Many years ago, when I was just a teenager I remember being puzzled by the oft quoted John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….” Now everyone used this verse to demonstrate how much God loved us. But I got stuck thinking, “What kind of a Father is this that he sends his Son to suffer horribly and die!?” My own Father wouldn’t send me in harm’s way, he’d go and face the threat and protect me. But God the Father sent his Son to do the hard and dirty work, to get slaughtered and die. Why? Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?
As I asked this question no one had a real answer. Even the priests looked at me like they didn’t understand my question. As the years went by I eventually connected the dots and found the answer. But recently I was reminded of my question as some one asked me, “Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?”
The answer really comes down to one word, a word we’re not so good at understanding in these modern times. The word is “obedience.” The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, only the Son can do that. For it is not just the suffering of Christ per se that saves us, it is his obedience that saves us. Consider that it was Adam’s disobedience that destroyed our relationship with God. Hence it is Christ’s obedience that saves us. Scripture says, For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19). So plainly put, since obedience was the necessary remedy for our disobedience Jesus the Son had to come for he is able to obey the Father. It does not pertain, nor is it really sensible, to say that the Father could obey the Father. Hence God the Father sent his only Son. Scripture says of Jesus He became obedient” to the Father “unto death (Phil 2:8)
While we tend to speak today primarily of the suffering and death of Jesus as the cause of our salvation. But more specifically, his suffering and death are really the manifestation of the deeper cause of our salvation, which is the obedience of Christ. Isaiah 53:7 says of the Christ, He was offered because he willed it. St. Thomas Aquinas says, Now obedience is preferred to all sacrifices. according to 1 Samuel 15:22: “Obedience is better than sacrifices.” Therefore it was fitting that the sacrifice of Christ’s Passion and death should proceed from obedience….And so the Man-Christ secured the victory through being obedient to God, according to Proverbs 21:28: “An obedient man shall speak of victory.” (Summa, Tertia Pars, 47.2)
Over and over again Jesus spoke of his looming death as an act of love and obedience for the Father. Christ received a command from the Father to suffer. For it is written (John 10:18): “I have power to lay down My life, and I have power to take it up again: this commandment have I received of My Father”–namely, of laying down His life and of resuming it again….He suffered [also] out of love of the Father, according to John 14:31: “That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father hath given Me this commandment, so I do. Arise, let us go hence”–namely, to the place of His Passion:….. He “paid….suffering Himself to be fastened to a tree on account of the apple which man had plucked from the tree against God’s command (Aquinas, Summa Tertia Pars 47. Reply Obj 1).
And why such terrible suffering? Here too some get stuck on thinking that God is blood thristy. We need not conclude this any more that we would conclude such a thing of a surgeon. The surgeon clearly makes use of radical proceedures, slicing open the body, sawing through bones, cutting out flesh and the like. But strong medicine is needed when the situation is grave. Rather than looking at the crucifixion and saying, God has a problem (i.e. he is blood-thirsty) we ought to see how desperate our problem is. Sin is a very serious condition and we should not make light of it. In order to resolve our problem, God had to resort to this.
But Jesus freely obeys his Father out of love for Him and for us. In his human will he obeyed the Father and so we are saved through the suffering that it entailed. St. Maximus the Confessor has a beautiful line: We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Where Adam disobeyed, Christ obeyed, and hence we are saved. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Father for sending your only Son.