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.

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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.

Abused

Updated!

There is the name of a prison, in Iraq, which is now a name which brings shame and embarrassment. Abu Gharib prison is now known as where physical and sexual abuse of prisoners took place from 2003-2006. The prisoners were there simply to be detained before trial. No one there had been convicted of a crime, and the cruel and degrading treatment that happened to them at the hands of those assigned to detain them was not part of their responsibilities. The physical and sexual abuse of these prisoners was never a part of the responsibilities of the soldiers who had been assigned to guard them. Eventually eleven soldiers were charged with and convicted of dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. They were sent to military prison and dishonorably discharged for prisoner abuse.

The abuse of prisoners who are simply being detained is nothing new in this world due to human nature being fallen. It’s as old as crime and punishment. And it happened to Jesus, too. There’s a brutal paragraph in the gospel of Mark which describes the physical and psychological abuse of Jesus while he was being detained as a prisoner awaiting execution that same day. This apparently happened during the remaining time before the Roman guards rounded up all three prisoners that were going to be taken out to execution by public crucifixion that day.

The paragraph which describes the prisoner abuse of Jesus at the hands of the Roman guards is a very tough paragraph to read and to let it sink in. But maybe that’s part of the problem with preaching and teaching today: we may be avoiding the difficult passages for the familiar ones which don’t force us to think, pray and meditate on tough things. It seems like in the modern church we rarely deal with the passages which deal with the crucifixion except in the Sundays which precede Good Friday in the Christian calendar year. And too much of what we say about the crucifixion seems to be explaining how crucifixion worked to a modern audience rather than understanding what the scriptural narrative has to say to us today. Certainly we need to understand the historical background of crucifixion to understand the sufferings of Jesus, but I think that there’s much more that is in these passages that God has been seeking to tell his people in all the ages since the crucifixion. So the first thing is to approach these passages with a  prayerful heart to let God show us what he wants us to see in the process which led up to the ultimate victory over sin and death, and what the suffering of his Son means for his people in all ages.

First of all understand that all that happened to Jesus in this paragraph was not part of the assignment of the guards who were part of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem in the first century AD. Nothing that they did to Jesus was under orders from their superiors.  Yet the abuse which happened to Jesus was a crime – perhaps not a crime in the legal sense in that day and age – yet still a crime of opportunity and crime to which the Roman authorities, from Pilate to the garrison commander, gave their silent permission. It serves as a continued reminder of the tough times that that people lived through then, and how those in authority could let additional abuse pile on to the already brutal and cruel punishments for civil and political crimes. And it shows the stark difference between military justice in the United States Army and in the Roman army that the offenses at Abu Gharib were punished.

Doubtless many times believers who have read these verses over the years have read these verses have found themselves in the same situation as Jesus was on that day about 30 AD, in the city of Jerusalem.  Many, many times believers who followed Jesus also have had to endure abuse like him when they were imprisoned and on trial for their profession of faith in Jesus. Too often in the North American church we seem to be unaware of the fact that many times throughout history the normal experience of being a believer in Jesus Christ has been suffering for one’s faith in Jesus. We may get very comfortable with the familiarity of sitting and singing in our pews with our family and friends and forget that for many believers in Jesus throughout history doing just that would be a rare part of their experience. Many times they have suffered rejection and abuse from friends and family members for their faith in Jesus, and abuse from the civil authorities as well. Believers over the years have been subject to fines, beatings, imprisonment and execution for their faith in Jesus And when they would look at passages like this, they could find special comfort in knowledge that Jesus himself had been treated the same way when he was detained before and after his trials before the Jewish and Roman authorities.

This passage is also a stark reminder of the cruel reality of our fallen world and  of the the brutal and abusive monsters that sin can make and does make of so many of us. It reminds us of the horrible abuse that may come upon the most innocent among us, when we bear the cross after Jesus. Even more, though, it is also part of the theme of the Bible that God brings the greatest goods out of the deepest suffering of his people. It is part of the deeply laid thread of suffering that can be traced throughout the Bible, throughout the Psalms and the Prophets, that was then fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. It is in the suffering of Jesus,  where we see the suffering of the righteous and innocent in this world, that then finds its answer in the ultimate suffering of the Righteous One, the one that God sent into our world to pay the price for our redemption. In addition, this passage gives insight not only into his suffering for us, of the price that was paid for our salvation. It also shows that the Old Testament salvation promise that was fulfilled in the suffering of the Son, who also redeems also our own sufferings which come in this world. And this passage also starkly exposes the evil of this world for what it is, as we see how the evil of this world treated the holy, righteous and innocent Son of God during this time – and then that sets the stage for his ultimate victory over all the evil that this world had to offer.

“Then the soldiers took him (Jesus) away from the courtyard, which is the Praetorium, and they called together the whole unit. And they dressed him in purple, and, after they had plaited a crown of thorns, they placed it on him. And they began to greet him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they began to beat him around the head with a reed, they began to spit on him and  they knelt on the ground and offered obeisance to him.  And when they had finished deriding him, they took off the purple garment and put his own clothes back on him. And they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15:16-20, Dale’s sight translation).

As it happened to Jesus, the abuse of this world starts with verbal abuse. All the mockery and degradation which Jesus received is typical of how abuse of other people starts among us in this world. And it is typical of the behavior of the people in this world he came to save. The abuse of the Savior in this world ultimately does point to the need of both the abused and the abuser for the Savior who was abused to the point of his death on the cross.

So often, the abuse of this world happens often because the authorities of this world allow it. Like the abuse of so many in our age, the abuse which Jesus suffered was a crime of opportunity. It happened like it does so often, when someone seems to be helpless to resist and isolated from the help of others – and others see that as an opportunity for cruel fun at the expense of another person. And Jesus himself experienced this – being isolated and seemingly unable – and in his case, unwilling – to resist the cycle of abuse which was poured upon him, with the silent approval of the civil authorities.

“Then the soldiers took him (Jesus) away from the courtyard, which is the Praetorium, and they called together the whole platoon.” (verse 16) This is how the prisoner abuse of Jesus started: the soldiers of the Roman garrison received their assignment to keep Jesus in custody until the time came for the bizarre crucifixion parade. So this would have happened after the official scourging that usually took place before the crucifixion. So when this happened Jesus would already have been bloody and physically traumatized just short of dying. And so the guards saw  the helplessness of this whipped, bloodied and beaten man  as an opportunity for some extremely cruel fun. They then called together anyone who was available and off duty to deal with this prisoner.

Again, as far as it went for the Roman guards, it was not part of their duty as guards to do what they began to do with Jesus. But neither did those in authority over them try to restrain them at all. The guards simply had a helpless, isolated, already bloodied victim on their hands to torment for sadistic pleasure – and while this happened, the civil authorities looked the other way. It’s very probable that what happened to Jesus happened under the eye of the Roman centurion who later presided over the crucifixion. It’s entirely possible that Pontius Pilate also was in a place to witness what happened to Jesus. Each of them could have put a stop to what was happening with a simple order. Maybe they thought that they couldn’t bother with it. Maybe they thought that they couldn’t afford to irritate the guards by putting a stop to their cruel fun. But in any event they did nothing.

Even more, though, when Jesus went into Roman custody, as a Jewish man there was no protection for him under the Law of God from the brutality of the Roman guards. When the Jewish leaders gave Jesus over to the Romans, he had entered the arena where the civil authorities were not restrained by anything in the Law of God. The Old Testament had a number of regulations and limits on civil punishments, on fines and physical punishment and  even on execution as a punishment for civil crimes, notably premeditated murder. If Jesus had been under Jewish custody where the Law of God was respected, this treatment would have been illegal. But when Jesus came under the custody of the Roman guards, he came into a place where the Law of God was not respected and where the civil authorities offered him absolutely no protection against the worst that the sinful hearts of the Roman guards could offer at that time. There was no hint of any kind of even common decency that was shown to Jesus as he was a prisoner under guard awaiting execution within a couple of hours.

So now we can look back and recognize that this is the way of the abusers in this world:  the opportunity for them to practice their abuse is simply a soft target, as Jesus was.  And Jesus allowed this to happen to him. This was part of his journey to the cross to which he went willingly and with full understanding of all it would mean to him. And yet when Jesus allowed himself to be subjected to this kind of abuse, Jesus was not sanctioning or excusing what happened to him. It was as evil then as it happened to him as it could be, since this was, in his own words, the hour of darkness. He took it all upon himself as he served the Father in this world, as part of the suffering of his mission.

Even more, Jesus endured this time without a single angry word, look or thought. With all his experience of the terrible things that happen in this world, and especially those that happened during the last few hours of his earthly life, he still remained without sin. “For we do not have a High Priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses, , but one who was tempted in all the same ways, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). See how this description of the brutal abuse of Jesus at the hands of his guards is striking not for what Jesus had to say, but for what he did not say – or do. Nothing that happened to him resulted in him saying or doing one little thing contrary to the will of God the Father – not one insulting, resentful or vengeful word slipped through his mouth.  And it is ironic to consider what a great reversal that will happen when his abusers fall into his hands of utter justice, on the day that they face the justice of God with Jesus as their judge as well – but that’s something to consider for another time. Jesus still expects, though,  that his followers will be treated no differently in this world, and that his followers would behave differently than the abusers of this world. He has already set the example on how his people are to act when faced with abuse: they are not to return the abuse.

So what happened to Jesus is the common way that an abuse cycle starts. It’s a crime of opportunity, where the perpetrator finds a helpless and isolated target for cruelty. Or it’s a situation where a little authority in the hands of an angry and deceitful person may lead to a lot of abuse. A person who already has a mean streak and a cruel disposition will often be especially alert to these opportunities. Prisoner abuse is a continued reality of prisoner abuse for the imprisoned throughout the world – and often enough those who are abused are fellow believers in Christ who are suffering for their faith in Christ. Still, though, speaking out and against prisoner abuse has been a part of the ministry to the prisoner which has been a part of the ministry of the church as a whole for over 2000 years. During the Wesleyan revival of the 1700s which gave rise to the Methodist church, John and Charles Wesley often risked themselves often enough in evangelizing and ministry to prisoners. There were often times that they would be locked into prison and spend the night in ministry to men who were to be executed the next day. While the Wesleys were also strong advocates for the abolition of slavery, their work on prison reform was also exemplary of the ministry of the church to prisoners as they spoke out against the abuse by neglect and degrading conditions which prisoners faced then.

So the abuse of this world starts with verbal abuse. It so often begins with the avalanche of ridicule and mockery intended to degrade another human being and grind the soul of another down into the ground. This is too often part of  what men and women do to each other in this world, and it naturally happened to Jesus as well during the hours of his own suffering. It became the acting out of a sick attempt at comedy in the Roman garrison.

“And they dressed him in purple, and, after they had plaited a crown of thorns, they placed it on him. And they began to greet him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (verses 17-18). This whole charade, this mocking of Jesus, was a grotesque vaudeville of the homage given to the emperor. That’s where they got the idea for what they were doing. They were mocking Jesus as if he were a fake Caesar. What they used as an ersatz purple cloak was probably just a faded scarlet rag of a cloak – something too worn to use as part of a uniform, but just happened to be on hand for this purpose. The crown of thorns was a vicious and painful mockery of the wreath of Julius Caesar. They made him sit down so that it was as if he were seated on a throne. Then their greeting,  the “Hail, King of the Jews” was just a mockery of “Hail, Caesar!” the clichéd greeting that is common in films depicting Roman times. So this whole hideous masquerade was treating Jesus as a fake Caesar, as a Jewish emperor. It may have in fact been the way they had treated a Messianic pretender or two previously who tried to stir up violent revolution against the Roman government. 

Again, as throughout the entire Passion narratives, it is striking is not only what Jesus did say but also what he didn’t say. When this whole sick parody was going on, he didn’t reply with mockery and verbal abuse on his part. He did not treat them as they were treating them. If we were in that same place, do you think that we would find it easy not to let out one retaliatory insult? Do you think that it would be easy for us not to sneer and mock them back? He lived out the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah  who was silent as a lamb.  And again, this is what he expects from us when we face the same kinds of things. “For to this you have been called, because Christ has also suffered us and has left behind a scripturally recorded example, that you might follow after his footsteps, ‘ . . . who committed no sin, nor was anything deceitful found in his mouth . . .’. He was verbally abused but did not return that abuse, he suffered but did not answer back with threats but surrendered himself to the One who judges righteously . . .” (I Peter 2:21-23, Dale’s sight translation).

In our modern world, the verbal abuse seems to be something that the abusers find necessary to continue their abuse. This kind of degradation of the soft target seems to be something that they find they need to do, to dehumanize the target for continued abuse. All this verbal expression of contempt for the target seems to be something that they find necessary to go into this kind of abuse. 

So let’s note one of the promises of scripture that few believers want to name and to claim for themselves: “ . . . that through many afflictions it is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Acts 14:22). With the promised afflictions in this world, we can expect deliberate misrepresentation, slander and contempt, mockery and ridicule. Throughout history often enough this kind of treatment may even become a hideous public show that is a part of the severe public persecution and possibly martyrdom of believers in Jesus Christ. But again, here the example of Jesus is the expectation of Jesus. Often we are given smaller challenges and provocations throughout our life as he prepares us for bigger ones, but some may find themselves in the more difficult ones from the start in their Christian lives. His expectation is that we face these challenges and provocations as he did. And something that we need to recognize is: the abuser is not in the place of Jesus but in the place of the Roman soldiers who were doing the abuse. And more on that later. 

One of the biggest challenges for any church, whatever its size and reputation, then, is what believers in Christ do if this same kind of verbal abuse starts to spread among believers in Christ. It does. Too often one person may  become embittered and begin to spread insinuations and mockery about another believer. Sometimes this may be gaslighting, where an abuser is seeking to cover his or her hatred and abuse with seeking to discredit the sanity of the target of the abuse and hatred. The challenge is the reaction that the church must have when the slander and contempt start to infect and ensnare other believers in the sticky slime of one person’s hatred. I’ve seen too many times over the years when other believers in the fellowship of Christ then take on and participate in the aggression, contempt and hostility from someone with a deep grudge and a greasy story. Yet where is the repentance when they come to their senses about taking on the grudges and slander of others? We hear about church bullies – but aren’t they suitably described as abusers as well? And when one professed believer takes the place of an abuser against another believer in Christ – there is a real sense in which that professed believer is acting out the same kind of behavior that the Roman soldiers showed toward Jesus.

The silence of Jesus before the verbal abuse he was subjected to has given way to the silence of the church about verbal abuse in our day and age to the great loss of witness within our world. The church for the past generation at least has been embarrassingly silent about verbal and physical abuse as it has happened throughout that time. It was not always that way! If you look at the preaching and teaching of previous generations, they expected more from believers in Christ: they expected believers to be redeemed and transformed out of abusive ways and to be ready to correct and rebuke abuse of other people around them. Even Billy Sunday, a figure whom many might find laughable in this day, confronted spouse abuse strongly in his day. And while previous generations did confront abuse more in their preaching and teaching,  they expected little else from the world without Christ, even as they expected much more from the people who claimed to have received salvation, to be followers of Christ. They expected them to grow in Christlikeness under the most challenging and trying circumstances and to live out Christlikeness before a cruel world.

Though the followers of Jesus often deal with degrading words that escalate in their hostility and aggression, it often does not end there. The abuse of this world continues with physical abuse. What begins with the degradation of the soul of another human being with words often continues with the degradation of the body of another human being. And this is also something that Jesus experienced while he was being detained for execution.

The degradation of another human being often continues with physical torment.  The torment intended to cause physical pain shows the almost demonic cruelty of human nature unrestrained by conscience or the Spirit of God. This is what also happened to Jesus, as the gospel describes in verse 19: “And they began to beat him around the head with a reed, they began to spit on him and  they knelt on the ground and offered obeisance to him.”  This mock homage to Jesus as if he were a fake Jewish Caesar went on and continued with the beatings with the stick and fists. There came spitting instead of the kiss of respect and submission. So this simply was, to them, part of the mockery that the Roman guards gave to the supposed royal pretensions of Jesus.

Yet here is the extraordinary thing about their actions: it was part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  It was first of all the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy that came through Isaiah in what he received:

I offered my back to beatings, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not protect my face from shame and spitting . . .”

(Isaiah 50:6, Dale’s sight translation).

This kind of treatment was specifically included his own prophecy of his rejection: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will beat him and they will spit on him and they will whip him and kill him, and after three days he will rise again!” (Mark 10:33-34).

It is quite certain that the soldiers themselves never realized that what they were doing was in itself part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, and it is probable that they would have found it laughable if someone had suggested it at the time.  Yet it was in the foreknowledge and foreordination of God to use their cruelty as part of the signs of the Messiah who was to come and to give it a meaning far different than their own intentions could have ever done, as part of the sufferings of the Messiah that would bring the ultimate good to this world in salvation through Jesus Christ.  

Make no mistake about it, there was nothing that Jesus said or did to this group of Roman soldiers that brought on this torrent of verbal and physical abuse. The utter innocence of the sinless Son of God mean that there is no justification of their conduct. The tendency of the self justifying nature of mankind is to try to justify sin by the way that God can and does bring good out of it; but that does not mean that there was even a grain of good in the acts of sin and defiance of God.  The fact that such cruelty was part of the salvation of God, part of the way that God brought the ultimate good to this world did not justify the cruelty in the slightest. And this also means that there is no justification to the cruelty of abusers if their targets happen to grow in Christlikeness under their treatment. The end does not justify their cruelty. And it really is a strong tendency of abusers to justify their cruelty by the slightest good that they can claim, despite the fact that there was nothing good in what they did.

So then, physical abuse is often the follow up to verbal abuse. Often enough a  little bit of power and isolation may lead to physical assaults shocking when they come light later. And just as shocking is often the utter innocence of the target who may not have done the least little thing to provoke the abuse nor even  be retaliating at all.

One thing that we must emphasize over and over is that the abuser is not in the place of Jesus in the world. Rather, in terms of this passage, the abuser is in the place of the Roman soldiers who were doing the abuse –the cliché for a  professed believer taking out his or her frustrations on another believer is that person is, “Beating Up on Jesus.” And since Jesus identifies himself closely with his people and the way that they are treated, we can see that it’s a kind of continued abuse of Jesus with the mocking and beating when this goes on  even by a professed believer. The professed believer that is beating up is actually standing in the place not only of the Roman soldiers beating up on Jesus but also of the fellow servant in the parable who beats up on the fellow servant (Matthew 24:48-49:  “But if that wicked servant says in his heart, ‘My master is taking his good sweet time in getting back,’ and he begins to beat up on his fellow servants . . .’” So what is  less like Christ for any one who names the name of Christ to take such pleasure in unrighteousness as to enter into verbal and physical violence against a neighbor whom he or she is bound by scripture to love as himself or herself?

With all that Jesus went through and with all that the Bible has to say about the Christlike character that Jesus expects to develop from within his people, there is an absolutely shocking amount of physical abuse in Christian families and marriages. And yet  there is very little confrontation of it in the preaching and teaching and teaching of the church nowadays. I cannot remember one time over the over forty years that I have followed Christ that I have ever heard one time that a pastor or Christian leader has ever explicitly confronted and rebuked an abusive husband, wife, father or mother from the pulpit.

And often enough it there are other places, such as schools, where physical bullying (legal assault) may follow the verbal abuse. When it happens in schools, it’s called bullying, and the victims and targets are rarely comforted in the ministries of our churches. Yet how much would it mean to a child who is being bullied in school to hear it  mentioned once in sermons and youth groups as a real evil? And in the days of school shootings, when children in early and middle adolescence have felt it necessary to take up guns because of their experience of bullying, what would it have meant to them to have heard in church that the Savior himself had been picked on, mocked and ridiculed and beaten up? The dehumanization of peer abuse – often physical assault that is illegal when it happens between adults — takes place on an almost daily basis for many in our schools – and too many adults seem to see it just as harmless fun and a part of growing up. Indeed, some, who are not themselves experiencing the abuse,  even say that the abused in these situations simply need to suck it up and toughen up. A friend of mine who was knocked unconscious by three bullies in school during his early adolescence has written that the last thing that a bully wants is a fair fight. So there’s no amount of toughening that can deal with the real and continuous escalation that often happens where the instigation comes from a determined bully or group of bullies – or abusers in training.  And  to understand what this kind of abuse can do to an intelligent and accomplished child, Jodee Blanco told the story of her own years of abuse throughout high school in her book Please Stop Laughing at Me. Her experience was corroborated later by someone who had been a high school classmate of Jodee Blanco: “It was almost like Jodee wasn’t a real person. People could constantly pick on her and maul her, and that was the norm to do.”

So what’s the way out when this comes between believers and into churches? It’s not only for the abused to forgive abusers, but for abusers to become former abusers. And this is possible through Christ, and this should be 100% expected for anyone who comes to Christ. It’s a part of the real transformation that the gospel brings. Abusers love to put the burden of forgiveness on the abused but to take no personal responsibility for deep gospel transformation in their own lives. And anyone who is not willing to undergo the transformation that Jesus brings from the counterfeit love of the abuser to become the genuinely loving person who is being transformed into the image of Christ through the power of Christ renders the credibility of his or her conversion suspect. But this is possible. I can remember a time when I heard a brief testimony of man who had become a former abuser. He had to learn to see Jesus standing between him and his wife. He had to understand that she was his and responsible to him first. And believers in Jesus, men or women, who find that they suffer abuse in such a way may well consider that Jesus suffered in this same way.

I think that there needs to be stronger dealing with hatred, attempts to control and dominate others at all costs, anger and violence in general in the preaching and teaching of the church today. I don’t think that it needs to be a constant confrontation, but definitely warnings against indulging in it and participation in it. And I think that one of the strongest indications that a person is well on the right track to conquest of it is when the hatred of these sins in one’s own heart takes precedence over the hatred of these sins in others.

Then the hour of the power of darkness continued on with further official abuse. The horrid abuse and utter degradation of his humanity through the crucifixion procedure followed his brutal experience at the hands of the Roman guards. What followed was the continuation of the suffering of the totally innocent and Righteous One from the hands of an ad hoc group of abusive soldiers to a degrading and torturous and utterly undeserved death from the ruling government itself.

So this paragraph on the abuse of Jesus while a Roman prisoner concludes in verse. 20: “And when they had finished deriding him, they took off the purple garment and put his own clothes back on him. And they led him out to crucify him.” The unofficial abuse, the cruel waiting game in the morning,  is brought to an end as the official abuse of the official crucifixion procedure began. This transition required him to be given his own garments, which would probably be taken away again within the hour. The unofficial mockery and ridicule would give way to the official mockery and ridicule of the bizarre crucifixion parade to the place of execution. All this demonstrates how hateful and cruel the world Jesus entered was. And yet we so often fail to understand how the recognition of the hatefulness and cruelty of this world for what it is depends so much on the fact that Jesus came and exposed it for what it is;. It is because of him we can recognize the abuse of the innocent for what it is. Because he came and lived out the prophecy that marked him as the Messiah, as the sheep who was silent before it was led out to slaughter, we see the cruelty of this world for what it is.

It is a harsh and cruel reality that the abused often face that the authorities may condone and perhaps even sponsor further abuse and degradation. In our world the wheels of earthly justice no better than the fallen people of this world, the people who are in places of political and often religious authority. So what should have been a protective and corrective responsibility of religious and political authority often goes tragically cruel and becomes a partner in the crimes of abuse. So this highlights the need to hold civil and religious authorities accountable when they are exposed as neglecting their protective responsibilities, and to work for legal justice in our world.

We also need to recognize and grieve over the times that we have discovered that physical abuse has too often occurred in Christian ministries as well. There have been over the past few years a growing number of testimonies of physical abuse in ostensibly Christian ministries and churches. This seems to be due in part to unbiblical understanding of submission, as enforceable by aggression and violence, to use any way they can to change someone else to their whims and desires. I personally had the experience years ago of an older pastor trying to shove my face into an open Bible and yelling at me to read a scripture on submission. For further examples, just to take two, there have been also a number of more egregious stories of the abuse of both young men and women under the Bill Gothard ministry that have been coming out over the past few years and the Mark Driscoll ministry and Mars Hill Churches. Unfortunately these kinds of abuses that happen in ministries purportedly for the gentle and loving Savior definitely mar the witness of the church as a whole when abuse is given a  justification from misrepresented scriptures.

Unfortunately, the silence of Jesus before the physical abuse he suffered has too often in our day given way to the silence of the church about physical abuse in our day and age. Earlier generations did confront physical abuse within marriages, families, workplaces and prisons with prophetic preaching and teaching. Moreover, they often dealt with individual believers and often civil authorities when it came to the abuse of human beings by other human beings. But when it comes to many church leaders and believers today – silence. Crickets chirping. So it’s time for the church to end its silence over abuse – even if it’s been shown to be committed by those who some consider heroes, examples and champions of the faith.

THE CUP OF SUFFERING WHICH THE SON OF GOD DRANK MEANT ALLOWING HIMSELF TO BE TREATED WITH ALL THE HATRED AND CRUELTY THAT COMES FROM OUR WORLD OF HATRED AND CRUELTY. THE SUFFERING OF THE SON OF GOD WAS THE ULTIMATE IN THE ABUSE OF AN ENTIRELY INNOCENT PERSON IN A WORLD OF ABUSE. MAKE NO MISTAKE, WE LIVE IN A WORLD IN WHICH PEOPLE GIVE THEMSELVES, TAKE FOR THEMSELVES PERMISSIONS TO ASSAULT OTHERS WITH WORDS, HANDS , FISTS, FEET, STICKS, STONES, AND OTHER WEAPONS WITHIN BONDS OF MARRIAGE, OF PARENTHOOD AND IN THE COURSE OF THEIR WORKPLACE AND CIVIC DUTIES. TOO OFTEN ALSO THE RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL AUTHORITIES TURN THEIR BACKS, PROVIDE NO HELP OR PERHAPS EVEN ENCOURAGE AND PARTICIPATE IN ABUSE. PART OF THE REALITY THAT THE POLITICS AND RELIGION OF THIS WORLD IS NO BETTER THAN THE HATEFUL, CRUEL, SINFUL HEARTS OF MEN AND WOMEN. BUT THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS KNOW THAT RETALIATION TO ABUSE WITH ABUSE IS NOT THE ANSWER FOR ABUSE. BECAUSE OF JESUS, BECAUSE HE WAS THERE ALSO, IT IS POSSIBLE FOR HIS PEOPLE TO BE LIKE HIM AND STRONG IN HIM BEFORE HIS WORLD AS WE RECOGNIZE WHAT THIS WORLD IS AND WHAT IT DOES TO PEOPLE, BUT EVEN MORE, WHAT GOD IN HIS GOODNESS BRINGS FROM IT IN HIS SALVATION, WHAT SACRIFICIAL LOVE REALLY IS. THE SUFFERING OF THE SON OF GOD MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR HIM TO BE THE SAVIOR OF BOTH THE ABUSED AND THE ABUSER.

For the abused, then, the invitation comes from Jesus himself to come to him as the healer of broken hearts, broken spirits and broken bodies. Because he was broken himself, he knows what it is like to be broken and he can help those who have been broken and those whom others are trying to break. He understands and sympathizes beyond all others, and he brings healing beyond all others, to where what you have experienced can become past history and not present trauma of the heart, spirit and body.

For the abused, also, take up the place of forgiveness to the abusers. Not because there was anything excusable about it, but because it was inexcusable, and not because they have done anything to deserve our forgiveness. Yet forgive simply because the Son of God who forgave his abusers expects us to do so also. His strength to love and forgive still available to us when we cannot do it from ourselves, and he provides for us to learn and demonstrate genuine Christlikeness in our sufferings.

Then, for the abuser: recognize your own serious sin in verbal and physical abuse. Refuse the excuses and minimization that come from your own habits of self deception and deceit toward others. Seek forgiveness and conquest of your abusive habits and past through Jesus. He can provide the path to replacement of your past of Satanic cruelty with Christlike love and gentleness. He can transform you into what the Word of God calls for, in whatever place and role in the past in which you may have found an opportunity for abuse. He can enable you to be like Christ in that situation instead of a cruel enforcer of your will upon weaker people.

For the church as a whole: recognize the need to recover the voice of the church as a prophetic rebuke and correction to the abuse that takes place in our world. Recognize the call to recognize it, tell it for what it is, work to reduce, eliminate abuse of others in our world. Recognize also as a reason for church discipline when it happens among professed believers, and for the need for removal from office and leadership responsibilities of those in official leadership. Recognize also the need to recognize the need for care and compassion for those who have been abused. Very often enough the target is the forgotten person in these situations; too often the church may deal out some kind of punishment of abuser without compassion or help for the target. Make your ministry for abusers not something for show or gossip but rather a faithful prayer group of 2-3 who can pray with confidentiality and conquering faith for the abused and the abuser.

For all: recognize that this suffering of Jesus was the price of a most precious salvation. This most precious salvation is not something not to underestimated, but cherished and received for the great price that was paid. So love the one who went through all this for you. And if you have not received the salvation which he has provided for you through his death on the cross for you, put your faith in him now.

Mobbed

During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He  kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”

The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world. 

These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history.  Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.

But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.

“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).

The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.

In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history,  in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.

The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8:  “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”

The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a  murderer, and  apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.

So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.

So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin.  The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . .  (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).

The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would  be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.

In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.

Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies  — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas  himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not  have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.

So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so  common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England,  the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”

In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world. 

The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.

In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their  complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15).  So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.

Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows  the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need.  Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”

Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves. 

Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.

Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.  

Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God  of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.

AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.

Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?

Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.

Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?

Anticipation

Once the question was put to the well known 19th century evangelist Dwight L. Moody: “What is the secret of your success?”

The answer was: “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

Much about what Moody said is in line with the words of Jesus himself. In the passages of scripture known as the Olivet discourse, where he spoke on the signs of his coming and his return in glory, he gave this same kind of application. One day, in the last week of his earthly ministry, several days before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, the Lord described all this in a private teaching session with Peter, James and John on the heights of the Mount of Olives above the city of Jerusalem. The three gospels recount this teaching in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Here are two previous posts in this blog on the Olivet discourse (Mark 13):

The application, then,  of what Jesus had told Peter, James and John in the Olivet discourse, about the signs of his coming and his return in glory to gather together his people came at the end of his teaching. In light of his words about his return to take up his visible sovereignty in this world he gives his own application to his people of how to live in regard to the events that will come. Since believers in Jesus have the inside knowledge on the fact of the Lord’s return, it is reason not for calculation nor for speculation but for preparation. The incentive of his return is the incentive to live right and to work eagerly for Christ in hope and anticipation.

With the explanation of this incentive the Statement of Faith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gets it exactly right:

“The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal, visible, and premillennial. This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.”

That’s the emphasis which is so often missing in discussion of end times prophecy: the anticipation of the Lord’s return is an incentive and motivation to holy living and active, faithful service. That’s the conclusion and his own application of his own prophecy of the events around his return to earth in glory in the Olivet discourse. This the point that he himself came to at the conclusion of the Olivet discourse. With all that Jesus said that day on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, when explained the events leading up to and then his return in glory, to take up his visible kingship of the world, his own words pointed out what is significant for his disciples in the light of the predicted events. It wasn’t about speculation or finding the order of events on a timeline or a chart; it was about being faithful to the very end no matter what would happen as the end drew closer.

So it may seem that many believers don’t really get the impact of what he was saying to all of us in the Olivet Discourse. We may follow the fashionable paths of the conversations about end times prophecy as we have in the past two to three generations and miss the point of why Jesus said what he said. We’ve become caught up in analysis and a tendency to date setting and have too often passed over the call  of Jesus himself to a careful consideration and application of his words to our lives now. Since we have the privilege of the inside knowledge of the fact of the Lord’s return, he calls us not to use this knowledge neither for curiosity, nor for speculation nor for calculation but for preparation. His words are to fuel that incentive to live holy lives and work eagerly for Jesus in the hope of his certain return and loving anticipation of the hour that he is going to return.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

“But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time. It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” (Mark 13:28-37, Dale’s sight translation).

Believers in Jesus Christ must first of all pay attention for the signs of his return. His expectation is that they would have a continuous alertness to their lives to the signs of his coming, but with a his own reason why they are to pay attention. His expectation is what his followers, forearmed with the knowledge of his return and the preceding events, would first of all not be caught up in the routines of this world. His expectation was that his people were to pay attention to be able to recognize the signs of the end of the world as we know it, to when he returns and brings us the world as he wants it. But this expectation wasn’t to be the source of endless speculation and bickering about differing interpretations, but rather for diligence to be prepared for his return.

It’s extremely significant to understand Jesus himself expected that believers would be able to see and to recognize the signs of his return. All throughout the Olivet Discourse he used the word, “. . . you . . . ” in the plural sense to address the people whom he expected to understand and follow what he was saying. Certainly he meant the three apostles who were the immediate audience, who kept these words in their hearts and passed them down to us. But we need to include ourselves among the, “ . . . you  . . .” in the plural sense as well, just as we do throughout the entire New Testament whenever we see that expression used and it cannot be restricted just to that particular place and time by a qualification that arises directly from the immediate context. Jesus used the word, ‘’ . . . you . . . “ in the plural sense with the expectation that believers throughout all ages would be able to compare what he had already explained with what was happening and to be able to tell that he was very near. His expectation was that his explanation of what would happen at the time of his return would give enough of an indication that he was ready to return and that his arrival was just around the corner.

So the first part of this is the lesson from the fig tree, in verses 28-29: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. The word which I’ve translated “lesson” is literally “parable.” It could also be translated, “analogy.” It’s noteworthy that this is the second time that Jesus has used the fig tree as an object lesson within the past several days. So here he used a familiar occurrence that happened every year as an indication of what would eventually happen only once, namely, the complete fulfillment of the signs for his return. And the summer, in the Mediterranean climate, was the time of harvest – which goes right back to his earlier talk about the harvest,  the gathering of God’s people to himself at the return of Jesus. And then what Jesus meant by ‘these things’ were the previous signs which he had already explained. This would include the complete evangelization of the world (13:10). The most probable and significant application of what Jesus is talking about is to a definite period of time at the end where all the signs are taking place at an unprecedented intensity — including all the persecutions and upheavals.

The expectation of Jesus is clearly that his followers are to watch for the signs of his coming in all places and all ages. With this he contradicts the idea of the ‘imminence’ as applied to his return as meaning that there will be no identifiable and obvious signs preceding some kind of secret coming before his visible coming. He clearly expected his followers to be on earth and to have his words in hand as they watched the world for the signs of his coming. Even more, his expectation is that the watching for his coming would not require meticulous analysis of end times prophecy but understanding of his words according to the common sense meaning. This would mean that average believers with average intelligence could take his words and understand that he is near by comparing what he had said to what was happening in the world.  Here is a  list of what he had already explained would be the signs: first and most definitely the appearance of the Antichrist, evangelization of the world, worldwide persecution, and then the cosmic signs. All these would and should be something that would be understandable to an average believer with his words in hand and with an eye to what was happening in the world.

The attitude of anticipation and waiting doesn’t require deep and exact knowledge of Biblical prophecy. Indeed, we can see that this simply requires noticing the signs and understanding what they can mean. For example, during my college years, our family dachshund, Gretchen, knew that something was going to happen when my mother started spending more time in the kitchen doing some extra baking and food preparation. So she would lay on the rug near the back door of the house. She knew that someone from the family was going to come back home for a visit, and she wanted to be ready to give her greetings and spend some time with a beloved family member.

Along with the call to watch for the signs of his return, then, Jesus gives another promise for the future: the time of fulfillment of the signs of his return will not be long and drawn out. Rather, from what he said there is the indication that the time of contractions could be approximated to the normal lifespan of a human being at the most. And even more, he adds on the additional assurance that all these events will certainly come to the final culmination, upon the authority of Jesus himself.

This is what he is speaking about when he says, in verses 30-31: “Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  The point he is making is that there is the certainty of fulfillment within a normal person’s lifetime. He’s not giving an indication not of definite day and time but rather the approximation of the length of time within which the signs will be fulfilled. This restricts the time of fulfillment to within the lifetime of a normal person as the signs appear. The approximation of a lifetime is probably a much larger interval than it will really be, but it is wide enough and sufficient to keep anyone from becoming too comfortable and precise with calculating the time of his return too closely. This assurance then follows his earlier assurance that the days of spiritual, moral and political disaster would be cut short for the sake of his people (vv. 19-20).

He then adds on this assurance and notarizes it with his own stamp of authority upon his own words as more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   This notarization of the everlasting authority and reliability of his words is also, of course, applicable to all his words, of course. And here he is claiming a greater permanence for his words than was claimed for the Old Testament Law that the disciples had been brought up from early childhood to revere. This stamp,  the guaranteed reliability of his words, then make it no gamble to stake one’s life on faith in and obedience to his word in sacrifice and effort in all ages, but they provide the extra assurance that his disciples would need even more as the end approaches most closely and the trials of their faith become perhaps the most severe that will ever be experienced by his followers in all human history.

The certainty of the words of Jesus is therefore the stamp of assurance on all that he had to say to his people.  Jesus adds the emphasis here since it seems that his veracity and reliability may especially be tried and tested as things come closer to the end. Ultimately, though, scriptural faith in the scriptural Jesus must mean utter faith in his words to the end, whether that end is his coming in glory or the ends of our lives as our bodies succumb to physical death before he comes. And seemingly his extra emphasis on the utter reliability of his own words will be something that is utterly necessary in the final days before his coming, as well as something utterly necessary also for the days up to that time. A complete trust in his Word is not something that can be delayed until the signs are actually upon us. I couldn’t say that if we delay our trust until actual fulfillments are upon us that we won’t fall under the same kind of deception that falls upon the world of mankind as a whole at that time. We can and should rather take his statement, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,”   as his assurance that the time that things get to their worst that the best is just around the corner, upon his own authority and veracity as the eternal Son of God.

Even more then, we can understand that what Jesus had to say about his return came from the heart of overflowing love and concern for each of us. His words were passed on to us because he wants us to be ready and because he wants us to understand what was going to happen. He wanted us to have the greater trust in his word than anything else that could trip us up in the world around us. So therefore his call to pay attention to his words about the circumstances attending his return in glory is his call of love for us because he wants us to be ready for him. And as I’ve already written, paying attention doesn’t mean a certainty in any calculations of the precise time of his arrival. Rather it still means living and serving with the uncertainty of the precise time of his arrival.

THE UNPREDICTABLE DATE AND TIME OF THE RETURN OF JESUS CALLS FOR US TO SERVE HIM WELL. If our anticipation of his soon return is real, it will mean alertness, effort and consistency in the fulfillment of our spiritual duties. This is the application from the prediction of Jesus’s return that is so often lost or underemphasized when believers get into end times prophecy: real anticipation of his c0ming return means serving him well in this life.

While there will be signs of his return, as Jesus himself has explained. watching for Jesus’s return is necessary at all times because the exact time of his return has not been revealed. He has given strong indications of the approximate time of his return, but he has left it open enough so that there is no possibility of delaying anything until the last possible moment. This is deliberate: he has set up his prophecy in such a way that watching and alertness is necessary at all times because that moment cannot be predicted or calculated.

Here, in verses 32-33, is where Jesus lays it on the line for us about how we don’t know the exact time of his return: “But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time.” The exact time of the return is hidden in the secret counsel of God, according to what Jesus has just said. What this means is that the exact time of his return was not something that God the Father would reveal to the human consciousness of the Son of God in his earthly ministry to reveal to his people. And therefore since it was not something that Jesus was given to reveal, therefore no lesser being, no angel or human being can ever know that day or hour as well. Since it has not been revealed to any of his lesser servants either, it is deception for anyone to claim that he or she has that revelation. Note also earlier in the same chapter, in verse 6 and verses 21-22, in this same prophetic context: one of the marks of the false prophets and false Messiahs that were to come would be claims of certainty about something that Jesus himself did not claim certainty.

Since so we cannot know when the exact time – the day or hour that the Son of God appears in glory– really is, we can make no mistake about any kind of earthly claims to certainty on this point. Here Jesus himself in scripture has given us the warning, and no clearer warning could be given to the ages afterward about over-precision in the ‘when’ of his return, and against over-speculation and date setting. What the Son of God did not know in his human consciousness upon earth and did not have authority to reveal on earth is not something which any human being has authority to fill in. Whether someone presents himself or herself as a purported prophet or prophetess, or claims to have received a purported revelation from an angel, a lesser spiritual being (more likely a demonic angel of light), there is no following revelation to come that will give any more precision until he appears in the sky in glory.

Watching  for the return of Jesus Christ therefore does not mean predicting the time of his return, and sureness of his coming does not mean certainty of the day or hour. Make no mistake about it, this is a tremendous warning necessary for any who would get caught up in trying to pin down dates and times too precisely.  It is sheer spiritual insanity and the most debased kind of hubris to anyone to claim that something so significant that was not revealed to the Son to be revealed to us. And this was quite deliberate on the part of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves: if he had permitted it to be otherwise, our reaction would be to try to slack off until the last moment in our devotion to him in holiness and service.

So here’s a bit of lore about A. W. Tozer, which is unpublished to my knowledge, that demonstrates the correct application of this statement of Jesus. Tozer sat on the ordination committee of a pastor who was young at the time, and he later mentioned this to me when I asked him about what memories he had of Tozer. While he was himself undergoing the oral examination for ordination into the pastorate for our denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of the pastors on the ordination committee, who was known to be really into end times prophecy, questioned the pastor in such a way that it seemed like he was  trying to elicit some kind of precise time or date. So finally Tozer exclaimed,  “God himself didn’t know that – how can you expect him to know that?”

Again, it is deliberate that the exact time of the Lord’s return is unknown to us now and unknowably to us until he does actually return. The reason is motivation: the true incentive of the imprecise knowledge available to us of the Lord’s return is to serve him faithfully now, upon earth. That way he has given us no reason for distraction with the cares of our lives, for passive waiting or obsessive speculation. Rather this uncertainty is necessary for us, to do what is best for us in light of his return in glory, for our occupation and immersion in conscientious service.

Jesus explains this and drives it home with a pretty down to earth analogy in verses 34-37: “It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” 

I call this an analogy rather than a parable, since the term ‘parable’ brings up some rather strict, artificial rules from some interpreters. But the analogy of the master who is away and the servants who are left with responsibilities from him until his return, was a common reality in ancient societies, and the disciples then would understand it easily, and even in our society where slavery is illegal it is down to earth enough that we can understand it easily. The parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew adds the analogy of the thief in the night which was taken up by Paul as well, but Mark leaves it out for whatever reason, and whatever that reason may be does not cry out for us to fill it in with needless speculation. But this analogy would have definitely been applicable to the apostles who were sitting right there. They had been explicitly called as apostles, to be the emissaries of Jesus. It applies to the church then and now, as it has rightfully been understood throughout the ages of the church.

The call to faithfulness assumes that Jesus has already given definite responsibilities to his people throughout his word. From the preceding context also, this would mean dedication to world evangelization (13:10) and taking up the cross and standing for Christ even when it means probable martyrdom (13:11-13). So it would be quite legitimate to apply this to the responsibility to reach the world with the gospel, as in the three definite forms of the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-47, Acts 1:8.  Watchfulness therefore means serving and laboring for the Lord, and it is clear that he does not want to find anyone sleeping on his return. This is his warning against spiritual lethargy, slacking off, for whatever reason. In view of the previous context of the entire gospel of Mark, this would mean getting caught up in the activities of this world and self-indulgence and thus becoming the seed sown upon the thorns (Mark 4:18-19). So he himself sets before us the alternatives of faithfulness as meaning reward, unfaithfulness as losing the reward which is his approval. It’s a binary choice, from the Son of God himself. 

So for us to take up and share the concern of Jesus for our faithfulness in service must ultimately mean faithfulness to the assignment which Jesus has given to his people, both individually and as a fellowship of believers. There are so many other reasons that are so often given for us to be faithful in service – following a tradition, maintaining our church’s status quo or even national survival and prosperity. But these are not the incentive that Jesus himself gave, which was rather personal faithfulness to him, to receive his approval of what we’ve been doing for him in the meantime while we have been waiting for his return. It is just like the statement of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “The fact that Jesus Christ is to come is not a reason for stargazing but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.”

This entire consideration of the Olivet Discourse should spur us on to greater concern and prayer, then, from each individual and for each individual, as to serving well until the Lord comes. I think this would mean much less attention to our pious platitudes and clichés, which we often prattle to sound more spiritual than we are. It would mean less unfair dealing, childish directions and outright interference, hijacking and sandbagging to our brothers and sisters in Christ as they go along with us along the journey of following Jesus for a lifetime, toward greater maturity and steadfastness in Christ. It means rather for us each one to give due consideration to one’s one level of faithfulness, maturity and steadfastness in Christ first of all.

Jesus Christ is returning again; he is coming back to our earth to rule with perfect justice and to bring perfect happiness to his people. The hope of the world is not some man made utopia but the return of Jesus to bring his perfection back to our world to stay. So while he has given his people advance knowledge of his return, his expectation is not that we would spend our time either in procrastination or speculation. His expectation is that we would be constantly and steadfastly faithful to him in the meantime. The eagerness that we may have to see the Lord face to face, which we may include in our songs and prayers, will mean a steady application of ourselves to his assignment for our lives – and that will not be a burden for us, but our joyous preparation for the life beyond imagination when we are in his presence forever.

The return of Jesus Christ’s return is the reason first of all to be prepared with the most basic preparation necessary, to be in a right relationship with him.  Have you have entered his salvation through repentance and faith in him alone? Do you have the security in him that comes from a definite profession of faith and a life which shows the reality of having truly been born again of his Spirit?

Next, since Jesus Christ is the hope of those who have put their faith in him, that always remains a compelling reason to remain in that abiding relationship with him through continued faith, love and obedience, and for remaining in fellowship with him and with his people. He is the source for the strength to endure to the end as we remain in him and with his people.

Finally,  Jesus Christ is the yearning of those who remain faithful in service for him. All their aspirations and all their desires will be ultimately fulfilled at his arrival. And that always remains our reason for consistency in service to and  to be pleasing to him. That is the reason for us to seek to learn and live out his will is for the kind of people we are to be from his Word and for us to be faithful to his assignments to us in our lives until the end, to our last breath here or until his soon return.