“Not as I Will, but as Thou Wilt” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18

Son of Man, Huh? What Does That Even Mean?
The four chapters in this lesson correlate, to a remarkable degree, the events leading up to Christ’s arrest by Jewish authorities on the Thursday night of Holy week. These events include the Last Supper, the prayer in Gethsemane, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, and Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of his Master. I will use the text in Matthew as the basis for the lesson, adding in insights from the other Gospels as appropriate.

But first, I want to address the meaning of the expression “Son of Man” (ho huios tou anthropou), which Christ applies to himself 81 times in the New Testament–ten of them in the chapters included in this week’s lesson, beginning with Matthew 26:2: “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.”

“Son of Man” was, by a wide margin, Christ’s preferred form of self-address in the Gospels. But despite its prominence, there is nothing even close to a scholarly consensus on what he meant by it. Among the possibilities:

  • In the Book of Moses, God’s name is given as “Man of Holiness” in the original tongue of Adan, and Christ’s name is given as “Son of Man.” Presumably, “Son of Man” could be short for “Son of Man of Holiness.”
  • The Greek term ho huios tou anthropou–which appears nowhere else in any other Greek text–appears to be (but may not be) a translation of the Hebrew בן–אדם (ben-‘adam), which is used throughout the Old Testament to mean simply “human being.”
  • Several uses of ben-’adam in the Old Testament (Psalms 80:17; Daniel 7:13) speak of a future Mesianic figure of great power. Attributing this title to Christ may be part of the gospel-writers’ project of establishing Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish prophecy.
  • Many interpreters believe that the self-designation “Son of Man” is a term that should be used in conjunction with “Son of God” (a title which Christ never claimed for himself) to express Christ’s true nature.

This last bullet point, I think, best fits the way that Christ uses the title in this week’s reading. Here we see the Son of God at his most human, as he faces his own death–the one thing that is inherent in his humanity and alien to his divinity. He can atone for our sins because he is the Son of God. But he can die for them only because he is the Son of Man. In these scenes from His last mortal day, the contrast between Christ’s two natures comes into brilliant relief.

This, for me, is what makes Gethsemane so powerful. Christ must face it wholly as a human being who, like most human beings, doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to leave the people he loves, and doesn’t particularly relish the idea of being tortured for hours before he gives up the ghost. He even asks if it would be OK to just skip the whole thing and maybe go straight to the resurrection. “O my Father,” he entreats, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26: 39).

Christ does not want to die because, well, most people don’t. Not wanting to die is a normal human response to the reality he is facing, and Christ’s nature is fully human (even as it is also fully divine). One of Jesus’s most deeply human moments comes just a few minutes later, when he comes back from his prayers and finds the disciples he asked to stand guard asleep. He says, to Peter, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). We can interpret this question to mean something like, “So, I am up there bleeding from every pore and taking the sins of the ENTIRE FREAKING WORLD on my back, and all I asked you to do was not fall asleep for an hour. You had one job, Peter. Great work.”

All of this–the sense of his own importance, the impending sense of doom, his disappointment with his friends, and even his use of mild sarcasm–is fundamentally human and shows that the Savior faced his death, in every way, as a Son of Man.

Peter: The Other Son of Man Who Can’t Seem to Do Anything Right
There is some literary stuff going on in these chapters too. There is a tension between Christ and Peter that runs through the narrative of Thursday night. In literary terms, they become foils for each other, or contrasting backgrounds against which the other can be seen more clearly. Christ is the Son of God who is brought low by his inherent humanity. Peter is the human who will soon be elevated by his inherent divinity.

But not yet. Peter will eventually become a tireless and fearless minister of the Gospel. But, in these verses, is he (like all of us) a human being with a lot of divine potential who just can’t seem to overcome the pull of his human nature.

As we have already seen, Peter falls asleep when he is supposed to be keeping watch for Jesus. And he does it three times. He does it even after Christ reprimands him (and James and John). He does it after he promises not to. He just keeps falling asleep. Why?

Because that is what humans do. When Jesus asks Peter and the other disciples to stay awake while he prays, he is asking them to overcome something basic in human nature. I have no idea how long Peter and the others had been up, but I know that human beings can get to a point where they just can’t stay awake anymore–no matter how high the stakes are.

This may be the best scriptural metaphor we have for the conflict between human and divine nature. We have to sleep, even when we don’t want to. It is something that the body demands. And yet, to fulfill Christ’s injunctions, we have to overcome the pull of the body. Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 26:41–”the spirit … is willing, but the flesh is weak”–has become an axiom in our language to express the distance between our divine aspirations and the human nature that we have to overcome to achieve them.

Peter’s next mistake–attacking and wounding the servant of the high priest who comes to arrest Jesus–is even more illustrative. All four Gospels tell this story, but only John identifies Peter as the perpetrator:

Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it? (John 18:10-11)

Unlike sleep, cutting off someone’s ear is not something that we have to do. People have managed to go through their entire lives without severing a single body part of anybody else. We don’t ever have to do it. But none of us can escape the primal impulse that makes us want to strike out violently. This is the “fight” of “fight or flight,” and it is one of the first things to come into our squirrel brains when we feel threatened.

So, Peter acts in a fundamentally human way that is incompatible with his divine nature. He strikes out, violently and wounds someone maliciously because he feels threatened and loyal to his master. The person he attacks is a servant–not the high priest himself or any of the armed guards. He hurts the man because he can. Because he is angry. And because feels that he has to do something. His violence serves no purpose. It does not help Christ. It does not hurt the person who is arresting him. It just makes Peter feel better and the earless servant feel substantially worse. Christ rebukes him again and (uniquely in the Gospel of Luke) heals the servant’s wound.

It is important, I think, that we see this action as part of a triple play–”the Sins of Peter” perhaps–that also include the earlier incident of him (and others) falling asleep, and the later incident of his denial of Christ. The final incident (or set of incidents, since he denies Christ three times) is closely related to the prior one. It is the “flight” of “fight or flight.” It is an incident when Peter feels threatened and tries to escape–even at the cost of denying that he knows the man who has been condemned to die.

Now, in fairness to Peter, this really was a dangerous situation. It was a mob, and his life could very well have been in danger if he admitted being with Christ. His greater sin was probably his earlier statement to Jesus that he would never deny him (Matthew 26:35); for, when he made this claim, he spoke with unearned pride in his ability to transcend his own human nature on his own. He did deny Jesus, of course, and Christ knew that he would, because he knew Peter. He also knew human nature. And he knew what it meant to struggle with divine aspirations and human weaknesses–because he was doing it too.

And this is why there had to be an Atonement. Jesus had to reconcile his own human and divine natures–in Gethsemane and on the cross–to create a path for Peter to do the same. And the rest of us too. The Second Principle of the Gospel, repentance, is the process of subordinating our inherent humanity to our equally inherent divinity. It is hard because the pull of human nature is strong. Most of us will travel the path slowly, inexactly, with backwards steps as well as forward ones. But there is a path, and that is why “the gospel” is really “good news.”

Comments

  1. handlewithcare says:

    Very beautiful. Having personally suffered many years of illness and partially recovered, I realise that when we are at our most human we are often at our most divine.

  2. Lawrence osei says:

    I’m so blessed by this very message

  3. I wonder how well all of Peter’s troubles go with the stages of grief. not necessarily in order, but:
    Denial – Matt 16:22 (ending with the whole “Get thee behind me satan” thing)
    Anger – Matt 26:51 (cutting off the ear, above), also Matt 26:75 (denying christ)
    Bargaining – ?
    Depression – Matt 26:40 (falling asleep, above)
    Acceptance – ?

  4. I greatly appreciate your assessment of Peter’s humanity. My actions mirror his quite often. I just hope my resolve to endure in faithfullness does not diminish in the face of my natural man tendencies.

  5. Tracy Stewart says:

    First off, the term “Jew-ish” means people who are PRETENDING to be Jews. Jews are certainly from the Tribe of Ju-dah ONLY, (and were /is ALL BLACK)..except in the case where the 12 tribes of Israel split from each other, the southern and northern tribes. Judah, Benjamin and Levi stayed together..and therefore they were ALL called “Jews”…but the other 9 tribes went off among the other nations.
    So Christ came to bring those 9 scattered tribes back into the fold. Hence the reason He told the Canaanite(African) woman, ” I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel.

  6. Lisa Warren says:

    You are wrong. JESUS IS GOD. HE HAD NO SIN. He had to atone nothing for himself. But for you , JESUS DIED AND SHED HIS PRECIOUS BLOOD FOR YOU, to make atonement for you, to make reconciliation for you. Verily I say unto you, you must be born again.

  7. christian brother says:

    ¡Wow! ¡Wow! Everybody😊 “…this feeling gets old…” Well now lookie here ummm what’s recorded in The Gospel Accord of Saint John chapter 10 verse 36. The LORD YESHUA HaMashiach (JESUS The CHRIST) did state, “say ye of him, whom The Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, ‘Thou blasphemest;’ because I said, I am the Son of God?” ¡Think, think, think! Why would someone ever ever ever even minutely downplay the deity of CHRIST JESUS? Answer: To downplay the consequences of rebellion against The Teachings of CHRIST JESUS, on the other-side of the border between this realm an the next. “Make no mistake. Should you choose to test [GOD’S] Resolve in this matter, you’ll be looking at an outcome that will have a finality that’s beyond your comprehension. And you will not be counting the days or the months or the years, but millenniums in a place with no doors.” Now learn a lesson from the sower and “be not deceived; JAH is not mocked: for whatsoever a [person] soweth, that shall [they] also reap.”

  8. Thank you Michael, for helping to bring us to sacred space with this lesson. I feel Christ’s inseparable love and pain in the details you explore. At times when I have sinned and fallen short, I have felt his words “you could not watch with me one hour?” I used to feel this as stinging rebuke, but have since come to feel them as a voice of compassionate understanding of my weakness and frailty, I feel his solidarity with me and our hope together going forward. Not to say I don’t need rebuking, I perpetually do, but now the words embrace rather than sting.

  9. christian brother says:

    Mister Austin, i thank GOD for you😊 an the encouragement this article shares. Unfortunately, no one can be told JESUS is The CHRIST, they have to see HIM… theirself… Believers have a special part to play in that revelation miracle. “People are strange when you’re a stranger…” All of the diversity into denominations that has taken place in The Body of CHRIST on this plan of reality doesn’t have to be a bad thing; so long as we believers can all agree (in word&deed) that JESUS is The CHRIST, The Savior of the world. “[They] that hath ears to hear, let [them] hear.” I thank GOD for giving you the ability to share your thoughtful insights.

  10. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks for this, Michael. I sometimes have trouble relating to the Johannine Jesus, what with his omniscience and thinly disguised metaphysics. My life has been marked by an uncertainty that I doubt a clairvoyant Jesus could relate to. But a Jesus that struggled and feared and was lonely but still did the right thing–that is the Jesus I need.

    Also, what brought the trolls? Did you type this after eating nutella?

  11. christian brother says:

    Trolls says the one who struggles with faith in The Person of JESUS CHRIST because of the beam! …it’s the beam man, in your eye man, we’re wood loving “trolls”😀 Anyways, ummm since we’re on the subject of metaphysics and The Gospel. I’d like to put a question to you Mister Michael and by extension all your readers but I can’t because there are some of you who do not believe. Knowledge is power an power corrupts; and so i would be held accountable for any corruption that arises… The evil one has forgotten soooo much because he walks in darkness and cannot see a far off because that darkness has blinded his eyes (Matt.2:4).

  12. Something which stood out to me while reading this past week was Luke 22:36 – 38 where Jesus says that it’s time to get swords. So I think that Peter was prepared to go into sword swinging mode that night. I hadn’t previously picked up on that.
    Good post. I liked your contrast of Jesus and Peter.
    I have struggled in the past with why Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, given that everyone else was also a son of man too. But depending upon how thin the veil was for him, it does make sense that he referred to himself in that way because of how much is mortality was noticeable to him.

  13. I’ve heard it suggested before that when Jesus said to Peter, “..thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me,” it could have been a commandment rather than a prophecy (or both). I’m not persuaded that the context fully supports this idea, but it is likely that Jesus’s other prophecy regarding Peter (upon this rock I will build my church) could not have been fulfilled if Peter risked his life by not denying him.

  14. Michael Austin says:

    Robert Lawrence, I have heard this before too. If I recall, this came up when I used this a few weeks ago in a Priesthood meeting. I can’t get there from the context either. But what I can get to is the argument that Christ is rebuking Peter, not for being the sort of person who would deny Him in a very difficult situation, but for not recognizing that he is the kind of person who would deny Him in a very difficult situation. The main message I draw from this is that pretty much all of us are capable of doing things that we would not think ourselves capable of in the right circumstances. And we should 1) recognize this in ourselves and not be too proud of the fact that we have not had the opportunities to commit the same sins as other people; and 2) recognize that we do not fully understand other people’s lives well enough to judge their sins.