And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
The cup of suffering Christ did not avoid. He drank it to the dregs. The prayer He prayed to the Father asked, “If it be possible,” and the Father’s response was that it was not possible for the cross not to happen. Two realities demanded it: the holiness of God and the love of God. In His holiness God could not let sin go unpunished, but in His love He took the punishment on Himself. This is the great doctrine of the atonement. It was not easy for Christ to do this, in fact, it was the most agonizing and difficult struggle imaginable, for it was not merely the struggle of the physical pain and public shame of the cross, but something infinitely more profound was taking place behind the scenes. He who knew no sin was about to become sin – the very thing that He repudiated, the thing that was the opposite of His nature and character.
We cannot get very far into the doctrine of atonement with placing it alongside of the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, if we attempt to consider the cross without taking into consideration the Trinity, the entire matter of atonement falls apart. Yet there is no doctrine we struggle with more, and struggle more profoundly, than the Trinity. The question of the ages is simply this: How can God die? Another question, however, equally profound is: How can God accept us into His presence? We think too highly of ourselves today, as though God is fortunate to have us around to sing His praises. But God cares little for the praises of the unredeemed; only when praises are offered with some modicum of understanding and genuine love are they meaningful. The minimal understanding of the Trinity means that God has the capacity within Himself to redeem us from sin and reconcile us to Himself.
The entire matter is given perspective by two thoughts. First is the fact that we should expect God’s greatness to be beyond our capacity to understand. Any “god” that we can fully explain cannot be the God that created the universe that is beyond our understanding. For every scientific fact we uncover, there are hundreds more unanswered questions revealed. And the closer we get to God – that is, the more He reveals Himself to us – the more questions come to mind.
There have been many ways people have mistakenly tried to explain the Trinity. One suggests that God has changed Himself through the millennia. He was once Father, then at Bethlehem He became Son, then at the ascension He became Spirit. This, of course, is filled with self contradictions, and especially rebuttals from Scripture. The Son prayed to the Father while on earth in the verse above, for example, requiring mutual simultaneous existence. Another mistaken notion, though similar to this one, is that the Son and the Spirit were creations of God solely for the sake of our redemption. To this the Bible explains that from everlasting to everlasting the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have existed. The church fathers were careful to state that the Son was “begotten not made” and “very God from very God.” The Bible insists “all things were made through him [the Son] and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). The Spirit of God is also mentioned in connection with the creation, even in the Genesis account, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
Outside the boundaries of time the three Persons of the Godhead stand and they will remain still whenever time as we know it ceases to exist. “From vanishing point to vanishing point” is the way some have expressed it. We can grasp the multiple personality of God to some degree. Have you ever had a conversation with yourself? Of course you have. This is part of the human experience. We reflect and consider ourselves a combination of different personalities. This can reach unhealthy dimensions, where people split into different characters without the unity of the soul pulling them inseparably together. But this capacity exists in a healthy sense in all of us.
The question then rises, but is God only three-in-one, and not five-in-one or a thousand-in-one? Such ideas are the platform from which religions such as Hinduism take their lead, that “God” is in all things, and there are many “gods.” The Bible clearly limits the Persons in the Godhead to three. This does not mean three gods, but One God, who is discovered in three different Persons.
And this leads us to the second matter: The love between the Father and the Son. Jesus prayed on the night of His betrayal, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). That glory is only properly understood in terms of eternal love, as the Son prayed, “You have loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). A characteristic of God is love, and this is more than a trait on the peripheral of His personality. This is a central factor that is within the very definition of God and that emanates from His heart.
Consider for just a minute the aloneness that would be God without the Trinity. From before the beginning point of time, with eternity stretched in a direction unknown by us, just one eternal being, one personality, one person. How could love dwell within, grow within, and emanate from such a heart? Love must be shared but how could love be shared by such a solitary being? But the Bible provides us a record of the eternal love shared between the Father and the Son, love that is bound together by the Spirit. The Trinity means that God has the capacity within Himself to love and to love for all eternity.
I am writing these words from the southwest coast of Portugal, where the golden, rugged land meets blue and endless ocean, at least seemingly endless ocean. How many men stood on these shores through the centuries and wondered at the deep blue depths of the sea. They knew the land they could explore and cultivate and develop, but the ocean was as different from land as ice is to steam. The ocean held mysteries that they could only imagine, depths that they could not fathom, and dimensions they could not measure. What would come from there would be determined by forces outside their existence and beyond their control. And so it is even more so with God, that beyond the boundaries of what we can imagine and measure, even beyond the existence of angels, is the true eternity of God. There was never a time that God was not, nor will there ever be. And what comes from God is determined by God, not by our experience. The Scripture says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It is the bounty of God’s love that we cannot know the depth of, nor fully grasp the expanse of, and we only begin to know anything about such love as He reveals it to us.
What is it like for God to be? He said to Moses, “I am that I am,” and God is the great “I AM” who exists in the truest sense of the word. We cannot grasp what eternity means, to be alone outside the boundaries of time. God’s self-sufficiency means that He needs no creation to comfort Him, indeed none can. What comes into our world comes solely through the creative act of God: all that we know of this life and this world come from the Creator whose most profound attributes are limitless unconditional love and complete untarnished holiness. We are created in His image and have the capacity, limited thought it be, to perceive such things, yet we have twisted and marred them in our rebellion. So we perceive imperfectly, blame unjustly, and excuse ourselves unwarrantedly. Yet we are precisely the people for whom Christ agonized.
The soul of Christ was troubled at the cross, not merely because of the physical suffering, though that would give any person cause to be concerned. He was not merely troubled because the world that He had created, the city of the temple, even the religious leaders of the Faith of the Old Testament would reject Him and call for Him to be crucified. The Scripture says that He came to His own and His own received Him not, and this must have been a point of emotional pain for Him. But the real sorrow of His soul would be that on the cross a transaction would take place between the Godhead that we can hardly understand, that God the Father would pour His own wrath out on God the Son: He who knew no sin would become sin for us. There would come a moment toward the end of His sufferings when the Father would turn away and the eternal Son would bear the sin of the world. Christ cried, “My God! My God! Why has Thou forsaken me?” quoting from the Old Testament Psalm 22.
All of this was in the heart of Christ as He moved toward Jerusalem in the days leading to the last week. With such torment ahead of Him, even the tearing asunder of the Godhead, for our redemption, we should pause to contemplate how great His love for us is and to worship Him.
Lord, thank You for Your limitless love directed toward us. We can scarcely understand what we are, and are completely out of our depth to grasp who You are and how great Your love is for us. We can simply bow before You in praise and adoration for the amazing compassion You have directed toward us. Amen.