Offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Complete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abused

Updated!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

The Challenge of Discipleship

Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, wrote about the need for men and women who would follow Christ in this world: “Cross loving men are needed . . .  There is a need for us to give ourselves for the life of the world. An easy, non-self-denying life will never be one of power. Fruitbearing involves cross-bearing. There are not two Christs – an easy-going one for easy-going Christians, and a suffering, toiling one for exceptional believers. There is only one Christ. Are you willing to abide in him, and thus bear much fruit?”

There has been a real neglect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in the North American church today, and there is still a need for men and women who will follow Jesus Christ in this world, and who will bear his cross today. There is a need to good deeper in our understanding of what it means to have saving faith in Jesus Christ and what it means to follow him as Lord, and this means that there is the need to go directly to the explicit expectations of Jesus Christ himself. His own Word tells us what it really means to be saved and to live as his disciple. His description which he gave to the crowds and his disciples in Galilee is still his valid Word to us today on what it takes to follow him.

Jesus gave a description of what it would mean to follow him to the disciples and the crowds after Peter had declared him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God – the confession of saving faith. Jesus went on to explain how his identity as the Messiah would culminate in the cross and the resurrection, and even more. Upon the prediction of his own crucifixion and resurrection, he went on to give an explanation of what it would mean to be his disciple in this world. His expectations set forth the reality of what it means to live in a world which goes against being a follower of Christ when a person begins to take his Lordship, his Word and his commands seriously – and even more than seriously, to be the center of one’s own life. Certainly it may well mean the loss of the approval of others and of the comfort of this world when following Jesus becomes the only reason that one lives in this world. But even more certainly it will ultimately culminate in one receiving the eternal approval of God and eternal life in Christ.

“And when he had called together the crowd with his disciples he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul? For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power” (Matthew 8:34-9:1).

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means following him no matter what happens. Following him at all costs then demonstrates the reality saving faith in Christ. It shows to oneself, and others, even to the whole world, that belief in his Word and his promises truly is a personal conviction of their truth and certainty, more than anything else in the world.

Following Jesus means saying yes to his direction and no to every competing demand. It is a complete submission to him that cares only to follow where he leads. It is an overwhelming concern for his will alone that will ignore personal ambitions and the rejection of others to follow him no matter what – with no excuses, no prevarications.

In verse 34 Jesus himself stated what following him would involve: “If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.” We call it denial of self, taking up the cross and following him – but it is all summed up in following him. This directly followed his rebuke of Simon Peter, after Peter had the nerve to try to take him aside and correct him about his ministry culminating in the cross and resurrection. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind, me, Satan, because you are not concerned about God’s concerns but the concerns of people!” So Jesus sought immediately to direct everyone to the concerns of God and not to those of themselves and other people. His call was first to the denial of self. This would mean the refusal of our own personal plans and ambitions for this world, and choosing the will of God above things that may even seem legitimate.  Even more, Jesus said that following him would mean a cross for everyone, and taking up the cross would mean facing the scorn and rejection of this world, like a condemned criminal on the way to the place of execution. His call to follow him would mean sacrifice and suffering for his sake, and his followers should in fact expect nothing better from this world.

This statement of Jesus tells us what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is not the mere confession of him as the Son of God, as in fact Peter had done. It means the acknowledgment of him as a Lord so real that it means following his will no matter what one had originally planed for his or her life and no matter how others may perceive and reject that commitment. The call of Jesus never was just to maintain an institutional religious organization or just to keep up a certain set of standards or morality – though certainly New Testament discipleship means being part of a church and adhering to Biblical morality. Nor was it to follow any new set of religious rituals. Rather, it was to that personal adherence to him and to following him.

The call of Jesus to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him has been defined as the cost of discipleship, and it needs to be renewed today. This renewal of the call would do much to eliminate the superficial and spurious conversions among those would are unwilling to receive salvation on the terms of Jesus. It would remind us that we have no permission to soften the terms and make things easier for those who prefer no personal sacrifice. It would bring back a healthy Christcenteredness and spirit of sacrifice through which the kingdom of God has always advanced and prospered. Even more, this call of Jesus is the path to freedom from idolatry and slavery which we see all around us in our North American culture.

Note, then, how the call of Jesus to deny oneself frees us from the idolatry of ourselves. It frees us from a deep slavery and addiction to getting what we want, getting our own way and handling things our own way at whatever cost to others and even to the will of God. This kind of deeply ingrained selfishness goes regularly excused, tolerated and uncorrected among modern believers in a way which would have been unthinkable even a generation ago. This is what leads to the terribly sick and deceitful habits and mania for getting our own way, proving ourselves right and manipulating and controlling other people that regularly continue among many professed believers – and is a deep part of the reason why they experience so little of the fruit of the Spirit and presence of God in their lives. It is because there is such continuing idolatry and slavery to oneself, and they have not set themselves firmly on the path of denying themselves and following Jesus.

Just has much, this also frees us from the idolatry of and slavery to our own reputation, even a religious reputation. His call also means freedom from an obsession with being cool and of impressing others with how we look, how we dress, how much we have, and anything else that we try to form into a finely polished image with which to impress the others around us.

The apostles had already responded to Jesus, as Mark had already narrated back in 1:16-20. He called Simon Peter and Andrew, and they left their nets behind and followed him. He met James and John also, and they left their father and hired hands behind and followed him. They had already left behind their livelihood and families to follow him, and, as Peter would point out in 10:28, this was leaving everything that they had behind to follow him. Certainly this has been what it has often meant to follow Jesus into vocational ministry and missionary service; it has often meant leaving behind houses, families, friends and jobs to follow Jesus. Sometimes it has simply meant leaving or changing one’s profession, livelihood and place of living. But this has been a part of the price that many have paid over the years for the sake of following Jesus where he calls. For example, V. Raymond Edman told the story of a man in Ecuador who wanted to go into the ministry in response to God’s call. His wife threatened all kinds of reprisal if he left his lucrative job. But finally he came to her one evening with a bundle under his arm and tears in his eyes. She joined him in prayer and tears, and then he told her what was in the bundle: “It contains my working clothes. I left my employment today.”

But whatever the cost, following Jesus at all costs is the path of eternal life. It shows a saving faith in Jesus deep and real enough to stake one’s entire life on the truthfulness of the gospel. It shows a trust in Christ and a love for him more than anything else in the world.

Jesus directed his words in verses 35-37 against a natural tendency to self preservation and to seeking comfort in this world: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul?” Our comfort in this world and even our very lives are not to be held at the cost of denial of Christ and his gospel. These words were directed to those who might have been facing eventual suffering and martyrdom. They were also directed as a strong warning to those who would consider their mission in life to have a worldly position, affluence and comfort, even if these would come with religious trappings and religious guise. The Pharisees had all of those: comfort, affluence and religious attainments, position and reputation. They were the religious big shots of their day. But Jesus called his disciples not to be those who would tie their lives to a world which would pass away. Rather, he gave the challenge to all of them to stake their lives on his promise of the world to come, and even to be willing to lose their lives on behalf of himself and the gospel.

Each person, every human being, has an eternal soul made in the image of God, and is more precious than all the riches of this world. The call of Jesus means refusing the eternal tragedy of the person who tries to get everything that he or she wants on earth,and yet loses everything eternally. If it is true that each person was made to live eternally with God, then nothing on earth is valuable enough to risk forfeiting that destiny.

So here Jesus calls us away from our fascination with our stuff, with our possessions and our money as well. Certainly, in the balance of scripture, there does need to be wise management of our money and possessions, and the call of Jesus has not always meant absolute loss of everything – but it might and each one of us needs to be ready to take that step.

The believer who follows the call of Jesus at all costs does so because he or she has come to realize that Christ is all he or she wants and all that he or she needs. Even if there is earthly deprivation and rejection, there is the companionship of the Son of God, the power of his grace, and the irreplaceable and unchangeable value of eternal life, the treasure in heaven which Jesus gives. So this comes from the realization that following Christ comes to mean more than this world could ever offer.

So then, loyalty to Christ is a matter of choice and action. But even more it is a matter of personal conviction that one cannot keep silent. Being a follower of Jesus means openly declaring that conviction before others. This open confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is the expression of true saving faith in the heart. The declaration of personal allegiance to Jesus Christ is not something that can be kept only ultimately private and personal, but it must be public and definitive.

When a believer openly acknowledges Jesus Christ as his or her Lord before others, this shows his or her expectation of his acceptance of us in the same way in eternity. The reverse, though, is also true, that the refusal to acknowledge him before others also entails a false faith that will meet with his rejection as well.

In verse 38, Jesus described a refusal to declare him as Lord this way: “For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” In Matthew and Luke, he put it as the alternatives of silence or confession. The denial of Christ by silence and shame is the evidence of a spurious faith which will be answered by his rejection in the glory of his coming sovereignty. So Jesus spoke these words to encourage the personal stand of those who truly believed in him and all that he promises as Lord and Savior. His call was not to be ashamed of him, in order to please others and to fit in with those who were still in their sin and their rejection of the Messiah.

This open declaration of personal faith in Christ and allegiance to him before the world is still something that he expects from us. This is not something that that is often directly intended to persuade others to accept Christ, though it may often lead to those kinds of opportunities. Rather, it is the open declaration of one’s own conviction, the open expression of the saving faith of the heart, that is not ashamed of Jesus and his words before the world.

This gives the warning that an undeclared faith may come to be shown to be no faith at all. The faith which is put away, kept only private and personal, and not declared before others may be found to be nothing some day. This was the discovery of an economics professor at Yale University some years ago. He came to his position with a vibrant testimony of being a Christian, but gradually started to keep his mouth shut. He gave his account of what had happened in this way: “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs in a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing in there at all.”

Even more, openly acknowledging Christ in this life shows our realization that we may face him sooner than we anticipate. It shows that we understand that the course of our earthly lives may be cut short by the return of the Son of God in power and glory.

In 9:1, Jesus makes the statement, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power.” There has been some ink spilled over what Jesus really meant by this, but in context it is simply his prediction of the transfiguration, which occurred in 9:28. Jesus told them that they would not all have to die before they would see the glory of the Messiah. In the transfiguration, the disciples saw Jesus changed before them, where he began to shine with his heavenly glory and his garments shone pure white. The disciples saw something there that they might have thought that they would have had to die and be resurrected to witness. In context, his statement was that three – namely, Peter, John and James – would have the privilege of a preview of his true glory. The point is that the reality was already there would demanded their decision, and it was not something that would have been postponed until later when they might have thought that they would have time, when they would have thought that it would be convenient and when it would fit in with their plans.

Thus, the open declaration of Jesus Christ as our Lord shows the anticipation that each day may be the one when he might return. Thus the goal is for the believer in Jesus Christ is to live each day as if Jesus were to return before the day is over. This would mean being forthright before the world now with the expectation that each of us will see him one day face to face. This is like the question that F. B. Meyer once put to Dwight L. Moody, on the secret of his success as an evangelist. Moody replied, “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

The attitude, then, of the disciple who takes his or her stand for Jesus is that the approval of Jesus is all that matters. The conviction of the truth of Jesus’s return and his eternal reward for his followers then gives the strength to declare oneself for Christ no matter what anyone else may say or do. And this demonstrates that one’s faith in him and all he promises is genuine.

So then, since Jesus Christ is coming back, the only realistic course for anyone is to be on his side when he comes. Then those who love him and declare themselves for him will find themselves with him forever.

The mark of genuine saving faith in Jesus is open acknowledgment of him as Lord and submission to him in one’s daily life. Thus the call of Jesus finds a hearty, ‘Yes!’ from those who have been truly born again of his Spirit. They follow him because he has given them a new heart and a new will that wants to follow his Word. They follow because as children of God by faith in Jesus Christ they listen to the voice of the Son of God. They follow because they have come to love the Son of God and trust his Word more than anything on earth. And they follow simply as a the response of the disciple to the Lord who has love him or her more than life itself. They follow the Lord who has himself left the glory of heaven to die on the cross for the sake of those who would not be ashamed of him and his words in the midst of this lost and dying world. They follow because the bond of eternal love and fellowship between the Lord and his disciples cannot be broken by the enticements of this earth nor the intimidation of others.

First of all, being the disciple of Jesus means that he is Lord and Master. It means that in our lives everything is his in a way what we can truly call nothing to be our own anymore. It means that the highest ambition and goal of our lives is simply to follow the will of God to the glory of God. So, then, if you have made the claim to have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ, are you his disciple? Did you realize that salvation entrails being his follower here on earth? Will you make it your decision now, as a new or renewed decision, to be his disciple, with him as Lord over everything in your life?

Then, being a disciple of Jesus Christ means not only letting go of the control of your life to him, but to be ready to tell the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. This means simply taking a stand for Christ before others regardless of whether it will please or offend them. If you want to do this for the first time, simply tell one other professing Christian that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life and that you will follow him at all costs.

But finally, have you risked any form of difficulty or suffering for Christ? Have you followed him despite possible or real rejection, ridicule and loss of position or reputation in this world? If you have, reaffirm now your suffering and difficulty now as your offering of love for the the Lord who suffered for you. But if you have been slack in denying yourself and taking up your cross as part of following Jesus, perhaps you need to examine the reality and depth of your faith in Christ. Maybe that needs to become newer, more real and deeper than it ever has been before, for the sake of the Lord who bore his cross for us to the hill of Golgotha, to suffer and die for us.