Monday, February 08, 2016

It is Finished! (John 19:30)


In the Creation account that we find in the Book of Genesis, we are told that on the seventh day, God rested from all His work which He had done. In the Book of Exodus, we find the Fourth Commandment, which instructs us to rest on the seventh day in honor of what the Lord Himself did during creation. Now for us, the rest is necessary because after six days of work, our bodies are tired and need time to recover. But for God, He did not rest on the seventh day because He was tired. He rested because He was finished. The Bible says that by the seventh day, “God completed His work which He had done” (Gen 2:2). We serve a God who completes whatever He begins. And in the sixth word that Jesus speaks from the cross, recorded for us in John 19:30, God the Son declares, “It is finished.”

In English, we read three words, but in the Greek New Testament, we find it is only one word: Tetelestai. This single Greek word is so profound that the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it contains “an ocean of meaning in a drop of language, a mere drop. It would need all the other words that were ever spoken, or ever can be spoken, to explain this one word. It is altogether immeasurable. It is high; I cannot attain to it. It is deep; I cannot fathom it.”[1] Obviously we cannot say all that needs to be said about such a word in the time we have today. We must find some way to limit the discussion, and I have chosen to limit it by the bounds of this text and its context. The words of John 19:30, and the surrounding context speak of the finishing or completion of two particular aspects of the work of Christ. It speaks of the fulfillment of all the prophecies about Him, and it speaks of the completion of His mission to save the world from sin.

I. The prophecies have been fulfilled.

Last Sunday, we dealt with the saying of Jesus in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.” And we discussed the necessity of this saying in order to fulfill prophecy. John said in verse 28, “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill Scripture, said, ‘I am thirsty.’” One of the reasons He said, “I am thirsty,” was to fulfill Scriptures that stated that the suffering Messiah would thirst in His dying, and that He would be offered vinegar to drink. Every other promise that had ever been made by God’s prophets about the coming of the Messiah, His earthly life, His ministry, and His suffering, had taken place. Of course there were more prophecies that had not been fulfilled yet, and those would have to follow His death. But the prophecies concerning how He would come, who He would be, what He would do, and how He would die, had all been fulfilled. Now that He has announced His thirst and been offered the sour wine-vinegar to drink, He can say at last, “It is finished.”

Spurgeon said, “There is not a single jewel of promise, from that first emerald which fell on the threshold of Eden, to that last sapphire of Malachi which was not set in the breastplate of the true High Priest.”[2] The Messiah had been prophesied as the Seed of woman (Gen 3:15); born of a virgin (Isa 7:14); born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2); a descendant of Abraham (Gen 12:3, et al.), of Judah (Gen 49:10), and of David (2 Sam 7:12-19). Of course all of these are uniquely true of Jesus. In addition to these and many other aspects of His birth, there were explicit prophecies concerning His ministry on the earth. When Jesus entered the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of His public ministry, He was handed the scroll of Isaiah, and the reading for the day was from Isaiah 61 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." And then Jesus closed the book, and sat down, and said to the congregation, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:18-21). Those words describe perfectly the earthly life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. He did preach the Gospel to the poor. He did proclaim liberty to those who are captive in sin. He did grant sight to the blind. And He did many other things that the Old Testament had announced in advance that He would do. When John the Baptist was in prison awaiting his execution at the hands of Herod Antipas, he sent word to Jesus: “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” And the word Jesus sent back to John was this: “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matt 11:2-5). In other words, “I am doing everything that the prophets said the Messiah would do.

And of course the prophets also spoke of His suffering and death. In recent weeks, we have mentioned the prophetic images in David’s Messianic Psalms, particularly Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, which spoke of His manner of death. But nowhere will you find a more exact description of the suffering of the God’s Anointed Servant than in Isaiah 53.

He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering … Isaiah 53:3-10 (NASB)

And now each one of the multitude of prophecies has been finished, fulfilled, and completed. They are completed in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. Spurgeon notes, “Brothers and Sisters, what a wonderful thing it is, that a mass of promises, and prophecies, and types, apparently so heterogeneous, should all be accomplished in one Person!”[3] Indeed, if we were to read all of the prophetic descriptions of the Messiah apart from knowing Christ we might consider them to be contradictory and impossible to find fulfillment in a single person. In the words of Spurgeon, “He must be a Prophet like unto Moses, and yet a champion like Joshua; he must be an Aaron and a Melchizedek; he must be both David and Solomon, Noah and Jonah, Judah and Joseph. No, He must not only be the lamb that was slain, and the scapegoat that was not slain, the turtledove that was dipped in blood, and the priest who slew the bird, but He must be the Altar, the Tabernacle, the Mercy Seat, and the Showbread!” Where can all of these promises, pictures, and prophetic words and images come to pass in one person? Only in Jesus. Spurgeon says, “Take away Christ for one moment, and I will give the Old Testament to any wise man living, and say to him, ‘Take this. This is a problem; go home and construct in your imagination an ideal character who shall exactly fit all that which is herein foreshadowed.’” [4] If Christ had not come to fulfill all of these things, then they could not have been filled in any other individual. And thus, as He died, the Lord Jesus is able to examine the catalog of biblical prophecies, including and up to His thirst, the drink He would be offered, and now His impending death, and say with confidence about the entire array, “It is finished!”

These words, or the singular Greek word Tetelestai, indicate that the prophecies are all fulfilled. Now, a second truth is expressed in these words as well, and that is …

II. The mission has been accomplished.

If you are like me, I imagine that you often start more things than you finish. My library is filled with books I never finished reading. Around my house and my office are the remnants of projects that I started and never got around to finishing. Marathon runners have unintentionally taught me a lot about life. Once upon a time, if I heard someone say that they had run in a marathon, I may have asked naively, “Did you win?”, or, “What place did you come in?” But marathon runners have taught me that most people don’t run marathons to win. They run to finish the race. The victory, for them, is found in crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles. The more I think about that, the more I think that life is a lot like that. What matters is not how fast we run the race, or even what place we come in, but whether or not we finish what we set out to do. When Jesus died, He could say in a unique sense that no one else ever could, “It is finished.” He had completed what He came to do.

The mission of Jesus was announced by the prophets in advance, and it was declared to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 before His birth: “you shall call His name Jesus (which means “Yahweh, or Jehovah, is salvation”), for He will save His people from their sins.” He came to save His people from sin. And how would He do that? Jesus said of His own mission, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). His mission was to serve humanity by giving up His life as a ransom to save us from our sins.

We understand this word “ransom,” and usually associate it with a payment that is made for the release of hostage or someone who has been abducted. We envision movies where someone glues letters clipped from a magazine or newspaper together to make a ransom note, and then someone shows up with a briefcase full of money in exchange for the release of the victim. Well, in the case of our predicament and Jesus’ ransom, the situation is somewhat different. We have not been abducted or kidnapped. We have willingly entered a state of slavery – slavery to sin. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose to disobey God, and by that act, humanity was taken captive in the slavery of sin. Each of us is born in that state by virtue of their sin, but each of us makes our own sinful choices as well. So we are sinners from birth by nature, and we demonstrate that through our own sinful choices and actions. Our predicament is utterly helpless and hopeless apart from the delivery of a ransom. But Jesus did not come to earth from heaven with a briefcase full of unmarked bills. He came into the world with all that He would need to pay the ransom – a human body with blood coursing through its veins. The ransom to deliver us from sin was to be paid with His blood as He becomes our substitute and sacrifice on the cross. At the cross, He bore the sins of humanity beneath the full measure of God’s wrath. As He carried our sins, the fellowship of God the Father and God the Son was ruptured for the first time in eternity, prompting Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But now, with the ransom price having been paid through the sacrifice of our substitute, Jesus can say, “It is finished.”

For centuries, on the altar before the Tabernacle and the Temple, countless animals bled and died as sacrifices for sin. But the work of the priest was never done. These animals did not pay the price. They were like purchases made on credit. They promised that payment would be made, but the payment had not yet been delivered. And so, one after another, at times by the dozen, by the hundreds, or by the thousands, more and more blood flowed from lambs and bulls and goats. But the price had not yet been paid. It is interesting that when the Lord gave Moses the instructions for building the Tabernacle, He specified how every furnishing was to be constructed. But there was one piece of furniture noticeably missing. There was to be no chair, because the work of the priest was never done. There was no time for sitting and resting, for there was always more to be done, more blood to be shed. And so the writer of Hebrews says, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He (Christ), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12). He rested from His work, for His mission of redemption was finished.

Archaeologists have discovered ancient papyri in the Near East which were receipts for taxes that had been paid. And across those papyrus pages are written the single Greek word, Tetelestai. It means “paid in full.” If you were to write out all of your sins, and the penalty that they deserve in the justice of God, and staple that list together with that of every human being who has ever lived or ever will, you would find that Jesus has written in His blood across every page, Tetelestai, “Paid in full!” It is finished. Our sin debt is paid for by His blood in His substitutionary death on the cross. Paul says in Colossians 2:14 that Jesus has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The record of sin and condemnation was nailed to the cross as Christ became sin for us. He received our wrath and paid our debt. It is finished and it is paid in full.

This means that nothing more is required. How will you be saved? By looking to Christ as your sin-bearer and seeing the debt of your offenses before God as paid in full in Him. What more then can you add? Can you add your own works to this? Can you add participation in some ritual, or observance of some holy day, or financial contribution to any religious institution to this? No, because the debt is fully paid. There are some things that can be improved by addition. You can improve your paycheck by adding an extra digit. But there are other things that addition only destroys. Imagine if you were to add a “g” to the word “love”? Would it make it better? Would you rather have “love” or a “glove”?[5] I remember my high school science teacher mixing chemicals in the lab one day. He mixed the liquid from one bottle with another liquid from another, and nothing happened. But then he dropped just a few flakes of another chemical into the beaker, and a small explosion occurred. That is what happens when we try to add anything to the completed work of Christ. It doesn’t enhance our salvation, it destroys it. Spurgeon said, “Will you pin your rags to the fine linen of Christ’s righteousness? Why will you add your counterfeit farthing to the costly ransom which Christ has paid into the treasure-house of God?”[6] You have nothing to contribute; all you can do is receive. The price has been paid by grace, in blood, and in full for you.

Over the years, I have asked many people a simple question: “Suppose you were to stand before God and he were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’” Many of those people have said to me, “Because I am a good person, and I’ve done some good things,” and so on. I explain to them how God has offered Jesus as a substitute to receive our penalty in Himself on our behalf in His death on the cross. I ask them, “Have you ever put your faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” Some have said no. But some have said, almost as an afterthought, “Oh sure, that too.” Friends, it can never be “That too!” It must be “That only!” Our only hope is to be found in Christ alone, and we can add nothing to the salvation that He offers us freely by His grace. If we try to add to it, we are saying that Jesus was not telling the truth when He said, “It is finished.” It is either finished or it is not. If it is, then you need nothing but Christ. If it isn’t, then we have no hope at all before God. It is as simple as that.
Perhaps you are here today and recognize that you have never fully trusted in the finished work of Jesus Christ to save you. You have never turned to Him in repentance of your sin and faith that He died to save you by taking your sins upon Himself at the cross. Today, you can look to the cross and find all of your sins forgiven because Jesus has paid the full debt and finished the work of your redemption. He has paid your ransom completely. There is nothing you can do to add to that or take away from it. You can simply trust Him to fulfill what He has promised. And He has promised that all who trust in Him will have their sins forgiven and receive His own righteousness in exchange before God, and be reconciled to God and granted eternal life as a free gift of His grace. It is finished, and it is offered to you if you will only trust Him to save you.

Undoubtedly there are others here today who would call themselves “Christians,” who think that being a Christian is about something you do. If you describe your Christianity as something that you have done, then that is not Christianity. The Good News of the Christian Faith is that you cannot do anything to make yourself right with God. It has all been done for you by Jesus. Your part is not to do but to receive what has been done for you. He has paid your ransom from sin in full. I heard it said a long time ago when I was just a young Christian, “Christianity is not spelled D-O, but D-O-N-E.” All that is required to reconcile you to God and rescue you from sin has been done by Christ, and when it was completed, He said with finality and full confidence, “It is finished!” And because His work of redemption is finished, you can rest in Him. Rest from your tireless effort of trying to earn God’s love and favor. Rest from the anxiety and fear of never being good enough. Rest from the constant struggle of trying harder and doing better. Say to Him, “God, I am a hopeless sinner apart from Christ, and I receive what He has done for me and trust Him to save me.” And the Lord Jesus will say to you, “It is finished.”

[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Christ’s Dying Word for His Church,” in Sermons on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), 170.
[2] Spurgeon, “It is Finished.” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Sermon No. 421, December 1, 1861, p. 2. Available online: Accessed March 28, 2012.
[3] Spurgeon, “Finished,” p. 2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Philip Ryken, “Mission Accomplished,” in James Montgomery Boice and Philip Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999), 57-58.
[6] Spurgeon, “Finished,” p. 6. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

"I Thirst" (John 19:28-29)

The four Gospels record for us a total of seven statements that the Lord Jesus made while He was dying on the cross. In rather short succession, John records three of them. We looked at one last Sunday – chronologically the third – in which Jesus entrusted His mother Mary into the care of His disciple John (the author of this Gospel). Today, we come to another. In chronological order, it would be the fifth saying. Here Jesus says simply, “I am thirsty.” These words seem rather pedestrian to us perhaps. What could be significant about the fact that dying Savior is thirsty? We may be tempted to think that this expression is relatively unimportant. But be sure of this, the words are of tremendous importance. If for no other reason, they are important because it is Jesus who spoke them, and no word that ever crossed His holy lips is unimportant. This statement is also important because the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of this statement in the Word of God. For some reason, God the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary for all generations to know that the Lord Jesus declared that He thirsted upon the cross. His thirst is significant for us. But why? I don’t know that we can ever exhaustively answer the question, but we can at least begin to make an attempt at an answer. And in so doing, I want to point out four aspects of His thirst on the cross that are of the utmost importance for the world to know.

I. The Human Thirst of Jesus

Several years ago, I took my family to a museum to view an exhibit of mummies from around the world. It was fascinating on so many levels, but one thing that really impressed me was a short video that is shown prior to entering the exhibit. In that video, the visitors are reminded that the mummies they are about to see are real people who lived real lives and died real deaths, and as such, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It would be easy to view them as merely historical artifacts or even to some degree objects of ancient art, and forget that they were real human beings. We can sometimes run into a similar dilemma regarding the humanity of Jesus.

Ever since the first century, people have customarily made three errors regarding Jesus. Some have considered Jesus to be fully God, and not at all human. Others have made the opposite error, considering Jesus to be fully human, and not divine at all. I would suspect that this has been the most common misunderstanding about Jesus throughout history. The third error that people have made about Jesus is to see Him as something of a half-and-half being, a demigod perhaps, greater than a man, but not quite God.

Well, if all of these are incorrect, what is the correct view of Jesus? The only proper way to understand who Jesus is would be to recognize Him as fully man AND fully God. This is how He is presented to us in Scripture. He is not half-and-half, but all-and-all. We see His full deity in His virgin birth, His miracles, His limitless knowledge, and most vividly in His resurrection from the dead. Certainly, it is wrong to miss the fact that He is fully divine. But we must be careful to remember that Jesus was also completely human in addition to being fully God. We see His humanity on display as He grows from infancy to adulthood, and matures physically and grows in obedience to His earthly parents. We see Jesus being tired and sleeping; we see Him hungry; we see Him weeping. And on the cross, He demonstrated several very human experiences. He hurt. He suffered. He bled. He died. But before He died, He tells us that He thirsted. He was fully God, yes, but never forget, also fully human. And thank God He was. We need Him to be fully human.

If Jesus is going to redeem humanity from sin, He has to be human to make the sacrifice.  If He is going to bear our sins, He has to identify completely with us. If He is going to be our eternal High Priest, then He must be one who can sympathize completely with our human experience. And Hebrews 4:15 assures us that “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” If He were not fully human, it would make no difference that He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. If He were only God without a human nature, those temptations would have no effect upon Him, and His victory over them would not be significant. But because He was fully human, He could be our righteous and sinless substitute. As a man, He fulfilled every command of God’s Law and withstood every temptation that humans can experience. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

It would be easy for you to think that God cannot relate to your hardships in life. But that would be a mistake. Remember that Jesus, in the flesh as a human being, was tempted in all things as we are. Have you been betrayed? So has He. Have you been mistreated? So has He. Have you known sorrow? So has He. Have you ever been thirsty? Yes, so has He! And because we have such a great high priest who can sympathize with our every human experience, Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We must never fail to worship Christ as our God, our fully divine Lord and King. But in so doing, we will be greatly helped in our daily Christian lives to remember that He was fully human also. He lived this life that we live. And as if to remind us never to forget, He says as He dies, “I am thirsty.” It is a very human experience—a very human thirst.

II. The Prophetic Thirst of Jesus

“I thirst.” It helps us understand and remember that Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully divine. That is the effect of the statement. But the effect of a thing is often different from the purpose of it. Did Jesus say these words for the purpose of telling us that He possessed a human nature? How could we ever know why He said this? Well, it would help if the Bible told us. And it does! Look at verse 28, and let’s read it together slowly.

  • “After this” – After what? What precedes this in John’s Gospel is the third saying, when Jesus entrusted Mary into the care of John. But we know from comparing the accounts of the four Gospels that darkness had covered the land and from the depths of that darkness, Jesus had cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” as He bore in His body and soul the wrath that the sins of the whole human race deserved. So, it was after this.
  • “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished” – That is, He knew that the ransom had been paid, the debt had been settled, the penalty of sin had been satisfied and that death was rapidly approaching.
  • “To fulfill Scripture, [He] said, “I am thirsty.” – Ah! So here is the reason then plainly stated! Why did Jesus say, “I am thirsty?” He said it to fulfill Scripture.

Every prophecy that had ever been written about the coming, the ministry, and the suffering of the Messiah had nearly been fulfilled. Just a small number of things remained, and they would be completed momentarily. But there was one specific aspect of the suffering of the Messiah that needed to be acknowledged before His death: His thirst. In Psalm 22, David spoke of His own suffering, but what he wrote exceeded his own experiences. He wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of a far off day in which the Messiah, the royal offspring of David, would suffer a torture that no one in David’s day ever experienced or witnessed. The 22nd Psalm speaks of the forsaking by God that Jesus endured, and the betrayal and despising He experienced at the hands of men. It speaks of His bones being out of joint, the rupturing of His heart, the piercing of His hands and feet, the dividing of His garments. And in the midst of all this prophetic imagery of the cross, it says, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws” (Psalms 22:15). It was prophesied that the Messiah would thirst in His suffering.

Not only this, but in the 69th Psalm, we read that the very drink that Jesus was offered was prophesied in Scripture as well. David is again writing of his own suffering as a foreshadowing of the suffering of the Messiah. And in the midst of the description we read in Psalm 69, we read, “They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalms 69:21). And all of this was fulfilled with precision at the Cross. When He arrived at Golgotha, Matthew 27:34 says that they offered Jesus wine mixed with gall to drink. The word gall can have many meanings, but in this context it refers to a bitter-tasting poisonous herb that was mixed with sweet wine to make it palatable, and which was used as a rudimentary anesthetic to kill pain. It was prophesied that Jesus would be given gall for His food. But it was not prophesied that He would take it. And He didn’t. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus refused this concoction when it was offered to Him. He would not deaden the pain or soften the suffering of His ordeal, nor would He dull His senses or His faculties as He bore the sins of the world. It was also promised that they would give Him vinegar to drink. And when He said, “I am thirsty,” there just happened to be a jar of “sour wine” standing nearby, and it was offered to Him and He received it. It was a cheap wine vinegar that soldiers often used to slake their thirst. It could not have been water. It could not have been freshly made wine. It had to be the wine-vinegar that the NASB translates “sour wine,” because that is what had been prophesied.

The Scriptures are very specific about the Messiah: who He would be, how He would come, what He would do, how He would suffer. And every jot and tittle of those prophecies had to be fulfilled with precision, and they were. Jesus had to announce His thirst so that the world would know that He was thirsty, and so that someone would raise the vinegar to Him. Thus, His thirst, and even the beverage He was offered, are testimonies that confirm that He alone is the promised Messiah and redeemer of Israel and the world. He said what He said so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

III. The Enduring Thirst of Jesus

I want you to imagine, to pretend, for a moment with me that you were at the cross witnessing the death of Jesus. Pretend that you were there, and that you were standing nearby. You are close enough to hear Jesus speak with labored breath these sayings, and you hear Him say with a faint groan, “I am thirsty.” Looking around you, you see the jar of wine vinegar. You see a sponge laying there, and a stalk of a hyssop bush that you can use to raise the vinegar-soaked sponge to His parched lips. Are you there in your mind? Now, let me ask you, do you do it? Do you offer Him drink to satisfy His thirst? Think it through carefully. If I do this, what will the consequences be for me? Will I be punished for doing this? Is it appropriate? Is it permissible? Others perhaps say immediately, “Of course! Here is a thirsty man! Here is drink! Why should I not give Him drink? Yes! I would do it! I would give the thirsty Jesus a drink!”

Even the youngest children know that it is fun and easy to play pretend. You can pretend to be anything or do anything you can imagine. And in some of our daydreams and fantasies we always do better than we do in real life. So, the next time you see Jesus thirsty, what are you going to do? Are you going to give Him a drink? Now you say, “Pastor, when are we ever going to see Jesus thirsty?” Well, in fact, Jesus Himself said that we will find Him thirsty, and we will have the opportunity to satisfy His thirst.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us what it will be like in the day of judgment, and He says that the angels will gather the nations before Him. He will separate the entire human race as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep will be on His right and the goats on His left. And to the sheep He will say, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (Matt 25:34-36). And these who are His righteous sheep will say to Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And Jesus says that He will say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:37-40).

Now, who are these brothers of Jesus? Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of His brothers being His disciples (Matt 12:48-49; 28:10). This corresponds to the experience of the Saul on the road to Damascus, when the risen Jesus appeared to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul was unaware that he had been persecuting Jesus; in his mind He was only persecuting Christians. But Jesus seems to indicate that how we treat His followers is in effect how we are treating Him. What we do to them, we do to Him. But there is another sense in which the Christian is compelled to act in a charitable way to any person, regardless of whether or not they are believers in Christ. That seems to be the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. My neighbor, whom I am to love as myself, is anyone who has a need that I can meet. So, it seems that when Jesus says that, whenever we have given drink to the least of His brethren, we’ve given it unto Him, that He intends to say that we should help anyone who has a need, giving particular attention to those of the family of faith. That, after all, is what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:10 – “ So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”

So, would you give Jesus a drink to satisfy His thirst? Know that around you today may be a thirsty follower of Jesus, a brother or sister in the family of God who has a need that you have the means to meet. Will you serve them and meet that need? Jesus says that if you would, then what you are doing to them, you are actually doing for Him. And you are doing the same as you aid even the total stranger who may not even know Jesus. But your cup of cold water for the thirsty stranger may be the beginning of his or her journey to Jesus as they see Him in you through your act of lovingkindness. Jesus was thirsty on the cross, and His thirst endures. Will you offer Him drink?

IV. The Vicarious Thirst of Jesus

In the study of Christian doctrine, we sometimes encounter unfamiliar words that are difficult to understand. One of these hard words that we encounter, which is actually very important for us to understand, is the word vicarious. We use this word to refer to Jesus as our substitute. In His death on the cross, He became for us a vicarious atonement for our sins. He died in our place to atone for our sins so that they can be forgiven and we can be reconciled to God. So, we understand that a vicar is someone who stands in for another. Christ’s suffering and death is vicarious in that He is our substitute and our sacrifice as He takes our place under the judgment of God.

Now, there is a sense in which we can point to the thirst of Christ even as a vicarious act. He thirsted for us. His thirst reflects the physical reality that He was dying a slow death of dehydration as His blood and sweat poured from His body. And He did this for us. His thirst was not only physical but spiritual as well. As the Psalmist said, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You O God” (Psalm 42:1). Jesus, having been forsaken by His Father under the penalty of sin, thirsts for the presence of His Father once again. And He endured this for us. And in that forsaking, as He bore the penalty of our sin, it is as if He endured all of the fury and fire of hell on our behalf. We might recall that story that Jesus tells in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus. Both men died, and Lazarus found himself transported to paradise with Abraham while the rich man went to Hades, the place of separation from God where the unrighteous await their eternal destination in hell. And Jesus says that the rich man could see across the great gulf that separated those two locations, and he cried out to Abraham asking him to send Lazarus to bring him aid. Do you remember what he said? In Luke 16:24, the rich man says, “send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.” The agony and unquenchable thirst that this rich man experienced in the torment of the flames of wrath were the same that Jesus experienced on the cross. And He experienced it for us. It was a vicarious thirst. He bore the penalty and the wrath of judgment that we deserve for our sins. There has never been a human being to live who did not deserve this. But in His loving grace and mercy, Jesus thirsted in the agony of judgment vicariously. He did it for us.

This was not the first time in Scripture that Jesus was thirsty and asked for drink. You may be familiar with that story in John 4 when Jesus came to Jacob’s well and asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. As they begin to dialogue about the well and the water there, Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again. But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). You see Jesus was thirsty, and this woman had water that could satisfy His thirst, but it wouldn’t last forever. But Jesus wanted this woman to know that she also had a thirst in her life. And Jesus had water that she knew not of – living water that would spring up within her to eternal life. He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (4:10). He said something similar in John 7 – “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).

You see, every one of us was born with a thirst for something that nothing in this world will satisfy. People try to satisfy it with money and possessions, with knowledge and power, with relationships and sex, with drugs and alcohol, with therapy and medication. But the emptiness is still there and the thirst is unquenched. We are like people adrift in a salt-water sea, dying of thirst. We are surrounded, in the words of Coleridge, by “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” If we drink from the salt-water, it only adds to our thirst. You see, over-top of every fountain in this world that you are tempted to think will satisfy you, you need to envision the emblazoned words of Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again.” C. S. Lewis put it this way in the most brilliant sermon he ever preached: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”[1] But that is the thing, you see, we are NOT pleased. We try to tell ourselves that we are, but soon enough we thirst again. Augustine said it this way: “You made us for Yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”[2] But we are cut off from that rest and from the only living water that can eternally satisfy our thirst. Our sins have fixed a great gulf between us and our God and King who alone can satisfy our deepest longings. But thanks be to God, He has bridged the gap! In the person of Jesus Christ, He has borne our sins and their penalty. He has died our death! He has taken vicariously upon Himself our unquenchable thirst so that our thirst can be quenched eternally!

It is because Jesus thirsted for us that we find this description of heaven in Revelation 7:16-17 – “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” And it is for this reason that the Bible concludes with a glorious invitation: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev 22:17). The living water that satisfies eternally is freely offered to us by the grace of Him who thirsted in our place! Every longing that you have is pointing you to Him like thirst drives you to water. And nothing outside of Him will ever satisfy that thirst. Come and drink deeply from Christ. He thirsted for you so that you will never thirst again!

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
[2] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics edition; translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin; New York: Penguin Putnam, 1961), 21. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Behold Your Son, Behold Your Mother (John 19:23-27)

The notable English linguist Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”[1] There’s nothing like staring death in the face to help one concentrate on the things that matter most. Together, the four Gospels record seven distinct sayings of Jesus which He spoke from the cross. If we were to list them in chronological order, this would be the third of them. One of the amazing observations about these utterances is that He thinks of others before Himself. His first statement was to His Father, and it was a prayer for mercy on behalf of His murderers. Second was a gracious response to the pleas of a penitent thief dying beside of Him. In this third statement, Jesus turns His attention and His words to His mother and to one of His closest earthly friends. Lehman Strauss writes, “I cannot imagine a more glorious and triumphant way to die than this; namely, in the extending of one’s self in supplying the needs of others. No man dies in vain who blesses others in his expiration.”[2]

Jesus had a number of antagonists around Him as He died, and a very few friendly faces. John names four of them for us here: His mother, His mother’s sister (who may have been Salome, the Apostle John’s mother), Mary the wife of Clopas, and the disciple whom he loved. We know from comparing the uses of this term in the Gospel of John that this is John’s usual way of referring to himself.

Here in this moment, Jesus turns His attention to His loved ones there at the cross. What was it that caused Jesus’ attention to shift to His mother? The context may explain this. Just before Jesus speaks to His mother, we read that the soldiers were gambling for the clothing of Jesus at the foot of the cross. It was a somewhat common practice for the executioners to take the belongings of their victims, but John also tells us in verse 24 that this was taking place to fulfill a specific messianic prophecy: “They divided my outer garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” These words had been written by King David in Psalm 22:18.

Though David never witnessed a death by crucifixion, the language of Psalm 22 describes the ordeal of Jesus with exact precision. He speaks of the bones being out of joint, the heart being melted like wax, the hands and feet being pierced. It is this Psalm in which we first read the words that Jesus will speak in moments, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Though David’s Psalm reflects his own anguish in some horrific ordeal he was facing, it seems that he was given words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to portray the suffering of the Messiah would come some 1,000 years later in the person of the Lord Jesus. The soldiers at the foot of Christ’s cross merely reckoned that they were doing what they normally did. The Word of God indicated that they were doing far more than they realized. They were fulfilling prophecy and adding further testimony to Jesus, the Messiah.

John says that they divided His garments into four parts, a part to every soldier. Typically, we assume that this means that they cut his garments into pieces, but that is not likely the case. The typical attire of a first-century Jewish man consisted of five pieces: the robe, the belt, the headcovering, the sandals, and the tunic (which was an undergarment worn next to the skin). No one would want 25 percent of a sandal. So, it is likely that each soldier took one article of clothing, leaving the tunic to be awarded to the winning gambler in the casting of the lots. They didn’t want to cut it up into pieces for equal shares because it was a fine garment. Verse 23 says that it was “seamless, woven in one piece.”

Now, as Jesus watches the soldiers at His feet gambling for this final item, His heart turns to His mother. But why? It was a custom for Jewish mothers to make this garment for their sons to be given as a gift to commemorate their coming of age. This tunic for which the soldiers were gambling may well have been made for Him by His mother, and worn throughout His entire adult life. If that is so, then, as Jesus witnesses the fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, His thoughts may have turned to another portion of the very same Psalm. In verses 9-10 of Psalm 22, the prophesied Messiah speaks to the Father, saying, “You are He who brought Me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon My mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been My God from My mother’s womb.”

Charles Swindoll says, “His outer garments were insignificant. … But when they touched the tunic, they touched something very near to His heart—the garment made for Him by His mother.”[3] Now His thoughts are filled with memories of His childhood, the love of His mother, the pain and grief she must feel now, and her fears for the future. Though no sword would touch that tunic, a sword was piercing the soul of His mother, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35. And it is at this point that He speaks to her, and He speaks to His friend John about her. The words He speaks are as profound as they are brief. He speaks to Mary and to John a word of compassionate concern, a word of revolutionized relationships, and a word of glorious grace. And these are words that we need to hear as well.

I. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Compassionate Concern.

How many of the Ten Commandments could you name? Chances are, if you have raised children, one you could easily rattle off is the Fifth Commandment, the command to “honor your father and your mother.” Now, the New Testament assures us that Jesus kept all of God’s Law perfectly. So, does that mean that He also kept the Fifth Commandment perfectly? If we examine His earthly life and notice His interaction with His mother, we may wonder if He did. At the age of twelve, He slipped away from His family and went into the Temple to interact with the religious leaders. When Mary and Joseph came to find Him, He said, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Later, when He was attending a wedding with His mother and others, Mary imposed upon Him to do something for the host, because the host had run out of wine for the guests. Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). We find ourselves almost wanting to rebuke Jesus in moments like these and say, “Jesus, that is no way to speak to Your mother!”

Another way in which we may misunderstand Jesus’ words and actions towards His mother is by confusing honor with obedience. There is a period of life when honor includes and implies obedience. But there comes a time also when obedience is not a necessary component of honor. When Jesus was a child, His life was characterized by perfect obedience to His earthly parents. Even when He had abandoned them in the Temple at age 12 and spoken so directly to them about being in His Father’s house, the next verse says that, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them” (Lk 2:51). He was still of the age where obedience was necessary in order to honor His earthly parents. But because He was unique in His nature, being the fully human offspring of Mary and the fully divine Son of God, Jesus also was perpetually obedient to His Heavenly Father, and lived to honor Him as well as His earthly parents. So, when He came into adulthood, when obedience is no longer inseparably connected to parental honor, Jesus could and did speak directly to His mother about His obedience and honor of His Heavenly Father without dishonoring her as His earthly mother. In fact, we may well say that to do anything other than obeying and honoring His Heavenly Father would be the ultimate dishonor to His earthly mother, for it was for this reason that she had been chosen as the vessel to bring Him into the world.

If there is any question about whether or not Jesus honored His earthly mother, this word spoken from the cross should remove all doubt. He speaks to her a word of compassionate concern in His dying moments. “Woman,” He says, “behold your son!” But in saying this, He is not directing her to Himself. When He says, “behold your son,” He is directing her to John, the beloved disciple. These words, together with those that follow, as He says to John, “behold your mother,” indicate that it is Jesus’ desire for John to care for Mary after Jesus’ death.

Why did Jesus say this? Why does Mary need someone to care for her? It should be noted that her husband Joseph disappears entirely from the biblical narrative after the episode at the temple when Jesus was 12 years old. This has led most scholars to conclude that sometime between Jesus’ 12th and 30th birthdays, Joseph died. If that is so, then Mary is a widow, and Jesus, being her firstborn son, is responsible for her care.

We may also wonder, why John? Why does Jesus not entrust her to the care of one of her other children? Mark 13:55 indicates that it was common knowledge in Jesus’ day that he had at least four brothers and two sisters, and that there names were known among the people of Nazareth. So, why did He not entrust Mary into the care of one of them? We can speculate at least two reasons why. First, quite simply, they were not there. Had they been there, they may have been named. They did not live or work in Jerusalem. Their homes were up North, in Nazareth or Capernaum. John was there, they were not. But there is another reason. John 7:5 tells us that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. Thankfully, we know from other Scripture references that some, if not all, of His siblings did come to believe in Him and to worship and serve Him. But at this point, they were still unbelievers. Meanwhile, John is the most faithful follower Jesus has at this point. It was important to Jesus for Mary to be cared for by one who loved Him and believed in Him. It was vital for her to grow in her own faith and understanding of Jesus as, not only her son, but her Savior, and this could best be fostered in a family of faith. And this brings us to a second point that these words raise. 

II. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Revolutionized Relationships.

A few years ago, a pastor and his family were traveling through the area and dropped in for worship here with us. I met him and chatted with him before the service, and at a point in the service, I said something like, “We are glad to have my brother, Pastor so-and-so, and his family, here today.” After the service, several people came up to me and said they wanted to meet my brother and some commented that they didn’t know that my brother was a pastor. Well, I had to disappoint them by telling them that he was not my brother from birth, but that doesn’t make him any less my brother. You see, that man was my brother by new-birth. He and I have been born-again into the same family. We have the same Father – God, our Heavenly Father – and we are brothers in the Christian faith. In the same way, I refer regularly to you all as my brothers and sisters.

This is not a pretend kind of relationship. It is real! Those of us who have come to God through faith in Jesus have been adopted into His family. He is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters. Here in the South, we like to say “blood is thicker than water,” but in reality, the blood of Jesus and the waters of baptism are stronger than any other earthly tie, for they are eternal bonds. Jesus has revolutionized our relationships.

He began to do this almost immediately. He made it clear to Mary and Joseph at the age of 12 that His allegiance to God as His Father superseded His earthly ties to them. On another occasion, recorded for us in Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 8, Jesus’ mother and brothers had come to visit Him but they could not get to Him because of the crowds of people around Him. When someone told Jesus that His mother and brothers were there wishing to speak with Him, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” Then, as He looked around at His followers, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:33-35).

He was revolutionizing the concept of human relationships. And He continues to do that up to His death. “Behold your son,” He says to Mary, pointing her to John. In a sense, Mary has no need for John. She has at least four other sons, besides Jesus. “Behold your mother,” He says to John. John was not an orphan. He had a father named Zebedee and a mother named Salome. She may have even been one of those present at the crucifixion. It is hard to tell, but it is possible to infer from the Gospels that John’s mother and Mary were sisters, making Mary John’s aunt, not his mother. But Jesus is saying, “Mary, I wish you to view John as your son; John, I wish you to view Mary as your mother.” For in the family of God, those who follow Jesus are mothers and sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters in a way that is even more real than our biological relationships.

This is a difficult reality for some of us to consider. After all, here in the Bible Belt, we have not often been made to feel that there is any real threat or competition between our allegiance to our earthly families and our spiritual family. Christian ideals have been pervasive in our culture for a long time, and for many of you, the proudest day in your parents’ lives was the day that you came to faith in Jesus. But that is not true of everyone everywhere. Some here in this room understand fully well what Jesus mean when He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). The hatred of which Jesus spoke was not a vehement and violent kind of rejection, but rather a determined devotion to God in Christ that so surpasses all other affections that they appear as hatred in comparison. It is a resolve to always choose allegiance to Christ over all other claims upon your affections. And that is a decision that some of you have had to make, and one that countless Christians make every day in the world. Jesus responds to that very reality when He says, “"Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30).

Here at the foot of the cross, Mary must no longer view Jesus as her son. He must become Her Savior. John must no longer view Jesus as his friend. He must become His Lord. Mary must become a mother and a sister to John, and John must become a son and a brother to her if they will have a part in the family of God. And the same is true of all of us as well. For some, these words are inviting and irresistible. The call to become part of a new and better family is welcome to those who have broken family relationships or who face opposition from their relatives because of their desire to follow Christ. God will be a better Father, and you will find better mothers, brothers, and sisters in His family than you have ever known. But to others, these words are a hard challenge. Where God has blessed a person with a strong and loving family, devotion to that family can become a stumbling block to building intimacy in the family of God. We must beware of allowing those earthly ties to become an idol that threatens our allegiance to Christ or hinders us from developing intimate bonds of fellowship with the new family that we have been adopted into. We may not always have to make the hard choice. How blessed is the family where father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister, experience the double-bond of genetics and faith. That family must enlarge their tent and welcome in new brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and mothers, who have had to make the choice to follow Christ and forsake earthly ties for Him.

Perhaps you were unable to have children. Perhaps your children are not followers of Christ. Maybe you never knew your parents. Maybe your parents were the cause of hardships in your life. It may be that you never had a sibling, or that you never had a good relationship with your brother or your sister at home. If you are a follower of Christ, then I want to invite you to look around this room and see your family of faith. There is a young Christian here that needs a godly mother and a faithful father-figure. There are ailing widows who need faithful sons and daughters to care for them in their advancing age. There is a hurting believer who desperately needs a faithful brother or sister to help them bear their burdens. Look around you. Behold your son. Behold your mother. Behold your brother, your sister, your daughter in God’s family of faith. Behold these revolutionized relationships that have been created through the death of the Savior. Embrace the reality of these revolutionized relationships!

III. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Glorious Grace.

You may have heard the expression, “Showing up is half the battle.” The first time I ever heard it was when I was on the high-school wrestling team. My coach said that showing up was half the battle, and outwrestling your opponent was the other half. If you showed up, and the other guy didn’t, you won. So, we had a guy on our team who weighed 112 pounds, and he was undefeated, but he only had to get on the mat in about half the matches. A lot of other teams didn’t have guys who were in his weight class, so all he had to do was step on the scales, and he won!

I want to turn our thoughts here to John for a moment. He deserves mention because he showed up. Mark 14:50 tells us the sad reality of what happened to Jesus’ disciples after He was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane: “they all left Him and fled.” But one came back. Only one came back: John. As important as the words that Jesus said to him are the words that Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Where have you been? Why did you flee? Where is your faith? Do you really love me? Where are the rest?” Jesus said, “Behold your mother.” John showed up, and as a result, he was singularly blessed with this word of glorious grace. Not only is he restored to right fellowship with Jesus, but he is entrusted with a significant ministry of caring for the very mother of Jesus. And he took that responsibility seriously. Verse 27 tells us that, “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.” Though the Bible is silent about much of John’s future between this time and the time we find him on the isle of Patmos in Revelation, we know that at some point he went to Ephesus where he served for many years as the pastor of the church in that city. And there are traditions that indicate that he took Mary with him. There are ruins of a house in Ephesus today that is called the house of Mary. If that attribution is accurate, then it shows that John fulfilled his responsibility to the very end. He showed up, and Jesus spoke to him a word of glorious grace, reconciling him and entrusting him with a significant ministry.

There may be something in your life that is holding you back. You may fear that the Lord will not accept you if you come to Him, or that there is no way that He could use you in His service. John may have had that same fear. Would the Lord cast him away because he had fled and forsaken the Lord in his hour of need? Could the Lord ever use him in any way? John overcame that fear, and he showed up. And when he did He heard a word of glorious grace. I have often said that the Lord is far less concerned with your ability than your availability. Show up and say yes to the opportunities that the Lord puts in front of you, and you will experience that glorious grace as well.

I want to just hit a couple of quick points of application on the whole of this text before we conclude. First, examine your heart about your compassion for others, whether they be in your own family or in the family of faith. Are you showing honor and concern for those who are due it? Are you providing care to those in need? And second, have you come to embrace the new family that God has placed you in through your faith in Christ? Is there some young Christian that you can be a spiritual mother, father, or older brother or sister to? Is there some older Christian that you can be a spiritual son or daughter to? Is there some hurting Christian that needs the comfort of a brother or sister in their life? Finally, have you come near to the foot of the cross to meet the Savior? You may fear that you will not be accepted because of your sins. Listen, friend, your sins are the reason He is there. He knows your sins, just as He knew John’s. And He died for them. Remember what Jesus said in John 6:37, “The one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out.” So if you never have before, I pray that today you would come to Him and receive Him as your Lord and Savior. And if you have, then I hope you will make yourself available to serve Him and to serve His people, your spiritual family, in whatever way He leads you.

[1] Cited in Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 71. Background info from Accessed March 5, 2012.
[2] Lehman Strauss, The Day God Died (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 56.
[3] Charles Swindoll, The Darkness and the Dawn (Nashville: Word, 2001), 153-154. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Unwitting Testimony of the Cross (John 19:19-22)

(Audio unavailable)

On April 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky, something was scheduled to happen for the first time in American history, which led to something else happening for the last time in American history. On that day, a crowd numbered by some at 20,000 people along with media representatives from around the country gathered in Owensboro to witness the first ever public execution carried out by a woman, Sheriff Florence Thompson. It didn’t actually happen, though, because Sheriff Thompson for some unknown reason decided to give the responsibility of springing the gallows trap to a police officer from Louisville who, like many in the crowd, was intoxicated. In fact, leading up to the event, “hanging parties” were taking place all over town, and vendors were selling hot dogs and beverages throughout the crowd. When convicted rapist and murderer Rainey Bethea dropped from the gallows, reports indicate that the mob charged toward him, tearing the hood from his head and taking for themselves souvenirs from the occasion. Many historians suggest that the raucous spectacle of the event made Bethea’s hanging the last public execution in our country.[1]

From the beginning of its institution in human history, capital punishment had always been intended as more than a punishment of the guilty. It was also to serve as a warning to others. If you commit certain crimes, this will be your end. And in order to have that effect, it was necessary for executions to be public. It was certainly that way in the first century Roman Empire. Executions have always been able to draw a crowd, owing to the morbidity of man’s fallen nature, but crucifixions proved to be exceptionally popular. In Jesus’ case, it was a perfect storm. He was a well known figure. The drama of His final hours had been played out before the watching public. There were multitudes coming and going from Jerusalem, owing to Passover week, and the place where He was crucified was near to the city. The Roman and Jewish authorities wouldn’t have wanted it to be any different. For the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus was Public Enemy Number One, and they were glad to publicly display His battered body on the cross. For the Roman establishment, it provided a good opportunity to warn the discontented Jews of what happens to those who are suspected of insurrection against the Empire.

Our text tells us that Pilate wrote an inscription. It was customary for a condemned criminal to have his crimes written for all to see upon a placard of wood that had been whitewashed with gypsum. This placard would be hung around his neck or paraded before him in the streets during the death march. Upon execution, it would hang from his neck, or in what was apparently a rare case, be affixed to the cross, as was done here with Jesus. But there are several things about this that were not customary. First, not customary is what was written. Ordinarily one would find a criminal charge written. Pilate writes a title: “Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews.” It was not a crime to be the King of the Jews. It was a crime to claim to be the King of the Jews, if one was in fact not actually the King of the Jews. That is why, upon seeing it, the chief priests said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” The Greek verb tense there in verse 21 suggests that they repeatedly asked him to change it. Previously, they were able to pressure Pilate into cowering to their demands, but this time they are met with obstinate resolve. Perhaps feeling some tinge of shame or embarrassment for how he let them get the best of him before, he is determined to hold his ground here. As for what he has written, he was never really convinced that Jesus was guilty of a crime in the first place. For all he knew or cared, Jesus might as well have been the King of the Jews. He wouldn’t have understood the spiritual implications of that anyway, and as for the political ones, he could not have cared less. Whether Jesus was actually the King or just claimed to be King, either way it was sedition, and either way Rome would demand crucifixion. But also, the placard was meant to have a sting in it for the Jews. Twice before they led Jesus to Golgotha, Pilate had goaded the Jews with taunts about Jesus being their king. The placard on the cross was the final jab. Everything about it was an affront to the Jews. Here was a bloody and battered Jesus, a Man they despised, and a Nazarene of all things. Remember what was said about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). And He was hanging from a cross, shameful and disgraceful as that was. Pilate’s words on the placard were meant to indicate that such an individual as this was the only kind of King they deserved, and this is what Rome thought of their nation, their people, and their King.

Secondly, however, it would not have been customary for Pilate, or any other high-ranking political leader, to actually write the charges on the placard. There are those who suggest that the Greek wording could allow for us to understand it as though Pilate “had the inscription written,” rather than actually taking the stylus in his own hand to write it himself. At the very least, the wording here insists that Pilate chose the words and demanded them to be recorded exactly as he stated. Or, it is not impossible that in this rarest of cases, he actually wrote it out himself. And here is where we come to the unwitting testimony of the cross. Though, from a human perspective, it was Pilate who chose the words and ordered the inscription, there was a Higher Power orchestrating it all. The God who is meticulously sovereign over all things that take place in the world and in our lives was invisibly choreographing this scene to accomplish His greater purposes. And so, as the patriarch Joseph was able to say regarding the treacherous deeds of his brothers (cf. Gen 50:20), we can say here that what Pilate intended for evil, God intended for good. God sovereignly moved Pilate’s mind to settle obstinately on the wording of this placard, and the hand of Pilate or whoever took up the stylus, to inscribe this testimony to the true identity of the One on the cross. So what does this unwitting testimony of the cross declare?

I. It declares an unintended testimony to the truth of who Jesus is. (v19)

I think most of us are familiar with the story of Cinderella, the peasant girl who goes to the ball and enamors the prince, and runs away before the magic spell ends at midnight. She left a shoe behind – a glass slipper in the famous Disney version of the story – prompting a search of the whole kingdom to find the girl whose foot fits the shoe. The great thing about fairy tales is that no one ever stops to ask logical questions. Doesn’t it seem remotely possible that more than one woman in the kingdom wore the same size shoe? But, nevermind that, the search proceeds until Cinderella’s foot fits perfectly in the glass slipper, and she and the prince live happily ever after. We’ve discovered in teaching our children literature that this story is found in many diverse cultures of the world, with various details modified. But it may have been the popularity of the version of the story involving the lost shoe which caused an old English saying about a cap and a head to be changed to the more familiar saying, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

And friends, if there is a sign that is inscribed with the words “King of the Jews,” then Jesus Christ is fit to wear it! Pilate had no intention of declaring that Jesus was actually the King of the Jews, and the Jews had no intention of ratifying such a declaration, but the eternal and undeniable truth of heaven is that Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the King of the Jews. But what does this statement even mean? King of the Jews? The hope of Israel, set forth in the Old Testament, included a vision for a descendant of David who would come to establish and reign over an everlasting kingdom. God promised this to David, ensuring him that his throne would be established forever, and occupied by David’s son, who would also be God’s son (2 Sam 7:8-16). This king would be “the anointed one,” the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Isaiah spoke of this Messiah who would come, indicating that He would suffer for the sins of His people as a substitute to save them from divine judgment (cf. Isa 53). Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled these Old Testament promises of an anointed King who descended from David’s lineage. “The theme of Jesus as King, Ruler, or Lord dominates the New Testament from beginning to end.” But it is here at the cross where Jesus “established His kingship through His sacrificial death.”[2]

As F. F. Bruce so beautifully stated it, “The Crucified One is the true king, the kingliest king of all; because it is He who is stretched on the cross, He turns an obscene instrument of torture into a throne of glory and ‘reigns from the tree.’”[3] Augustine wrote, “The title placed over his cross … showed that they could not keep Him from being their king even by His death.”[4] Indeed, by His resurrection and ascension, and in the sure and certain promise of His return, God’s promise that He will reign over a kingdom that has no end has come to pass and will be fully consummated. And then, the book of Revelation declares, we will behold Him wearing a new and different placard that reads, “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16). Yes, not the King of the Jews alone, but King of all Kings, and King over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue (5:9; 13:7; 14:6). And this brings us to the second unwitting testimony of the cross.

II. It announces an unusual message for the whole world to receive. (v20)

If you travel internationally much, you will encounter many signs that you do not understand. They are written in strange languages, some with an alphabet of symbols and characters that are completely unrecognizable to us. But in a lot of places, at least the really important signs are written both in the local language and in English. It ensures that the message is clearly understood by the most people possible.

Notice here in our text that Pilate’s placard which he prepared and affixed to the cross was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Whether the Hebrew was actually Hebrew or Aramaic, the point is that the average Jew of Jerusalem and Judea could understand the message on the sign. Not only this, but because Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, every Roman official and Roman soldier stationed in the area (and there were plenty) could understand the message on this sign. But also notice that it was written in Greek. For centuries, since the days of Alexander the Great, Greek had been the common language of the majority of the world.

The significance of this has to do as well with the timing of it. During the Passover feast, Jerusalem’s population swelled to many times its normal size. Pilgrims came from far and wide to observe Passover in Jerusalem. Tradition made it mandatory annually for all Jews, but logistics made it more practically a once-in-a-lifetime desire for most. And many came. They came from across the world. Remember that, just as is true today, following the return of the exiles from Babylon, more Jews lived outside of the Promised Land than inside of it. Jewish population in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime may have been five or six hundred thousand. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, there were perhaps up to eight million Jews.[5] Many of those were coming in, and a few days later, they would go out. On their way in or out of Jerusalem, many of them would have undoubtedly walked past Golgotha, which John says was “near the city” (v20). Those who didn’t see the crucified Jesus for themselves would have likely heard about it. And all who were able to read (which would have been a surprisingly high percentage), no matter what language they could read, could have understood the message inscribed here on the cross.

From Jerusalem, once the feast ended, they would depart and each one would return to his or her homeland. Friends and loved ones would ask, “What did you see while you were there?” Imagine how they might answer. “On the day of the sacrifices, we happened to be coming into the city, and there by the road was a Nazarene named Jesus who had been nailed to a cross. Above his head there was a sign which read, “The King of the Jews.” And so this message began to spread around the world as these travelers went back to their homelands. Soon, others would come – missionary evangelists like the Apostle Paul, ordinary folks who had heard the good news of Jesus and His salvation and believed – and they would share the message of Jesus. These who first heard the report of the crucified King would discover through the sharing of this Gospel that the King had suffered and died for them, to bear the weight of their sins beneath the judgment of God on their behalf, that they may be saved and reconciled to God by repentance and faith in Him.

And so this message of the King of the Jews, who had been crucified on Golgotha would soon sweep across the entire Roman Empire and beyond. Surely Pilate did not intend to be a global missionary for Jesus when he inscribed the words of this placard in three languages, but the words he inscribed in the three major languages of the Empire at that time certainly accomplished that in an unusual way. God providentially ordered the events of that day in order that the whole world could understand the significance of what was taking place there on the cross. The cross was an unusual coronation ceremony by which the King of kings was establishing a spiritual kingdom that transcends national borders and ethnic boundaries, a kingdom for Jew and Gentile alike who come to God by faith in this crucified King.

We see it taking shape already here on Golgotha. The other Gospel writers tell us that there was a man named Simon from Cyrene (in modern day Libya) who was coming into the city as Jesus was being led to the cross. Maybe Simon was a Jew who lived in Cyrene. Maybe he was a Gentile who had come to believe in the Jewish faith. Whichever the case, as he drew near to Jerusalem on his Passover pilgrimage, the soldiers compelled him to carry the cross of Jesus for a portion of the distance. Mark tells us that this man was the father of Alexander and Rufus, a detail which seems to have very little significance until we come to Paul’s letter to the Romans. There Paul offers his greetings to a member of the Roman church named Rufus and his mother. It seems natural to understand that Simon returned to Cyrene and told his family of his experience with Jesus, and they all became followers of Jesus and citizens of His kingdom. We also see there on Golgotha a Jewish criminal turning to Jesus from his own cross and asking Him to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. And soon after, when Jesus had breathed His last, we find a Gentile centurion recognizing that Jesus was surely the Son of God. These three men – Simon of Cyrene, the repentant criminal, and the Roman centurion – demonstrate that no matter who we are, where we are from, or what we have done, God invites us all into the Kingdom of His Son, the Kingdom which was inaugurated and heralded from the cross of Jesus Christ.

The trilingual placard that was affixed to the cross of Jesus accomplished far more than Pilate ever intended. It was an unwitting testimony for Jesus, unintentionally declaring the truth that He is the King, and unusually announcing a message for the whole world to receive. But, here and now, two millennia later, this placard continues to accomplish purposes for which Pilate could have never intended, but which God has providentially ordained. We come now the third unwitting testimony of the cross:

III. It proclaims an ironic lesson for the followers of Jesus. (v22)

In Psalm 76:10, the Psalmist Asaph writes, “The wrath of man shall praise You.” This means, at least in part, that God has the power to take the evil schemes and deeds of man and completely subvert them into a means of bringing glory to His name and furthering His purposes in the world. Make no mistake about it, there is nothing commendable or worthy of our emulation in the character of Pontius Pilate as he is recorded in Scripture or secular history. But here in our text, there are at least two lessons that we can draw from his intractability on the matter of the words inscribed on this placard.

Previously, when Jesus was on trial (if we may call it that, for the outcome was settled before the whole process began), he was vacillating and pliable, allowing himself to be pressured away from justice and truth in violation of his own conscience and conviction for reasons of personal and political pride. Now, he stands resolutely before the Jewish officials declaring in no uncertain terms that he will not change what he has written. Barclay is surely right when he says that it is “one of the paradoxical things in life that we can be stubborn about things which do not matter and weak about things of supreme importance.”[6] Though the change of wording that the Jews are demanding would have no effect on the outcome of events that day, their request is contrary to the high degree of respect that Romans had for written documents. The wording on the placard, for Pilate, represented a legally binding statement that could not be retracted or revised. Therefore Pilate says, “What I have written I have written.”

This takes on a special significance for those of us who understand that the words written on this placard originated in the mind of God, who the Bible says, turns the hearts of earthly kings like water in His hand. It was God Himself who installed this anointed King on the cross-shaped throne by His eternal decree, and it is as though we perceive an inaudible voice declaring from heaven, “What I have written, I have written.” He has declared from before the foundation of the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God who would be slain to take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). And that word, like every other word of divine revelation that He has uttered is entirely unalterable. Therefore, if a duplicitous man such as Pilate can say, “What I have written, I have written,” we must not dare imagine that the holy God of eternal glory has ever spoken any word that He intends to blot out from the record of His divine revelation. When we open the Bible, we are reading God’s very own Word. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, or as the NIV renders it (quite literally), is God-breathed. If Pilate is intractable concerning his word, our God is infinitely moreso, and we must regard His Word as something from which, in the words of Jesus, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from, until all is accomplished and until heaven and earth pass away. We may find ourselves bickering with the Holy Spirit as we come up against passages of Scripture that rub us the wrong way, pleading with Him that His words might be altered to suit our tastes and preferences. But the answer from heaven will always be, “What I have written, I have written,” and our only recourse is to yield ourselves in full submission to the gravity of His truth.

We find another ironic lesson here that certainly never entered the heart of Pilate when these words were inscribed upon his placard. John Calvin writes, “Pilate reminds us … that it is our duty to remain steadfast in defending the truth. A heathen refuses to retract what he has written truly about Christ, even though he did not understand what he was doing. How great, then, our shame if we are terrified by threats or dangers and we stop following his teaching which God has revealed in our hearts by His Spirit.”[7] Like the Jewish officials who badgered Pilate about the wording of this sign, we will face increasing pressures from the world around us to soften our message and modify our testimony for Christ. May God forbid that a convictionless pagan might have more resolve concerning his testimony for Jesus than the blood-bought, Spirit-led citizens of His own Kingdom! Our mandate in the world is to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), but let us not allow this world’s corrupted notion of love to prevent us from being bold with the truth. There is no love where there is no telling of truth, and truth presented without love can be toxic. But, when truth is uncompromisingly proclaimed in the context of unconditional love, this world will see a profound a testimony for Christ coming through His church. When truth is at stake, we must trust that the Lord is our defender and declare with the Psalmist that we shall not be moved (Psa 62:6).

Shall we allow Pontius Pilate of all people to be a better example of steadfastness to the truth of Christ than we are? Shall he have more confidence in his own words than we have in the Word of God? May it never be! Let us learn these ironic lessons in the unwitting testimony of the cross.

Looking up to the dying Savior from the ground of Golgotha, in whatever language one happens to speak, there is a message unalterably emblazoned declaring that Christ is the King. But looking down from heaven, God sees there another message inscribed on a placard visible only to Him. Colossians 2:14 says that God has taken the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us which was hostile to us, and taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. That certificate of debt was the inventory of all of our sin, and it was affixed to the cross for the God of infinite justice and mercy alone to see. There above the sacred Head now wounded was the placard of indictment – not of His crimes but of our sins. And so in the outpouring of divine wrath that took place on the cross, causing Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, our sins received the full measure of judgment they deserved in the person of our substitute, King Jesus. And because of that, this King who overcame our sin and its penalty through His resurrection from the dead, offers amnesty and welcome to all who turn to Him and invite Him to be their King. No matter one’s nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic standing, native dialect, or any other factor, this King welcomes all who call upon Him as Savior and Lord to enter into His everlasting Kingdom and have eternal life with Him. If you never have before, today is the day of salvation if you will look to Him in repentance and faith. May those of us who have publish the announcement far and wide, in every language under heaven, that Christ crucified is Christ the King, and may we be faithful and steadfast in the declaration of that good news!

[1] Accessed January 7, 2016.
[2] David Dockery, “King, Christ as” in Holman Bible Dictionary (gen. ed. Trent Butler; Nashville: Holman, 1991), 841-842.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.369.
[4] Joel C. Elowsky, John 11-21 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament; vol. IVb.; Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2007), 311.
[5] Thomas Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (2nd ed.; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 37.
[6] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 2.252.
[7] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 429.