowledge God knew ahead of time what would happen and what choices people would make, and then revealed to the prophets hints of what was to come? Does God’s sovereignty mean that everything has been planned out ahead of time, or do those verses indicate some other kind of arrangement? I don’t have this one completely figured out yet. There is a wide variety of approaches to this by even the best and most solid Biblical theologians. And, this is something we do not all have to agree on. The salvation won by Christ on the cross is the same no matter how one thinks it actually works. But let me describe for you a theological approach that makes sense to me.
Maybe, God’s intention was NOT that Jesus should die on the cross. Maybe the hope was that everyone would hear what Jesus had to say and follow him. God’s intent way back at creation was that Adam and Eve would simply obey the few commands he had for them, and when they, and everyone else after them, disobeyed and turned away, God tried everything to win them back. Finally, God sent his own Son. Certainly they would listen to him, as Jesus said one time in a parable, perhaps describing this very thing. Then, if people would have listened, maybe the forgiveness of sins would have been provided for in a very different way.
Now of course, this kind of speculation leads to all sorts of other problems and questions, just as every other approach does. But one thing we do know is when Jesus came to earth, the intention was that he live out a common human life. He made his arrival just like everyone else, being born a helpless and vulnerable infant. He grew up, lived in a family, chose a career, dealt with temptation, endured the grief of losing loved ones, enjoyed social events with friends, laughed, cried, and dealt with frustration and conflict. He lived life like we all do. Philippians 4:7 says Jesus emptied himself of all power, becoming like us in every way. Yes, he could call on His heavenly Father, and by His aid do miracles (though God did not grant everything Jesus requested, i.e. “May this cup pass from me”). But it is clear that Jesus was subject to the same bumps and bruises and dangers as we all are. When everything did go wrong for Jesus, just like it does for us sometimes, he did not call on ten thousand angels to protect him. By coming to live a life like we lived, Jesus showed us in person the way to live and the way to die. And when death came, even in such an unpleasant way as crucifixion, Jesus was not whisked away by an army of angels, but endured the agonizing pain to the very end.
Many people interpret the Bible to say that God planned out and was in control of every detail of Holy Week. Others, like myself, are open to the possibility that perhaps the New Testament is saying that Jesus truly did empty himself of all divine power, and really did live a life like us in every way, exposed and vulnerable to every danger, including the hostility of those he came to save. And when they turned against Jesus and sent him to the cross, he went. Therefore, we were the ones who sent Jesus to the cross, and not God. The Old Testament prophecies might simply mean that God knew ahead of time that Judas would betray Jesus, the Sanhedrin would arrest him, the crowd would turn against him, Pilate would sentence him, and the soldiers would torment him; and God revealed to the prophets some of the details of Jesus’ death hundreds of years before.
We cannot know what was in the mind of Christ as he contemplated his visit to earth and his approaching death. But all Christians agree that his Easter morning resurrection from the dead vindicated all that Jesus said and did, and in that victory offered that same life after death to all who would believe in him.
Matthew 21:33-39 — (Jesus said), “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
–Martin Luther (1483-1546), Small Catechism, Explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed