Jesus Submitted to Death for The Joy Set Before Him
Passover and Easter season is upon us again, and it is not uncommon for pastors and preachers in this age of sensationalized pathos to focus much on the suffering that Jesus endured. Descriptions of the physical stress that caused Jesus to sweat blood and vivid medical descriptions of the truly monstrous form of execution that was crucifixion annually make the rounds on social and anti-social media alike.
The fact that the incarnate Word of God, the Messiah, faced the crucifixion with dread and trepidation has also been a subject of film, music, and television treatments in a variety of genres. These range from the infamously controversial The Last Temptation of Christ to Lou Reed´s meditation on that film´s main theme in “Dime Store Mystery” on his New York album to an episode of the cult sci-fi series Babylon Five called “Passing Through Gethsemane” to the big one, the most financially successful Bible-themed film of all time, The Passion of The Christ. There are, I am sure, many other treatments of Jesus´ last hours of which I have no knowledge. Those mentioned here, along with numerous sermons on the events leading into Jesus´s arrest, trial, and execution, all tend to focus on the “soul troubled unto death,” of Jesus´s human struggle to do what he came to do as the Son of God and Son of Man.
Pondering the Mystery of Christ´s Suffering
There is nothing really wrong with contemplating this mystery. The Bible clearly tells us Jesus was troubled, did sweat blood, did ask the Father to take this cup from him and then … did exactly what he was born to do – that is, die an almost indescribably agonizing, humiliating death at the hands of the very people who ought to have been receptive to his message, and die that death in front of his mother and his best friend. Of course, there were also many others there, the huge crowd who came to see the prophet from Nazareth die, including those who mocked him loudly and callously as he simultaneously bled out and suffocated. As the author of Hebrews put it, he endured that death, its shame … for the joy set before him:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12: 1-3).
Jesus came to Earth for the very purpose of dying as the final sacrifice for human sin, the ultimate Passover lamb, who provided for non-Jews to be grafted into the salvation plan the God of Israel was working out for the whole human race. He knew what he was facing when he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey nearly 2,000 years ago, and he did it. He went. Why? Not in spite of the horrors that he would endure from the hands of Roman executioners at the behest of religious leaders from his own people. Instead, because of the “joy that was set before him.” What is that joy? Well, if you are a believer, the answer is …
The Joy His Suffering Won
You are the joy that was set before Jesus. Well, not just you. You and the countless millions who have been and will be brought to eternal life through and because of Jesus. The focus on Jesus´s suffering and even his intense struggle in that Garden is certainly appropriate, but when it becomes the sole focus of any meditation on the death of Jesus, it obscures the true meaning of that death: that it was the willed, voluntary act of atonement for which Jesus came into the world.
When that is lost, the eternal Lord is reduced to a martyred sage, a guy “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be if everyone were nice to each other” (pace Douglas Adams, in another pop culture response to the Easter accounts). Jesus is exactly not a suffering martyr whose tragic death is somehow merely pathetic and inspiring. He is the son of the living God who, as the unknown 9th century Old Saxon poet of the heroic epic “Der Heliand” understood, came to do battle with death and the devil on that hill outside of “Jerusalemburg” and soundly defeated both.
In the heroic understanding, which I personally find the right one, Jesus fought those two enemies to save you and me from them. He took all that suffering, all that agony, on himself willingly, knowing what he would win by enduring it. Again, that would be you and me.
Interestingly, there was good reason for the disciples to expect that very outcome. As Pinchas Lapide pointed out in his book on the resurrection, there was already a solid Jewish belief in bodily resurrection, an expectation that the God of Israel could and did raise people from the dead (and, no, Jesus´s resurrection isn't the Osiris myth retold, let´s get that nonsense out of the way right now).
Jesus himself had already raised people from the dead in front of them: the boy in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus´s daughter (Luke 8:40-56 with parallel passages in Matthew 9:18-26 and Mark 5:21-43, dramatized quite well in The Chosen this season), and Lazarus (John 11). Interestingly enough, John recounts that Lazarus was present at the triumphal entry and was almost as much of a “crowd draw” as Jesus himself. His presence at least ought to have given Peter, Andrew, and the rest a hint of what was to come, but – and this should encourage modern believers who struggle with accepting the reality of the supernatural – they still let fear and uncertainty dictate their actions. They ran and hid. For a while. Then, they found the tomb empty and met Jesus, alive again, and more alive than before, if anything. He even ate fish with them and cooked them breakfast.
Joy for Every Season
In the quite likely event that you encounter any of the benighted and ignorant out there who deny that Jesus lived and died, or who deny the historicity of the resurrection on the basis of a priori, anti-supernaturalist assumptions, there is a veritable ocean of apologetic resources dealing with common attacks on the Gospel resurrection accounts. You´ll find a small encyclopedia of those written by Dr. William Lane Craig here. A more concise summary of the key facts and arguments with references and video can be found in this post from Salvo author Bob Perry, writing for the good folks at crossexamined.org. We have a heroic Savior who endured an agonizing death, not to save only the lives of people who loved him even, but for those who were yet his enemies. Since the salvation of the world is the joy that was set before him, let his triumph over the grave be our source of joy, in this and every season.John D. Martin
is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/beyond-tragedy