The following article is excerpted from Dr. Swartz’s book: "Strength in the River: A Biographical Theology of Suffering" (Kress Biblical Publications)
It was time. Well aware of His coming arrest and crucifixion, Jesus walked willingly to His ultimate mission. Just before His arrest, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with some of his disciples. He told them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” He went on and 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” (Matt 26:38-39).
He knew that in just hours He would be nailed to a cross to die a slow, cruel death to pay for the sins of humanity. He knew that He would bear the full weight of God’s righteous fury against sin.
Jesus, Son of God, fully God and fully man, was now in the midst of a raging river of emotional anguish in growing anticipation of the unimaginable suffering that was before Him. What did He do in His time of deep suffering? He prayed this beautifully submissive prayer.
The Bible helps us understand the vastness of God’s sovereignty, that God’s plan includes whatever is happening right now. God’s plan can include some trial or pain that you do not want to face or something that you will inevitably face. But God’s sovereignty is endless, as proven in Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
This is precisely the situation of Jesus: He is faced with the culmination of the Father’s plan for Him on earth — death by crucifixion — and He prays this simple prayer. Jesus was filled with sorrow and dread, yet He never sinned or stopped trusting God. The sinless Son of God is truly our best example of having strength in the river of suffering and our best example of being submissive to whatever God brings. How can we follow in His footsteps and peacefully accept the plan of God? We need to accept God’s plan with resolution, humility and reverence.
First, accepting God’s plan is done with resolution. It is a decision, a choice, a moment in time when you take a vote within yourself to please the Lord and say, “Yes, Lord, I accept whatever You bring.” Jesus resolved to accept God’s plan. In prayer, it was now time to plead with the Lord that if there was any other way to accomplish the task of redemption, now would be a great time for His Father to jump in, because His arrest was only minutes away! But time was up. The Father was silent. Jesus laid down His will in surrender and submission, making an official resolution: “Not as I will, but as you will.”
Second, we need to accept God’s plan with humility. Jesus said, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” In the Old Testament, the “cup” often alluded to suffering and the wrath of God. Psalm 11:6, for example, says “Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps 11:6). In order to die, Jesus would have to endure suffering — not just physical suffering but also spiritual suffering as payment for our sin.
About to face this unimaginable pain, Jesus was experiencing a very natural desire to shrink back from His task, so He asked His Father if perhaps there was another way that this pain could be avoided. His prayer is offered with great respect and deference, making no demands of God. Jesus prays, “If it be possible.” He doesn’t claim deliverance from God, but instead makes a request in modest humility. There is tremendous joy and peace in humbling yourself before the Lord, glorifying Him and placing yourself in His hands.
Third, we need to accept God’s plan with reverence. The final petition of Jesus’ prayer is that the Father would accomplish His own will. This is the pattern of Jesus’ entire life, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). Jesus willingly subjugated Himself to the will of His Father.
This is a whole new level of reverence to the Lord! We might pray, “Lord, not what I will but what You will,” but how often is this really just code language for, “Oh, please do it my way, but if You must do it Your way then I guess I’ll deal with it,” as if God’s will, though painful, is not the best option? His plan needs to be carried out, even if this plan includes you standing in a raging river of suffering. Reverence says, “God, I not only accept Your will, but I pray deeply and earnestly that Your will is carried out. Your will is always best, and if this river is Your will, then please give me the grace to rejoice in it.”
All four gospels are surprisingly brief and to the point about the crucifixion of Christ. All four simply say, “They crucified him.” Jesus endured the wrath of God on the cross, and when the debt had been paid, He declared, “It is finished.” When all that was left to do was to actually die (unlike the typical death of a crucified victim, in which breathing becomes impossible) Luke’s gospel tells us, “Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’” Matthew says, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” Mark says, “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” Jesus took a deep breath, cried out in victory, and died on purpose.
How was He able to do this? He submitted willingly to the plan of God. When you, too, are standing in the torrent of the river of suffering, submit and receive the power to endure, and the same strength given to Christ will be yours as well.
Dr. Steve Swartz is the Senior Pastor at Grace Bible Church of Bakersfield. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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