Thursday, April 28, 2011

With Christ at the Empty Tomb (Matthew 27:57-28:15)

In one sense, Easter is a very special holiday for Christians because it is on this day that we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In another sense, however, today is just another Sunday, and they are all very special for Christians. The earliest Christians began meeting on Sundays for worship in order to celebrate and observe the resurrection of Jesus, not once a year, but once a week. So, while today we gather to celebrate and proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead, in reality, we gather every Sunday to celebrate and proclaim this very same truth. It is not an annual event, but a daily reality for the followers of Jesus. We serve a death-proof king. The Apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 15, says,

I make known to you, brethren, the gospel (the good news) that I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word the which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

This is the good news that we proclaim: Christ, the eternal God incarnate in human form, died for our sins, meaning that He became our substitute in death and bore the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin; He was buried, and our text today describes in brief detail the process of His burial; and He was raised on the third day. And all of this happened according to the Scriptures, in other words according to the promise-plan of God that had been prophesied for centuries. We do not proclaim the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as a theory, or merely a treasured belief. Easter is not, for Christians, simply a tradition that has been carved out of the folklore of Western Civilization. No, we proclaim His death, burial and resurrection as a historical fact, a fact that is true for all people of all nations, and a fact that is eternally significant and which demands a response. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead. This is not a statement that should cause us to shrug our shoulders or nod our heads. This is a statement that forces us to take sides. We either believe this or we don’t. And if it is true, and we do not believe it, then we have abandoned the only hope that sinful human beings have of being made right before a perfectly holy God who is our creator and judge. Our text today presents three facts for our consideration. This is an eyewitness account from one who knew Jesus personally and witnessed the events that are described herein. So, as we present these three facts today, it is incumbent on every person to decide whether or not to believe these facts and how they will affect the rest of your life.

I. Fact #1 – Jesus Died and Was Buried

Obviously, in order to proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead, we have to proclaim first that He actually died. Now, here in a Baptist Church on Easter Sunday morning, surrounded by
imagery of the Cross on which Jesus died, you may think, “Of course Jesus died. Why prolong this sermon, which you know is going to be long anyway, with a simple fact like this?” Well, you may be surprised to know that a large percentage of the world’s population does not believe that Jesus died. First of all, there are the over 3.5 billion people, over half the world’s population, who have never heard it because they have no access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But in addition to those who have never heard, there are many who have heard, and yet do not believe. 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, on the cross, after He had been beaten, tortured, crucified with nails driven through His hands and feet, and pierced through the lungs and heart with a spear, He did not die, but just kind of passed out. He fainted. He swooned because of physical exhaustion and loss of blood. But, they believe that once He was placed in the cool damp confines of the rock-hewn tomb, He gathered His strength, unwrapped Himself from the mummy-like grave cloths, rolled a massive stone away and walked out of the tomb. And then, He went for a walk to Emmaus, which is how far away from Jerusalem, students? SEVEN MILES. And you would be surprised at the number of people who believe that. Then there are some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who are taught that Jesus did not die on the cross. 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.

These are theories. What are the facts? The Bible says that Jesus was apprehended by a mob carrying swords and clubs, He was beaten, He was scourged (which means that He was whipped until the flesh was removed from His back), He had thorns driven into His brow, He was nailed (I repeat, NAILED!) to a cross, and then had a spear (A SPEAR!) thrust through His side piercing His lungs and heart so that blood and water ran from His side. He 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. Then, after He died, notice that vv59-60 say that He was wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in a tomb. We get an idea of this custom from the story of Lazarus in John 11:44 – he was “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. 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.”[1] So from the biblical account, we know this for a fact: On the cross, Jesus DIED, and He was buried.

II. Fact #2 – The Tomb Was Empty on Sunday Morning

This much everyone can agree on: the tomb that the women and the disciples went to on Sunday morning was empty. Now one very simple theory that has arisen to explain this fact is that they went to the wrong tomb. We all know how easy it is to get disoriented in a large cemetery where all the headstones look the same. I wandered around the cemetery of Old Salem for a couple of hours one afternoon trying to find my grandmother’s grave before I finally found it. But Jesus wasn’t buried in a cemetery like this. He was buried in a tomb that was cut out of a rock, like a cave. It wasn’t like there were dozens of them around to get confused about. Matthew tells us in v61 that some of the women were there watching them put Jesus in the tomb. They knew where it was, and there is no doubt that they went back to the right tomb. Even if they had gone to the wrong tomb, all the religious leaders of Jerusalem would have had to do was go to the right tomb and drag the carcass of Jesus out and say, “Here He is, people, you went to the wrong tomb!” But they never did that.

Of course, another theory that could be proposed is that they found the right tomb, but looked in the wrong place for Jesus’ body. Now, I don’t know anyone who ever proposed this theory, but it would be possible. These big tombs commonly held several corpses. After the bodies decomposed, the bones would be put into an ossuary (a bone box) and stored in the tombs. So, maybe they went into the right tomb and just overlooked Jesus in there. No way. Matthew tells us in v60 that this was a “new tomb.” Luke tells us that no one had ever been placed in this tomb before Jesus. His was the only body that was supposed to be there, and it wasn’t.

Interestingly, the oldest theory as to how the tomb became empty is still one of the most popular explanations today. Notice in vv63-64 that the Pharisees told Pilate, “We remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’” So, it was well known that He had said this, as even His enemies admitted. So they said to Pilate, “Give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’” And Pilate sent guards to the tomb with orders to “make it as secure” as they could (v65). And v66 says that they “set a seal on the stone.” 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.”

Now, on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. The disciples could not have stolen the body, because they would have had to fight off the guards or else pull this off undetected. They would have broken the law and been guilty of a serious crime, but no charges were ever pressed against the disciples for this crime. They couldn’t have done this in the middle of the night without the guards noticing. The stone that covered the mouth of that tomb was a massive thing that rolled along a groove in the ground before settling into a depression that held it in place. Moving it would require several strong men, and would have generated a lot of noise. Remember that the women were the first ones to the tomb on Sunday morning, and the other gospels say that they wondered who might roll away the stone for them. They knew that they could not do it. And by the way, if this story was being made up to support Christians’ belief in the resurrection, the first witnesses to the tomb would have been written into the story as men and not women. The testimony of women was not highly regarded in that patriarchal society, so it does not enhance believability to a first century audience to have women as the ones who find and report this empty tomb to their male fellow-believers. The only motivation the Gospel writers would have to include such a detail at all is that it was true.

Matthew tells us that there was an earthquake and an angelic being who came and rolled the stone away. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. You know how you look at lightning in the sky, and the brightness of it blinds you temporarily? That is what this angel looked like. So, this is no mere human being. And his presence terrified the guards. Matthew says that they “shook for fear of him and became like dead men” (v4). These were big tough dudes, and they were frightened at this creature. All of the popular folklore about angelic encounters is nothing like what we see in the Bible. Usually when people in the Bible see angels, their first response is to freak out. And it is amazing how many times in Scripture the first words spoken by an angel to human beings are this: “Do not be afraid.” Why do they say this? Because the people are terrified by the sight of these things!

We gather from what is said in v11 that these terrified guards ran into the city to report what had happened. Now suppose that they had come in and said, “Hey, um, we left our post because, well, you know that body you sent us out to guard? Well, we fell asleep and while we were sleeping someone came and stole the body.” What do you think would have happened to them? They would have been rebuked, possibly terminated from their employment, maybe punished and possibly even killed. Certainly we can’t expect them to receive a pay-raise or a bonus. But they were not chastised for sleeping on the job, leaving their post or losing the body. Instead, they were paid off and ordered to tell a lie. The officials bribed the soldiers with “a large sum of money” (v12) and commanded them to say, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.” This was blatantly a lie, and Matthew says in v15 that the lie was still being told when he wrote these words some 20 years later or more. And the lie that Jesus’ body was stolen is still being told by some unbelievers today.

Doesn’t it seem plausible that with all the holes that have been dug in the deserts of the Middle East that by now someone would have come across the body of Jesus if it had been stolen? And doesn’t it seem plausible that, at some point, one of the disciples would have cracked and told the truth? Yet, each of these men suffered and died for their belief that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead. People die for lies all the time, so that is no proof in and of itself, but people die for lies when they believe they are true. These men, if they had stolen the body, would have known that the story of the resurrection was a lie. And they died proclaiming that it was truth.

The tomb was empty. It was the right tomb. The only body in that tomb had disappeared. The disciples didn’t steal it. It would be foolish to suggest that anyone else could have stolen or hidden the body, because not only did they have no motive to steal or hide the body, they actually had a great motivation to produce the body once stories of the resurrection began to circulate. But they never did. What other explanations might there be? Could Jesus’ body have been consumed by a strain of mutant bacteria? Could aliens have abducted His body? Are those hypotheses any more believable than the alternative that Jesus actually rose from the dead? Are these supported by more evidence than the resurrection? If we have resorted to such games of fantasy in trying to explain the empty tomb, it is probable that we have already overlooked the most likely scenario of all. And that scenario is here presented as a fact.

III. Fact #3 – Jesus Christ is Risen From the Dead

It is undeniable that Jesus actually died on the cross and was buried. It is undeniable that the tomb was empty. How did it get to be that way? We’ve looked at several hypotheses. All of them fail to make sense of the evidence that we have. There is one, and only one, theory that satisfies all of the evidence. So precisely does it deal with all of the information that it is a very small step from calling it a theory of faith to calling it a fact of history. And that fact is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Now, there may be some here today who say, “No, dead people don’t rise, and therefore Jesus is not risen.” Or perhaps, “Miracles don’t happen, therefore Jesus could not have risen.” I want to challenge your thinking on that. As an intellectual, is it not best to suspend all presuppositions and biases that might affect how you interpret the evidence? Is it not best to draw your conclusions after all the facts are in, rather than having your mind made up before you ever consider the evidence? Rather than saying, “There is no God, therefore there are no miracles, therefore Christ is not risen,” could you not also say, intelligently and intellectually, “Christ is risen, therefore miracles do (or at least have occurred), therefore there is a God”?

When the women arrived at the tomb, this angel of the Lord was still present. He had rolled the stone away and sat upon it. I don’t know why I just love that detail: he sat on it. This angel says in v5, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.” So, the explanation given to the women is this: Jesus was dead (“Jesus who has been crucified”); the tomb is empty (“He is not here”; “Come, see”); remember that He said many times that He would die in this way AND that He would rise (“just as He said”); therefore, “He has risen!” Now if that is all we had, we might be prone to think that this angel-episode was a made up story. Even if it was true, what if the angel was lying? What if the angel had destroyed the body or stolen the body? Again, why resort to one explanation which is harder to believe in order to avoid another which is actually easier to believe? Do we have evidence of angelic body-snatchings? But, for argument’s sake, how do we know that the angel didn’t pull a fast one on the women? After all, Satan is a fallen angel and he deceived Eve in the garden. Here we are in a garden. Here are some women. Here is an angelic being. Is this a deception?
We know that it was not, because the angel said in v7, “you will see Him.” And in v9, notice, “Jesus met them and greeted them.” And He kept making appearances. He appeared, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:5-7, to Cephas (that is, Peter), then to the twelve, then to more than 500 brethren at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Of course there were other appearances as well, like to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, so well over 500 people saw the risen Lord Jesus. Now it is interesting that Paul says of these 500 that they all saw Him at the same time, and that many of them are still alive when Paul writes these words. In other words you can ask them about what they saw. And the fact that they all saw Him at one time means that this was not a dream, a vision, a hallucination, or a figment of their imaginations. Suppose I said to you, “Man, Wasn’t that a crazy dream I had last night. Don’t you remember it? You were there.” That worked in the movie Inception; it doesn’t work in real life. Dreams, visions, hallucinations, are all privatized experiences. We do not share them. But here 500 people saw the risen Jesus at one time. How did that happen? It happened because He was alive, risen from the dead and standing in their midst. Luke says in Acts 1:3 that “He … presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days.”
The facts are here presented. Jesus was dead. Jesus was buried. Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty on that Sunday morning long ago, because Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to His disciples, and ascended into heaven where He presently is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from whence He will return again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, God in human form, and He claimed that His death was a sacrifice for our sins. He bore our sins and received the penalty that our sins require in His own body in His suffering, and He conquered sin and death through His glorious resurrection. Therefore, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:14, “If Christ has not been raise, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” He goes on to say in 1 Cor 15:17-18, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins,” and those believers who have already died have perished eternally. So, on the basis of His death and resurrection, we have the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, to be covered in Christ’s righteousness, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to receive eternal life, and to have the hope of the promise of a resurrection from the dead with Christ. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” There is no other hope for humanity to overcome our sins and to be reconciled to God except through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So, on this Easter Sunday, I want to ask you: Have you placed your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life? He died for you; He is risen from the dead, and He will save you from sin and all its penalty, its power, and its punishment if you will turn from sin and trust in Him. Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” This promise is for you. Have you placed your faith in Him? Faith is not something we opt for instead of reason; it is a reasonable response to the facts of who Christ is and what He has done. We present to you today a risen Savior, a deathproof King, who is your only hope of salvation and eternal life, in hopes that if you have not done so before, then this day you might turn to Him and believe. And if you believe, then His triumph over the tomb is worth celebrating, not just once a year; not even once a week; but every moment of every day, we who believe on Christ should celebrate and rejoice that death could not hold Him down. And because He has conquered death for us, we shall share in the triumph as well. This is a fact that should cause us to celebrate, to worship, and to boldly make this good news known to all people everywhere.

[1] Cited in McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 225.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jonah at a Glance

A Summary of Background Issues[1]
Russ Reaves, Immanuel Baptist Church

·         Not stated within the book.
·         Possibly written by Jonah or one of his contemporaries

·         Depends on the question of authorship.
·         Assuming Jonah or a contemporary wrote the book, it can be dated to the 8th Century B.C. (700s), prior to 722 BC, when Israel fell to Assyria.

·         The book describes historical, factual events experienced by the prophet Jonah.
·         It is not allegory, parable, midrash, or any other form of unhistorical literature.
·         It contains poetry, figurative language, and anthropomorphism, but in the context of relating a historical account.
·         Most attempts to identify Jonah as unhistorical are rooted in an anti-supernatural bias that refuses to accept the miraculous elements of the story.

·         “This little book of Jonah is not intended to communicate merely a message, but messages.” Bryan D. Estelle
·         These messages include:
o       The attributes of God, namely His holiness, His mercy, and His sovereignty.
o       God’s desire to bring salvation and true knowledge of Himself to all nations.
o       Jesus saw the book as an illustration of His own death, burial and resurrection (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; 11:29-30).
o       These are but a few of the many messages taught within the book of Jonah.

I. God’s First Call and Jonah’s Response (1:1-16)
II. God’s Rescue of the Rebellious Prophet (1:17-2:10)
III. God’s Second Commission and Jonah’s Obedience (3:1-10)
IV. Jonah’s Displeasure and God’s Response (4:1-11)

[1] Full argumentation and defense of these positions can be found in the longer paper I have written entitled “Jonah: A Background Study”. This document can be found online at
[2] Frank Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (New American Commentary 19B; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), p. 222. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

With Christ at the Cross (Matthew 27:33-54)

Do you ever wonder why miracles do not happen as often today as it would seem they once did? Of course, there are many who believe that miracles do not happen at all, not now, not then. And there are some who resort to sentimentality and believe that everything is a miracle. But in actuality, Christians live in a different category. We believe that there are miracles. Throughout history, God has intervened in the universe at specific times and in specific ways that can only be called miraculous. But, this does not mean that everything is a miracle. Every flower that blooms and every sunrise are not miracles, they are the normal ordinary workings of the world that God created. Miracles, by definition, are rare. They are rare today, and they have always been rare. There have been periods in history in which miracles occurred with increased frequency and intensity, but those have been relatively short windows of time. The Bible records four of those periods of time: creation, the redemption of Israel from Egypt, the beginnings of the prophetic ministry in Israel (with Elijah, Elisha, and Jonah), and the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and His apostles. In each of these periods, God was revealing Himself in new, specific, and unique ways. At creation, God was revealing Himself through the things that He made. During the Exodus, God was revealing Himself to Israel through the Law and the establishment of His covenant with the nation. During the ministry of the earliest prophets, God was revealing Himself through human agents who would speak for Him. During the life of Jesus, God was revealing Himself through His Son, the incarnate God-Man. And during the apostolic era, God was revealing Himself through those whom Jesus chose, who taught and wrote the words and works of Jesus which we now possess in the New Testament. In these four periods of time, God’s new revelation of Himself was confirmed or validated through signs and wonders. Outside of these four epochs of time, miracles still occurred, even as they do now, but they are rare and isolated events. God has revealed Himself fully and finally to the world in the person of Jesus Christ and in the pages of His Word, the Bible. There is no new revelation to validate, nor will there be until the end when Christ returns.

We are focusing in these weeks on the final episodes in the earthly life of Jesus Christ, and today we come to His death on the cross. And we should not be surprised, in light of the eternal significance of this moment, to find that it is punctuated throughout by the miraculous, just as His birth was. At Christmas we often discuss the annunciation to Mary, the virginal conception, the star that leads the Magi to Jesus, the angels that appear to the shepherds, and other miracles that heralded His coming into the world. And at Easter, we of course have the most significant miracle of all – the resurrection of Jesus. But the resurrection is not the only miracle that occurred surrounding the death of Jesus. In the account we have read from the Gospel According to Matthew, we read no less than five divine miracles that occurred as Jesus Christ hung on the cross at Golgotha. And just as every miracle points to a divine truth beyond itself, so these both signify and validate divine truth that God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. When we come with Christ to the cross, our eyes are opened to spiritual truth about who He is and what He has come to accomplish. So, as we examine these five miracles that are recorded in Matthew 27, we want to observe the phenomena that occurred, but we also want to see the truths to which these signs and wonders point.

I. The Miracle of the Sun (v45)

Earlier this year, on January 4, there was a solar eclipse. If you don’t recall it, don’t feel bad. It was only a partial eclipse, and wasn’t significantly visible here in America. Eclipses happen somewhat frequently. Four of them will occur in 2011, but all of these will be partial. Total eclipses are rarer. Of the 21 solar eclipses that have occurred in this century thus far, only 7 have been total. And when they occur, they are so brief as to be rather unspectacular. A few years ago, on July 22, 2009, the longest total eclipse of the twenty-first century occurred. It lasted all of six and a half minutes.[1]

Now when Jesus died, the sky grew dark, and the Bible tells us that it was dark for three hours, from the sixth to ninth hours (that is, from noon until 3 PM). Many have speculated that this darkness was the result of a total solar eclipse. Some twenty years after the death of Jesus, a historian named Thallus was writing about the Passover season in which Jesus died, and mentions that there was darkness that covered the whole world. [2] Apparently, it was written about far and wide. Writing around 200 AD, Tertullian discussed this darkness with a pagan audience and said that the “wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your archives to this day.”[3] Thallus, who was alive when it happened, said that this was an eclipse. But the darkness of that day could not have been a total solar eclipse for a number of reasons. First, solar eclipses do not last three hours. Second, solar eclipses do not darken the whole earth. And third, solar eclipses cannot occur during a full moon, and we know that this was a time of full moon for it occurred during Passover, which always fell on a full moon. Therefore, this darkness was no eclipse. So what was it? It was a miracle. But what did it signify?

During these three hours of darkness, the narrative of Scripture falls silent. Before this, we were told about what the soldiers were doing, what the crowds were saying, what Jesus was saying to those around Him, but now there is only silence. But we are told that at the ninth hour, as the darkness was breaking so was the silence. Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” And that statement is enough to tell us that during those dark and silent hours, the Son of God was bearing our sins and the wrath of God was being poured out on Him for all the iniquity of the human race. Jesus was dying there as our substitute, in our place, an innocent sacrifice for our sins. Out of His great love for us, God became one of us in the person of Jesus – fully God and fully man. And in that body that He bore, He bore our sins and the curse of sin for us. In that moment, the Father turned His face away from His only begotten Son as the Son bore our sin and the wrath that we deserve to bear. And the severity of that judgment was enough to blot out the sun for three hours in the middle of the day. Darkness is frequently indicative of judgment in Scripture, as Jesus says even of hell that it will be a place of outer darkness. During these three dark hours, hell on earth had broken out literally as human sin was being punished in the person of Jesus Christ, who became our substitute on the cross. And the darkness signified that Christ was bearing our wrath.

II. The Miracle of the Sanctuary (v51a)

The temple of Jerusalem was one of the grandest buildings in the ancient world. It had been under construction for nearly 50 years and wasn’t finished yet. It was the place where the faithful Jews believed that the presence of God was most evident. Outside the temple, sacrifices were made for sins, and offerings of thanksgiving were given. Inside the walls of that temple there was a holy place where burning candles represented the light of God shining in the darkness and where incense burned to demonstrate the rising of the prayers of the people. But beyond this was the Holy of Holies, where no common man could ever enter. Only the high priest could go in, and he only once a year, and only carrying the blood of a sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of the nation. To protect the holiness of that place, a magnificent veil was suspended from the rafters of the temple. 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 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.” It said, “When you approach God, you can come this far but no further.” If you enter beyond that veil, 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. When Jesus died, it was the exact moment of the evening sacrifice at the temple, the ninth hour, 3 PM. 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 an annual day of atonement. This day would become the full and final day of atoning sacrifice for all people and for all time. 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. And the door is Jesus Christ. 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 by which we enter through into God’s holy presence. Because of Jesus’ death, there was a miracle in the sanctuary that signified that access to God’s presence had been granted to sinful men who come by the way of the cross of Jesus.

III. The Miracle of the Stones (v51b)

There is a vast area of the earth around the Pacific Ocean known as the “Ring of Fire.” Around this 25,000 mile “horseshoe” 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur and 75% of the world’s volcanoes are located. When we hear news of a devastating natural disaster, we are not surprised to hear of it coming from that part of the world. Israel, however, is nowhere near that part of the world. It would be wrong to say that earthquakes are rare in Israel. The Jordan Rift Valley that runs through the middle of Israel is active seismically. But most of the earthquakes that occur in Israel would be undetectable if not for sophisticated technology. But on the day that Jesus died, “the earth shook” with such force that “the rocks were split.”

Not all earthquakes are miracles. Of the ones recorded in the Bible, only a small number of them can be called “miraculous.” Earthquakes are a result of sin’s effects in the world. We do not know when the first earthquake occurred, but we know why they began to happen. When God brought judgment on the whole world in the days of Noah, rain fell for forty days and forty nights. But the Bible says in Genesis 9:11 that in addition to “the floodgates of the sky” being opened, “all the fountains of the great deep burst open.” This is most likely the origin of the earth’s tectonic plates and fault lines. And the combination of the atmospheric changes and geological changes that occurred in the flood is the cause of most of the natural disasters that still occur in the world today. So, every time this happens, we are reminded that human sin has not only affected humanity. Sin has affected the entire world. So Paul says in Romans 8:19-22,

19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Every earthquake, volcano, tsunami, hurricane, and other natural disaster is a reminder that this world has been broken by our sin, and will be renewed when God brings about the new heaven and the new earth. And that process of redemption is being carried about by God through Jesus Christ, as a result of His victory over sin at the cross and in His resurrection. It will be completed in His perfect time according to His perfect will, and these things will no longer occur.

The earthquake on the day that Christ died and the one that occurred on the day He arose are reminders of this truth, but they also point us to another significant spiritual truth. As miracles, these earthquakes reinforce God’s revealed truth. When God instituted His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, when He gave His Law to Moses, there was an earthquake. Exodus 19:18 says, “Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.” And here as Jesus dies on the cross, God is instituting a New Covenant with humanity, giving His Son to the whole world as a sacrificial substitute for our sins. And the whole earth shook and the rocks were split to reinforce that great truth that is written in the Gospel According to John: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

IV. The Miracle of the Sepulcher (vv52-53)

In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 75 percent of the monuments in the Holy Cross Cemetery were either thrown down or twisted off their bases.[4] However, as far as we know, in that 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, no dead people came out of their graves and walked around the city. Nor has this happened in any other earthquake that has ever occurred, except for one. Matthew tells us that this happened in Jerusalem when Jesus died. Matthew is the only Gospel-writer who records this detail, and he does it in a rather matter-of-fact kind of way. There is no theologizing or explaining, just a straightforward report of what happened. “Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” So, when Jesus died, the tombs were broken open and death’s grip on these corpses began to lose its power as they were brought to life as if being awakened from sleep. Then, following Jesus’ resurrection, while He was making appearances of His own to His disciples, these saints were also making appearances around Jerusalem.

There are far more details that we do not know than those that we know. All we know is what is said here in these two verses. We do not know how many of the dead were raised to life. We do not know if they were well known (David, Abraham, Isaiah, and people like that), or if they were “Average Joe” kind of folks. We do not know if they were people who had recently died or if they had died long ago. We do not know if their “resurrection” was like that of Lazarus, who was raised to life, but certainly died again later; or was this a final resurrection, after which they ascended into heaven. We don’t know who they saw in Jerusalem, or what they did, or what they said. We want to know all of those things, but alas we have to say we do not, and cannot, know. The Bible doesn’t tell us all we want to know. It does tell us all we need to know. And what this miracle tells us is that the death of Jesus has brought unconquerable life to those who believe on Him.

Jesus had told His disciples, “Because I live, you will live also.” But here is Jesus dying, so what kind of hope is that? It is a great hope, because death can neither hold Christ nor those who are His in its grasp. His death and resurrection infuses those who hope in Him with life abundant and eternal. Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:

20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 1 Cor 15:20-24 (NASB)

51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable , and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 "O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:51-57 (NASB)

Some, for whatever reason God intended, and according to His sovereign choice, had the opportunity to experience the power of His resurrection in advance of the rest of us. And the partial resurrection which occurred on that day as Jesus died “was a foretaste and a pledge of the final resurrection of all who believe on Jesus.” God was indicating through this miracle that “this is the destiny of all who believe on Jesus Christ as their Savior.”[5] Their appearance in the holy city was proof that Christ had conquered death, not merely for Himself but for all who belong to Him. Jesus said that “an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth” (John 5:28-29a). When Jesus raised Lazarus from death, He told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). And that really is one of the most important questions we can ask today. Do you believe this? Do you believe that the death of Christ has brought life to those who are dead already in their trespasses and sins? The Bible tells us that we are all sinners by nature and by choice, that sin has made us spiritually dead, and that the wages of sin is death, and that to die separated from God in sin is to spend eternity under His just condemnation. But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting LIFE. Do you believe this? As we look at the final miracle that occurred when Jesus died on the cross, we will find some who did believe it.

V. The Miracle of the Soldier (v54)

The centurion and the soldiers under his command were not passers-by. They were on duty, “keeping guard over Jesus.” Mark tells us that the centurion was “standing right in front of” Jesus as He died. He had been the supervisor of all that had been done to Jesus that day. He had been present, and maybe even gave the orders, earlier in the morning when Jesus had been beaten, scourged and mocked. These soldiers had gambled for Jesus’ garments. They were there and heard Pilate say that he found no fault in Jesus. They heard the accusations and they heard Jesus affirm that He claimed to be the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the divine Son of God. These soldiers had accompanied Jesus as He was marched toward Golgotha. And they were the ones nailing Jesus to the cross and raising Him up to die this cruel, agonizing and humiliating death. Undoubtedly, these men had witnessed more than their share of crucifixions. Hard as it may seem to fathom, they may have become numb to the sights and sounds of watching men die in this way. The entire ordeal had probably become routine. When this day began, Jesus was just another hoodlum being taken out to die. But something happened in the heart of this centurion and his soldiers as the day went on. They saw in Jesus a man who did not fight or resist or protest. He prayed for those who were putting Him to death. He did not rail against those who harassed Him, and He promised a dying thief on a cross beside of Him an eternity in Paradise. They saw Him die like no other person had ever died on the cross. The death could take days of agony. Jesus didn’t linger long. Within hours, almost as if Jesus had command over His very last breath, the centurion and his men watched Jesus cry out to His Father and give up His life with the words, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit. It is finished.” And then He was dead. Others had to have their legs broken to speed the process along. This was not necessary for Jesus. He had clearly laid His life down.

Mark says that when this centurion saw the way that Jesus had breathed His last, something happened inside of him. He’d seen many die upon crosses, but this one was different. When this man died, darkness covered the whole land. When this man died, the earth shook. When this man died, the temple was put into upheaval. When this man died, tombs were opened across the city. And Matthew says that when these soldiers saw these things happen, they became very frightened. But what happened next was the greatest miracle of all. The Holy Spirit of God began to move upon these soldiers’ hearts to reveal spiritual truth to them, and in that moment they confessed, “Truly this was the Son of God!” These men were every bit as dead as those in the tombs. Though physically they were alive, spiritually they were dead in sin, just as every human being is. But they were gloriously made alive by their response of faith toward Jesus on that very day.

And this miracle continues to happen every time the blinded eyes of a human being are opened to the glory of Christ. Every time someone comes to understand the significance of His death for their sins, they receive life in Him. The death Christ died was every bit as much for you as it was for the centurion. He died for their sins, and He died for your sins. What hope do we have apart from Jesus dying on the cross for us? We have no other hope. What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. This is all my righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus. O precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Have you come to Him and called on Him to save you from your sin? He has taken the condemnation that you and I deserve for our sins, and He has conquered death through His cross and resurrection. The life He died to give you can be yours if you turn from sin and self to trust in Him. He proclaimed that He was going to give His life as a ransom for many. Are you among those many who have received new life as a result of His death? Jesus said, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.”[6] In other words, believe that He is God in the flesh, and that He has come and done what He promised to do. He has come to save us from our sin through His death and resurrection. Jesus said, “Believe Me … otherwise believe because of the works,”[7] the miracles, the signs and wonders that were accomplished as He came into the world, as He walked through this world, and as He left this world through His sacrificial death. How can you believe that He is who He said and that He has provided the salvation He has promised? He has verified it through these signs and wonders, many of which occurred even as He breathed His last on the cross. And every one of these miracles is pointing your attention to this Man on the Cross, and crying out to you, “Believe in Him. Find life for yourself here in His precious death for you.”

[2] Josh McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 58.
[3] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 2, The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 623.
[5] Boice, pp. 626-627.
[6] John 14:11
[7] John 14:11

Monday, April 11, 2011

How to Reach the Hard to Reach (by One Who Used To Be One)

I know a lot about hard-hearted unbelievers. I used to be one. My conversion from atheism to Christianity was rather dramatic and shocking. It was not a long drawn out process. I woke up one morning, another of many mornings in which I believed that God did not exist. By mid-morning I was convinced that He did exist, and late in the evening I gave my life to Jesus. There can be no doubt, from Scripture or my personal experience, that God did the saving ... I did nothing but receive. Salvation is of the Lord. He is mighty to save and He must do the saving according to His sovereign will, by His sufficient power, in His perfect time. But the Bible assures us that the Spirit works through the Word of God and the witness of the believer to call out the ones He will save. And looking back on how this happened in my life, I can distill several lessons on evangelism that I learned from the people whom God used to reach me. 

1. Be a friend with no strings attached. In my life, I had met many Christians who were willing to be my adversary or to be my friend if I would believe in their God. It was a long time before I met any who were willing to be my friends, even though I was not a Christian. They did not make my conversion a condition on their love and acceptance of me. They desired it and they prayed for it and they took opportunities to discuss it with me, but I was never made to feel that I must convert in order to remain within their circle of friends.

2. Be up-front and honest about your beliefs and convictions. One of the first things I learned about the people God used in my life was that they were Christians. They spoke openly and often of their faith, their church, and the Bible. There was not a weekend that they did not invite me to church. If our plans included Saturday nights, we needed to wrap it up early and I was often invited to overnight with them to attend church the next day. Sunday plans had to wait until church was over. Sunday nights were also for church. They were frustratingly inflexible about this, but I came to see it as an expression of the genuineness of their faith.

3. You don't have to be perfect. There's something always telling us that if we try to share our faith with our friends and family, they will think we are hypocrites because they know about our sin. That something is the devil. None of us are perfect, none of us comes close. So Christians tend to err in 2 ways: 1) Pretend you're perfect; 2) Never witness. Both of these are wrong. My friends failed often to "walk the walk." But I never saw it as hypocrisy, because they spoke openly about things like sin, salvation, repentance and forgiveness. I witnessed moments of broken confession and saw them at times holding one another accountable and being strong for ones who were weak. I saw them fall, but I always saw them falling toward the cross.

4. Give them a Bible and find a way to get them reading it. It is not necessary for you "to find the right words." God has given us a whole book full of His own. And this is what He has promised to use to save the lost. My friends invited me to a retreat and gave me a Bible on the way there. Every morning we would read a portion of the Bible that would be the theme of that day's discussions. That quickly became my favorite part of the day. And it was during that time in God's word that I found myself suddenly believing in Him. Now, you may not have a retreat that you can invite a friend to (but you might, and have just never given thought to it), but could you invite a friend over to fellowship with a group of Christians and have a Bible discussion? You could say, "We are discussing the life of Jesus, and in preparation this week we are reading Mark 14. Why not read that and join us?"

I can't promise you that God will save your hard to reach friend. I can promise you that He can. And I can promise you that He will not apart from His Spirit, His Word, and His people. There are many so-called methods of evangelism out there, but I have found that God works best when we abandon methods in exchange for love of others and confidence in Him and His Word. 

Online Giving

Recently, I ran into a dilemma as I wrote my tithe check. It was the last check in my next-to-last book of checks. Years ago, I would have filled out the little form that said, "REORDER NEW CHECKS NOW" without even wondering about it. But, today, I find that the tithe check I write for church is the ONLY check I ever write. Like so many others, debit cards and online bill payment has replaced my need to use checks. So, my dilemma was this: Should I reorder checks just to write tithe checks, or should I begin processing my tithe through my bank's online bill payment service? This was a difficult question to answer.

For years, I have felt that it was important for me to put that envelope in the plate every Sunday. One reason was biblical. In Exodus 23:15, the Lord said to Israel concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread, "none shall appear before Me empty-handed." Instructions and examples like this are repeated throughout the Old Testament. Then in the New Testament, we have this pattern for giving in 1 Corinthians 16:2 of setting aside an offering "on the first day of every week." I felt it was important to honor the Lord with an offering in the plate every Lord's Day. The second reason I felt it important to put the offering in every Sunday was practical, or moral. As the pastor, I felt it was important to lead by example in the matter of giving, and letting the congregation see me placing that envelope in the plate was a way of showing that I am not there just to take from the church. I am giving to it as they are. And as important as this conviction was, and continues to be, I was always uneasy about this because of what Jesus said about giving in Matthew 6:2-4. "So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." I was always torn between my responsibility to lead by example and my responsibility to rest in God's complete knowledge of that which is done in secret. 

As I wrestled with my dilemma (to order checks or not order checks) I came to realize that my desire to lead by example may have actually become an issue of spiritual pride and a seeking after the applause of men. I also came to realize that my adherence to the "letter of the law" concerning "first day giving" and "empty-handedness" had perhaps usurped the "spirit of the law", particularly regarding giving in secrecy and with a joyful heart. Suddenly the answer to my dilemma was becoming clearer. It seemed to me that if checks are no longer a regular part of my personal banking habits, I could continue my stewardship practices in a new way. 

A recent study by Lifeway Research found that 14% of American Protestant Churches offer online giving. The percentages are significantly greater in large churches (55% of those with attendance over 500), and smaller in small churches (9% of those with 100-199 in attendance; 7% of those with 50-99 attending). Though the study does not get into reasons for this, it is easy to speculate that in the smaller churches, the staff is already overburdened and does not have the time to research, implement and administer a system of online giving. In many cases the small church's budget cannot handle the cost of implementing and maintaining a system of online giving. Many of these smaller churches undoubtedly do not even have a website, therefore there is no platform for any online interaction with the church. 

Additional research further illustrated that 53% of Americans were using online banking in 2007. So, lets say that you, like me, are part of that majority. But your church, like mine, does not have a system of online giving in place. What can you do? This is what I have chosen to do, and what I would encourage you to do as well. If you use your bank's online bill-pay system, add your church to your list of "billers", and enter in the relevant information (address, phone number, etc.). If your church relies on "envelope numbers" rather than names to credit your giving, you could enter your envelope number as your "account number." Then you will be able to either set up automatic payments to recur at regular intervals, or process your tithes and offerings as you process your other bills every month or every pay-period. When you do this, assuming that your bank is like mine, they will print and mail your check for you to your church at no cost either to you or your church. So, your bank may have actually solved a significant dilemma for you (in God's common grace). They have given you a portal for online giving that costs your church no time, effort, or money; they have made giving more convenient for you; they have provided you with a "history" file you can use as a check-and-balance on your end of year statement from the church; and they have given you a system that you can use to give more regularly, more consistently, and perhaps even more generously. If you do decide to go this route with your giving, I would recommend alerting your church so that they know to expect that "the check's in the mail," and also so they may be able to reduce the supply of offering envelopes they order. Many churchgoers give little thought to the fact that the church has a significant financial outlay every year in buying those envelopes that they give you. Use them! Or else, if you are going to give online, tell them you do not need them anymore (this may necessitate changing your "number", but I think you can survive the trauma of that).

So, you want to give online, but your church doesn't allow you to? Let your bank handle that for you through their online bill-pay system. And the biggest problem you will have will be letting that plate pass by you on Sunday knowing that someone sitting near you may be thinking that you are robbing God. I heard someone suggest humorously once that churches should provide "online givers" with a badge that says "I Give Online" so people seated near them will not judge them. But remember what Jesus said: "your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." And if you see someone, say for instance your pastor, not put their offering into the plate on Sunday, do not judge that person. Be more concerned about what you are and are not doing. That person will answer to the same God to whom you answer, and on that day your stewardship will be more of a concern to you than theirs. Prepare for that day here and now.

With Christ on Trial (Mark 15:1-15)

Audio (Recording glitch in the beginning, portions of intro omitted from .mp3 file)

Several weeks ago we began a series of messages which we are calling With Christ Through Easter. We’ve been examining scene-by-scene the critical episodes in Christ’s final earthly hours before the Cross. We have been with Christ at the table; with Christ in the garden; with Christ at the scene of the arrest; and today we are with Christ on trial. Now, often in the literature concerning this episode in the life of Christ, we find the process of His trial referred to as a “kangaroo court.” Now, that evokes a humorous image in the mind: a courtroom filled with kangaroos, and they are hopping back and forth from the witness stand and the judge’s bench. But that is not what a kangaroo court is obviously. Nor is a kangaroo court one that bounces from venue to venue, though that is certainly what happened in the trial of Jesus. Rather, the phrase describes a trial in which the outcome is essentially determined before it ever begins, and the whole thing moves along, going through the motions of judicial process in a manipulative way, but in actuality compromising the principles of justice. How it came to be called a “kangaroo court” is actually something of a historical mystery, but in such cases, the entire process is nothing but a sham and a mockery of justice. And that is certainly what we have with the trial of Jesus. This trial began in the middle of the night and was all but finished before sunrise; the charges were fabricated; the witnesses were coerced or bribed; and rather than being innocent until proven guilty, Jesus was considered guilty and not even given a chance to prove Himself innocent. Yet, the Father’s perfect sovereign plan to redeem humanity from sin and reconcile the world to Himself in Jesus was advancing in spite of this perversion of justice.

Today, we are focusing on the final phase of the trial, and we are admittedly jumping over (no pun intended) five other phases which preceded this one. Following Jesus’ arrest in the garden, He was taken in the middle of the night to the home of Annas, who is described in John 18 as the father-in-law of the high priest, Caiaphas. Annas had been the high priest twenty years earlier, from AD 7 – AD 14, and had controlled the office of high priest ever since. He was followed in the office of high priest by five of his sons, and the office was presently held by his son-in-law, Caiphas. Therefore, he is often referred to as the high priest, even long after his tenure had officially ended because everyone knew that he held the power. Annas and his family had amassed significant wealth through their influence over the religious system of Israel. You know how Jesus chased out the money changers and the animal vendors from the temple, not once but twice. In doing this, Jesus made Himself the enemy of Annas and his family because those temple merchants were their source of prosperity. Every time someone exchanged their Roman coins for Jewish ones at the temple, an exorbitant fee was charged, and a sizeable commission was paid by the money changer directly to the high priest and his family. They were also in control of animal inspection for the sacrifices. They determined which ones were fit and unfit as offerings at the temple. So, they had installed merchants at the temple selling “precertified” animals from which they could collect commissions as well. Jesus had said that the temple had been transformed from a house of prayer for all nations into a den of robbers, and Annas was the head boss of the largest organized crime ring in Israel at that time. And Jesus had called him on the carpet about it, and Annas and his entire family hated Jesus for it and wanted Him dead. When Jesus appeared before Annas in John 18, he tried to get Jesus to confess to something that could be twisted into a capital crime charge, but Jesus didn’t fall for it. He refused to answer the questions that Annas asked about His disciples and His teaching, so Annas sent him over to the home of his son-in-law, the present high priest Caiaphas. The journey wasn’t far; they probably lived next door to each other and shared a common courtyard.

By the time Caiaphas came into the picture the courtyard had become more crowded. Mark tells us in 15:55 that the chief priests and the Council had been trying to recruit witnesses to testify against Jesus, and many were willing to give false testimonies, which was itself a capital crime, but none of them could agree. Finally Caiaphas put Jesus under oath and said, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” In saying “Blessed One,” he was feigning piety by substituting titles for God. “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” And Jesus answered, “I am.” He used the divine name of God, the Great I Am, to affirm the question and to assert His own deity. And He proclaimed to Caiaphas that He was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies that had been written concerning Him in Psalm 110 and Daniel 7. Now they had their charge. Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. Of course, He is only blaspheming if His claim to be the divine Son of God and the Messiah is not true. It is true, but they have no interest in truth. They only want to be rid of Jesus forever.

From Caiaphas’s house, the trial moved to the meeting place of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of 71 priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. There, the question was asked again, according to Luke 22: “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Jesus said, “If I tell you, you will not believe,” and again He pointed to the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 110:1. So they asked again, “Are You the Son of God?” and again Jesus answered, “Yes, I am.” Once again, He stated His claim to be God in the flesh. Since blasphemy was a capital offense according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus could be sentenced to death. But the Romans had prohibited the Jewish authorities from executing criminals, so in order to put Jesus to death, they had to convince the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to go along with it.

Pilate was appointed in AD 26 by the Emperor Tiberius as the fifth governor or “prefect” in Judea. He held that post until AD 37, the longest tenure of the 14 Roman governors in Judea. It was a notoriously difficult place to represent Roman authority. He had failed many times, and he knew that there were many, both in Jerusalem and in Rome, who wanted him removed from office. Though he was not overly corrupt compared to many political figures of his day were, he was described by the ancient historians Philo and Josephus as a cruel and stubborn man. He was a politician in the truest sense of the word, having to stand for the powers of Rome while keeping the peace among the Jews. And for that reason, Pilate really didn’t want to have to make the hard decision about what to do with Jesus.

Mark does not record a detail that Luke provides, namely that at one point Pilate tried to pass Jesus off to Herod Antipas, the same ruthless ruler who had executed John the Baptist. Now Luke tells us that Herod had actually wanted to meet Jesus to see if He would do some miracles for him. But Jesus refused to amuse Herod, so Herod just bounced Jesus right back over to Pilate. No matter how he tries to escape it, Pilate is going to have to make this judgment on Jesus. And while Jesus refused to amuse Herod, He did not fail to amaze Pilate. Mark 15:5 tells us that Pilate was amazed. What was it that he found so amazing about Jesus? It was His quiet confidence. He refuses to mount a defense, to protest the charges, or to answer any questions except the ones that ask directly if He is who He claimed to be. We see here the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7, a prophecy spoken about the Messiah some 700 years before Jesus was born, which says, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” How can it be so? How could He not speak up and bring this thing to a halt? How can He endure the lies and the ridicule and the verbal harassment? We learn why as we examine the details of this text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see, there isn’t a person in this room who is any better than Barabbas. The Bible says that all of us have sinned. We are sinners by nature and by choice, born in a state of rebellion and inclined to disobey God from the womb. Just as Barabbas is guilty of treason against Rome’s authority, the rest of us are guilty of treason against God’s authority. And the Bible also tells us in James 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That means that in God’s eyes there are no degrees to sin. What is the most awful sin you can imagine? Who is the most vile sinner you can envision? Before you answer, you should know that according to God’s word, your sin is no better and you are no better. I must hate no one else’s sin more than I hate my own. That doesn’t mean I hate theirs less. It means I need to hate mine more.

Sin is sin. Jesus explained this in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He also said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt 5:21-22). We may think, “Well, I’ve done some bad things, you know, but I never killed anybody before.” Don’t be so sure. Jesus would have us to examine our lives and ask, “Have I ever been angry with another person? Have I ever hurled insults at another? Have I ever condemned another person?” These, He says, are of equal severity in God’s eyes with murder. Welcome to Murderers Anonymous. My name is Russ, and I am a serial killer.

The Gospel of Jesus is Good News. You say, “Doesn’t sound like good news, you said we’re all rebellious murderers.” Ah, but there is good news for rebellious murderers. Jesus came to be your substitute, your sacrifice. Death is for sinners! The Bible says that: Romans 6:23 – The wages of sin is death. Jesus didn’t deserve death, because He had not sinned. We deserve death because we have sinned. And not just death, but wrath, condemnation, judgment and hell. But Jesus has become our substitute. He took Barabbas’ place in death, and He has taken our place in death, that we may go free. Our sins are placed upon Him and He receives our penalty for us, that we may be pardoned and liberated, set free from sin and death and hell. He receives the scourging and the cross that we deserve for our sins. We receive the covering of His perfect righteousness, and abundant life now, and eternal life forever, if we turn from our sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Paul said it this way in Romans 5:8 – “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21, he says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

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