The Surety's Sorrow
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"Now is my soul troubled." John 12:27
This twenty-seventh verse connects itself, not so much with the three previous verses, as with the twenty-third. The first announcement is, "The hour is come, that the Son of Man should be glorified;" the second is, "Now is my soul troubled."
The connection between these two statements does not seem at first sight very plain. The second is not the statement we would have expected to follow the first. Rather, we would say, it should have been "Now is my soul glad," not "troubled;" for the prospect of the glorifying ought naturally to call up joy, not sorrow. We feel at a loss to know why he would be so troubled, when arriving within sight of the glory.
Was earth so desirable an abode, that the thought of leaving it should sadden him? Did he wish to remain among sinners and enemies? Did he prefer the land of death, and curse, and woe, and shame, to the glorious heaven above, to the society of angels, to the honor of the throne of the majesty in the heavens? That, we know, could not be. He, far more than David ever did, longed for the wings of the dove that he might fly away and be at rest.
Why, then, did the near prospect of the glory thus overwhelm him with sadness? If there was nothing in the glory to produce this, what occasioned it? It was evidently no common sorrow; it was something new and terrible, even to him whose life was one weighty sorrow, and whose acquaintanceship with grief was of thirty-three years' standing. "Now is my soul troubled."
In bringing out the import of our Lord's words here, let us take up these four questions—
I. What was the trouble of his soul?As it could not be the glory itself, it must have been something either on this or on the other side of it; something which lay on his way to it, or was to be encountered immediately after it. It could not be the latter, as the entrance into the glory was the absolute ending of everything like sorrow. It must, then, have been something which lay on this side of it—something which he had to pass through in order to reach it.
There were three things which occasioned trouble to Christ when here:
(1.) The sorrows and sins which he saw on earth.
(2.) Sin imputed to him.
(3.) The wrath of God on account of this imputed sin.
The first of these was a constant source of sorrow to the compassionate Savior; but there was nothing in the present scene to make it peculiarly so. The burden of sin, and the wrath of God, due to him as the sin-bearer, were also continual sources of sorrow; and increasingly so, as the great crisis drew near, when the whole load of that sin and wrath was to press upon him in all its terribleness. The sin laid upon him was that which he infinitely abhorred; need we wonder, then, that, as it pressed more and more upon him, his soul should be troubled, no, become "exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death?" The wrath and curse, due to this sin which was laid upon him, was that which he infinitely shrunk from—for, as the Son of the Blessed, he could not but be troubled at being made "a curse;" and as the object of the Father's divine delight and love, he could not but feel troubled at the outpouring of the Father's wrath.
Such was the trouble of his soul. All along these things had been felt, and they had made him the man of sorrows. But as the great hour drew on when the Lamb was to be slain, the weight of the burden increased—until, as he came within sight of the cross, it oppressed him so fearfully, that it seemed as if he would sink under it, before he reached his destination. Intense was this trouble of his soul. So intense must have been his hatred of sin, and his shrinking from the Father's wrath. So intense also must have been his love to the sinner, and his zeal for the glory of the Father.
And if sin, though but imputed, was so hateful to him, what ought that sin, which lives in us, and pervades our whole being, to be to us? If divine wrath, though brief and for another's sin, and with all heaven's glory beyond, was so intolerable—what will that wrath be to the lost sinner, which is for his own guilt, and which will therefore burn into his innermost conscience, not for a day or a lifetime—but for a whole eternity, with no prospect of cessation or diminishing, or glory beyond it all?
II. Why was he so troubled now—and not before?In a certain measure he was always troubled, for he was, from his birth, the Sin-bearer; but as he drew nearer the crisis, the sorrow increased, and the burden grew heavier. He realized more of that dreadful hour when the whole wrath should be poured out upon him; and the nearness of the glory reminded him of the greater nearness of the sorrow that lay on this side of it, and through which he must pass, in order to reach the blessedness beyond. The very vision of the glory, too, would serve to enhance and augment the trouble, as the dark peaks of Sinai look darker and more terrible, when the sun is seen going down behind them, and by his radiance bringing out each fierce and rugged cliff in full relief against the glowing sky.
Christ's soul was thoroughly human, in everything but sin; and hence objects, whether of joy or sorrow, affected him in proportion to their nearness or their distance. He always knew that the Father's will would infallibly be accomplished; yet it was not until the seventy returned to him with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us through your name" (Luke 10:21), that he "rejoiced in spirit." He knew that Lazarus was dead before he came to Bethany; yet it was not until he stood by his tomb and addressed the weeping all around, that he "wept." The nearness of either, or joy, or grief, affected him as it affects us. Our natures do not admit of our feeling them as much when they are far off as when they are near. So was it with Him. He knew the sorrow that lay before him, and doubtless it had thrown its shadow over him long before this; but as he neared it, that shadow grew darker and darker, until, as he actually came within sight of the cross, his soul was troubled.
He must go to the cross with the full knowledge of what he is to suffer there. That suffering is not to overtake him unawares. He is to know, before he drinks it, the bitterness of the cup which the Father has given him to drink, the anguish of that baptism with which he is to be baptized. He must see the sword which is to smite him; and feel the sharpness of its edge before it awakes against him. He must have a foretaste of the wrath and the curse, of death and of the grave—that he may calmly measure them, and give to them the entire acquiescence of his understanding and will. It was only thus that he could offer himself up as a free-will offering, fully cognizant of, and acquiescent in, all that was to be inflicted on him by the Father's justice. It was needful that he should suffer willingly; and in order to do so, he must suffer knowingly; the blow must not take him by surprise; he must give his own full consent to all that he was to endure; not to shut his eyes, and be led, as it were, blindfold to the cross—but to see it all, know it all, consent to it all; and then, after having thus seen and known and consented, go forward to the place of sacrifice, saying, Not my will—but your will be done.
Twice before he went to the cross, the Father brought the cup which he was to drink of, and placed it by his side, that he might look into it, and measure it and taste it; once at the time before us, and again in Gethsemane, when his "soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death," and his "sweat, as it were, great drops of blood falling down to the ground." In both of these cases, there seems to be the same meaning and the same result. In both of them the Father was bringing the cup of wrath, and setting it down by his side, that he might fully know what he was about to drink; that having examined the contents, and tasted some of the infinitely terrible mixture, he might express his calm determination to drink it all, in that day when it should be put into his hands for this end; no, might say, before heaven, and earth, and hell, holding the cup which he had examined up to view, "I delight to do your will, O God!" "The cup which my Father has given me to drink—shall I not drink it?"
The best commentary on these words of our text are those Psalms in which Christ speaks as the Sin-bearer, as the 38th or 40th, or 60th or 88th. In them we find Christ examining the bitter cup, and trying its contents, and tasting them day by day; and though, on such occasions as the present, or in Gethsemane, his soul was specially troubled; yet often, at other times also, was he made to feel the sorrow to which he had subjected himself for us. Each time that he used them he would enter into the trouble of soul which they express; but as the consummation drew nearer, he would enter more deeply into that trouble; and at each successive time they would acquire a more profound and solemn meaning. With us, familiarity with sorrow, and continual repetition of its bitterness, would harden and produce indifference. With Christ it was otherwise; for, though all was human, yet all was perfection in him; and each time these Psalms were read by him, they would convey a deeper and deeper experience of the dreadful realities which they expressed. For, though uttered in the feeble language of man, which could not fully enunciate the great things of God, yet, as understood and interpreted by the Son of God according to his perfect wisdom—what a reality would these cries of anguish convey to his soul; what a depth of meaning would each word possess!
How fully did the Son of God understand the conflict into which he entered for us; measure the weight of the burden which he bore for us; realize the sin which was laid upon him; take the dimensions of the wrath which was to be poured out on him for us; and examine the contents of the cup which he was to drink for us!
III. Why did not his divine nature ward off the trouble?This question may be answered by another—Why did not his divine nature prevent sin from being imputed to him at all? If his Godhead did not do the one, why should it do the other? We know that the Godhead, so far from hindering the imputation of sin, was that which made it possible for sin to be imputed to him. Had he not been divine, there could have been no imputation. If, then, his Godhead did not hinder—but help the imputation of sin, it surely would not hinder the consequences of that imputation. If the imputation was real, the sufferings must be real. His Godhead availed not to diminish or neutralize the sorrow—but to give to that sorrow its infinite value and sin-bearing character.
The union of his divine nature with the human was, not to interfere with the actings of the human—but to make them efficacious; not to ward off suffering—but to impart to it its vicarious potency; not to make the cup less bitter—but to make its contents healing and saving; not to save the victim from the cross—but to make crucifixion atonement; not to ward off death—but to impart to that death the character of an infinitely precious ransom; not to bar the grave against the entrance of the mighty victim—but to make that grave the womb of immortality and incorruption, the cradle of the church, the well spring of resurrection-life and everlasting glory.
Besides, think what is meant by the divine nature warding off the suffering? If it means anything at all, it must mean the turning of that suffering into a mere form or pretext. This, we are sure, was not the case. Instead of making the sufferings less real—it made them more real. The union of the divine with the human nature enabled the latter to bear more suffering than it otherwise could have done. And to have called in the Godhead in order to ward off the suffering, would have been to have called it in to hinder one of the very results contemplated by the union. The payment of the penalty was the suffering and the death of the Christ; and to have interfered with that suffering, or with that death, would have been to have hindered the payment of the ransom. No, and even when the human nature of the Lord was sinking under the pressure of the sorrow, it was not the Godhead that was sent to mitigate that anguish, or to sustain him under it; it was an angel—"there appeared an angel from heaven strengthening him." For the Godhead to have interposed to shield Him either from the suffering or the death, would have been to maim his work, to destroy his substitution, and to turn the payment of the dreadful penalty from being one of the greatest of all realities—into a mere pretense.
IV. Why did not the joy in prospect of the glory, outweigh and neutralize the sorrow?Here, again, we must remember that Christ's humanity was perfect; that the divine was not mixed up with the human, nor the human mixed up with the divine. Each acted according to its nature. The glory therefore, however great, could not prevent Christ's human soul being acted on by the sorrow, according to its greatness, and according to its nearness. The cause of the sorrow was infinitely great, and the sorrow itself was at hand, therefore it was impossible for human nature not to feel profoundly that which was so great and so near. Had the sorrow been like our sorrow, then the difference between it and the glory would have been so great as to have made him call it a "light affliction," not worthy to be compared with the glory to be revealed. But his sorrow was not like ours. It was not indeed lasting; but it was unutterably vast; its vastness could only be measured by the greatness of our sins, and the greatness of him who was bearing them.
There is no proportion between our suffering and our glory, any more than there is between time and eternity; but there is some proportion between Christ's sufferings and Christ's glory; it was, if one may so speak, the proportion between two eternities, two infinities. No wonder, then, that with such an infinity of suffering, the glory should have been for a season shut out, the human nature of Christ should have been bowed down under the dreadful load, and his soul made exceeding sorrowful even unto death. No vision of the coming glory could make his present suffering less, or alter the necessity for his bearing it, how ever much it might tend to sustain him under it. The sin laid on him was still the sin, the wrath was still the wrath, the curse was still the curse; and all these were infinitely terrible, to one who so thoroughly understood them; nor could the glory, however bright, lessen that terribleness, or mitigate the suffering which it was producing in the soul of the Son of God.
Oh, if his trouble of soul were so great, what must the sin be which produced it? Yet what must be the completeness of that deliverance from trouble, which is the portion of the believing soul, in consequence of his bearing it all? Not a pang remains for us; not a drop of bitterness is left behind. All is peace.
But, on the other hand, what must be the wrath of God against the transgressor? What must be the torment of the eternal curse which the lost sinner is to bear? And what must be that hell, that unending and unchanging hell of woe and torment, in reserve for those who, having rejected the sin bearing of the divine Substitute, shall be compelled to bear the penalty of their guilt, without help, without alleviation, and without sympathy—suffering the vengeance of eternal fire!