The God Who Suffered...
Towards the end of his finest book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott draws from the playlet, ‘The Long Silence’. At the end of time billions of people are found in the presence of God’s throne. While the majority stand back against the brilliant light, various groups at the front are listing their complaints against God. ‘How can God judge us?’ they ask. ‘How can he know about suffering?’
Having assembled their complaint, representatives of the various groups meet – someone from Auschwitz, an African American, an abused woman, someone from Hiroshima, a thalidomide child, and many others. On reaching agreement, they presented their case that before God could be qualified to judge, he must endure what they endured: God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man. ‘…Let him be betrayed, face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured and die, horribly and alone…’
With these thoughts in mind come with me to the Gospel of John. In the course of his public ministry, John records, Jesus spoke of his hour. When Mary asked Jesus to do something about the need for wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), he replied that his hour had not yet come. Later on, he said it again (John 7:20 and 8:30). But in John 12:23, when Philip and Andrew reported that some Greeks wanted to meet Jesus, a turning point came. It was then that he said: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”.
Suffering. It would be through Jesus’ death that God’s kingdom would be open to all who believe in him (Jesus) – Greeks (the non-Jewish world) as well as Jewish people. Twice more, when he was with his disciples in the upper room, Jesus spoke of the time having come for him to depart this world through an event that would be his glorification – his death.
‘And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour’, we read in John 12:27. Jesus knew the day would come when he would die. His expectation was not the same as ours – that one day we will die.
Sin-bearer. We get glimpses of Jesus’ understanding of the purpose of his life throughout the four Gospel records. The words of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 provide the key. Indeed, Luke 22:37 records Jesus’ direct quote from Isaiah 53:12 – He was numbered with the transgressors. In keeping with a Jewish interpretative approach, we should note the larger context of Jesus’ quote – all of Isaiah 53, and especially all of v.12 which concludes: Yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, was born to suffer and die for human sin – the perfect for the imperfect. The hidden nature of the depths of God’s love was revealed in the crucifixion – where the Son of God was glorified. Glory speaks of the outward manifestation of inner character. RVG Tasker (The Gospel According to St John) makes the important point that Jesus’ words, “Father, save me from this hour” are a prayer that God will bring him safely (literally) out of (not from) this hour. Tasker quotes Alford’s paraphrase: ‘The going into and exhausting this hour, this cup, is the very appointed way of my (Jesus’) glorification’ (p.149).
Glorification. Furthermore, Jesus prays that the Father’s name will also be glorified. Too often we forget that God, whose nature is always to show mercy, is passionate about rescuing the lost. In John 12:28 we read God’s words: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’ – which we see in Jesus’ raising Lazarus from death, and supremely in God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ glorification is also the Father’s glorification.
Judgement. Another significant facet of Jesus’ crucifixion we often overlook is that the world and its ‘ruler’ were judged then and there. For Jesus’ death involved a conflict with the powers of evil. As Jesus’ crucifixion involved the reversal of the events of Genesis 3, the original tempter needed to be deposed once and for all. Through his crucifixion Jesus, the Son of God, not only overcame the power of sin, but also disarmed the evil powers of this world and triumphed over them (Colossians 2:15). Yes, the powers of evil are still hell-bent on defacing and destroying humanity as the image of God. But these very powers are in their death throes, kicking out against what they know will be their end.
The extreme cost to God. In John 12:32 we read Jesus’ words: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. Jesus endured the extremes of injustice and torture, suffering and crucifixion.
The cross was not a heartless God punishing a hapless Son. Jesus tells us himself: it was his choice – his voluntary sacrifice (John 10:14-15) – because both he and the Father love the world and are intent on its rescue, no matter the cost. When we come to see that Jesus’ cross reveals ‘the invincible power of God’s love’, we are drawn to put our trust in him. Come what may in this world, because God in Christ is victorious over sin and the powers of evil, we have the hope of a future far beyond our imagination.
Returning to John Stott’s reference to The Long Silence. As each of the speakers laid out their complaint against God, loud murmurs of approval rose from the great crowd. When the last speaker finished, there was silence. A very long silence… No one spoke. No one moved. ‘Suddenly everyone knew that God had served his sentence’ (pp.336f).
‘While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light,’ Jesus warns (John 12:36).
© John G. Mason