The Suffering Servant: A Primer on the Passive Obedience of Christ (Part One)

On the night wherein he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus, knowing that he would soon be arrested and crucified, went to the Garden of Gethsemane, fell on his face in great agony, with sweat coming down his head like great drops of blood, and he prayed,

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done. (Luke 22:42)

Shortly thereafter he suffered great torment in body and soul as he was sentenced to death, mocked, beaten, spit on, stripped, scourged, had a crown of thorns placed on his head, and was made to carry his cross to Golgotha, where he was nailed to a tree, suffered, and drank the cup of God’s just wrath for sinners, and he cried out,

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani? which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Previously, we considered the active obedience of Christ as an essential aspect of the gospel. These next two articles reflect on his passive obedience. What is the passive obedience of Christ and why should we care? The passive obedience of Christ refers to the suffering and humiliation of Christ on behalf of sinners for their redemption. The term “passive” refers to his suffering (Latin, passio; Greek, pascho) according to the will of God.

Just as the active obedience of Christ (his perfect law-keeping) is essential, so too is his passive obedience. The purpose of these articles is to help us better understand the depths of what Christ suffered on our behalf in order to redeem us from our fallen estate. We will do this by first considering the biblical data, then we will look at the supporting evidence from the Reformed confessions and catechisms in part two. With Passion Week in full swing, there is no better time to understand the importance of the passive obedience of our Lord Jesus for sinners like ourselves.

The Holy Scriptures

To begin, we must first understand why the passive obedience of Christ is necessary. The reason for his suffering on behalf of sinners, like with the necessity of his perfect law-keeping, originates in the Garden of Eden. When God covenanted with Adam in Eden, he declared the terms of the covenant of works as follows, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16b–17).

Since Adam was our federal representative, we know that his sin and death became our sin and death. As the apostle Paul writes, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Thus, we have been made liable to the same punishment as Adam, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23a). Therefore, we not only need a righteousness that comes from outside of us, but we also owe God the penalty for our sin: our lives. As was covered in our previous post, the righteousness comes from Christ and his active obedience; so too does the payment for our sin—the shedding of blood.

This payment was foreshadowed and typified all throughout the Old Testament in the shedding of blood exhibited in the sacrifices of Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; as well as in the circumcision, paschal lamb, and the ceremonial laws of Israel. Indeed, the Old Testament is rich with typical sacrifices, promises, and prophecies concerning the shedding of blood which direct us to the suffering of Christ to come.

This suffering was not arbitrary but was according to the will of God. And thus, the one who came to suffer would not be suffering at random, but on behalf of his people and according to the will of the Father. We can see this clearly in the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 52–53:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
As many were astonished at you –
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind –
so shall he sprinkle many nations. (Isa 52:13–14)

The beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy mentions “my servant,” spoken from the perspective of God. Who is this wise and exalted servant? Isaiah tells us that his appearance will be marred and that he would be unrecognizable as a man. And in his disfigured condition, he shall “sprinkle many nations.” To whom could this be referring? This is a reference to Jesus’ being beaten, scourged, and lifted up on the cross from where his blood sprinkles people from all nations, tongues, and tribes.

Isaiah continues his prophecy on God’s suffering servant:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:3–6)

As we can see, Jesus’ suffering was not accidental, but it was in order to redeem sinners, according to the will of the Father. In other words, not only was Christ obedient to the Father’s will, but his obedient suffering had always been part of the plan to redeem God’s elect (pactum salutis). Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the passive obedience of Christ continues:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away…
he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people…
They made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief…
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 53:7–10, 12)

In this final portion of the prophecy, we see that the suffering of Jesus was, indeed, according to the will of the Father for the salvation of sinners. According to Isaiah, Jesus’ passive obedience—namely, his gruesome suffering—was not merely for shock value. It was according to the will of the Father, unto which, Jesus was perfectly obedient. This is good news for sinners like ourselves who are redeemed by his suffering.

This makes sense of the New Testament data as well. As we hear the Lord Jesus say several times on the way to the cross, he taught his disciples that he would have to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed.” (Luke 9:22) When Peter rebuked Jesus for this passion prophecy, our Lord “rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:31, 33) Why was Jesus’ death a thing of God? Because it was according to the will of the Father that the Son would suffer on behalf of sinners.

The passive obedience of Christ also helps illumine his words of suffering and humiliation on the cross as he cited the words of the psalmist in Psalm 22 through his agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). He was forsaken according to the will of his Father, in order that his people would not be forsaken, but be purchased by his blood shed in his passion. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) Eventually, Peter would come to understand that Jesus’ suffering was according to the will of God, as he preached in his Pentecost sermon:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22–23)

And later, Peter adds,

You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers…with the precious blood of Christ, like that a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God. (1 Pet 1:18–21)

Peter’s use of the term foreknowledge supports the fact that Jesus’ suffering and humiliation were not a surprise to either him or the Father, but were according to the plan and purpose of God from before time to redeem fallen sinners in Christ and through his blood. (Eph 1:4–7; 2 Tim 1:8–10) Indeed, as Paul writes, Christ did not cling only to his divinity, but instead suffered obediently on behalf of sinners from his incarnation to his cross, “By taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7–8)

Having surveyed some of the biblical data in support of the necessity of Christ’s passive obedience for our redemption, we can say that this important aspect of the gospel is certainly biblical. In tomorrow’s article, we will turn to the Reformed confessions and catechisms to consider this doctrine.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


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