John 8:21-30 (NRSVCE)
Again he said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” They said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man”
Jesus is telling his followers here about what is going to happen to him. He is telling them about the cross. They don’t understand. Two thousand years later, and we are still having trouble understanding it. What is it that actually happened on the cross? We know that by it we are saved. But how? Jesus gives us a hint in this passage. He says that he does nothing on his own. He does and says only as the Father has instructed him to. He is completely and utterly obedient to the will of the Father, obedient even unto death. (Phillippians 2:8) So the question is: How does Jesus’s obedience save us?
For this, we have to look at a couple of things. When God created the world, He created Adam to watch over it. Adam was responsible for keeping it, protecting it, nurturing it. Adam was to do the work of God, and take good care of God’s creation. Adam disobeyed, and thus man and the world became afflicted by sin and death. Jesus, however, is the New Adam. He has come to heal the world, to save it from death. This is why the Son became man, and not a fish or oatmeal or something. St. Paul says that just as sin entered the world through one man, “so by one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19) Jesus succeeds where Adam failed, and then some, as Jesus doesn’t merely keep, protect, and nurture the world. He heals it.
But let’s get into specifics here, with the help of St. Anselm. Mostly in his Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man, I will simply link the relevant Wikipedia article here to keep things easier. Adam disobeyed God, the source of all things. To God all glory and honor is due. But how do we honor someone? When the commandments say “honor your father and mother,” what do they mean? One thing that means is obedience. By disobeying God, Adam did not give honor to God as God was due. So not only did he offend God’s justice, by taking what was due to God, he offended God’s honor, through disobedience. Because of Adam, man owes God a debt. And God is perfectly just, he can’t simply let this slide. This debt must be repaid, or more appropriate to where I’m going with this: satisfaction must be made. This is a debt which man cannot possibly satisfy. Especially when you consider that when you satisfy a debt, especially a debt to God, you do not simply return what was taken. A thief does not simply return the items he stole and we call it even. That would be in keeping with justice, but there is an offense of honor here too. So we, at the very least, require that the thief apologize and perhaps give something more to the offended party (like community service) to satisfy that debt of honor. So even if man could satisfy the debt of justice (he can’t), he definitely cannot satisfy the debt of honor. For what can man give to God beyond what he already owes? Nothing, for everything man has he owes to God. Man is, in technical theological jargon, “in a pickle.”
So the Father sent His Son. But, because it is only just that debt be satisfied by the one who owes that debt, it must be man who makes satisfaction. So the Son became man. And the Son lived in perfect obedience to the Father, obedience even unto death. Now you have an infinite being, the Son, who is also man, making an offering of satisfaction for the debt that man owes. That the Son is infinite is crucial here. The Son is able to not only restore the demands of justice—what is owed by man—but He is also able to offer more. Thus both justice and honor are satisfied. This is why Jesus says, on the cross, “It is finished.” (John 19:30) The Son has satisfied the debt man owed to God. And how? Through obedience to the Father.