The Cross: A Sovereign Savior
The Cross: A Sovereign Savior
Main Idea: Every step on the way to the cross is planned and controlled by Jesus.
- Jesus Was Not a Helpless Victim or a Courageous Martyr but a Sovereign Savior.
- Our Response Should Not Be Pity or Bravery but Faith.
Like a swelling wave about to crest, John’s Gospel arrives at the cross. The “hour” of sacrifice, introduced to us at Jesus’s first miracle in Cana, has finally come, but the momentum of this moment had been building long before Jesus’s first miracle. It began in a garden at the dawn of history when a promise was made about a Savior. Human history, from its first moments, had been moving toward this point. When it took place, the death of Jesus Christ on a cross became its dividing line. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that, even from a secular viewpoint, no event has impacted human history like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Everything that took place before looks toward it, and everything that has taken place since looks back. For those of us who claim the title Christian, the cross is central to everything we believe, do, and are.
The reason the cross stands as the iconic image of Christianity cannot be traced to first-century marketing savvy. The cross marks the moment God offered his Son as the penalty for our sin, fallen mankind was redeemed, sin and death were defeated, and God extended terms of peace to his enemies at the cost of his Son’s life. We cannot overstate the significance of the cross.
Who was responsible for the cross? Who murdered Jesus? The Romans? Crucifixion, though probably not a Roman invention, was certainly perfected under their reign. They were the ones in charge when Jesus was crucified. Pilate, a Roman governor, ordered his death. Roman soldiers pounded the nails into his hands and feet. The Jewish leaders? They brought Jesus to Pilate and demanded he be killed. When Pilate wanted to release Jesus, the Jewish leaders incited the crowds to chant, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). They were willing to accept responsibility for his death. “His blood be on us and on our children!” they said in Matthew 27:25. Us? It wasn’t just the sin of the Romans and the Jews that caused him to die. It was your sin and my sin. As the prophet Isaiah said, “We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished [Jesus] for the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6). We’re not off the hook. Jesus died because of our sin.
All of these answers are correct in part. However, as John writes his account of the cross, he doesn’t focus on human liability. He shows every step on the way to the cross is planned and controlled by Jesus. Jesus said, “I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own” (10:17-18). From a human perspective, it seems Jesus is swept to the cross by forces outside his control. Actually, Jesus orchestrates every encounter, and every event reveals his sovereign control. John MacArthur reminds us,
As God incarnate, Jesus was always in absolute control of all the events of His life. That control extended even to the circumstances surrounding His death. Far from being an accident, Jesus’ sacrificial death was the primary reason He took on human life in the first place; it is the pinnacle of redemptive history. (John 12–21, 304)
Jesus Was Not a Helpless Victim or a Courageous Martyr but a Sovereign Savior
Jesus doesn’t select this garden as a place to hide but as a place to be found (18:2). He chooses a spot well known to Judas, his betrayer, because the time has come for him to lay down his life. Jesus may look like he’s being hunted, but he’s the one laying an ambush. In chapter 13, when Judas left the upper room to plan his treachery, John ended the account with the sad conclusion, “And it was night” (13:30). Judas left the light of the world to wander in the darkness. Now he returns to Jesus, carrying torches and lanterns (18:3). How tragic to trade the eternal light for a handmade torch.
Jesus takes the initiative (v. 4). He leaves the enclosure of the garden to confront this group that’s come to arrest him. He knew they were coming, and he knows what will happen now that they’ve arrived (13:21-26). Nothing is a surprise. Nothing catches him off guard. After walking out of the garden to confront the soldiers, Jesus asks them a question, not to gather information but to reveal who’s really in charge (vv. 5-6). No other Gospel writer records this exchange. John includes it to show us Jesus is not an actor on stage waiting for direction; he’s the one directing every movement. We don’t know what exactly makes the soldiers fall to the ground. The point isn’t how it happens, but why it happens. Their collapse reveals Jesus is not arrested in weakness. This brief encounter affirms his control over the events.
Again Jesus issues commands to the soldiers (vv. 7-8). These men who were trained to take orders from their superiors obey the instructions of their captive. They can only do what Jesus allows them to do. Chapter 17 records Jesus’s prayer prior to coming to this garden when he prays specifically for the disciples who remain on earth after his departure (17:1-2). Even here, as he’s being arrested, Jesus cares for his disciples (18:9). He makes certain the soldiers don’t touch them because he’s promised to protect and preserve them.
This raises an interesting issue. In 6:37-39; 10:28; and the prayer of Chapter 17, Jesus is focused on the disciples’ eternal destiny. He will preserve them until the final day when they will join him in heaven. Here in chapter 18 he’s simply protecting them from arrest and possible persecution. How does this fulfill the earlier promises of eternal security? Their physical safety illustrates their eternal security. Just as Jesus is in control of every aspect of the physical world—his arrest, betrayal, and crucifixion, including protecting his disciples from persecution—he’s also in control of everything in the spiritual realm, including preserving his disciples until that final day. What a wonderful picture of his love and power! What reassurance to his disciples in the coming difficult days. What hope for us. Just as Jesus protects the disciples on that dark day, he will protect and preserve all who follow him.
Peter doesn’t understand that Jesus has been headed to this event from the first moment (vv. 10-11). The “cup” is the cup prepared for him by the Father. The cup is full of divine judgment, and Jesus takes it to his lips and drains every last drop on the cross. To Peter the evening’s events are spiraling out of control. He thinks Jesus needs protection. He thinks someone needs to stop this arrest from taking place. He thinks someone needs to take charge. Little does he realize Jesus has choreographed every action, and nothing is out of step with his will. Peter’s actions to protect Jesus, though understandable, were useless. Indeed, they were a denial of why Jesus came. Jesus was born to die. He was not surprised by the turn of events; he was sovereign over them.
In verse 14 John points us back to Caiaphas’s unwitting prophecy about Jesus’s death in chapter 11:
He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to unite the scattered children of God. (11:51-52)
God directed the words of the high priest, so he spoke more than he understood. By John’s reminding us of his words, we’re assured the injustice Jesus suffers is part of God’s plan to rescue humanity from the bondage of sin. John Calvin wrote, “Let us remember that the body of the Son of God was bound in order that our souls might be set free from the bonds of sin” (Calvin, John, 410). Jesus is taking deliberate, controlled steps to the cross so we might be set free from sin.
Earlier that evening Peter pledged his devotion to Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly I tell you, a rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times” (v. 38). Peter’s actions (18:15-18) begin to fulfill the earlier words of Jesus, providing one more evidence Jesus is aware and in control of every event.
Once again Jesus is the one asking the questions (vv. 19-24). In the first of numerous interrogations, Jesus turns the table on his interrogator:
“Why do you question me? Question those who heard what I told them. . . . If I have spoken wrongly, give evidence about the wrong; but if rightly, why do you hit me?” (vv. 21, 23)
Jesus is innocent, but he’s not a victim: a victim has no control over his circumstances. He reminds the high priest he taught openly in the synagogue and temple. What did Jesus teach? In the synagogue at Capernaum, he said, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again” (6:35). In the temple he said,
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (10:27-28)
His message was the gospel. He came to die, and through his death he brings salvation to sinners who are cut off from God.
Peter denies Jesus and the rooster crows (18:25-27). Now we have the complete fulfillment of Jesus’s words to Peter in chapter 13. Everything Jesus said would happen has come to pass, and everything that’s come to pass gives us confidence in the sovereign control of Jesus.
John has been meticulously building the case that Jesus is sovereign over his own betrayal, trial, and death. The final piece of the puzzle is Jesus’s death—a topic Jesus addressed many times. Back in chapter 3, at the conclusion of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus prophesied his death: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15). Jesus makes reference to an account in Israel’s history when God sent poisonous serpents to punish the people. God then instructed Moses to craft a bronze serpent, place the serpent on a pole, and lift it up off the ground. Everyone who looked to the bronze serpent would be saved from death. Jesus uses this event as an illustration of his death. There are numerous similarities: people are dying, God intervenes, faith is required. But Jesus highlights another similarity: both means of rescue are “lifted up.” Jesus uses the same language in chapter 8. Describing his death, Jesus says, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he” (8:28). He says it even more explicitly in chapter 12: “‘As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die” (12:32-33). Why are the Romans involved in Jesus’s death? Why is Jesus brought before Pilate? Because Jesus chose to die by crucifixion. He prophesied beforehand he would be lifted up in death, and this night he stood before Pilate so that his prophecy would be fulfilled (18:28-32). Every decision had been orchestrated by Jesus, including the choice of a cross. He wrote every note of that evening’s symphony and conducted every measure in perfect harmony with his sovereign will.
In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published a book called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. In it he wrote,
There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on the last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes him. . . . The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual rule of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. (Quoted in Hughes, John, 413–14)
Schweitzer viewed Jesus as a victim. Caught up in the swirling political climate, Jesus attempted to make himself great and tragically fell to his death. But on the contrary, in spite of the treachery of Judas, the blasphemy of the Jews, and the brutality of the Romans, Jesus will not allow us to see him as a helpless victim.
There’s also been a movement to view Jesus not as a helpless victim but as a courageous martyr. His death serves as a model of selfless love for all mankind and an example we should follow. Yes, Jesus was heroic. Yes, he suffered persecution and death. Yes, his death is an example. But we can’t look at him and see a courageous martyr. There’s only one proper way to view Jesus. Jesus is the sovereign Savior. His life is not taken from him. He lays it down willingly. We didn’t need a victim to die in our place. We didn’t need an example to show us how to die. We needed a rescuer who could save us from death. Rulers and authorities didn’t overcome Jesus. He voluntarily sacrificed himself to fulfill the eternal plan of God. The power and authority he demonstrated in calming the sea and raising the dead are also revealed in his arrest, trial, and death. At no point did Jesus lose control. Not a breath was taken or a word uttered that did not meet his sovereign approval.
Our Response Should Not Be Pity or Bravery but Faith
When people are abused, we wrap our arms around them and cry. We empathize with their suffering and long for justice. When we think about their pain, our hearts hurt with them. We feel sorry for victims, but we don’t put our faith in them for salvation. Had Jesus simply been a victim of senseless violence, then the appropriate response to his story would be compassion, but when we consider the cross of Jesus, compassion isn’t enough.
When we hear accounts of great courage, we’re inspired to live courageously. The bold faith of martyrs stirs within me a desire to live with greater boldness for the sake of the gospel, but the death of Jesus on the cross should produce more than bravery.
Looking at the cross and seeing in it a call for pity or bravery fails to understand the depth of our problem. If the root of our problem was injustice, then Jesus’s dying as a victim could arouse our compassion and motivate us to fight for justice. If the root of our problem was fear, then Jesus’s dying as a martyr could inspire us to bravery in sharing the gospel. But the root of our problem is more serious and deadlier: sin has cut us off from God. We’ve rebelled against our Creator and received a sentence of death. Nothing we do can change our position. No amount of effort can repair our relationship with God. Something radical had to be done for us.
Jesus did just that on the cross. The perfect Son of God was born as a human baby, lived a sinless life, and then took upon himself our punishment. Because of his sacrifice, God has extended terms of peace. If we look at Jesus’s sacrifice and pity him or even resolve to die like him, then we call his sacrifice worthless and remain estranged from God. We must respond to his sacrifice by casting ourselves completely on him by taking refuge in him, not our own efforts. The call of the cross is not a call for empathy or bravery but for complete dependence on Jesus Christ.
Reflect and Discuss
- What does this passage reveal about Jesus that we need to believe?
- Why is the cross the iconic image of Christianity?
- Who was ultimately responsible for Jesus going to the cross?
- What do Jesus’s commands to the soldiers reveal about his sovereignty?
- Read Numbers 21:4-9. When Jesus references this text as a picture of how he will be lifted up, how is he describing the way in which sin is forgiven?
- Describe the ways this passage shows Jesus is neither victim nor martyr.
- Why would Jesus go to the cross of his own accord?
- How is the cross a picture of the seriousness and magnitude of sin in your life?
- What message about the cross is conveyed when Christians downplay or ignore sin in our own lives?
- What should be our response to the cross?