Death Sentence

In December 2005 I became the second alternate juror on a murder for hire trial where the prosecution was requesting the death penalty. For the next three weeks, I listened to the testimony for a fairly gruesome murder. During the time when the judge, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney were interviewing the jurors, they asked me pretty much how I would conduct myself as a juror. I can’t remember my full answer, but I remember that I said something to the effect that I would strive to understand and follow the law as much as possible and to take being in the position of possibly having someone else’s life depend on my decision very, very seriously.

In addition, on this jury were also a pastor’s wife, and two other women whom I remember as also being fellow believers in Jesus Christ. At the same time I discovered that there was a friend of mine on another jury with 200 count indictment and guilty plea for murder that was gong on at the same time. I remember that they were able to face horror of hearing repeatedly about the murders seriously, without wilting or folding under the pressure or intensity. I suspect that they had through their lives also found the need to bring the strength of God to face the hardest and most difficult situations and not shy away from them. I think that all this is part of growing into spiritual maturity and not remaining in extended spiritual infancy or adolescence as a believer in Jesus Christ. Indeed, I’ve often seen that, while sometimes there are young people who are spiritually mature beyond their years, more often spiritual maturity levels are often linked to maturity level in life, as people grow and learn through facing the challenges of this world in the strength of Jesus Christ.

The last night and day of Jesus Christ during his earthly life and ministry  can be some of the most difficult passages of the Bible to consider and study in depth. Yet these hours are all described in detail in all four gospels. I think that it’s part of the spiritual immaturity and emotional immaturity and weakness of so many in our age that we so rarely preach and teach on these passages very much. Part of the problem is that we tend to spend too much time going into the mechanics of how crucifixion worked when we get to the crucifixion. Often, though, we don’t seem to see the need to think, meditate, and preach and teach on the last hours of Jesus, even though a considerable amount of the gospels deal with these hours. But it is part of having the spiritual foundation not to wilt at what is happening and to understand what he endured was for us; it is at least enough for us to understand that all this was what he endured for loving us to the death on the cross. It at least calls for respectful and reverent consideration on a regular basis from us, to remember the price of our salvation. I think that seriously considering these passages from time to time will remind us that our faith is not spiritual fluff, an escape from reality, or getting an emotional buzz, but the strong foundation to be able to face the greatest tragedies, injustices and even horrors that this world can bring against us, as long as we do it with him, since he was there first before us to face them and conquer them.

So here’s how the adjudication the death sentence on Jesus happened. Jesus Christ had a number of hearings and adjudications on the last night and morning of his earthly life. He had what seems to have been a preliminary hearing before Annas, the retired Jewish High Priest, and then a larger trial before Joseph Caiaphas, the current Jewish High Priest, the next, secular trials after dawn before Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. These trials, hearings and adjudications show the religious, political and criminal justice system gone criminally unjust. They show the religious and political machinery of this world through hatred, envy, indifference and incompetence driving an innocent man to capital punishment of a particularly brutal and degrading kind. Yet the injustice of the trial was also the condemnation of the world and provided the innocent victim for the sins of the world. The actual innocence before the laws of man and God, civil and divine justice shown in these hearings, trials and adjudications, and most of all in the trial before the Jewish ruling council and the high priest. They show his utter innocence before the laws of man that was part of his utter innocence that was necessary to take on the sins of the entire world. Through these trials, the redemption of the world came because of a false verdict from the machinery of civil justice gone criminally un just, and they produced a verdict and a sacrifice which God had foreseen from before the creation of the world.

“And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.”

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.”

(Mark 14:55-65, Dale’s sight translation)

The redemption of the world required an innocent volunteer. As the trials ground onward, the innocence of Jesus was one of the extraordinary things which was acknowledged by pretty much everyone about him. Even more, his innocence was further corroborated by the actual testimony at the trial in the twisted attempt at civil justice, as the testimony of the different witnesses ground against each other and crumbled into dust before everyone. The legal failure of false testimony nevertheless established the innocence of Jesus. False accusations and demonstrably and obviously false accusations have never been the establishment of actual guilt anywhere at any time, and it was the same as Jesus as he came before the bar of civil justice and proved it horribly wrong and twisted.

The trial started out this way:  vv. 55-59: “And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

The parade of false witnesses against Jesus, one after another, was part of the setup by the high priest and the Jewish ruling council to get the verdict that they were seeking. These were public officials responsible for justice who were themselves suborning perjury and that in itself was and remains a deep and malicious crime upon their own ledger. It was unjust then, just as it is unjust and illegal now. With all that was said at that time, they could not yet could not find any testimony of anything that would bring a death sentence, even as they strove to bring at least a pretense of legality and public justice to these proceedings. There was probably some kind of record of the testimony, since in the ancient world there were several known forms of shorthand available. As the testimony was coming out, it was obviously insufficient and inconsistent testimony. According to the Old Testament Law, according to Deuteronomy 14:16, the testimony had to agree among at least two witnesses to establish that a capital crime had been committed. The narrative indicates that they were looking for proof of false teaching and public sedition which were capital crimes under the Jewish and Roman Law. It finally came down to the false testimony based upon twisting of something like he really said, which was quoted in John 2:19. Yet even then the trial could not produce anything like the consistent testimony required for a death sentence, since the false witnesses still contradicted each other in some way.

But still, see how much Jesus had to endure standing there before malicious, lying lips seeking to end his life. This round of false testimony probably took at least an hour and probably several hours where he stood in silence before all before the false witnesses seeking to provide testimony that would end his life. Yet there was purpose behind this also, since this was something that had been portrayed in the Psalms as part of the suffering of the Righteous One to come. And as he was standing there, it is a remarkable comfort and encouragement to believers in Jesus for all the ages since then. It seem like something that has been a common situation for believers of all ages as well to stand before others who have been offering false accusations against them, and behind them the instigator of the false accusations has been the Enemy of their souls and the souls of all mankind. Ever since then, one of Satan’s common weapons against Christians have been false accusations:

“Keep up such good conduct among the Gentiles, so that, in that time when they slander you as evildoers, they will still see your good actions with their own eyes and then glorify God in the day of his return” (I Peter 2:12; see also I Peter 4:3-4).

“Blessed are you when they scorn you and persecute you and say every kind of dirty word against you falsely for my sake” (Matthew 5:11,  see also Luke 6:26).

Also, a cursory glance through the Psalms will show that there were many, many times the Psalmist endured false accusations.

So then, if you are a follower of Christ, then be prepared for false accusations. They may come against you and they may even be of unimaginable depravity. They may even be gaslighting accusations, such as Festus shouted to Paul that he was insane when he was given a chance to speak before him in an informal hearing. It’s possible that we may even find ourselves in situations where it seems like everyone is seeing us through the eyes of our haters and detractors, and nothing that we say to set forth the truth about ourselves seems to find anyone willing to give us a fair hearing.

Furthermore, at the same time, this is never something that any believer should ever do to any other believer deliberately, persistently and stubbornly, and no believer in the church of Jesus Christ should continually have to deal with false accusations from fellow believers. The body of Christ, the fellowship of believers, should be the one place where false accusations go to die. But recently, I heard the great line from an old song on the radio: “The talk is cheap when the story is good . . .” Unfortunately, that’s often the situation among many people in our churches. Many people in our churches have never grown beyond the level of social maturity that they had when they were in high school, and the gossip that may fly around even under spiritual pretenses may include stretching the truth beyond recognition, wild insinuations and exaggerations, and false accusations sometimes of the most outrageous, lurid and fatuous sort – sometimes based on something no more reliable than they saw on television or on a website about someone else somewhere else at some other time.

No believer in Jesus Christ should have to live under a cloud of suspicion, rejection and disdain in the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ because of someone else’s overactive imagination and uncontrolled tongue. Unfortunately, some may have grown up and sought attention by being the breathless tattletales about the faults or (highly exaggerated) mistakes of others, or there may be the religious narcissist among us who spreads horrible accusations behind the back against those who may call him or her to account for his or her bad behavior. Some others repeat the same things about the same person for decades, even, and never face the person even to get a fair hearing. We need to deal with such people with the love, consideration and firmness of Jesus Christ. Neil Anderson in one of his books suggested these questions for the purveyor of this kind of backstabbing gossip, which I’ve adapted here:

  1. What is your reason for telling me/anyone this?
  2. Where did you get your information?
  3. Have you gone directly to the source?
  4. Have you personally allowed yourself to be quoted on this?
  5. Will you allow yourself to be quoted on this?

And briefly, note that false accusations are also a normal part of the abnormal situation of abuse, since it seems to be necessary for the abuser to dehumanize the target to make some kind of self justification for their treatment of another human being, to pour out their self nurtured bitterness the result from often exaggerated and fabricated list of wrongs. Note also that both spousal abuse – husband to wife and wife to husband – and child abuse are contrary to clear scripture, such as  Colossians 3: 8,19, 21: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. . . . Husbands, love your wives and do not pour out your bitterness upon them . . . Fathers, do not make your children bitter, or they will become discouraged.”

Even where there are a slew of false charges, the innocent do not always have to answer the false charges. False testimony may fail by itself and this is what happened with the false testimony against Jesus. It may well be part of our following him in our lives not only to face false accusations but perhaps even to remain as silent as he was before these false accusations. I don’t think that there’s a hard and fast rule here – some well meaning believers may say, “Never defend yourself,” but I see throughout the Bible many godly people asserting the truth about themselves in the face of false testimony. But in all this we can know that he has gone through it also: “ . . . for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who was tested in every way in a similar way, yet without sin. So then, let us come with boldness to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and we might find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

So, as all this was going on, Jesus remained silent:

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.” (verses. 60-61a).

The silence of Jesus during all the false testimony was dramatic but not intended for dramatic effect. He knew whatever he said would be twisted and used against him. Caiaphas, whose real first name was Joseph, had been give a name which meant something like, ‘the inquisitor.’ So when he invited Jesus to take the opportunity to defend himself against the false witnesses, he was not acting as someone who was on side side of Jesus, let alone someone who was on the side of justice. Even more, it was not the responsibility of the high priest to ask this question on why Jesus did not defend himself or the next question. Underneath Joseph Caiaphas was growing more and more irritated and baffled, and it seemed that this false friendliness was intended to bait Jesus into saying something incriminating about himself in response to the false testimony. That it had come to this point demonstrated the frustration that the false testimony had given to their murderous intentions. Certainly the silence of Jesus was entirely appropriate in a legal sense, since it was not necessary to answer and refute false testimony, which he could have done easily.

The responsibility of Jesus during this trial, though, while all this false testimony was happening, was not to defend himself. Rather, his responsibility was the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah of Isaiah, from his concern from the conclusion to Gethsemane, that the scriptures would be fulfilled in him. He was then living out before the Jewish ruling council Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Years later, the apostle Peter, who seems to have watched this from a safe distance, described it in this way: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23).

When false accusations come, then, choose the Christlike reaction. Know that before this world Jesus was there first and your reaction is to be like his, This does not mean that there will not be legitimate concerns for personal safety or civil justice from the brutality of this world; certainly both Jesus and Paul did point out illegalities during the proceedings when they were on trial. But know this, that in the power of Christ it possible not to answer or become angry in turn no matter how ridiculous or maddening the false accusations are and how false and hateful the accusers become, and above all, do not hate the haters in return. Live out Romans 12:17-21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Living like Jesus in this world even in the face of the most maddening and infuriating experiences is part of what it means for us to be in the world but not of the world. But even more, knowing what he went through gives the assurance that even in the hour of darkness, there was no darkness in him. His victory over the darkness included his coming through without a stain through all the accusations that were thrown against him. This was a part of his sinless life, of how he came to and lived through this fallen world without a stain of sin upon him, even through the worst that the twisted machinery of human justice tried to throw at him. So then, with his utter innocence and his utter willingness, he was utterly worthy to be the sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. Because he had no sins of his own so therefore he could take on the sins of all humanity, and so his worthiness took away our unworthiness in the cross.

But even more, the redemption of the world required the death of the Son of God. The redemption of the world required not just someone completely innocent, or even an innocent volunteer, but someone who was able to shoulder the sin of the entire world and take it away forever.

One remarkable fact came from the trial of Jesus. It brought forth the plain acknowledgment from Jesus of his being the Messiah. At the climax of the trial he acknowledged before the world who he was. The frustration of the High Priest drove him to ask Jesus plainly whether the was the Messiah, in terms no one could misunderstand. . vv. 61b-62:

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

In a way, the question which came to Jesus was a trick question, but it received a plain and forthright answer. The plain question was asked in a way as if Jesus had been under oath to answer. In fact, the High Priest could not have asked the question in a more serious and compelling way in a Jewish court proceeding. He plainly asked Jesus if he were the Messiah, and Messiah as the Son of the living God. The reaction shows that Caiaphas did not mean it just as a traditional Messianic title, but as a virtual admission of personal Deity. He was in effect, trying to trick Jesus into an admission which might be interpreted just as a traditional title, but which he would twist into a virtual admission of personal Deity.

And Jesus answered the question. He gave his answer in the language of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, before the entire ruling council. The answer of Jesus was solemn acknowledgement of his Messiahship before the entire ruling council. If he had been silent and had refused to answer, that would have been denial and disrespect to the office of the High Priest and to the name of God. In that moment; his own public testimony told the truth about himself to the entire Jewish ruling council;. He was already before the highest court in the land, but his answer also implied and carried a warning that he would one day be their judge. And their rejection of his Messiahship would in fact secure his exaltation and his glory yet to come as King, Judge and Conqueror. And his answer was also the indirect explanation also as to why he was not there yet in glory as the conquering Messiah, since his glory was yet to come. He identified himself as the right person, but pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of how they expected him to come to the future.

The world without Christ also puts the believer in Christ on trial constantly. We may not necessarily be called to stand for Christ in a court trial for our lives, though many believers worldwide have had to face that even in our day. Still, our confession of Jesus before the world is what he expects from us when the world challenges us, asks us whether we are what we say we are, whether we are genuine. The answer we need to give and live out is the answer that God expects, though, not the answer that the world expects and want. Though Jesus’s confession of himself before the world for who he was gave the answer that led to his sacrifice for the sins of the world, our truthful answer will likewise be redemptive in a way, in that our witness before the world will lead to some to faith in Christ. Once a rabbi introduced Corrie ten Boom, to a meeting of Jewish friends, and she told them that she had come to tell them about her greatest friend, the Jew Jesus. At that point some tried to leave, but they were told to sit down and listen respectfully. At the end, one doctor said, “When I hear Corrie ten Boom tell about the joy and security she had from her Jesus, even in such difficult circumstances, and what love he had given her for her enemies, I almost envy her and get a longing to know the Lord Jesus more intimately.”

The confession before the world did not meet with the acceptance of the world, though, but rather the most extreme rejection that the world had to offer:

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.” (verses. 62-65).

When Jesus made the plain acknowledgment that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, he met with an immediate summary judgment and its aftermath. The death penalty for blasphemy normal in OT Law (Leviticus 24:16, I Kings 21:10, in the case of Naboth. He could have offered a credible defense of his self identification as the Messiah, based on his words and deeds. Indeed, he could have given a discourse like he had given the men on the road to Emmaus, on the day of his resurrection, as he “ . .  began from Moses and from all the prophets explained to them from the scriptures all concerning himself . . .” (Luke 24:27). But all this would have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, he wasn’t even given an opportunity to mount a credible defense once the words left his mouth.

The answer of Jesus was taken as self incrimination before the Jewish High Council. It was the only play they had left in face of the inability to get other testimony earlier that would have warranted a death sentence. There was deliberate high drama of the high priest tearing his garment to get the verdict, since he had to make it as dramatic as possible. Still, they had no legal authority to perform the execution. As a conquered nation subject to the Roman governor, they still had the legal requirement then to take it to Pontius Pilate for the actual execution. Later, in Mark 15:1, the official sentencing took place at the crack of dawn to meet the letter of the law in the legal requirement that it not be at night. But let us also note right here, finally and forever, that this verdict was the responsibility of the men that were there at that time in that century. There is no justification ever after for any of the idiotic and brutal pogroms and persecutions of Jews that took place centuries later with the horrible epithet of calling them “Christ killers.” Any Christian who takes the Bible at all seriously at this point must bow his or her head in shame at how some groups of professed and utterly ignorant Christians tried to use this to justify their brutality toward the innocent Jews in their midst.

But – to go on further about the events of that day — immediately, after Jesus had spoken and they all agreed to the death penalty, the trial degraded to the beating and mockery from some members of the ruling council and by the Temple guards which preceded the beating and mockery of the Roman guards later, in 15:16-20 (see Abused for a further explanation of this passage). This beating by the Temple guards, though was itself an official, legal act as taking place under the authority of the high priest, and marked an official rejection of the purported blasphemy. The blindfolding was a weird Messianic test based upon Isaiah 11:2-4, the idea that ‘the Messiah does not need to see’. But the reality is that he was fulfilling Isaiah 50:6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”

So when it comes down to us, the world will often reject our testimony to the Messiah. So do not expect them to accept your confession of Jesus. They may immediately reject our testimony and make up all sorts of false tests for us in the form of “if you were really a Christian you would do this.” And these false tests, like they made up for Jesus, will often something be humiliating, selfish and ridiculous, as if they were the authorities on what it means to be a Christian, as if they were living up to their own standards and as if they were trustworthy to stand in judgment on the credibility of the testimony of believers. Yet again, remember that this also how they treated Jesus, as he was there first also; and also their rejection of our testimony to him is also their continuing rejection of him. But even so,  some will respond to our testimony. This means that there is still the need for believers to continue and realize expendability in the mission, as we follow Jesus in this world. It’s incumbent upon us also to recognize that we’re expendable in the mission, as Nate Saint did, before he and three others were martyred by the Auca Indians: “During the last war, we had to be willing to be expendable. A missionary constantly faces expendability.” His understanding of his expendability was echoed by Jim Elliott: “If that’s the way God wants it to be, I’m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”

Too often the church has mistaken being glib and talkative with knowing the truth and being called to speak the truth, and the simple forthrightness of Jesus is too often missing, though it is the mark of those who have truly been with Jesus. Though this world challenges us to be genuine and will not accept it when we are genuine, nevertheless there will still be those for whom our confession of Jesus before them and before the world will mean salvation from this world and its judgment. Though the time will come when this world will accept the ultimate phony, the ultimate counterfeit from the phony factory of Satan, yet the believer in Christ can be assured that the eternal Son of God has come, has taken the sins of the world upon his shoulders and has taken them away for our eternal salvation.

IN THE TRIAL BEFORE THE WORLD, THEY JUDGED THE PERFECT SON OF GOD TO BE A PHONY. THE ONE WHO HAD COMMITTED NO SIN OR DECEIT WAS SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT HIMSELF BEFORE A WORLD WHICH DID NOT ACCEPT IT. THE SON OF GOD THEN WENT TO THE CROSS TO DIE FOR US AS THE PERFECT SACRIFICE FOR OUR SINS, AND THERE HE TOOK THE SIN OF THE WORLD UPON HIS SHOULDERS. BECAUSE OF HIM WE DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, TO HAVE PERFECTLY FULFILLED THE MORAL LAW OF GOD WHICH WE AND THIS WORLD HAS REJECTED, MOCKED AND TRAMPLED. WE SIMPLY HAVE TO BE FORGIVEN, TO HAVE RECEIVED HIS SALVATION, AND TO BE GENUINE IN OUR FAITH IN HIM ALONE FOR OUR ETERNAL SALVATION, TO BE GROWING IN LOVE AND PURITY TO GLORIFY HIM. AND THEN WHEN YOU MAY STAND BEFORE A WORLD WHICH REJECTED HIM AND WHICH MAY ALSO HAVE ALREADY JUDGED YOU TO BE A PHONY BECAUSE YOU HAVE RECEIVED THE SALVATION IN JESUS THAT THEY REJECT, KNOW THAT JESUS WAS THERE BEFORE YOU. BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN UNBELIEF THEY CANNOT STAND FOR YOU TO BE GENUINE IN YOUR FAITH IN CHRIST, BECAUSE THAT WOULD MAKE THEM OUT TO BE THE PHONIES, IN THEIR OWN CLAIMS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, RELIGION, AND PIETY.

Be ready to confess your faith before the world no matter how you anticipate the world may react to the plain confession of Jesus Christ, and be ready to live like Jesus in the face of the rejection of this world. This is a strong reason to walk more closely to Jesus, to experience his power to live the risen and changed life; his power also to be able to testify with holy boldness to the change which he has made. And understand that this is the Jesus who died on the cross for you. His love was there for you for now and to eternity, and this is the love which you need to receive to experience truly. So then receive him now through repentance and faith as Lord and Savior.

Productive

Long ago I copied down a striking quote from the late Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts. In these days it still rings true: “The sick, the dying, the poor, the brokenhearted, the desperate — few of these looked to the church for help. I was convinced that the great bulk of our time and effort was spent on ourselves — meetings for church members, prayers for church members, church for church type people. Now and then we would reach a new family and see a new face, but they were usually related to someone already in the church.”

So many of us look out at the world around us and see these situations and see that the Church of Jesus Christ is here to minister to them. These are the situations around us that call for effective disciples of Jesus:

  • Fellow believers who need our love and care
  • New believers who need love and guidance to grow to be mature, effective disciples
  • Those unsaved around us who need an effective witness from us;
  • Our own needs and those of our families in the face of our difficulties in this world

Throughout the past two millennia there has been a need always for effective disciples of Jesus Christ in this world, and this is still true today, as it will be until the day comes when Jesus returns. So the need for effective disciples calls for understanding and following what the Word says about spiritual effectiveness. And this comes down to the last teaching session of Jesus with the Eleven disciples, in the last evening before his crucifixion. He had this time to sum up and drive home all that he had been teaching them over the past three years. This was the night of the betrayal of the Lord Jesus by Judas and then his arrest, trial and crucifixion. This happened just after the Last Supper, the exit of Judas, the foot washing and the preview of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who would come about 50 days later on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus had only a couple of hours left with the twelve disciples, minus Judas, and he used this time to give further teaching to them, to prepare them for all the challenges and for the mission to come. It was in this time that he gave them the parable of the Vine and the Branches. This parable was his guidance for the apostles, as well as all believers in the centuries afterwards to his  secret of effective life and ministry, of what it would mean to abide in him and be productive in ministry.

So this is what Jesus had to say, as he gave the Parable of the Vine and the Branches:

“I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you all. Just as the branch has no ability to bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the Vine, so you all are unable to do so unless you remain in me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.” (John 15:1-5, Dale’s sight translation).

Spiritual productivity is the will and the provision of God for believers in Jesus Christ. God’s intention is for those who draw their life from his Son to be marvelously effective and productive in ministry for him in this world. And even more, he will not be passive, lax or ignorant throughout the lifetime of the believer to fulfill his intention. All his power, wisdom and love will be directed toward us in our lives upon this earth to make us spiritually effective and productive through our new life in his Son.

This means that the wonderful plan for our lives for those who have received life through Jesus Christ is defined by “abiding in Christ.” Those who share life with the Son of God are automatically enrolled in the plan of God the Father for our spiritual effectiveness of God the Father. It’s not an optional accessory of having eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, it’s an essential part of living for Christ and in Christ for anyone who has received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus, on that evening he was delivering his last teaching session to his eleven disciples, gave them this extended metaphor in verses 1-3: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you . . .”

In this extended metaphor, Jesus brings together and explains the relationship of the Father, the Son, and believers all together, and he uses the metaphor of a vine and a gardener. In the Old Testament, the vine had been a metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament, and every day that they had attended the Temple in Jerusalem during the previous week they would have passed through the Temple gates and they would have seen the golden Vine on the Temple gates which stood for Israel. But here and now Jesus takes the symbol which they had lived with all their lives and with which they had been long familiar and recasts it in terms of himself. With this metaphor he characterizes himself as the center, definition of the true Israel, in defining himself as the true Vine first of all.

But then he brings in the description of God the Father as the gardener, or vinedresser, as the term is translated in some translations. He gives the greater emphasis on the work of the Father, as the gardener/ vinedresser. They would have known what the vinedresser’s work is, but Jesus emphasizes there that God the Father as the vinedresser would trim and prune the vine and its branches for its maximum output. Then Jesus mentioned how the Father would remove removing unfruitful members from the vine. This could be a reference to the false and temporary disciples they had encountered (6:66) and to turncoats such as Judas. But the emphasis is not so much for them about what would happen to unfruitful branches but for God’s purpose for them. In the original language a pruned branch was a clean branch, and the reference to the disciples being clean was a play on clean from v. 13:10. What Jesus meant was not that they were perfect, but that they were faithful already and abiding with him then, and then the promise for them was that they would remain, but continue to be under the care and the plan of the God the Father. The result would be that they would continue to be effective and productive in the days ahead, as Jesus was looking forward to the days after his ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church for ministry.

This, then, is the plan of God the Father for the life of the believer in Christ. When we talk about how God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, this is it. If you were wondering why you are here on earth, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, this is it. It is not merely for the possession of eternal life alone, as having a ticket to heaven. The possession of eternal life through faith in Christ means that each and every believer is already a branch on the Vine and drawing life from the Vine, But the plan of God is for the believer, each and every believer, to be fruitful – which I explain as being spiritually effective and productive. The pruning/cleansing word play indicates the direction that this work of God in our life, the fulfillment of his plan, takes; it will be directed toward the spiritual effectiveness and productivity of each believer in Christ. He will use every means at his disposal to accomplish this. He will use the indwelling Spirit, the written word, the teaching, correction and rebuke of church leadership and of other believers, and even the most painful experiences of life, as his tools for pruning our lives to make us more and more spiritually effective and productive.

This pruning is necessary because as we are, we will not either become or continue to be spiritually effective without his pruning in our lives. We often wonder why things happen to us, why others say this or that and so on and so on, and some may lamely shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” as if that settles the matter. Well, when we’re looking for a reason, this is often the last reason that we will consider, if we consider it at all. We often try to figure out the machinery of the circumstances of our lives and may complain and cry when we find painful things in our circumstances. The simple consideration of these few words that Jesus gave us on the last evening of his earthly life and ministry, though, would give us a whole new perspective and sense of purpose on much that happens in our lives. For example, there was once a minister who visited a man who had been was complaining about apparent unfairness of God during a time of deep trouble. The minister found the man in his garden trimming his grapevine, and he asked the man what he was doing. He replied, “Because of the rains, this vine is overgrown with a lot of unprofitable stuff. I have to cut it away so the sun can get to the grapes and ripen them.”

So the minister asked, “Does that vine resist and oppose you?”

The man replied, “No.”

So then the minister came to the point: “Then why are you so displeased with our gracious God, who must do to you what you are doing to your vine to bring its fruit to maturity?”

Such a great question for so many of us! What are we doing when we complain and resist God when he is doing with all his wisdom and love what he needs to do in our lives to bring us to be spiritually effective and productive, in ways that we could not imagine or conceive for ourselves, in those times when we childishly imagine that we are in control of our lives and our circumstances and that it’s all about what we want. God’s goal in our lives upon earth is our spiritual effectiveness and productivity through Jesus Christ. However painful it may appear at times to be pruned, because it is done by the Father, we can trust that it is done with infinite compassion and skill. Moreover, we can trust that it is being done far better than we would have thought possible and far better than we could have done in our own wisdom and strength.

So this first application of the lesson may be painful at times, and as we go on, the second lesson may then seem to be an unwelcome splash of cold truthfulness to us, but it likewise is necessary for us to come to the joy of becoming effective as disciples of Jesus. So here’s the second lesson that Jesus gives us from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches: without Christ we are completely ineffective and unproductive.

From the words and teaching of Jesus himself,  the need of abiding in Christ is absolute. For us to fulfill our purpose here on this earth as believers in Christ, remaining in fellowship with him is completely necessary. Any attempts at effective ministry apart from him will be completely inadequate and ultimately fail. We will find no effective ministry and no spiritual productivity through our own ideas and efforts when they are divorced and estranged from dependence on and close fellowship with Jesus Christ. This underscores the necessity to abide in Christ, because of our utter ineffectiveness apart from him. We ignore this truth from the teaching of Jesus himself to our own sorrow and difficulty, and when we ignore it we bring ineffectiveness, incompetence and unproductivity to those around us who need our ministry.

So Jesus went on to say, in verse 4: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you.”

The command to remain in Christ is balanced by his promise to remain in us, and then the fellowship with him is maintained so as to be able to have his life and ministry flow through us. This was definitely necessary for the apostles in the days ahead, during the days of preaching, teaching, laying the foundations for the church and its ministry. They would fail if they did not learn the lesson of helplessness in ministry apart from abiding in Christ.

This lesson of helplessness in effective ministry apart from Christ is a lesson, then, best learned early in the lifetime of a believer. It’s simply an extension and logical outcome of the moral helplessness and inability to earn salvation apart from Christ for each one of us. This then becomes a lesson that we always need to be reminded of, to avoid self-reliance and self-confidence, in the pursuit of one’s own ministry as a believer. And make no mistake, we like to try to rely upon our own ideas, experiences and abilities and we like to try to rely upon the repeating the words and experiences of other believers which we have heard; we love to be spiritual tailgaters and copycats. And even more, in ourselves, we love to try to rely upon own abilities, talents and attractiveness, as if there were something within ourselves that was worthy of credit for being effective and productive in ministry. And we often forget the deceit of enemy and of others under his suggestions who try to get us to look at and depend on ourselves instead of Christ and try to get us to try to control the work of God in our lives and others. So often, then, when we go down these by-paths, we come back to our need of  personal experience with Jesus Christ and fellowship with him through his Word and in prayer, and then back to reliance upon him in the times of ministry. And it’s then we find that abiding in him that we find again the wonderful privilege of his letting us be a loving witness to unbelievers, the ministry of evangelism, and to build up fellow believers, the ministry of edification, for the glory of God.

The situations around us, therefore, that are opportunities for ministry not reason for rushing off armed with our plans and our own ideas for what is to be done and for how it is to be done. So many times and in so many ways we do this. In our day and age, maybe we hear a teacher and go to a seminar where we hear a few principles that are laid down for success, which the teacher backs with proof texts from the Bible. We rush off and in our spiritual pride and conceit that we’ve received these principles  — which we may not take back to the scriptures and see if they really are scriptural, in the context of the surrounding scripture and the teaching of the Bible as a whole – and strut around and try to correct others according to what we’ve heard from that seminar – and end up being as rigid and self righteous as any Pharisee from the time of Jesus. Or we may start reading and decide that we need to do some radical things in our lives and be counter cultural and go against the political establishment – and end up as bitter and backslidden and far from Christ as anyone who has turned from the fulness of Jesus to their own ways. I fear that the former way of the seminar junkie and self appointed moral policeman and detective was the problem of the 1970s onward for many, and the latter path of the descent into bitter radicalism has been the path of more recently, though I can remember some back in the 1970s that fell into that retrograde spiral away from the Author of Life and the Source of true ministry. So you want to be effective and productive in your personal growth in righteousness? You’re not going to find it in the rules from the seminar; you’re going to find it in Jesus himself, and drawing from him and his life, and only through him will you have an effective – and genuinely loving and gracious – ministry to others in the body of Christ. So you want to make a difference in this world for Christ? So don’t try to be radical and grow more and more radical as you can; what you will find there is more and more bitterness and antagonism when the problem is at least as much in your own sinful heart as it is in the world outside you. You will not be able to make more of a difference in this world than you can make in eradicating your own sin from your own heart by yourself. Rather, find your life and ministry from Jesus himself, and let his life and ministry flow through you for his glory and to be the difference that he wants to make in this world. 

Our self sufficiency and self importance mean that we will fail if we are not abiding in Christ. Rather, this is the reason to approach it first from within a deep, abiding fellowship with the Lord Jesus, to make a prayerful examination of the situation through his Word, to take it to him in a Biblically based time of prayer and to work in harmony with the leaders and others in the church, as being his body to minister to each other, reach out to the world. The place where the spiritual effectiveness and productivity starts is not with us but in him and from him and him alone.

From the parable of the Vine and the Branches, the first two lessons do a great deal to keep us from an unwarranted self confidence in ministry. The third lesson, though, guides us to the proper source of confidence for ministry: through Christ there is great effectiveness and productivity. The promise of great effectiveness and productivity, then, is a great reason for faith and perseverance in the face of the most difficult ministry situations into which God may call us and guide us. This is the reason to go forth into them with the confidence in Jesus that he will make us effective and productive. The realization that the life, ministry that flows through us is from Christ is the basis for confident ministry and the basis for ministry that has real results that will last for eternity, because its source is not in us, but in the Lord of eternity. And so Jesus goes on in verse 5: I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.”

His earlier lesson of helplessness now passes to and is backed by his promise of much effectiveness and great productivity. This promise was given in a general manner, not just to the eleven there in the Upper Room, but to believers throughout the centuries. His repetition of the Vine and the branches shows that he is drawing out another implication of the metaphor:. He reinforces that apart from his being the source of their life, ministry, they can do nothing. But the promise is that as they rely upon him as the source of their life and effectiveness, they – and any other believer afterwards — will be extremely productive. The truth of this promise was then demonstrated in the extremely effective ministries that these eleven rather ordinary men actually had. The thing is that this is also the plan of God in our salvation, for us to be productive:  as revealed in Ephesians 2:10 – end result of not abiding: verse 6

Effective and productive ministry, then, has its source in Christ, and it is effective because it is from him and not from us. His life and continuing ministry is  received, transmitted and continued through us. But then this becomes the confidence of those effective in ministry in Christ above all, that because it is from him and through him, then it must be effective in this world. And this confidence in him and his ministry can make us effective in the face of situations that would stagger and overwhelm us if we only depended on ourselves. Then, it comes back to us, to pour ourselves out in ministry, as those who have freely received, then to freely give (Matthew 10:8). This is the kind of faith that the eminent missionary to Korea, Jonathan Goforth, had when as a young man he went to witness in an area with a bad reputation. A policeman asked him, “How do you have the courage to go into those places? We never go except in twos or threes.”

His answer was: “I never go alone either; there is always someone with me.”

The need of the world around us, the fellow believers around us and our own friends and families, calls for effectiveness in our own lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. The need of the lost and broken world around us calls for us to be effective and productive disciples of Jesus Christ, and his life and ministry flowing through us means that we can and should be those through whom the life and ministry of Christ can flow. His ministry through us must be a much greater priority in our lives. This gives us a strong reason for refusing the useless pursuits – such as gossip, video games, sexual fantasy and actual immorality, rigid religious routines and give ourselves for complete consecration to the Lord Jesus, for us to be all his so that all that is his can flow through you to those around you. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, had this kind of consecration, and he said that this was his secret of ministry: “God had all there was of me. There have been many men with greater brains than I and men with greater opportunities; but from the day that I got the poor of London on my heart, and a vision of what Christ could do for them, I made up my mind that God should have all there was of William Booth.”

So then, Jesus gave these three basic lessons from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches to guide us to a life of effective ministry. What remains, then,  after hearing about them is to put them into practice in our lives. The wonderful plan of God for the lives of believers in Jesus Christ is for them to know his life and ministry flowing through them for spiritual effectiveness and usefulness. In this life, for believers, the wages of our sins and lack of fruitfulness will always be far greater than any difficulties that we may anticipate in breaking our routines, leaving behind our own ideas and ingrained habits of thinking, speaking and doing, for a new life of going forward with Christ, into a deeper and closer, more effective walk with Christ. Living in close fellowship with Jesus, and letting his life and ministry flow through us is the path to satisfaction as believers in Christ.

First of all, therefore, accept Christ as the source of your life and effectiveness as a disciple in ministry. Accept your place in him as a branch in the Vine, and himself as the Vine, for your own life and power for ministry for him in this world. Go forward to him and with him beyond that first and initial  trust in him for eternal life, and put on Christ as your life and power for ministry, as part of the ongoing process of putting on Christ for the lifetime of a believer. What? You weren’t aware that the key to growing deeper in Christ wasn’t more discipline but more of him, and taking up Christ in your life in all his fullness and living for him? Start here, then, and make this a definite transaction before him, to acknowledge him as the Vine in your life and yourself as a branch. Maybe even you could commemorate it by some kind of memorial to yourself, like a note in your Bible or prayer notebook, to remind yourself in the future that you have definitely received this promise from Christ as your own.

Understand also that God the Father is working in your life to make you effective and productive in your service and ministry for him, to glorify him in this world. Consider, then, that your earthly difficulties, those situations that you complain about, or those passages of the Word that hit you where it hurts, as pruning actions by God the Father. Regard it as God’s gracious, skillful work when his Word may cut and hurt in the correction of what is wrong and unproductive in your life as I must do so also in my life. But even more trust God that this pruning of your heart and life will result in greater usefulness and effectiveness and that it will have lasting spiritual, eternal results in your life.  Go into all the depths of the life and fellowship with Jesus, and you will see his gracious effects upon the lives of the others around you as you become more effective as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Take the promise of Christ for great fruitfulness for each opportunity for ministry that you have. Make it a matter of trust as you follow Christ, and give him the glory for the results.

Preview

In August 2005, I had one of the unique and most enjoyable and uplifting experiences of my life. It was aesthetic, and not spiritual. I attended a writer’s conference in Columbus, Ohio, to see whether I could jumpstart my fiction writing. That was not to be at that time, but I was privileged to be able to meet, to spend time with and to hear Ted Kooser. Ted was then ending his time as the Poet Laureate of the United States. He had actually spent almost his entire career in the insurance industry, and he had retired as an insurance executive. Yet he never forgot his dedication to poetry, and I found it extremely impressive how much effort  he put in over the years to learn and improve his poetry, and I was privileged to be able to spend some time simply talking with him and one evening to hear him recite his own poetry. Over the decades this tremendous care and effort put his poetry resulted in a unique achievement, a modern day poetry that reaches ordinary people and speaks to their experiences. His books of poetry sold at ten times the number that were usual for books of modern poetry, and it was because of this that he was honored with the Poet Laureate title.

In the Bible there are many poetic passages, and other than David, the prophet Isaiah could be known as a Poet Laureate of the Old Testament. Isaiah had a ministry in Jerusalem, in close contact with the kings, for at least 60 years. It may be that his actual seal has been recently found in Jerusalem; the name on it is actually Isaiah, and several letters from the Hebrew word for prophet follow. It was as if this seal would have read in English, “Isaiah the proph . . .”. His poetic prophecies came first of all for the guidance and comfort for Israel after the defeat of the Assyrian army on the doorstep of Jerusalem, in 701 B.C.E. Yet after this historically attested devastation of the immense army from the world empire of the time, God have Isaiah spiritual awareness of a different world power that would threaten the people of God in the future. Isaiah prophesied, in some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry of the Bible, about the survival of the remnant from the Babylonian exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. In this section of prophecy, the book of comfort from chapters 40-66, gives four Servant songs for the comfort and spiritual awareness of the people of God for what was then the future and for all the people of God for all time. In these songs he was speaking about someone special who would be coming, in the future, the virtual representative of the nation in one person. The first Servant Song established that this special Servant was the ruling Son promised to the house of David far earlier in the book and the ministry in 9:-17, and the one on whom the Spirit would dwell in 11:1 and following. All these Songs came together to provide pieces of a preview of what was to come, and the cumulative effect of the pieces of the previews was to give a picture of the Messiah to come. Among all the Servant Songs, the fourth Servant Song is and remains the most familiar and the most influential, among the most beautiful and well known.


Messianic prophecy is in a way like the previews and trailers for upcoming movies that we see in our day. In Messianic prophecy God gives a brief series of word images as a preview of what he would do through the Messiah who was to come to a prophet, and the prophet describes what God had shown him. In this fourth Servant Song telling the people of God for all time what was to come. His previews of the Messiah to come were not not a series of videos but word dramas, and previews, in most beautiful, highly crafted poetry, with metaphors, similes, verses, stanzas, rhythm and all the other aspects that distinguish what we call poetry from prose. Most often in the ancient world prophecy was expected to be poetic, and it fully met this expectation in the Old Testament and in the work of Isaiah, to convey God’s words strikingly and memorably. Ancient Hebrew poetry was not so much rhyme as in popular poetry and songs in English, but parallelism and rhythm. Though modern rap is somewhat lost on me, the parallelism and rhythm might have seemed somewhat like rap. In a way it seems like the fourth Servant Song was the masterpiece of the great prophet. It seems evident to me that he put great care and love put into fabrication of the prophecy of the Messiah as the suffering and exalted Servant – and if there’s anything that Ted Kooser taught me, it’s that quality poetry that speaks to people is very hard work and takes great loving care and concern. This, shows how precious the truth was to him, how much he wished to communicate it appropriately, and how much the Holy Spirit was working within him to bring it to us in his writing as the inspired Word of God. But we now live after the fulfillment of this prophecy, in the New Testament, and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the New Testament is like having in front of us the whole spoiler alert, of the whole drama as the whole fourth Servant Song was enacted before us now. What was then a prophecy is now a  reality for all of us now on the other side of the prophecy, for those of us who have already seen the preview for the entire drama of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we can now live with the realization that this was not a drama for our entertainment, enjoyment and distraction but for the fulfillment of our deepest needs now and forever.


“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”


“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?
He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”


“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”


“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Dale’s own translation; see here for other translations)


The salvation which God brings is the ultimate shock to this world. The salvation that God brings amazes to silence the greatest that the world has to offer; the high and mighty shrink to insignificance before the person who brings this salvation. The person who brings the salvation, the suffering servant, has brought it about in total contradiction to the conventional wisdom of this world. The salvation of God, despite all the expectations of this world, would come about through a servant who had experienced the ultimate suffering.


The exaltation of the suffering Messiah is the ultimate wonder of the world. All the world of mankind diminishes with nothing in itself beside the suffering and exaltation in triumph of the suffering Servant of God. The preview that the prophet gives, that he had seen, and then explained and celebrated, was about a shocking disfigurement and a shocking exaltation to power and authority.


Ancient poetry is divided into strophes (pronounced strof –ee). The word comes from Greek, and is a common term in the study of ancient Greek poetry as well. The first strophe – or stanza, or first verse of the fourth Servant Song – is in Isaiah 52: 12-15:

“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”

In accord with much literature, and in ancient literature particularly, Isaiah begins the fourth Servant Song at the conclusion. He describes the wise success and exaltation of the suffering Servant, after his suffering has taken place. Through the prophecy of the fourth Servant Song, then, God calls the world to behold the exaltation of his Servant. This song starts with the wonder of the world at the ultimate wonder of this world, the exaltation of the Servant after his suffering. Though he was upon the hill of Zion, behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem, the vision of the Suffering Servant in the fourth Servant Song goes far beyond the Jewish nation. What would happen with the Suffering Servant would astonish the world to speechlessness and it would be something spectacular about which the world had no clue. What would come about from him would even be a priestly work even to sprinkle the vast nations and hordes of Gentiles, which would be entirely the action of a High Priest to sanctify but entirely unprecedented in that no High Priest of the line of Aaron of the nation of Israel every came close to doing such a thing, let alone at the cost of severe personal suffering. And in the context of the previous prophecies about that Suffering Servant would be the ruling Son of the House of David, this tells that the path to the fulfillment of these promises of rule would be his severe suffering! Rather than taking up political rule, this establishes that suffering would be the path to the promises of the rule for the ruling Son of David. For a nation which had experienced severe setbacks and reduction from the past glories of political power in the ancient Middle East, the expectation would be that military and political power would be the path to triumph against the imperial war machines of that day. Yet this establishes that the shocking work of the wisdom of God, in the suffering of the royal Son of David, would follow after the return from the captivity in Babylon – which had just been mentioned in the previous context in the earlier verses of chapter 52 of Isaiah.


The preview of the coming attraction shows something that no one of this world would consider attractive from the start. The worldly wise who do not begin from the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7) would never have figured it out beforehand. The great reversals characteristic of how God works through the coming of Jesus into our world, to bring the rulers and authorities of this world to bow down before the pierced feet of the Messiah in wonder and outright astonishment that such a thing could happen, and how it would show them to be next to nothing besides him.


Even more, the life and times of the suffering Servant would not be what the world as a whole would ever find as a suitable beginning of God’s ruler of this world. The path of the Suffering Servant to supreme power and authority over the universe would never be the path of someone that they would ever consider for the person who would become vastly superior to all of them with all authority and power in heaven and earth. So this is what we find in the second verse – not the same as the first! The second stanza and the second strophe, in Isaiah 53:1-3, goes like this:

“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?

He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”

Again, the fourth Servant Song centers on the life of a single person. The previous astonishment of the entire world at the exaltation of the suffering Messiah gives way to the utter; astonishment of the Prophet at the few who believe and receive the news about the suffering Servant. The suffering Servant would be someone who would come from humble beginnings, yet he would be ultimately and exclusively ‘the arm of the Lord’. This world looked for the beautiful person with the aura of power and magnetism. But this world could not and would not realize the real power was in the life and ministry of the man who dealt with people who had griefs and sicknesses, and that very man who received the disdain and rejection of the high and mighty at the culmination of his ministry.


The people of this world seek often enough the attractive, dominating, attractive and magnetic persons to lead. From them often arise the false Messiahs of this world, the earthly figures of politics, entertainment and human religion. But God continues throughout history with the great reversals of value that come with Jesus, when he changes the price tags on so much that this world has held to be of value. In the ultimate reign of God over our world and over the course of time that we dare to call human history it all comes down at the end to be the history of the Son of Man, the Jesus of the scriptures. There is ultimately nothing compared with the Savior who came and lived among us already. This certainly gives us sufficient reason never to lift up any human being on a pedestal, to see another person as the Messiah for us when the true Messiah has often come. This was once brought home tragically to the frontier hero Kit Carson. He was part of the rescue mission for a woman named Annie White who had been captured by the Apaches, and she tragically did not survive. He later wrote, “In camp was found a book, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds … I have often thought that Mrs. White read the same … [and prayed] for my appearance that she might be saved.”


The suffering of the Suffering Servant, though, is not at all suffering for the sake of suffering. It is by no means the infliction of suffering of a vengeful God upon an helpless and unwilling victim. Rather the suffering Servant suffers entirely and willingly for the ultimate good of his people. He came as the deliverer who delivers not by conquest of evildoers but by being delivered to the worst that the evil doers could do, and yet through that conquering the evil of this world by providing the path of peace and reconciliation for the entire world. This is what the prophet celebrates in the third verse, the third stanza or the third strophe (53:4-6):

“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”

The prophet now includes himself among the people of God. Here he is speaking of the reason for the suffering of the Servant before he describes the suffering. He describes the suffering of the servant as bearing sickness and sins, as one who takes it and bears it away. Certainly his affliction and torment came as divine punishment, but not for anything he had done wrong at all. In fact, the prophet emphasizes the innocence of the Servant here emphasized as he describes how he was pierced and pulverized. Again, all this was totally unprecedented and totally contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. In this fourth Servant Song the Suffering Servant then provided the satisfaction of justice to bring about peace and reconciliation between mankind and God – an amazing, unbelievable accomplishment in a world where all people were regarded as separated from each other by their national cultures, families and clans and national god and myths. Here is the image of mankind as sheep who were going astray, since like sheep we are all prone to wander off and get lost, and find ourselves in need of someone stronger and wiser to save us from where our ignorance, follies and transgressions have taken us. So many of us see it as justice for the fools that we see around us to suffer the consequences for their folly, but here the prophet tells us all that the penalty for the single-minded, hard headed wandering around which is the life of sin, which is the way of all of us, has been taken entirely by the Suffering Servant of the fourth Servant Song.

So then, this is what we find out here, and it should be terribly shocking and eye opening to each one of us: in a world where you don’t get what you deserve, someone else got what you deserved. In this world which is stuck on stupid, stuck on hardheaded, stuck on defiant, it ended up with someone else getting what everyone in this world deserved. But this not something that we find as meaning anything for us without a real personal connection to what it was all about. It falls to each one of us to be one of those who realizes what it’s all about and makes that personal reception of it for ourselves. For someone raised in church, or comes to church through marriage or family, this is often the step not taken in that person’s life, to take it for himself or herself. For with what the Messiah has done for each one of us, there is still that personal connection to him that is needed, that there is no secondhand faith that can save, but that each of us rather need to make one’s own peace with God, to receive the gift that came when that Suffering Servant took what you deserved and what he did not deserve.


This is something like my personal connection to several Marvel movies that were extremely popular. With the first Avengers movie that was filmed in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, I went downtown on a Saturday to watch and take some personal photographs of the filming. It gave me the chance to be close to the set, see the extras, even to be considered a part of the crew. Then I also was extremely surprised as I recognized a number of scenes in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie, since I had already photographed them and had the images of those locations in my personal albums. There was even a scene in the Spiderman III movie where I could point out the place where I had waited for the Regional Transit Authority bus on my commute to and from my suburban home. But with all that, I was a witness to the locations and some of the filming but not a part of the films; even when I was close to the Avengers set I didn’t have the Marvel name tag that meant I was a part of the production. Many who are part of our churches and with whom we rub shoulders every day are close to our churches and believers, and may even be mistaken for a genuine believer, but they have never received that name tag, to be tagged with the name of Jesus Christ because one has put his or her faith in him for one’s own eternal salvation. This is what it means to have saving faith, like the testimony of John Wesley, who describes that moment came to faith in Jesus. When he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate, someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans and then, about 8:45 p.m. ” . . . while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”


But then, the effect of the suffering of the Servant is described in the fourth Servant Song before the cause of the suffering of the Servant. The earthly machinery of injustice would bring about the suffering and death of the suffering Servant. The innocent but suffering Servant would be caught up in the suffering of the innocent in this world, and would be the ultimate example of the suffering of the innocent as he suffered to the uttermost. This is what the prophet told about in the fourth strophe (53:7-9). So here’s the fourth stanza, the fourth verse:

“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

So then, the prophet comes to the prophecy of the the earthly circumstances of the suffering of the Servant. He describes what was to come and gives the preview of the suffering and death of the Suffering Servant, through terrible miscarriages of human injustice. The Suffering Servant would be known for his meekness and patience throughout the oppressive, unjust judicial proceedings, and ultimately he would be led away after arrest and sentencing to execution. He would be treated as one of the criminals of this world, and yet he would not buried as a criminal but as a rich man. The mention of no posterity pointed to the young age of the Servant, that the worthless and futile miscarriage of justice in that day and age would deprive him of marriage and children; his would be a life short changed of what he deserved and cut short of a normal human existence, of the rewards of marriage, children and a ripe and pleasant old age. Instead, he took the blow, the plague, the curse upon himself, for the sin and transgressions of the people of God, and, though totally innocent himself, the innocent Servant would subjected to the ultimate injustice of this world, of the machinery of human justice gone insane and fatally dysfunctional.


This would ultimately be for the comfort for the people of God. In this world the innocent and the innocent among the people of God suffer, and this tells us that that their subjection to injusice and oppression is not in vain. Though the righteous people of God who suffer innocently, through no fault of their own, they have before them the  ultimate example in the Savior who already suffered the ultimate in oppression and injustice. But, though, the prophet didn’t end here with the suffering of the Servant; rather he concluded just as he began with the victory of the Servant.


The salvation which God brings comes as the victory of the Savior. The salvation of God is the the salvation which exalts and glorifies the Savior by the will of God, and it is the utter triumph of the suffering Servant of God. This is the happy ending of the song which is the happy ending of the Servant and and the happy ending for those for whom he suffered.


Finally, the ultimate prize for the universe goes to the suffering Servant of God. Though that is a contest that no one would want to enter, yet the one who endured such humiliation and suffering would receive as his reward more than anything that the high and mighty would ever manage to take for themselves by force or command. He would be the ultimate conqueror who conquered ultimately by allowing himself to be treated as if he was conquered completely. This is the triumph of the fifth strophe (53:10-12). So this is the conclusion, the fifth stanza and the fifth verse:

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

So the fourth Servant Song repeats the theme of unexpected exaltation and triumph as it returns back to the conclusion; in many songs we see this and call it the familiar A-B-C-B-A structure. And then here at the conclusion there is the return to the exaltation of the suffering Servant. The conclusion of the song is all about his victory, and it centers on his victory over sin and death more than his unexpected exaltation before the powers and authorities of this world. The Suffering Servant had  literally had become a guilt offering for this world, and what happened was the will of the God of Israel. In fact, the Suffering Servant provided way for sinful people to be accounted righteous by personal knowledge of him. Even more, he performed the High Priestly duty of making intercession for the wrongdoers, and even more he played the part of the priest who was himself the sacrifice. His suffering, then, preceded his ascension to the power and authority to deal with the mighty and powerful of this earth as he pleases, To him alone came the results of great victory, the spoils, the booty and the prize for which all the high and mighty of this earth were seeking and striving. The description sounds as if he were leading all his enemies in a victory parade – and that is a very New Testament depiction of the victory of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-12). And in this passage resurrection definitely implied if not indicated by the textual variant which was preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript of Isaiah (“he shall see light”). But even if the actual text of Isaiah was different, the whole description implies resurrection of the Suffering Servant, since his suffering was suffering to death and the victory means that he must be alive afterwards.


The conclusion is that the ultimate victory is that of Jesus, who suffered and died according to the will and predetermination of God. Understand that all the rivals, such as Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and Joseph Smith did not die for you; they are in their graves, they cannot save you, and they will not judge you at the end. Ultimately we will all face Jesus, and this will be the reversal for those who turn out at the end to have been on the wrong end of the machinery of injustice of this world. And with this comes the need for each one of us, the need to turn to Jesus, to be on the right side of the Son of God. For those who are not on the side of Jesus, they will find themselves in a worse predicament than the German soldiers in World War II who invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. They believed from the promises of the false Messiah Adolf Hitler that they would be in a victory parade in Moscow after the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they were; but as it happened, but they were there as the prisoners of the other side.


So the preview of the suffering of the ultimate Servant of God came to us as a carefully crafted song. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit it came not as a rant against injustice but a song of sadness and beauty which ended in the ultimate victory. It remains even if we are unaware of its poetic nature and beauty as one of the ultimate hit songs of all time, since it previews the ultimate happy ending for the people of God that came through the Suffering Servant. In our age, then the believer in Christ should definitely read and meditate on this song with the under stand that he or she knows exactly who the prophet was writing about. It may be that for us a modern song speaks to our hearts, but this one can and should speak to our hearts in a deeper way if we recognize who it is speaking about. This one came from the prophet through the Holy Spirit about the most precious realities that we can understand experience now and in the future. This song is the preview of what would happen through Jesus Christ in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. This song leads us to the ultimate, unshakeable hope in this world that has no hope in itself.

First of all, it should lead us all to recognize that all of us need a Savior, the Suffering Servant of this song. If you are reading this, your time is now to believe and receive eternal life through the Son of God. And just as much it should mean that we give no human being anything close to the worship and admiration that we give the Savior, since they will all fade to nothing, like the picture in an old television that shrinks to a dot and disappear, before the glory of the risen Savior, to whom all power and authority has been given in heaven and on earth. And finally this should mean that we also bow before the Savior in submission to him, for he has died and is risen again, and he is worthy!

Forbidden

A number of sources have reported that a number of millennials, even those from church backgrounds, are turning to the occult lately. John Stonestreet, on the Breakpoint broadcast, explained it this way: “The fact is young people aren’t being won by atheism in significant numbers. In fact, by some measures, militant unbelief is dying. Rather, they’re trying to fill that deep spiritual longing they have with a faith that offers self-affirmation and a belief in something beyond our physical world—a spirituality that places no moral demands on its adherents. . . . Ultimately, what they’re searching for is an alternative to God, who, as St. Augustine famously said, made us for Himself. But God does make such moral demands of us, demands that point us to human flourishing—and to Himself, and His love for us that is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.”

With this recent growth in interest in occult among millennials, particularly those from a church and evangelical background, I’m reminded of the statement I myself have made, and which has been echoed by others: this is the most undiscerning generation of professed Christians in a very long time. But unfortunately, many, if not most of them, may never have heard the scriptural teaching and warning on the occult. This lack of discernment may well be due to an appalling lack of knowledge about what the scriptures say about these things. What was common knowledge among professed believers about Satan and his works, and the particular darkness and bondage that come from occult practices, seems to have been left in the past.

Sometimes it seems like those who have been brought up in Christian families are more naïve about the dangers of the occult. I will let Corrie ten Boom stand as an example for others who have been raised in Christian families by godly parents. She was definitely not ignorant of the dangers of the occult. Rather she saw more clearly than perhaps anyone else she worked with at the time the dangers of the occult and the demonic bondage it brought. Her sisters brought her this awareness from their knowledge of the legacy of the ministry of Pastor Blumhardt and this equipped her for ministry in the days ahead.

Here is how it happened: in the days after the defeat of Germany in World War II, Corrie ten Boom often spoke on a certain Old Testament passage to the survivors of the concentration camps and others who survived. Many in Germany and elsewhere in Europe were desperate to know about the fate of lost loved ones, and often they turned to turned to psychics, mediums and spiritists to try to learn about their fates. At that point many fell into bondage to evil spirits from their forays into the occult. A number of times she had to lead them out of the bondage to the darkness to which they had turned. And this was in Germany, the land of liberal theology, where so many theologians and intellectuals led many church people into skepticism about the miracles and the supernatural in the Bible. And here in our day, where we live among a generation that finds entertainment from demons, zombies, vampires and magic we have been too silent about the truth and victory in Jesus and the danger of the spiritual evil in the supernatural. And so many people come into spiritual bondage when they dabble in ignorance or proud defiance of what the God of the Bible has explicitly forbidden to his people.

The key passage, which Corrie ten Boom often spoke on, is in Deuteronomy 18:9-14. What God says to us through this passage is in full accord with the teaching of the scripture on the occult from beginning to end, but this passage spells out what God has explicitly forbidden to his people so there can be no mistake about what he means. Here is what he had to say:

“When you have come into the land which the LORD your God has given you, do not try to learn to do the horrible things that those nations do. Don’t let there be anyone found among you who makes his or her son or daughter ‘pass through’ the fire, or practices fortune telling, magic, divination or sorcery, casts spells, or consults with a medium, or seeks information from or seeks after the dead, because everyone who does these things is an abomination before the LORD. And the peoples who are steeped in these things are the ones whom the LORD your God is dispossessing before your face. You shall be the completely pure nation of the LORD your God. Though these nations which he will dispossess before you practice divination and consult with fortunetellers, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-14, Dale’s sight translation).

God forbids his people to dabble with magic, fortunetelling and spiritism.  These are all ways of dealing with the supernatural that he forbids to his people. They are part of an unredeemable part of false, pagan religion that cannot be incorporated into living with the God of the Bible or following his Word. The teaching of the Bible is remarkably clear and consistent on all these things from beginning to end. His prohibition is absolute, detailed, applies to all ages. In fact, I believe that the prohibition of these practices is as strong and absolute as the scriptural prohibition of murder.

God’s ban on magic, fortunetelling and spiritism was part of keeping the people of God free from pagan religious practices. The complete and absolute ban defines clearly what the people of God were not to follow from the people of this world. This is what is made clear, starting from verse 9: “When you have come into the land which the LORD your God has given you, do not try to learn to do the horrible things that those nations do.”

So God’s prohibition on magic, fortunetelling and spiritism was part of his command to the people of Israel not to learn the religious practices of the Canaanites. God had given the people of Israel the land of Canaan, and the reason that the prohibition appears in this context is that magic, fortunetelling and spiritism were an intrinsic part of the religious practices of the various Canaanite people. God knew that the the danger was that as the people of Israel took over the land of Canaan, that they might decide to try to learn about the gods of Canaan and how to worship them, since, in ancient world, gods were widely regarded as tied to the lands of their peoples. It would have been a natural desire from the conventional wisdom of their time, to try to learn about the Canaanite gods when they took over the land of the Canaanite people. But  the God of the Bible gives very strong prohibition against their detestable ways – what could be translated as abominations or as horrible practices. It’s not easy to convey the strength of this word to modern audiences, except to say that God utterly hated these practices.

This command was part of the general commands throughout the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, to avoid copying the ways of the Canaanites, and especially in the matter of worship. Even among the particularly corrupting ways of worship in the ancient world, the Canaanites were notoriously depraved. Throughout the ancient world, there was often no real theoretical or practical distinction between religion and magic, and often their gods were magicians as well, such as Ea and Hecate. These ways  of magic incorporated into idolatrous worship were spread throughout the ancient world. Moses and Aaron had already encountered them when they faced the magicians of Pharaoh. They were further  introduced by Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel many years later and were part of the downward spiral of that kingdom until its ultimate judgment and destruction. These ways of magic and worship were also encountered by the prophet Daniel in Babylon. And so God forbade them from trying to learn about them. This prohibition was made as part God’s expectation of the obedience of Israel to the first and second commandments, to have no other gods before him and not to have any other images of gods based on anything in the created order. 

Perhaps the best statement on the occult nature of ancient and false religions comes from the late New York Times reporter McCandlish Phillips, a convinced evangelical Christian, in his book The Bible, the Supernatural and the Jews: “There is no realm in which Satan is more active than religion. As a spiritual leader, Satan has devised many forms of religion, none of which are able to bring a man into relationship with the living God or to release him from the grip of sin. His religions tend to have certain similarities over the world. They are marked by rote and ritual, repetitions and incantations, idols and altars, images and protecting charms.”

So then, in our world, occult practices are the way that people who do not know the God of the Bible try to satisfy their hunger for the supernatural. Magic and fortune-telling have generally been a part of non-Christian religious practice for thousands of years. Moreover, turning to magic and fortune-telling is a significant departure from orthodox Christianity when it occurs; it is part of corrupt Christianity when it becomes mixed with pagan religions. And generally, it’s a part which is often not mentioned as a part of normal practices of non-Christian religions such as Islam, Buddhism, native American religions, Caribbean religions, and Hinduism as well as the ancient pagan religions and Hinduism. It’s noteworthy that so many adherents of these religions attempt to argue and disagree with Christians through rational arguments but practice deepest superstitions as part of the normal rituals of their religions. 

It’s also a mark of compromise of liberal, mainline churches in the past and present to turn a blind eye to or even to introduce people to these practices – for instance, I first learned about séances from the son of a minister of a mainline church at a church camp. Moreover, many times these are normal practices of atheists and agnostics who try to present rational arguments against the God of the Bible but themselves indulge in and practice the most childish superstitions and become ensnared in ‘the deep things of Satan.’ I don’t think that nearly enough Christian leaders to expose this kind of special pleading from modern atheists: the demand for utter rationalism for Christians but not never directed to themselves and their adherence to these kinds of personal practices and beliefs, when they claim to have spiritual interests but deny the existence of the God of the Bible.

The tendency to become involved in magic, fortunetelling and sorcery, then, is one result of the natural state of unbelief, of spiritual blindness and darkness:

  • “And you were once dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk in the present age of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience . . .” (Ephesians 2:1-2).
  • “But if our gospel is hidden, it is hidden among those who are perishing, among whom the god of this world has blinded the thought processes of those who are in unbelief, lest there burst in the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (II Corinthians 4:3-4 ).

The temptation to start and continue in them is through the desire for supernatural power and knowledge apart from God – the old temptation from the serpent, ‘. . . you shall be like gods/God’ (Genesis 3:5)

Therefore, God’s prohibition of magic, fortunetelling and spiritism was exact and specific. God made it clear about everything that he was not going to allow them to do in this realm. The specific prohibitions are detailed here, but they are also  repeated throughout the scriptures into the New Testament period. There can be no mistake that this prohibition went further than the time period of Moses and Deuteronomy and was not a part of the Old Testament Law that was superseded by the coming of Jesus and the New Testament with salvation by grace and not by works of the Law.

In verses 10-11 God gives his specific prohibitions of the specific forms of divination, magic and spiritism which were practiced then and which are also able to be identified with practices which happen now. Here is what he has said: “Don’t let there be anyone found among you who makes his or her son or daughter ‘pass through’ the fire, or practices fortune telling, magic, divination or sorcery, casts spells, or consults with a medium, or seeks information from or seeks after the dead, because everyone who does these things is an abomination before the LORD.”

It’s usually easy to get modern people to see what an abomination the first specific prohibition is: child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was already already forbidden earlier in the Bible in Leviticus 18:21, and it was a known feature of worship of the ancient Canaanite god Molech. This was also one of the specific sin of the evil kings Ahaz and Manasseh of the line of David who ruled in Jerusalem, and it was an indication of how deeply they sank in the worst forms of idolatry. It was unfortunately considered to be an especially powerful form of magic and divination in the ancient world. It is an especially clearly demonic form of worship, to sacrifice the lives of the most helpless and innocent to the exigencies of idolatrous worship.

It might be not so easy for a modern audience to understand how God could consider the other practices to be abominations: such things as casting spells, astrology, necromancy/mediums who attempted to communicate with the dead (such as Saul and the sorceress of Endor in I Samuel 28:1-25). But let’s be clear about some things that we might term ‘magic’ and fortunetelling which wouldn’t really be considered part of these practices. For instance, this would include not mechanical or sleight of hand illusions by modern illusionists such as David Copperfield (whose Christian testimony I have heard him give). And the fortune cookies in a Chinese restaurant wouldn’t really come under these prohibitions, since they’re mostly  just bad slogans and trite advice.

Here are God’s specific prohibitions and their modern equivalents:

  • Human sacrifice: known to be practiced by some Satanic cults and still by some isolated pagan groups 
  • Divination: fortunetelling by cards, pendulum, etc.
  • Sorcery:  witchcraft, casting spells and”white” or “black” magic of any kind
  • Interpretation of omens: astrology, tea leaf reading, crystal gazing, palm reading, etc.
  • Mediums or spiritism of any kind: consulting the “dead”, séances, channeling, the Ouija board

Note that all these prohibitions are also repeated elsewhere in the Law of Moses, so that there can be no mistake that God through scripture is not completely consistent with this prohibition:

  •  “Do not allow a woman who practices sorcery to live” (Exodus 22:18, Dale’s sight translation).
  • “Do not practice divination or interpret omens.” Leviticus 19:26, (context of religious practices)
  • “Do not turn your attention to mediums and do not seek after spiritists – you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:31,
  • “I myself will set my face against every soul who seeks after mediums and spiritists – to prostitute himself or herself after them! – and I will cut that person off from among my people.” (Leviticus 20:6, Dale’s sight translation).

All these practices received the death penalty under the civil law of Israel. This was because they were covenant treason. These practices were violations of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). They involved treating other beings as gods besides the one true God of the Bible.  These practices are also violations of the second commandment because they often treated created beings and objects – parts of God’s creation — as if they were gods – a substitute for the true and living God. In addition, the third commandment – “You shall not use the name of the LORD your God in vain . . .” (Exodus 20:7) — is often violated in these practices where the name of the God of the Bible is used in occult practices as if he were involved or approved of these practices or he were equal to or could be invoked alongside the pagan gods in magic rituals or he could be manipulated or compelled to any kind of action through magic or sorcery. This shows just how serious the third commandment truly is, that it’s not just about using the name of God as an expletive or swear word but in a way which involves him in practices which he condemns.  The imposition of the death penalty was  to remove the spiritual pollution and indication to later generations how the consequences of these practices, as sin and transgressions of the Law of God,  are death (Romans 6:23). And it is one of the marks of later lawlessness among the people  of Israel that the prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah confronted and mocked these practices also. Indeed, these practices of fortunetelling and sorcery even seemed to have been a part of a strange kind of feminist religiosity in Ezekiel 13 and Jeremiah 44. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider these passages.

One question that I have had for years when reading the gospels, then, was why Jesus encountered so many demon possessions among Jewish people in his time, when few if any demon possessions are evident in the Old Testament. One possible answer which makes sense to me is that compromises with pagan idolatry and occult practices were probably responsible for most of the demon possessions which Jesus encountered. In later times it’s noteworthy that these practices also  included use of mind altering drugs such as marijuana and opium the further they went away from even educated pagans beyond the Roman empire – and this occult connection of these drugs with occult and idolatrous practices is often enough not mentioned among people in our churches. That these drugs and practices can open a person up to demonic influence and bondage is something that many people who were professed believers may not realize before they begin.  Yet from the beginning of scripture to the end, God confronts occult practices as forbidden and abominations And from the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to the end he brings in the victory and defeats these counterfeits, and this continues wherever the God of the Bible does war with the evil of this world, when the gospel reaches new people and new peoples.

There is nothing really vague about what God has forbidden in occult practices. There is no confusion about what God is specifying in his Word when he forbids magic, sorcery and fortunetelling. So when these things sprout up even among professed believers in Christ they are actually a mark of ignorance of the Word of God or even outright defiance of the Word. And because we may see ourselves as ‘Not under the Law’ because we stand on this side of the cross of Christ and the New Covenant, they are still not something which we can look into or dabble in today. Rather, in the light of scripture from beginning to end we must see magic, sorcery and fortunetelling as spiritual evil which was first defined under the Law which but which continues to apply to all ages and times and cultures.

Again, some of these same practices are found nowadays in Hinduism and Buddhism, even in the watered down forms which infiltrate the modern western culture in different waves. For several centuries there have been practices and ideas from Hindu and Buddhism which have come across western culture and which tended to follow both popular atheism and lukewarm and entertainment based Christianity (late 1700s; early 1900s; mid 1960s). These waves of curiosity and becoming fascinated with pagan practices tend to follow shallow and lukewarm Christianity in western culture. The general principle is:  after boredom with churchianity and ritual and tradition based Christianity spiritual curiosity tends to spiritual compromise with what God has forbidden. This was what happened in the early church, such as in Colossae, and then later in late 2nd century – one of the prime characteristics of Gnosticism was spiritual compromise with pagan magical practices. And though the ‘emergent church’ seems to have become much less fashionable and to have lost its cachet, renewed interest in these same practices has also been a part of the ‘emergent church’ and with ‘progressive’ Christianity. 

There was a case which the late Walter Martin mentioned which described how a young woman became involved with the occult and then went into demonic possession. The case is remarkably similar to that of Gottliebin Dittus, which Johann Blumhardt dealt with. Dr. Martin was called to help with young woman who was a nominal Christian, but was actually unconverted. She found that God wasn’t answering her prayers, so she went into the occult instead. She then became victim of multiple possessions. Through a time of ministry she was eventually delivered of the possessions. She then confessed her sins of occultism, renounced the devil and his works, repented and put her faith in Christ. In the years to come she became exemplary believer, wife and mother and showed the power of Christ to deliver.

One thing that does need to be added: the word which is translated ‘sorcery’ is the Greek word pharmakeia in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Our word pharmacy is derived from this word. It’s also used in that translation in Exodus 7:11 and 22, and Isaiah 47:9 and 12. It occurs also in the New Testament in Galatians 5:21 and Revelation 18:23, 21:8 and 22:15. It brings out the relation of drug use in the ancient world as a part of the practice of magic. Marijuana, hashish and opium were definitely known in the ancient world, and the further one went from the more ‘civilized’ parts of the ancient world the more they were used in recreational and spiritual use. The Scythians in particular were known for their use of hashish. In the Mediterranean area, wine and beer were cheap and abundant, and anyone who wanted to could generally get drunk as an escape from reality. The use of these drugs as a part of sorcery was to make them more open to spiritual realities, much as they are used by some today – just Google ‘marijuana’ and ‘spirituality’ to see large number of links pop up – but don’t follow the links, please! I’ve always wondered why some people who were professed believers in Christ seemed to become spiritually dull and obtuse to the Christ and the gospel after they started to go into marijuana use, and I think that this is why: it seems to be a part of turning from pure and holy spiritual experience in Christ through the Holy Spirit to a defiled and defaced spiritual experience which is more open to the demonic.

The problem of professed believers in Christ entering into into the occult occurs every generation or two. It comes first of all because of a spiritual passivity and laziness after God which leads to an unnecessary ignorance of the plain teaching of the Word of God about the occult. It also becomes a problem for those who live by conformity to others and to outside authority, who may be easily led by others into the occult, and it is often a problem for those who are looking for feelings and experiences and yet do not have much discernment about the source of those feelings and experiences.  Following feelings and people out of ignorance of the Word of God and sometimes in outright defiance of the Word of God means that there will always be the need to make the plain teaching of the Word of God on this clear to every generation. And the truth of Proverbs 14:12 needs to be repeated in every generation as well:

“There is a way which seems upright to a man or woman, 
But its end is the way of death.’’

God doesn’t have to give the reasons for what he forbids. But he often does let us into the reasons, and he does so here was well. It’s part of his treatment of his people as adults, who can understand and follow his will and can understand his purposes. The spiritual purity that God expects from his people is why he forbids occult practices. The purity of heart, life and spirit which he expects means separation from defiling spiritual practices. This kind of purity of heart, life and spirit is then part of the general call of God for his people to show his purity and holiness in this world.

Spiritual purity means avoiding pagan paths which lead to spiritual defilement. Spiritual defilement comes from doing spiritual practices which God finds abominable. Understanding and avoiding this paths are part of the due attention that believers need to give to anything which God says in his Word that he hates. And this includes things he calls abominations which are abominations in all ages.

The clear statement of God’s revulsion toward occult practices is in verse 12: “ . . . because everyone who does these things is an abomination before the LORD. And the peoples who are steeped in these things are the ones whom the LORD your God is dispossessing before your face.” All these pagan practices of divination, magic and Spiritism are detestable to God. Here it is clear that they are a reason for judgment of the Canaanites through work of God and warfare of the Israelites, during the conquest of the land of Canaan. God would work to drive out these nations since they had come to the point where they had exhausted the patience of God. And in the conquest of Canaan it is clear that the God of the Bible preceded and accompanied the warfare of the Israelites with supernatural judgments of God. One of the reasons that Israel would conquer the land of Canaan with the guidance and help of God was because the justice of God was coming because his patience with false religion and corrupting practices had come to an end.

It’s difficult to say how defiling these practices are, and how much they lead to deep spiritual darkness in the lives of the people who practice them. They’re not the unforgivable sin, though; there have often been people saved from lives of occultism and deep darkness among the followers of Christ. But no one would even begin if it were clear to them how much deep darkness goes along with these practices, even to mental illness and suicide. It’s no wonder that deep spiritual darkness upon the heart comes from practices which God calls abominations and detestable.  

The leaders in these practices often become leaders in opposition to the world of God in this world as well. This is now deep the darkness can be upon the heart which goes into these practices. The examples include:

  • The sorcerers of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:11,
  • Balaam (Numbers 22:7, 24:1)
  • Jezebel (II Kings 9:22)
  • Simon Magus (Acts 8;9, 20-24)
  • Elymas/Bar Jesus (Acts 13:6-8)

But with all these people, here’s the thing: they were all unsuccessful and they all paid terribly for their opposition. No magic or divination has ever been successful against the people of God as they have followed God.

When the scripture above says in verse 12: “ . . . because everyone who does these things is an abomination before the LORD”, it does not look like a direct reference to the demonic, but it is certainly implied as revelation progresses through the Old and New Testaments. It seems like the scriptural explanation of the demonic nature of pagan religion and occult practices had to proceed much more slowly than the forbidding of these practices. There were mentions in the Old Testament and the New Testament, though, which spelled this out. For example: 

  • “Their sacrifices made him jealous;
    Their abominations made him very angry.
    They sacrificed to demons and not to God,
    To gods whom they had not known,
    Novelties which had just popped up,
    Which their ancestors did not recognize.” (Deuteronomy 32:16-17  — the Greek word in the Septuagint – the  ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament – is the same word which is used in the New Testament for for demon. Modern Old Testament dictionaries recognized this equivalence)
  • “They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons” (Psalm 106:37)
  • “But whenever they make sacrifices, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I don’t want you to have anything in common with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” (I Corinthians 10:20-21) .

Since the responsibility of the people of God is to hate evil (Psalm 97:10), it is clear what the responsibility of the people of God: the hatred of what God hates and  has called abominable. And since the earliest days of the church of Jesus, the profession of faith in Jesus has also meant renouncing ‘the devil and all his works.’ In light of this passage, what this means should be entirely clear: repentance for all previous indulgence in magic, sorcery and fortunetelling, even if it was done in ignorance.

Where we usually find ignorance of and indulgence in magic, sorcery and fortunetelling in modern churches is in the ‘compromised one third’. That’s the term I use for the percentage that usually can be found in surveys to have rather shaky conversions and a lot of ideas and habits usually associated with being unregenerate. Many may simply need to grow in Christ, but we can usually find a sizable percentage in our churches who try to serve multiple masters, to hold onto Jesus and a ticket to heaven in one hand and something else in the other. The practice of this practical idolatry usually includes some form of deep selfishness the false gods of romance, marriage and sex or money or politics as well as dabbling in non-Christian religions and religious practices. I leave it to the reader to see why it’s reasonable that occult practices usually have some attraction in Hollywood and form the subject matter for so many movies and TV shows. 

Someone might mention the occurrence of magic in the fiction of  J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S. Lewis,  and J.K. Rowling. But here’s the thing: Tolkien and Lewis never pretended and actually denied explicitly that occult practices were acceptable for Christians in this age. Even though J.K. Rowling has in the past claimed to be a believer in Christ as well, her fiction does not depict anything like modern occultism. In fact, in the final Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), actually deals with life and death with scripture in the last book. But I’ve personally grown much more cautious about Harry Potter in light of more recent indications that these books and movies incite curiosity and exploration into the occult by many. And this is a very real danger. For instance, many in my generation came to become curious about the occult when we saw the occult practices like witchcraft and I Ching in the old soap opera Dark Shadows in the late 1960s. I would counsel the people of God, therefore, to understand that for some people Harry Potter could be an incentive to investigate and go deeper into the occult.

Strangely enough, the significant difference in reality and effectiveness of the power of the name of Jesus was spelled out dramatically for myself once in a dream I had. I don’t claim any revelatory authority for this dream; rather, it seems that my unconscious mind explained this better through this little nighttime psychodrama than any words I could easily think up. In the dream I saw Harry Potter trying to do battle with evil forces through his magic wand, and that didn’t work very well. But then I stepped up and used the name of Jesus and his name was effective every time I used his name against the powers of evil. (For more information, see Authority Over Spiritual Darkness in This World).

The spiritual purity of the people of God demands radical separation, then, from the abominations which bring spiritual defilement. It’s part of what it means to live in the salvation from the God of the Bible. It’s why God repeats and makes his prohibition clear again in verses 13-14: “You shall be the completely pure nation of the LORD your God. Though these nations which he will dispossess before you practice divination and consult with fortunetellers, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so.” 

Again, the scripture is clear in calling for the complete and decisive separation of the people of God from both divination and sorcery. The clear statement of scripture is that God has not given any permission for these practices in any way among his people. The reminder is given to the Israelites that God is judging and kicking the Canaanite nations from their land for these practices. The people of God are therefore to understand that there will  never be no superiority in knowledge or understanding or any advantage to them in this life or before God for their practices.

God’s expectation is summed up in his command to be blameless and this means includes this kind of separation from divination and sorcery. It’s noteworthy that in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was prevalent in the time of Jesus, uses this very same word in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect (same word) as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So separation from divination and sorcery is part of what it means to be  wholehearted and blameless before God. before God, blameless. Throughout the ages this separation has been complete and decisive and no compromise permitted. And the reaction of the people, of confession and destruction of occult paraphernalia, in Ephesus in Acts 19:18-20 has been part of the deep repentance and renunciation that the Lordship of Jesus demands: “Many of those who had come to faith began confessing and divulging their practices. A large number of those who had been practicing secret arts brought out their books and burned them before everyone . . .”.

The decisive separation from the magical practices which God has not permitted has been a part of living as the people of God throughout the ages. It comes from the decisive victory of Jesus on the cross over the powers of darkness. He has forever delivered his people from the power of darkness, and God transferred his people into the kingdom of his dear Son (Colossians 1:19). Living in this victory then means abiding in Jesus and learning from and putting into practice his Word in our lives: “So then, as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, conduct your life in him, as you are rooted and built up in him and are made stable in the faith just as you were taught and as you overflow with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

Something that never seems to be much understood but which needs to be understood much more strongly among believers in Christ is the deep changes that following Jesus makes in the life, thoughts and emotions of the person who has renounced the occult and received eternal life by faith in Jesus. There may be some remnants of the old thought processes that persist for some months to several years afterwards. The truth is that purifying the thought life of the believer from the sheer weirdness, superstition and spookiness, jumbled thoughts, lingering deceptions, magical thinking and personal immaturity that involvement in the occult produces takes some time in the Word, in prayer and in fellowship with other believers.

Since this may take some months and years it is crucial that the body of Christ not become easily offended if the person coming out of occultism says or does something that others think is ‘weird.’ This is not a time to isolate, pathologize or gossip someone who love and follows Christ and may still be seeking to leave behind some of the thoughts and words of the old life – there’s never a time for that. The answer is always to love and gently instruct the person coming out of the occult according to the Word of God. The correction and healing of the thought  processes from the regular preaching, teaching and personal study and application of the Word of God can in fact bring about a remarkable transformation of life. And the relief from the infection of the thought processes simply calls for practice of renewal of the mind through the Word of God (Romans 12:1-2) over a lifetime to Christlikeness – just like everyone else who comes to Christ in faith for salvation.

No compromise with any kind of spiritual darkness is necessary, though, because God has given us instead is so much more. He has given us his Word for guidance, prayer for his guidance, provision and fellowship, and the authority of the name of Jesus for dealing with the powers of evil in this world. So it’s an amazing realization to come to, that not only are occult practices forbidden, but they are totally unnecessary for a child of God who understands what he or she has in Christ, namely,  every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in him (Ephesians 1:3).  you will never receive any greater happiness and blessing through the works of the devil than you would receive from following Christ closely in the first place

The God of the Bible has always been at war with the deceptions, counterfeits and other works of Satan in this world. He has always been at war with false religion because it is one of the counterfeits of he who was the liar from the very beginning. It is one of the counterfeits that he tries to use to draw us to where he can steal the glory of God, kill our joy in God and defile and destroy our relationship with God. But the war continued to the cross of Jesus, and that cross was the decisive defeat of Satan and all his works for all eternity. The reality is now that Jesus is Lord and conqueror, and that he has the victory for all time and in all places. Victory is in him, and greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.

Make a clean, decisive break in life part of acknowledging Jesus Lord of all your  life if you are a believer in Christ. Make your repentance complete through complete renunciation, separation and avoidance from the practices that God forbids and finds repulsive. Sometimes this kind of repentance that may sometimes be part of conversion, of repentance and faith. Often, though, it’s part of later repentance that is a deepening and enforcing of the turning away from Satan and all his works. Let this complete repentance go as far as the removal of physical articles from a life which involved occult practices that you have you in possession. It’s preferable to destroy these objects, especially if personally used or used in rituals, even if just ‘art’. When I was in college, for example, the destruction of Ouija boards in the fireplace of the house where I lived off campus often accompanied someone’s coming to Christ and growing in Christ. 

Genuine safety from a world of spiritual evil and spiritual deception is in genuine conversion. Genuine repentance and faith in Jesus puts a person into the right kingdom and under the protection of almighty power and in the eternal goodness of God. The life of spiritual safety then comes through walking closely with him and letting his Word transform your mind and your life is the way of safety. Don’t stop short of this; if you have not yourself repented of your sins and put your faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life, do so now.  

Finally, boredom with being a Christian or a churchy and religious routine should drive you to know more of the God of the Bible. There will always be more for us to know of him as we walk with him and grow closer to him. So, if you’re bored, or even worse, hurt and drained, don’t go looking for something else to replace him in your life. Rather, ask him to show more of his glory and what may be making you bored with the routine. Look to grow deeper in Christ and walk more closely with him than ever before.

Christ Our Power Before Christ Our Example

I haven’t posted anything for a while, but there’s a good deal of material that I have underway which I hope to be posting soon. Here’s something I think that needs to be emphasized more: Christ our example comes down to legalism without Christ our Savior and Christ our Power beforehand.

Please see: “I am a Christian, not because I think I can walk in Jesus’s footsteps, but because He is the only one Who can carry me. I am not the gospel; Jesus Christ alone is the Gospel. His story saves me, not only by bringing me justification, but by baptizing me into His resurrection life” –> Christ Our Power

“Jesus as an example is law. Jesus living, dying, rising for us & saving sinners is gospel.” — J. L. Martin

Complete

Some  years ago I had in my personal library the autobiography of Granville Moody. He was a Methodist pastor from southwestern Ohio who served in the mid 1800s. During the American Civil War he became one of the political generals in the Union Army, as some other prominent pastors at the same time. It was a custom now little known that before a battle the generals of both armies would call the troops together and give a pastor a chance to call them to make their peace with God before the battle. The testimony of Moody and of history is that many of them did respond to the preaching of the gospel, and they then went to eternity having received salvation in Christ during the fearsome toll of human lives that those battles took.

Moody also told the  story about the conversion of a former slave in Kentucky after the Civil War.  He was a shrewd man who bought some land where there were some large old oak trees. Under those trees he then built a pen and kept pigs there. Under the trees their feed would naturally drop from above in the form of acorns which the pigs loved. This man then one day saw the pigs eating the acorns, and he realized that he was just like them. He had been taking the blessings that were falling from above without any regard to their source, and his heart began to turn to God. And we’re like them.  We often disregard not only the blessings from above, but without any regard to the tree from which they come. That tree from which our blessings fall is another way which we describe the cross of Jesus.

The expression ‘curtains’ is an idiom borrowed from the theater. It can be about the curtain that falls at the end of a final act. And it’s often used as a euphemism for someone’s death, maybe even a violent death. And there are curtains that we could say surround the circumstances of the actual death of Jesus. There we’ll find the opening of curtains, to reveal what is actually happening at the same time. But  then, at the same time,, as the crucifixion took place, it seemed that the curtains were falling on the hopes and desires that were pinned on Jesus. He was the best candidate to date for the Messiah to save Israel. But at the same time there were other curtains that were opening up to explain what was happening at that time, and these other curtains that were opening up opened to show that what was happening was not the final act for Jesus.

“And when the sixth hour had arrived, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And in the ninth hour Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?’ – which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you totally abandoned me?’” Some of those who were standing by heard this and said, ‘Hey, he’s calling on Elijah!’ So one of them ran and filled a sponge with wine vinegar. He put it on a reed and tried to get him to drink it. He said, ‘Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.’ But Jesus gave a great shout and then breathed his last. The veil of the Temple was ripped in two from the top to the bottom. And when the centurion who was standing opposite him saw how he had died he said, “Certainly this was the Son of God.” There were women who were watching these things from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the lesser James and Joseph, and Salome. These women had followed him and served him in Galilee, and many others had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:33-41, Dale’s sight translation).

The cross meant separation for Jesus.  It meant  separation from the presence of God the Father he had known all his life. So this meant that his suffering was not only physical, social and emotional, but also spiritual in a way which we could never understand in ourselves outside of a personal experience of hell itself. The actual circumstances of the crucifixion of Jesus showed the barrier between him and the Father which came with the crucifixion. This was  unique to his experience of the slow death of crucifixion: for him it was the sudden experience of spiritual death and the separation from God the Father due to the punishment of sin which he took upon himself for us.

The separation from God the Father which Jesus experienced as part of his utterly unique experience of crucifixion is described in verses  33-34: “And when the sixth hour had arrived, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And in the ninth hour Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?’ – which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you totally abandoned me?’”

The separation is the meaning behind the unexplained darkness over the land. This unexplained darkness was well known to have happened in the ancient world, but only the gospels make the connection of this darkness with death of Jesus. Most modern commentators consider that this darkness was just over Judea instead of the whole earth, but ancient sources do indicate it was more widespread. It lasted, according to the gospels, for three hours, from about noon until 3 PM on that day of crucifixion. It’s noteworthy that the darkness ceased – probably gradually faded away — after his death.

This otherwise unexplained darkness was the first sign from heaven attending the crucifixion and death. It was also pointed out in ancient times that this could not have been an eclipse. Modern commentators think that it might have been s a black sirocco, a khamsin dust storm from the desert. Whatever the cause, the fact of the darkness at that time was never in dispute in ancient times or in modern commentaries. And the fact had real meaning for us as well. The description is reminiscent of the plague of darkness over Egypt, and for Jesus, it was literally and spiritually the ‘hour of darkness.’ It was what he had seen coming when he was in Gethsemane, and when he called it ‘the hour of darkness.’ It’s also worth noting that this unexplained darkness would not have been something that could have under Jesus’s control if he had been a mere man with Messianic pretensions attempting to fulfill heterodox understanding of the Old Testament scriptures. Make no mistake, you may call this a coincidence for which you cannot account if you are determined that it can only have a natural cause and no further meaning. But a merely human Jesus could not have stirred this up to add drama to a crucifixion scene which he thought he would escape for some reason. And a merely human Jesus would have been far too deeply delusional to submit to all that happened that day, to actually being crucified by the Romans, to suppose that he would escape death on the cross somehow. And that kind of Jesus would never have made any sense as a Messiah that would be worshipped as the Lord of life after three days and the numerous eyewitness testimonies of those who recognized him and saw him alive.

The culmination of the time of darkness was the cry on the cross which is known in Christian tradition as the cry of dereliction. As Jesus was dying, as he was in his last few breaths, scriptures were on his lips. This was more than a whisper, but it was a loud shout. Jesus shouted in Aramaic in front of all the eyewitnesses of the crucifixion – one of the few places in the gospels where the actual Aramaic words of Jesus are preserved. Since the gospel of Mark was first written in Greek, these words are then translated in Greek from the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, for the readers of the gospel. It’s astounding that Jesus  could command the physical energy to give such a shout after some six hours on the cross. A person who was crucified normally alternated between periods of exhaustion, unconsciousness and raving insanity – yes, the physical pain of crucifixion often drove the crucified insane, and their last hours as they were losing their lives gradually they lost their minds completely. This was part of the utterly dehumanizing experience of crucifixion that was intended to be a deterrent to the peoples subject to the Roman empire – remain under the yoke of Rome or you will lose your humanity and your life in the most degrading way possible. It was intended to put the fear into the subject people not to challenge the power of Rome or you would end up dying raving on a cross, having lost every last shred of human dignity, decency and comfort.

The cry of dereliction was Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you totally abandoned me?’” The cry of dereliction was his own application of the scripture to his present experience on the cross, and his testimony to his own fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the final moments of crucifixion. It wasn’t a full theological explanation – that was to wait for the days and years which followed his resurrection. It’s not hard to believe that Jesus actually explained this during the forty days of his post resurrection teaching to the apostles, when he went over the Old Testament scriptures with them again and showed how he had fulfilled them (Luke 24:44-46). It would have been wonderful to have been there to have heard how he explained his fulfillment of Psalm 22 to the apostles – but in light of what the New Testament says about the death of Christ, we can know what it meant: he took upon himself the entire sin of the world during this time, and this was part of his experience of the crucifixion, of paying the penalty for the sin of the world for all eternity.

By his own dying testimony, then, we can see that the black curtain of the sin of the world and the penalty of our sin stood between Jesus and God the Father. That time of separation which he experienced is not and cannot be part of our experience; it is something that we have to take as a real fact of what was done for us. It is the testimony of that death once for all that rendered all attempts to save ourselves by our own good deeds invalid forever. That death rendered all attempts to save ourselves by our good deeds invalid within our own lifetime and all of any churchy moralism where we may think that we may recommend ourselves to God. It rendered invalid forever any illusion on our part that even  over many lifetimes we could ever do anything good enough to atone for our sins, as in reincarnation and karma, the highly watered down Hindu doctrines which have made their way to much pop religiosity. The cross of Jesus was not a mere morality play—but if there is no truth and no justice and no wrath of God against the sin of the world — the cross of Jesus could not even have been a morality play. The separation between Jesus and God the Father in the cross shows that the reality of the wrath of God against sin is real, but the love of God for sinners is greater.  Unless the wrath of God to come is real and the wrath of God against sin in the cross is to move us is real, the cross, and the cry of Jesus does not make sense at all. But this is what it means: “He made him who had not known sin to be sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).

So this death, the cross that meant separation for Jesus, means acceptance for us, in the satisfaction of the wrath of God by the death of Jesus. What this means for us we can often find best expressed in our hymns and poems from the hearts of strongly devout and deeply experienced Christian men and women. This conviction of faith in Jesus shines in a verse that was once quoted by Amy Carmichael:

“Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, Another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.”

Another man who depicted the death of Christ most vividly, in hymns which still shake our hearts was Isaac Watts. He wrote such hymns as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed.” Here is a little known verse where he tells how the cross was for our sins:

“’Twere you, my sins, my cruel sins,
His chief tormentors were;
Each of my crimes became a nail,
And unbelief the spear.”

Unfortunately, though, the meaning of the cross was lost on those who were standing around and watching during the crucifixion. It was a bizarre form of entertainment for some, perhaps, that they could stand there and continue to view and deride those who were crucified. Those there for the crucifixion of Jesus would have realized that his death was a quite unusual kind of execution. But simply being there did not bring understanding and faith to those who were lost in their own blindness. The meaning of all that was happening was lost on those who were there to witness it firsthand; they remained stuck in their blindness and unbelief.

The reaction of most of the immediate witnesses to the dying shout of Jesus is described in verses 35-36: “Some of those who were standing by heard this and said, ‘Hey, he’s calling on Elijah!’ So one of them ran and filled a sponge with wine vinegar. He put it on a reed and tried to get him to drink it. He said, ‘Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.’”

It’s clear that those who were on hand for the last moments of Jesus on the cross had no clue about what was happening. Those around at the time of his final breath did not understand even what Jesus was saying. It’s clear that they thought that Jesus was calling on the prophet from the Old Testament, the revered Elijah, to come and rescue him from the cross. They would have had awareness of a Jewish tradition of Elijah in that time, that he was regarded as a kind of like a patron saint, who would come to help the unjustly condemned. From the gospel of John (19:28) we know that Jesus made the remark, “I thirst.” This was the reason behind the attempt from some unidentified bystander to get him to drink the sour wine. The others just wanted to stand around and see what would happen. None of them had any understanding of what was happening. The real understanding of the cross needed to come with the explanation of the cross from Jesus himself with the apostles. The events around the cross were themselves full of meaning, but those there did not find the events to be self-interpreting.  For instance, we don’t find anyone there at the actual cross itself falling to his or her knees and crying out about finally understanding the love of God and the meaning of the sacrifice on the cross for our sins – but that’s the reaction that should come when it finally gets through to us, when it comes to our hearts.

There is a thick, invisible and yet impassable veil of scriptural ignorance and spiritual blindness which is the curtain that lies on the hearts of men and women without Christ. The events of the gospel thus need the explanation of scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit  to break through this blindness to bring the light of the gospel into the hearts of the men and women of this world. The meaning of the gospel was not self-evident in the events as they took place, and so we cannot share just the bare outline of the historical events. The gospel involves the explanation of what God was doing there and what he was doing for all of us in the cross of Jesus.

If you are reading this and you have professed your faith in Jesus Christ, remember that there was a time when you didn’t know what it was about and then when it was all so new for you.  when it was new for you. You were like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31) in your need for someone to guide you through the scriptures to understand the person that the scriptures were guiding you to for your salvation. Hopefully now you realize the reality of the love of God in the cross, as the apostle Paul explained in Romans 5:8:But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Understand, though, the spiritual blindness in your own life that needed to be swept aside for each one of us who are believers in Christ to come to this point:  “But if our gospel is hidden  as if it were behind a curtain, it is hidden for those who are perishing, in whom the god of this age has blinded the thought processes of those who are in unbelief, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God . . . because the God who spoke, ‘Let light shine from darkness,’ has made the light shine forth in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”  (II Corinthians 4:3-4, 6). I fear so much that in our present age the current undiscerning generation of believers – the most undiscerning generation of believers in many years — has so little understanding of the supernatural work that has to take place in the hearts of men and women to overcome their natural ignorance unbelief and rebellion for them to come to genuine, scripturally sound repentance, faith and regeneration. We would see unbelievers much less as seekers after Jesus than as obtuse to salvation and often seekers after everything but Jesus, since apart from a supernatural work of God through the Holy Spirit, even with all the gospel events and facts of scripture before us, we would never have of ourselves naturally chosen repentance and faith in Jesus. And no one else ever will, either.

John Calvin once said,  “It is our wisdom to have a fit sense of the how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” The consideration of the testimony of scripture, then, pulls open the curtain of circumstances to explain the circumstances and meaning of his death to him. That is the cost of our salvation – the experience of Jesus of separation from God the Father during the hour of darkness. It exposes how much we have been looking for love in all the wrong places throughout our lives. But here the love of God is shown, in the cross, in the meaning of the cross for Jesus, and then in the meaning of the cross for us.

Here is more on the meaning of the cross that is revealed in the circumstances of the death of Jesus. The cross was our reconciliation to God.  The separation from God which Jesus took meant that the way was opened for human beings to be able to come back to God in a way which they had never had opened for them before. The actual circumstances that surrounded the death of Jesus showed that the barrier between humanity and God was now broken open. The sign was there for our understanding afterwards. The statement of scripture was acted out in the actual circumstances of the actual death in a way beyond all expectation and all human imagination.

Verses 37-38 describe the actual death of Jesus: “But Jesus gave a great shout and then breathed his last. The veil of the Temple was ripped in two from the top to the bottom.” The actual last words of Jesus also scripture that he shouted out. These words are recorded elsewhere;  They indicate the voluntary nature of his death. His death was not the usual way it happened during a crucifixion. It was not the gradual exhaustion and wearing down of the normal way of crucifixion. It was not a peaceful expiration either, but happened with the second shout. So he died at that moment in a way which was not normal for those who were crucified, not with a whimper but with two shouts. It was utterly amazing that at that point Jesus had the remaining physical energy to be able give two shouts that could have been heard easily by all the people who were standing around.

Moreover, the gospels definitely assert to the reality of his death on the cross. They contradict any assertions that it was not him who died or he did not actually die, such as in Islam. Mohammed was not there to witness the death, but the eyewitness sources for the gospels were, and even the hostile sources of the brief mentions in Jewish and Roman accounts of that time leave no doubt that the man that they knew as Jesus of Nazareth, hailed as Messiah by his disciples, actually died on the cross. The reality of his physical death, then, also testifies to his true humanity. It asserts that that though he is the Son of God his humanity was real and subject to death and experienced an actual death; the awareness of his separation,

At the moment of the death of Jesus the second sign from heaven took place: the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom. This was most likely the outer veil of the Temple, and it was a public sign. Several ancient sources outside the New Testament attested to it. There was never any dispute in the ancient world as to the fact that this took place. Again the gospels tied this directly to the moment of the death of Jesus – and no one challenged that the tearing of the curtain of the Temple actually took place during ancient times. That would have been the time when the fact would have been most easily falsifiable, by witnesses who could have contradicted that it actually happened. But no such witnesses ever came forward.

This sign is impressive as part of the Messianic credentials of Jesus which were outside his control if he were a mere human being.  The tearing of the curtain of the Temple curtain is something outside the control of Jesus if he were simply a deluded man dying contrary to insane expectations. It is also a sign that would not have come from a righteous and holy God if Jesus had been an evil man with Messianic pretensions who miscalculated and was executed anyway. Throughout the gospels, the trilemma continues to hold up in circumstance after circumstance.

The divine coordination of these events doubtless left the apostles and the early church thinking over them for some time. Hebrews 10:19-25 then gives the apostolic meaning to the tearing of the curtain: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new an living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised us is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The black curtain of the Temple that was torn at the death of Jesus showed us that the way is now open for us for knowing God personally. That was the moment in time when the transaction was paid in full for us. That was the moment that sin was fully atoned for. It was like the moment when we might be making a purchase with a debit card, and we see the message come back on the terminal, “Authorization Complete.” The last breath of Jesus and the tearing of the curtain of the Temple at that moment are God’s message to a lost and dying world that the price for its redemption has been paid – “Authorization Complete.”

So this is the stupendous meaning of all that. Do we realize the depth and cost of our salvation through the death of Jesus? It seems to much nowadays that modern believers all too indifferent toward and lazy in pursuing fellowship with God. Have we realized at what cost such that relationship of such value was purchased for us? Could we then see how we ourselves then become our own selfish pigs, that we fail to understand and appreciate the blessing of eternal life, fellowship with God that came from above from the tree, from the cross of Jesus? Sure, we may get caught up with trying to get and consume the blessings without regard to the source, to the way to the God who himself is all the blessings and that they come from our fellowship with Jesus (Ephesians 1:3). Many may seem to just want to be blessed and then run when they realize that deep fellowship with God elicits more from us than than ‘take the blessing and run.’

But there is an even deeper meaning to that moment in time.  The surrender of Jesus in his human life was complete at that moment. It was the culmination of the complete surrender of a life in complete submission and obedience from beginning to end, to the very last moment. I’ve written elsewhere that I think that the word, ‘surrender’, is overused nowadays and seems to have become almost a cliché. ‘Surrender’ is so weakly defined and explained that I fear for some people it means little more than getting caught up in the feeling of the music in our too often emotionally manipulative worship services. No wonder people who consider that they may have ‘surrendered’ to Jesus have so little fruit to show from it in their lives. But you need to look at the cross, at the last moment, when Jesus made the final surrender of his life which had been continuing since he entered our world. Now that’s surrender. That was literally complete faithfulness to his mission from God the Father until his last breath. Now that’s perseverance in the will of God until the very last breath.

How surrender will look in our lives is described in Hebrews 12:1-3: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin which so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition form sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” So real surrender will work itself out like that: renunciation of sin, perseverance in following Jesus daily, and being ready and willing to face the scorn and contempt of the world without Christ for the sake of Jesus. Surrendered believers, then, are those who will not wilt before the sneers of this world, but rather continue on in following Jesus no matter what this world says or does. That’s what perseverance in the will of God and faithfulness to the mission God has given us will look like.

There is also another apostolic application of how surrender in our lives will  look in our lives if it’s to work itself out in our lives in any way like the surrender of Jesus of his life on the cross. True surrender will look a lot less like our pride, arrogance, sense of entitlement and privilege: “If there is any comfort in Christ, if there is any encouragement, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if there is any sense of mercy and compassion, fulfill my joy to think the same direction, as you have the same kind of love and of one soul, fixing your thoughts on the same thing, that you fix your thoughts on nothing from rivalry or glory seeking, that each one of you watch out for not only for your own benefits but for the good of each other. Fix your thoughts on the same direction that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not think that his equality with God was something to be used for his own advantage, but abnegated himself as he took the form of a servant as he took on the likeness of a human being. Then, since he was found to be in the form of a human being he humbled himself as he became obedient until death, even the death on the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11).

All this, then, wasn’t something that someone made up. It wasn’t myth. It wasn’t legend. It wasn’t something that happened so long ago that no one can evaluate whether it is credible to believe that it happened or not. The actual death of Jesus was backed up by eyewitness testimony. There were multiple eyewitnesses whose testimony is preserved in the New Testament. This is part of the testimony to the reality of the events of the crucifixion and in fact the events of the gospel. Multiple eyewitnesses were there, and this made it something more than something which someone said happened so long ago. What happened there on that day is as historically verifiable as anything that could be accepted in a court of law as incontrovertible, beyond reasonable doubt. For this passage, in the gospel of Mark, verses 39-41 contain the eyewitness testimony: And when the centurion who was standing opposite him saw how he had died he said, “Certainly this was the Son of God. There were women who were watching these things from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the lesser James and Joseph, and Salome. These women had followed him and served him in Galilee, and many others had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

The first witness that the gospel of Mark called forward as one of the actual witnesses to the death of Jesus is the centurion who was in charge of the execution.  The eyewitness to the death of Jesus is also a witness to the uniqueness of the death that he had seen. He has probably seen many people die and many executed. The eyewitness to that death and many others definitely saw Jesus as more than just another victim of crucifixion. That man, the equivalent of a highly experienced and loyal top sergeant in a modern military unit, would have had to have been there for the whole six hours with the Roman execution squad.  He would have heard and seen everything for his report back to the governor and to sign the execution certificate for the official records that the meticulous Romans kept on these matters. Whatever he said, it was extraordinary in itself. But here the the gospels that report his words seem to differ on what he said: Son of God (Mark, Matthew) or innocent man (Luke)? Mark seems to give the more probable actual words and uses them to drive home the point about who it was that died. The version in Luke seems to be more what might have been the actual understanding of the centurion of what he meant at the time, and Luke seems to be avoiding giving the impression that the centurion made a real profession of faith at that time. But this is significant: by the testimony of the chief executioner, the Jesus that he saw die was neither lunatic nor a criminal, and he unwittingly comes to the correct conclusion about the innocence of Jesus and his true identity.  

But then we come to these women, these mothers and grandmothers, who watched the death of Jesus. At least three of them are named here, and their extensive experience with Jesus is underlined. They themselves were not apostles but shared pretty much the same experiences as the apostles from the ministry to the death and then to the resurrection.  Jesus didn’t appoint them to  the apostolic office, but they were alongside the apostles in being the earliest witnesses both to the complete events of the crucifixion and burial and then the resurrection. So the question comes, since they had the apostolic experience but didn’t have the apostolic office, how were they shortchanged by God in any way by their experience of Jesus? Obviously, they weren’t. And the testimony of these Jewish mothers and grandmothers comes down to us across the centuries as part of the gospels and the testimony to Jesus Christ.

The inclusion of these names is quite important. It provides the historical traceability of the events of eyewitness testimony beyond the apostles. There are far too many eyewitnesses named to have been involved in any kind of plot or cover-up, especially when you include the others named throughout this and the other gospels  such as the apostle John, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus within the church, Pilate and the centurion outside the church, who are witnesses to the actual death of Jesus. This shows us the historical nature of the gospels and the gospel of Jesus, that they were not based on anonymous, unnamed sources. In a very common sense way of historical method the gospels themselves often name the eyewitnesses who were there for the events that they relate.

This brings up an important point about the nature of the gospels in their historical and literary context. Sober, common sense reporting of events, with some commentary and selection of course, was the way that the gospels told and passed on the story of Jesus. These events happened in definite times, places and involved people who were also known from outside the gospels. It’s beyond reasonable belief to see the gospels as the collection of myths, especially as compared to the known collections of myths and legends from the cultures outside Palestine at the time. It’s clear that mythologizing was characteristic of non Christian religions, not a part of Christianity generally during the first century. Rather, mythologizing was cultural compromise as apostolic Christianity came into contact with the pagan Greek philosophies and religions outside Palestine, as apostolic Christianity spread among the Gentile cities. Moreover, the most blatant forms of this trend, in the various forms of Gnosticism, developed much later, over a century later, and grew not out of a robust apostolic Christianity but out of and into a compromised, lukewarm, syncretizing and often corrupt counterfeit of Christianity that was deeply rejected by those who examined the scriptural testimony to Jesus. So the current gospels never needed to be demythologized by anyone; rather, they were heavily mythologized years later as some foolish and outrightly wicked people thought the gospel of Jesus had to be adapted to conform to the heavily mythological Greek and pagan religions in the Roman empire and other pagan dominions of the ancient world.

This, then, is how the gospels present the testimony about Jesus for the commonsense evaluation of people worldwide. This is so that they can know that the gospel is true and that they can stake their lives on what Jesus has done for them.This is assurance that our gospel, our salvation, our joy is not unfounded emotionalism but reality. The unknowing confession of the centurion echoes the point of the gospel of Mark from the very first verse and is an echo of the confession of faith of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. So for the first believers in Christ apologetics was often a part of simply explaining the gospel events from the eyewitnesses and the gospels themselves. I’ve wondered myself if we do apologetics too academically nowadays, and that it may be missing  something of the power of the Holy Spirit in the preaching and teaching of the gospel as the normal ministry of the church, and whether it may be missing the unashamed power of the Word itself as it tries to explain too much.

The second curtain that opened up, both in actual fact and in God’s explanation of the death of Jesus, was the curtain that opened up for us as well. This curtain opened up for us first to know salvation, that there would be no eternal separation of us from God by the action of God himself. Then it opened up for us to know that all this was not just some nice little story that someone made up long ago, but something that stands on solid historical ground and that men and women using their common sense reasoning and evaluation of the testimony of scripture are able to be verified beyond reasonable doubt.

IT MAY HAVE SEEMED TO THE PEOPLE ON THE SCENE AT THE TIME AS IF THE CURTAIN HAD DROPPED FOREVER ON THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF JESUS AS HE DIED, BUT IT WAS ONLY A SLIGHT PAUSE. HE WAS BURIED IN A TOMB THAT WAS SEALED BY THE ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT BUT THAT WASN’T THE END EITHER. HIS SEPARATION FROM GOD THROUGH HIS SUFFERING AND DEATH ON THE CROSS WAS TO PAY THE PENALTY FOR SIN PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE. WHEN HE HAD COMPLETED THE TRANSACTION THAT PAID THE PRICE FOR OUR SALVATION, IT MEANT THAT HE WOULD RISE AGAIN THREE DAYS LATER AND ASCEND TO HEAVEN AS THE LORD OF THE UNIVERSE WITH ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH.  AND THE WAY IS OPEN FOR US NOW INTO THE PRESENCE OF GOD THROUGH JESUS, THAT THROUGH HIM NOW WE DO NOT COME BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD AS A THRONE OF JUDGMENT BUT AS THE THRONE OF GRACE.

Consider your own need for Jesus. No one else could have or did open the curtain to the presence of God for you and for me. His separation from the presence of the Father on the cross opened the way for you to be able to approach God directly. This is what salvation in Christ is: the relationship directly with God through him. You receive and enter into this relationship of salvation by saving faith in Jesus. It’s not a general belief that Jesus existed in history or in the existence of God, or even a belief that Jesus is the Son of God as a hand me down from involvement or membership in an institutional church. It is the acceptance that Jesus death was the ’ authorization complete’ for our salvation for all time and eternity, with nothing that you or anyone else has ever done ever added to it. So, have you received the salvation that he paid for? Have you been spending all your life looking for love in all the wrong places? Start here to find the eternal, unchangeable love of God in Jesus Christ by placing your faith in him alone for your complete salvation, for all time and eternity. 

Consider also what real surrender and endurance in the faith is from Jesus: it was for him persistence in the mission which God the Father gave him to his last breath. So what did you ever think that it was compared to what it was for him? While in this world there is so much so often to discourage us, to tempt us to slack off, or to neglect following Jesus as closely as we can, it is when we look to Jesus that we see what real surrender really means. When we look to people – our friends, our family, our churches, our political parties — instead of Jesus, we will be disappointed – and too many of us slack off from Jesus when we face the last bit of disappointment from others. We often find that we had expected much better treatment from the people in our lives, even those who may genuinely and credibly claim to know Christ, and we often think that we are contributing more to them than we receive in return. But it’s not so with Jesus. He has already treated us far better than we ever treated him, and he has already provided and given more for us than we ever can give in return. And furthermore, he is our standard when we get weary and disappointed, and in those times as well he is our power to endure to the end, to be faithful to our last breath.

Finally, consider the ultimate need for people everywhere and in every time. They need  be given the scriptural understanding of what the death of Jesus was all about. This is the major part of the gospel, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is what they need for us to give them. In this world the black veil of spiritual blindness lies upon the hearts of so many. They need to have someone there to explain it to them, let them know what God was doing for them on the day that Jesus breathed his last breath and the curtain of the Temple was torn open. And for us, we need to understand the love, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit that is available to us when we share the gospel, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why this was given to us to make this news known: that the Holy Spirit would work in us and through the truth of the gospel to open hearts to the salvation in Christ.

“Do you have a Bible that you can read?”

I think that in the United States too many believers may assume that people they meet have a Bible that they can read. Do they? It’s a reasonable question: “Do you have a Bible that you can read?”

As recently as the late 1970s, even unchurched people recognized a Bible as a big book with a black cover that had lots of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” I think that nowadays we cannot even make that assumption when we deal with people. In this day and age, I think that we can’t make the assumption that many of the people that we encounter could recognize a Bible if they saw one, had ever read one or knew where to buy one for themselves.

So here’s where I’m going with this. Be ready to get a Bible into the hands of others. If you encounter someone who shows real spiritual interest, the question becomes extremely relevant: “Do you have a Bible you can read?”

Here’s a good place to start. Your neighborhood Walmart most likely has Bibles available. I’ve seen them there – decent Bibles for $10 and study Bibles for $20. Many people would spend more than that on lunch. Amazon.com has inexpensive Bibles available as well, and you could order a number of Bibles at a time. Some editions include some pretty good guidance on where to find Biblical help and even a gospel message as well.

Look for a readable translation such as the New International Version or the English Standard Version. This isn’t the place for nitpicky discussions about translation preferences, even if you personally prefer the King James Version. Rather, find one that the normal person can read and understand with a basic knowledge of contemporary English.

Some ministries should pretty much always have a number of Bibles on hand to give to others. For instance, jail ministries often can use a supply of Bibles to hand to the incarcerated. Many, many more churches should have a supply of Bibles on hand as well to give out to visitors and anyone who starts to attend who doesn’t have a readable Bible for himself or herself.

If you encounter someone whose heart language isn’t English, it’s also possible to order Bibles in other languages. Many years ago, I worked with a number of people from Haiti. Their spoken language was French Creole, but their reading language, as taught in their schools, was French. A number of them expressed a real reverence for the Bible as well. I was able to hand out to them a number of French Bibles and New Testaments which I ordered from The International Bible Society (now Biblica). It’s possible to order Bibles in Chinese, Hindi and Pnnjabi from Amazon.com as well, for example. So one of the most precious gifts that you can give someone else could be a readable Bible in his or her heart language.

I also think that parents, grandparents and other relatives could well ask this same question to their sons and daughters, stepsons and daughters, nieces, nephews, grandsons and granddaughters: “Do you have a Bible that you can read?” If not, make one a Christmas gift. If you already give a Christmas gift, continue to give the gift that you normally would – but give a readable Bible as well. Your Christmas budget may be a little larger than usual that year, but to give a person you love what should be very precious gift should be worth the extra expense.

The goal in this is not to manipulate or push one’s faith on anyone else, but to give the recipient of the Bible the opportunity to learn what the Bible says for himself or herself. What anyone will do with Jesus and the message of the Bible is ultimately between that person and God, but if you give the person a Bible, that simply enables that person to investigate and make a better informed decision by himself or herself.

Finally, if someone I know professes faith in Christ, I always make it a point to get that person a readable Bible if he or she does not have one already. It’s all well and good for those of us who have been in the faith for years to have our own Bibles and preferred translations, but it’s absolutely crucial for someone new in the faith to have a readable Bible for himself or herself. There’s a well known TV ministry from the 1950s to the 1980s that had some detractors – but I know for a fact that anyone who made a profession of faith from that ministry received at least a New Testament and often a whole Bible at no expense.