Risen

During the time of the Russian revolution, about the time of World War I, some Russian communists made a village turn out for a long harangue. They then called out the local pastor of the village church and gave him five minutes to reply. The pastor replied that he only needed five seconds. He then stood up before the village and gave them the familiar Easter greeting: “The Lord is risen!” The thunderous reply came back from the crowd: “He is risen indeed!”

The central truth of Christianity, the linchpin on which it hangs, is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event is the basis of the timeless validity and certainty of the gospel, and it is based upon the unanimous and consistent testimony of the apostles through the New Testament that the Lord is risen indeed. The fundamental belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is fundamental to a person having saving faith in Jesus Christ. And as this one event stands it reduces other religions to myths and stories and other philosophies to vain speculations and mere imagination. Marx and Mohammed remain in their graves, but the sure and confident faith of the Christian is that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive forevermore.

One of the eyewitness testimonies to the risen Christ comes from the apostle John. He passes on to the world the turnaround of his fellow apostle, a man whose hopes had been dashed and who seemed to have been turned into a confirmed skeptic of the resurrection. This account was passed on to persuade us of the fact of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and to guide us to a personal faith in Jesus. For the apostle, and for the apostles and the New Testament itself, the proper outcome of the persuasion of the fact of the resurrection is a personal trust in Jesus himself and him alone for salvation, for eternal life. What was written was given to us in a confident, gentle and loving manner to guide us to enter into an experience of him as a living Savior who is able to bring us eternal life.

“But Thomas, who was one of the Twelve, who is called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples were then saying, ‘We have seen the Lord!’”

“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the wounds in his hands and I put my finger into the wounds from the nails and I put my hand into his side, I won’t believe it!’”

“And after eight days the disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came while the doors were closed, and he stood in the center and said to them, ‘Shalom to you!’”

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Bring your finger here and check out my hands, and bring your hand and put it int0 my side, and don’t be unbelieving but believing!’”

“Thomas answered him and said, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

“Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen do you believe? Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to faith!’’”

“Jesus performed many other signs before the disciples which have not been written in this book. But these things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that as you believe you might have life in his name.”

(John 20:24-31, Dale’s sight translation, click here for other translations)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of his reality as a living Lord and Savior. The risen Lord lives and is able to give us all that he has promised, and in view of his resurrection, having been persuaded that he is risen, belief in him, trust in him and following him is the greatest realism.

The resurrection of Jesus was a real event three days after the crucifixion. There was no controversy among the disciples who were there that they were seeing the same Jesus alive whom they had seen arrested and crucified three days earlier. This is what they had to say to Thomas about that: “But Thomas, who was one of the Twelve, who is called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples were then saying, ‘We have seen the Lord!’”

The apostles, the eyewitnesses of the resurrection, had recognized the same Jesus whom they had all known and loved was alive among them on the evening of the day of resurrection. The invitation of Jesus to touch his body and see and touch the wounds of the crucifixion, show that it was the same body in which he was crucified, and it was able to be touched and handled. This establishes that the resurrection wasn’t a ecstatic vision, nor the haunting of a ghost, nor a hallucination, nor the shared memory of a dear departed friend, as some have tried to explain the resurrection appearances. It was the resurrection of Jesus in the same physical body in which he had lived and died, but radically changed in nature and capability. The testimony of the eyewitnesses is that the body of Jesus was the same but he had undergone a radical transformation. It was a real body that they saw and touched, but a spiritual body that was no longer subject to death. His resurrection was more than the resuscitation of a corpse, like Lazarus. Rather, it was the entrance of an entirely new physical life from the power of God. His resurrection was not the loss of personal identity nor the loss of corporeal life, but the reception of physical immortality and incorruptibility. And this points out the ultimate destination of the believer in Christ, glorification, resurrection to be like Jesus himself.

It was and remains entirely reasonable and realistic to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and it is the ultimate moment of transformation in this life. For the apostles, it meant that a scared and defeated group of men, most likely from a couple of men as young as John to older men past middle age, saw behind the closed doors the visible, demonstrable triumph of the Son of God over the power of sin and death. This was the basis of their later zeal and preaching that turned the world upside down, and eventually, all but one of them laying down their lives for their testimony to the risen Lord. This was the power of the cross and then the resurrection that changed these men then and continues to change lives today. There’s a story about an undertaker’s son who was in Sunday School who said confidently that Jesus would never have risen if his father had gotten ahold of him. It makes a cute story, but it’s true that no power on earth could have held him down, as Dallas Holm so wonderfully put in the song, “Rise Again.”

This passage then also shows something extremely important in our day and age about the nature of belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the nature of saving faith in Jesus. It is not belief without evidence, as some may try to mischaracterize Biblical faith. It is believe through the testimony of the eyewitnesses, and it ultimately goes back to the evidence that came through the apostles, the chosen witnesses of Jesus to the resurrection.

So here’s how Jesus lovingly corrected Thomas for his refusal to believe on the evidence that came through the apostles to him:

“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the wounds in his hands and I put my finger into the wounds from the nails and I put my hand into his side, I won’t believe it!’”

“And after eight days the disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came while the doors were closed, and he stood in the center and said to them, ‘Shalom to you!’”

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Bring your finger here and check out my hands, and bring your hand and put it int0 my side, and don’t be unbelieving but believing!’”

Thomas wasn’t a gullible or naïve man. He was passionate and intense, as it would seem, from the gospel record. But he knew then what every normal adult man and woman knows from his or her experience in this world: dead men do not rise from the dead. Except, though, there would be this one case where that would happen despite his prior determination not to believe it. Before long, the proof would be standing before him. And not only that, the risen Lord would be standing before him speaking directly to him and contradicting his refusal to believe what he had been told.

Jesus obviously considered that the testimony of the other apostles was sufficient for Thomas to have believed their word about his resurrection. Their testimony is recorded throughout the New Testament. It is the testimony of those eyewitnesses who laid down their lives for the certainty of their claims. It is an intellectually reasonable and defensible and historically accurate record of events that actually happened. There have been many over the centuries who have examined the record of the New Testament and found it reasonable and credible. Here are two:

Charles Hodge (past president of Princeton Theological Seminary): “It may be safely asserted that that the resurrection of Jesus is at once the most important and best authenticated fact in the world.”

John Broads (past president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): “If I don’t know that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, then I know nothing in the history of mankind.”

The evidence is therefore considered sufficient for saving faith from all the gospel writers and the writers of the New Testament. The resurrection was the culmination of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God throughout his life and ministry. What there is is sufficient to confirm the claims of Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, the Messiah, to back up his promises and teaching, and the reality of his resurrection. There’s a report that a Muslim once taunted a Christian that, “You Christians do not even have a tomb to which you can point, where your Jesus lies buried. We have the tomb of Mohammed in Mecca.”

The Christian then replied, “That is just the point; your prophet is dead and lies buried; our Christ is risen and with us always.”

Therefore, the historic, Biblical faith of the Christian lies in a risen Savior. The persuasion of the truth of the resurrection is the basis of a strong, securely grounded faith. And this means that faith in Jesus Christ is not an escape from reality, a childish mind game, a comforting refuge for the weak minded, nor a fantasy, but an acceptance of the deepest reality in our world, and a living, livable, the only viable option of life. The persuasion of the truth of the resurrection must then lead to the point of personal faith in and commitment to the Lord Jesus, the risen Savior.

Persuasion of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ calls for a personal faith in him. It is completely reasonable and fitting for someone who claims belief in the fact of the resurrection to come to personal belief in and commitment to the risen Lord himself. This is the proper response which is recommended from the gospel itself:

“Thomas answered him and said, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

“Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen do you believe? Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to faith!’’”

The personal commitment of faith in and obedience to Jesus comes from the words of Thomas himself. It means making that personal commitment of faith in him and obedience to him, to be his follower and disciple in the Biblical sense of the words. For Thomas, these words meant a full pledge of his allegiance and submission to Jesus as his Lord and Master: “My Lord!”; in our day, some try to use the word, ‘leader’, here, but I think that’s too weak a word for the complete and total commitment that these words describe. In our day and age a leader may seem to be someone out in front, but it’s often seemed to me that people feel themselves under very little obligation to follow a leader unless that person leads them in a direction which they approve. But what this meant for Thomas was giving Jesus total authority over his life.

It is, moreover, personal submission to Jesus himself, and full acceptance of his Deity, as Thomas acknowledged, “ . . . and my God!” Thomas knew Jesus as an extraordinary man. He had witnessed the miracles of Jesus and had heard all the teachings of Jesus over the course of the ministry of Jesus. It’s also evident from his earlier mention, in John 11, that he was deeply attached to Jesus personally and thought that he would be willing to die for Jesus. This admission of Deity is way more than a normal Jew of the time would have made unless he had come into contact with extraordinary, incontrovertible evidence. And the final evidence was more than the teaching and the miracles, though they had pointed forward to this moment. In this moment, what came from his mouth was the acknowledgement that the man before him, bearing wounds of the crucifixion, the one that they had known to be dead but was now alive, was God himself. The nature of this belief would later be worked out over years to come, to the attestation that Jesus was the Son of God in the unique sense, as the Second Person of the Trinity. The belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God was not upon mere assertion but upon the stupendous reality of his resurrection.

From this, then, the confession of Thomas would be a fully viable expression of saving faith from those who would come to faith later on. This is why Jesus put in that remark about those who have not seen and who believe. It was more than his gentle, loving rebuke of the previous unbelief of Thomas. It was the indication to them that there would later be those who would not have the eyewitness experience that they did and yet would come to saving faith in him.

So then the apostle gets gently personal with each person who is reading: “Jesus performed many other signs before the disciples which have not been written in this book. But these things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that as you believe you might have life in his name.”

The apostle is asking each one who is reading to take the words he has written and upon them, come to faith in Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was loving and gracious with Thomas, the apostle echoes this grace and love in extending this invitation. No high pressure; no strong demands; no spittle flecked ranting into a microphone like the caricature of an old time evangelist; the apostle just gives you the opportunity to consider what he has written and come to saving faith, eternal life, in the name of Jesus. The invitation is to make that open declaration of faith in Jesus which the Bible calls saving faith. This is the way that the apostle Paul put it: “. . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

What this is is personal submission to Jesus himself, from the personal conviction that he is risen from the dead, to make him Lord of your life. This is more than church membership or commitment to a church. So many may be a part of a church and may be good and moral people, but may never have made that personal commitment of saving faith in Jesus Christ. For instance, a long time friend of mine from years ago, unfortunately (for us) now deceased, years ago went to a convent and became a nun because she was seeking direction and discipline in her life. But then some years afterward, she volunteered to become a counselor at a Billy Graham Crusade in her area. It was as she she was reading the material that she was expected to explain to another person that she realized that with her discipline and work with the church, that she had missed the most important point: she had never put her faith in Jesus personally, for herself, and had not received eternal life by faith in him. And then she did so.

Lots and lots of people visit and attend churches and explore and become involved in religions and religious activities, but miss the point. I myself attended church with my family for years as I was growing up, but until August 27, 1974, I never understood or discovered the point of it all. It’s like the reaction of the newspaper editor in Dayton, Ohio, to whom Katherine Wright, the sister of Orville and Wilbur Wright, gave this telegram: “We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.” The editor said, “How nice that your brothers will be home for Christmas.” People get involved with churches and religions for guidance, for spiritual curiosity, because of family and tradition, and out of desire for some kind of social connection. But they often miss the point of the witness of the church to the resurrection of Jesus and the invitation through the apostles to receive eternal life by faith in him alone.

Years ago Leon Jaworski was a household name during the Watergate controversy in the USA. He was the special prosecutor for that time, but what is less known about him is that he was the son of a Polish immigrant who was an evangelical preacher. In 1981 he went beyond his years of church attendance to speak more openly of his faith in Jesus Christ, and he said, “I had a heavy burden off my heart because I did something that I felt I should have done a long time ago.”

Saving faith in Jesus Christ, then, is this openly professed faith in Jesus Christ and submission to his Lordship. It means belief in his resurrection and his Deity, and upon the authority of Jesus Christ, the truthful and almighty Savior, this brings the assurance of eternal life. The assurance of eternal life is not in anything that we are, in anything that we have done, but in whom we have come to know, the risen Savior, through a personal and conscious decision of faith.

Jesus Christ is risen! The same Jesus Christ who died on the cross has risen from the dead! This truth calls us today to celebrate, with worship and praise to the Lord for his victory. And the point of the celebration is to celebrate with faith in him.

Join in the celebration, with all believers everywhere today. Give your praise and adoration to the Lord of life, the resurrected Son of God! Praise him for his almighty power and for his all powerful love and goodness, which has conquered sin and death. Praise him for the hope which he has made certain, for the eternal life of those who love and follow him. Praise him for his eternal glory, as the Son of God, who is greater by far than anything or anyone else is or ever shall be.

Keep on in the celebration! The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is to give us joy and confidence every day of the year, even though we focus on it today. His resurrection is truth to nourish and strengthen our faith and the foundation of our faith. This will bring us consistency and stability in the faith, as we live with the understanding and awareness that we serve a risen Savior. The constant realization that the Son of God is alive means that we are not pursuing a fantasy, but that our love for him and our obedience to him is to a real and living Person. And our declaration that the Lord is risen will ignite our hope to be with him and to be like him, and make it a burning expectation within our hearts.

Enter into the reason for our celebration. For believers in Jesus, his resurrection is not something that happened far ago in history that happened to a stranger. It is the victory over sin and death of the Lord whom we have come to know personally when we put our faith in him. The reason that we celebrate is because we have received eternal life by faith in the risen Son of God. So then, the question come to you through all the ages: have you made a personal commitment of your life to Jesus Christ? Have you made a conscious decision to repent of your sins and to put your faith in him alone for your eternal salvation? Will you declare your faith in him and then follow him as your Lord?

Incomparable

The late Marjoe Gortner was probably the most infamous example of someone who had been pushed forward as a child evangelist and later renounced his public profession of faith. Yet because of his experience he had some perceptive comments that he made later about what he saw and experienced. He once said, “When I was traveling, I’d see someone want to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I’d return and that person might be a hard nosed and intolerant Christian because he was better than anyone else because he had Christ. That’s where the danger comes in. People want and experience. They want to feel good . . .”

That continues to be a problem. His remarks do give credit that this happened with some people and not everyone. It’s conceivable that many became faithful, humble, loving Christians as well – but there’s no drama or the self righteousness of the renegade former evangelical that feeds on the hypocrisy of the few. But the issue for everyone everywhere remains not the faithful Christians or the hypocritical ones. It always remains Jesus – who he is and what he has done. And this is why the gospel of Jesus Christ constantly and relentlessly points us away from our feelings and experiences to Jesus Christ himself. Some years ago there was a song about coming back to the heart of worship, but it never seemed to come more than halfway back, since there was still a lot of “I” and “me’ in that song. But the final word was that it is all about Jesus. It’s not about getting a buzz on the music and the atmosphere, and the words of so many of our songs are fuzzy about the fundamental truths should be crystal clear for someone abiding in Christ and growing in him and in the knowledge of his Word. So many things are backhanded references and you have to think way too hard to find anything Biblical in so many of the words of our worship songs. And so many of our worship songs seem to be more like third rate poets celebrating their feelings and finding bad metaphors and similes to express what they think their experiences are than wholehearted scriptural praise comparable to the hymns and songs of praise that have been the repertoire of the church for two thousand years.

There needs to be a new and fresh vision of Jesus Christ beyond the foggy, cloudy and gushy experience that we’ve been taking on in the past few years. We need a fresh realization of the glory of our Lord. The fog, cloudiness and almost incomprehensible expressions of our shallow and superficial experiences needs to give way to the bright and shining glory of God in the incomparable person and work of Jesus Christ. It must be that we’ve only settled for what we’re finding is that there is a great lack of realization of who Jesus Christ really is and what we have done. We seem to celebrate a sentimental familiarity with Christ rather than the stunning statements of who the man of Galilee really was and is and what he has done for us. It may seem like heavy theology, because we seem to have been accustomed to shallowness. Yet what was written for us, and what has often been in the faith and worship of the church for centuries, was intended for ordinary people, not for academics. It may be difficult for the mind to grasp – indeed the finest merely human mind cannot come to a full realization and understanding of all that the scriptures say about Jesus. What the scriptures say is there for our faith to believe and seek understanding upon that basis. This then corrects what may be a deeply faulty, inadequate and shallow inner image that we have of Jesus, as far too small, weak, and less than the Lord of glory. So next stop is the portrait of Paul of the incomparable Christ, the cosmic Christ, in terms and attributes that are far too often passed over even by Christians who have been in the faith for many years. The cosmic Christ, the Lord of all nature, superior in nature and rank to all the creation, and who is first in the universe in every way, preeminent above every being, shocks and astounds us out of the self concerned, festering morass of our feelings and experiences into an adoration and worship where we become enthralled with him and only him.

So here’s how the apostle Paul described how Jesus Christ is first in the universe in every way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, because through him all things in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities; all things were created through him and for him. And He is before all things, and all things are sustained through him. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might be first in all things; because in him all the fullness of god was pleased to dwell and to reconcile all things to himself, as he made peace through the blood of his cross – whether things on earth or in heaven.”

Jesus Christ is, first of all, God incarnate. Those two words, “God incarnate”, describe something that we may often forget is astounding bey0nd all our thoughts, experiences and experiences. They describe Deity robed in human flesh, the fullness of Deity dwelling bodily. They mark Jesus as so supreme above every human teacher, guru and self described savior that they deserve no comparison, because he is incomparable.

As the Son of God, God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, as Christians for centuries have described him, Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God. He is incomparable in that way to all human teachers. In Jesus, all that God is comes into perfect focus for all of humanity. He is the perfect, living theophany, through whom the invisible God demonstrated and expressed his character and personality. He was not nor did he posses just a “piece” of God in himself, or a partial but incomplete depiction of God that other teachers, gurus, prophets and avatars may fill out in other ways. He cannot be reduced in who he is and what he has done to someone small enough to be compared to someone else that someone might find preferable from their own background or tradition. That would reduce Jesus to an idol and elevate the others to whom one is comparing Jesus to idols, since idols are incomplete models of what people may think God to be. At best those idols, those fake images of God, may show something that may be some attribute of God, but they cannot express all that God is through a human personality and life. They always leave a lot out of the fullness of Deity and often include large elements of human sin and frailty – just look at the fallibility, follies, foibles and depravities of the old Indo-European sky god whom we know historically as Zeus, Jupiter and Dyaus.

As God incarnate, Jesus Christ is the creator and sustainer of all things. As Deity, the Second Person of the Trinity, his being is eternal, and as the eternal Son, he was creator with God the Father, and the universe continues to exist and be sustained through his personal agency. He is the Creator of all visible and invisible beings, all living things, even the mightiest of archangels, and all of mankind and the nations of this world; they all come from the invisible creating and sustaining agency of the one Person who is the Man of Nazareth. None among them are equal to or prior to Christ, and so they are not rivals of his in any way, and they do not deserve any comparison with him. And as the creator and sustainer of all creation, all human beings continue to live through his almighty power; we do not have life in ourselves, but only through the Son of God, the Second Person of the Godhead. And so there is nothing in the universe that is a mystery to him, and to the believer in Christ, the universe itself is no mystery, since he or she personally knows who is responsible for bringing it into being and keeping it in existence from moment to moment.

Next, as the Son of God, God incarnate, Jesus Christ is the owner and possessor of all that exists. This is the meaning of the phrase, “firstborn of creation.” That phrase, in its history, had little to do with being created or being physically born the first in the family. For instance, in the Old Testament, David, Jacob and Joseph were not the first ones physically born in their families, but each one received the right of the firstborn. It was what has been called the right of primogeniture, and it does not mean, as some counterfeit, cultish imitations of Biblical Christianity would have it, that the supernatural nature of Jesus was a superior created being. The right of the firstborn is not the same as being the first one born in a family. And what this means is that all things were created for him and his will is pre-eminent in the universe. All other commands and priorities are secondary and fade to nothing beside the word of Jesus Christ. He will have his will accomplished in all things, and the goal of all the universe is the Kingdom of God under God’s anointed King Jesus.

One of the stupendous things about this is the agreement that the apostle Paul has in what he has just asserted with one of the original Twelve apostles, the apostle John, who was writing almost a generation later and in another part of the Roman world. Here is what the apostle John had to say:

Dr. D. James Kennedy noted that most unbelievers and nominal Christians are unaware of the Deity of Jesus Christ, and sharing the meaning of what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God as himself being Deity, God in the flesh, was a significant part of the Evangelism Explosion presentation which he developed. It was often true in that era in which he formulated that presentation, the 1960s, that there were many people who attended church at that time who were nevertheless in the dark about what the words that the hymns and the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds really meant when they referred to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. And to be fair, many of the men in the pulpit of the church at that time may not either have realized its significance or believed in the Biblical meaning of the Deity of Christ, as this doctrine is often called in the systematic theology books. Making this a part of the gospel presentation, then, meant that he was correcting a part of the theological instruction that many may never have heard in the churches in which they grew up and which they attended, as to understanding and accepting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, as Deity. And this is one of the crucial reasons for sharing this as part of the gospel; it establishes Jesus as a Savior that can save to the fullest extent possible in anywhere in this world for anyone in this world.

Even more, Jesus Christ is the only Savior. The extent of his reconciliation is too often missed in our preaching and teaching; we tend to reduce it to just providing forgiveness for our sins – and that is perfectly fine and Biblical when sharing the gospel — but it goes way beyond that. His reconciliation through the cross went far beyond cancelling the condemnation to eternal punishment for sinful people, though that is fine and Biblical and definitely a part of the presentation of the gospel to those who need to come to know Christ. Even more staggering is also the realization that Jesus Christ, in a profound and cosmic way, through the cross brought reconciliation to the universe and the genesis of a new humanity. This is a part of what the cross meant and what it continues to mean; the depth, breadth and extent of the reconciliation that Jesus brought to the universe is staggering to understand and contemplate, and this is often something that may be missing in our normal preaching and teaching from week to week. Certainly the truth that we’re about to touch upon is probably far beyond the normal understanding that many believers who attended church weekly have come to realize.

The cross meant the pacification of God to all that is evil and in this fallen universe. First, this meant a stay in the ultimate judgment of the human race and gave fallen humanity the opportunity across centuries to become reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Make no mistake about it, the biggest complaint that godly people have had over the centuries about the justice of God in this world, which is not the poor formulation that unavenged evil means God does not exist, but the often voiced complaint that God’s justice is inexplicably delayed, finds its answer in the reconciliation which Christ has provided in the cross. One of the unconditional benefits of the cross is the stay in the judgment of God until the opportunity for reconciliation has been fully come to this world.

But next, the cross meant that Jesus through his resurrection would be the ultimate, incomparable Savior provided for the human race. That is what it meant for him to be the firstborn from the dead; his resurrection was more than a temporary resuscitation from death, to die later, as Lazarus and the son of the widow in the town of Nain. Rather, he was the firstborn of a new mankind, a new and resurrected human race, made from the people of the first race descended from Adam, that would supersede the original race.

Even more, this meant that he has become the Head of the Church, the fellowship of the redeemed. There is no earthly head but only the Son of God, the Savior from heaven! Then, the term that the church is his body means that he is the source of its life and each one has a unity of life with him and each other. That’s a striking thought that too little affects how we see our Lord and how we see and how we treat each other. This statement means that the church exists because of, through and in the dominion of Christ. It knocks down and reduces to ashes the human presumption that a church is our fellowship and that we are in charge and run the church. It means that our presumption is in conflict with his authority and supremacy, and that means that we need to be careful that we please Christ rather than ourselves. But this even more is the basis of the new fellowship among those who know Christ, and the understanding that we are people of destiny in a far greater way than we often realize. This means that the most obnoxious person you know, or the person that you cringe when he or she enters a church building, nevertheless shares your life and destiny under Christ if he or she has genuinely repented and placed his or her faith in Christ. All this means that there needs to be definite re-thinking of many of us on how we think about our church involvement and how we treat others in the body of Christ.

Taking another look, then, at the portrait of Christ which has been painted in the words of the apostle Paul through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there’s that familiar face again, but greater in a way which we may have never seen before. That face is our Lord! If we linger and contemplate and gaze with the eyes of our heart, we will see him in a new way. And once we have truly seen him in this way, we can never think of him in the same way again. And even more, we can never responsibly live the same way again!

The Jesus that we see in a new way is a Lord who is worthy of all our worship and adoration! Let us never again think of our due homage to him in worship ever again as any kind of drudgery. That hero worship that we have often given to incomparably less figures in this world and our human saviors who cannot save us has a far more worthy and adequate objects, Jesus Christ himself!

And the Jesus that we see is a Lord worthy of all our obedience. Our Lord who has given all, promises all and is able to keep and will keep all of this promises. Therefore never let us give him mere lip service again, or use him as a mere figurehead for our lives!

The incomparable Christ that we see is also a Lord who is capable of helping us in all our difficulties, each and every one. He suffered himself in our world and he is able to give us a depth of sympathy and compassion beyond all that we can fully know. But he is also a Lord who is able to solve the problems and bring the comfort. Therefore let us never again go to anyone else first!

Finally, Jesus Christ the incomparable is the only Lord who can satisfy. All others will fade away and fall apart, yet he is eternal and he brings us eternal satisfaction. Let us never again act as if there is real, lasting and ultimate satisfaction that we will find anywhere else.

Offering

Years ago there was a pastor in Kentucky that sent his parents a microwave oven as a Christmas gift. The gift thrilled his parents, but they found that they couldn’t get it to work even after they had read over the directions. So two days later, as his mother was speaking with a friend, she said that she couldn’t even get that microwave oven to boil water. She confessed, “To get this darn thing to work, I really don’t need better directions; I just needed my son to come along with the gift.”

This situation was like how God dealt with his chosen people of Israel. He gave them the directions in the Law of Moses as the way of life, but they found that they couldn’t live up to the requirements of the Law and achieve their own acceptance with God because of their good deeds. Even the sacrificial worship of the Temple could not ease their consciences. So God gave them a greater opportunity; he sent his Son Jesus Christ. The Son of God was God’s gift of salvation in person, and in him he offered them all his promises of the King who would come in the line of David who would be their Savior, and, indeed, the Savior of the entire world. But still the gift of God’s Son, his appeal to them to accept his mercy through his Son, respected their free choice as human beings. The King came to them to be either accepted or rejected. Jesus publicly entered the city of Jerusalem, on the day that Christians around the world have celebrated as Palm Sunday, as the living fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and as a national theophany. Although there was celebration on that day, ultimately it would come out that the nation had missed the opportunity to receive properly their King that God was offering to them.

This still is how God now deals with us now not so much as nations but as individuals who will one day stand before him. One day it will just be y0u standing there before God before the whole universe. Yet long before that time, and sometimes even many times over may present Jesus Christ to us through the gospel as Lord and Savior for our acceptance or rejection. And along with that, there will be ultimate, eternal consequences to our acceptance of Jesus Christ or rejection of him as he comes to us through the gospel.

“When Jesus had already drawn near to the egress down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty deeds that they had seen, as they said, ‘Blessed be the King who is coming in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”

“And some of the Pharisees who were in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, correct your disciples!’”

“And he answered them, ‘I say to you, if these people were silent, the stones would cry out!’”

“And as he came near, as he saw the city he wept over it, as he said, ‘If you have only known on this day what would bring about peace – but now it has been hidden from your eyes. Because the day will come when your enemies will surround you with a barricade, and they will encircle you and completely hem you in, and they will dash you and your children in you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another, because you did not know the time that God would visit you!’”

(Luke 19:37-44, Dale’s sight translation)

Jesus Christ is himself God’s gracious offer of salvation. He himself is the gospel, the good news which God has for our world, in person. And God’s offer of his Son to us as Lord and Savior is his final answer, his only offer of salvation. Even more, the open, public offer of Jesus Christ is the open demonstration of the grace of God to our world – his gracious love and mercy to a rejecting, rebellious and dying world, to each individual who is rejecting, rebellious and dying through his or her own sins. Through the person of his Son, then, his public appeal comes for the acceptance or rejection of the salvation which he has provided.

Verses 37-44 describe something that would appear rather modest to a modern witness: “When Jesus had already drawn near to the egress down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty deeds that they had seen, as they said, ‘Blessed be the King who is coming in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”

This was a procession of a crowd, maybe of several hundred to several thousand people, that went several hundred yards from the Mount of Olives on the usual way down the mountain to the Temple in Jerusalem. Since we usually celebrate Palm Sunday in the morning, we may often see this as having taken place in the morning. The gospel of Mark tells that Jesus went to the Temple just after this, looked around and left, because it was evening. So it may have started around 5 PM local time, and continued until just about 7 PM or so, when sunset would have come.

The crowds, though, recognized the significance of what it meant when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the colt. It wasn’t an occasion just to wave palms and sing songs, because we have done so since our childhood in our churches. There was no tradition of Palm Sunday to fall back on on that day. There was a tradition that explained that act, though. Jerusalem had been the capital of the forefather of Jesus, King David, and this entrance was something that recalled the entrance of the prince, the heir to the throne, who was to be crowned king of Israel. It may have in fact been the same road since in ancient cities which were continually rebuilt the roads were often repaved on top of each other. So this entrance of Jesus was the prelude to a coronation ceremony – as some of our Palm Sunday hymns acknowledge — and his public declaration of his Messiahship by his miracles and his heritage. It represented the offering of Jesus to Jerusalem and to Israel as the heir and successor of David, their promised King. The praise of the people around him, then, was their acknowledgement of his claims to the throne of David. His entrance as God’s promised King, the successor of David, was a part of the demonstration of God’s renewed favor to them.

So now we don’t see Jesus coming personally down the Mount of Olives on a young colt, but a strong reason that churches have celebrated Palm Sunday for centuries is that it reminds us that he continues to approach us through the centuries with the message of salvation through his death and resurrection. The offering of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the public declaration of the grace of God has now been extended throughout the centuries beyond Jerusalem and the nation of Israel to the entire world. It is still the offer of the promised King, the Prince of peace who brings peace with God when he is accepted. It is the open offer of peace with God through the Son of God, which comes to those who receive him as their Lord and Savior. It is an offer which still called for the response of those who receive it.

Nevertheless, there will be some who will not tolerate God’s offer of salvation through his Son, for whatever reasons that they may have. And the truth is that the free offer of the grace of God through Jesus Christ is often a threat to many in our world, to those who may be comfortable in the routine of the status quo. There are often spoilers in every crowd, and this is what happened then. This is what happened, as explained in verses 39-40:

“And some of the Pharisees who were in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, correct your disciples!’”

“And he answered them, ‘I say to you, if these people were silent, the stones would cry out!’”

There were some Pharisees in the crowd, on that road down the Mount of Olives into the Temple at Jerusalem. They may have been some of the Pharisees who had for years gravitated in and out of the crowds and asked hard, even trapping questions of Jesus, or schemed against him behind his back. They might have themselves been going toward the Temple for their own worship and became absorbed into the crowd. Some may have seen their objection as being grounded in good intentions, to forestall Roman intervention into an illegal demonstration. But it is more likely that it was simply their annoyance at the popular recognition of a claim that they had disputed. There was some grudging acceptance of Jesus as a lay religious teacher, who had nevertheless not been through the rigorous training of an officially recognized rabbi and member of the Sanhedrin. But this was going too far – the crowd was cheering and singing for him as if he were the promised King himself. But Jesus refused to shut down the crowd for them, and he refused to disown the kind of honors that they were giving him. His reply about the the rocks crying out was a proverbial expression that declared that honor would come to him from God no matter what anyone did.

Yet today this is still the reaction of some when Jesus Christ is publicly celebrated and offered as Lord and Savior, of those who do not believe trying to shut it down. It may even come from those who are religious, who themselves may be nominal Christians, and many of those from other religions who are willing to accept Jesus as a religious teacher, but try to shut it down when he is publicly celebrated as Lord and Savior, the salvation of God to this world. Yet even in this, God will still reach out to them with the offers of grace and save some, but others will still continue in underground opposition for a long time afterwards. Ultimately, though, no antagonism of any human being to reaching others with the gospel will bring silence to the honor due to the Son of God.

God desires for the people of this world to receive the salvation that he offers through his Son, and so he gives them the opportunity to respond to his grace. Those who are close to God will seek to be a part of this mission as much as possible; those who understand and empathize with God, who are filled with his Spirit and walking in his Spirit will then also seek that others will respond to God’s offer of salvation through his Son Jesus Christ.

God’s grace, then, calls for acceptance or rejection; acceptance brings salvation, but rejection has its consequence also. The rejection of the grace of God leaves only the consequence of God’s judgment. God in his love and patience gives this world the offer of his salvation through Jesus Christ. If that offer is rejected, though, that leaves only his wrath. The rejection of the grace of God brings his sorrow, regret and mourning. Yet God respects the choice of people to reject the terms on which he offers his salvation. To allow them to choose salvation on their own terms would mean that he abdicates his authority and sovereignty as God, but for him to allow people the choice to refuse his salvation is in accord with his creation of men and women as free moral beings with free choice.

In verses 41-42, then, we see the reaction of Jesus, God incarnate, to the ultimate rejection of him from Jerusalem and the Jewish nation of that time: “And as he came near, as he saw the city he wept over it, as he said, ‘If you have only known on this day what would bring about peace – but now it has been hidden from your eyes . . .’”

What we should see is that Jesus has come to a point where he can see the city as a whole, and he knows what will ultimately happen. His compassion for Jerusalem and the Jewish nation of that time led to his tears and lamentation of that time. He recognized the real spiritual blindness that so many would have to himself, his ministry and his Messianic credentials. He knew that he was not going to find the kind of reception in Jerusalem that showed spiritual readiness but rather spiritual blindness that would not mean peace with God. Though there were the crowds that were around him, there would be strong, profound and murderous rejection from the civil and religious powers that be of that time by the end of that same week. Yet still he had compassion for them, over their hardened and unrepentant hearts.

The rejection of the grace of God then makes judgment inevitable. The sad reality is that when God’s patience has finally reached its limit, then his justice begins the process of its terrible reckoning. This is what Jesus is talking about in verses 43-44: “’ . . . Because the day will come when your enemies will surround you with a barricade, and they will encircle you and completely hem you in, and they will dash you and your children in you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time that God would visit you!’”

This was the prophecy of Jesus that was fulfilled in A.D. 70. The land of Israel, what the Romans called Galilee and Judea, would revolt from Roman rule, and the Roman governor of Syria, Vespasian, would invade from the north to put down the rebellion. While the rebellion was still being put down, he found himself proclaimed emperor, and left the final conquest of Jerusalem to his son Titus. This conquest is still commemorated in the Arch of Titus which stands in Rome today. The prophecy of Jesus was a graphic description of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Romans would build a stockade around a walled city to cut it off from the outside world, from all outside reinforcements, and through a combination of starvation, calculated terror and well honed siegecraft conquer the city. Those who were left inside, who survived when the Roman troops broke through the walls, were enslaved or crucified, and small children killed. Some cities were razed to prevent any rebuilding and as a warning to any other cities and nations that would rebel. The siege, capture and destruction of an ancient city was a horror to all involved. And here Jesus ascribes it to the coming rejection of him as their Messiah and the Son of God.

Here it’s necessary to give a pause to make it clear on the limits of what Jesus meant. The judgment would come upon that generation, but not upon all Jews for all time. The pogroms that came later in medieval times in Europe in nominally Christian countries have no justification in scripture; the rejection and persecution of any Jew at any time with the vicious and repugnant term of ‘Christ killer’ is a crime of fanaticism and ignorance. Whatever happened then was between God and Israel, and no one who has the name of Christian has any part to play in inflicting any further justice of God for the death of Christ on any Jew at any time. Rather, the prophecy of scripture was that there would be a continued, partial hardening of Israel to the gospel until near the time of the Messiah’s return (Romans 11), and over that time there would still be those who are Jews who would come to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, as has in fact happened in the ages since the destruction of Jerusalem. Our reaction today, then, is to love the Jews, whoever they are and whenever we can, for the sake of God who chose them and Jesus who is from them, himself of the tribe of Judah and the descendant and heir of David. We are to love them with sharing the gospel when we can, and love them as people when we see them and get to know them, and seek for the highest good that we can in this life that we can.

As a matter of fact, then, the significance for this nowadays is for each of us to realize our responsibility before God when the gospel comes to us. The good news of the salvation of Jesus Christ comes to us now, each of us, as an individual who stands before God, with the alternative of acceptance or rejection. Acceptance means salvation, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But for each person who rejects it, there is only left the consequence of judgment that one brings upon oneself. The question is often asked on why a loving God would send a person to hell; rather, the question is why a person would choose hell over a loving God and eternity in heaven. The refusal of the grace of God does not put a person into a neutral ground between heaven and hell, but rather on the path to hell because it is the choice of his wrath. It is terrible to consider, but it is only and completely fair. The person who refuses the grace of God in Jesus Christ is choosing to be treated entirely fairly and with complete justice by God for eternity. The rejection of Jesus Christ is the rejection of the only and ultimate expression of the grace of God, and there are no alternatives which he has left us. But in the tears of Jesus over Jerusalem we see the reaction of God to that choice that anyone makes to refuse his grace: the deep regret and mourning of those who are not choosing something second best but something that will be horribly the worst for them for all eternity.

God’s grace through Jesus Christ shows that he would rather show mercy than show wrath, but the penalty of refusing his mercy and grace leave only wrath. His compassion continues for those who have not heard, who have not understood and not yet have accepted his gospel, and that’s why his wrath tarries. This is the time of God’s visitation for this world through Jesus Christ to reach out to all, and to provide the opportunity for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth. Those who are close to Jesus Christ will also share his compassion for those who have not yet received the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s why we continue to seek to reach all the earth with the gospel. Thus the believer in Christ who is walking closely with him must also share his concern and his compassion for those who are lost and heading toward judgment. The tears of Jesus for Jerusalem are echoed in the tears of intercession that we shed in prayer for those who are in this lost and dying world, who need to come to faith in Christ, as we pray for the softening of their hearts and the conviction and witness of the Holy Spirit to them. The tears of Jesus for Jerusalem are also echoed in the tears of compassion which may come in those times that we may have the chance to explain the gospel to others and express our concern and love for their eternal destinies – not as tallies on our gospel belt, but as real people, persons who are eternal souls who will one day stand before God.

And yet, those there are terrible consequences to the rejection of the grace of God, no one has to reject them. The possibility of the acceptance of the grace of God continues for each man or woman while he or she is alive. The consequence of the rejection of the grace of God is a strong warning not to refuse the call of his grace when it comes to you. The opportunities of grace need to be accepted when they come through the gospel. The grace of God meant that the rejection of the offer of Jesus as the Messiah to the nation of Israel on Palm Sunday, which happened finally on the evening which he was betrayed, tried, sentenced to death and then crucified on a Roman cross resulted in a deeper and more lasting offer of Jesus in love of himself as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. The offer of Jesus as King, Lord and Savior then made way to his offer of himself on the cross for the sins of the world, as the innocent and willing victim for us, who took the wrath of God for us. The truest reception of Jesus as king, then, comes through those not who wave palms and sing traditional songs of Palm Sunday, but those who come to him in repentance and faith and receive him as Lord and Savior. The gospel of the Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead shows the further and deeper good which God brought out of the rejection of the Son of God to be the redemption of the whole world, and through him now he gives his appeal to the people of this world to be reconciled to him.

So then, have you accepted the King? Is he your King? Have you crossed from death to life through faith in him and him alone as your Lord and Savior? Choose life, eternal life, but repentance for your sins, and place your faith in him and him alone for your eternal salvation.

If you yourself have received the King, does his compassion flow through you for those who have not received his salvation and who may be refusing his salvation? Do you desire that others would come to know his salvation? Will you let the tears of Jesus for Jerusalem come through you as his compassion and love, and share the message of his love to those who need it most.

Productive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man replied, “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.