When it comes to power, God holds the golden cup. At least, that’s what Christians believe. But if God is all-powerful, then all things should be perfect, because God would be lacking power if He could not ensure the excellence of everything. At least that’s what one common argument suggests.
In practice, this means there should be no suffering, pain or death. But suffering and death exist, which lead some to conclude that God must not be so powerful after all.
Actually, there is a strong and fascinating link between suffering and power. To explain it, I’ll reference a Bible story in which Jesus eats an important meal with His closest followers, commonly known as The Last Supper (see Matthew 26:17–19, 26–29; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:14–20).
Meaning of the Passover Feast
The Jewish people had observed a festival called Passover since the time of Moses and the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt chronicled in the Old Testament. An important part of celebrating the Passover was a ritual meal, where the family shared the meat of a sacrificial lamb along with herbs and a special bread (Exodus 12). Sounds tasty (unless you’re a vegetarian)!
But the meal’s value wasn’t as much in the taste of the passover lamb as in what it represented for Judaism. Being a ritual, this meal was symbolic of something else, something larger: it commemorated the liberation of the Jewish nation of Israel from Egyptian slavery and also freedom from destruction, as the blood of the lamb “covered” the people, saving the Jews from death. In this sense, the lamb pointed forward to Jesus (the Messiah or Anointed One), who would die to free humanity from the slavery of evil and death.
Why death to begin with?
Christians believe the human race was created perfect and immortal, in close relationship with the Creator God, the Source of life. Death entered as a natural result of Adam and Eve’s choice to remove themselves from that Source (Genesis 1–3). Ironically, death was a loving punishment, for an immortal sinful life would be an atrocious existence rather than a desirable one. But God’s love went beyond appointing an end to a miserable existence. God provided a way for humans to be reconciled with their Creator and to once again live painless and immortal lives—the kind worth living forever. That way was Jesus. By offering His life, He chose to take our wrongdoing upon Himself and suffer the punishment of death. When we accept His sacrifice as substitute for our own death, we don’t have to suffer eternal oblivion.
Jesus celebrates Passover
Sometime in the first century, after the Jewish Passover ritual had been observed for hundreds of years, Jesus Himself participated in a passover celebration with a few of His chosen followers. According to the Bible, Jesus was God who became human and came into this world by a miracle birth. He performed many healings, preached often about the coming kingdom of God, and taught the key principles of this kingdom to His students who were to continue proclaiming the good news even beyond the time of Jesus life on earth
But Jesus knew His life on earth was coming to a close. He knew that He would soon die, and He knew that His death was going to be the bridge back to God, to reconnect humans with their Creator. In other words, His death was the most important event to ever occur on this planet. Importance, though, doesn’t always manifest itself in ostentatious displays.
A humble sharing of the self
In the privacy of a small room in Jerusalem, Jesus and His 12 students shared His last meal, and, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’” (Matthew 26:26). In the new symbology given to the feast of unleavened bread, Jesus pointed to the fact that His own body would be broken. By inviting the students to eat this bread, Jesus was bidding them to partake in the rescue that His death would procure.
Jesus also took a cup and, after giving thanks, “gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27,28). Both the bread and wine serve as representations of what Jesus knew was soon to come. Just as the bread represented Jesus’ broken body, the cup of wine symbolises Jesus’ blood spilled in His sacrificial death for the sake of humankind.
Memory and shared life
Have you ever heard someone say, “She will exist forever in our memory”? This phrase is understood as an emotional declaration of enduring love for a deceased person. But I think there is more to it than an emotive expression of love.
While our embodied life is a unique existence, this embodied life occurs at the junction of interactions with others. Because of this, our memory holds unique moments, events and experiences that we share with fellow humans. In other words, our life is shared not only in our actual everyday interactions, but also in the way these interactions become engraved in our memory, shaping who we are.
In short, our memory partly accounts for our identity. Indeed, to lose one’s memory is to partly lose one’s identity. So, “living” in someone’s memory is not something that occurs after death only: it is a constant sharing of ourselves during our actual embodied life. The idea of living in someone’s memory after death reflects a unique aspect of our shared existence where the living person carries someone deceased in their memory in a real but not embodied sense.
Jesus’ odd request
Back to the story. After sharing the wine and the broken bread, Jesus instructed His student friends to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; see also 1 Corinthians 11:23–26). And to safeguard this remembrance, Jesus actually instituted a new ritual that replaced the Passover meal. Once He had fulfilled the Passover by becoming the sacrificed Lamb of God, people no longer needed to symbolically recreate the Passover meal. Instead, Jesus asked them to remember His sacrifice in a ritual of sharing bread and grape juice (or unfermented wine), which represented His broken body and spilt blood. Jesus disciples honoured the instructions of Jesus, writing about it in each of their gospel accounts (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present in the New Testament) and implementing the tradition in the early church. This ritual was the last supper (also known as the Lord’s supper) and it has carried on into the present day, and is a part of many forms of Christianity.
But this request seems just a bit odd. Let me put it this way: if someone died in your place, how likely are you to ever forget that person? Quite unlikely, I should think. Such a life-giving event would be deeply engraved in your memory with immense gratitude. So why did Jesus ask His followers to remember His death?
External salvation, internal choice
Jesus’ request was not a selfish act of benefit to Himself. Instead, remembering His death was going to be a constant life-changing experience for His followers because of the implications of this death.
But the fact that Jesus provides a substitutionary death for every human doesn’t mean that every human will automatically be saved. Because we’ve been created with free will, we need to choose to accept His sacrificial death as a way back to connection with God.
Because of this, it’s crucial that we keep this event at the forefront of our mind. The alternatives are quite grim: we could reject Jesus’ death outright and lose the chance to experience eternal life with God. We could try to earn our salvation through living a good life, but even the most selfless human life is still tainted by wrongdoing and can never fully bridge the gap to God. Or we could accept Christ’s sacrifice but neglect to realise its importance for our day-to-day living. This neglect can eventually become outright rejection, in that it loses its effectiveness.
Of equal importance is to keep Jesus’ sacrificial death in the foreground, constantly recognising the power of God’s love in saving and transforming us according to His selfless character; not just at times of celebration such as Easter or Christmas.
Suffering and the power of love
God’s power is indeed infinite and surpasses the power of any other being in the universe. This superiority is warranted by the fact that God alone is an uncreated Creator, and thus precedes all other life-forms.
But the supremacy of God’s power stems from one central thing: the power of love. In other words, God is all-powerful, because He is all-loving. It is love that secured our rescue. By taking upon Himself all the wrongdoing of the world, and enduring the most excruciating suffering and death ever possible, Jesus’ infinite love was the most powerful act possible.
In this way, suffering and power were both present in Jesus’ life, thereby answering the issue of pain both logically and personally. This is not a complete answer, for the existence of evil and pain is ultimately inexplicable. But it is sufficient to elicit a good choice with eternal consequences.
Adelina Alexe is a systematic theology student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts and meaningful conversations.