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

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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.

Mobbed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Miracle of the Son of God

Wilbur Smith once wrote, “It is time to come face to face with the fact that God is righteous, that God’s laws are righteous, that God demands righteousness, that God has sent his righteous Son to save us, and that an hour is coming when men are going to stand before this righteous Judge, and unless they have repented and believed, be condemned for their own deliberately unrighteous life.”

The realities of the future resurrection and judgment show the need of saving faith in Jesus Christ for everyone. Those realities to come show that need for entire reliance on him for eternal life and wholehearted submission to God’s anointed King who will also eventually be the Judge of each one of us. Far too often, due to our foolish complacency in our reasonably happy and affluent life, it takes a crisis in our lives to bring a person to the end of himself or herself and see his or her need of Christ. Yet far beyond the crises that come in our lives, there yet remains that final crisis which is coming to the whole world. That will be the time of the final miracle of the Son of God in his Messianic mission, and that will be the crisis which will decide the final destiny of all. The final miracle of the resurrection of all mankind for judgment before Jesus Christ personally is the final crisis that awaits each one of us, and it is a final crisis which is reason in itself to make known the gospel of saving faith in Christ to everyone.

Jesus explained this at length during his earthly teaching ministry in the Temple at Jerusalem. He had healed a paralyzed man on the Jewish Sabbath by the pool of Bethzatha – or Bethesda – there seems to have been a bit of confusion and several attempted corrections in the manuscripts since it had been first written. While there are several plausible locations that the miracle of healing took place, the result for this one was that the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem started to give Jesus a really hard time over it. It’s hard to say what exactly they were doing at this point, but they were known for plots against him, slanders against him, and trying to trick him and trap him throughout his earthly ministry, and what was happening seems to have been some kind of escalation of that kind of treatment after this miracle. Jesus used this time to explain more of his identity as the Son of God and how that miracle of healing pointed forward to an even greater miracle that would happen by his own command.

“Jesus, then, answered them and said, ‘Most assuredly I say to you, that the Son is unable to do anything from himself except for what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, the Son does the same things in the same way. Because the Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he is doing, he will show him greater works than these, so that you may be astonished. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son as they honor the Father. Most assuredly I say to you that everyone who hears my word and believes in the One who sent me has eternal life, and that person will not come into judgment but has already passed from death to life. Most assuredly I say to you that an hour is coming and now already is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to judge, because he is the Son of Man. Don’t be amazed at this, because an hour is coming when all who are in their graves will will hear his voice, and will come forth: those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done wicked  to the resurrection of judgment’” (John 5:19-29, Dale’s sight translation).

The miracles of Jesus are the unique revelation of his unique nature. Those miracles which amazed the spectators and confounded his enemies and detractors were the expression of who he is. They express how no one has been nor ever can be anything like him and they establish him as more than a teller of interesting stories. They establish him as the one who has no parallel in our history.

The miracles of Jesus point to his unique identity as the Son of God. That identity is shared with no one ever who has lived on this earth in the same way that it was true and is true of Jesus. His Sonship was and is unique, and it was not something that someone else made up later and applied to him. Rather, it rests in the miracles which he performed and his own explanations which he made of his miracles during his own ministry. Moreover, this wasn’t simply something that he disclosed to simply the select few of his disciples, but something that he explained as well to those who treated him with hostility, and something he showed before a hostile world.

In verses 19-23, Jesus starts one of those big conversations and extended teachings which often followed his stunning actions. In fact, stunning, prophetic teaching following stunning actions is one of the patterns of the gospel of John, in each of the chapters from 2 through 9. His jaw dropping miracles were followed by jaw dropping statements. These conversations, then, are the stunning explanations of the stunning actions he delivered continuously throughout his earthly life and ministry. In this case, he was expanding on an earlier, briefer explanation of why he had healed on the Sabbath, and it always ticked them off when he did that. At first it sounds like he’s starting a parable about a father and a son but his hearers clearly understand that he’s talking about himself as the Son of God, and they give him a very rough time about it. In fact, the word that John uses to describe how they treated him was that they persecuted him. He is making a claim about God as his Father, equality with God and the personal authority to act as God in performing an act of healing on the Sabbath. He does not deny the charge that he was making God his Father.  At this time, as well as many other times throughout the gospels, he had a perfect opportunity to correct this misconception if he in fact in any way considered it a misconception. But not only does he not deny it, but he goes on further, to deliver an even deeper explanation of his divine nature to a hostile and rejecting crowd. His explanation of himself in the third person, as the Son who sees and acts with the Father in what he does in itself was a stunner. This brief but stupendous explanation definitely shows that Jesus could easily give an answer to his questioners far greater than any of them could ever completely grasp, and which could often confuse and even gall them for a long time afterwards. In fact, the memory of this explanation continued to rankle his hearers for months afterwards, as can be ascertained from later indications in the gospel of John (7:23, 9:16).

So as Jesus starts his explanation, it sounds a little like he’s starting a parable about a father and a son, until it becomes clear that he’s talking about himself as the Son and God as his Father. He’s explaining that something that was revealed in the Old Testament to his ancestor David about the Messiah, how God would be his Father and the Messiah would be his Son was more than the divine patronage that the kings of David’s line in the Old Testament had experienced. He’s explaining that the Son of God as applied to himself as the Messiah was not a kind of of adoption but rather it was true of his nature as the eternal Son of God.  He was explaining that his relation with God the Father as the Son means that he lived continually in the relation of love with the Father and the revelation of the nature of the Father, and it even went into acting as one with the Father in what he did – and that extended to the miracle which they had seen, and would extend to even greater miracles to come. And if that wasn’t enough, he went on to give them some more chunks of truth that they would find hard to digest. He didn’t use any large words – just an analogy to a father and a son. He didn’t engage in any deep philosophical discussion with explorations and refutations of alternative points of view – but simply explained a miracle.

The parable, then, that happened in this situation wasn’t what sounded like the beginning of a parable about a father and a son working together, but rather the miracle itself, where Jesus commanded a helpless man to get up and walk. The healing itself was a parable, and it looked forward to the coming resurrection and judgment. Most likely some in the hostile crowd knew about Daniel 12:2-3, which talked about resurrection, and it was already known to all of them that Jesus had already said, “Rise” to a prostrate and helpless man – and he rose and walked.  And Jesus was saying to them that he would be the one would be giving resurrection life to the dead and then serving as the judge of all. And the conclusion to this was not that he was committing blasphemy as if he were a mere man making himself to be equal to God by calling God his Father, but that the miracle pointed to the logical conclusion that they all were called by God himself through the miracle to honor him as the Son of God as they claimed to honor the God he called his Father. And in this as previously, Jesus was on solid scriptural ground, as placing himself in the place of the Son that everyone was called to honor in Psalm 2:8. These are the kinds of statements that could send the guards of the Temple who were sent to arrest him back in open mouthed astonishment that, “No one ever spoke like him!”

The stupendous claims about himself and the deeds which backed them up are the reason why the church has said that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. They are the reason why his Sonship is totally unique and different than any other way in which those words can be understood of anyone else. And this is why it is necessary to take Jesus Christ with the utmost seriousness, as God the Son, who came, acted and spoke with the glory, power and authority of God. All that he said and did that was set down for us was in full accord with God the Father, and the revelation of that ultimate, special, unique relationship that those words mean. This is why believers have been so careful to understand and explain as clearly and carefully as possible over the years his unique nature as the Son of God who is one with God the Father.  Over the centuries it has been and will always be necessary to make clear what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God from all eternity. In the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, question 33 gives this question and answer: “Why is he called God’s only begotten Son, since we also are God’s children? Because Christ alone is God’s own eternal Son, whereas we are accepted for his sake as children of God by grace.” And even more, as the ministry of Jesus went on, it became apparent that he brought a fuller and deeper revelation, hinted at as early in the scriptures as Genesis 1:2, that the one God not only revealed himself in two divine Persons, the Father and the Son, but in a third as well, the Holy Spirit – but that revelation would receive the fuller explanation on the night of his betrayal, during his last teaching session with his disciples, in John 14, 15 and 16.

And this, then, is the stupendous thing about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, that he came not just to give us some stories and a few moralisms. He was God the Son and showed us what God was like in person, and he came to provide the way for us to enter into that personal relationship with us so that we could know the love of God personally. And this means that these statements which we may term doctrinal and theological are not mere theory, notions or opinions that we take up when we call ourselves Christians and sing our hymns. These are  statements about the reality of the God whose universe we live in and who has come to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus was thus saying that when he said, “Rise up,” to a paralyzed and helpless man, he was making the deep theological point that he was doing it in the will and with the full cooperation of God the Father, and that it was in fact together their doing. And he was using this heavy theology, a brief and pungent explanation that strained the very limits of human language, to explain himself to some people who were giving him a very hard time over what he had already said and done. There was no hint of any kind of apologies or excuses in what he said, for being sorry about their feeling angry over what he had done. How in the world could or should the Son of God apologize to any human being for speaking and acting in full cooperation with God the Father? And even more, he presented what he had done as not being about the need of the paralyzed man, but about the nature of the person who told him to rise up and walk. With our modern addiction to easy, pat answers and formulas in our churches and our ‘me’ centered songs and sermons about my experiences, my feelings and my blessings, Jesus shows us that what matters is not about us but about who the Son of God is, and what he has done. And when we lose that focus on Jesus we lose the whole point of what it means to be a Christian and our worship comes down to little more than gushing out of our current emotional state or striving after a desired emotional state.

So Jesus’s identity as the unique Son of God means that he deserves unique honor as the Son of God. The reality which was shown in his life and ministry, the miracles which really happened to real people, the real teaching which was heard by real people who were often astonished, sometimes offended, and sometimes left scratching their heads, was a revelation that called for an appropriate response to the Son of God. And the honor that he expected as the Son of God was simply to be heard and believed and obeyed.  So consider a more down to earth example of what this entails for us. The owner of a a big electronics firm once told his personnel director, “My son will be graduating from college soon and needing a job. He’s going to be your new assistant, but he’s not to be shown any favoritism. Treat him just as you would any other son of mine.” 

So, when we understand from the gospels what it means for Jesus to be the unique Son of God, in a way in which no other human being can ever claim, this means that we are bound by the unbreakable chains of an eternal reality to give him the honor due to him as the Son of God, and give him the honor of being heard above everything and everyone else, believed in and trusted above everything and everyone else, and followed and obeyed above everything and everyone else. As we go further in to what Jesus is saying here, we will find out more of what this means for us in the here and now.

In verse 24, Jesus starts out another statement with that phrase, “Truly, truly I say to you . . .” If it may not be trite to paraphrase this as Jesus saying to us, in effect, “Underline this! Highlight this!”, we certainly should pay very close attention to his emphasis on the next statement. So, to those who were hearing him he made still another stupendous statement about what he came to offer them in his life and ministry. And again, the honor that he sought from them was simply to be heard and believed. He offered them pardon before the trial, in eternal life now and the certainty of not coming into judgment, the ultimate sentence from the ultimate Judge at the ultimate courtroom. His description of this was that the person who gave him the honor he came to give would have already passed from death to life. This is in one verse what it means to have saving faith in the Son of God, and it shows that in what he had done and what he was now saying that his goal was not to bring them to astonishment, shock and awe. Rather, he was calling them to saving faith, to receive eternal life by faith in himself. Note that his call was not for tolerance, not for sharing possessions, not even for baptism. His call was simply for them to take that step of saving faith, and that step would be giving him the honor that God the Father would honor with eternal life.

Many can remember the tremendous scene toward the end of the movie Chariots of Fire, where the great American runner Jackson Sholz supposedly gave Eric Liddell the quotation of scripture, of God’s statement that he would honor those who honored him. Jackson Sholz was still alive at the time of the movie, and he denied that it was he that had done that, but certainly someone did. And that is the kind of thing that Jesus is saying here also. As the Son of God, God would honor with eternal life those who honored him with hearing and believing.

So Jesus here was explaining saving faith, and this is characteristic of many of the conversations from the gospel of John. This accounts for many of the differences between the gospel of John and the other three canonical gospels: the other gospels contained a great deal of material, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which was meant for those who had already become the disciples of Jesus. But the gospel of John contains many of the conversations which Jesus had with people who were not yet disciples, in which he explained further and deeper what it meant to have faith in himself. The revelation of what saving faith is was not the invention of the apostles, not even of the apostle Paul, nor of an institutional church hierarchy after the death of Jesus, but what Jesus himself repeatedly explained throughout his earthly ministry. Certainly after his resurrection and ascension, after the day of Pentecost, the transmission of the gospel came through apostolic preaching, but the origin of the gospel and saving faith came from Jesus. And although this was characteristic of the gospel of John, it is by no means foreign to the other gospels, to the Jesus who came from Galilee proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and telling people, “The kingdom of God has arrived; repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). And again, this whole explanation of the miracle with a story contradicts the post modern cliché that Jesus was just a teller of stories; but the gospel truth is rather that he told whatever stories he told to explain what faith in himself means and to bring others to that point of faith in himself.

The eternal stakes of faith in Jesus Christ are firmly based in his own explanations of saving faith. Think of that: the person who has trusted in Jesus Christ, believed in him as the unique and eternal Son of God, has eternal life and has passed from death to life. It may seem to be too easy, but it is what God has done through Jesus Christ to make salvation, eternal life, within the grasp of every human being. Professing Christians over the years have often tried to dumb down or trivialize these eternal stakes to just having church membership or a religious reputation or going through the motions of simply repeating a prayer and undergoing baptism. Certainly church membership and undergoing baptism can follow saving faith as a real expression of the reception of eternal life by those who have put their faith in Christ. But Jesus himself did not express receiving or having eternal life as being reducible to any of these outward acts. Rather, his own words declare the reception of eternal life to be through hearing the Son of God and coming to faith in him.

And so what Jesus said about believing in him means that person has received eternal life and has passed from death to life corrects so many of the confused ideas of confused Christians. Even further, what Jesus said about having eternal life and not coming into judgment furnishes a welcome correction of so many of the religious ideas and notions that people throughout the world have had now and in the past. It contradicts, for instance, the later ideas of Gnosticism, which started up over a century later, and preyed upon naïve Christians who were told that Jesus wasn’t enough, that there needed to be this extra gnosis, this extra knowledge that certain whacky, excommunicated teachers could give them – which turned out to be a whacky song and dance built up on tidbits of Greek philosophy and mythology and highly embellished by some people with overactive imaginations. Moreover, Jesus contradicts the idea of purgatory also, when he says that by faith in him there will be no future condemnation, and that the person who trusts in him has eternal life now. The idea that there is some purgatory for anyone does not come from the Old or New Testaments. Rather, Jesus puts the issue simply at trust in him determining whether a person goes to an eternity of shame apart from God or glory in the presence of God.

What Jesus said about believing in him means that person has received eternal life and has passed from death to life contradicts and corrects many of the ideas of what people have thought may happen after death.  For instance, what Jesus said also contradicts the ideas of reincarnation – rebirth, as some Hindus put it – and the cycle of 64,000,000 rebirths which Hinduism says are necessary to escape the cycle of rebirths, which they say are necessary because of karma of previous lives. Rather, Jesus says that hearing him and believing his Word is enough, and that no special teaching is necessary, and no cycle of millions of rebirths and karma is necessary. So Jesus brings freedom from this onerous teaching and guides to the truth of what he offers in eternal life in the gospel: not continuation in some altered form and identity over thousands of rebirths, but coming to resurrection life as the same person in a body radically changed in life and power, to be like his own resurrection body.

So this is why we say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in our preaching and teaching. It is not a statement made upon the basis of no evidence or against the evidence; that is not scriptural faith but ignorant credulity. Rather it is that the explanation that Jesus gives is in the scripture for who he is and what he has done is what we have found to be the best explanation of the evidence of history, and that in our age also it still calls for the response of faith. What Jesus has revealed to us throughout his life, ministry, death and resurrection about himself, as he did in a stupendously brief claim after a stupendously awesome act of healing, shows how stupendous his gospel really is. It reminds us that his gospel is not kid’s stuff, childish make-believe, and not something for the ignorant and weak to use for false and naïve comfort in the hardships of life. It shows us how much we lose when we try to downplay it and dumb it down to self help, trite phrases and bumper sticker formulas and reduce the glory of the gospel of Christ to a series of religious tips and tricks. It shows us how much we lose when we sidestep these kinds of passages in the preaching and teaching of our churches because they are so heavy and significant. But we do not do anyone any kind of favor by doing anything less than honoring the Son of God as we read, meditate on, preach and teach on the Biblical passages about the unique nature of the Son of God and the nature of saving faith.

Even more, the strong truth of the Son of God, being one with God the Father, and the source and foundation of eternal life, needs also to penetrate and saturate our praise, worship and prayers and our evangelism as well, with crystal clarity. We do no one any kind of favor by trivializing, paraphrasing, over explaining, soft pedaling, hinting or obliquely alluding to these truths in what we sing, preach, pray and share. True gospel belief in the Son of God, from the authority of the Son of God, is the most serious and significant step that anyone can take. And because it is from the authority of the Son of God, it is not open to speculative addition, subtraction or modification by any human being in any age – and certainly there will always be a challenge in every generation when someone wants to try to bring it down to what he or she thinks will make it easier or more appealing to someone else. But ultimately, it is impossible to combine or compare the Jesus of the scriptures, the unique Son of God, with anyone else, and his message of eternal life by faith in himself with anything else. And ultimately, we will find that every step we take to make Jesus palatable to the petulant and impatient people of our age is a step away from the truth of the words, deeds and person of the Jesus of the scriptures.

It is at this point that Christian preaching and teaching loses its relevance when it loses its eternal perspective and significance. Not too long ago I went back to reading over some of the writings of the apostolic fathers, who were the first generation of Christian leaders after the apostles, from about A.D. 100 or so to about A.D. 175. I was immediately struck by the emphasis in such writings as I and II Clement to the future resurrection and judgment and the incentive to godly and virtuous living for Christ that this means. But what is the emphasis in so much preaching and teaching today? Having a happy family and learning tools and techniques to get well adjusted – in other words, following Christ as simply being another form of self help to build a personal utopia in this age. What reason, then, would there be for anyone to continue on in following Christ if they find that for some reason the tools, techniques and formulas don’t work in their situation or that they can’t find their way to the happy Christian family in this life? What reason, then, would anyone find to follow Christ if what they find being preached and taught inside the church is pretty much the self help of the world without Christ, when they pretty much can find the same thing elsewhere without the strong moral demands of following Christ?

In addition, we need to recognize that many of those who may seem to have dropped out from church may never have come to the realization of the eternal stakes and consequences of faith in Christ and the authority of the person who spelled them out. If all that they saw was a way to a happy life now, then they missed the entire point of why Jesus came, lived, died and rose again. And if that was all that they saw, then maybe they never really had saving faith in the first place, since they never gave Jesus the full honor as the eternal Son of God who came from the Father, but rather treated him only as an ancient self help guru and his church as a religious kind of human potential movement. It’s at that point, when anyone considers letting go of Christian belief because of disappointment in people or the formulas, to consider what Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

But Jesus does not leave the matter at that; he goes on to give a more thorough and direct statement of the future that his miracle points forward to. That is a future which too often people nowadays often do not realize, understand or clearly recognize, even if they claim to be believers in Jesus. It is the future which those who take a piecemeal, pick and choose, bits and pieces approach to the scriptures often miss, because they look for what they find emotionally appealing or sentimentally reassuring.

The ultimate truth about the future which Jesus reveals is this: the future belongs to the Son of God. With his words he takes ownership of the ultimate fate of everyone and claims the accountability of everyone who has ever lived to himself alone. These words by themselves are either the most amazing truths or among the most deluded fabrications of a shockingly diseased mind possible. Jesus has not left us the alternative with these words of just taking him as a teacher of mildly helpful aphorisms. Someone who would claim this kind of power and authority to himself must be either the eternal Son of God himself, to whom they rightly belong, or someone who is not to be taken seriously in anything else that he would say.

In verses 25-27, Jesus continues to make some shocking claims about himself: “Most assuredly I say to you that an hour is coming and now already is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to judge, because he is the Son of Man.” It is clear by the reaction of those around him that they understood that he was not referring to anyone else besides himself with what he said. And certainly he did not offer any correction to them if he did not intend that these words be understood about himself.  He claimed for himself the titles of Son of God and Son of Man within the space of several short sentences. And in this short utterance he claimed for himself the role of God’s agent for the resurrection and judgment of all mankind. And in one short utterance he brought together two strands of Old Testament prophecy and pointed them back to himself.

The first strand of Old Testament prophecy that Jesus takes and points to himself is from Daniel 12:1-2:  “And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.  And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” This passage is the clearest prophecy of the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament. And Jesus brings this up to point out that the voice which will be calling forth the dead from their graves to judgment and their ultimate fate will be his. He has already claimed for himself the title of Son of God, and in the healing of the paralyzed man he has already showed how his word alone was sufficient to make a helpless man rise to his feet. His justification for doing that miracle in the way that he did it was his claim to be the Son of God.

So then, Jesus takes the further step of making the shocking claim that the voice which will raise the dead in the future will be his own. Those who were around him, for the most part, did not have a problem with believing that there would be a future resurrection. The influence of the Pharisees, who taught the resurrection of the dead, had influenced many, many more than that of the Sadducees, who denied a future resurrection. What was not merely controversial but utterly unprecedented was that there was someone who had been raised in their utterly monotheistic culture and taught in their utterly monotheistic synagogues who was claiming the power in himself to fulfill this prophecy. This was far beyond any claims to be able to do something showy or ostensibly magical like the levitation of an unsuspecting person. Rather, he was making right in front of them the claim that he was able and was actually going to raise from the dead by a single utterance everyone who had ever lived and died.

Then Jesus goes on to the next shocker. He backtracks within the book of Daniel to grab another strand of Old Testament prophecy and apply it to himself. The next strand of Old Testament prophecy that he grabs is Daniel 7:13-14, and he applies it to himself: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.  And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.”

This is the ‘Son of Man’ passage, and it demonstrates that Jesus clearly wanted those who heard him to understand that he was claiming to be the Son of Man from the book of Daniel. In the other three New Testament gospels it is a way in which Jesus often referred to himself, and by his reference here to the Son of Man passage he makes it clear that he was using it in a way that wasn’t simply some weird circumlocution to refer back to himself, that when he spoke of the Son of Man, he wasn’t simply saying, ‘Just little old me.’ It wasn’t common in the days of Jesus to understand the Son of Man as the Messianic king of Old Testament prophecy, but here Jesus endorses that connection. And even more, his claim is that the Son of Man who brings the kingdom of God is the one who will call forth the resurrection and judgment, and that he is standing right there and declaring to them who he is and what he will do.

So here we will pause and allow all this to sink in, and then to consider its significance for us today. Note that Jesus stood his claims upon Old Testament prophecy regularly, consistently and without apology. His constant  explanation of Old Testament prophecy, and his connection of one passage with another and expansion of Old Testament prophecy upon his own authority shows unclouded intelligence of the Son of God and his own unparalleled knowledge of the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament throughout his ministry was his endorsement of its authority and eternal validity and application. So then, the acceptance of the authority of Jesus is the acceptance of the authority of the Old Testament. Because of Jesus, the Old Testament and its prophecies cannot be dismissed as the moldy old ravings of old men stuck in a patriarchal culture. Rather, because of Jesus we understand the Old Testament to be the instruction guide to the people of God of the greatest blessing of God in the Messiah and the future of all mankind as wrapped up in his chosen King. Even more, it shows the eternal plan and patience of God that he would take a man by the name of Abram, call him Abraham, and then bring forth a people that would be the people of the Messiah. The Old Testament itself is the demonstration that the preparation of the coming of the Messiah was all part of God’s plan, the whole counsel of God from all eternity.

So here too, in these claims of personal authority and in these claims of his personal fulfillment of the Old Testament, as he tells the world of the final miracle of his Messianic office, we see Jesus standing in the office of the ultimate and final Prophet as he states what he will do in his office as the coming King. In this short statement of the Apostles’ Creed the professing church week by week mentions the final miracle of the Son of God: ‘From whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . .” So then, the question comes down to each one of us -– do you really believe what is a regular part of the confession of orthodox faith handed down?  And when in the Apostles’ Creed we say that we believe “. . .  and the life everlasting . . .” do we mean when we say these words that they reflect the scriptural teaching of the resurrection to life and do they reflect our personal acceptance of the scriptural teaching from the words of Jesus Christ? Or are they – as I am afraid that I think that they are for many who attend church around the world — just phrases that we repeat mindlessly just to get some kind of emotional buzz, by hearing and repeating something familiar, like some sort of Christian mantra? So if they are something that we say that we really don’t mean just to get some comfort by repeating some familiar words, then all the more reason for us to consider what Jesus is here saying about himself.

But finally Jesus brings home the zinger at the conclusion of what he said there in that day in Jerusalem. The zinger, in what it meant for them and also what it means for each one of us takes us far beyond what we think of ourselves, what others may say to us and far beyond our ideas and the standards of those around us. It takes us beyond the common tendency of human spiritual blindness to give ourselves too much credit for being good enough and points us rather to  what it takes to be prepared for the time when Jesus shows up to perform his final miracle.

So Jesus goes on and brings home the conclusion of all that he has said to those who were hearing him: “Don’t be amazed at this, because an hour is coming when all who are in their graves will will hear his voice, and will come forth: those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done wicked  to the resurrection of judgment.” It’s a fool’s quest to contradict Jesus, but it’s hard not to be amazed at what he is saying! But I think that the point that he is making is that our amazement at what he has said is not to drive us to suspend our belief and acceptance of what he is saying. It can be human nature to dismiss truth just because it does not fit our preconceived ideas or our personal orthodoxy. It is amazing contemplate these things and to imagine based upon scripture what they will be when they come to pass, but our imagination and amazement must not lead us to incredulity and unbelief.  But the emphasis of Jesus is that the first thing that dead people will hear is the voice of the Son of God, his own voice, the man standing before them. His voice will be the voice that calls all the dead back to life.  His claim is then that he would decide the final fate  of all after they have come back to life. He would be the one that would bring life and judgment to them, in his eternal being as the the Son of God and his heavenly office as the Son of Man that had been predicted by Daniel the prophet.

Note that Jesus said all these things in the context of what we could call a small group evangelistic dialogue. He was speaking to a small group about eternal matters. Here he shows us more about what it really means to have an evangelistic dialogue with a small group. It often seems that our generation has been spending too much time in John 4 and has been hearing too much about the woman at the well in current preaching and teaching and not enough in the other evangelistic dialogues of Jesus. I think that we’ve not heard enough preaching and teaching this passage in John 5, or for that matter, John 3 or any of the other evangelistic teaching sessions and dialogue of John 6-10. Our generation has too often treated the conversation with the Samaritan woman as if it were the only one on one evangelistic conversation he ever had, or maybe we’ve also focused some attention on the conversation with the rich young ruler when someone wants to sneak in a plug for the redistribution of wealth. But this passage shows that Jesus was very ready to tell people about his identity as the eternal Son of God, the Messiah, base that upon his miracles, tell them of eternal realities of sin and judgment, and then to call them to a repentance and faith in himself.

So not only would Jesus tell people about the eternal consequences of the person and authority of himself during his ministry, he also based the revelation of his person and authority upon his own exegesis of the Old Testament. The apostles themselves would later do the same thing during their own ministry, as they followed the example of Jesus. In this case it’s likely that those who heard Jesus would have had a reaction of would have provoked ‘I never made that connection’ among his hearers of Daniel 12 on the resurrection and Daniel 7 on the coming of the Son of Man. Further reflection  on what Jesus said would have brought them to the realization that ‘He’s right!’. In other words, Jesus did not base his claims just upon his own stupendous authority and miracles but also upon his own explanations of the Old Testament, and with this the apostles also followed his example. So then, Jesus’s own example here shows how he is treating those who were hearing him as adults who were capable of witnessing what he said and did and comparing them to the Old Testament revelation. He was not simply expecting them to accept things just on the basis that he was saying them – though no one else in history could have ever had that expectation – but to see the consistency between himself and the revelation of the Old Testament.

So, when Jesus talked about the coming resurrection, he was not telling them anything new. He was giving them a deeper explanation about a future event but something that most of those who heard him probably already believed would happen. Belief in the resurrection was quite common in  Judaism at the time of Jesus. It was the belief of the Pharisees, as blurted out by Paul in  funny moment in Acts 23:6. During his earthly ministry Jesus usually didn’t debate the reality of the coming resurrection, except in an exchange with the Sadducees in Matthew 26:4-6. But most of what is revealed in the New Testament about the resurrection and the final state of mankind actually comes from Jesus himself, especially ab0ut the resurrection of judgment.

So what Jesus says here is his declaration of the final, ultimate miracle of the Son of God. the eternal state of mankind, every person who has ever lived, is resurrection to one of two states, to eternal life or to eternal death.  Jesus makes his statement on the ultimate consequences for those who have done good and for those who have done evil. The challenge is not to inject our own ideas of what is good and bad here, who are evil people and who are good people, since our own ideas tend to be quite self centered and childish – often not much more than the ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’ language of the preschooler. Rather, the challenge is to understand what Jesus means by those who have done good and those who have done evil from the standpoint of what he had just said and the standpoint of what he has said throughout the whole gospel of John.

S0 let’s consider what Jesus meant by life and judgment, by going good or doing evil. Those were never anything that he ever soft-pedaled – and certainly we are never going to be any nicer or more loving than Jesus if we soft-pedal those huge, significant truths. But here in this very passage we can find that what he meant  simply by what he has already said. The good thing that he means is honoring him as the Son of God by faith in him; the evil thing which he means is rejection of him and his salvation. This is entirely consistent with his other statements such as John 3:16-18, and the statement of John 3:36 in prior context of the gospel, and the later statements in John 6, 7 and 8. So the good which Jesus seeks first of all is the acceptance of him by faith as the Messiah, as the eternal Son of God, and the salvation which he has brought. And the evil which he says leads to judgment is the rejection of himself as the Messiah and the claims he meant for himself. This is the gospel, the good news from Jesus on that answers the ultimate questions of life. Certainly not everyone liked his good news then, and not everyone likes his good news now. But he provides the only answers which stand up in the light of eternity. 

So then, finding such words about the resurrection to life and the resurrection to judgment in the mouth of Jesus across the gospels lends credence that the teaching about eternal judgment – hell – that this teaching certainly did not come from nor was it dependent upon the apostle Paul – whom some critics ignorantly try to disparage with the origin of the teaching about eternal life and eternal judgment. It furthermore discredits the claim that the parts of the gospel that these critics find unappealing come from Paul – rather from Jesus who is standing on the prophecy from the Old Testament  which they despise also.  But with the awareness of the reality of progressive revelation in the scriptures – that some realities are revealed gradually through a number of God’s spokesmen over many years – the doctrines of eternal life and eternal judgment come into clarity. In fact, the doctrines of heaven and hell and the consequences of faith in or rejection of Jesus in the New Testament stand pretty much the same even if a person ignores all that the letters of Paul have to say on the subject.

Again, it’s not loving but it is ultimately dishonest to downplay the real eternal consequences of faith in Jesus or to downplay the real eternal consequences of rejection of faith in the eternal Son of God. Perhaps this may have come as a  reaction against unloving, strident and scary ways of preaching and teaching the realities of heaven and hell that happened in the church over the years. I suspect that more often it’s the personal arrogance of some professed believers who have become embarrassed at the gospel of Jesus Christ and who are trying to posture a kind of worldly pseudo-sophistication and intellectualism. But downplaying the eternal consequences it’s only unloving if you consider the claims of Jesus to be false in the first place. It means that you’re taking that side of the world that rejected Jesus and disdained contemned his words.

But even more then, the suggestion needs to be made – as lovingly as possible — that for some people, the offense at these statements of Jesus and attempts to downplay or ignore them in witness may itself be evidence of an unregenerate heart. I would never bring this to anyone as a dogmatic declaration of the state of his or her heart. Rather, there’s a real question of the reality of regeneration to be put where the witness of the scriptures rings clear and yet there is still tremendous internal and external resistance to the truth of the gospel of Jesus, his identity and the eternal consequences of acceptance of the truth. The challenge then means for that person to look into these things part of the habits of an adult faith, which is based upon first hand convictions from examining the scriptures, not upon family pressure, hand me down slogans and sound bites. And this grounded, adult faith will then give us the perspective to stand outside the hip, the trendy, the pseudo sophistication of this world, and to live beyond the desire to be ‘radical’ or  ‘extreme’ because it makes us feel cool and superior.

A. W. Tozer once said something to the effect that God put the preacher in the pulpit not to ask questions but to answer them. Here, in this passage, perhaps more than anywhere else in scripture, Jesus addresses the ultimate questions all in one place.  We can reduce the ultimate questions of life to the four questions that Billy Graham sought to address in his evangelistic ministry:

  • “Who am I?”
  • “Where did I come from?”
  • “Where am I going?”
  • “Is there any meaning to my life?”

So when Jesus said certainly contradicts much in this age. He certainly contradicts atheism – the assertion that there is no God – and scientism – the  assertion that science is the ultimate guide to truth — and materialism – the assertion that material reality is all that there is. He also contradicts philosophical and nihilistic Buddhism as being fundamentally wrong  in their ultimate authority and worldview, however moralistic they may be at times. They may be attractive in the West as a kind of moralism and often pseudo-spirituality. But with regard to their ultimate basis and their understanding of the ultimate consequences of life, Jesus himself contradicts them all with his assertion that the dead will rise to either eternal life or eternal judgment.

But what many people may not notice, even those who may attend or be a part of the church, is that Jesus’s assertion of the resurrection to life or judgment contradicts spiritism as well. There has been a seeming resurgence in interest in what scripture calls necromancy, ghosts and ghosthunting in the past few years in the United States like I have not seen since the early 1970s. That resurgence shows how unsatisfying to the human heart the assertion is that this life is all that is. But Jesus’s words assert that the fate of the dead is not to be disembodied spirits and ghosts but rather the resurrection to life or judgment. But it is also far too left unsaid lately in the modern evangelical church that this resurgence and undue curiosity leads to the demonic, and in this modern evangelical churches are repeating the mistakes of the mainline churches of the past. In the 1960s and the early 1970s I can personally remember how the mainline churches were often horribly undiscerning on this, often syncretistic in trying to combine the occult and superficial Christianity.  For instance, I personally first came into contact with séances at a church camp from a mainline denomination from the son of a pastor of a mainline church back in the 1960s.

In addition, the declaration of Jesus about the resurrection to life and to judgment also contradicts the beliefs in reincarnation and Karma which have entered the belief systems of many from a very watered down Hinduism. It is noteworthy that the the popular belief in Karma bears no resemblance to the 40,000,000 rebirths of orthodox Hinduism. For some people, though, a belief in Karma is often a kind of shorthand for consequences and retribution in this life, which they received from the impeccable spiritual authority of John Lennon and the Beatles during their flirtation with Eastern mysticism (sarcasm intended). But this belief also receives direct contradiction from but the Jesus who lived in Palestine in orthodox Judaism, and his assertion means that that each of us has one life, that all will not be punished or rewarded in this life, but some will wait until his return to the resurrection to life and judgment. 

Again, it needs to be noted that professed Christians tend to fall into these ‘ism’s and that people tend not to be converted to Christ from them unless the truth of the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus and the ultimate state of each of us is not made clear. When things like the statements of Jesus on the resurrection to life and to judgment are not a regular part of the preaching and teaching of the modern evangelical church, people get fuzzy and foolish on the eternal destinies of men and women around them. They tend to mix pagan ideas with shallow and unscriptural notions of the eternal state of men and women upon death. This becomes a severe problem when so much preaching and teaching stays in the shallow end of the pool, and when the public preaching and teaching ministry of the church ignores or dumbs down these incredibly significant eternal realities. Many people may come to a church out of curiosity, entertainment or to find quick fixes for personal dissatisfactions and problems. But they will quickly get bored with the Christianized self help and pop psychology when the world without Christ offers so much of it without the strong moral demands of Christ. The result may be when the disappointment comes with our Christianized self help and entertainment a type of moralistic cynicism and nihilism.

But even among these casual and occasional church attenders, God has set eternity in their hearts – instincts to want more than the comfy family and sexual satisfaction in a wonderful marriage. Unless the preaching  and teaching addresses and addresses regularly ultimate questions, people become more and more dissatisfied. They lose the awareness of the deep and ultimate realities of the faith and this leads to a loss of growth in spiritual maturity. This likely has a lot to do with the  shocking laziness after God, insensitivity to fellow believers in Christ and for the need of the world at large among so many professed believers and still so many pastors still tend to trot out the same ‘marriage, family, financial responsibility and sex’ sermons and teachings over and over again and keep on embellishing them with stories about their own families, and their  congregations which are led down this path tend to become the seed sown upon thorny ground. But when Jesus speaks to us about the eternal realities, and his words permeate the preaching and teaching of the church, the foundational truths tend to keep believers safe and properly directed and grounded in the truth of God in this world.

Finally, words of Jesus about the resurrection to life and the resurrection to judgment should be the ultimate buzzkill to any utopian fantasies that may ever infiltrate the church of Jesus Christ and the imaginations of professed believers. Taking up the false mission of Karl Marx – “I’m out to change my world” — is missing the whole point. In our age, very selective citations of the gospels and the New Testament – these hoary interpretations of old mainline nineteenth century liberalism, which have long  since been refuted exegetically, long since been bypassed  by believers from not so long ago who saw through their falseness to the message of the New Testament – have been brought back to influence the shallow, superficial and spiritually immature and possibly unconverted people in our churches who have come to think that it’s chic and cool to be radical.  (The truth is that his sheep hear his voice – they don’t go looking for the voices of this world in his words.) The challenge is then to read all the red lettered sections, not just a couple of them, and you’ll find that eternal realities such as the resurrection to life and the resurrection to judgment was much more the emphasis of Jesus than anything close to warmed over Marxism of the 1960s counterculture and mainline churches. And you’ll find that the writings of the apostles, including the much maligned Paul, are much more faithful to the message of Jesus than those who brazenly asserted that they knew what Jesus meant better than the apostles. But then again, it was always one of the problems of the very characteristic of the mainline churches in the 1960s and early 1970s, that they tended to  major on the very minor portions of what Jesus said to come up with very twisted ideas. But the challenge remains to actually read the New Testament and don’t blindly accept the moldy old statements stolen from long dead 19th century ‘higher’ critics, and you’ll find that Jesus takes the ultimate and final responsibility to change our world: “See! I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).

The shocking claim of Jesus Christ himself is that he personally is the Son of God and the Son of God mentioned in the Old Testament, and his personal power and authority will one day bring about the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of every person who has ever lived. This final miracle of the Son of God is the ultimate hope in this world for the final and eternal victory of  the infinite goodness of God and the ultimate justice of God. But his final miracle would be preceded by his walking up the hill of Golgotha outside the wall of Jerusalem to suffer and die by crucifixion, and by this he would pay the price for to provide eternal forgiveness and eternal life for anyone who ever lived. Moreover, he preceded his final miracle by the miracle  of his own resurrection, by being the first one raised from the dead as the portent of the final resurrection of all. And his resurrection to life preceded the next miracle of his ascension to the ultimate authority in heaven and on earth, where he offers to those in this world the first of eternal life if they will repent and trust in him. Therefore, since he has already given notice to this world far in advance of his final miracle, submission to him as Lord and trusting in him as Savior to receive his gift of eternal life is the preparation he has already called for.

God’s Home Invasion: Jesus Breaks Down the Doors and Breaks Out the Captives

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once wrote, “ . . .  eccentricity is the privilege of genius.”

Most of the pioneers of the world have been those who have dared to buck the status quo, and someone at some time has usually splattered their reputations during their lifetimes with charges of either insanity or maliciousness. It’s not unusual, then, to find that the same charges were directed against Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, during his early life and ministry. These charges came from people who were close to him and people who were of sterling religious reputation, during the time which he spoke the will of the Father and did the miracles of power which challenged the course of this world into sin, disease and death.

The charges which came against Jesus came as the wave of popularity began to rise after the first months of his earthly ministry. The rumblings of opposition began early, and they eventually were to culminate in the plot against him in Jerusalem from the whole religious establishment which led to his crucifixion. But Jesus did  not allow any of those misguided and slanderous statements against him and his ministry to pass without serious challenges directly to those who were making them, and in this we see the astute perception of Jesus and his personal formidability in confrontation as he dealt with the statements of the opposition swiftly and decisively. In this we see more of his wisdom, resolution and moral courage of the one perfect man who has ever lived before this world, and his unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness, to echo the words of C.S. Lewis. But in this we see the same personality of the God who revealed himself in the Old Testament, but with the perfection of humanity in his tenderness and razor sharp reason. We see here in Jesus the condescension of Deity in stooping to live among us, teach us and correct us during our most severe misperceptions and most horrible errors. We see the tough love of the Son of God, who did not consider himself too high and mighty to simply ignore our sins and turn the other way, but who rebuked us in his love, the supremely tough, yet heartbreakingly tender love of the Son of God.

This, then, is the setting of one of the hard sayings of Jesus, if not the hardest, especially when guilt, neuroticism and obsessive-compulsive disorder  misconstrues it. Understanding the situation, though, and why the statement was made discloses what the unforgivable sin really was and why it was unforgivable. But even more, as we go into the passage, we will also find the scriptural basis for something that many of us may never have truly realized had been based in scripture.

“And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’ And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house. Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even  their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’  — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:20-30, Dale’s sight translation).

Misunderstanding and opposition accompanied the ministry of Jesus. This is the setting for one of the hardest sayings of Jesus in the gospels, and it is necessary to understand this to understand what Jesus said in its larger context.  It’s also very instructive to consider what is happening in this passage, since in it we’ll find something that we never thought that we would find there – something that some have even said is not even in scripture, but which formed a cornerstone of the apologetics of C.S. Lewis.

The first misunderstanding that followed the ministry of Jesus was the misdiagnosis of his mental health. This came from people who were genuinely well disposed to him – but they were sincerely wrong about him. Their misunderstanding of what was happening with him led them to attempt to rein him in and shut him down, and this may well rank as one of their biggest blunders and misconceptions.

This is what is happening when Mark describes the pandemonium of a crowd that mobbed Jesus when he was in a house and seemingly trying just to get in a meal: “And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’” This description is part of the plain, vivid, blue collar language of Mark when he described the ministry of Jesus. The phrase which I’ve translated, “ . . . his family . . .” is an idiom which seems to mean that; it’s not the literal term for family. The phrase could also mean his friends, which would seemingly mean his neighborhood and family friends from Nazareth. But the appearance of his literal family on the edge of the crowd later, in verse 31, indicates from the later context that this would have more likely have been his family members – his mother and brothers.

So the situation became so crazy with the crowds at some point that his own family transferred the assessment of the situation to their assessment of the mental health of Jesus himself. I’ve translated the words, “ . . . they were thinking . . .” but the words in the original are, “ . . .  they were saying.” It seemed from the context that this was more the meaning – sometimes the phrase does mean this – but either way, they had thought up and were working each other up with a false assessment of Jesus himself. And there is no ambiguity in the phrase which I’ve translated, “He’s out of his mind.” Other, more colloquial translations could be, “He’s crazy!” or “He’s off his rocker!” There is no misunderstanding at all of what this phrase means in the original language. Those people who were coming out to take charge of Jesus considered him at this point to be mentally unbalanced. Since in the ancient world there were no men in white coats to bring a person in to a mental hospital, it was up to the family to do something about someone who was showing signs of being mentally disturbed, and this statement about Jesus, unique to the gospel of Mark, shows that at this point in his ministry his family was going so far as to come out to where he was preaching and teaching to bring him in.

This sentence also shows the blue collar frankness of Mark. It’s understandable that some of his family members might have, from third party reports, misconstrued what was happening in the ministry of Jesus. This report of what happened was also not at all complimentary to the members of Jesus’s family who were still alive and still prominent in leadership throughout the churches. But this little sentence is also a strong argument for the trustworthiness of the gospel of Mark, since he included things like this that might have been embarrassing to the early church, and it shows even more that the stories about Jesus preserved in the gospels are not fabrications, since they include these realistic and understandable details that simply would not be characteristic of a pious fiction.

But even more – this little sentence shows how sadly and utterly mistaken the opinions and assessments of family members may be. They may not understand what God is doing in the life of a loved one, since all they’ve seen over the years have been the ordinary circumstances of growth and development. They may misunderstand those who are entirely in the will of God, and their opinions and authority, which are nevertheless to be respected and valued, are not the final assessment and the ultimate authority. It’s necessary for us today to remember this, since if Jesus met with this kind of misunderstanding from his family during his earthly life, those of us who have taken up the cross to follow him as his disciples cannot consider ourselves above that same kind of misunderstanding.

But the misunderstanding of family members was only part of what Jesus encountered at this time in his ministry. Far more serious and far worse was what he found with the slanderous opposition from the religious leaders from Jerusalem. They were trying to spread the rumor that the ministry of Jesus came through demonic power. They saw him as serious religious competition, and they were seeking to discredit him and blacken his reputation by attributing his miracles to the power of spiritual evil.

This is what Mark wrote about what was happening: “And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’” This apparently wasn’t just a small, one time, off hand, trite saying which could have been sarcasm or a joke which was misunderstood. Rather, this was something that they were spreading around behind his back; it was despicable slanderous opposition. They were in effect trying to smear Jesus with the reputation that he was in league with evil powers and pretty much a practitioner of black magic himself. This charge pretty much carried the implication that Jesus was possessed and probably insane was well – a wicked, insane man who was himself the tool of the most powerful demons. And this charge in fact continued after the ministry of Jesus and was repeated later in the Talmud. But this charge also is hostile testimony to the reality of the miracles of Jesus. Even those in the most malicious opposition to Jesus could not deny that his miracles were real and that they really happened. Their reality was such that all the opposition could do was to stoop to the charge that they were accomplished through demonic power, and through a demonic power superior to that which was showing itself in the people that they knew were already possessed.

This charge came from those who were in the positions of religious authority there – the most astute Biblical scholars there. They themselves also performed exorcisms as well – but they could not argue with the fact that Jesus always was successful whenever he cast out demons. The malicious reaction to the ministry of Jesus shows, then, the inadequacy of religious authority as such as compared with the authority and power of Jesus himself. Their reaction shows that roles, titles and careful Biblical scholarship does not necessarily add up to spiritual discernment nor proper understanding and application of the Word of God. They totally missed what the Spirit of God was doing there in the land of Palestine about 30 A.D.

Thus Jesus shows that even a perfect life and ministry may meet with misunderstanding from relatives and slander from others. He shows that in a world of sin spiritual ignorance can cloud the understanding of the most well intentioned and best educated people. He shows that there is a breaking point to the opinions of other human beings to be the reliable standard of truth and righteousness when God comes into human history and starts something totally new, as he did when the Son of God came into our world and began his ministry.

This then throws the question back to each one of us. Do we have the mentality that would have agreed with the rumors back then? Are we too quick to believe what others are saying without ourselves examining the scriptures and seeking to know whether what is happening is God’s incomparable working? I fear that too many believers over the years are far too ready to believe rumor and hearsay themselves, and not to speak the truth, refrain from gossip and be discreet with what they say. But even more – it brings us back to the Word of God as well as the standard of what is true and right. Not one of those things would have been said about Jesus if they had taken the Word of God and had seen Jesus through that infallible lens.

But there’s more to the story, definitely. Jesus did not leave the charges against him unanswered. Jesus answered misunderstanding and slander with compassionate but relentless logic. With a few plain, commonsense words of unbreakable logic he drove the charges into nonsense. With his quiet, pointed rebuke he implicitly answers one charge and explicitly answers the other. 

The clarity of his reaction was not the reaction of paranoia. If Jesus had truly been unbalanced, the expected reaction would have been the raving mania of an unbalanced mind clinging desperately to a deluded and depraved image of itself. Even more, his reply is remarkable in its understatement and seriousness. With singular accuracy and sanity he gives a pointed answer that shows himself not only in full possession of his reason, but far more reasonable than anyone that he addressed. His words are those of one who is full control of himself and with full discernment of the situation. It would indeed not be too much to say, in fact, that Jesus was the only truly consistently sane person in human history, with mind, will and emotions unclouded and untouched by human sin and depravity – but that’s something to be explored at another time and in more depth.

So this is what Mark tells as how Jesus answered the teachers of the Law who were charging him with demonic power: “And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house.’”

Mark presents Jesus as showing the utter impossibility of his miracles happening through demonic powers by the analogies of the divided house, the divided kingdom and the ransacked house of the handcuffed strong man. These analogies were apparently given in a rebuke, inside whatever house Jesus happened to have been standing at the moment. His twelve disciples were apparently there as witnesses of what was said. He delivered this rebuke and correction with tact and courtesy and did not publicly shame the teachers of the Law before the crowds. His rebuke showed his hatred for their sin of slander and his righteous stand against it, but as it has yet to be seen, this rebuke has a deadly seriousness as well.

The argument which Jesus uses in these analogies is a form of reductio ad absurdum: pushing an opponent’s point to its logical conclusion where it will be clearly understood to be ridiculous. He took their charge, that he was acting by demonic power, and drew the inevitable conclusion that he was driving out demons by demonic power there was division and anarchy in the kingdom of Satan. This was ridiculous to people who had as a matter of their lives seen the blatant work of spiritual evil in the lives of others, and it was common knowledge to them about the coordination and cooperation of the forces of spiritual evil. So the conclusion is that the exorcisms of Jesus cannot be by demonic power. QED. And the charges against him are both illogical and malicious. QED.

But Jesus goes on and, by the analogy of the strong man who is handcuffed and has his house ransacked, that there is something more powerful than the most powerful ruler of spiritual evil at work in his ministry. The One who is stronger than the most powerful and evil of the evil ones is there and exercising his power and authority. In fact, the reality of the exorcisms shows that the power of the kingdom of God – his ruling dominion – was there in the presence of the anointed King, the Son of God. Jesus was letting his actions speak for themselves in their results, as he was willing to do throughout his ministry. And his actions directed them to the proper conclusion about what was happening in his ministry. He shows them that their unbelief is illogical and in fact in spite of what they had been seeing right in front of their faces, but which they were nevertheless bending over backwards in their slander to avoid coming to the conclusion that the Messiah was there and that the Son of God had come.

It could easily be said that what Jesus was pointing out to the teachers of the Law was like the well known statement of Sherlock Holmes: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Jesus pointed out that it was impossible that he could be acting through demonic power, and, however improbable they may have considered it, that it was the truth that they were standing before King Jesus, the conqueror, the one stronger than Satan. His miracles and exorcisms were themselves the evidence that he was the one with the authority of the Son of God and accomplishing the compassionate will of God in the power of the Spirit of God. So what they were seeing was the ultimate home invasion – the ultimate kingdom takeover – and the evidence was the number of those that they had seen before their eyes who were healed and delivered through the ministry of Jesus.

The evidence was that right there before them was a reality which they had to come to grips with. His life and ministry were demonstrating the truth of the statement of I John 3:8: “This was why the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” And this was the conclusion that Athanasius, a pastor and theologian who lived after 300 A.D., came to: “From such ordinary acts as being born and taking food, he was recognized as actually being in the body; but by the extraordinary acts which he did through the body he proved himself to be the Son of God.”

So by this point let’s consider what we’ve found here in the gospel of Mark. We’ve found that there were a few who charged Jesus with being crazy – a lunatic. We’ve found that there are those who charged Jesus with being the very devil of hell, the ultimate spiritual counterfeit – a liar. And we’ve found that Jesus himself pointed to his own ministry as being the evidence of his being the promised Messiah – Lord. So here we have something striking that appears in the writings of C.S. Lewis as the trilemma: that these are the three alternatives that Jesus has given us to assess his ministry – Lord, liar or lunatic – but the conclusion that he leads us to as the ultimate conclusion is one that is demonstrated throughout the gospels – Lord. I’ve heard criticisms of the trilemma, that it is not itself scriptural, and certainly I don’t think that it should be forced into any passage of scripture, but it is remarkable that within these few verses you find all three being set forth: lunatic, by his misguided family; liar, by his malicious critics; and Lord, by his own direction to the results of his ministry.

And when the results of his ministry were considered, they were real and lasting. It was asserted that people whom Jesus healed during his earthly ministry were still walking around about A.D. 100 – it’s easily plausible they had been children who he had healed during the years of A.D. 27-30. And I think that the analogy of the ministry of Jesus as a home invasion that brought freedom to captives from evil gains more clarity when it is compared to the freeing of Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus and Michelle Knight from the clutches of Ariel Castro (Ariel Castro kidnappings). These three innocent women were taken captive for years by an evil man but freed from evil when forces stronger than the evil man came to break down the doors and rescue them. This dramatic story, with the story of their own faith and prayers for deliverance, captivated the world. And this is a very apt analogy to Jesus tying up the strong man and ransacking his house – bringing freedom to the captives of sin, disease and demonic oppression.

But there’s even more to be considered here that will do well to our souls from the Word of God. There’s more to be understood from understanding what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was. What Jesus said to the teachers of the Law on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was a warning to them to cease their slander. It’s easy to see that they were words wrung out of him by the situation with which he was faced. Of all that Jesus said, I can see these as words he would rather not have ever had to say.

So Jesus concluded what he was saying to the teachers of the law with this most serious warning: “Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even  their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’  — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

I don’t think that we can see this as Jesus pronouncing a statement of final judgment on the teachers of the law. He himself said of his earthly ministry in John 8:15: “I pass judgment on no one.” Rather, this must be seen first of all as an extremely serious warning of how serious their slander was. He was warning them of the final consequence of the slander that they were directing against him was implicating the Holy Spirit. The gravity of this warning comes with his words which I’ve translated, “Understand this.” This was Jesus’s characteristic idiom which he used for emphasis; in other places it’s translated,m “I tell you the truth.” It’s been considered to be equivalent to the Old Testament expression of God, “As I live, saith the LORD.”  And what Jesus is warning them against is an explicit and unretracted declaration the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus is the work of spiritual evil. Jesus does not say why it is unforgivable, but it is most likely because is means an inability to receive forgiveness and that it is a symptom of a moral disease that is incurable. It is an utter moral blindness that cannot see the light at all and cannot recognize the presence of the forgiving God among them. It means a decided preference for moral darkness and an utter obstinacy that hates, resists and slanders the genuine working of God through Jesus Christ and calls it pure evil.

As a matter of pastoral care, this sin cannot be the symptom of a diseased mind, of a messed up thinking mechanism such as in obsessive compulsive disorder, that seizes upon this thought and subjects the person to an endless series of self accusations and attacks, like a kind of mental auto-immune disease. Nor can this be a mere passing, inadvertent thought that comes across the mind of a believer. I cannot say that it’s impossible for anyone in our day and age to have committed it, since I don’t know the actual threshold of when a person passes over any kind of sin of word to where this one is committed. But I consider that Jesus delivered this as a warning and not a condemning declaration that there was hope even for those who were saying such things and that they themselves were not unforgivable. Indeed, I don’t believe that Jesus would even have taken the trouble to speak to them and warn them if he had considered them unforgivable because of what they had said. I do believe that it’s impossible for anyone who has ever put his or her faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life to have committed this, and the evidence of regeneration is more than enough to show that it has not been committed by anyone. So I think that it comes down to not being obsessed about this one saying, but this transgression will not become clear and clearly judged until eternity, and it is not for us ever to conclude that anyone has ever committed this sin, or the forgivability or unforgivability of any sin before God, or to judge others or even ourselves on whether we have committed an unforgivable sin.

Ultimately, then, all that is in this passage directs us to the proper reception of Jesus Christ for all that he truly is. He is the Stronger One who invaded the house of utter evil to set the captives free, as the rest of the gospel of Mark shows us as well. His call to us is what it was at the beginning of the gospel of Mark: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has arrived. Repent and believe the good news!” His call is to recognize him as the anointed King of God, the Son of God who came as a Jewish man in first century Palestine, who did miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, and who dies for us on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and who rose again to provide eternal life for all who put their trust in him.

So then, the falsehoods that have already been exploded about Jesus work even more to show the truth about him!  Truly the Son of God came to earth for the salvation of men and women! It happened, and it’s real. Jesus Christ does do miracles! He did miracles of salvation then, and now, in the power of his death and resurrection he continues to do them. So he now calls us to receive him as the Savior now, and the Lord of our lives, to submit to his authority, to receive the forgiveness of our sins and to experience the power of his risen life.

Jesus Christ truly does miracles of salvation from sin to eternal life. Therefore, he calls us to truth him for our salvation, whether this is the first step of faith to acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, or in the continuing trust in him for our lives. And even more, we cannot leave this reality just at the place where it touches us; this means that we also need to seek him for the miracles of salvation for our friends and relatives who have yet to come face to face with the Savior.

Jesus Christ really does do miracles of healing. There is still healing and deliverance from the power of the enemy in his name. So we can continue to seek his power for our most intractable problems of physical disease and infirmity, and for the most impossible situations of spiritual evil. Through prayer and the exercise of his delegated authority in his name he still continues to wreak havoc and ransack the house of the enemy.

The ultimate miracle of the Son of God is yet to come, though. He is coming back to take us to himself, to purify and glorify us finally and entirely beyond sin, disease and death, to be like him and with him forever. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

The Gospel of God in the Power of God

Updated!

The missionary James Fraser, while he was preparing to preach in SW China,  decided to go through the New Testament, especially Acts, to see how the gospel was preached. As he read through the New Testament again, he was struck by the simplicity of the gospel. So he went throughout the marketplaces of the different towns, and explained it to the others that he would meet. What he had found, when he looked for not just, “What did Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus and the apostles say, do and teach?”, was that the center of the gospel was the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and he made this the center of his own evangelistic efforts. Even more, he noted that the gospel included the call to repentance and the promise of the forgiveness of sins, and he kept these as the expected response and the promised benefit as well.

So, this takes us beyond the simple inquiry of approaching the gospels about evangelism with just the question: What did Jesus do? Here are the questions which form a starting point for a deeper, more robust inquiry:

  • What did Jesus command?
  • What did Jesus preach as the gospel?
  • What did the apostles do?
  • What did the apostles command?
  • What did the apostles preach as the gospel?

  And eventually, you will consider the question: What did Jesus teach in his post resurrection teaching? And then you come up with the outline of the gospel that James Fraser found and then the one which apostles used as they entered into the worldwide mission to spread the gospel throughout the world. The Lord Jesus himself supplied the basic outline of the gospel. In fact, he made it a central part of his teaching to the apostles during the 40 days after the resurrection, before his ascension and before the day of Pentecost. This summary of the gospel was the center of his post resurrection teaching, which was the capstone of and culmination of his earthly teaching ministry. In this post-resurrection teaching ministry it can truly be said that Jesus Christ was personally and literally bringing his church into being through his Word, and giving the apostles all that they would need to begin their mission after his ascension. It can truly be said that this often underemphasized post resurrection ministry lay behind the majority of the preaching and teaching in the book of Acts, and carried through to the New Testament books written by Peter, Paul and others.

So then, the center of his post resurrection teaching was the explanation of all that had happened in his life, ministry, death and resurrection according to the Old Testament revelation of himself as the Messiah , and then the constant reinforcement of his great concern for the spreading of the good news which centered on his own suffering and death. That was his constant command to the apostles, and to all who had become his disciples, who had witnessed his resurrection, to begin their mission. This has likewise been the continuing mission to those who have received his salvation ever since.

The need since then has ever been for the people of God to go back to his Word, and to get the message of salvation straight. The message of salvation is the gospel of life, the acquittal from the guilt of our sins by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. It is not something that we have made up, our own opinion, or religious idea, nor is it something that we have any authority or freedom to modify. It is something that we need to keep in our understanding and deepen our understanding, because we need to be sure of it to be sure of our own eternal salvation. And this is often the reason why over the years, when the church, meaning the leaders and the people in the institutional churches, there has often been a struggle within the churches with the problem of nominalism, the person with a connection to a church, but who has never truly gotten the message straight in his or her own life, and often has truly never received salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

But once we have that message straight, the need then is for the church to get it out. For the church to get it out means that we need  to make it plain to others, to witness to Jesus Christ. This means that we take the message, when we have it straight,  and share the gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus Christ himself has commanded his people. 

“And he said to them, ‘This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:46-49).

 THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST IS THE SOLE MESSAGE OF SALVATION. The Lord Jesus himself gave us the outline of the message of salvation that he wanted for his people to explain and proclaim. It is his offer to the whole world of himself as Lord and Savior, and the message originates with him. It is not a Western, white man’s gospel, but it comes from a man from the Middle East, who grew up there, lived there, and died at the hands of an occupying army, and who rose from the dead beyond all expectations. He then gave the whole world the message of who he is, and what he has done for us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, and it is the only message that he has given his people as the basis of eternal salvation.  And because it is his message, no one afterward has the right or authority, especially among those who would claim to be his followers,  to change it, edit it or try to suppress it by any means.

Of course, gospel means ‘good news’, and Jesus Christ himself is the center of the good news of the gospel. The only gospel that the Bible contains and recognizes has Jesus as the summary and the entire message. Therefore, to evangelize means to explain and emphasize the crucified and risen Lord as the scriptures present him to us. To try to put another message in its place is to attempt to present a Jesus or a Messiah other than the one which the Bible has presented or one which Jesus himself did not mention or recognize.

This is how Jesus himself summarized his gospel: “This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (v. 46). The summary of the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus was himself, as he fulfilled the scriptures, and he was himself his own visual aid and living proof of all that he explained. First, he explained all that the disciples had seen and experienced with him in the context of the Old Testament revelation of what the Messiah would be. This is part of the prior context of this statement, of the teaching about himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26-27 and immediately preceding this statement in Luke 24: 44-45. All that he said cannot have been forgotten in the days afterwards; it beggars belief for anyone to think that anyone would not remember the the words of someone so familiar to them standing in front of them, whom they had seen die but were now seeing risen with the scars of his crucifixion upon him. And in his words he first of all explained how all this was in fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures, which they had known intimately from their earliest childhood,  as the Messiah of Israel. They would remember how during his preaching and teaching ministry before his crucifixion in Jerusalem how he had so often then presented himself as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world through the gospel. But there was a difference now, all that he had said and done was now for them to have as the center of their message, the only Christ who saves, the Son of God of the New Testament. Among them, children of the most assertively monotheistic nation of the ancient world, he had credibly presented himself as the Son of God, and was now standing before them and making sure that they saw, knew and recognized that he was the center of their message. For two thousand years, since God first spoke to Abraham, then, the tutorial of the Jewish nation that there was one holy God who created and ruled the world was now finding its fulfillment in the person of his Messiah, who had come to present his salvation to the world.

The message that Jesus Christ gave, the gospel message which he gave, is the message which his people, from the apostles onward, has needed to get and to keep straight. The church has never been the origin nor the judge of the message, but rather the steward of the message. And it is correct to assert along with the Reformers that the church is not the source of this gospel but rather that Jesus Christ creates the church through his gospel. And even more, the gospel will therefore include every implication and application of the death and resurrection of Jesus also throughout the New Testament, since the emphasis is not just on the fact but upon its meaning in the life of the world and its call to every person upon this earth. This then means what the apostle Paul called the scandal, the stumbling block, of the  cross to his day and age, the truth that all have sinned in this lost and dying world, and that there is no salvation in our own wisdom, speculations or attempts at good deeds, but only through the Jesus who died and rose again according to the scriptures, as Jesus himself has outlined in his gospel. This gospel is the only message which Jesus has given as the basis for saving faith, the message about himself, and the only message to which his Holy Spirit will bear witness. Therefore the only real witness, the only missional statement, the basis of scriptural evangelism and missions, is Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

The method that the apostles used, then, to proclaim Jesus did not seem to be a rote memorization of an outline with supporting verses. Rather, they seemed to be immersed in the truth of the gospel, had the  passages which Jesus himself probably explained to them deep within their hearts, and had a number of talking points to explain the gospel. They seemed to be knowledgeable enough to give a clear and understandable reference and allusion to a verse during preaching and teaching, even if it was more of an explanatory paraphrase. But the center of their preaching and teaching was still Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, crucified and risen. And the centrality of the cross, the Messiah who had suffered, filled their preaching and teaching as the heart of the gospel.

It is, then, the gospel message itself, the truth of the saving Christ, that brings his church to life, and it is not the other way around. In fact, one of the signs of a church or denomination that has begun or has the potential for a deep decline is when anyone gets an idea that he or she can fiddle with the gospel of Jesus and the message of the crucified and risen Messiah in any way. The decline of a church, Christian organization, then, comes with  the infiltration of people into positions of leadership who are not sold out completely to the gospel of salvation in some way. Maybe they do not indulge in a completely outright denial, perhaps, but usually comes down to the consideration and acceptance idea that there might be or is some other way to salvation other than Jesus Christ himself. What happens is that these people start to substitute their own speculations and superficial reasonings for the plain statements of Jesus Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. What this often comes down to, then, is that they try to figure out how to make it something with which we are comfortable and that we think that we can control and something that we think will be acceptable to the type of unbelievers that we want to become a part of our churches. The gospel of a living Lord who died for us is certainly nothing that that we can either find easily comfortable nor anything that we can control, but it is certainly something with which we can find full assurance, as something with which we need not be embarrassed before anyone in this world: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . .” (Romans 1:16-17).

Lately, then, I’ve also been seeing a confusion creep back into the evangelical church of evangelism with ministries of compassion, where evangelism is equated with actions like feeding the poor and homeless. For a generation since World War II this confusion was mercifully absent from the ministries of the evangelical church, where it was recognized as an unscriptural equivocation and foreign import from old mainline liberalism. That following Jesus means compassionate concern for the poor and downtrodden has really never been much in dispute in the evangelical church; the deliberate confusion of compassionate work for the poor with evangelism in terms of communication of the gospel has always been something that those serious about Biblical authority and who have examined the scriptures have rejected.  And it’s easy to see that the apostles themselves did not consider concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10) and evangelism (Galatians 2:7-8) to be the same thing. And the truth is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is as much for the up-and-outer – for example, the divorced rich man, for instance, living in an ornate home but drinking himself to sleep every night – as it is, for example, the skid row alcoholic, the down and outer, the homeless man in tattered clothes who likewise self medicates through alcohol in one of the many paths to self ruination of fallen human nature. And the problem with this confusion of evangelism with ministries of compassion is that it usually ends up destroying evangelism, and the ministries of compassion end up being small efforts with which busy and self absorbed church members feel comfortable. I do not think that it’s too much to say that this eventually becomes humanitarianism without a Savior and without a cross.

The promise, then, of the scriptural gospel  is salvation. It is the forgiveness of sins to those who repent of their sins. Salvation from the real guilt of sin before God, therefore, is the promise of Jesus Christ himself, to those who come to him in repentance. And the fact that Jesus himself outlines repentance as the expected response to his gospel and the forgiveness of sins as the promised result shows that neither of these can be excised from the preaching of the gospel, from scriptural evangelism or from Biblically based missions upon any earthly, human authority. Rather, these are part of the scriptural gospel from beginning to end, as undersigned by Jesus Christ himself.

In verse 47, then, Jesus went on to state, “ . . . and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” By his own words he made the promise of scripture that his gospel brings forgiveness of sins, and from the very heart of the Middle East, the city of Jerusalem, this promise would be made known and available to all the world. His name, the name of the crucified and risen Son of God, would be the signature upon the pardon available to all those who had sinned, upon the response of repentance. His death and resurrection that he had paid the price for the forgiveness of sins and his authority as Lord of all meant that he had the eternal right to grant forgiveness of sins to the whole world. And consider this, that the crucified and risen Lord presented this as the fundamental need of the whole world: not of political or economic liberation, nor physical sustenance, though those may be real needs in themselves for some in this life, but that the problem was sin and the solution was the forgiveness which he had come to provide. That need was so important that he had gone to the cross to make it available.

It is also, then, within the very same sentence, the word of Jesus that repentance is part of the reception of his salvation. Repentance in itself cannot be an earning of salvation, but rather it is a change of allegiance, a turning from one’s own way and a life in disobedience to God, which keeps the forgiveness which came at his own death from becoming a permission to sin. It is his expectation that his granting forgiveness of sins once, completely and forever, would be received with a change of direction from one’s own sin and selfishness to the entire, wholehearted commitment to the will of God, to the Son of God as Lord of one’s life from then on. And this would also include a change of heart toward Jesus himself , of repentance from the sin of rejecting him as Messiah to faith in him as one’s Savior and Messiah once and forever. At it worked itself out, then, in the apostolic preaching and teaching of the gospel, repentance led to living as a disciple of Jesus with Jesus as Lord over one’s life. (For more on the relationship of saving faith and repentance in the scriptures, see John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul and the Imperative Mood in Evangelism.)

The promise of the forgiveness of sins addresses the need that everyone everywhere in the world will always need first of all, the need to get right with God because of the guilt of their sins. Even more, the need of repentance as this response means that the forgiveness of sins that Jesus offers cannot be cheap grace, the permission of continuing in the sin which offends and alienates God, which treats God as a fool in offering a forgiveness which requires no change of life. Because people are naturally sinners by nature and by choice, there is that  condition of repentance, a change of heart before God and his will and a rejection of sin as the ruling power and authority in one’s life. This forgiveness of God then is not the geniality of an easy going God, but the gift of the God who hated sin and loved sinners to the point of providing the death of his Son on the cross and who raised Jesus to life to be Lord of all. The need of reconciliation with God, of a complete turnabout from sin to God to receive his salvation addresses the real need of people everywhere at every time. There may be some felt needs associated with this need for forgiveness, but the gospel then goes through to the real need of forgiveness of sin and salvation in Christ of everyone everywhere. And right here Jesus joins together both a gospel command – repentance – with a gospel promise – forgiveness of sins. So it’s normal, within the practice of Jesus himself, to join together both the commands and promises of the gospel with the presentation of the gospel, and Gospel commands and gospel promises were certainly presented together as during New Testament evangelism.

First, then, if anyone everywhere is ever to have any assurance of eternal life, it will be through the acceptance of the scriptural gospel, through becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. If anyone anywhere has been truly saved, it is because he or she has repented and received the forgiveness of sins upon the personal signature of Jesus Christ himself in his gospel. Getting the message straight, then, will first of all mean that the power and truth of the scriptural gospel will become and continue as a part of one’s own personal experience first of all. It will mean that one can tell others about the power of God to save through the gospel of Jesus Christ because that person has already experienced the saving power of the truth of God.

Second, the forgiveness of sins Jesus promises speaks to a need of the human heart which other religions address in some way, but never with a complete pardon based upon repentance. For instance, often people who claim to be Christians in the USA may in some way ascribe to the reincarnation and karma in a kind of syncretism with Hinduism on these matters. It has amazed me personally how much Hinduism resembles the pre-Christian religions and philosophies of the pre Christian West, the old Roman empire, which Christianity basically destroyed, such as Pythagoreanism with its emphasis on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, the pantheism of Stoicism and mythologies with the multiple gods and goddesses and occult and magic of pagan religion. Hinduism even is based in part on the Vedas, which are more like the ancient Greek epic poems the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Theogony, which event the ancient Greek pagan writers, such as the poet and philosopher Xenophanes credited for the portrayal of the gods and goddesses of old paganism, and which even contain the old Indo European sky god Dyaus, who is known as Zeus among the Greeks and Jupiter among the Romans.   It seems like many Christians never realize the extreme contrast of all that there is from the Old Testament to the New Testament with what there is in Hinduism. Historically and theologically, Hinduism resembles much more the old philosophies and religions of the early Roman empire, the pre-Christian Western paganism, than what we find with the gospel of Jesus Christ that arose in the strict monotheism of post-exilic Palestinian Judaism. With Jesus, though, we have a real person lived in history, of the unabashedly monotheistic Jewish race and religion which continues today, and who lived in an easily verifiable time and place in history. We have someone whose teachings were not philosophical speculations and who offered not repetitious mantras but an approach to God in prayer as a loving Father and as the same person and personality that he created you to be. We have a Savior who died on a Roman cross and came to life with many witnesses in a historically verifiable time and place. And he offers the complete forgiveness of sins through his own death and resurrection instead of a continuous series of millions of reincarnations through various forms of life to wipe out the sins of an undefined past karma. And the gospel and promise of Jesus is is not the religion of a colonial power but the power of a man who lived, died and started the mission to reach the world in the heart of the Middle East, in a city under the domination of the world empire of that period.

So then, the Lord Jesus has given his message to the world, to be communicated by those who have received his salvation. But that is not all that he has given those whom he has called to be his witnesses. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for messengers filled with the Holy Spirit. The communication of the supernatural gospel of salvation was never left up to the natural abilities of anyone. The message calls for messengers, and the risen Lord has given his requirement and promise that it is not to be left up just to the human abilities of the messengers. Even more, he has promised the supernatural promise of the Holy Spirit to his messengers, so that they can take it beyond where they would naturally be able to go of themselves and speak it with a power that no one of them would ever have in themselves.

First, the declaration of the Lord Jesus is that his followers are to be his witnesses, and this declaration is both a statement of fact and a command. Those who receive his salvation are to be the messengers of his salvation. It is not too much to say that this expectation of the risen Lord himself is that every believer has already been appointed a missionary in the part of the world where he or she lives regardless of the opinions of any human mission board or agency.

In verse 48, then, Jesus simply states, “You are witnesses of these things.” The first witnesses were the apostles, who were the prime eyewitnesses of his death and resurrection. But this declaration has never been understood to apply simply to the twelve apostles, but to everyone who has received his salvation thereafter. Here he makes the simple appointment of his followers to be his witnesses. Since then every believer in Jesus Christ, who has come to know the Lord of salvation, has been responsible to be a witness to the Savior. This simple declaration of Jesus Christ himself appoints all his followers in all ages as his witnesses. No one in any kind of church hierarchy can therefore override his simple appointment.No ordaining council, no laying on of human hands, no certificates or letters of recommendation from anyone nor underground opposition even from other believers else is either necessary to endorse his declaration nor can they contradict his declaration or appointment.

The believer in Jesus Christ who has experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ and who knows the living reality of the Savior in his or her life can therefore testify to the Savior and the reality of his salvation. The power of his salvation in our lives is our testimony, backed by the truth of the gospel events in the Bible and the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, and even more by the power of the gospel through the Holy Spirit. The present day believer is still responsible to explain the way of God’s salvation as in the Bible and to be a witness to the salvation of Jesus which he or she has already received, or otherwise, the reasonable conclusion is that he or she is not a believer at all if he or she has no Savior or no salvation to which he or she can testify. From all that there is in the New Testament, from the words of Jesus himself before and after the resurrection, each believer is called to be a witness to this world of the salvation that he or she has received or he or she is not a follower of Jesus Christ. It is as A. B. Simpson once said: “We are missionaries, every one of us with a commission and trust as definite as those we send overseas.”

So then, evangelism comes down just to simple obedience to be a witness to Jesus. I’ve heard over the years some strange justifications for evangelism, such as those who seek to lead lots of outward decisions for Christ, because they thought that the person would never then be lost – this is based upon an underlying belief in the eternal security of the believer based in a kind of pop Calvinism. Or, those who may have a prior underlying belief in a pre-tribulation rapture to try to get as many decisions for Christ before the rapture, and even presenting the pre-tribulation rapture as itself being a reason to pray the Jesus prayer, so that you won’t be left behind. But these kinds of justifications are really never necessary, since Jesus simply gives his people the assignment to be his witnesses, and his people simply need to be obedient to his assignment.

A reasonable application of this assignment would be for each believer in Christ to make it a goal for one’s life to be a witness for Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  This would entail first of all, becoming as consistent a disciple of Jesus Christ as possible and to know the Word and the gospel clearly enough to be able to share it with someone else. Furthermore,  churches need to see evangelism training not only as swelling their numbers locally, but also as training for evangelizing cross culturally. And certainly the official leadership of the church needs to understand its own role to equip the church for this according to their own assignment in Ephesians 4:11-12 and never, ever to let anyone in the professing church to get away with trying to put any kind of obstacle in the path of anyone who seeks to be a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  And in view of the fact that persecution may strike and scatter a church at any time, such as in Acts 8, it is crucial to make this a consistent part of our ministry in the body of Christ, since unexpected persecution may lead to a growth in the church by scattering the witnesses.

Here are then some suggestions as to how a person in a relatively affluent culture such as in North America, Europe and developed nations such as Japan, or perhaps anyone who is in a nation with some kind of educational system. Early in life, there are some preparations that a person can make to be available and prepared as a witness from very early in life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn other languages, whether within a school system or even as a family and personal project. Take linguistics courses if possible and learn the cultures as well as the languages. These languages in particular may prepare you for being a witness in parts of the world where the gospel has not been communicated thoroughly: Hindi, Russian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Farsi. Then do such things as get a Bible and memorize key evangelistic verses in those languages and write your testimony and translate it or even familiarize yourself with gospel literature in those languages.
  • Get a passport for international travel and keep it current.
  • Develop and keep job skills that are both marketable and useful worldwide, that could prepare one for vocational ministry throughout the world. Engineering and software development are two areas of expertise which could open doors to personal ministry worldwide now. (For parents seeking to motivate children in languages, science and math, that these subjects may help to open doors for ministry worldwide if they lead to vocational expertise in worldwide demand may help.)
  • Learn to live frugally in terms of resources and resiliently in the face of deprivation and difficulties.

To those who will be his witnesses, then, God promises the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Those whom Jesus Christ has appointed to be his witnesses have the power of God available to them through the Holy Spirit, and this is his basic spiritual equipment to spread the gospel.

Jesus then concludes his instructions to the apostles in verse 49: “And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” His instructions were to remain in Jerusalem for a little while until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and all this is expanded upon in the book of Acts, chapters 1 and 2, with the results continuing through chapter 28 of the book of Acts. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church would then come upon the church by the authority of Jesus himself to those who had prepared themselves by uniting in prayer. This shows the scriptural emphasis of the day of Pentecost: it is not so much the ‘birthday’ of the church, in that phrase borrowed from Augustine and repeated since then. Rather, it is the empowerment of the church to spread the gospel to all nations. And this is explained in the words of the risen Jesus to the apostles in Acts 1:8: “But you will received power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the furthest extent of the earth.”

This, then, is the highest and most scriptural reason for anyone to welcome, seek and receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in his or her life: to glorify God through being a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in this earth. So many people may seek to know the power of the Spirit of God to experience happiness or to try to be something in themselves or to accomplish something to make themselves look good in front of other people. Rather, the highest scriptural reason to seek the power of the Spirit of God, from the words of Jesus himself, are to have the full spiritual equipment to fulfill the mission that he has given us to be his witnesses. This is why so many, when they give themselves in full consecration to God receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, since that consecration includes the consecration of oneself to be witness in the power of the Spirit – and if it doesn’t, then that full consecration is not complete, because something of such supreme importance is being held back. Therefore the fullness of the Holy Spirit, the enduement of spiritual power from God himself, the power in which Jesus himself spoke and ministered throughout his earthly ministry, is the primary qualification for evangelism and ministry, as it has been throughout all the ages of the church and everywhere in the world.

Clearing up this one point can often be a spiritual breakthrough to new life and ministry for many, many people. For instance, a church elder once asked Charles Finney, “Mr. Finney, what would you think of a man who was praying week after week for the Holy Spirit but could get no answer?”

Finney replied that he thought that such a person would be praying from false motives. So the elder asked the further question, “But from what motives should a man pray? If he wants to be happy, is that a false motive?”

So Finney continued with his reply, “Satan might pray with as good a motive as that,” and he quoted Psalm 51:13: “’Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will be converted unto thee.’” And Finney concluded, “The Psalmist did not pray for the Holy Spirit that he might be happy, but that he might be useful and that sinners might be converted to Christ.”

Shortly afterward, Finney went out and when he returned later, he found out that the elder had come to this conclusion about himself: “What you said forced upon me the conviction that I had never really been converted, that I never had any higher motive than a mere selfish desire for my own happiness.” This conclusion had broken him, and he became a new man through true repentance and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

So then, if you are today a believer in Jesus Christ, it is because someone else was faithful enough to his or her assignment to have shared the gospel with you. Someone else was gracious enough and cared enough to share with you the greatest news in the world to meet your greatest need. And thus you are likewise called to be a part of the chain of witnesses around the world and across the centuries, to bring the gospel to others in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So this then brings to us the question: have we – each of us, not just some of us – really every put in the time to seek and to receive all the ministries of the Holy Spirit that are involved with spreading the gospel and with empowering our witness? Consider further what Jesus had to say about this: “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who is from the Father, he will witness about me; and you yourselves will bear witness, since you have been with me from the beginning . . . if I go away, I will send him to you, and when he has come, he will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, since I am going to the Father, and you will no longer see me; and of judgment, because the rule of the world has already been judged” (John 15:26-27, 16:7-11). There is obviously more exposition of these scriptures that could be done, but this shows us that Jesus spoke about the conviction of the Holy Spirit not as some kind of magical guilt-trip mist but connects his work of conviction with the ministry of the gospel through his disciples. But even more, we can trust the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, will then make us as passionate, confident, forthright and loving in the communication of the gospel as Jesus himself.

So then, this brings back the question on whether the churches in the USA have been sidetracked away from this that Jesus has spoken with the ‘seeker friendly, church services for seekers’ mentality since the early 1990s. Personally, the more I think and pray about it, that mentality gave far too much credit to fallen human nature, that anyone apart from Christ knows what he or she is seeking but is spiritually shy about it, and far too little to the seeking and saving initiative of God in Jesus Christ through his people. It often seems to assume that the real need is for the shy seeker is just some information offered in an entertaining and non-threatening way, and that the shy seekers may come to Christ if they just have several questions answered. Rather, what scripture says about fallen human beings is that, “  . . . if our gospel has been concealed, it is concealed among those who are perishing, in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds so that they cannot see the light of the the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God . . . and we ourselves were dead in our trespasses and sins, in which we once went about according to the fashion of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience; in whom we once conducted ourselves by the desires of our human nature and acted on the wishes of our human nature and our own understanding, and we were by nature children of wrath as the rest of mankind . . .” ( , II Corinthians 4:3-4, Ephesians 2:1-3). And who among us can give any real amount of credence to our having received salvation to our own seeking and receiving information, as much as to the reality that “ . . . God, who said, ‘Out of darkness let light shine,’ is the one who has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).

Scripturally, the gospel of God in the power of God can bring a person to salvation in a very short time, and no protracted times of seeking or conviction are really necessary. Rather, the gospel of God in the Spirit of God can take a hardened sinner into salvation in a very short time. For instance, does anyone really think that the 3000 saved on Pentecost were really just seekers after salvation in Christ, and just needed several questions answered in order to come to repentance and find salvation in Christ? Did the apostles ever use community theater as a normal evangelistic method? Even more, though there will be seasons of openness to the gospel in the lives of many throughout their lives, there is really no scriptural necessity that gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit must wait for those period of openness in the lives of others. Rather, many, many times gospel of God in the power of God through the Holy Spirit has opened up hearts and in an astonishingly short time from the perspective of man.

The call of the Lord Jesus to witness continues to come to us today through his Word. He himself has already done the most essential part in his death on the cross when he took the penalty for our sin that we deserved. His death is the reason that through the gospel God offers forgiveness instead of his wrath. The living Lord then stands by his people now who are his witnesses with all the power of the Holy Spirit, and so his plan is that we should share the life changing message that all need to hear, the life changing message that we share out of love for the Lord and for others who have the same need what we have had for the Savior.

If you, then, have already received Jesus Christ as your Savior in repentance and faith, then you have already received the first and greatest qualification to be a witness to his salvation. Moreover, the Lord Jesus himself extends the assignment to you personally. So consider and address every excuse that you may have as to why you cannot witness to him now, since you will one day come face to face before him to give account for all your life, and that includes your assignment to witness to him. Consider that the acknowledgment of him as Lord and Master means that acceptance of his assignment to be his witness. Make it your personal act of submission to him to be his witness out of love to him, and seek from him the opportunities for witness. Accept no message coming from you life other than the scriptural gospel of salvation. And furthermore, consider it to be unacceptable for you or any other believer to in any try to set any kind of obstacles or stumbling blocks to anyone else seeking to witness for Jesus Christ.

In addition, then, if you have been born again of the Holy Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ, make it your goal to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. The fullness of his Spirit is the power to love and to witness to Jesus Christ beyond anything that we are in ourselves, and he takes us beyond any of the fear, intimidation and self concern and self consciousness before a world that is often hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, don’t leave home without him.