There is a rising population comprised primarily of millennials who would say that Jesus is a great example to follow, but not a god worth following. They have no problem using some of Jesus’ teachings and actions as an example for how they should live their lives, but they simply do not believe he was who he said he was. Now, while the burden of proof is on them to explain the person of Jesus and explosion of the Church in the first century, it is worth considering whether evangelicals are beginning to see Jesus as simply a great example to follow.
The WWJD mindset leads many pastors and Christians to horribly misinterpret the gospels. If “Jesus is our example” is the guiding hermeneutic principle, then we will fail to discern the person and work of Jesus. Take Jesus’ parables for instance. Many pastors teach the parables as Jesus’ way of contextualizing his message to his hearers. So, we should follow his example and teach the gospel in ways our hearers will understand. The problem is that this is a correct conclusion drawn from an erroneous principle. We indeed should teach the gospel in such a way that our hearers can best understand us. This truth has great cultural significance. But is that really why Jesus taught in parables? So more people could understand him?
Jesus made bizarre and outrageous claims in his life. He claimed to have authority over everyone on earth. He claimed to be God himself. He claimed to be a ransom paid to save sinners who owe God a debt of death. These claims take Jesus far beyond the classroom and into the realm of insanity, or else falsehood, or else glory. In his classic work, Mere Christianity, the great C.S. Lewis put it like this:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
If Jesus is nothing more than an example for us, then his example is in vain. Think about it. If Jesus wasn’t really who he said he was and if he didn’t do what he said he came to do, then he can be written off as a madman. When you are wiling to submit to Jesus as your example, but not as your God, then you are coming to him on your terms. You are not willing for him to change your life. And if you only have Jesus as your example, then you don’t really have Jesus. Plus, Jesus is only admirable and majestic if he is more than an example. The only way we can marvel at and learn from Jesus is if he does more than set an example for us. Jesus is not just our example. Jesus is our representative.
Adam Disobeyed in a Garden of Paradise
A representative is someone who stands in the place of another. This is why elections are always so important, because the votes of our senators and representatives represent us. The Bible talks of two primary representatives for mankind. Both represented us in a garden. Many, many years before Jesus entered Gethsemane, Adam was placed in Eden. He was created without sin. He had a perfect heart, a perfect relationship with God, and he lived in a perfect environment. Yet, Adam failed to keep covenant with God. He was faced with a choice to submit to God’s will, and he bowed to his own. When Adam sinned against God in Eden, he was cursed, banished, and defiled because of his sin. Paradise was lost and the entrance to Eden was guarded by a flaming sword. From that point forward, Adam and all of his offspring would be under the righteous wrath of God.
Friends, outside of faith in Jesus, this is where we all stand—under the righteous wrath of God. God’s wrath can be defined as God’s righteous response to sin. Wayne Grudem calls it his “intense hatred of sin.” Because God is holy, he is wrathful against all that is unholy. In John 3:36, Jesus says that the wrath of God remains on all who do not believe in him. The author of Hebrews understood the wrath of God when he wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
But I especially love the way Lewis communicates God’s wrath in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
“Mr. Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver…”Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Here is the toughest reality that is naturally offensive to the human mind and heart: We deserve God’s wrath because of our sin. We deserve to face what caused Jesus to sweat blood and be so close to death that an angel had to come to his aid. We deserve the horrible, terrible, and terrifying wrath of God not because our sins are particularly egregious, but because God is infinitely holy. It is the greatness of God, not the degree of our sin that puts us under the wrath of God. This means that no matter how small or big you think your sins are, you stand under the flaming sword of God’s wrath.
Jesus Obeyed in a Garden of Agony
But there is good news today for you and me. There is news in this passage that gives purpose, hope, and joy in the midst of all suffering. While Adam disobeyed in a garden of paradise, the Last and True Adam obeyed in a garden of agony. It is no coincidence that Jesus agonized over his impending death and submitted to God’s will in a garden. It was in a garden that we began, in a garden where we fell, and it will be in a garden where we begin to find restoration and redemption. Charles Spurgeon observed this. In one of his great sermons, he said,
May we not conceive that as in a garden Adam’s self-indulgence ruined us, so in another garden the agonies of the second Adam should restore us? Gethsemane supplies the medicine for the ills, which followed upon the forbidden fruit of Eden. No flowers which bloomed upon the banks of the four-fold river were ever so precious to our race as the bitter herbs which grew hard by the black and sullen stream of Kidron.
As our perfect representative, Jesus is prepared to take on the full wrath of God that we deserve. We do not have to sweat blood in agonizing torment before the wrath of God, because Jesus faced his Father’s wrath for us.
We see this in Jesus’ request for the cup to be removed from him. The word “cup” is a metaphor that specifically refers to God’s wrath. Psalm 75:8 says, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
What Jesus communicates in this agonizing moment in the Garden of Gethsemane is that his journey has reached its climax. Jesus takes the cup of God’s wrath out of your hands and drinks it down to the dregs. Not because he is wicked and deserving. But because he is willing and able to bear your guilt, your wickedness, your failures, your unbelief, your hypocrisy. Jesus takes the cup reserved for you so that you never have to drink from God’s wrath. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, so that you may drink the cup of God’s salvation. In the words of theologian Michael Horton, “The same cup that was filled with judgment for the Messiah is now drunk by those who, united to his death and resurrection, receive from it only forgiveness and life.”
But I think Keller says it best:
In the garden of Gethsemane, [Jesus] turns to the Father and all he can see before him is wrath, the abyss, the chasm, the nothingness of the cup. God is the source of all love, all life, all light, all coherence. Therefore exclusion from God is exclusion from the source of all light, all love, all coherence. Jesus began to experience the spiritual, cosmic, infinite disintegration that would happen when he became separated from his Father on the cross. Jesus began to experience merely a foretaste of that, and he staggered.
In the garden of Eden, Adam cried, “Not your will, but mine be done.” But in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried, “Not my will, but yours be done.” With this cry from the second Adam, Jesus paves the way for us to return to Eden. Jesus entered a garden of agony and suffering, so that we might re-enter a garden of pure bliss, harmony, joy, and eternal paradise. As our perfect representative, Jesus becomes the ultimate example worth following. But his example is one of humility, self-denial, and it is paved on a road to Golgotha. So, if you want Jesus as your example, be sure you know where he is leading before you decide to follow. But when you choose to trust in Christ as your representative, Christ as your example will satisfy your soul more than anything else you could follow.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.