Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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

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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. 

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