Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Knowing Our Limitations

A few days ago we ran a post about the will of God and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process of researching what God’s will meant to the Lord Jesus and his apostles, I came across a verse that initially perplexed me, then later seemed to provide some interesting insights into the subject. I did not bother to mention it in the COVID post because it was one of those theological rabbit trails, heading off through the forest from where we were at the time to somewhere entirely different. But the questions raised by the verse certainly merit a full post’s worth of consideration, and then some.

I’ve been mulling it over ever since, so let’s lay out the problem that occurred to me and see where it takes us ... carefully, of course.

Here’s the verse, in case you haven’t already guessed:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
That’s the Matthew 26:39 version, but the same line occurs in Mark 14:36 and Luke 22:42. Only John omits it, probably because it is so well documented in the earlier gospels. The verse poses a problem for those who think about God’s will uni-dimensionally.

A Theological Conundrum

One writer expresses the difficulty this way:
“If God and Jesus are the same, having the same mind, knowledge and power, then why would Jesus beg himself in the garden of Gethsemane, to spare himself from having to be crucified?”
Now, I don’t have the same theological difficulty he is having here, because I am not making the same assumptions he is. The Bible does not plainly state “God and Jesus are the same”, though there is a kernel of real truth there, however clumsily expressed. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” That is a similar idea more precisely articulated; a claim that provoked the Jews to pick up stones in order to stone him for blasphemy, so we can be sure they understood exactly what he was implying. But just in case we are in any doubt how to take the statement, the writers of the New Testament make sure to clear up for us what this “one-ness” entails.

John, in his gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Paul, in Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God ... all things were created through him and for him ... he is before all things, and in him all things hold together ... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell ...”
The writer to the Hebrews:
“[The Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Hmm. Definitely one, but maybe not quite the same.

Not the Same

You will probably notice nobody in the New Testament says God and Jesus are “the same”, because, well, they are not. “God” is a word that may be used of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, both collectively and individually. In our verse, the Son is addressing the Father in prayer. Both are fully God, but the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. They are not the same, though they are in constant, perfect harmony. The Father was not incarnated. The Son is the Word made flesh. The Father did not dwell among us; the Son did. The glory beheld in the first century was the glory not of the Father, but of his Only Begotten. We will probably be forgiven for conflating two superlative glories, but the word of God does indeed distinguish them for us.

But Father and Son had different roles in our salvation. The Father sent the Son. The Son came in obedience to the Father and executed his plan of salvation for mankind. I am not sure what exactly the fellow asking the question means by “having the same mind” (could be agreement or something else), but sameness of knowledge and power do not necessitate a single “self” to wield or apply them. Moreover, the Father and Son are not “the same” in every sense today. The Son has taken humanity into the Godhead, where the last Adam, the “second man”, the rightful head of the human race, has been enthroned at his Father’s right hand.

So then, the difficulty posed in the question is caused by the question itself: it starts from a wrong position and then fails to resolve because it cannot possibly.

A Genuine Problem

Nevertheless, despite the fact that our friend’s question crashes and burns on its own, he is still trying to get at something that is a genuine problem. I trust he will forgive me for rephrasing it this way:
“How could the Son have a different will from the Father?”
The Lord Jesus is saying something like “I would prefer not to drink this cup, but I will if that is what you want.” He is expressing his own will, and setting it in direct contrast to his Father’s will.

My will. Your will. The wills of two divine persons explicitly contrasted. Not one, but the other. They are not the same. And that IS a problem if we insist on thinking of God’s will uni-dimensionally.

But is that the correct way to approach the subject?

Difficult Decision Time

Perhaps we can back away from the dangerous territory of the Garden of Gethsemane for a bit, and see if we can shine a light on our conundrum from elsewhere in scripture. I am thinking of Paul’s well-established resolution to go to Jerusalem.

We may reasonably assume God had an opinion about Paul’s desire to take his testimony to the risen Christ into enemy territory, and we may feel that the repeated prophetic word which Paul encountered along the way represents that “will” which we are trying to discern. As the apostle puts it to the Ephesians elders, “I am going to Jerusalem ... not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” And so the prophet Agabus came down from Judea to the house of Philip in Caesarea where Paul was staying for the express purpose of bringing yet another message from the Holy Spirit: “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”

How are we to think about that? If the will of God is uni-dimensional — if it may be represented by only a single binary choice, right vs. wrong, in every instance — then we may argue all day about whether Paul made the correct choice in going to Jerusalem: one choice was morally wrong, the other was morally right.

Moral and Pragmatic Choices

But why would we think such a thing? Why would God’s own will be limited in ways the will he gave me is not? Why would the Creator have fewer options than his creations? Not all choices I am offered in this life are between right and wrong. Say, for example, I want to make my way downtown. There are several routes I might take. One is a little longer, but quieter and more scenic. A second is busier but direct. A third route has fewer traffic lights and a grocery store I occasionally frequent when I need an item or two. Deciding between them is not a moral matter. It is purely pragmatic. If I say that one is “better” than the others, it is only because today it serves my purposes more effectively. If I chose to use one of the others instead, I would not be sinning.

So then, what if the prophecies Paul encountered on his way to Jerusalem were not intimations of God’s imminent wrath such as those received by Balaam for trying to operate in opposition to the will of God, but rather gentle and loving reminders to his faithful servant: “Paul, you do not HAVE to do this. There are other ways you can serve me if this is too much.”

What if both possible choices were moral for Paul to make and both were acceptable to God? Can we really rule that out?

Back to the Garden

Let’s go back to the Garden for a moment. The question facing the Lord Jesus in the Garden was also not a moral one, was it? God was under no moral obligation to redeem his fallen creation. Could he not simply have written us off and still remained as holy and righteous as ever? Surely he could. God did not make Adam fall, and God did not make me sin, and thereby disqualify myself from his presence. That was my choice, and I was making it repeatedly as soon as it became evident to me that as a human being I had options. That was pretty young, I can assure you. In these choices God bore no responsibility, and created for himself no obligation of any sort. And if the three and a half years the Lord Jesus spent preaching the kingdom to Israel established anything, it was that Israel deserved nothing from God but his condemnation. That is true of every one of us without exception.

No, the question facing the Lord Jesus was not a moral one. It was not even a question of “to love or not to love” or “to show grace or not to show grace”. Love had already been shown. Grace had already been extended in spades. “The times of ignorance God overlooked,” says Peter. Thousands of years of ignorance overlooked, if we are counting. That’s grace. That’s love. Stopping short of the cross would have shown no lack of either. It is merely a question of degree. God did not have to send his Son, and the Son did not have to go. No merely external standard compelled either to do what they did.

The Point is Probably Moot

Let’s stop there. I am confident there is a biblical answer to the difficulty posed by the Son possessing a will that contrasted in any way with the will of his Father, as scripture appears to be teaching. I am not saying I have adequately resolved the problem by positing two different wills, both entirely moral. You may find my explanation unsatisfying. But if the question sticks with you the way it has stuck with me, then you will need to come up with something that works better for you. One thing that definitely does not is any explanation that makes the will of the Son merely the product of his “human side”, or in any way inferior, lesser or sub-standard. For the Word Made Flesh, no such hypothesis would suffice.

Can we even begin to comprehend the agony of contemplating the cross, of bearing the sin of the world, of estrangement (even temporarily) from his Father? The Lord Jesus could. “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” says Luke. No one had a moral right to demand it of our Savior that he make that fateful choice. We, lost in our sins, could not possibly obligate him. Righteousness could not demand it of him. Even his Father would not compel him. Our Lord was not drafted into the service of Heaven; he volunteered. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God.”

But the question of the will of Christ vs. the will of God is really a moot one, isn’t it. Even if the Lord Jesus was indeed expressing a personal, righteous preference for a different but perfectly acceptable course of action, he quickly and wholeheartedly set it aside in order to fulfill the expressed will of his Father, and for this we are eternally grateful. We cannot know what other possibilities existed, or what else might have been done. What we do know is that the holy and acceptable will of the Son was subordinated to the righteous and perfect will of the Father, and we have been forever delivered from wrath of God because of it.

Beyond that, we dare not say too much. As that great theologian Clint Eastwood once put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

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