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.

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