In the third story of Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, and teaching his disciples about humility before exaltation (Mark 10:32-45), he reveals a lot about himself. He shows us what perfect obedience to the Father looks like. He makes himself the example we are all to strive to imitate and follow. And in doing so, he raises some very interesting theological questions. But first things first.
Jesus predicts his death three times in Mark’s Gospel; this highlights Jesus’ obedience to God’s will (ch. 8, 9, 10). Specifically, in this story, Jesus notes his obedience to the Father in verse 40 when he acknowledges that those who sit on his right and left hands are not for him to grant. We also sang about similar choices Jesus made:
The holy Son of God most high, For love of Adam’s fallen race
Renounced the pleasures of the sky To bring us to that happy place.
His robes of light he laid aside, Which did his majesty adorn,
And the frail state of mortals tried, In human flesh and figure born.
The first two verses show the very incarnation of Christ to be acts of his own will. His earthly behavior, too, is indicative of his obedience to the Father. In verse 35 Salome and her sons James and John treat Jesus as a king, but he doesn’t respond in the next verse like a king. Instead, he goes on to teach that a top-down view of greatness is worldly (v42); be a diakonos (servant) first. As one commentator illustrates it, “The pyramid rests on the apex, the great man bears the lesser men on his back, not sit atop them”. Jesus emphasizes this by upping the ante in verse 44 when he says the greatest is first a doulos (slave). But if we turn these teachings around to him, what does this say about who Jesus is? Does this challenge his divinity and equality with the Father? Even worse in verse 37 glory is anticipated in the future, but not now. What does that say about Jesus at this point in his life?
So, all this feeds into an area of doctrine that can very easily be misunderstood and horrifically twisted, without careful theological examination of the Scriptures. The ancient heresy of Arianism, the belief that God the Son is the first and best being that God the Father created, has found its revival in the form of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and also many evangelicals who have not been well-educated in the faith. The Creeds helps us get this straight, Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.
So when we see pictures of Jesus glorified on a future throne, such as in verse 37, we have to keep in mind alongside that other verses such as John 12:28 when Jesus prays the father to glorify his name on earth, and God responds with a voice “from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”” So we learn that Jesus enjoyed perfect glory alongside the Father before he became man, demonstrating again his full and perfect divinity.
But then there came along a more subtle heresy than Arianism, called Monophysitism. Mono means one, and physite means substance; it teaches that Jesus had one substance, or nature. Monophysitism posited that Jesus is both divine and human, but that his humanity was consumed or overridden by his divinity. After all, one might argue, all men are sinners, and Jesus was not a sinner, therefore he was not really a man. This was resolved in the ecumenical councils of the early church: the Christ is fully god and fully man, those two natures existing (or subsisting) within one person: Jesus of Nazareth.
But then there came yet another subtle heresy: Monothelitism, the teaching that Jesus had only one will. Scriptures that play in to this false teaching include stories like ours today, where Jesus clearly speaks of his obedience to the Father. If Jesus is both human and divine, does he have a human will and the divine will? Or does he have just one – his own? Again, the ecumenical councils of the early church settled this question: because Jesus has two natures, he has two wills, one proper to his humanity, one proper to the divinity. This is Duothelitism.
At this point you may be thinking this is awfully specific and academic; what could this possibly have to do with us? Is there anything applicable to us in this doctrine, or is the doctrine of Duothelitism merely an intellectual abstract that smart people like to talk about? It turns out there is an extremely pertinent question that this dogma of the early church informs: the question of what it means to have free will.
Monothelitism works from a false notion of freedom. The assumption is that to be free means to be entirely without constraint. The Monothelites could not grasp how Jesus could have a human will that was not in competition with his divine will. There was no way, they believed, that the human will could want the same thing as the divine will, unless it was being coerced.
This is also the reigning notion of freedom in Western society today. Freedom is synonymous with a lack of restriction. It means having complete control. The person who must do the will of another — such as an employee or a child or a slave — is not free. The person who must conform to some kind of standard outside of himself, be it moral or social or simply aesthetic, is effectively in bondage.
“When you know that no boundaries exist, then you are truly free,” says the pop singer Pharell Williams.
Western Christians in the 21st century are as steeped in this understanding of freedom as anyone else. It lurks in the background of our minds when we think about God and how he intersects with our lives. If God is in some way exerting his will upon your life, it must be at the expense of your freedom.
Freedom means reaching our highest potential for doing what is good. This does not mean that we choose our own good. If I could, I would choose to be a starting center for the Washington Wizards, but as bad as the Wizards are they would still never pick me because I am too short and uncoordinated to be a professional basketball player. All the practice in the world will not change that fact. What I can do, however, is to exercise the good that has been given to me. If I were a fish, I would not be free outside of the water, no matter how much I might wish to choose the land. Yet in the water, I would be completely free because I would be living into the good that I was created for.
Regardless of our differences in other ways, all human beings have been made for the good of holiness. If we are fish, holiness is the water. If we are trains, holiness is the tracks. It is only in holiness that we are truly free. It is only when we grow so close to God that his light shines through us that we become what we actually are.
Yes, Jesus has a human will and a divine will. They are not in competition because Jesus is not a sinner. He wills for himself the good of holiness that God wills for each of us. There is nothing forced about it. In exercising his will in our lives, God does not rob us of our capacity to accept or reject his love. Rather, through the cross of Christ, he opens for us the way into the holiness that we were always meant to swim in.
To bring this back to the original text, when Jesus tells us that he acts in perfect obedience to the Father, he doesn’t mean that his human will has been swallowed up by the divine will. If that were so, not only would his humanity be incomplete, but our imitation of Christ, our hope to be like him someday, is nullified. “Jesus could humble himself because he was God,” we could retort. But understanding duothelitism, that Jesus actively aligned his human will to that of the divine, we learn not only that we can grow and learn to do the same, bit by bit, but that it is also not at all a threat to our freedom to do so.
Ultimately, therefore, Jesus’ teachings about his obedience to the Father are both instructive and encouraging for us. Although we will never achieve perfect obedience ourselves, or in our own lifetimes, we do see in Jesus the goal of our Christian growth. And we can pursue this without fear of becoming automatons, or giving up every last vestige of identity. We, as ourselves, will be like Christ.