March 2009 - Vol. 28

Christ’s Humility and Victory continued, by Steve Clark

Christ’s war of liberation
 It is for this war of liberation that Christ came. His sufferings and death issuing in resurrection were a battle, the turning point of the war for the soul of the human race. As Paul tells us in Colossians 2:15, the cross was the place where Christ "disarmed the principalities and powers." There he triumphed over them.

We do not often view the crucifixion as a victory. One current of popular devotion, in fact, makes the cross seem like a great misfortune which was simply reversed by the resurrection. Nonetheless, the New Testament contains many passages where the crucifixion is seen as a combat with Satan from which Christ emerges victorious. In fact, when the sufferings and death of Christ are seen in that light, we can more easily see them precisely as redemption. On the cross, Christ was delivering human beings from an oppressive enslaving force, one from which they could not free themselves.

During the last day of his life, we find Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, in a situation very similar to the temptation. The Gospel of Matthew describes it this way:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go yonder and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand. 
– Matthew 26:36-46
The fact that Christ is in a garden is probably typologically significant. He is the New Adam encountering Satan in a garden just as the First Adam had in paradise. But Gethsemane is a garden of grief in the middle of the fallen world rather than a garden of delight in the world as it was created.

Agony in the garden
Christ is going through what is often described as "the agony in the garden." When we hear the word "agony" we primarily think of pain or suffering. That is an aspect of what Jesus went through, but the word in origin means a struggle or a contest like a wrestling match. The agony in the garden refers to Christ's combat.

Even though Satan is not explicitly mentioned, Jesus is in combat with him there. The three times Jesus returns to prayer are probably connected to the three times he had to undergo temptation by Satan in the desert. If that is so, “the agony” is something of a repeat of the temptation. The scene in the garden may be itself an encounter with Satan. Or it may be a preparation for the real struggle with Satan on the cross when Jesus was given over to the power of darkness (Luke 22:53) – just as the temptation in the wilderness was a preparation for the struggle with Satan that was his public
ministry. Perhaps it was both at the same time.

Satan’s initiative in the garden
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Satan has the initiative. He wants to turn back the initial incursion by the Son of God, primarily by working through the Jewish and Roman leaders.

In the wilderness Satan tempted Christ to use the power he had for his own worldly success. He tempted Christ to set up a kingdom over this world, an empire that would embrace "all the kingdoms of the world." Satan no doubt made such an endeavor seem good. If Christ actually controlled all the world, could he not see to it that the human race would live in a better way? This was a test, however, as to whether Christ would turn aside from the path on which his Father had set him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced a different type of temptation to turn aside. If events continued on their present course, he would go to his death the next day. He knew he would face crucifixion, the death reserved for insurrectionists, those claiming to be messiahs and seeking to establish a Jewish kingdom independent of the Romans.

Jesus knew what crucifixion was like. The Romans crucified people on the roads entering cities so that the sight would deter others from committing similar crimes. Crucifixion was a cruel, degrading death, deliberately made to be a torture. Moreover, such a death would involve the humiliation of being an apparently failed messiah. It would be a seeming defeat at the hands of the very ones he had challenged – the worldly authorities, and behind them the ruler of this world, Satan himself. It was no doubt such a death which was before Christ's eyes in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Yet he was still free. Instead of staying at the garden where Judas and the temple police would find him, Jesus could take the Gethsemane road away from, rather than toward, Jerusalem. He could then escape across the Jordan to safety. The temptation he faced in the garden was the temptation not to die, not to lay down his life, and therefore not to obey his Father.

When Christ prayed to his Father, he was troubled by fear and sorrowful at what lay ahead. Yet he also knew why he would have to undergo such a death. He had come to serve, to give his life as a ransom for the many. Christ had come, as he had just told his disciples, to pour out his blood for many so that they could be part of the new covenant and receive forgiveness for their sins. He "must" suffer and die. His Father had given him a command to do so in order that those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

Freedom and testing
Christ was free not to die – only too free. That freedom was probably itself the source of the testing. When we have no choice, there is not as much of a struggle to endure suffering. We usually swallow what we have to take with some measure of resignation. When we could get out of a difficult situation but believe we should undergo it, then we face a test. Jesus faced such a test in Gethsemane.

The victory of Christ was expressed in the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done.” In praying such a prayer, Jesus rejected the course of action any human would have wanted to take, and instead accepted the full purpose of God. That prayer was probably a plea for help to go through what faced him. It was also a willing acceptance of God's will and a desire to see the human race served as a result of what he would do. In the Gospel of John, in a scene that corresponds to the agony in the garden, Jesus expressed the same willingness to do the will of God, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name" (John 12:27-28).

Losing to win
 Christ then began what is sometimes called his passion. “Passion” in this sense means the suffering he knew he must undergo for the salvation of the human race from its sins. His passion was an ordeal, a true humiliation, but one that he went through with a great deal of self-mastery and personal dignity. Christ knew what he was about because he had made a decision in Gethsemane. He died well, in a way fitting for an unblemished lamb.

The Gospel of John records the last words of Christ on the cross: "It is finished" (John 19:30). By these words he did not simply mean that his sufferings were over and now he would die. He also meant that he had completed the task for which he came. His words registered victory rather than defeat. Christ had succeeded in putting aside "my will," his own human will that recoiled from such an ordeal, and had instead embraced "your will," his Father's will. He had been obedient to death. The Son of God had therefore succeeded in dying in such a way that his sufferings and death could be a payment for the redemption of the human race.

In the death of Christ, Satan was defeated. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, 'We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels... so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one... He... partook of the same nature [as those he was to save], that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Hebrews 2:9,14,15).

Not only was Satan defeated but so were all those who share in his rule. Colossians says, "God made [you] alive... having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands, this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [RSV: him]" (Colossians 2:13,15).

Both passages speak about Christ's death as a defeat of Satan. The first says he "destroyed" Satan, although that translation is misleading because it seems to imply that Satan went out of existence after Christ's death. The word rather probably indicates that Satan lost his ability to inflict death, spiritual, eternal death, on the "many sons" who belonged to Christ (Hebrews 2:l0-13). Once Christ died, Satan did not lose all power over the human race, nor all power to inflict death. He did, however, lose his ability to hold in bondage those who belonged to Christ. That power was destroyed by what Christ did. Christ "tasted death" so that no one else would have to die eternally.

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[This article is excerpted from the book Redeemer: Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, copyright © 1992 by Stephen B. Clark, published by Servant Books.] 

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