March 16, 1997

A WILLING SACRIFICE

No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. John 10:18

Have you ever heard of a free man deliberately trying to get himself arrested, or an innocent man making sure he was convicted as a criminal, or a happy man voluntarily enduring torture, or a healthy man willingly going to his own death? Can you imagine anyone doing this–first planning it all in advance, and then deliberately going through with it? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

But crazy or not, that’s what Jesus did.

When we think about the way Jesus died, we tend to pity him. Poor Jesus! He was good and kind, but he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time in the hands of the wrong people. A close companion betrayed him. A kangaroo court convicted him. A bunch of bullies beat him. A gutless governor sentenced him. Savage soldiers crucified him. A merciless mob mocked him. He endured horrible pain. And then he died. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for someone who was forced to suffer and die in such an awful way?

But according to the Bible, nobody forced Jesus to suffer and die. Jesus chose to suffer and die. He said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus was not a helpless victim. He was a willing sacrifice.

Jesus didn’t die because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in the right place, Jerusalem, at the right time, the time of the Passover feast. Jesus knew very well that his most powerful enemies were headquartered in Jerusalem. He knew what would happen if he entered the city to the shouts of huge crowds of pilgrims coming to celebrate Passover. He knew his enemies would arrest him and kill him.

Jesus could have stayed safe and healthy. All he had to do was stay away from Jerusalem. But instead, says the Bible, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He knew what was waiting for him there, but in spite of that, he went–or rather, because of that, he went. He went in order to lay down his life.

He went to the city where his enemies were the strongest, and even then, nobody had the power to take his life against his will. Jesus didn’t just happen to fall into the hands of the wrong people or get caught in a trap he couldn’t escape.

When Jesus’ companion Judas betrayed him, he didn’t catch Jesus in a surprise ambush. The betrayal grieved Jesus, but it didn’t surprise him, and he didn’t try to avoid it. Jesus spoke of the betrayal ahead of time, and he knew who the traitor would be. He knew already way back when he first chose Judas to be part of his inner circle. Jesus could easily have avoided betrayal by not choosing Judas at all. Even on the night of betrayal, Jesus could have prevented it simply by making sure Judas never left his sight. But instead, Jesus told Judas he knew what he was plotting, and then he said, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). Judas went out into the night.

Later that night, Jesus and the rest of the disciples went out to an olive grove known as the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knew full well that Judas would expect to find them there. The Bible says that Judas

knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said… When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:3-6)

Even surrounded by a mob of armed men, Jesus wasn’t trapped. He very presence was enough to flatten them. They couldn’t lay a hand on Jesus unless he allowed it to happen.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t the first time Jesus faced a mob who wanted him dead. It had happened several times before. Once, when Jesus preached in his home town of Nazareth, people got so angry at him that they tried to push him off a cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way unharmed (Luke 4:28-30). Another time Jesus told some people that they didn’t know God but he did, because he was from God. “At this they tried to seize him,” says the Bible, “but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come” (John 7:30).

On still another occasion, Jesus was in the temple, and he told some people, “Before Abraham [the ancient patriarch] was born, I am.” “At this they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (John 8:59). Later Jesus spoke of God as his Father and said, “I and the Father are one.” Again some people picked up stones to stone him because he claimed to be equal with God. They tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp (John 10:29-39). And these weren’t the only times angry people tried to kill Jesus.

So by the time Jesus met Judas’s gang, he was no stranger to danger. He’d faced hostile mobs before and got away unharmed every time. That night in the olive grove, he could have escaped just as easily, especially when his enemies drew back and fell to the ground the moment he identified himself. But Jesus didn’t escape. Instead, he gave his enemies time to get back up and get over their confusion. Then he told them again that he was the one they were after, and he told them to let his friends go.

At that point Jesus’ friend Peter jumped in. He drew a sword and struck a man, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this.” Almost before anyone realized what had happened, Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:51).

Jesus then made it clear that he wasn’t helpless, that if he wanted to fight, he had more than enough power to win. In fact, he himself wouldn’t have to lift a finger. He could just speak a word, and a host of supernatural warriors would overwhelm his enemies in an instant. Jesus said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54)

Think of it: legions of angels, ready to fight! Even one angel is powerful wipe out an entire army all by himself. One lone angel would have been plenty to destroy the gang that was after Jesus. And the Lord didn’t just have one angel; he had all the armies of heaven ready to fight for him.

What were the angels thinking as the One they adored and served was surrounded by weak and wicked men? I suspect the angels were as eager to use their swords as Peter was to use his sword. Those mighty warriors stood rank upon rank, poised for the order to attack. They could have obliterated the human weaklings in a moment. All they needed was a signal from their Commander. But the signal never came. The angels stood back, as commanded.

Jesus allowed his enemies to seize him and bind him and carry him away. The religious leaders held a sham of a trial. They accused and convicted and condemned him. They punched him in the face. He absorbed the abuse in silence.

At any point along the way, Jesus could have ended his suffering in an instant. Just one word to his Father, and the warriors of heaven would have destroyed his enemies and set him free. But Jesus chose to suffer all the way to the end.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, questioned him. Jesus wouldn’t reply to any of the charges against him. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19:9-11) Pilate was the most powerful man in the region, and he was backed by the might of the Roman emperor. But the only reason Pilate had the power to crucify Jesus was that the Lord gave him that power. Nobody, not even Governor Pilate, could take Jesus’ life from him. He laid it down of his own accord.

When Jesus hung on the cross, many onlookers hurled insults at him and said, “Come down from the cross and save yourself.” The religious leaders joked among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:29-32). But their insults didn’t provoke Jesus to leave the cross, any more than their nails and ropes forced him to stay on the cross. Jesus remained there of his own will.

Jesus suffered terribly as he hung on the cross. The physical pain was horrible, and the hell of divine punishment was far worse. But even so, when the moment came for Jesus to die, his life was not taken from him. He said, “It is finished,” as though he had completed a great task. Then, says the Bible, he “gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Death didn’t come because he no longer had strength to hold on. Jesus didn’t die with a last gasp or a faint mumble. No, says the Bible, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Even at the end, he had the strength to shout. Nobody took his spirit from him. He handed it over to his Father.

Clearly, Jesus was not just a tragic casualty of evil. He chose to go through all this. I’m not saying his enemies weren’t to blame for the rotten things they did to him; they were to blame. And I’m not saying Jesus’ suffering wasn’t real; it was terribly real–worse than we can possibly imagine. But let’s not focus so much on Jesus’ enemies and his suffering that we see only a slain martyr and pity him. If we do that, we won’t see God’s part in the story, and we won’t see our part in the story. Jesus was not a helpless victim. He was a willing sacrifice.

It may sound crazy for someone to endure betrayal and injustice and torture and death if he had the power to avoid it. What possible reason could Jesus have for doing that? Well, he had at least two reasons: his holy Father in heaven, and his sinful people on earth.

Jesus and his Father loved one another eternally. Somewhere in eternity, the Father designed a plan, and the Son agreed to carry it out: a plan in which the Son would endure hell and death and then rise victorious. In this way, Jesus would show his love and total obedience to the Father, and the Father would have all the more reason to love his dear Son. Jesus put it this way: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

But why did Father and Son come up with such a plan in the first place? That’s where you and I come into the story. We are sinners. Our sin offends God. It separates us from his blessing. It provokes his just vengeance. It places us under the sentence of death and hell. And yet God, in his great love, decided on a way to save sinful people. How? By offering his Son as a substitute, a willing sacrifice to suffer and die in our place.

In short, Jesus suffered and died, not because he fell into the hands of people who left him no other choice, but because he loved his Father and he loved me.

If I insist on identifying the people responsible for Jesus’ death, I can’t just look at who took part at the time. I have to look in the mirror. If it weren’t for my sin and the sin of people like me, there would have been no need for Jesus to give himself as a willing sacrifice. Once the Father decided to save me, the only way to carry out the Father’s will was for Jesus to suffer hell and death in my place. So, whose evil heart and bad behavior were to blame for Jesus’ death? Mine. I’m the one to blame. I caused all his pain.

A poet has written:

No, it was not the Jews who crucified,

Nor who betrayed You in the judgment place,

Nor who, Lord Jesus, spat into Your face,

Nor who with buffets struck You as You died.

No, it was not the soldiers fisted bold

Who lifted up the hammer and the nail,

Or raised the cursed cross on Calvary’s hill,

Or, gambling, tossed the dice to win Your robe.

I am the one, O Lord, who brought You there,

I am the heavy cross You had to bear,

I am the rope that bound You to the tree,

The whip, the nail, the hammer, and the spear,

The blood-stained crown of thorns You had to wear:

It was my sin, alas, it was for me.

(by Jacob Revius, trans. Henrietta Ten Harmsel)

I have to shoulder the blame for Jesus’ death before I can begin to enjoy the benefits of it. If I pretend his death was something that happened long ago when nasty people took his life away from him, then I accept no blame for his death and I receive no benefit from it. But once I know that nobody took Jesus’ life from him, that he laid it down of his own accord, then I have to ask why he would do such a thing, and I discover that it was in obedience to his Father and on account of me. This is what it took for Jesus to obey the Father’s will and carry out God’s plan to save me. It was for my sin that he chose to suffer the abuse of men and the wrath of God and the horror of hell.

What about you? Do you confess that Jesus was dealing with your sin when he suffered and died? Do you feel horror and deep sorrow over your sin? Or do you think that Jesus died as a helpless victim of bad people, that it had nothing to do with you, and that you’re okay the way you are? If that were the case, says the Bible, “then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).

But Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He died for people, sinful people like you and me. He died because that was God’s way, the only way, to deal with sin and make us right with God. If by God’s grace you believe that Jesus died for your sin, your pride will be crushed. You can’t pretend you’re just fine. You can’t pretend your sin is no big deal. Your sin is a big enough deal that the eternal Son of God suffered hell and death to deal with it! That’s how serious sin is. So humble yourself before the cross of Christ. Repent of your sin. Grieve over it. Hate it. Turn away from it in disgust.

But don’t stop there. Don’t just wallow in sorrow over what your sin cost Jesus. Be dismayed at your own sin, but then be delighted in God’s love. Remember, nobody took Jesus life from him. He laid it down of his own accord. Your sin is bad enough to need such a sacrifice, true enough; but don’t forget, God’s love is great enough that he chose to offer such a sacrifice. And that’s where God wants our main focus to be: not on the badness of our sin, but on the greatness of his love.

Jesus chose to lay down his life out of love: love for us and love for his Father. We needed that sacrifice, the Father wanted that sacrifice, and so Jesus offered that sacrifice. He died for our good and for God’s glory. Oh, what a precious sacrifice, to clear filthy sinners and honor a holy God at the same time! Oh, what a loving Savior, to obey his Father so completely and to suffer for us so unselfishly.

What a horrible thing sin must be, that only the agony of God’s Son could deal with it. But what a loving Savior Jesus must be, that he willingly offered such a sacrifice! What a privilege to belong to such a Savior! What a joy to be able to say with the apostle Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Can you say that? Have you put your faith in Jesus? If not, then do so today. Believe that his sacrifice makes you right with God. Trust his love. Rejoice in him. Praise him. Glory in him. Delight in the way the Father has glorified his Son and himself in saving you. Worship the Lord with awe and amazement.

Who can ever capture in words the wonder and love of what God has done for us? Who can ever fully understand what Jesus means to us? Sometimes the Bible speaks of Jesus as the sacrifice that is offered to God as payment for our sins. But Scripture also speaks of Jesus as our priest, the one who stands between us and God. Which is he, the sacrifice or the priest who offers the sacrifice? He is both. Our priest offered himself as a sacrifice, once for all, and now he lives forever to plead our case (Hebrews 7:24-27).

Another title for Jesus is the Great Physician. The Bible speaks of the Lord as the one who heals our wounds (Isaiah 53:5) and as the surgeon who takes out our old, bad heart and gives us a new, healthy one (Ezekiel 36:26). In transplant surgery, though, it takes more than a great physician. It also takes an organ donor. Suppose you’re a patient with a bad heart and you’re on the waiting list for a transplant. How do you feel? You feel great joy but also a measure of sadness. You’re grateful and glad to receive the healthy heart, but you know that you can receive that healthy heart only because someone else died. So it is with Jesus. You receive a new, healthy heart, but only because someone else died. Now, is Jesus the Great Physician who implants the healthy heart in you, or is he the one who died to make it available? Is he the doctor or the donor? He’s both.

Or take another word picture. In the Bible Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14). But Scripture also speaks of him as a lamb led away to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Which is he, the good shepherd who watches over his sheep, or the lamb is lives among the sheep and dies in their place? He is both.

Jesus is the shepherd and the lamb, the doctor and the donor, the priest and the sacrifice. He is our slain substitute and our strong Savior. Even in his human suffering, he exercised his divine sovereignty. He is the eternal one who deliberately died, the almighty one who chose to become weak, the one who is holy but became sin for us, the one who endured God’s wrath and is loved all the more by his Father, the one who was killed and yet lives forever, the one who made himself nothing and received all authority in heaven and on earth.

Do you understand the full wonder of Jesus? I don’t. But I believe in his willing sacrifice. I accept and adore the one who was sovereign even in his suffering, the one who said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.