Monday, March 30, 2009

The Death of Jesus--Mk 15:42-16:1

Audio available here.

Allow me to begin today by reading you the opening lines of one of my favorite stories:

MARLEY was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker,and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to
regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands
shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

And of course we all know how that story unfolds from there on. These are the opening words of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, that beloved tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to be. But Dickens makes it clear from the very opening lines that none of this wonderful story can make any sense unless we know up front that Jacob Marley was in fact dead. Now, I know some of you think I am confused all the time, but others of you are especially concerned now. You think instead of setting my clock forward an hour a few weeks ago, I must have set my calendar back three or four months. After all, in just a couple of weeks, Easter will be here. So why am I telling you a Christmas story here on the last Sunday in March?

It is because over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about the fact that Jesus is alive today, having risen from the dead. And that makes no sense whatsoever unless we wrestle first with the reality that He was dead. Before we can tell the resurrection story, we must get this part down pat: Jesus Christ was dead. As Dickens would say, “Dead as a doornail.”

Now, you and I sitting here know that and we would think it is foolish to even spend time discussing the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross. After all, who doesn’t believe that, right? Well, actually, you may be surprised to know that a large percentage of the world’s population does not believe it. First of all, there are the over 3.5 billion people in the world who have never heard it. Over half of the world’s population lives among people groups with little or no access to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. They are lost, they have no hope of eternal life, and one of them dies every second. They have never heard about His life, His birth, His death, or His resurrection, and yet somehow we are content to pat ourselves on the back about what a good job we are doing having church here in America. It is our task to take the message of Jesus to them.

But in addition to those who have never heard, there are many who have heard, and yet do not believe. Now, we don’t find many who are unwilling to believe that a man named Jesus lived in Israel a long time ago and that He was a good teacher and a good man. Most people believe that. But, there are a number of people who do not believe that He died on the cross of Calvary. And, I am not talking about those who refuse to believe that He died for their sins, but rather those who do not believe that He died at all on that cross. Who might these be? First, there are a small group of people who believe that the explanation for the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning was because He didn’t die on the cross. Rather, He merely swooned or fainted, passing out from a loss of blood and physical exhaustion. Once He was placed in the cool damp confines of the rock-hewn tomb, He gathered His strength and walked out of the tomb, giving the impression that He had risen from the dead, when in fact He never had actually died.

A slight twist on this theory was set forth forty years ago by Hugh Schonfield in the popular book The Passover Plot. According to Schonfield, Jesus sought to manipulate people into believing that He was the Messiah, and committed all the Old Testament prophecies to memory and began to carry them out one by one. He even arranged His own death on the cross by having a prearranged person give Him poison to drink that would make Him appear to be dead. Then He could be secretly nursed back to health after being placed in the tomb. Now, neither the swoon theory nor the so-called Passover Plot stand up under careful scrutiny, therefore they have not been widely influential since the middle of the 1800s. However, these theories refuse to go away for good. The very popular book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln proposed that Pilate was bribed to allow Jesus to be taken off the cross before He died. That book was one of the influences that led to the writing of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and Michael Baigent himself even revisited the subject in 2006 in his book The Jesus Papers. So it appears that no matter how many times the church responds to the old swoon hypothesis, it isn’t going away, and so there will always be a small number of these who believe that Jesus didn’t die in the way Christians claim He did.

But then there is a larger group, over 1.5 billion strong who deny the death of Jesus upon the cross. These are the followers of Islam. Based on a certain passage in the Quran, orthodox Muslims have traditionally believed that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather that God transformed someone else to look like Jesus and that person was put to death in Jesus’ place. They believe that Jesus was taken up alive into heaven without dying. And many believe that Jesus is coming again to kill the Antichrist in the last days, to kill all pigs, to break the cross, destroy all synagogues and churches, establish the religion of Islam as the one faith of the world, and will die after 40 years and be buried beside of Muhammad. While there is much variation among Muslims about the death, return and future purposes of Jesus, it is nearly universally denied that Jesus died on the cross. Their reason for denying this is because in their view, if Jesus was one of the greatest prophets, then surely God could not have allowed Him to be treated like this.
So, 3.8 billion people in the world have not heard that Jesus came and lived and died. Nearly 1.8 billion people in the world are followers of Islam and reject the notion that Jesus died at all. And a small handful believes that He merely passed out on the cross. In contrast to these groups, the death of Jesus has been a foundational tenet of the Christian church since its birth. So central is this to the Christian faith that Paul said to the Corinthians that he had determined to know nothing while he was among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He said that the Jews keep on seeking signs and the Greeks keep on seeking wisdom, but we keep on preaching Christ crucified. And so in our day we must make it clear to all that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, lived a life of perfect righteousness and DIED. How else can we rejoice in His resurrected glory?
Looking into the text, I want to just draw a couple of points out about the death of Jesus in the time we have remaining. First …
I. Jesus’ death was affirmed by unbiased parties (v42-45)
Joseph of Arimathea had been a secret disciple of Jesus until this moment when he gathered up courage to go in and ask Pilate for the body. But you must realize that Pilate did not expect Jesus to be dead by this point. Jesus had only been on the cross about nine hours. He did not expect that already there would be someone asking for the body, and so he “wondered” if He was dead by this time (v44). The Greek word used here does not carry the sense of “wonder” like we would use to describe general curiosity. Rather this is a word that means “amazement.” Pilate was amazed that Jesus was already dead! Normally, a crucified person would languish for a few days before dying. The death was slow and excruciating, eventually coming as a result of massive blood loss and suffocation. As the body grew weaker the victim was increasingly unable to draw in a breath. In order to accelerate this when necessary, such as here on the eve of the Sabbath, the soldiers would break the legs of the victims so that they could not push themselves up to inhale.
The soldiers were the ones who were in the best position to know if the crucified individuals were dead or not. So Pilate called for the centurion to ask him if Jesus had died. Remember that in verse 39, this centurion is described as standing right in front of Him, and it is said of him that he saw the way Jesus had breathed His last. And he had also been present, and may have given the orders for the breaking of the legs that John describes. John tells us that the soldiers came around to break the men’s legs, but when the came to Jesus they saw that He was already dead, so they didn’t break His. Thus, a prophecy was fulfilled that had stated that none of His bones would be broken. But one of these soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. John said that “immediately blood and water came out.” It is generally agreed that this “water” is the fluid that fills the pericardial sac surrounding the heart. As I understand it, trauma, illness or serious injury can cause what is called pericardial effusion, which is an excessive accumulation of this fluid around the heart. This means that Jesus’ heart was punctured by this spear. The centurion would have witnessed this. He knew that Jesus was dead. In fact, of the records we have today of thousands of people crucified under the Romans, we have no record of ANYONE ever surviving the ordeal.
The centurion’s word is sufficiently trustworthy for Pilate to grant the body to Joseph. And the Greek word for body in v45 is not the usual word for body, and not the one used in v43. The usual Greek word for body is soma, from which we get the word somatic, as in psycho-somatic (when a person’s mental state causes physical effects in their body). But this word is not soma but ptoma, a word that means exclusively “corpse.” If it was just a matter of taking Joseph’s word for it, I am not sure his testimony alone would be enough to convince someone that Jesus was dead at this point. After all, he is an interested party – a secret disciple of Jesus. But Pilate is not a biased party. He is the one who ordered the crucifixion, and the centurion is the one who carried it out. Even though it appears that the centurion came to faith in Christ as the Son of God, it was not until AFTER he saw Jesus die. So, these impartial testimonies to the death of Jesus do much to demonstrate that He was in fact dead when He was put into the tomb.
And that brings us to the final point …
II. Jesus’ death is evidenced by the handling of His body (v46-16:1)
Having taken Jesus down from the cross, Joseph wrapped His body in a linen cloth. This would have ordinarily involved a very tight wrapping from the armpits to the ankles in 12 inch wide strips of linen. In wrapping His body, one is reminded of the description of Lazarus in John 11:44 – “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth.” John also mentions this “face-cloth” in the wrappings of Jesus. This would keep the mouth bound tightly shut. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of oil and aloe to use in the burial preparations, which would have served as a kind of glue to keep the wrappings in tact. Because this was done in haste in order to beat the Sabbath which began at sunset, the women who looked on in v47 had planned to return and complete the process of anointing the body with spices (16:1). It is no wonder that the 18th century scholar Samuel Chandler said, “Had there indeed been any remains of life in Him, when taken down from the cross, the pungent nature of the myrrh and aloes, their strong smell, their bitterness, their being wrapped around his body in linens with a roller, and over his head and face with a napkin, as was the custom of the Jews to bury, must have entirely extinguished them.” Completely constricted in these linen wrappings, Jesus was sealed into His tomb.
The ancient Jews did not customarily bury their dead in the ground as we do today. Rather, burial tombs were cut into the limestone hills around the region. Inside of these caves, shelves would be carved out of the rock and the bodies would lie there until the flesh decomposed. At that point, the bones would be gathered and placed in an ossuary, or a “bone-box”, and the shelf would be used for someone else. Now, Joseph placed Jesus in a tomb like this, and elsewhere we read that it was his own, and that it had never before been used. And the entry to this tomb was covered by an enormous stone that rolled into place. Some have estimated that these stones would have required several men to move them. It was so large that the three women who came to the tomb in 16:1 wondered who they might find to roll it away for them in 16:3. Additionally, Matthew 27:66 says that they sealed this stone and set a guard at the tomb. This seal was not a water-tight, air-tight kind of seal, but a legal one. A. T. Robertson suggests that it was likely a cord stretched across the stone with the “seal” or symbol of Roman authority stamped upon it, as if to say, “Anyone who opens this tomb is in violation of the law of Rome.” And a security presence was set in place at the tomb to prevent any tampering with it.
Now, what is the point of describing all of this in such detail? It is this – if Jesus Christ were not actually dead, then think of what He would have had to do to pull off a convincing resurrection hoax. In His weakened physical condition, having suffered horrendous beatings, massive blood loss, and excruciating torture, He would have had to escape the tightly wound and glued wrappings, might I add, in the dark, bound and gagged, with his feet and hands inside the wrappings! And then He would have had to move from the inside this massive stone covering the mouth of the tomb, a stone so large that several men in good physical condition would have been required to move it. And then he would have had to fight off the armed guards around the tomb. And then He would have to refresh Himself and regather his strength enough to convince His followers that He had victoriously conquered death. And somehow, we are supposed to find that easier to believe than the fact that He died and rose again! I don’t think so! Just as Dickens said of Jacob Marley, we can say with confidence of Jesus Christ – He was dead, there is no doubt whatsoever about that.
By now, you’ve grown accustomed to hearing me speak during Easter season on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as I will do again in two Sundays. But perhaps you wonder why I would spend so much time here today trying to prove to you that Jesus was dead. Well, as I have already mentioned, over 2/3 of the world’s population either doesn’t know He died or else doesn’t believe He died. Others have no problem believing He died, they just don’t believe He died the way the Bible says that He did. And this brings me to my point. You see, as important as the resurrection is to our faith, and it is INFINITELY important, the death of Jesus is prerequisite to it. If He didn’t die, then He didn’t rise. And our faith in Christ is not just a matter of believing THAT He died, but understanding WHY He died.
Turn to Romans 3:23-25 & and notice this very thorough explanation –

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
In those three verses there are three very important words used to describe why Jesus died. The first is “justified.” This word means “made righteous,” specifically made righteous and therefore acceptable before the holiness of God. Notice that Paul says we are all sinners, but have been made righteous as a gift by His grace. We did not earn this righteousness. We do not deserve it. God has freely given us this righteousness. And He has done this through the “redemption” which is in Jesus Christ. That’s the second key word here. Redemption means to purchase something back. Specifically, sinners can be made righteous because God has “bought them back” from the bondage of sin. We were enslaved to sin, but God has redeemed us by paying the price of freedom. That price is death, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel saying “The soul who sins will die.” So that is the cost of freedom, and God paid it in Christ Jesus. He died the death we deserve for our sins. And His death, Paul says, was God’s public display of propitiation in His blood. That is the third key word: “Propitiation.” A propitiation is an offering that satisfies the wrath of God. And that offering is not the blood of bulls and goats and lambs, but the blood of Jesus Christ. His death did not merely cancel the wrath of God, but accepted and absorbed the wrath of God, diverting it away from us upon Himself. That is what Jesus did for you. Why did He do it? 1 Jn 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” He became the propitiation for us because He loves us. God loves us so much that He became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to die for us. So, back to what Paul says in Romans 3 – We’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but by His grace and love for us, God has displayed Christ as the sacrifice that absorbs the wrath of God on our behalf, and His blood is the purchase price for our freedom from sin, so that we can be forgiven and made righteous before God. And we receive this gift of God’s grace “through faith.” We can trust Him solely and completely to save us.

As the great old hymn says, “I need no other argument, I need no other plea, it is enough that JESUS DIED, and that HE DIED FOR ME.” When Charles Dickens spoke of Jacob Marley’s death, he said, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” And so it is with Jesus, but even moreso. Unless we understand THAT He died, and that He died for me and for you, then nothing wonderful can come of the story that follows. But in the story that follows, we see Him risen from the dead as the victorious conquering King who has put away sin and death forever and opened wide the door to eternal life for all who will trust in Him to save them. If you never have before, I pray you will today.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark 15:39-43 -- The Followers of Jesus

Audio available here.

Today we hear a lot of talk about diversity from various corners of society. And typically it is discussed as if it is something new and different, a break from the paradigm that has been established for centuries. Often times, people say that diversity is something that the Christian church has been slow to embrace and quick to discourage. Indeed, many Christians have found themselves on the wrong side of the diversity issue through the years. For instance, though today Southern Baptists are one of the most diverse denominations in America, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in part on the issue of the rights of slave holders to serve as missionaries. While we have issued numerous statements of repentance through the years and resolutions on racial reconciliation, that incident was a regrettable moment where our forefathers did not embrace diversity. During the middle of the twentieth century, when segregation was common, churches were typically “white” or “black,” with very little diversity in any congregation. Then, as this church well knows, during the middle sixties and later, it became increasingly common for churches to move toward intentional integration. Segregation was ending in schoolrooms and public spaces, and churches were moving to catch up with the rest of society. And this church was among the first in this area to open its doors to all people. It wasn’t popular. Your pastor Dr. Paul Early addressed the association in an annual meeting on the biblical issue of racial equality, and he told me that the very next speaker after him said, “Well, brother, you know that Jesus never said anything against segregation or slavery.” Being a church for all people was a difficult position for this church and others like it to take. During the seventies, eighties, and early nineties, it seemed that the days of a segregated society were behind us. But today, it can still be said that 11:00 on Sunday Morning is the most segregated hour in America. Only today, instead of segregation being imposed, it is chosen. People are welcome to attend any church they want, and by and large they want to be those who are just like them. So, church planters are taught to “target” a particular audience. Forty years ago, that would have been considered discrimination. Today it is considered marketing. And it is not just true of church. Notice that in society, people tend to stick close to those who are most like themselves. I teach 20 students in biblical interpretation every Tuesday night. Those students are black, white, and Asian, younger and older. There are no assigned seats; students can sit anywhere they wish. But without fail every week, the Asian students sit together, the black students sit together, and the white students sit together. Young students sit together, older students sit together. You can notice it in restaurants, theaters, public spaces, and generally everywhere in society. So, it seems that for all of our talk today about diversity, human nature in general is reluctant to fully embrace it. But from its earliest days, Christianity was built upon the conviction that all human beings are equal, and that Christ is Lord of all: all ethnicities, all generations, all genders, all socio-economic classes. The Christian church has been, throughout the centuries, the most diverse body of people in human history and culture with a message that transcends all societal boundaries. The innate desire to be with those who are just like us more closely resembles the builders of the ancient Tower of Babel than the members of the New Testament church. As we look at this passage, we see the diversity of the early followers of Jesus, as well as their commonality that transcended their differences.

I. The Followers of Jesus Come From Diverse Backgrounds

In the verses that we are studying today, we find five specific individuals who are singled out by name or title, and a larger group of unnamed women. Though Jesus had many more followers than this both before and after His death, these five suffice to demonstrate the diversity that existed among the earliest followers of Jesus.

The first person we meet is a centurion. He is Roman, a Gentile. Prior to this point in his life, he was likely a pagan who believed in a number of deities including the late emperor Caesar Augustus. In addition, it is likely that he would have venerated and prayed to his ancestors. He may have even carried small idol-like figurines which would represent those family members. He would have likely been a career military man, middle-income, and middle-aged at this point in his life.

Next we meet several women. The first one mentioned is Mary Magdalene. Due in part to an unfortunate error by Pope Gregory in a sermon near the end of the sixth century, when many people think of Mary Magdalene, they think of her as a prostitute. Actually, the Bible never says this about her. So, if that’s what you think of when you think of Mary Magdalene, just erase it out of your minds. Pop-culture has tried to present her as the wife of Jesus and the mother of His children, but that is a ridiculous suggestion that has no historical basis whatsoever. So who is she? She was a native of Magdala, an important center of agriculture, fishing, and commerce near the Sea of Galilee. Though she didn’t have a past as a prostitute, she did have a past! The Bible tells us in Luke 8:2 that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her. She had been completely under the powerful control of Satan until she met Jesus. As such, she would have been a social outcast during that season of her life. It is unlikely that she was married, for typically married women were referred in relation to their husbands, not their hometowns.

We find mentioned next another woman named Mary, this one being described as the mother of James the Less and Joses. Some have suggested that this woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, because in Mark 6:3, Jesus’ brothers are identified as James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. However, these names were all very common among first century Jews. This James was probably not the half-brother of Jesus, but rather one of the two apostles named James. He is called James, the son of Aphaeus, or James the Less, to distinguish him from James the brother of the apostle John. His mother, then, would likely be the same woman who is described in the Gospels as the wife of Cleopas. Alphaeus, then, would either be another name for Cleopas, or else this woman had been married twice. It would be impossible for us to determine which is the case. Suffice to say that unlike Mary Magdalene, this woman was married and had children. She was a family person.

Then we find Salome mentioned. She was the mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee. He was a fisherman, but more than that, he ran a lucrative fishing enterprise which employed not only his sons, but also several hired hands, including perhaps Peter and Andrew. Luke 5:10 says they were partners. Because of this, it is likely that this family was financially prosperous, or at least moreso than most others around them in that day. We do not know if old man Zebedee ever came to faith in Christ, but we know that James and John became apostles and Salome was apparently a faithful follower of Jesus as well.

The next person we meet by name is Joseph of Arimathea. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, that ruling council of Jerusalem which had been plotting against Jesus for some time. However, Luke informs us that he had not consented to their plan and action. Mark tells us that he was a prominent member, indicating that he was likely a man of respect and social standing. It may also suggest that he was an older man. Matthew tells us that he was a rich man. But we are also told something about his spiritual condition as well. Luke tells us that he was a good and righteous man. Mark tells us here that he was waiting for the kingdom of God. This was a way of speaking of a faithful believer in the Old Testament promises who was looking for God’s Messiah to come. When Joseph began to see the things that Jesus was doing and hear the things he was saying, he came to believe that this Jesus was God’s Messiah who had come to save humanity. Matthew tells us that he had become a disciple of Jesus, but John says that he kept this a secret because of fear of the Jews. If his fellow Sanhedrin members found out that he was a follower of Jesus, they might have crucified him too!

Now, from the descriptions of these five individuals standing near the cross of Jesus, we see how diverse a crowd of followers Jesus had. They were men and women. They were Jews and Gentiles. They were young, middle-aged, and older. They were rich and poor and in-between. They came from among the socially respectable and socially rejected. They had been faithful adherents to the religion of the Old Testament, idolatrous pagans, and demon-possessed. They came to Jesus from all walks of life. There was probably no other cause or occasion that would have rallied this diverse handful of people together. And so it is with the church today. As we look at the church of Jesus Christ today we should see such diversity exhibited. We should see male and female, young and old and in between, all socio-economic levels, from all sorts of spiritual backgrounds, and all ethnicities. Where else in the world could one go and find such diversity? When all the rest of society self-segregates itself into homogeneous huddles, the church should be a reflection of the diversity of God’s creation, and through this diversity, God brings glory to Himself as we unite together around a common faith in Jesus Christ and a common bond as brothers and sisters in God’s family. We should seek out opportunities to fellowship with those whose skin is a different color than ours, who is not of our own age, who is not from the same background as we are, because only as we do that can we fully enjoy the diversity that exists among Christ’s followers.

Even though we come from diverse backgrounds, …
II. The Followers of Jesus Stand Together on Common Ground

There is a unity in the diversity of Christ’s followers. Though we come from all walks of life, we walk together in the Christian life. We are united together by common bonds. First and foremost is a common faith in Jesus Christ. We see the expression made by the centurion standing before the Cross, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” One can only become a follower of Christ by recognizing by faith who He is. Many times during this study of the Gospel of Mark, we have sought to clarify that the phrase “Son of God” does not mean what many people think it means. It does not mean that Jesus is a child of God in the way that some refer to all humanity being God’s children, or even in the same sense that we speak of all Christians being God’s sons and daughters. Our relationship to God the Father is by virtue of adoption, whereas Jesus is the unique only begotten Son of God. That means that He is of one and the same nature as God the Father, meaning He is fully divine. In other words, He is God. The phrase “Son of God” expresses the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity. There are not more than one God, but this one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. Now it is not necessary to understand the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity to become a follower of Jesus. But it is necessary to understand who Jesus is and what He came to do. He is God-incarnate, that is, in the person of Jesus, God has become a human being. He is fully God and fully man. God came to us in this way in order to redeem us from sin. He lived a sinless life that we all have failed to live, and He died as our substitute on the cross, so that in His death our sins could be punished. He bore the wrath we deserve so that we can be forgiven and receive the righteousness of God and eternal life. When we see the centurion proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, we are reminded that, from whatever diverse backgrounds we may come, we come together at the foot of the cross on the common recognition of who Jesus is and what He has done to save us.

We see in the women around the cross another common bond that unites the followers of Christ together. We see that they are described as having ministered to Him. The Greek word here is the same word from which we get our term “deacon.” This does not mean that they were “deacons” in the sense that we think of deacons in our church, but it means that they served Jesus in practical ways as they followed Him. They did what they could to meet the needs that arose with Him and His followers. They had served Him from the time He was in Galilee until these last days in Jerusalem – in other words, throughout His entire public ministry. Their service to Him was not sporadic or occasional, but consistent and faithful. If they had served Jesus all this time, then they have known what it means to serve Him in good days and bad days, to serve Him when it is popular to do so and when it is unpopular, to serve Him when you are recognized for it and for when you are serving in obscurity. Jesus’ ministry went through all of these seasons, and those who ministered to Him knew what it was like to serve Him through all the ups and downs. Luke tells us that some of these women were contributing to support Jesus and His disciples “out of their private means.” This surely includes financial support, but there were probably other means of support as well. They probably helped in providing meals, making arrangements, caring for personal needs that would arise among the disciples, and so on. But the three women named in verse 40 were not the only ones who served Jesus in this way. Verse 41 indicates that there were many who had done so. And so we find among the followers of Christ today many who serve Him and His people with their time, their energies, their financial resources and their abilities. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. And when we do what we can to serve Christ in practical ways, the church works the way God intended it to. Paul likens the church to a human body whose parts all work together in cooperative ways. We come from very diverse backgrounds, but we stand on common ground as we serve Jesus in practical ways, meeting the needs that arise within and outside and around the fellowship of the church. We are united together in this service.

Then finally we stand together on the common ground of being Christ’s witness. Notice how Joseph of Arimathea is said to “gather up his courage” as he goes in to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now this is a significant statement in light of what we said earlier about Joseph. Remember that we referred to John 19:38, which says that though Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, he was “a secret one, for fear of the Jews.” As a prominent member of the Jewish ruling council, there was much to fear about being too closely identified with Jesus. I was thumbing through this book in the bookstore the other day that is a collection of postcards that people have sent to a guy in Germantown, MD containing their anonymous secrets. One of them said, “I am an editor for a large online atheist newsletter—and I believe in God.” Not to say that person is a Christian, but obviously fear has caused them to be a secret believer in a similar way that Joseph of Arimathea was.

For many of us, becoming a follower of Christ brings certain fears. What will our family members think, especially those who aren’t believers? What will our friends think, especially those who have been our partners in immorality and sin? What will our boss and coworkers think? Having a Christian worldview may clash with certain understood values in the workplace, creating fear. There is also a fear among those who have been in church for a long time, but who come to realize that they are not really saved. They fear what others will think of them if they make it known that they need to be saved. We could go on and on – there are many such fears that the “secret followers” of Jesus harbor in their hearts. But there comes a point for each of us when we must gather up the courage and go public. For Joseph, that moment was here as he could no longer sit in silence and watch the ongoing disgrace of Jesus. He gathered courage and went to Pilate, the one who had sentenced Jesus to death, and asked for the body of Jesus so he could bury Him with some dignity. Jesus Christ has called all of His followers to publicly identify with Him through the ordinance of baptism and through the task of being His witness as we share His Gospel message with others. For some of us, the very thought of it scares us to death! But there is no magic secret to overcoming that fear – only the gathering up of courage. And we are blessed that the Holy Spirit has come into our lives to give us that courage. The power to be Christ’s witness, Jesus says, comes upon us in the person of His Spirit whom we receive at the moment we are saved. Therefore, we can die to our fears, die to our self-conscious anxiety, and allow His power to work through us as we courageously take a stand for Jesus. We can say with Paul in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Five individuals are singled out in these few verses. Yet in just this small number of Christ’s earliest followers, we are able to see a snapshot of His church as it has endured through the centuries and across the continents with the spread of the Gospel. We see the diversity of the church as we see it encompassing men and women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and social and economic status. The diversity that the world talks a lot about but seldom demonstrates has always been a hallmark of the Christian church. And in this day, the church should be leading the way in bringing people together, not furthering the divide by “targeting” particular audiences. We should be bringing young and old, male and female, rich and poor, and all ethnicities together into one spiritual family.

We enter that family through one door. No matter what spiritual background a person comes from, we must come to the place of recognizing ourselves as sinners and Christ as Savior. As we turn from sin and receive Him as Lord and Savior, we become members of God’s family. And as brothers and sisters in this family, we are united together in faith, in service, and in witness. We help one another as we are able, serving Christ by serving each other. And we encourage one another in service and witness. Though we may find ourselves in fear of the thought of speaking openly of our faith in Christ, we can depend on the Holy Spirit’s power to give us the courage to speak out, and to act out, with one another inside of the church and with the lost world around us. Every person here has a role to play in the family of God. It doesn’t matter who you are or what kind of background you come from, God has a part for you. Have you been saved? Have you asked Christ to be Lord and Savior of your life? Are you serving Him? Are you witnessing for Him? Are you intentionally seeking to embrace the diversity of God’s people rather than huddling together with those who are just like you? May God grant that we would be that diverse body of Christ’s followers, united on the common ground of faith and service and witness.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Heart of Patrick of Ireland

"Now on this account, be amazed all you who fear God, both great and small, ... who stirred up me, a fool, ... to be fit to help (if only I could!) ... that race of people to which the love of Christ drew me and thus spend the rest o fmy life, if only I might prove worthy; simple to serve them in humility and truth. ... I must take this decision, disregarding any risks involved, and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God's name boldly in every place, so that even after my death a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Mark 15:37-39 -- The Miracles of the Cross

Imagine with me a Roman soldier recently deployed to Jerusalem before the middle of the first century. Upon arriving there, he sees the most amazing building he’s ever laid eyes on. It is Herod’s Temple. So massive and incredible is this structure that it had been under construction for nearly 50 years at that time and it still wasn’t finished. The historian Josephus described it, saying, “Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.” Gazing at this magnificent building, this soldier stops a Jewish man and says, “Hey, what’s that?” The man tells the soldier, “That’s our temple. That is where we go to worship our God.” The soldier says, “Wow. That is amazing. Can I go there and see it?” And the Jewish man says, “Well, you can go there, but you can only look at the outside. You see, you are a Gentile. You can only access certain outer courts of the temple. If you wanted to get closer than that, why, you’d have to be born again—born to Hebrew parents. That’s the only way to get a closer look.”

The soldier, looking dejected, says, “What’s inside that big part there in the middle?” The man says to him, “That’s the holy place. Inside there is a great golden candle-stand, and a table of very special bread that has been prepared, and a golden altar where incense is burned as our prayers ascend to God.” The soldier says, “Oh, I wish I could be born again as a Hebrew man so I could go in and see that! I would like to smell that incense and eat that bread and light one of those candles.” But the Jewish man says, “Well, actually, I can’t even go in and see that. The only way you could get in there is if you were born again – born to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron so you could be one of our priests.” The soldier, even more dejected, says, “Is there anything else inside there?”

The man replies, “Oh wow, I haven’t even told you the best part yet. Inside that holy place there is a massive tapestry curtain, and behind that veil is what we call ‘the most holy place.’” The soldier exclaims, “The MOST Holy Place! What on earth is in there?” The man explains to him that in there once stood the ark of the covenant. He explains to the soldier how this box had been made of wood during the Exodus and covered with gold and how it was adorned on top with two large golden angels. He tells him that inside that box was the rod of Aaron that had budded in Egypt; the tablets of the ten commandments God had given them at Sinai, and a jar of manna that God had provided in the wilderness. And he tells this soldier how during the days of old, God used to dwell between the angels on the top of that box in the form of a pillar of a cloud by day and fire by night. And though the ark had disappeared after the Babylonian siege nearly 600 years earlier, he tells him that for most Jewish people, that space is still considered to be the very presence of God. “Wow!” the soldier says with excitement. “I wish I could be born again as one of your priests so I could enter into God’s presence. Why, I’d go in that room every morning and stay all day! I’d even sleep there if they would let me so I could just live in the presence of God.” Now looking dejected himself, the Jewish man says, “Well, actually, most of our priests never even get to peek inside behind that veil. If you wanted to get in there, you’d have to be born again—you’d have to be our high priest! And even then you could only go in one time a year, on the Day of Atonement when the high priest takes the blood of the sacrifice to sprinkle in there for all of our sins. And he can only go in after very careful preparations have been made, and only for a very short time.” Sadly the soldier thanks the Jewish man for his time, and they both walk away. Is there no hope? Is there no help? Is there no way to ever be in God’s presence?(*)

Humanity has since the Garden of Eden been in a state of rebellion against our Maker. Every one of us is born in sin and chooses to live in sin. And that sin keeps us separated from God. Sin is the reason that temple was built, and the reason that veil was hung. God cannot allow sin into His presence. And man can do nothing to get himself out of his sinful state. Is there no help? Is there no hope?
Jesus said that He had come to give His life as a ransom. Mark tell us here that as He died, He uttered a loud cry. His actual dying words are recorded in John 19:30—“It is finished!” One Greek word underlies these three English words: Tetelestai. In saying this, Jesus was announcing that in His death, the redemption of humanity from sin had been accomplished. This Greek word was also written on business documents or receipts in ancient times to show that a bill had been “paid in full.” The ransom had been paid in full. The death of Jesus Christ upon the cross marked the completion of the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity, for there the sinless Son of God became the substitute who died in the place of every sinner who has ever lived or ever will. Jesus received in our place the full outpouring of the judgment of God that our sins deserve so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to our Maker.
This fact is attested at the moment of Jesus’ death by two divine miracles recorded in this passage. The first is the miracle in the sanctuary, and the second is the miracle in the soldier. These are the miracles of the cross.

I. When Jesus died on the cross, there was a miracle in the sanctuary (v38).

We are told that Jesus died around the ninth hour, which would be about 3 pm. At the very moment when Jesus died, across town at the Temple something very significant was going on. The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that two sacrifices were conducted every day: one in the morning and one at about the ninth hour. And as the officiating priest entered the sanctuary of the temple to burn the incense and perform his other sacred duties at this time, he would have beheld something that would have absolutely blown his mind.

The veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was no living room drapery. It measured 60 feet in height by 30 feet wide. It was said to be as thick as the palm of a man’s hand and so heavy that it took a multitude of priests to manipulate it. This veil served one purpose. It was a loud and clear declaration that God is holy and set apart from sinful humanity. It announced to everyone near and far, “STAY OUT OF MY PRESENCE.” If you enter into that place, you better be the foremost priest of all, and you better come on the holiest day of all, and you better bring the blood with you, and you better not stay long. The whole sacrificial system of that Temple revolved around that understanding. But when Jesus died, that old system met its expiration date. No longer would any man, woman or child come to God by that way again.

When Jesus died, a miracle happened in that sanctuary. The officiating priest, entering into burn the incense at the time of the evening sacrifice, would have beheld that veil ripped in half. No man could have torn it. A yoke of oxen couldn’t have torn that thing. With the sharpest of implements, you probably couldn’t make a dent in the bottom of it, but if you did, it would have never reached the top. And yet, when Jesus died, this veil was completely torn asunder from the top to the bottom. It had been torn by God Himself. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for sprinkling the blood of bulls and goats. Every one of them that had died had been an advance preview of what Christ would do in the ultimate sacrifice. His own blood had been shed once and for all. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for a day of atonement. All of those old Jewish festivals and feast days had been but types and shadows of what Jesus would do on that most holy day as He died. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for a priesthood because He has become our High Priest, representing us before God and representing God before us. Because of the death of Jesus, that veil that says “KEEP OUT!” has been rendered totally unnecessary. God’s presence is no longer cordoned off by an impenetrable veil but rather is freely entered into through an open door. In the shredded fragments of that veil, God was saying to all who might see or hear of it, “COME IN.” The price of redemption from sin has been paid in full, forgiveness and reconciliation are made possible, and Christ (!) has become the door we enter through into God’s holy presence. Because of Jesus’ death, there was a miracle in the sanctuary that opened the way into God’s presence.

But then there was another miracle in the moment as Jesus died.

II. When Jesus died on the cross, there was a miracle in the soldier (v39).

The centurion who Mark mentions here in this verse was not someone who just happened to be passing by. He was on duty. He was “standing right in front of” Jesus as He died. A centurion was a commander of 100 men, and undoubtedly this man was in command of the death squad. He was the overseer of all that had been done to Jesus that day. Likely he had been present earlier in the morning when Jesus had been beaten, scourged and mocked. He may have even been giving the orders to those who tortured Him. He had likely accompanied Jesus as He was marched toward Golgotha. He may have even been the one who commanded Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. And he was certainly there, giving the orders, when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Undoubtedly, this centurion had witnessed more than his share of crucifixions. Hard as it may seem to fathom, he may have become numb to the sights and sounds of watching men die in this way. The entire ordeal had probably become routine to him. When this day began, Jesus was just another hoodlum being taken out to die. But something happened in the heart of this centurion as the day went on.

While on duty in Jerusalem, this centurion had probably learned something about the one true God and the beliefs of the Jewish people. With all the commotion going on in Jerusalem over the preceding week, he had probably been alerted to who Jesus was and why all the controversy had been swirling around Him in and around the temple. He may have even overheard Him teaching at some point. He had seen the charges inscribed—“King of the Jews.” He may have even witnessed or learned of the High Priest’s interrogation about Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. But Mark says that when this centurion saw the way that Jesus had breathed His last, his heart was changed. He’d seen many die upon crosses, but this one was different. When this man died, darkness covered the whole land. Other gospel writers tell us that there was an earthquake that took place. No one else had ever cried out while the nails were being driven into their flesh and bone, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the centurion watched Jesus die, the Holy Spirit of God began to move upon the centurion’s heart to reveal spiritual truth to him, and in that moment he was converted. He said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

This is the climactic moment of the Gospel of Mark. The book began in Mark 1:1 declaring that this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As Jesus emerged from the baptismal waters of the Jordan, the heavens opened. The Greek word Mark uses in 1:10 of the opening of the heavens is the same word that he uses in 15:38 to describe the tearing of the veil of the temple. And when the heavens opened, God the Father had audibly declared from the heavens, “You are My beloved Son.” When the temple veil opened, a sinful human declared for the first time in this Gospel, “He was the Son of God.” Who better could typify the sinfulness of humanity than the commanding officer who had carried out the murder of Jesus? Who better could represent the fact that Jesus died for our sins than this man who had ordered the driving of the nails? And as he considered the death of Jesus with all of its accompanying phenomena, the Spirit of God convicted him of the truth about Jesus and of his own sin, this centurion came to faith in Christ. He had been born again. So you and I find ourselves guilty because of our sins of the death of Jesus. It was my sins that drove the nails. It was your sins that put Him on the cross. We are like that centurion. And like that centurion, we stand in front of Him watching Him die for us, and the Spirit of God begins to deal with our hearts about the matter. He is drawing us to faith. Will we confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior and be born again to new life in Him?

Born-again! Yes! The veil opened and access granted to enter into God’s presence. But how? How have such miracles happened? They have happened through the death of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews employs the themes we have read about here in this brief passage repeatedly in that wonderful New Testament letter. He tells us in Hebrews 6:19-20, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever.” Yes because of the high priesthood of Jesus who has stood before God’s wrath in our place and brought us into God’s presence, our souls have been anchored there within the veil. We are eternally secured in the presence of God because Christ. The way has been made for each of us to enter in. You can be born-again by turning from sin and trusting in Christ to save you, and know that the anchor of salvation holds you in His presence eternally.

And Hebrews 10:19-25 even helps us with the practical application of this truth: We read there that “since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,” … “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The writer of Hebrews would have us to know that because of this access we have to God that Christ has made possible for us, we can remain in close fellowship with Him by faith, fully assured of our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. And we can steadfast cling to the truth of the gospel and God’s Word, “the confession of our hope without wavering,” because we know that God is faithful. And we can be encouragers of one another, as iron sharpens iron, stirring one another up in the body of Christ to love and to good deeds as we regularly gather together in the fellowship of the church. And so let us do this, in the name and for the sake of Him who died to make the miracle of access to God and salvation from sin possible for us. Ever more so, as we approach the day of His return.

* This story is adapted from a similar one related by John Phillips in Exploring Hebrews.