When we look through the eyes of the Gospel writers to catch a glimpse of the crucifixion story, we ought to take note of Jesus Christ’s attitude toward the matter. Did Jesus Christ come to Earth and die for man’s sin willingly? Or did the Father put a gun to His head (figuratively, of course) and force Him to the cross?
Recently I have heard more than one person raise the question of whether or not Jesus died willingly. Those raising this question tend to hold the view that Jesus is wonderful and loving, dying on the cross for man’s sin; but God the Father, they maintain, must be cruel and hateful to force His Son to endure the cross. But is this an accurate view? Let’s look at the Bible.
Sent by God
The Bible does teach that the Father sent Jesus here to die on the cross to pay the penalty for man’s sin. Speaking of His impending death on the cross, Jesus says, “This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:18, NKJV). In addition, speaking directly to the Father, Jesus refers to His crucifixion as the Father’s “will” (Matthew 26:39, NKJV).
From these passages, we can conclude that it was clearly the Father’s will that Jesus die on the cross. But from that we need not conclude that God the Father was somehow cruel or abusive in sending Jesus Christ to die. Far from it, we see in Scripture that Jesus, throughout His ministry, was both a knowing and willing participant in His sacrifice.
Willing to Die
Look for example at the rest of that passage from John:
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18, NKJV, emphasis added).
Jesus clearly states that He would soon go to die of His own free will! Yes, the Father commanded it, but Jesus agreed that it needed to be done–remember that Jesus is as much God as the Father is (John 1:1,14; 10:30), and they are not divided, but are in total agreement (Matthew 12:25). Jesus tells us that the Father said what needed to be done, and the Son went willingly to do it. In His own words, His life was not taken from Him, He gave it.
Echoing what John records, Luke tells us that Jesus knew the suffering that awaited Him in Jerusalem, but that He was determined to go there and die.
“Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem […]” (Luke 9:51, NKJV).
Notice that it was time “for Him to be received up;” in other words it was time for Him to be sacrificed. He knew what was coming–we know this because He kept trying to tell His disciples what was about to happen (Mark 8:31; John 2:18-21). Yet even with this knowledge He was undeterred. He was willing to go.
A Mission in Mind
From our human perspective it is hard to fathom that He was willing to die. It is even more incredible when we realize that He not only knew He would die, but that He realized how awful His suffering would be. (About 800 years earlier, Isaiah 53 had predicted the intense suffering of the Messiah.) The only way we can begin to apprehend this willingness is by realizing what He came to accomplish.
He came to seek out mankind and save them from their sins.
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost'” (Luke 19:9-10, NKJV).
He came so that this message of God’s salvation would be available to all mankind.
“Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem'” (Luke 24:46-47, NKJV).
He came to purchase wicked sinners from out of their depravity and make them righteous through Him.
“[Jesus] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, NKJV).
Jesus purpose–not just for dying, but for even coming to Earth–was the redemption of mankind. Seeing that man’s sin separated him from God, and that man had no means of overcoming this separation, Jesus came to redeem man from this sin and reconcile him to God. He accomplished this by shedding His blood and dying on the cross.
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NKJV, emphasis added).
Praying in the Garden
While researching this question, I will admit that one passage troubled me at first. Shortly before Jesus’ arrest, He went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew tells us:
“He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will'” (Matthew 26:39, NKJV).
On first glance this passage seems to indicate that Jesus is unwilling to go to the cross. After all, we see Him here asking the Father to spare Him from the suffering to come. He knew that he would be tortured (Isaiah 53); He knew that He would be separated from the Father for the first time ever (Matthew 27:46); and He knew that He, though sinless, would bear and be crushed under the full weight of man’s sin (II Corinthians 5:21; I Peter 2:22; see also Isaiah 53:5).
Keep in mind, though, that the Gospels teach us that Jesus is God come to earth in human form (John 1:14; see also Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38). It is perfectly understandable that Jesus, as a man, would not like the idea of these sufferings; it is equally understandable that He would express this to God. He is, in essence, asking God: If there is any other way to accomplish what I’ve come here to do, if there is ANY other way, please don’t let me do it THIS way.
Can we conclude from this earnest prayer that He is unwilling to go? No! He prays here as a man, but He is no less God and no less willing to do what the Father wants. He goes on to say, “[N]evertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39, NKJV). Even though He did not wish to suffer if there was another way, He indicates that He is more than willing to suffer if it was the only way.
It was the only way to accomplish His mission of redeeming mankind, so He went willingly to the cross. How do we know? Later in that same chapter Jesus is arrested in the same garden where He has just been praying. Peter draws his sword to fight off the arresting authorities and Jesus says:
“Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?‘” (Matthew 26:52-54, NKJV, emphasis added).
Even as the events were in motion, Jesus makes it clear that He could have still walked away if He so chose. Had He decided that redeeming sinners was not worth this suffering, at any time He could have called on God to send the armies of heaven to overtake His accusers and deliver Him from His impending suffering.
If Jesus was in on the decision, and came to Earth anyway; if Jesus knew throughout His ministry the suffering that awaited Him, and continued about His mission; if Jesus had an out at the very last moment, and did not take it: how then can any man conclude that He was anything less than a willing sacrifice, Who came in love to pay the penalty for mankind’s sin?
We ought to give Him the glory He deserves each day: not only because He died for us, but also because He did so willingly!