The Son’s obedience and suffering (Christmas 2022)

I made extensive use of ‘Jesus and the God of Classical Theism’ by Steven J. Duby (Baker Academic, 2022).

Introduction

Last Sunday and this Sunday we’ve been thinking about the incarnation and how God’s Only-Begotten Son became one of us when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to the virgin Mary.

Last Sunday morning we were thinking about the Son’s relationship to the Father and how he’s the Word who was with God in the beginning; and who is himself God; and who is eternally from God the Father so that he is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation or imprint of the Father’s being. He’s not different from the Father, but he’s a repetition of the Father, because the Father and the Son, along with the Holy Spirit, possess the same divine essence; and the only difference between them is that the Father is unbegotten; and the Son is begotten from the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Apart from that, the three persons of the Trinity are identical. And so, the Son is eternally begotten from the Father and is a repetition of the Father. He is Light from Light; true God from true God. And that means God himself came to save us, just as he said he would. He did not send another, but he came himself in the person of his Son to save us.

And last Sunday evening we thought about the Son’s relationship to his human nature. Without ceasing to be what he has always been, he became flesh and dwelt among us. And so, he possessed a body and soul like ours and he experienced hunger and thirst and tiredness and pain like us. And like us, he was able, as a man, to die.

So, he is God and man in one person. He is one person: God’s Only-Begotten Son. But he possesses two natures: his divine nature and a human nature like ours. And the reason the Eternal Son of God became one of us was to pay for our sins with his life by dying on the cross in our place. As God he cannot die, but as man he could die for us and for our salvation.

And this morning we were thinking about the Son’s dependence on the Holy Spirit. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit; and was sanctified and made holy by the Spirit from the moment of his conception. And because of the Holy Spirt’s continual influence on his human nature, he was able to be what he needed to be and to do what he needed to do in order to save us. So, by the Spirit he proclaimed God’s word and performed mighty miracles. By the Spirit he lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father. By the Spirit he offered himself unblemished to God as the perfect sacrifice for sins. That is to say, he offered up to God a perfect human life to pay for all our sins. And his dependence on the Spirit makes clear that the whole of the Trinity was involved in our salvation, because the Father sent the Son to save us; and the Son became flesh and offered up his life on the cross to pay for our sins; and the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit and he was sanctified and made holy by the Spirit; and the Spirit enabled the Son to offer himself unblemished to God for our salvation.

And so, we’ve thought about the Son’s relationship to the Father; and we’ve thought about the Son’s relationship to his human nature; and we’ve thought about the Son’s dependence on the Holy Spirit. This evening we’re thinking about the Son’s obedience and suffering.

Biblical witness to his obedience

And as we did this morning, we’re going to start in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 49, we overhear the Servant of the Lord, who is Jesus Christ the Lord, saying that God appointed him to be God’s servant. In chapter 50, we overhear him saying that God awakens him every morning to listen to God. And he says he is not rebellious and that he’s willing to be beaten and tortured and trusts that God will help him. And chapter 53 tells us about the suffering of God’s servant. He was despised and rejected by men; and he was a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering. He bore the punishment of his people, when the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. And in suffering like this, he was accomplishing God’s will for him, because it was the Lord’s will to crush him for the sins of his people; and he was willing to do God’s will and remain God’s obedience servant. Isaiah was foretelling how he would come into the world to do his Father’s will.

When we turn to the gospels, we see that Matthew depicts the Lord Jesus as God’s obedient Son. Unlike the people of Israel, who disobeyed God in the wilderness, the Lord Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil in the wilderness; and he obeyed his Father. And he continued to obey his Father throughout his life on earth. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he began to be sorrowful and troubled, and though he was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, and though he was in anguish and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground, he nevertheless remained obedient to his Father in heaven and prayed for God’s will, and not his own will, to be done. Think of a sportsman or woman who is about to do some feat which they know might be dangerous or painful: the gymnast who is about to do that jump which no one else has been able to do; the driver who is pressing the accelerator in order to get to the bend ahead of his rivals. And it’s dangerous. It might lead to pain. And so, on the one hand, they want to back off and stay safe. But on the other hand, they want to keep going to win. And so, they’re conflicted. And here’s the Lord Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and here’s got the very natural human desire to preserve his life and to avoid pain. But he’s also got the desire to do his Father’s will. What will he do? Will he disregard his Father’s will and preserve his life? Or will he do his Father’s will even though it will mean suffering and death? Well, the Lord Jesus, God’s obedient servant, was willing to do the Father’s will no matter what the cost.

We read in John 8:29 how the Lord Jesus said about himself that he always does what pleases the Father who sent him. And in John 10:18 he speaks of receiving a command from the Father. And in John 12:49 he says that his Father sent him and commanded him what to say and how to say it. In John 14:31 he says that he does exactly what his Father has commanded him to do. And in John 15:10 he says that he has obeyed his Father’s commands. These verses make clear that the Lord Jesus had come to do his Father’s will. He was God’s obedient servant.

In Romans 5, Paul contrasts the Lord Jesus with Adam. Sin and death entered the world through the one man, Adam, who disobeyed God; and righteousness and life entered the world through the Lord Jesus, who was obedient to his Father. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is discussing head coverings and in the course of his discussion he says that the head of Christ is God. In other words, God the Father has authority over Christ. And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is discussing the resurrection of our bodies when Christ comes again. And in verse 28 he says that the Son himself will be made subject to God the Father. In Galatians 4, Paul says that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law. Philippians 2 tells us how the Son humbled himself and became obedient to death — even to death on a cross.

And in Hebrews 5, the writer says that during the Lord’s life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to God the Father; and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Furthermore, although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation. When we studied that passage last year, I explained that he learned obedience in the sense that he learned the cost of obedience through suffering. When we suffer, we’ll do almost anything to get relief. And that means we’re often ready to disobey our Heavenly Father to avoid more suffering. But the Lord Jesus remained obedient to his Father even though it cost him his life. And when the writer says he was made perfect, he’s referring, not to moral perfection, but to vocational perfection. That is to say, the Lord Jesus became perfectly qualified to be our great high priest by his suffering and death for us. And in Hebrews 10, the writer puts the words of Psalm 40 on the lips of the Lord Jesus: ‘Here I am … I have come to do your will, O God.’ He had come to be God’s obedient servant and to do God’s will.

And so, the Bible bears witness to the Son’s faithful obedience to his Father in heaven. He came into the world to do his Father’s will and to obey his Father’s command. Unlike Adam who disobeyed, and unlike Israel who disobeyed, the Lord Jesus was God’s obedient servant. And he was prepared to obey God no matter what the cost.

Biblical witness to his suffering

Let me turn your attention briefly now to the biblical witness to his suffering. And we can once again begin with Isaiah. In Isaiah 49:7 he is described as the one who was despised and abhorred by the nation. In Isaiah 50:6 the servant says that he offered his back to those who beat him and he offered his cheeks to those who pulled out his beard. And he did not hide his face from mocking and spitting. In Isaiah 50:14 we’re told that there were many who were appalled at his appearance which had been disfigured because of his suffering. And the whole of Isaiah 53 speaks of how he was despised and rejected by men and how he was a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering and how he was pierced for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities. And this was the will of God for him, because it was the will of God for him to offer his life as a guilt offering, not for his own sins — because he had none — but for our sins.

According to Hebrews 5, he suffered throughout the days of his life on earth. And so, when he was born, he was born in humble circumstances. And as soon as he was born, his family had to take him and flee because his life was in danger. Throughout the time of his public ministry, the teachers of the law and the Sadducees and Pharisees opposed him and plotted against him. Before he was arrested, he was in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane and was overwhelmed with sorrow as he thought about his coming death. And after he was arrested, he was beaten and whipped and crucified. And on the cross, he not only suffered physically, but he also lost that sense of the Father’s love which had always been with him; and he endured the Father’s wrath because of our sins.

According to Peter in Acts 2:23 the Lord Jesus was handed over by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge. And so, it was God’s will for him to suffer. And yet, the Lord himself says in John 10:18 that no one took his life from him, but he laid it down of his own accord. This was not something he did against his will, but he willingly gave up his life. And according to Paul in Galatians 2:20, the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us. And according to Paul in Galatians 3:13, he redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. Becoming a cruse for us is not so much something that was done to him, but it was something he did for us and for our salvation. And so, while it was the Father’s will for him to suffer, it was his own will that he should suffer and die for his people.

Human obedience

Having looked briefly at the biblical witness to his obedience and to his suffering, let’s think about the significance of this. And the first thing I want us to note carefully is that his obedience to the Father was a human obedience. He obeyed God as a man. He obeyed God as one of us. He did not obey God as God, but he obeyed God as a man.

And it’s important that we note this because recently some evangelical scholars and ministers have written about and talked about what is called the eternal subordination of the Son. Those who advocate this position say that the Son’s obedience to his Father on earth reflects the Son’s obedience to the Father in eternity. The Son has always been obedient to the Father. He has always submitted to the Father. There is a hierarchy in the Trinity with the Father at the top and the Son and the Spirit below the Father. And so, according to this view, the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father.

But that position cannot be correct, because we believe that the three persons of the Trinity possess the same divine essence so that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God; and there is no difference between them except that the Father is unbegotten and the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. And since they possess the same divine essence, then they are equal in glory and honour and power and authority. One is not greater than another. One does not possess more authority than another. The Son is not different from the Father, but he’s a repetition of the Father. And so, those who speak about the eternal subordination of the Son are wrong.

And when the Bible refers to the Son’s obedience to the Father, the Bible is referring to his human obedience. Just as he became one of us, so he obeyed God as one of us. And the Bible makes this clear. Take Philippians 2 for instance: that passage which speak about the Son making himself nothing and taking on the form of a servant and being made in human likeness. So, the Son became one of us. And when, according to the passage, did his obedience begin? It began after he was found in appearance as a man. That’s when he humbled himself and became obedient to death. In Hebrews 10, the writer puts the words of Psalm 40 on the lips of Jesus. And so, according to the psalm, the Lord said to his Father: ‘Here I am…. I have come to do your will, O God.’ So: I have come; and now that I have come, I will do your will. Or Hebrews 5:8 says: ‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience….’ The phrase ‘Although he was a Son’ implies that obedience was unusual for the Son of God. The Son of God does not normally have to obey; but when the Son of God came to earth as a man, he learned obedience as a man. And Paul in Galatians 4 says that after the Son was sent by God and was born of Mary, that’s when he was placed under God’s law.

And though the Bible says the Father sent the Son, this does not mean that the Father was over the Son and the Son had to submit to the Father’s will before he came to earth as a man. After all, the Father and the Son, being one God, possess the same divine will. What the Father wills, the Son wills. And together with the Spirit, the Father and Son planned our salvation and worked together to accomplish it. And when the Lord Jesus speaks of obeying the Father’s command, or of doing the Father’s will, he’s referring to his obedience as a man. He does not obey as God, but as a man.

And it’s important that we note this carefully, not only so that we won’t be led astray by those who speak of the eternal subordination of the Son, but so that we will understand that the Son obeyed God as one of us and for us. He did for us what we are meant to do, but cannot do. What are we meant to do, but cannot do? We’re meant to live a life of perfect obedience to God. That’s what we’re meant to do. But we all fall short, because we’re sinners by birth who sin against God continually.

But the Lord Jesus did what we are meant to do and cannot do. He obeyed God perfectly. And he obeyed God as one of us. He obeyed as a man. He obeyed as a human being. And he did it for us so that he could share his perfect obedience with all who believe in him. Because he shares his perfect obedience with us, God regards those who believe as if they had done everything right even though we may have done everything wrong. God regards us like that because of Christ who shares his perfect human obedience with all who believe.

Human suffering

And the final thing I want to say is to repeat what I said one Wednesday evening about God’s impassibility. God’s impassibility means that God is not affected by anything or anyone outside of himself. In other words, God cannot suffer. And he cannot suffer, because that would mean that God could change from being happy to being unhappy. But God does not change. In fact, God cannot change. And since God cannot change, then he is not affected by anything outside of himself and he cannot suffer in any way. We cannot hurt him.

However, this doctrine has been challenged in modern times. It seems to some theologians that to say that God is impassible is to suggest that he is cold and detached and indifferent to human suffering. And surely we don’t want a God who is unconcerned about our suffering? Surely we want a God who is moved by our suffering and who shares in it in some way? Surely what we want is a God who suffers with us and who can sympathise with us in our suffering? And doesn’t loving us mean that God will suffer with us?

And when such theologians look to the Bible, they point to those places where God showed himself to be compassionate towards the suffering of his people. He wasn’t indifferent to their plight or hard-hearted towards them. And then they point at the cross and to the suffering of the Son of God. Surely God is not impassible? Surely he cares for us and suffers with us? And so, the doctrine of God’s impassibility has been challenged in modern times.

And when we studied this doctrine one Wednesday evening, I made several points. For instance, when we say God is impassible, we don’t mean he is cold and indifferent, because he is eternally and unchangeably happy. And he’s full of love and joy and delight.

And then, we also need to remember that the Bible uses human language to convey to us the truth about God. For instance, it might say that God was grieved about something. But it’s not because God feels grief and sorrow, but it’s to communicate to us that our actions are sinful. So, if he were human like us, he would be grieved by our sinful actions. That’s what it means.

And then, those who say that God is passible and that he suffers with us don’t understand that a God who suffers with us as God is of no real use to us. Imagine you’re sick and dying and the doctor comes to see you. What good is it to you if all he can do is wring his hands in sorrow? Or what good is it to you if he lies down beside you and tells you about his own sickness? No, you want a doctor who is able to help you. And God is above and beyond our suffering and our pain and our sorrow and sadness. He’s not affected by it in any way and he himself does not suffer pain or loss the way we do, so that he himself needs to be rescued from it. No, he is above all pain and suffering and loss. And because he’s above it, he’s able to rescue us from it.

And he rescues us from it by his Son, who suffered for us, not as God, but as one of us. God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us. And his life on earth was such that he was known as a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering. And in the end, he suffered on the cross; and he suffered as one of us. And as one of us, he bore the wrath of God in our place and suffered the penalty we deserve for our sins. He took the blame for us and suffered in our place the punishment we deserve. And he gives salvation to all who believe in him, a salvation which includes forgiveness for all that we have done wrong and peace with God and the hope of everlasting life with God.

And so, God does not suffer as God. As God, he is above all suffering. But as one of us, he suffered and died to rescue us from this world of sorrow and suffering and to bring us into the new and better world to come where we will have life with God forever.

And while we wait for that day to come, we can look to God’s Son for the help we need. You see, because he suffered as one of us, he’s able to sympathise with us in our weakness and our suffering. A God who suffers as God is no help to us, because a God who suffers as God does not know what it’s like for us to suffer. A God who suffers as God cannot relate to us in our human pain and sorrow. But since he suffered as man, since he suffered as one of us, then he’s able to relate to our human suffering and he’s able to send us the help we need to cope with our suffering.

And so, as God he cannot suffer. But he suffered as one of us to give us eternal life. And while we wait for it, he helps us with our suffering.