Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Christian's Holy Days

This is my April newsletter article for Immanuel's Messenger:

For Christians, the two "high holy days" on our calendars each year are Christmas and Easter. While critics of the Christian faith often point out that the observance of these occasions are "late developments" and that they seem to be Christianized observances of pagan holidays, that is not entirely true. While the date of Christmas was not established immediately in Christian history, there does seem to be an early practice of commemorating the fact that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became flesh. Easter, though it was not called this by the earliest Christians, on the other hand was instituted almost immediately in the early church. The early church, however, did not always agree on a specific day each year that the Resurrection of Jesus would be celebrated. Rather, the Resurrection of Jesus was celebrated every week. That is why Christian worship occurred on Sunday, "the first day" of the week. Every time Christians gathered together for corporate worship on the Lord's Day, it was a commemoration that this was the day of the week on which Christ conquered death. Though Christians in the East and West observed different annual days for Christmas and Easter, both were celebrated by Christians around the world from very early on. This was a big change for Christians, especially those coming from Jewish backgrounds and some pagan backgrounds in which many feasts, festivals, and holy days were commemorated throughout the year. The Jewish people celebrated seven biblical holy days, and two more were added later, giving Israel a calendar of nine annual religious festivals. It is interesting, however, that the prophet Ezekiel speaks of a coming day when the people of God would celebrate not nine nor seven festivals, but only two. In Ezekiel 45, the prophet speaks of a reconstituted Israel, a reassembled people of God, coming together to commemorate an observance in the "first month," and another in the "seventh month." The festival of the first month is Passover, which corresponds to the Christian observance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The festival of the seventh month is the Feast of Tabernacles, which corresponds prophetically to the incarnation of Christ, when the eternal and divine Word of God became flesh and "tabernacled" among us (John 1:1, 14). Though the annual observance of the Feast of Tabernacles occurs in the Fall, some two or three months prior to the Christian observance of Christmas, it may well be that the birth of Jesus actually coincided with the Feast of Tabernacles. The actual dating of Christmas is irrelevant to the point that the prophetic significance of the Feast of Tabernacles is fulfilled in the incarnation of Christ. Thus, in our observance of these two high holy days, Christmas and Easter, we are seeing the fulfillment of that far off day envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel. It reminds us that the Church of Jesus Christ is the reconstituted and reassembled people of God, not an ethnic group or a national entity, but a body of Jews and Gentiles from all nations, gathered under the Fatherhood of God through faith in Jesus Christ. In Christmas, or Tabernacles, we commemorate the beginning of His earthly life and ministry of redeeming His people from the curse of sin. In Easter, Passover, or Resurrection Day, we commemorate the climax of His earthly life and ministry and the completion of that redemption through the atonement for sins that was accomplished in His cross and empty tomb. These two events define the life and work of Jesus, the virgin-born Son of God who came to seek and save that which is lost, and who came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. Therefore, these two events also define who we are as the people of God. We are His children, adopted by faith in the one who came for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who is risen from the dead for us. We commemorate this reality every year when we worship the incarnate Christ at Christmas and the risen Christ at Easter. In another sense, we celebrate these truths of who He is and who we are in Him every Sunday as we gather together for worship, and every day as we live out the reality of our faith. So, do Christians only have two holy days? In one sense, yes; and they are Christmas and Easter. But in another very real sense, we have 365 (and one-fourth!) holy days every year to celebrate that God has come to us in the person of Christ to rescue us from sin and reconcile us to Himself. I pray that this season of worship will be a meaningful time of reflection and meditation on the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for you as we exalt our Death-proof King! Remember, because He has risen from death to everlasting life, so we who belong to Him shall as well (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). 

Monday, March 26, 2012

I Am Thirsty (John 19:28-29)

As we have looked at the Sayings of Christ on the Cross, we have seen the range of emotions and attributes of Jesus on display. In the first saying, when He prayed for His Father to forgive His murderers, we saw His infinite mercy. In the second, when He promised paradise to the repentant criminal, we saw His abundant grace. In the third, when He entrusted the care of His mother to the Apostle John, we saw His tender compassion. In the fourth saying, after the sky was darkened and as He bore the sins of humanity under the flood of God’s judgment, He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” In that expression, we see His intense agony. Now we come to the fifth saying. He says simply, “I am thirsty.” These words seem rather pedestrian and unimportant to us perhaps. What could be significant about the fact that dying Savior is thirsty? The words He has spoken to this point are words that no one else could utter under those circumstances. Surely every person who died upon the cruel crosses of Rome experienced thirst as their lifeblood drained from their wounds. We may be tempted to think that this expression is relatively unimportant. But be sure of this, the words are of tremendous importance. If for no other reason, they are important because it is Jesus who spoke them, and no word that ever crossed His holy lips is unimportant. This statement is also important because the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of this statement in the Word of God. For some reason, God the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary for all generations to know that the Lord Jesus declared that He thirsted upon the cross. His thirst is significant for us. But why? What importance or significance can be found in these words? I don’t think we can exhaustively answer the question in the time that we have here, but we can at least begin to make an attempt at an answer. And in so doing, I want to point out four aspects of His thirst on the cross that are of the utmost importance for the world to know.

I. The Human Thirst of Jesus

Recently, I took my family down to Charlotte to visit the amazing exhibit of mummies from around the world that is temporarily on display at Discovery Place. They have some really amazing specimens in the exhibit, and it fascinating on so many levels. But one thing that really impressed me was a short video that is shown prior to entering the exhibit. In that video, the visitors are reminded that the mummies they are about to see are real people who lived real lives and died real deaths, and as such, they deserve dignity and respect. It would be easy to view them as merely historical artifacts or even to some degree objects of ancient art, and forget that they were real human beings. We can sometimes run into a similar dilemma regarding the humanity of Jesus.

Ever since the first century, people have customarily made three errors regarding Jesus. Some have considered Jesus to be fully God, and not at all human. This was the error of some Gnostics groups like the Docetics, for example, who believed that if you were to strike Jesus, your fist would pass right through Him, and that He didn’t leave footprints in the sand when He walked. In their thinking, if Jesus was fully God, He would have tarnished His deity by uniting it to human flesh. Others have made the opposite error, considering Jesus to be fully human, and not divine at all. I would suspect that this has been the most common misunderstand about Jesus throughout history. Certainly there are many people you know, and possibly some here today, who would consider Jesus to be a good man, maybe even the greatest man, who ever lived—but merely a man, and nothing more. The third error that people have made about Jesus is to see Him as something of a half-and-half being, a demigod perhaps, greater than a man, but not quite God. In the days of Constantine in the Fourth Century, the entire Roman Empire was in upheaval because of the teachings of a man named Arius who taught that Jesus had a nature that was greater than humanity, but not quite fully divine. Some have characterized his teaching by saying that Arius believed that at the birth of Jesus, that which was not God became that which was not man.

Well, if all of these are incorrect, what is the correct view of Jesus? The only proper way to understand who Jesus is would be to recognize Him as fully man AND fully God. He is not half-and-half, but all-and-all. In that sense, He is truly unique and nothing in the universe can ever compare to Him. We see His full deity in His virgin birth, His miracles, His limitless knowledge, and most vividly in His resurrection from the dead. Certainly, it is wrong to miss the fact that He is fully divine. But we must be careful to remember that Jesus was completely human in addition to being fully God, the two natures perfectly conjoined in one Being. We see His humanity on display as He grows from infancy to adulthood, and matures physically and grows in obedience to His earthly parents. We see Jesus being tired and sleeping; we see Him hungry; we see Him weeping. Have you ever considered the thought that Jesus had all the same bodily functions as you do? And on the cross, He demonstrated several very human experiences. He hurt. He suffered. He bled. He died. But before He died, He tells us that He thirsted as well. He was fully God, yes, but never forget, also fully human. And thank God He was. We need Him to be fully human.

If Jesus is going to redeem humanity from sin, He has to be human to make the sacrifice.  If He is going to bear our sins, He has to identify completely with us. If He is going to be our eternal High Priest, then He must be one who can sympathize completely with our human experience. And Hebrews 4:15 assures us that “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” If He were not fully human, it would make no difference that He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. If He were only God without a human nature, those temptations would have no effect upon Him, and His victory over them would not be significant. But because He was fully human, He could be our righteous and sinless substitute, because as a man, He fulfilled every command of God’s Law and withstood every temptation that humans can experience. Thus, He is able to be our sin bearer and to die as our substitute because, in addition to being fully God, He is fully human. The 21st Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “Who is the redeemer of God’s elect?” And the answer is, “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” The Apostle Paul put it this way: “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

It would be easy for you to think that God cannot relate to your hardships in life. But that would be a mistake. Remember that Jesus, in the flesh as a human being, was tempted in all things as we are. Have you been betrayed? So has He. Have you been mistreated? So has He. Have you known sorrow? So has He. Have you ever been thirsty? Yes, so has He! And because we have such a great high priest who can sympathize with our every human experience, Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We must never fail to worship Christ as our God, our fully divine Lord and King. But in so doing, we will be greatly helped in our daily Christian lives to remember that He was fully human also. He lived this life that we live. And as if to remind us never to forget, He says as He dies, “I am thirsty.” It is a very human experience—a very human thirst.

II. The Prophetic Thirst of Jesus

“I thirst.” It helps us understand and remember that Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully divine. That is the effect of the statement. But the effect of a thing is often different from the purpose of it. Did Jesus say these words for the purpose of telling us that He possessed a human nature? How could we ever know why He said this? Well, it would help if the Bible told us. And what do you know? It does! Look at verse 28, and let’s read it together slowly.

  • “After this” – After what? What precedes this in John’s Gospel is the third saying, when Jesus entrusted Mary into the care of John. But we know from comparing the accounts of the four Gospels that darkness had covered the land and from the depths of that darkness, Jesus had cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” as He bore in His body and soul the wrath that the sins of the whole human race deserved. So, it was after this.
  • “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished” – That is, He knew that the ransom had been paid, the debt had been settled, the penalty of sin had been satisfied and that death was rapidly approaching.
  • “To fulfill Scripture, [He] said, “I am thirsty.” – Ah! So here is the reason then plainly stated! Why did Jesus say, “I am thirsty?” He said it to fulfill Scripture.

Every prophecy that had ever been written about the coming, the ministry, and the suffering of the Messiah had nearly been fulfilled. Just a small number of things remained, and they would be completed momentarily. But there was one specific aspect of the suffering of the Messiah that needed to be acknowledged before His death: His thirst. In Psalm 22, David spoke of His own suffering, but what he wrote exceeded his own experiences. He wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of a far off day in which the Messiah, the royal offspring of David, would suffer a torture that no one in David’s day ever experienced or witnessed. The 22nd Psalm speaks of the forsaking by God that Jesus endured, and the betrayal and despising He experienced at the hands of men. It speaks of His bones being out of joint, the rupturing of His heart, the piercing of His hands and feet, the dividing of His garments. And in the midst of all this prophetic imagery of the cross, it says, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws” (Psalms 22:15). It was prophesied that the Messiah would thirst in His suffering.

Not only this, but in the 69th Psalm, we read that the very drink that Jesus was offered was prophesied in Scripture as well. David is again writing of his own suffering as a foreshadowing of the suffering of the Messiah. And in the midst of the description we read in Psalm 69, we read, “They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalms 69:21). And all of this was fulfilled with precision at the Cross. When He arrived at Golgotha, Matthew 27:34 says that they offered Jesus wine mixed with gall to drink. The word gall can have many meanings, but in this context it refers to a bitter-tasting poisonous herb that was mixed with sweet wine to make it palatable, and which was used as a narcotic, a rudimentary anesthesia, to kill pain. It was prophesied that Jesus would be given gall for His food. But it was not promised that He would take it. And He didn’t. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus refused this concoction when it was offered to Him. He would not deaden the pain or soften the suffering of His ordeal, nor would He dull His senses or His faculties as He bore the sins of the world. But it was also promised that they would give Him vinegar to drink. And when He said, “I am thirsty,” there just happened to be a jar of “sour wine” standing nearby, and it was offered to Him and He received it. It was a cheap wine vinegar that soldiers often used to slake their thirst. It could not have been water. It could not have been freshly made wine. It had to be the wine-vinegar that the NASB translates “sour wine,” because that is what had been prophesied. Had they offered Him anything else, we would have an unfulfilled prophecy of the Messiah’s suffering.

The Scriptures are very specific about the Messiah: who He would be, how He would come, what He would do, how He would suffer. And every jot and tittle of those prophecies had to be fulfilled with precision, and they were. Jesus had to announce His thirst so that the world would know that He was thirsty, and so that someone would raise the vinegar to Him. Thus, His thirst, and even the beverage He was offered, are testimonies that confirm that He alone is the promised Messiah and redeemer of Israel and the world. He said what He said so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

III. The Enduring Thirst of Jesus

I want you to imagine, to pretend, for a moment with me that you were at the cross witnessing the death of Jesus. Pretend that you were there, and that you were standing nearby. Maybe you are one of the soldiers there. You are close enough to hear Jesus speak with labored breath these sayings, and you hear Him say with a groaning whisper, “I am thirsty.” Looking around you, you see the jar of wine vinegar. You see a sponge laying there, and a stalk of a hyssop bush that you can use to raise the vinegar-soaked sponge to His parched lips. Are you there in your mind? Now, let me ask you, do you do it? Do you offer Him drink to satisfy His thirst? Some of us perhaps are thinking through this carefully. If I do this, what will the consequences be for me? Will I be punished for doing this? Is it appropriate? Is it permissible? Others perhaps would give no thought to those concerns and fears. You would say immediately, “Of course! Here is a thirsty man! Here is drink! Why should I not give Him drink? Yes! I would do it! I would give the thirsty Jesus a drink!”

Even the youngest children know that it is fun and easy to play pretend. You can pretend to be anything or do anything you can imagine. And in some of our daydreams and fantasies we always do better than we do in real life. So, the next time you see Jesus thirsty, what are you going to do? Are you going to give Him a drink? Now you say, “Pastor, I think you’ve been drinking sour wine! When are we ever going to see Jesus thirsty?” But no, I’m not crazy – well, I might be, but not about this. You see, Jesus Himself said that we will find Him thirsty, and we will have the opportunity to satisfy His thirst.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us what it will be like in the day of judgment, and He says that the angels will gather the nations before Him. He will separate the entire human race as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep will be on His right and the goats on His left. And to the sheep He will say, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (Matt 25:34-36). And these who are His righteous sheep will say to Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And Jesus says that He will say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:37-40). Now, who are these brothers of Jesus? Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of His brothers being His disciples (Matt 12:48-49; 28:10). This corresponds to the experience of the Saul on the road to Damascus, when the risen Jesus appeared to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul was unaware that he had been persecuting Jesus; in his mind He was only persecuting Christians. But Jesus seems to indicate that how we treat His followers is in effect how we are treating Him. What we do to them, we do to Him. But there is another sense in which the Christian is compelled to act in a charitable way to any person, regardless of whether or not they are believers in Christ. That seems to be the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. My neighbor, whom I am to love as myself, is anyone who has a need that I can meet. So, it seems that when Jesus says that whenever we have given drink to the least of His brethren, we’ve given it unto Him, that He intends to say that we should help anyone who has a need, giving particular attention to those of the family of faith. That, after all, is what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:10 – “ So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Perhaps he learned this lesson on the Damascus Road.

So, would you give Jesus a drink to satisfy His thirst? Know that around you today may be sitting a thirsty follower of Jesus, a brother or sister in the family of God who has a need that you have the means to meet. Will you serve them and meet that need? Jesus says that if you would, then what you are doing to them, you are actually doing for Him. And you are doing the same as you aid even the total stranger who may not even know Jesus. But your cup of cold water for the thirsty stranger may be the beginning of his or her journey to Jesus as they see Him in you through your act of lovingkindness. Jesus was thirsty on the cross, and His thirst endures. Will you offer Him drink?

IV. The Vicarious Thirst of Jesus

In the study of Christian doctrine, we sometimes encounter unfamiliar words that are difficult to understand. The recent trend has been to avoid those words in preaching and teaching so that we don’t confuse anyone. But I can’t help thinking that one of the purposes of preaching and teaching is to explain these words and concepts, rather than avoiding them. So, I don’t apologize for using hard words, but it is my goal to always explain them carefully when I use them. One of these hard words that we encounter, which is very important for us to understand, is the word vicarious. We use this word to refer to Jesus as our substitute. In His death on the cross, He became for us a vicarious atonement for our sins. He died in our place to atone for our sins so that they can be forgiven and we can be reconciled to God. So, we understand that a vicar is someone who stands in for another. Christ’s suffering and death is vicarious in that He is our substitute and our sacrifice as He takes our place under the judgment of God.

Now, there is a sense in which we can point to the thirst of Christ even as a vicarious act. He thirsted for us. His thirst reflects the physical reality that He was dying a slow death of dehydration as His blood and sweat poured from His body. And He did this for us. His thirst was not only physical but spiritual as well. As the Psalmist said, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You O God” (Psalm 42:1). Jesus, having been forsaken by His Father under the penalty of sin, thirsts for the presence of His Father once again. And He endured this for us. And in that forsaking, as He bore the penalty of our sin, it is as if He endured all of the fury and fire of hell on our behalf. We might recall that story that Jesus tells in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus. Both men died, and Lazarus found himself transported to paradise with Abraham while the rich man went to Hades, the place of separation from God where the unrighteous await their eternal destination in hell. And Jesus says that the rich man could see across the great gulf that separated those two locations, and he cried out to Abraham asking him to send Lazarus to bring him aid. Do you remember what he said? In Luke 16:24, the rich man says, “send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.” The agony and unquenchable thirst that this rich man experienced in the torment of the flames of wrath were the same that Jesus experienced. And He experienced it for us. It was a vicarious thirst. He bore the penalty and the wrath of judgment that we deserve for our sins. There has never been a human being to live who did not deserve this. But in His loving grace and mercy, Jesus thirsted in the agony of judgment vicariously. He did it for us.

This was not the first time in Scripture that Jesus was thirsty and asked for drink. You may be familiar with that story in John 4 when Jesus came to Jacob’s well and asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. As they begin to dialogue about the well and the water there, Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again. But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). You see Jesus was thirsty, and this woman had water that could satisfy His thirst, but it wouldn’t last forever. But Jesus wanted this woman to know that she also had a thirst in her life. And Jesus had water that she knew not of – living water that would spring up within her to eternal life. He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (4:10). He said something similar in John 7 – “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).

You see, everyone of us was born with a thirst for something that nothing in this world will satisfy. People try to satisfy it with money and possessions, with knowledge and power, with relationships and sex, with drugs and alcohol, with therapy and medication. But the emptiness is still there and the thirst is unquenched. We are like people adrift in a salt-water sea, dying of thirst. We are surrounded, in the words of Coleridge, by “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” If we drink from the salt-water, it only adds to our thirst. You see, over-top of every fountain in this world that you are tempted to think will satisfy you, you need to envision the emblazoned words of Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again.” C. S. Lewis put it this way in the most brilliant sermon he ever preached: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”[1] But that is the thing, you see, we are NOT pleased. We try to tell ourselves that we are, but soon enough we thirst again. Augustine said it this way: “You made us for Yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”[2] But we are cut off from that rest and from the only living water that can eternally satisfy our thirst. Our sins have fixed a great gulf between us and our God and King who alone can satisfy our deepest longings. But thanks be to God, He has bridged the gap! In the person of Jesus Christ, He has borne our sins and their penalty. He has died our death! He has taken vicariously upon Himself our unquenchable thirst so that our thirst can be quenched eternally!

It is because Jesus thirsted for us that we find this description of heaven in Revelation 7:16-17 – “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” And it is for this reason that the Bible concludes with a glorious invitation: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev 22:17). The living water that satisfies eternally is freely offered to us by the grace of Him who thirsted in our place! Every longing that you have is pointing you to Him like thirst drives you to water. And nothing outside of Him will ever satisfy that thirst. Come and drink deeply from Christ. He thirsted for you so that you will never thirst again!

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
[2] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics edition; translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin; New York: Penguin Putnam, 1961), 21. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:39-54)

Over these weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday, we’ve been studying the seven sayings of Christ on the Cross. Some have called these sayings, “the last words of Jesus,” but that’s not entirely accurate. We know that after His death on the cross, He rose from the dead and spent many days teaching His disciples, and in fact He continues to speak by His Spirit and through His Word. So, these are not His “last words,” but they are important words that He speaks in the hours prior to His death. He did not say a lot in terms of quantity. He only uttered seven expressions, but these expressions are profound and rich in substance. Russell Bradley Jones says, “Everything at Calvary is significant, but in a very special sense the Saviour’s seven words, spoken from the heart of His vicarious suffering, interpret Him to mankind. He spoke seven times …. Not a word too many or too few.”[1] Today we move into the fourth of these sayings. Already we have seen how He prayed for His murderers, that the Father would have mercy and forgive them. We have seen how He assured the repentant criminal that he would be in paradise. And we have seen how the Lord Jesus entrusted His mother Mary into the care of His disciple John. The fourth saying that we examine today is a cry of anguish and agony to His Heavenly Father; the Lord Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It is said that the brilliant Martin Luther devoted himself to the study of this statement for a lengthy time, going without food and not rising from his chair while in deepest meditation on this text. At last Luther arose from his seat and exclaimed in amazement, “God forsaken of God! Who can understand that?”[2] But, with all due respect to the illustrious reformer, we must drive ourselves to understand this text and discover the riches that it offers. Various preachers and scholars have used different phrases throughout the centuries to describe this statement made by Jesus as He died. It has been called the cry of desolation, the cry of desertion, the cry of dereliction, the cry of despair, and the cry of desperation. But perhaps no one has better captured the true nature of this expression than R. C. Sproul. He says, “This cry represents the most agonizing protest ever uttered on this planet. It bursts forth in the moment of unparalleled pain. It is the scream of the damned.”[3]

It is interesting that of all the recorded words that Jesus ever spoke to God, this is the only time He ever referred to Him as God. In every other instance, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” But here, it is “God.” One scholar tells us that it was common for those who were crucified to scream out in rage and pain with “wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair.” But Jesus was not calling out curses against God. Even in the midst of His suffering, He is still cognizant of a personal relationship with His Father, as He says twice, “My God!” His is not a cry of disbelief or denouncement. But it is, as Sproul says, the scream of the damned. God the Son has been forsaken by God the Father. And like Jesus, we too want to know, “Why?” Why has the sinless Son of God, the perfect and righteous servant who has always done the will of the Father, experienced such undeserved condemnation and wrath? As we examine this text in its context in Matthew today, I want to address the choice that Jesus made to be forsaken by His Father; the testimony of all creation to this forsaking of the Son by the Father; and then finally, to answer the question, “Why?” So, let’s begin with the choice.

I. Jesus chose to be forsaken by His Father (vv39-44)

Some of you may remember the great controversy that erupted over the 1988 Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. That movie and the book on which it is based shows no real understanding of the nature of Christ and the severity of the temptations that He uniquely faced. He faced every temptation that you and I face, but He also faced temptations that you and I will never comprehend. I think the real “last temptation of Christ” comes here in this passage. In verses 39-40, people passing by the cross where Jesus hung dying were saying, “Save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In verses 41-43, the religious leaders were saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; Let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” What was the meaning of this verbal abuse? Had they not already tortured and shamed Jesus enough? Were the scourging, and the beating, and the mocking, and the nailing and the hanging that He had already experienced not sufficient to satisfy their corrupted hearts? No, they continued to heap this abuse upon Jesus, but the abuse was more than just the spouting off of the mouth by His earthly adversaries. These words were inflamed by the fires of hell itself. These were verbalized Satanic temptations to divert Jesus from His redemptive mission to save humanity from sin. Satan had sought to derail Jesus’ journey to the cross at every turn. And here is one last-ditch effort. Jesus is being tempted to save Himself.

Make no mistake about it: Jesus did say that He was the Son of God and the King of Israel. And those things were true. And make no mistake about it: at any given moment, either He or His Father could bring this whole ordeal to a halt. He could come down from the cross. God could rescue Him. He could save Himself. You recall how, when Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter wanted to put up a fight. He drew his sword and began to swing it to defend himself and Jesus. And you recall how Jesus said to him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). And if He could do it then and there, He could do it here and now on the cross. But He didn’t. He had a choice to make under this intense temptation. He could save Himself, or He could save the world. Jesus did not give into this temptation, and He gave Himself up to death, choosing to be forsaken by His Father as He bore the sins of the world.
II. The universe bore witness that Christ was forsaken by His Father (vv45-46)

What happened in that moment as Christ died bearing the sins of all humanity can only be described as the outbreak of hell on earth. Hell is described as a place of darkness and isolation; a place of separation from God; a place where sin receives the full measure of wrath that it warrants. And all of those conditions exist here on earth in these very moments when Jesus is dying.

At noon last Wednesday, I was walking across the parking lot of the hospital enjoying the bright sunshine and 80 degree weather, thinking “Why did I ever give up playing golf?” At noon on the day that Jesus died, the sky turned completely black and remained that way for three hours. In what would normally be the brightest period of the day, from noon until 3:00 PM, there was utter darkness upon all the land. Some have speculated that this was a total eclipse, however those do not last for three hours. Even if they did, the fact that this was Passover indicates that it was during a full moon cycle, and total eclipses do not happen when the moon is in that phase. It was a miracle performed by God with no natural explanation. When miracles occur, they signify something, and in this case, the darkness was pointing to what Jesus was going through at that moment. God had declared through the prophet Amos that a day was coming in which He would make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight (Amos 8:9). He said that it would be like a time of mourning for an only son (8:10). In fact, it was just that. It was as if all nature mourned the death of the only begotten Son of God for sin. The sun was veiled in darkness indicating the severity of judgment that was being poured out on man’s sin. It is interesting that around the exact same time, an Egyptian philosopher named Diogenes wrote of a time of extended darkness at midday and said, “Either the deity himself suffers, or he sympathizes with one that does.” Here was a man with no insight into God’s specific revelation, but who could understand that such an unprecedented phenomena had to do with the suffering of God. He had no way of knowing just how accurate his observation was. The divine Son of God was suffering in that darkness – suffering under the weight of judgment from His Father; suffering not for His own sins but for ours. The Father could not look upon Him as He bore that sin; and the sun was blotted out so that no one else could look upon Him either. 

Darkness is a frequent sign of judgment in the Bible. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness. During the plagues on Egypt, before the final plague of the firstborn, God brought darkness over the entire land—the Bible calls it “a darkness which can be felt.” It was that kind of darkness over the land during Jesus’ death. It was the darkness of judgment as our sins were receiving their full penalty in the person of our substitute on the cross as He received the death we deserve. He underwent that ultimate separation from the Father that all of us deserve.

Jesus defined His own mission and ministry in Mark 10:45 saying, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” To ransom something is to pay a price of redemption. What does humanity need to be redeemed from? The Bible is clear from beginning to end that we are enslaved to sin. Ever since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the garden, each of their offspring through all these generations has been born in a state of natural rebellion against God. We are sinners by nature, but also by choice. We are prone to view ourselves as the center of our own existence and make choices based on what we want, regardless of how offensive it is to God or one another. So we are doubly enslaved to sin – by nature and by choice. And what is the penalty for sin? The Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 that it is death; “The wages of sin is death.” There is a sense in which physical death is the result of our sinful state. After all, death entered the human race because of sin. But then there is another sense in which sin produces a spiritual death, which is separation from God. When God said to Adam, “In the day that you eat of this fruit, you will surely die,” did Adam die physically that day? No, rather God allowed a substitute to die in Adam’s place. The Bible tells us that God made coverings for Adam and Eve, garments of skin. In order to make a garment of skin, something had to die. There had to be a substitute—a sacrifice.

By God’s mercy, Adam’s physical life was extended for many years beyond that day. But immediately, in the very moment that Adam sinned, he was separated from God in a state of spiritual death. Each of us is born in a state of spiritual death. In Ephesians, Paul says, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Physically, they were alive, but they had been born spiritually dead, just as all of us are. That state of spiritual death is a separation from God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities [or sins] have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” And if we die physically in that state of spiritual death, our separation from God will be eternal in the place of unending torment that the Bible calls Hell.

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

When Jesus died on the cross, Matthew tells us here in verse 37 that a placard was inscribed which said, “The King of the Jews.” It was customary for a person who died by Roman execution to have their charges publicly displayed for all to see. For Jesus, the official charge against Him was blasphemy and high treason, as He made claims of His own deity and authority. However, in God’s eyes, the charges that brought about Jesus’ death were something different. Imagine if you could write every one of your sins on a tablet—all the sins you have ever committed, or will ever commit. Not just the big ones that stand out, but every single one of them, great and small. Then imagine that every person who has ever lived or will ever live does the same thing. Now imagine with me that one by one each of us takes those charges and nails them to the cross of Jesus. That is why He died. He died for every lie ever told, every murder ever committed, every act of adultery, theft, cruelty, deceit, dishonesty, and on and on we could go, ever committed by human beings. Isaiah had prophesied some 700 years before that the suffering Messiah would come, and that the Lord would lay on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). As Jesus hung on the cross, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Him who knew no sin TO BE SIN on our behalf. When God looks upon the cross of Christ, He no longer sees His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased, but sees one enormous and grotesque mass of sin. And He pours out upon that mass of sin all of His righteous wrath and hatred for sin. Christ as our substitute receives the punishment from God that every human being who has ever lived or ever will deserves. And because God hates sin with such a holy passion, He cannot look upon it; He cannot tolerate its presence; therefore, the Son is forsaken by the Father in this moment of physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. God doesn’t tolerate sin, He doesn’t overlook sin, wink at it, or consider it to be no big deal. If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at Jesus as He cries out with this scream of the damned. What does God think of sin? He wrapped His only begotten Son in it, and then condemned it, judged it, punished it, rejected it, cursed it and forsook it. So intense was the fury of His wrath that the sun was blotted out and the ground began to shake and the rocks split in two. The entire universe was bearing witness to the fact that hell on earth had been unleashed, and that Son of God was bearing man’s sin and its full measure of wrath under the holy judgment of the Father.

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is the scream of the damned. And what is the answer to this prayer? Have you ever noticed that there are times when you are in intense agony and despair, when you cry out to God, it seems that He is silent in response? In A Grief Observed, we read C. S. Lewis’s attempt to journal through the grief of his wife’s death. At one point, he says, “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing [God], … if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.” He says that he shared these thoughts with a friend, and his friend reminded him “that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” Lewis said, “I know. Does that make it easier to understand?” [4] Perhaps not, but then again, I want to question an assumption that Lewis is making. Did Jesus really find, when He prayed this prayer, this scream of the damned, that the door was slammed in His face, double-bolted from the inside? Was there really no answer given? I suggest that there was an immediate answer to the question, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

III. The Father’s answer to the question of the Son is our hope of glory (vv51-54)

As Jesus dies on the cross, He is fulfilling the mission for which He was born. He came to die. He came to bear the sins of the world. In a sense, He is the only begotten Son, incarnate in the flesh, for the express purpose of coming to this moment in which He would be forsaken by His Father and utter this unbearable scream of the damned. But why? Two words answer the question pretty well: “For us.” Sproul says, “This cry … is the scream of the damned – for us.”[5] In the Nicene Creed, the only creed universally accepted by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians, we read that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” Why? “For our sake,” the creed says. All that He is, and all that He did, was, in the words of the creed, “For us and for our salvation.”

Notice how the answer is given immediately to the question of Christ. As the ground begins to shake, Matthew says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. That veil which separated the holy place from the holy of holies 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. Only the high priest could enter in, and only once a year, and only with the sacrificial blood for the atonement of the sins of the people. 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. The veil was torn in two, indicating that a way had been made for people to come into God’s presence. The way was made by the shedding of blood: not the blood of lambs and bulls, but the blood of Christ. He had become our High Priest, and through Him we have access to the Father.

And notice that Matthew says that as the earth shook, “the tombs were opened, and 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.” Matthew is the only Gospel-writer who records this information, and he does it in a rather matter-of-fact kind of way. 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 only temporary, 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. 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.”[6] We have a hope beyond this life and beyond the grave because Jesus was forsaken on our behalf. He died our death in order that we may have His deathproof life for eternity.

And then in verse 54 we meet a man who embodies the answer to both prayers that Jesus has prayed thus far in His dying hours. For the people who were putting Him to death, Jesus had prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then He prayed, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Then we see the centurion, the commanding officer of the death squad, beholding the Lord Jesus on the cross, dying for this man’s sins. And he says, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Why was the Son forsaken? So that this centurion, and you and I, and anyone else who comes to call upon Christ by faith as Lord and Savior would never be forsaken, but forgiven instead. He cried out with the scream of the damned so that we could sing forever the song of the redeemed. Revelation 5:9 tells us that for all eternity will sing to Jesus, “Worthy are You … for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” This is the answer to the question. When Jesus asks, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, the answer is “for us and for our salvation.” We must look to the cross and see Him dying there for our sins, that we may have access to God by His blood, that we may have life beyond death, that we may be forgiven because He was forsaken. And the cross beckons us to behold Him and say by faith, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

[1] Russell Bradley Jones, Gold from Golgotha (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 12.
[2] Quoted in Jones, 64.
[3] Quoted in C. J. Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2006), 89.
[4] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 5-6.
[5] Mahaney, 89.
[6] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 2, The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 626-627. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Behold Your Son, Behold Your Mother (John 19:23-27)


The notable English linguist Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”[1] There’s nothing like staring death in the face to help one concentrate on the things that matter most. We’ve seen that as we have looked into the saying of the Lord Jesus as He hung dying on the cross. It is amazing that He thinks first of others before Himself. His first word was to His Father, and it was a prayer for mercy on behalf of His murderers. His second word was a compassionate response to the pleas of a penitent thief dying beside of Him. And today we come to the third word, in which Jesus turns His attention and His speech to His mother and to one of His closest earthly friends. Lehman Strauss writes, “I cannot imagine a more glorious and triumphant way to die than this; namely, in the extending of one’s self in supplying the needs of others. No man dies in vain who blesses others in his expiration.”[2]

Jesus had a number of antagonists around Him as He died, and a very few friendly faces. John names them for us here: His mother, His mother’s sister (who may have been Salome, the Apostle John’s mother), Mary the wife of Clopas, and the disciple whom he loved. We know from comparing the uses of this term in the Gospel of John that this is John’s way of referring to himself. There may have been a few others there, but there were not many. Here in this moment, Jesus turns His attention to His loved ones there at the cross.

What was it that caused Jesus’ attention to shift to His mother? The context may explain this. Just before Jesus speaks to His mother, we read that the soldiers were gambling for the clothing of Jesus at the foot of the cross. It was a somewhat common practice for the executioners to take the belongings of their victims, but John also tells us that this was taking place to fulfill a specific messianic prophecy: “They divided my outer garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” This had been written by David in Psalm 22:18. Though David never observed a death by crucifixion, the language of his Psalm describes the ordeal of Jesus with exact precision. He speaks of the bones being out of joint, the heart being melted like wax, the hands and feet being pierced. It is this Psalm in which we first read the words that Jesus will speak in moments, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Though David’s Psalm reflects his own anguish in some horrific ordeal he was facing, it seems that he was given words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to portray the suffering of the Messiah would come some 1,000 years later in the person of the Lord Jesus. The soldiers at the foot of Christ’s cross merely reckoned that they were doing what they normally did. The Word of God indicated that they were doing far more than they realized. They were fulfilling prophecy and adding further testimony to Jesus, the Messiah.

John says that they divided His garments into four parts, a part to every soldier. Typically, we assume that this means that they cut his garments into pieces, but that is not likely the case. The typical attire of a first-century Jewish man consisted of five pieces: the robe, the belt, the headcovering, the sandals, and the tunic (which was an undergarment worn next to the skin). So, it is likely that each soldier took one article of clothing, leaving the tunic to be awarded to the winning gambler in the casting of the lots. They didn’t want to cut it up into pieces for equal shares because it was a fine garment. It was “seamless, woven in one piece.” Now, as Jesus watches the soldiers at His feet gambling for this final item, His heart turns to His mother. But why? It was a custom for Jewish mothers to make this garment for their sons to be given as a gift to commemorate their coming of age. Could it be that this was true of the tunic that Jesus had worn throughout His adult life? It may well be the case. And if so, it is not hard to fathom that, as Jesus witnesses the fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, His thoughts turned to Psalm 22:9-10. In those verses, the prophesied Messiah speaks to the Father, saying, “You are He who brought Me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon My mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been My God from My mother’s womb.” Charles Swindoll says, “His outer garments were insignificant. … But when they touched the tunic, they touched something very near to His heart—the garment made for Him by His mother.”[3] Now His thoughts are filled with memories of His childhood, the love of His mother, the pain and grief she must feel now, and her fears for the future. Though no sword would touch that tunic, a sword was piercing the soul of His mother, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35. And it is at this point that He speaks to her, and He speaks to His friend John about her. The words He speaks, though brief, are profound. They speak to Mary and to John a word of compassionate concern, a word of revolutionized relationships, and a word of glorious grace. And these are words that we need to hear as well.

I. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Compassionate Concern.

Occasionally, when I speak to unbelievers, I will ask them what they think the Bible says about how to get to heaven. One very common answer I get is that we must keep the Ten Commandments. Sometimes, I will ask the person who says this, “OK, so you believe that the Bible says we must keep the Ten Commandments to get to heaven, so you would agree that those are very important, right?” And the person will say, “Of course!” I then ask them, “Can you tell me what they are?” Seldom can a person name more than three or four of them. So, I will say, “OK, so they are important, and you think they are the basis for a person getting into heaven, but you don’t know what they are. If I were to give you a Bible, could you look them up and find them?” And almost without exception, people don’t even know where to look for them. What about you? Could you name them? Could you find them? By the way, they are in Exodus 20, and the Bible is very clear that this is not how we get to heaven. In fact, the Ten Commandments were given to people who had already broken every one of them, and the Law contains provisions for what people are to do when they violate them. If we are to be saved by our keeping of the Law, then we have no good news to offer. But the Gospel of Jesus is good news for it says that Christ has become for us the sacrifice for our sins through His death on the cross and His resurrection. He kept God’s law fully and perfectly, and became in His death the righteous substitute, bearing the wrath and paying the penalty for the unrighteous. By His sacrifice, our sins are dealt with fully and finally, and thus we who trust in Him as Lord and Savior are forgiven and granted eternal life as a gift of God’s grace. The good news is not that God saves people who keep the Law. People who keep the Law don’t need saving, but none of us can keep it. The good news is that Jesus saves those who cannot keep the Law, but who trust in Him and receive His saving grace.

Now, invariably, when I talk to people about the Ten Commandments, if they have raised children, they know that one of the commandments is to “honor your father and your mother.” This is the fifth commandment. So, if Jesus kept all of God’s Law perfectly, did He keep this one? If we examine His earthly life and notice His interaction with His mother, we may wonder if He did. At the age of twelve, He slipped away from His family and went into the Temple to interact with the religious leaders. When Mary and Joseph came to find Him, He said, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Later, when He was attending a wedding with His mother and others, Mary imposed upon Him to do something for the host, because the host had run out of wine for the guests. Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). We find ourselves wanting to rebuke Jesus in moments like these and say, “Jesus, that is no way to speak to Your mother!” But perhaps we don’t understand these things rightly. For one thing, the Greek word that Jesus uses which is translated as “Woman” in John 2:4 and here in the text of His statement at the cross is actually a very difficult word to render accurately in English. “Woman” is too distant a word. “Mother” would be too intimate a word. D. A. Carson suggests that the word is perhaps best rendered by our good old Southern word “ma’am.”

Another way in which we may misunderstand Jesus’ words and actions towards His mother is by confusing honor with obedience. There is a period of life when honor includes and implies obedience. But there comes a time also when obedience is not a necessary component of honor. When Jesus was a child, His life was characterized by perfect obedience to His earthly parents. Even when He had abandoned them in the Temple at age 12 and spoken so directly to them about being in His Father’s house, the next verse says that, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them” (Lk 2:51). He was still of the age where obedience was necessary in order to honor His earthly parents. But because He was unique in His nature, being the fully human offspring of Mary and the fully divine Son of God, Jesus also was perpetually obedient to His Heavenly Father, and lived to honor Him as well as His earthly parents. So, when He came into adulthood, when obedience is no longer an aspect of parental honor, Jesus could and did speak directly to His mother about His obedience and honor of His Heavenly Father without dishonoring her as His earthly mother. In fact, we may well say that to do anything other than obeying and honoring His Heavenly Father would be the ultimate dishonor to His earthly mother, for it was for this reason that she had been chosen as the vessel to bring Him into the world.

Now, we need to also recognize that the honor that is sometimes given to Mary by modern Christians exceeds that which is suitable. It is no honor to her for us to mistake her as an object of worship. When the magi came to see Jesus after His birth, Matthew says that they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him” (Matt 2:11). Luke records how, on one occasion as Jesus was teaching, a woman in the crowd shouted, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” That sounds like the kind of devotion that some in our day render to Mary. But in response, Jesus said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Lk 11:27-28). So, while Jesus never dishonors His mother, neither does He suffer her to be honored beyond what she is due, and that is an instructional and corrective word that many need to hear.

If there is any question about whether or not Jesus honored His earthly mother, this word spoken from the cross should remove all doubt. Here He demonstrates that He has never failed to honor her. He speaks to her a word of compassionate concern in His dying moments. “Woman,” He says, “behold your son!” But in saying this, He is not directing her to Himself. When He says, “behold your son,” He is directing her to John, the beloved disciple. These words, together with those that follow, as He says to John, “behold your mother,” indicate that it is Jesus’ desire for John to care for Mary after Jesus’ death. Why did Jesus say this? Why does Mary need someone to care for her? It should be noted that her husband Joseph disappears entirely from the biblical narrative after the episode at the temple when Jesus was 12 years old. This has led most scholars to conclude that sometime between Jesus’ 12th and 30th birthdays, Joseph died. If that is so, then Mary is a widow, and Jesus, being her firstborn son, is responsible for her care.

We may also wonder, why John? Why does Jesus not entrust her to the care of one of her other children? This is another error that some Christians believe about Mary – that she was perpetually a virgin and never bore any other children. The Bible makes it clear that this is not so. She had other sons and some daughters as well. Mark 13:55 indicates that it was common knowledge in Jesus’ day that he had brothers and sisters, and that there names were known among the people of Nazareth. They said of Jesus, “Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?” (Matt 13:55-56). So we know that Jesus had at least four brothers and two sisters, if not more. Now, why did He not entrust Mary into the care of one of them? We can speculate at least two reasons why. First, quite simply, they were not there. Had they been there, they would have likely been named. They did not live or work in Jerusalem. Their homes were up North, in Nazareth or Capernaum. John was there, they were not. But there is another reason. John 7:5 tells us that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. Thankfully, we know from other Scripture references that some, if not all, of His siblings did come to believe in Him and to worship and serve Him. But at this point, they were still unbelievers. Meanwhile, John is the most faithful follower Jesus has at this point, as all the rest have abandoned Him. It was important to Jesus for Mary to be cared for by one who loved Him and believed in Him. It was vital for her to grow in her own faith and understanding of Jesus as, not only her son, but her Savior, and this could best be fostered in a family of faith. And this brings us to a second point that these words raise. 

II. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Revolutionized Relationships.

A few years ago, a pastor and his family were traveling through the area and dropped in for worship here with us. I met him and chatted with him before the service, and at a point in the service, I mentioned that it was good to have “my brother and fellow pastor” here with us that day. After the service, several people came up to me and said they wanted to meet my brother and some commented that they didn’t know that my brother was a pastor. Well, I had to disappoint them by telling them that he was not my brother from birth, but that doesn’t make him any less my brother. You see, that man was my brother by new-birth. He and I have been born-again into the same family. We have the same Father – God, our Heavenly Father – and we are brothers in the Christian faith. In the same way, I refer regularly to you all as my brothers and sisters. This is not a pretend kind of relationship. It is for real. Those of us who have come to God through faith in Jesus have been adopted into His family. He is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters. Here in the South, we like to say “blood is thicker than water,” but in reality, the blood of Jesus and the waters of baptism are stronger than any other earthly tie, for they are eternal bonds. Jesus has revolutionized our relationships.

He began to do this almost immediately. He made it clear to Mary and Joseph at the age of 12 that His allegiance to God as His Father superseded His earthly ties to them. On another occasion, recorded for us in Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 8, Jesus’ mother and brothers had come to visit Him but they could not get to Him because of the crowds of people around Him. When someone told Jesus that His mother and brothers were there wishing to speak with Him, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” Then, as He looked around at His followers, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:33-35). He was revolutionizing the concept of human relationships. And He continues to do that up to His death. “Behold your son,” He says to Mary, pointing her to John. In a sense, Mary has no need for John. She has at least four other sons, besides Jesus. “Behold your mother,” He says to John. John was not an orphan. He had a father named Zebedee and a mother named Salome. She may have even been present, assuming that the Salome mentioned in Mark 15:40 is the same Salome. And she may in fact be the sister of Mary mentioned here, but that is not quite conclusive. If so, then Mary is John’s aunt, not his mother. But Jesus is saying, “Mary, I wish you to view John as your son; John, I wish you to view Mary as your mother.” For in the family of God, those who follow Jesus are mothers and sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters in a way that is even more real than our biological relationships.

This is a difficult reality for some of us to consider. After all, here in the Bible Belt, we have not often been made to feel that there is any real threat or competition between our allegiance to our earthly families and our spiritual family. The virtual omnipresence of the church and Christian ideals has been pervasive in our culture for a long time, and for many of you, the proudest day in your parents’ lives was the day that you came to faith in Jesus. But that is not true of everyone. Some here in this room understand fully well what Jesus mean when He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). The hatred of which Jesus spoke was not a vehement and violent kind of rejection, but rather a determined devotion to God in Christ that so surpasses all other affections that they appear as hatred in comparison. It is a resolve to always choose allegiance to Christ over all other claims upon your affections. And that is a decision that some of you have had to make, and one that countless Christians make every day in the world. It is the reality I faced in Kenya as I witnessed to a young Muslim woman, who said to me, “I like what you are telling me about this Jesus. In fact I like it much better than my own religion. I want to believe it. But if I turn to Jesus, my family will reject me. I will lose my home, my family, my job, and maybe even my life.” Jesus responds to that very reality when He says, “"Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30).

Here at the foot of the cross, Mary must no longer view Jesus as her son. He must become Her Savior. John must no longer view Jesus as his friend. He must become His Lord. Mary must become a mother and a sister to John, and John must become a son and a brother to her if they will have a part in the family of God. And the same is true of all of us as well. For some, these words are inviting and irresistible. The call to become part of a new and better family is welcome to those who have broken family relationships or who face opposition from their relatives because of their desire to follow Christ. God will be a better Father, and you will find better mothers, brothers, and sisters in His family than you have ever known. But to others, these words are a hard challenge. Where God has blessed a person with a strong and loving family, devotion to that family can become a stumbling block to building intimacy in the family of God. We must beware of allowing those earthly ties to become an idol that threatens our allegiance to Christ or hinders us from developing intimate bonds of fellowship with the new family that we have been adopted into. We may not always have to make the hard choice. How blessed is the family where father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister, experience the double-bond of genetics and faith. That family must enlarge their tent and welcome in new brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and mothers, who have had to make the choice to follow Christ and forsake earthly ties for Him. Perhaps you were unable to have children. Perhaps your children are not followers of Christ. Maybe you never knew your parents. Maybe your parents were the cause of hardships in your life. It may be that you never had a sibling, or that you never had a good relationship with your brother or your sister at home. If you are a follower of Christ, then I want to invite you to look around this room and see your family of faith. There is a young Christian here that needs a godly mother and a faithful father-figure. There are ailing widows who need faithful sons and daughters to care for them in their advancing age. There is a hurting believer who desperately needs a faithful brother or sister to help them bear their burdens. Look around you. Behold your son. Behold your mother. Behold these revolutionized relationships that have been created through the death of the Savior. Embrace the reality of these revolutionized relationships!

III. The Dying Savior Speaks a Word of Glorious Grace.

You may have heard the expression, “Showing up is half the battle.” The first time I ever heard it was when I was on the high-school wrestling team. My coach said that showing up was a third of the battle; making weight was another third; and outwrestling your opponent was the final third. If you showed up and the other guy didn’t, you won. If you showed up and made weight, and the other guy didn’t make weight, you won. So, we had a guy on our team who weighed 112 pounds, and he was undefeated, but he only had to get on the mat in about half the matches. He showed up and he made weight, and those counted for half of his victories.

I want to turn our thoughts here to John for a moment. He deserves mention because he showed up. It looked less than certain that any of Jesus’ followers would, but praise God, John did! Mark 14:50 tells us in a very few words the sad reality of what happened to Jesus’ disciples after He was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane: “they all left Him and fled.” But one came back. Only one came back: John. As important as the words that Jesus said to Him are the words that Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Where have you been? Why did you flee? Where is your faith? Do you really love me? Where are the rest?” Jesus said, “Behold your mother.” John showed up, and as a result, he was singularly blessed with this word of glorious grace. Not only is he restored to right fellowship with Jesus, but he is entrusted with a significant ministry of caring for the very mother of Jesus. And he took that responsibility seriously. He tells us that, “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.” Though the Bible is silent about much of John’s future between this time and the time we find him on the isle of Patmos in Revelation, we know that at some point he went to Ephesus where he served for many years as the pastor of the church in that city. And there are traditions that indicate that he took Mary with him. There are ruins of a house in Ephesus today that is called the house of Mary, and if that is true, then it shows that John fulfilled his responsibility to the very end. He showed up, and Jesus spoke to him a word of glorious grace, reconciling him and entrusting him with a significant ministry.

There may be something in your life that is holding you back. You may fear that the Lord will not accept you if you come to Him, or that there is no way that He could use you in His service. John may have had that same fear. Would the Lord cast him away because he had fled and forsaken the Lord in his hour of need? Could the Lord ever use him in any way? John overcame that fear, and he showed up. And when he did He heard a word of glorious grace. I have often said that the Lord is far less concerned with your ability than your availability. Show up and say yes to the opportunities that the Lord puts in front of you, and you will experience that glorious grace as well.

I want to just hit a couple of quick points of application on the whole of this text before we conclude. First, examine your heart about your compassion for others, whether they be in your own family or in the family of faith. Are you showing honor and concern for those who are due it? Are you providing care to those in need? And second, have you come to embrace the new family that God has placed you in through your faith in Christ? Is there some young Christian that you can be a spiritual mother, father, or older brother or sister to? Is there some older Christian that you can be a spiritual son or daughter to? Is there some hurting Christian that needs the comfort of a brother or sister in their life? Finally, have you come near to the foot of the cross to meet the Savior? You may fear that you will not be accepted because of your sins. Listen, friend, your sins are the reason He is there. He knows your sins, just as He knew John’s. And He died for them. Remember what Jesus said in John 6:37, “The one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out.” So if you never have before, I pray that today you would come to Him and receive Him as your Lord and Savior. And if you have, then I hope you will make yourself available to serve Him and to serve His people, your spiritual family, in whatever way He leads you.

[1] Cited in Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 71. Background info from http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2009/09/hanging-it-concentrates-mind.html. Accessed March 5, 2012.
[2] Lehman Strauss, The Day God Died (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 56.
[3] Charles Swindoll, The Darkness and the Dawn (Nashville: Word, 2001), 153-154.