Like the best of portraits, the gospel accounts give us a view of Christ and his cross which is multi-faceted, narratively rich, and emotionally engaging. As one Easter follows another year on year, Christians find themselves reading the same texts, teaching the same truths, and yet their message and meaning come with disarming beauty and pathos. One angle which has arrested my attention and affections this year is the courage of Christ Jesus as he contemplated and endured his work on the cross. This post seeks to trace this perspective, and give some grounds for worshipping the Saviour, and walking in his steps.
Courage that sees the danger
Unless we work in acute or emergency services, most of the dangers we face in life stand in stark contrast to our day to day existence, and often arrive unawares. Courage seldom arises from contemplation, often from crisis. One of the great graces of God is his limitation of our knowledge and foresight, sparing us from the anxiety we might feel should we know that life changing events are around the corner. For the Saviour, however, there was a detailed and clear-eyed knowledge of what lay ahead of him at Calvary, and what it would require of him. We might think of many instances of this in the Gospel accounts, but John displays a particular concern to make it plain. Think, for instance, of this statement,
Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward.John 18:4
It is impossible for us to unpack the courage which lies behind this statement. These may be but a few steps for Jesus to take, but in them he straddles all of redemptive history, walks fully into every biblical prophecy, and embraces, with clear eyes, his Messianic destiny. Jesus steps forward in the Garden of Gethsemane, into the midst of a mob set upon his destruction, his cheek moist with the kiss of his treacherous kinsman, and in so doing enters the rapids of a river which will dash him against the rocks of his Father’s wrath. Knowing this, he comes forward. Knowing the gut wrenching injustice of the trial that awaits him, he steps forward. Knowing the ferocity of the scourge which will plough his back, he steps forward. Knowing the mockery and the naked shame in front of a whole battalion of soldiers, he steps forward. Knowing the searing isolation of the road to Calvary, the denial of his friends, the unrelenting torture of physical pain and psychological abuse, he steps forward. Knowing the ear splitting silence of the heavens, the soul crushing weight of atonement, he steps forward.
Our great temptation here might be to seek to emulate this courage, but our real calling is to bow before it. Here is Christ the courageous, the Saviour with his face set like a flint, with bravery rising in his breast, stepping into unnameable horror in obedience to his Father’s will, in harmony with the covenant of redemption, in compassion on those whom he would purchase through his death. Behold him there, coming forward, willingly, freely, lovingly, matchlessly, and worship him.
Courage that trembles
2020 and 2021 have given much room for Christians to think and speak about fear and faith. Perhaps because of their ready alliteration, there has been much ink spilled and many hours preached, delineating why faith and not fear is the true response called for among believers. As with most binaries, it is betrayed by its seductive simplicity. The Scriptures do, at times, contrast fear and faith (think of Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples over and over again) but often they are held in paradoxical tension. Faith often finds its feet in the midst of deeply held fear. A denial of this is not only psychologically unhelpful, but biblically unfaithful.
The courage of Christ is not the bravery of swagger and posturing. The courage of Christ is not immune to legitimate fear, or divorced from natural feelings of infirmity and grief at what must be undergone. The events leading up the cross model this powerfully. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus does not leap into contemplating the cross with the spirited fervour of one cut off from his emotions. Jesus wrestles in the garden, he trembles in deep and seemingly insoluble trouble before the ordeal he must undergo, he sweats and prays, and laments and mourns, and expresses submissive resistance to what he must face under the Father’s will. This is true courage. Not a courage which belittles fear, or berates the fearful, but which tremblingly steps forward, feeling the weight, bearing the worry, but advancing in faith. The humanity of Jesus is not obscured by the cross, but exposed – its holy, perfect, spirit-filled, marvellous reality shines right through every pace of the path to the cross. Christ’s courage is that of tear-stung eyes, grief-groaning muscles, and a broken heart. Feeling all of this, knowing the trembling of his soul, he trusts, he goes, he dies. This is courage.
While the primary drive of these portraits is to move us to worship the One who is fully God and fully man, we also see here his pity for us, and the path he would have us walk. The book of Hebrews takes this trembling courage and amplifies it for believers who are thinking of quitting. Hebrews 5:7 itemises the prayers and supplications, loud cries and tears of Christ, showing his obedience and his unique fitness to be our High Priest. This high priesthood of Christ is a key component of our pastoral comfort as Christians. He sympathises with us in our weakness, precisely because he has sinlessly felt it, and can pray for us when, trembling, we follow him in courage (Hebrews 4:14-16). Hebrews 12 also takes this trembling courage of Christ (enduring the cross, despising its shame) and transposes it into our daily walk of discipleship, encouraging us not give up but to go on.
The gospels do not give us an Übermensch, bereft of the emotions which seem to weigh us down, but the true Man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His courage trembled, but trusted, fear and faith co-mingled, and this is the one we follow.
There is much more that could be said about the courage of Christ, and the way in which it led him right to those iconic words, ‘It is finished’. To simply see him walk with God, however, in his knowledge of danger and in his trembling before it, should give us great grounds to worship him, and great grace to follow him in our own path, laced as it might be with dangers, toils, and snares. What a Saviour, and what an incentive to carry on!