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.

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