Personal Reflection, Systematic Theology

Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Demonstrate God’s Inability? A Theological Response to President Duterte

Before the year ended, President Duterte had another controversial religious comment in an attempt to insult a Roman Catholic view also shared by evangelicals: the death of Jesus on the cross. Duterte argued that if God was nailed to the cross, then he is weak and powerless. The word he used is “nakakawala ng bilib” which literally means “unimpressive,” but the Tagalog expression is more nuanced. The phrase has the idea of “losing trust or admiration based on inability.” Duterte adds, “If I am god, you’re going to crucify me? I’m going to say, “Lightning, finish all of them. Burn all the non-believers.” (See the clip here and PJ Media’s report here). In this post, I’ll offer my theological response to Duterte’s remark about Jesus dying on the cross.

(This is now my second theological response to Duterte’s controversial religious statements. The first one is on his “stupid God” remark, and you can check it out here.)

My concern is not political, but theological. I want to challenge President Duterte’s argument that Jesus was weak and powerless because he died on a cross. My purpose is twofold. First, I want to encourage Filipino Christians to take this opportunity, not to be political, but to be evangelistic. Believers should strike up a conversation with people by simply asking questions on current events. Do they agree with the President’s remark or not? Or why are they upset with Duterte’s statement? Then, in turn, share what the Bible says about the death of Jesus and his power to save man from sin.

Second, I want to offer a rebuttal against Duterte’s argument. Perhaps there are some who may agree with his basic sentiment. The President’s remark is not completely insane. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that at the death of the servant of Yahweh, the Messiah, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Jesus humbled himself at the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). In fact, the thief nailed beside Jesus asked the same question, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Was Jesus, then, not the Christ? Was he powerless? There is more to this story than what meets the eye. I offer four reasons why Jesus’ death is not a demonstration of weakness and powerlessness; rather, it is a display of glorious sovereign power and love.

1. Jesus was sovereign over his own destiny, including his crucifixion.

Jesus may appear to be a helpless victim dragged to the cross by Roman soldiers against his own will, but he was really sovereign over the whole event. First, he predicted his own death. He knew that he would die years prior to the crucifixion. Here is Matthew’s account:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Matthew 16:21; cf. Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:33; Luke 9:22; John 2:19-21

Secondly, the enemies of Jesus had many opportunities to kill him, but somehow Jesus escaped them. Why? Because it was not time for him to die yet. Jesus was in control of his destiny. He was escaping the death threats of the religious leaders because it was not yet time. He was in control of his destiny. Notice John 8:59,

Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

John 8:59; cf. 10:31; 11:8

Third, Jesus exhibited his power over his captors. Jesus asked the band of soldiers who came to arrest him, “Whom do you seek?” The men answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Then when Jesus said, “I am he,” the men fell to the ground. This narrative in John 8:1-12 shows that the band of soldiers that came to get Jesus was no match against Jesus’ mere words. Peter, trying to defend Jesus, drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the captors, but Jesus rebuked Peter and healed the man’s ear instead (Luke 22:51). Jesus voluntarily surrenders to his captors. He was in control of his destiny.

Lastly, Jesus plainly told Pilate that he, the Roman governor, had no authority over Jesus at all, except that it was given to him by God. Pilate understood this to the point that he wanted to release Jesus. Again, Jesus is the one in control of his own destiny. Here is the dialogue exchange:

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

John 19:9-12

2. Jesus was more than able to kill all his detractors if he wanted to.

President Duterte said that if he were God, he would just order lightning and burn all the non-believers that want to crucify him. Jesus was very well capable of doing the same, and more, if he wanted to. Jesus said that he could instantly have more than 12 legions (1 legion = approx. 3,000-6,000) of angels to protect him (Matthew 26:53). To put that into perspective, one angel was able to kill 185,000 trained soldiers in one night (cf. 2 Kings 19:35)

3. Jesus voluntarily surrendered and died in order to be a sacrifice for the sins of those who will trust in him.

If Jesus was in control of his own destiny and if was able to kill all his detractors, why did he surrender? There are many answers to this question. Jesus voluntarily died to obey the will of the Father (Matthew 26:39; John 6:38; 14:31). He died to fulfill Old Testament prophecies (Matthew 26:54, 56). But I want to focus on this reason: he willingly died to be a sacrifice for the sins of those who will trust in him. Consider these passages:

  • The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
  • I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11, 15b)
  • For one will scarcely die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom 5:7-9)

So, why did Jesus died on the cross? Why did he lay down his life? He did it as a perfect sacrificial Lamb to appease the wrath of God for those who will trust in Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, he bore our sin in his own body. Scripture says,

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21

God gave his only Son to be sin for us and to take away God’s wrath so that whoever believes in Jesus will not perish, but have everlasting life (cf. John 3:16). But for those who do not believe in Jesus, the wrath of God remains (John 3:36).

4. Jesus was not ultimately defeated; he victoriously rose from the grave.

If Jesus stayed dead, then President Duterte is right. The sacrifice of Jesus was meaningless, powerless, and unimpressive. But the stone rolled away from the grave, and Jesus rose from the dead! He conquered death through his bodily resurrection, just as he said he would do when he predicted his own death (cf. John 2:19-21). His resurrection meant that his sacrifice was accepted by the Father (Rom. 1:4; 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:17). This is the Jesus who is mighty to save.

Conclusion

Jesus’ death is not a demonstration of weakness and powerlessness. It is a glorious display of sovereign power, overwhelming mercy, pure justice, and unconditional love. Followers of Jesus worship Jesus because he is their all-satisfying treasure. Jesus was the one who lived a perfect life that they cannot live. Jesus was the one who died for their sins. Through Jesus, they have forgiveness of sins and access to God. Someday, when Jesus returns they will experience a bodily resurrection just like Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 15). Jesus did not come the first time to defeat the Romans soldiers. Jesus came to defeat a greater enemy—death and hell—so those who trust in Jesus will celebrate these words,

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:55-57

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