Thursday, February 26, 2009

Your Best Pastor Now

This is for all those times that precious encouragers have uplifted me by saying, "We think you're a great preacher, BUT ... ." Here's your best pastor now.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Forsaking of the Son: Mark 15:33-36

Audio available here

From time to time we will hear someone refer to something as being “God-forsaken.” Often times a city may be spoken of as a “God-forsaken town.” Donia and I visited a city in Eastern Europe some years ago that was so spiritually empty, so morally dark, just so totally repulsive on so many levels, that at the end of the day, I said as we left, “Let’s get out of this God-forsaken city.” I regret saying that. I do not believe God had forsaken that city, but I believe that the unpleasant atmosphere of the city had caused many of God’s people to forsake it, offering little hope for change to ever take place there. Jonathan Kozol’s book Rachel and Her Children features profiles and interviews of various homeless families in America. One of the women Kozol interviewed had raised her children in a New York City homeless shelter surrounded by all sorts of depravity and filth. She described her spiritual condition as a result of that period as follows:

I don’t pray! Pray for what? I’ve been prayin’ all my life and I’m still here. When I came to this [shelter] I still believed in God. I said: ‘Maybe God can help us to survive.’ I lost my faith. My hopes. And everything. Aint’ notbody—no God, no Jesus, gonna help us in no way. … I do believe. God forgive me. I believe he’s there. But when he sees us like this, I am wonderin’ where is he? I am askin’, “Where … [has] he gone?”

Interestingly, Kozol noticed that her Bible was opened to the 23rd Psalm beside of her bed. I know that Psalm is a favorite to many people, but I think for her, she was one-off. Had she been reading Psalm 22, she would have read these words in the very first verse: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was the real question she was asking. That was the question that David, the anointed King of Israel was asking in that Psalm. And that was the question that Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, was asking on the cross. Various preachers and scholars have used different phrases throughout the centuries to describe this statement made by Jesus as He died. It has been called the cry of desolation, the cry of desertion, the cry of dereliction, the cry of despair, and the cry of desperation. But perhaps no one has better captured the true nature of this expression than R. C. Sproul. He says, “This cry represents the most agonizing protest ever uttered on this planet. It bursts forth in the moment of unparalleled pain. It is the scream of the damned.”

It is said that Martin Luther agonized over this text for a long period of time before finally throwing up his hands and exclaiming, “God forsaken of God! Who can understand that?” Who can fathom that God the Son, eternally coexistent with God the Father, one and the same divine nature with God the Father, in perfect harmony and unity with God the Father in the Holy Trinity, could utter such a cry? Even those around Him on that dreadful day could not understand it. They thought He was calling out to Elijah to save him. Whether Jesus spoke in Hebrew or in Aramaic as He uttered this scream, the word for “My God,” is very similar to the word for “Elijah” in both languages. Certainly, in His state of exhaustion and agony, as He screamed theses words in a loud voice, it would be an easy mistake for the hearers to make. A popular tradition in Judaism at that time was that Elijah would come in times of great need to protect the innocent and rescue the suffering. And so they assumed that Jesus was expressing frustration that Elijah had been so slow in coming to His aid. This prompted one of the bystanders to offer Jesus a drink of sour wine. This beverage, a kind of vinegar known among the Romans as posca, was a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink that soldiers often drank while on duty as a stimulant. It may be that they wondered themselves if Elijah would come, so they offered Jesus this drink to keep Him alive and conscious while they waited to see what Elijah would do. If Jesus had been calling out to Elijah, then these words would be more understandable. But Jesus was not calling out to Elijah; He was calling out to God.

It is interesting that of all the recorded words that Jesus ever spoke to God, this is the only time He ever referred to Him as God. In every other instance, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” But here, it is “God.” One scholar tells us that it was common for those who were crucified to scream out in rage and pain with “wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair.” But Jesus was not calling out curses against God. Even in the midst of His suffering, He is still cognizant of a personal relationship with His Father, as He says twice, “My God!” His is not a cry of disbelief or denouncement. But it is, as Sproul says, the scream of the damned. God the Son has been forsaken by God the Father. And like Jesus, we too want to know, “Why?” Why has the sinless Son of God, the perfect and righteous servant who has always done the will of the Father, experienced such undeserved condemnation and wrath? There are two words that explain it. Sproul says that it is “the scream of the damned – for us.” FOR US. The answer to the question “Why?” are those two words. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” The answer: For us.

Jesus defined His own mission and ministry in Mark 10:45 saying, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” To ransom something is to pay a price of redemption. What does humanity need to be redeemed from? The Bible is clear from beginning to end that we are enslaved to sin. Ever since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the garden, each of their offspring through all these generations has been born in a state of natural rebellion against God. We are sinners by nature, but also by choice. We are prone to view ourselves as the center of our own existence and make choices based on what we want, regardless of how offensive it is to God or one another. So we are doubly enslaved to sin – by nature and by choice. And what is the penalty for sin? The Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 that it is death; “The wages of sin is death.” There is a sense in which physical death is the result of our sinful state. After all, death entered the human race because of sin. But then there is another sense in which sin produces a spiritual death, which is separation from God. When God said to Adam, “In the day that you eat of this fruit, you will surely die,” did Adam die physically that day? No, by God’s mercy, his physical life was extended for many years beyond that. But immediately, Adam was separated from God in a state of spiritual death. Each of us is born in a state of spiritual death. In Ephesians, Paul says, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Physically, they were alive, but they had been born spiritually dead, just as all of us are. That state of spiritual death is a separation from God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities [or sins] have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” And if we die physically in that state of spiritual death, our separation from God will be eternal in the place of unending torment that the Bible calls Hell.

So, if Jesus is going to give His life as a ransom for many, it means that He will have to pay the price of redemption to rescue us from our sins and their penalty. And this is exactly what the Scriptures tell us that He did. Because of our sins, we deserve to be cursed of God under His righteous wrath. But Jesus became accursed for us as He took the penalty of our sins upon Himself as our substitute. He received the wrath of God which He did not deserve, but which we do. Paul said in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written (referring to Deut 21:23), "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” He hung on the tree of Golgotha, the cross on which He died, to receive in Himself the curse of God poured out against sin.

When Jesus died on the cross, Mark tells us here in 15:26, a placard was inscribed which said, “The King of the Jews.” It was customary for a person who died by Roman execution to have their charges publicly displayed for all to see. For Jesus, the official charge in the eyes of the Romans was high treason, as He made rival claims of authority which they perceived as a threat against the Empire. However, in God’s eyes, the charges that brought about Jesus’ death were something different. Imagine if you could write every one of your sins on a tablet—all the sins you have ever committed, or will ever commit. Not just the big ones that stand out, but every single one of them, great and small. Then imagine that every person who has ever lived or will ever live does the same thing. Now imagine with me that one by one each of us takes those charges and nails them to the cross of Jesus. That is why He died. He died for every lie ever told, every murder ever committed, every act of adultery, theft, cruelty, deceit, dishonesty, and on and on we could go, ever committed by human beings. Isaiah had prophesied some 700 years before that the suffering Messiah would come, and that the Lord would lay on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). As Jesus hung on the cross, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Him who knew no sin TO BE SIN on our behalf. When God looks upon the cross of Christ, He no longer sees His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased, but sees one enormous and grotesque mass of sin. And He pours out upon that mass of sin all of His righteous wrath and hatred for sin. Christ as our substitute receives the punishment from God that every human being who has ever lived or ever will deserves. And because God hates sin with such a holy passion, He cannot look upon it; He cannot tolerate its presence; therefore, the Son is forsaken by the Father in this moment of physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. God doesn’t tolerate sin, He doesn’t overlook sin, wink at it, or consider it to be no big deal. If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at Jesus as He cries out with the scream of the damned. God wrapped His only begotten Son in it, and condemned it, rejected it, cursed it and forsook it.

You realize that Jesus knew He would live again. At least three times He has made it clear to His followers that He will die and that He will rise again. Yet, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked the Father to let this cup pass from Him. He was asking if there was any way possible that God’s plan might be accomplished without Him having to suffer this death. But please understand, it was not the physical agony of the cross that Jesus wished to avoid. He knew it would only be temporary, and that He would rise again. Rather, it was the intense spiritual agony of being FORSAKEN by His Father as He bore the sins of humanity—as He BECAME the sins of humanity. This is why Jesus did not want to die. “He knew the crucifixion would rupture the close, unbroken fellowship He had enjoyed with the Father from all eternity.” He prayed in the Garden that He might avoid this death, not death in itself but THIS VERY death, because he knew that He would be God-forsaken there.

Now Mark tells us that at this very moment a miracle occurred in the natural order. For three hours, from noon until 3 PM, when ordinarily the sun would shine its brightest light over the land, there was total darkness. Some have speculated that this was a total eclipse, however those do not last for three hours. Even if they did, the fact that this was Passover indicates that it was during a full moon cycle, and total eclipses do not happen when the moon is in that phase. It was a miracle performed by God with no natural explanation. When miracles occur, they signify something, and in this case, the darkness was significant of what Jesus was going through at that moment. God had declared through the prophet Amos that a day was coming in which He would make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight (Amos 8:9). He said that it would be like a time of mourning for an only son (8:10). In fact, it was just that. It was as if all nature mourned the death of the only begotten Son of God for sin. The sun was veiled in darkness indicating the severity of judgment that was being poured out on man’s sin. the wording that Mark uses is not precise enough to indicate whether this darkness covered only Jerusalem or Israel, or the whole world. It is interesting that around the exact same time, and Egyptian philosopher named Diogenes wrote of a time of extended darkness at midday and said, “Either the deity himself suffers, or he sympathizes with one that does.” Here was a man with no insight into God’s specific revelation, but who could understand that such an unprecedented phenomena had to do with the suffering of God. He had no way of knowing just how accurate his observation was. The deity was suffering in that darkness – suffering under the weight of judgment FOR US.

Darkness is a frequent sign of judgment in the Bible. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness. During the plagues on Egypt, before the final plague of the firstborn, God brought darkness over the entire land—the Bible calls it “a darkness which can be felt.” It was that kind of darkness over the land during Jesus’ death. It was the darkness of judgment as our sins were receiving their full penalty in the person of our substitute on the cross as He received the death we deserve. He underwent that ultimate separation from the Father that all of us deserve. He cried out with the scream of the damned—FOR US. He screamed that scream so that we do not have to. Because Jesus was forsaken, you and I will never have to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because He screamed, we can sing. We can sing songs of worship and adoration as we respond to God’s gift of love and grace in this act. Christ suffered an eternity’s worth of condemnation in those hours so that we will be able to say as Paul says in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Every single person who has ever lived or ever will is enslaved from birth to the power sin. We are born in spiritual death. Therefore, Jesus said, if you want to see the Kingdom of God, you have to be what? BORN AGAIN. He died for our sins so that we could be made alive. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Just as our sins were placed on Christ as He died, so in return we receive from God the righteousness of Jesus. Because He was condemned for us, we can be justified in Him. We are saved by Him because He did not save Himself from this hour of agonizing death. The separation from God that we are born into has been remedied by the cross and all who turn to Him in repentance and faith and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior will never be God-forsaken. Christ was forsaken for us. And therefore, though we were born in spiritual death, we can be made alive in Him if we receive Him on the basis of what He has done for us.

But what if a person never comes to faith in Christ? What will become of him or her? If he or she refuses to accept what Christ has done for them, then that person actually chooses to bear their own sins before God. It is a very simple choice – let Christ bear your sins on the cross, or bear them yourself. But know this, in so doing, one accepts the full penalty of sin. That includes not only physical death, but the spiritual death as well – that eternal separation from God in the outer darkness of hell. What we see Jesus enduring here on the cross is hell. Hell will be eternally filled with the screams of the damned who cry out in their forsaken state from the darkness. And there will be no need to ask on that day, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” The more appropriate question will be, “O man, O woman, why have you forsaken such a great salvation? Why have you turned away from Him who was forsaken for you? Why have you chosen to bear your own sins, when Christ bore them for you so you could be set free and saved?” He screamed the scream of the damned so that you don’t have to.

My pastor, Mark Corts, told me once that he was talking with a man about Jesus one day, and this man kept offering excuse after excuse of why he would not accept Christ. At one point, he said to Dr. Corts, “If Jesus is the only way to be saved, what about the heathen in Africa who has never heard about Jesus?” Dr. Corts replied, “Friend, at this moment, I am more concerned about the heathen in this room who has heard about Him.” How many have heard and walked away in unbelief? I wonder today how many people sit in churches every Sunday and call themselves Christians but have never made the personal decision to accept Christ’s death on the cross for their sins? How many make a habit of church attendance because their family or friends have placed the expectation on them, but have never genuinely been saved? Do you realize what Jesus did when He died on the cross? Do you realize that He did this for you? He was forsaken of God so that you can be accepted by God. He bore your sins and mine so that we don’t have to. O, if you have never trusted Him to save you before, I pray that you would even this very day. See your sin for what it really is, and its penalty in all its terrible horror. Hear the scream of the God-forsaken who cries out in utter darkness, and know that He did it so that you don’t have to. As the writer of Hebrews says, “If … every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:2-3).

And those of us who have received this salvation, how can we keep this news to ourselves? How can we go on knowing the fate of our friends and loved ones, even total strangers here and abroad and not speak up and take action. Can we go on knowing that they will be forsaken of God eternally if they do not trust in Him who was forsaken for them? So, we must pray. We must wear out our knees in prayer asking God to save the lost. And we must testify to them of this truth. I don’t know why God chose to do it this way, but He has only one plan for the lost world to hear and know about Christ; that is for you and I to tell them. That’s plan A; there is no plan B. So let us do just that – let us tell those whom we know and love that there is a Savior who died for their sins, who was forsaken by God, so that they don’t have to be. And let us rejoice in the wonder of this salvation that we have. That God would love us to such a degree that He would become one of us in the person of Christ – God the Son made flesh and dwelling among us, and that He would undergo such horrendous suffering, even becoming forsaken by God the Father—God forsaken of God—that we might hear Him say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Oh the miracle of God’s mercy and His grace. Because Christ was God-forsaken for you, you will never be God-forsaken. Because He screamed the scream of the damned for us, we can sing the song of the redeemed to Him.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Last Temptations of Christ: Mark 15:22-32

Audio available here.

In 1988, a public firestorm erupted over Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the novel The Last Temptation of Christ. The film was criticized by Christians all around the world and is still banned in some countries because of its controversial depiction of Jesus as a man who continually wrestled internally with the struggle of His own desires versus His Father’s will for Him. What the film was right about was that Jesus was fully human and therefore did experience temptation and struggle with His will and His Father’s, as we saw in the prayer in Gethsemane in Mark 14:36. However, the film did not convey that Jesus was also fully divine. Though He had a human nature, it was not a fallen human nature such as we have, wherein our instinctive desires are thoroughly saturated in selfishness, rebellion, and immorality. His human nature was not corrupted by the presence of sin as ours is – He was morally perfect in His thoughts, inclinations, motivations, as well as in His words and deeds. Now, I hate to spoil the plot of a good film, but this was not a good film; and anyway, its over 20 years old, so if you haven’t already seen it you probably won’t and I am not sure you should. So here’s the spoiler (close your ears if you want to). In the Scorsese film, the “last temptation” of Christ is one that involves a sexual union with Mary Magdalene and an escape from the cross, after which He would go on to live a “normal” life. But in reality, the last temptations of Christ struck at a far more intense and deep level than anything to which we as human beings can relate.

We do not need to drag Jesus through the gutter of human depravity in order to understand that He experienced temptation of severe intensity; we only have to go to our Bibles. We have record of these temptations from the time of His baptism until His death on the cross. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 4:15 that He was “tempted in all ways as we are yet without sin.” He met Satan face to face in the wilderness during the 40 days following His baptism and overcame a series of temptations there which pertained to physical desire, personal prestige, power, and wealth. Luke concludes his account of those wilderness temptations by saying “When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.” We are not told specifically if or when that opportune time ever came, but it may be that here in Jesus final hours as He suffered in agony upon the cross, Satan found the opportune time to unleash one last barrage of temptation upon Him.

The soldiers who had tortured and ridiculed Jesus publicly on Pilate’s orders brought him to a place called Golgotha, which Mark translates for us as “The Place of a Skull.” We refer to this place as Calvary, though that name is never found in the Bible. It comes from a Latin rendering of Golgotha, calvus, meaning “scalp,” or “bald head”, akin to the idea of skull. It may have looked like a skull, as the site known today as Gordon’ Calvary in Jerusalem does; or it may have borne this name because it was a place of death. But this place of death has become for us who believe in Christ the place of life. The central tenet of the Christian faith is the Jesus Christ died for the sins of humanity on the cross. The Apostle Paul summarized his entire preaching mission in 1 Cor 2:2 by saying, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” Crucifixion is the most horrendous mode of execution known in human history. It is only out of sheer restraint that Mark gives this momentous event only three words: “They crucified Him.” All those who originally read these words would know of the horror and brutality encapsulated in this brief statement. A mere three hours after Pilate had ordered the execution, Jesus is nailed to His cross where He would die.

Mark tells us that that the charges against Jesus were written, “The King of the Jews.” It was customary for a condemned criminal to have their crimes written on a tablet and hung around their necks or affixed to their cross as they died. The charge against Jesus was meant to mock His claim to be the Messiah, to portray Him as a traitor against the authority of Rome, and to deter others from rebellion. Mark also tells us that Jesus died between two robbers who were crucified with Him on that day. That word robber has a wide range of meaning, but the first century Jewish historian Josephus uses it to describe insurrectionists. This may mean that these two criminals were part of the insurrection mentioned in connection with Barabbas earlier in the chapter. If so, this entire scene may have been a demonstration of Roman power warning everyone to abide by their rule, but we cannot know for sure what crimes they had committed.

There are several interesting parallels to the prophetic 22nd Psalm in this brief passage. That the soldiers gambled for his garments was foreshadowed in Psalm 22:18. The sarcastic shouts to come down from the cross echo the mockery of Psalm 22:8: “Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.” Even the expression “wagging their heads,” finds a precise parallel in Psalm 22:7. There are other parallels with that Psalm found throughout the larger passage of Mark’s treatment of Jesus’ death, including the words spoken by Jesus in v34. It is as if David, who lived 1000 years earlier and never saw a crucifixion in his life, could foresee what His descendant, the Messianic Savior, would endure.

It is interesting to note that Mark devotes more attention to the mockery Jesus endured while He was on the cross than the physical suffering and agony He endured. The verb tenses Mark uses from vv29-32 indicate that the mockery and insults likely went on for some time. He was insulted by those by passing by, by the chief priests and scribes, and even by those who were dying with Him. In addition to the physical anguish of the cross, and underlying all of this verbal abuse, was a spiritual attack orchestrated by Satan himself to bring upon Jesus a final onslaught of temptation. Knowing full well that men will succumb to pressures in the face of death that would not ordinarily ensnare them in the prime of life, Satan found an opportune time to entrap the Son of God and thwart God’s plan of redemption. Let us consider what temptation Jesus endured in these final moments of His earthly life – The Last Temptations of Jesus.

I. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Deaden the Pain (v23)

In Proverbs 31, the words of an ancient king are preserved, sayings which he learned from his mother. His mother had warned him that wine and strong drink are not for kings, but should be offered to those who are perishing. There is a tradition which tells us that there were some women in Jerusalem who, inspired by the model of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, made a habit of offering strong drink as a sort of narcotic to people who were dying in order to deaden their pain. We are not told here who offered Jesus the wine mixed with myrrh, but it unlikely that the soldiers who seemed to enjoy watching their victims suffer would have. It is not improbable then that the drink was offered by compassionate bystanders who wanted to help the victims of crucifixion. Though their intentions were noble, they were unknowingly presenting Jesus with a temptation. If only He could take the drug, the pain and suffering of the cross would be minimized. Perhaps He may even drink so much to just pass out and escape the torture rather than feeling every stroke of agony.

This is a temptation we can relate to. None of us wants to undergo surgery without anesthesia! When you are laying on an operating table, the most wonderful words to hear are, “Take a deep breath and count backwards from ten.” I have had surgery twice in my life, and I don’t think I got past 7 in the countdown. And then you wake up and it is all over. They put a blade you’re your flesh and did all kinds of stuff inside your body, and you didn’t know anything about it. Some of us by personal experience, or through our relationships with others, have seen how tempting it is to mask the pain of life’s hardships with drugs and alcohol. The most desperate circumstances can be endured with something to numb us to the painful realities. The businessman at the end of a stressful day may feel that a stiff drink will make it all better. The down-and-out person on the street may seek to escape for a moment of time in the artificial euphoria of heroin, crack, or crystal meth. But then they sober up and realize that the problems did not go away, and are often intensified. Thus the cycle of an addiction begins and enslaves that person. Some of us have been there, others haven’t. But all of us understand the appeal that a momentary offer of escape presents to us in the midst of suffering. Jesus knows that temptation as well. He faced it on the cross. In the midst of suffering no human being has ever known, Jesus was offered a drug to deaden the pain, but He refused it.

By refusing to take the drink, Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross in a conscious state and refused to immunize Himself against the pain. He would not drift into an intoxicated stupor wherein that pain would be minimized. The pain He experienced on the cross was two fold: He was experiencing the full outpouring of man’s hatred of God and the full outpouring of God’s wrath against sin. The sins of all mankind from the Garden of Eden until today, every sin ever committed by any person, all my sins and all your sins, were placed upon Him and punished with the righteous judgment of God. Here was a surgery being performed that would remove the cancerous tumor of human sin, and Jesus took it without anesthesia. He would remain in full possession of all His faculties of thinking and feeling during the entire ordeal.

If you recall, during the last supper, Jesus shared a cup of wine with His disciples as a symbol of His blood which would seal believers in the New Covenant. This is not the time or place to debate whether it was fermented or not, that’s not important here. What is important is that when He shared that cup, He said, “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And here, when He was offered to drink the fruit of the vine again, He abstained, keeping His promise. He refused to yield to the temptation to deaden the pain.

II. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Demonstrate His Power (29-30)

The people passing by, Mark says, were hurling abuse at Him. It is interesting that the Greek word he uses here is the word from which we get our term blasphemy. It usually means “to speak evil of God.” Though certainly they did not believe they were speaking of God, no one who blasphemes usually does. Usually blasphemy is spoken against a god someone doesn’t believe in, or a notion of God that someone rejects. But they may have been aware that Jesus claimed to be God, and therefore, they were mocking that claim as they ridiculed Him. Notice that they go back to the false accusation that was made against Jesus when He was on trial before the chief priest in 14:58 – “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” This was an elaboration and conflation of two different things Jesus said. He did say that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, but He never said He was going to destroy it. And He said that if “this temple,” meaning His body, were destroyed, He would raise it up again in three days, referring to His resurrection. But those who heard Him either misunderstood or intentionally twisted His words to make Jesus appear to be a terrorist who was intent on destroying the literal temple of Jerusalem. That temple had been nearly 50 years in the making, and still wasn’t finished in Jesus’ day. It was the most impressive and massive structure any of these people had ever seen, and in their minds, no human force could ever destroy it.

Their misunderstanding of Jesus’ words and their ideas about the temple are the foundation of the mockery they hurled at Jesus. “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross.” In other words, we can’t believe that you have the power to destroy the Temple if you can’t even save yourself from the cross!” The chief priests and scribes even joined in this line of thinking, though they were too cowardly to voice their insults aloud – they were mocking Him among themselves, saying, “[Let Him] come down from the cross so that we may see and believe!” Jesus had told them in 14:62, “You shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” But all they saw was a condemned man hanging on a cross. They say to themselves, “We don’t see any power here! Why doesn’t He show us some power so we may believe? If He wants us to believe He’s God, He’s going to have to prove it!”

This goes back to the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 8 where they asked Him for a sign. You recall that Jesus said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And here they are asking for a sign again. Paul will say in 1 Cor 1:22 that it is the customary practice of Jewish people to seek for signs, but Paul says we have only one message for them: Christ crucified. And they find this message to be a stumbling block – an obstacle they cannot overcome by faith to understand.

With this abuse being hurled at Jesus, He is presented with the temptation of demonstrating His power to prove Himself to them. He has endured their rejection and scorn, their unbelief and hatred, throughout His entire earthly ministry. Now here at the end, if He could muster up enough divine power to deliver Himself from the cross, just maybe they will repent and believe. It is an understandable temptation. After all, surely the one who can cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and calm storms can come down from a cross. Satan had presented Jesus with a similar temptation in the wilderness – if He would throw Himself down from the peak of the Temple, He would gain favor in the eyes of all the people. But He refuses here just as He did there. Contrary to popular belief, seeing is not always believing, nor do visible signs always have as much convincing power as think they do. Remember that Pharaoh remained hard of heart after the plagues on Egypt, and his pseudo-magicians were even able to perform signs of their own! Rather, it seems that believing often is prerequisite to seeing. Matthew 13:58 says that Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown of Nazareth “because of their unbelief.” These people have access to the Word of God, and if they would believe has been written, they would see Jesus for who He is. But their constant clamoring for signs demonstrates their hard-hearted unbelief. Jesus has refused to give them signs before, and He refuses to still in the face of His last temptations. He has told them to only expect one sign – the sign of Jonah the prophet, who was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three night; so would Jesus be three days and night in the heart of the earth before rising again. But even then, in the wake of such an unprecedented miracle, do these believe? Very few do. The chief priests and Pharisees in fact begin to concoct a story about the disciples stealing the body. So we see here that in the hours of His death, Jesus overcame the temptation to demonstrate His power.

III. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Disrupt His Father’s Plan (vv31-32)

We have already made mention of the mocking words of the religious leaders in vv31-32. “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross!” It is the most understandable thing in all the world to think of saving oneself. It is our most natural instinct to any potential threat. Jesus has already wrestled with this temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prayed that the Father would let this cup pass from Him – the cup of suffering and death for sin. Nevertheless, in the Garden He prayed, “Not what I will, but what You will.” He committed Himself to the Father’s plan. The Father’s plan was that Jesus would be the substitute for sinful man and die to redeem humanity. And though the religious leaders intended their words as a mockery, underlying them was a Satanic temptation that sought to persuade Jesus to abandon the Father’s will, come down from the cross and save Himself.

Satan has a vested interest in the outcome. If Jesus doesn’t die for sin, then mankind remains in the grip of Satan’s power helpless and hopeless of ever being reconciled to God. So with these mocking voices comes a bombardment of demonic pressure upon the Lord to save Himself and let humanity perish forever with Satan in hell. But Jesus has not come to save Himself, but to save sinners! He has saved others, yes, in the sense of healing their diseases and demonic oppression, but the salvation of those individuals from their sins will not be accomplished if He doesn’t die on the cross. In fact, all the promises of forgiveness and redemption given to the Old Testament saints of God looked forward in anticipation to this event. And the salvation of every person since then looks back on the completed work of Christ on the cross. The fact is that unless He refuses to save Himself here, Jesus cannot save others. And as for seeing and believing, a Christ who comes down from the cross is no Christ to believe in, for only by remaining on the cross does He become the Redeemer to whom we look by faith to save us. Thus, the mission of God would be disrupted if He came down from the cross. And thanks be to God! He did not yield to this temptation. Because of His death and resurrection, Satan is defeated fully and finally, and His grip on humanity through sin is broken.

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” for “the joy that was set before Him.” The joy of fulfilling the Father’s mission and reconciling sinful people like me and you to God held Him on the cross when it was well within His power to save Himself. But by resisting the last temptations that were heaved upon Him, Jesus gave His life to save ours. He refused to deaden the pain; refused to demonstrate His power; and refused to disrupt His Father’s plan. Therefore, we are able to turn from sin and trust in what He has done for us to save us. He died for our sins and is risen from the grave so that all who believe upon Him may be forgiven and set free, given the gift of eternal life in Heaven. Consider, friends, what great love God has demonstrated for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Have you come to Him in repentance and faith? Have you received this gift of His love? If not, why turn away from such an indescribable offer? This very day, you can call out to Him and receive Him as Lord and Savior and receive the salvation and eternal life that He died and rose again to give you. My prayer today is that all who have never received Him would do so in light of what He has done for us. And my prayer for those of us who have received Him would ponder anew His infinite love for us. And may the example of Jesus in the face of such intense temptation strengthen us to withstand those which come our way as well. May we face life’s hardships soberly, consider the needs of others over our own, and trust in the power of God’s Word to change the lives of those we know as we share this message with them.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Serving the Servant: Mark 15:16-21

Audio available here, but the introduction to the sermon is missing from the recording.

By nature, we tend to be action oriented people. We tend to measure ourselves and others by what we do. If I asked you, “Who is Tiger Woods?” you would likely say, “He is a golfer.” If I said, “Who is Barack Obama?” you would say, “The President.” If I said, “Who am I?” you may say, “a preacher.” Of course there are a number of other things that you may likely say about who I am that you will hopefully keep to yourself at this point. If I said, “Who are you?” you may say, “I am a salesman, a cook, a teacher, a custodian, a nurse,” etc., defining yourself by what you do. It is not surprising that when we talk of spiritual things with those we know, the conversation often turns quickly to what we do. A few days I ago, I had a chat out here on the sidewalk with a man about heaven. I asked him, “Do you think you will go to heaven when you die?” He said he believed he would, and I asked, “How do you know?” He answered by talking about what he has and has not done: “I have tried to be a good person, I have never done anything really bad.” Of course, those of us who have come to an understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ understand that heaven is not a reward for the things we have done, but a free gift of God’s grace made possible by what Christ has done for us in dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead. But this mentality of “doing” is often found within the church as well. People often evaluate themselves spiritually in terms of what they do – he is a deacon, she is a Sunday School teacher, he is a choir member, she is on such-and-such a committee. Some are all of the above. And if we aren’t careful, we will begin to view our relationship with God as something we have done rather than something Christ has done for us. We strive to do more and more in hopes of making ourselves more pleasing to God. The fact is that there is one thing that is ultimately pleasing to God: His Son. Remember the words of the Father spoken over the Son at His baptism: “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Christ is pleasing to God, and His pleasure extends to those who are in Christ, not as a result of what they have done, but because of what Christ has done for them. And while we are each called to serve Him, our service is a worshipful response of gratitude for God’s grace rather than an effort to gain God’s favor. God is far more interested in us being transformed into a worshiping people than a working people, and if our work does not overflow from our worship, then it is meaningless.

The prophet Isaiah presents the most vivid pictures of the Messiah of all the books of the Old Testament. Repeatedly the prophet spoke of the one who was to come as the Servant of the Lord. In Isaiah 42:1, God speaks of the Messiah saying, “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.” It is this Servant who will restore Israel and be a light to the nations. This Servant will suffer for the sins of humanity and be exalted to His rightful position of glory. Jesus demonstrated Himself to be this long awaited Servant-Savior in His words and deeds, defining His mission in Mark 10:45 by saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Even in this very statement, Jesus speaks of the priority of what He will do for humanity over what humanity can do for Him.

In the passage before us today, we see Jesus the Servant fulfilling the purpose for which He came. We see Him serving humanity as the sin-bearer. And we also get a brief glimpse of one who served the Servant, a man named Simon of Cyrene. And by looking at these two, Jesus and Simon, we understand better what He has done for us, and what we may do for Him.
I. What Jesus did for us (vv16-20)

Three times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has clearly told His disciples what to expect when they reach Jerusalem. In Mk 8:31-32, Jesus told them plainly that He must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. In Mk 9:31, He told them that He would be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later. In Mk 10:33-34, He spells out in the most detail what will take place: “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.” In the passage we are reading today and the one immediately prior to this one, we find an exact fulfillment of these words about His suffering. He is delivered to the chief priests and scribes in Mk 14:43-53; condemned to death in 14:64; handed over to the Gentiles in 15:1; scourged in 15:15; mocked in 15:17-20; spit upon in 15:19; and led out to His death in 15:20.

Now let’s suppose I said to you, “If you go to Winston-Salem, they are going to apprehend you, mock you, beat you, and kill you.” If you trusted what I said to you, would you go to Winston-Salem? I dare say none of us would go. Of course, I could be wrong – I am only human, I’ve been mistaken before. Not often, you know, but occasionally. But when it comes to Jesus, He has absolutely perfect foreknowledge of what will take place in Jerusalem, but He goes there anyway. And so we ask, “Why would He go there knowing this would happen?” The answer is that this was all part of His purpose in serving humanity. All that Jesus endured, He endured for us. This is the most extreme demonstration of God’s love for us – that Christ would willingly endure the suffering and shame of the cross and the events leading up to it, that we might be saved.

Two words in this text summarize what Jesus went through for you and for me: Mocked and Crucified. These two words express the hatred and humiliation, the suffering and shame that was placed upon Him as He bore our sins. Verse 15 tells us that He was scourged. In scourging, a person was tied to a post and whipped with straps of leather embedded with bits of metal, stone and broken glass. As the whip met the flesh, those pieces would grab hold of the skin and literally rip it off. Ancient witnesses of scourging describe how often the victim’s bones and entrails would be exposed in this act which was so horrific that women were not allowed to watch it. Following this, the rightful King of all Kings was treated to a mock-coronation in which a purple robe, the color of royalty, was hung about His shoulders, and He was crowned with thorns. He who will one day be crowned with many crowns was crowned with a twisted wreath of sharp thorns that would puncture His brow. Deeper and deeper those thorns would sink into His flesh as He was beaten on the head with a reed. The soldiers made sport of Him, bowing before Him repeatedly and saying, “Hail, King of the Jews.” And when it was all over, they ripped the bloody robe from His back and took Him out to kill Him. This was the Romans’ way of saying, “We’ll show you what we think of a Jew who claims to be King.”

Here stands the bloody Christ, who brought the world into existence by the Word of His power, who spoke and cast out demons and calmed seas, who touched the sick and their illnesses were instantly healed. With one divine word or one act of His will, this entire charade would have been brought to a halt. But He endured it, being shamed publicly; bearing the shame that we deserve. And He was led away to the Cross where in His death, God would channel all the wrath He had stored up against the sins of humanity upon His Son. Jesus underwent all of this, which He did not deserve, that we who deserve to bear the wrath and shame of sin might be forgiven and saved.

From the foundation of the world, God had decreed one ultimate solution for the sins of mankind. He would take upon Himself human flesh in the person of Jesus and suffer in our place. Every sacrifice of the Old Testament was like a credit-card payment, promising the future payment in full of the price of redemption. And in Jesus, that price was paid. Today, there are many who want to believe that there are many ways for humans to be saved, to be made right with God, to spend eternity in Heaven. Friends, if this is true, then explain what we have read here. If there are many ways to Heaven, why would God take all the wrath upon Himself? Why would the Son endure such suffering and shame, if there was another way to accomplish the redemption of mankind from sin? In Romans 3:26 Paul said that God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. He is just, for in the cross of Christ the fullness of God’s wrath against sin is satisfied with the righteous Savior suffering as our substitute for the penalty of all sin: past, present and future. And He is the justifier of those who have faith in Christ, for in the cross, the fullness of God’s love is extended in the offer of forgiveness and eternal life.

Jesus is the Servant. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: namely, save us from our sins. He did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. So when we stand before God, the issue is not what we have done for Him, but rather, whether or not we have received what God has done for us in Christ. He suffered and died for us as a servant to meet our greatest need – the need of deliverance from sin. Nothing you or I do for Him can add any merit to this. God is pleased with the Son, and His pleasure extends to all who are in Him by faith.

The cornerstone passage of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is Ephesians 2:8-9. There we read, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” From these two verses, it is evident that our works do not add to our salvation. But does this passage entitle us to spiritual laziness? Since we do not earn our salvation by our service, are there no works for the follower of Christ to do? It is often overlooked that the very next verse of this important passage, Ephesians 2:10, says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” So there are good works that God intends for us to do. We have been saved, not by good works, but for good works that God has prepared for us in advance to do. And in Hebrews 9:14 we are told that the blood of Christ cleanses our consciences from dead works in order that we may serve the Living God. Once we have received by faith what Christ has done for us, we begin to serve Him in gladness out of the overflow of a grateful and worshipful heart. And in the person of Simon of Cyrene in v21, we see a glimpse of …

II. What we may do for Jesus (v21)

Simon, we are told, was from Cyrene. This was a city on the North coast of Africa in modern-day Libya which was home to many Jewish people. We do not know if Simon was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover or if he lived in Jerusalem. Acts 6:9 speaks of a Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem, indicating that many Jews from Cyrene must have migrated back there at some point. But Simon was just a “passer-by,” coming into the city from being out in the countryside, completely uninvolved in the activities of the day.

Like most crucifixion victims, Jesus would have been expected to carry the horizontal beam (or patibulum) to the place of crucifixion where it would be attached to the vertical upright (or staticulum) of the cross. Plutarch wrote that “every criminal condemned to death bears his cross on his back.” In light of the horrendous torture that Jesus had already endured, perhaps the Roman soldiers feared that He would die before reaching Golgotha, that skull-shaped hill we call Calvary where they would crucify Him. Not wanting to be deprived of the pleasure of watching Him die there, they “pressed” Simon into service and compelled him to bear the cross of Jesus. For the soldiers, he was a good a pick as any, a person of convenience over whom they could exercise their authority. For Simon, it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there are no accidents or coincidences in the outworking of God’s will. Simon, quite unknowingly and unwillingly, became a servant of the Servant as he bore the cross to Calvary. And in the providence of God, Simon becomes for us a living example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In Mk 8:34, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Here Simon does literally what all followers of Christ must do spiritually. We serve Him by becoming His disciple, and being His disciple involves bearing the cross. The mission of Jesus involves Him dying on that cross at Golgotha, and Simon is an agent whom God uses to further that mission. For all Simon knew, the cross he carried may well become his own once he reaches the destination. And all those in the first century who heard and read Jesus’ words to take up the cross knew what bearing a cross meant. When you saw someone carrying a cross, you knew they were off to be killed. Yet unlike the condemned criminal who was forced to carry his own cross, or Simon who was compelled to carry the cross of another, Jesus bids us to take it up voluntarily as we follow Him. We see His death on the cross for our sins, and hear Him say, “Now its your turn to take up the cross.” And out of love and loyalty to Him, we take up the cross and say that we will accept betrayal, rejection, beating, mockery, death, and even death on a cross if living for Him should require it. It is as Bonhoeffer said in the early 20th Century before his own martyrdom, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Die to the self, that Christ may live through you. This is what it means to be His disciple. And in Simon we find the answer to the question, “What may we do to serve this Servant Savior, Jesus?” We are to make whatever sacrifice is necessary, endure whatever hardships befall us, in our radical obedience to Christ, following Him in all our life’s journeys. To be a disciple is to be a learner. And we learn from Jesus that the life of faith is not always an easy one, but it is one we can live out, and one in which we may persevere if we will trust in Him.

But then there is also something else we learn from Simon. There are some words which the translators of the NASB have placed in parentheses to describe Simon which show us even more how we may serve the Servant. Notice that Simon is described as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Who in the world are Alexander and Rufus? Matthew doesn’t mention them, nor does Mark or John. But remember that Mark is writing for Christians in Rome, and it seems that those Christians must have known Rufus and Alexander. Otherwise, it makes no sense for Mark to include this reference to them. In fact, though we do not find mention of this particular person named Alexander again in the New Testament, we do find an interesting mention of someone named Rufus. In the closing words of Paul’s epistle to Romans, the same group of people for whom Mark was writing, he writes “Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” Now, this tells me that it is very likely that Simon of Cyrene came to a place where he understood the events he saw and participated in that day and, like the Centurion of whom we will read about later in this chapter, eventually recognized that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” From Paul’s words in Romans, we may also assume that he shared this truth with his wife and his sons, and they became well known and respected members of the church in Rome. And Paul refers to Rufus’ mother, Simon of Cyrene’s wife, affectionately as his own mother as well. This likely means that she had some godly, nurturing influence on his life at some point. The Apostle Paul’s influence and testimony continues to shape the church to this day, but along the way God used this precious lady to shape him as he began to follow Jesus.

By the grace of God, I have had the opportunity to preach and see souls saved on three continents, to pastor three churches, and be used by God in ways I could have never imagined. But along the way, God has used others to nurture me spiritually and prepare me for these things. I came to Christ under the influence of my Christian friend Nate Veach. For a couple of years, I spent more time at his house than my own. And his mother Judy would not only feed me at her kitchen table, but she taught me the Scriptures there as well. As I watched her and her husband live Christ-centered lives, God used their influence to shape me. She became my spiritual mother, nurturing me through my baby steps of Christian faith, being used of God to make me what I am today. And therefore, she participates indirectly in everything worthwhile I have ever done for the Kingdom of God. There are people in the bush of Africa and the concrete jungles of Eastern Europe who are saved today because of Judy, and she’s never even been there. She didn’t share Christ with those people, but she shared Him with me, and I shared Him with them.

Simon of Cyrene teaches us that when we receive what Christ has done for us, we can serve Him by sharing His saving Gospel with others. We never know that the person we meet on the street, the person who lives next door, the person in the cubicle behind ours, or the waitress in the restaurant may not become the next Apostle Paul or perhaps even the spiritual mother for the next one.

So, in closing, we must always keep this truth before us: The most important thing in life is not what we can do for Christ but what Christ has done for us. He is the Servant Savior, who bore our sins so that we can be saved. And that salvation is offered to us as a free gift of God’s grace, purchased by the blood of Jesus’ cross. It is received by faith, trusting in Him alone to save us, and not by any works that we do. And once we have received this gift, this saving power of Christ, into our lives, what we do for Him is a response of worshipful and grateful obedience. We can serve the Servant by becoming His cross-bearing disciples, enabled by His Spirit to endure hardship and sacrifice as we live for Him, and we become His witness, sharing this message of salvation with others that they may come to know Him as well.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Mark 15:1-15 -- The Silent Sacrifice of the King

Listen or download here.

A few weeks ago, none of us had ever heard of Chesley Sullenberger. Yet, for a few days in January, the media attention that had been focused on preparations for the most historic presidential inauguration in our nation’s brief history was momentarily eclipsed by the heroic actions of this man called “Sully.” When both engines went out on the Airbus jet he was piloting, Sully directed the powerless plane over the Hudson River and brought it safely down, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and an unthinkable number of bystanders who would have surely perished if the plane had crashed into New York City. In the midst of circumstances that would have produced understandable panic in the most courageous of humans, Sully’s words on the cockpit recorder was described an investigator as "a very calm, collected exercise, … It was very matter of fact." Ninety seconds before bringing the plane down into the Hudson, Sully calmly spoke three words to the people on board: “Brace for impact.” Sully stepped out of the slowly sinking aircraft only after walking through twice to make sure that all of his passengers and crew had escaped safely. Sully’s calm confidence under intense pressure and his selfless concern for others instantly elevated him to the status of hero in the eyes of the nation. The image of all those people standing on the wings of the plane in the freezing water will be etched in our minds for a long time. It is one of the ironies we find bearing out time and time again. While the actions of obnoxious and boisterous people occasionally make headlines, more often the quietly confident actions of self-sacrificing individuals make history.

As we turn our thoughts to the passage before us today, we find Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate. In the last chapter we saw how the ruling council of Israel had seized Him in cooperation with Judas and condemned Him to death on the charge of blasphemy when He acknowledged that He was the Christ, the Son of God. However, the Jewish people were under the dominion of Rome, and though they were permitted many freedoms they were not allowed to perform capital punishment. Therefore, it was imperative to have the Roman governor pass the death sentence in this case. And in our passage today, Jesus stands trial yet again on false charges that carry serious consequences. While many of us would insist on a lawyer and character witnesses and long speeches of self-defense to escape from these charges, we find Jesus standing silently before them. And when the sentence is passed and He is wrongly condemned while a guilty man goes free, He does not appeal the verdict or protest, but is led off in silence to die in the place of a rebellious murderer. We see here the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7, a prophecy spoken about the Messiah some 700 years before Jesus was born, which says, “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.” Three times in this passage, and six times in the larger context, Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews, yet here He does not ascend to a throne. He descends to a cross. It is the silent sacrifice of the King. Both His silence and the sacrificial nature of His death are significant in our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.

I. The Silence of Jesus Reflects the Son’s Confidence in the Father (v1-5)

Pilate was appointed in AD 26 by the Emperor Tiberius as the fifth governor or “prefect” in Judea. He held that post until AD 37, the longest tenure of the 14 Roman governors. Though he was not overly corrupt compared to many political figures of his day were, he was described by the ancient historians Philo and Josephus as a cruel and stubborn man. Whenever there was a special occasion in Jerusalem, he was required to be present to put a quick stop to any potential uprising and make public examples of any who would threaten the security and authority of Rome. He was a politician in the truest sense of the word, having to stand for the powers over him while keeping the peace among the subjects under him.

“Early in the morning” on Friday of Passover week, Jesus was brought bound into Pilate’s presence by the authorities of Israel – the Chief Priests, scribes and elders and the whole ruling council, some 71 highly respected figures in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire was not one that believed in a separation of religion and politics; the two were inseparable. The Emperor was hailed as a god, and his worship was demanded across the empire. But the Jews were exempted from emperor worship, and therefore, the government tended to stay out of their religious squabbles. He knew that the Jewish leaders were bringing a petty case before him, as v10 indicates: “He was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy.” But a person claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God would certainly demand their attention. By this time in Israel’s history the Jewish concept of Messiah was closely related to the idea of a perfect and powerful King who would overthrow all oppression and liberate the Jewish people. In this sense, Christ’s claim to be Messiah could be interpreted by Rome as an act of high treason. His claim to be the Son of God presented Him as a rival to the Emperor. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He was hoping to hear a confession from Jesus that would put the matter to rest one way or another. If Jesus said, “No,” then Pilate could dismiss the case altogether. If He said, “Yes,” then Pilate could just kill Him and be done with it.

But notice that Jesus did not give Pilate a “yes or no” answer. This is hard for us to see in our English Bibles, for the translators have tried to help us by adding a few words into his answer. In the NASB, this can be seen by the italicized words in verse 2. When we see words in italics in our Bibles, it is a clue to the reader that the translator has added these words, feeling them to be necessary to our understanding of the passage. Sometimes, unintentionally, those italics actually subtly blur the meaning of the text, as they do here. When I find words in italics, I read them, and then I go back and read the text leaving out the italicized words. Usually, the passage makes just as much sense, and is more faithful to the original without them. The NIV adds the word “Yes,” but not in italics. There is no equivalent to that word in the Greek text. The KJV, in spite of its antiquated English, is perhaps most accurate here, in rendering Jesus’ response, “Thou sayest it.” In John 18:34-37 we find more details about the conversation. There, when asked if He is the King of the Jews, we read that Jesus said, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” And when the question is pressed further, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” When Pilate said to Him, “So you are a king?,” Jesus said, “You say … that I am a king.” In other words, Jesus is putting the ball back into Pilate’s court for him to decide who Jesus is. That is the sense of the response we find in Mark 15:2. We may understand His words as, “You say so yourself.” It is as if He says to Pilate, “What do you really think?” It is a way of saying, “Yes I am a king,” while at the same time saying, “No, not in the way you imagine.” His kingdom is not of this world. John’s Gospel indicates that Pilate must have been been convinced by Jesus’ answer that He posed no threat to Roman authority, for John says that after this interchange, Pilate faced the people and said, “I find no guilt in Him.”

At this point, the accusations become more intense. From Mark 14, we may infer that they charged Him with plotting to destroy the temple. In Luke 23, we learn that they were also accusing Him of misleading the nation, forbidding Jewish people from paying taxes to Caesar (a bold-faced lie), and stirring up trouble all over the land by His teaching. When Pilate again turns to Jesus to find out what He has to say for Himself in light of these charges, Mark tells us in 15:5, “Jesus made no further answer.” In fact, at least in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks no more to any human being. Upon the cross, He will speak to His Father God, but He has nothing more to say to man. His last words to man are somewhat akin to His question in Mk 8:29, “Who do you say that I am?” From that point on, He is silent. And His silence, we are told, amazed Pilate.

In the face of so many harsh accusations, how could Jesus stand in silence and not defend Himself? Was this a silence of fear or ignorance? Was it a precursor to our Fifth Amendment rights that exempt us from self-incrimination? No, I propose to you that His silence was a silence of confidence. Jesus understands that Pilate has authority in this trial, but He also knows that Pilate’s authority is limited. All of us have some measure of authority in life, and all of us are under authority. The people are under the authority of the Council, and the Council is under the authority of Pilate. To some measure, as we see here in the passage, Pilate’s authority can even be swayed by the people leaving us to wonder who is really in charge here. The answer to that question is simple. Ultimately, God’s authority supersedes all other authorities. Paul says in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” God is the ultimate authority in all matters, giving authority to whomever He chooses and holding them accountable for the exercise of that authority. And so while we may assume that Jesus’ life and death are in the hands of the Council, or in the hands of the people, or in the hands of Pilate, Jesus knows full well that ultimately His life and death are in the hands of His Father God. In John 19, we find that Pilate confronts Jesus about His silence saying, “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify you?” But Jesus said to him, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been give you from above.”

Because Jesus knew the Father was in full control, He could place His confidence in Him. No decision made by Pilate, the Council or the crowd could undermine the authority of God over the situation. Therefore Jesus did not need to defend Himself with words or actions. He could entrust Himself to His Father, and let God’s sovereign authority be His only defense. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty means that God is in ultimate control of all things, even when we cannot understand His purposes or ways. Those who have come to Christ by faith have been adopted into God’s family, and He has become the Father to all who believe. When we know Him as our Father, then we can know that we are loved by One whom we can trust even in the most difficult circumstances. Nothing that comes our way takes Him by surprise, and nothing is outside of His control. That’s a comfortable pillow for us to lay our heads on. When it seems the world is out to get us, when it seems like nothing is going right, when circumstances are frustrating and disturbing, and even when we seem to be staring death directly in the teeth, we need not panic or lose faith. Like the only begotten Son, the adopted sons and daughters of God can face these matters in the quiet confidence that comes from absolute trust in God’s ultimate authority. Though He may allow us to go through some dark and difficult days, and though He never promises comfort, luxury or even survival in this world, He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. Though the saying has become cliché, it bears repeating: We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future, and our trust is in Him. As we faithfully endure the difficulties of life in this fallen world with all its hardships, those around us will see the quiet confidence we place in our Father, and like Pilate, they will be amazed. The silence of Jesus teaches us that. We see in His silence the Son’s confidence in the Father.

II. The Sacrifice of Jesus Demonstrates the Father’s Plan for the Son (vv6-15)

Let there be no mistake about it – Jesus was innocent of every charge brought against Him and entirely undeserving of a death sentence. Even Pilate recognized this. Though Pilate’s confidence in Jesus’ innocence is more clearly stated in the other Gospels, even in Mark we can see him nearly pleading with the people to let Jesus off. Criminally, Jesus had done no wrong. Even more than this, we can say on the authority of God’s word that He had done no wrong morally. In His divine nature, He could not sin. The Bible says of the Lord Jesus that He knew no sin, and that He was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. The scriptures say that the wages of sin is death. Having committed no sin, Jesus was entirely undeserving of death.

Let there be no mistake about another matter – Barabbas was a guilty man. We know nothing about Barabbas outside of what Scripture tells us, but what Scripture tells us is enough. He was “imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.” We have no information about this incident apart from what is said here, but it is enough to demonstrate that Barabbas was a rebellious murderer. Both of these crimes were understandably punishable by death. Even in our own nation with all of its modern civility, treason and murder are punishable by death. There is a subtle irony in this man Barabbas. His name means “son of the father.” Compare this to Jesus, who is the true Son of the Father. So in these verses we have Barabbas, a guilty son of the father, and Jesus, an innocent Son of the Father.

We are told that the people pressed Pilate to uphold a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. Pilate asked in v9, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” But the priests had incited the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead. This should not come as a surprise. After all, Barabbas was more the kind of person they were looking for than Jesus. At least he was willing to overthrow Rome. What is surprising is that Pilate would agree to it. He’s already deemed Jesus to be no threat to Rome, but Barabbas has already been convicted of an attempted coup! As for Jesus, the bloodthirsty cry of the near-rioutous mob cries out, “Crucify Him!” Even though Pilate initially protests, he ultimately concedes, “wishing to satisfy the crowd.” What is going on here? Why would Pilate grant such a radical request? Why would the people make such an inexplicable demand? The underlying reason is that God was demonstrating through these events His ultimate purpose in sending His Son into the world. As Peter declared in his Pentecost sermon: “This Man, delivered over to you by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to across by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” Though men are having their way with Jesus, their way is still under God’s predetermined plan. And in the substitution of Jesus for Barabbas, we have a perfect demonstration of that plan.

You see, there isn’t a person in this room who is any better than Barabbas. The Bible says that all of us have sinned. We are sinners by nature and by choice, born in a state of rebellion and inclined to disobey God from the womb. Just as Barabbas is guilty of treason against Rome’s authority, the rest of us are guilty of treason against God’s authority. And the Bible also tells us in James 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That means that in God’s eyes there are no degrees to sin. Sin is sin. Jesus explained this in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He also said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt 5:21-22). We may think, “Well, I’ve done some bad things, you know, but I never killed anybody before.” Don’t be so sure. Jesus would have us to examine our lives and ask, “Have I ever been angry with another person? Have I ever hurled insults at another? Have I ever condemned another person?” These, He says, are of equal severity in God’s eyes with murder. Welcome to Murderers Anonymous. My name is Russ, and I am a serial killer.

The Gospel of Jesus is Good News. You say, “Doesn’t sound like good news, you said we’re all rebellious murderers.” Ah, but there is good news for rebellious murderers. Jesus came to be your substitute, your sacrifice. Death is for sinners! Though He didn’t deserve it, Jesus took Barabbas’ place in death, and He has taken our place in death, that we may go free. Our sins are placed upon Him and He receives our penalty for us, that we may be pardoned and liberated, set free from sin and death and hell. He receives scourging and the cross. We receive abundant life now, and eternal life forever, if we turn from our sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Paul said it this way in Romans 5:8 – “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21, he says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

This is grace. This is love. This is mercy shown to us by God in Christ. And so the question of Pilate becomes the question of us all: “What shall I do with Jesus?” And the answer is that we should turn from our sins and trust Him who died to save us. The day will come for every person when we stand, not before an earthly authority such as Pilate, but before the ultimate authority of God. And in that day, if the question were to be asked, “Why should you enter heaven?” what would we say? Would we say, “Well, I’m a pretty good fellow. Never killed anyone, never done any really bad stuff?” God forbid that we should boast in such a way before Him. On that day, if that question were asked, the only response the could possibly be uttered is to say, “I don’t deserve heaven. I deserve death and hell because of my sins. But I believe that Jesus took my penalty, paid my death, and served my sentence for me. I trust in Him alone to SAVE me.” We say with Paul the words of 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” The only thing we can boast of is the Cross of Jesus on which He died to save rebellious murderers like Barabbas, and me, and you. He is the true King. Make Him King in your life today, if you never have before.