Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Worship (Luke 1:46-55)

As we enter the Advent season, we begin to sing the familiar songs of Christmas in our worship services. With Thanksgiving behind us, radio stations have begun incorporating holiday songs, new and old, into their playlists, and some are beginning to switch to all Christmas music, all the time. The music in the stores is all about Christmas now. A few years ago, around this time of year, Solomon and I were in a shopping mall in a Muslim country, and we couldn’t believe our ears as the air was filled with lines like, “O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” and “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices, O night divine, O night when Christ was born.” Christmas has always been a season of music, from the very first Christmas until today.

In the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we find the most complete historical narrative of the Christmas story. But Luke’s account is no mere prosaic academic treatise. It is punctuated throughout with song! We find in the first two chapters of Luke four Christmas hymns. They are known today by their Latin titles: Mary’s Magnificat (in our text today); Zacharias’ Benedictus; the angels’ Gloria; and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. Graham Scroggie referred to these songs as “the last of the Hebrew Psalms and the first of the Christian hymns.”[1] These songs that are recorded for us in Scripture remind us that what God is worthy of our praise for what He has done for us in Christ, and our praise rightly takes the form of celebratory song!

Today, our focus is on the first of these hymns: Mary’s Magnificat. We might call it the first Christmas carol. As such, it informs us how we should worship God for what He has done for us in Christ. Because of the errors and the abuse of Scripture in the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on the Virgin Mary, Evangelicals tend to get a little nervous when it comes to Mary. Certainly we do not want to venerate her in any way that smacks of idolatry, or ascribe to her any of the super-human attributes that the Catholic church has, but when it comes to worship, as we find her here, she is a worthy role model for us. There is nothing in her song that cannot also be sung by any born-again Christian. But more than just the words of her song, the way that she sings this song is a great example for us to emulate. There are at least four characteristics of worship that we find in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of worship, that should also be found in our songs of worship.

Let’s consider the first one:

I. We sing in joyful exaltation. (vv46-47)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon lamented the state of worship that he had observed so often in 19th-Century England in a sermon on this text that he preached in 1864. He said, “Some of my brethren praise God always on the minor key …. Why cannot some men worship God except with a long face? I know them by their very walk as they come to worship—what a dreary pace! … [T]hey come up to their Father’s house as if they were going to jail.”[2] I think I have seen some of these folks before. Have you? But you don’t see Mary like this as she breaks into her song of worship.

She says, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” The songs burst forth from her innermost being – her “soul” and her “spirit.” This is not mere lip-service or mindless recitation. This is a heartfelt song of genuine praise. She feels the truth of the words that she sings. I wonder if we are able to do that? For many of us, the songs we sing, especially the songs of Christmas which are etched in our minds from childhood, are so familiar to us that we have grown numb to the emotional weight of the lyrics. We may sing them well enough with our lips, but is our inner-being engaged? Are we contemplating the truths with our minds and engaging our hearts with the affection and emotion of the hymn? 

Of course, we all have days and seasons of life when our souls are not joyful because we have been laid low by the hardships of living in broken bodies in a sin-corrupted world. But notice that Mary does not sing with joy over the circumstances in which she finds herself. We might expect her to do so, for she has just been visited by an angel from heaven who has announced that she will conceive in her virgin womb the Son of God. But, let us not forget that her situation was not one of uninterrupted bliss. Like all of her Jewish kinsmen, Mary lived under the subjection of a foreign power. The entire nation was under the heavy hand of a capricious dictator, the Roman Emperor. But more personally, Mary found herself in a set of circumstances that must have left her with many mixed emotions. There was the unimaginable joy of being chosen by God to bear the Savior and bring Him into the world. But there was also the weight of worry, knowing that no one – not even her betrothed groom-to-be – could believe that she had conceived a child apart from normal sexual relations. As the baby within her began to grow and show, she would be subject to all sorts of gossip and rumors of scandalous behavior – remember that she was an unwed, pregnant teenager. At this point in the story, her relative Elizabeth was the only one who found her story credible because she herself had received a special message from heaven about the child she had conceived in her old age. There was a weighty burden on Mary’s soul, counterbalancing the joy of the good news the angel had delivered to her.

We must notice that Mary does not say here that she sings with joy for her circumstances. The object of her rejoicing is the Lord Himself. She sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Seldom will we find ourselves in circumstances of complete and utter happiness in this life. Because of sin’s effect on us and on the world, we are never far removed from the realities of suffering. But we are not waiting for a better day in which to find joy. The Bible promises us that there is joy in the Lord. There is a joy that comes from knowing Him that is utterly distinct from the fleeting pleasures of life in the world. Though our circumstances are ever changing, our steadfast God never changes. He created us to long for a joy that can only be found in right relationship with Him. When His Spirit leads us to find that joy in Him, there is nothing in this world that can rip it from our hearts! When we can find nothing else in which to rejoice, the child of God can rejoice in the Lord, even as Mary does here.

Notice also that she says, “My soul exalts the Lord.” The older English versions say “magnify,” in line with the Latin word magnificat which supplies the traditional title of the hymn. We know what the words “exalt” and “magnify” mean. To exalt something is to raise it higher, and to magnify it is to make it bigger or greater. But how can we raise God higher than He already is, or make Him bigger or greater than He is in His very nature? We cannot, but we can meditate on His greatness in our heart of hearts until we come to understand and appreciate just how vastly great He truly is.  Again, Spurgeon is helpful here, as he says, “God cannot be greater than He is, but He can be greater in you than He is at present!”[3] When Mary says that her soul exalts the Lord, it is to say that, internally, she is immersing herself in the solitary thought of how exceedingly great He is. But, notice also that there is an external component of this exaltation. She is not singing silently. She has a twofold audience. Most obviously, the audience of our worship is God Himself. When we exalt the Lord in our songs of worship, we are acknowledging before Him that we know Him to be great and glorious and that we are striving to increase our comprehension of His greatness. But Mary also has a human audience in her worship, as we often do as well. Mary is with her relative Elizabeth as she sings. Elizabeth has just extolled the young virgin, saying, “Blessed are you among women!” But Mary will not have Elizabeth to praise her too highly without acknowledging that God is the one of supreme greatness. She exalts the Lord that she might also enlarge Elizabeth’s view of Him. So, when we exalt and magnify the Lord, like Mary, we are enlarging our own estimation of His greatness in our hearts, we are acknowledging His greatness before Him, and we are proclaiming His excellencies to others!

Mary’s song is a song of joyful exaltation. In other words, it is a song of worship, for this is what worship is: it is the joyful exaltation of God offered up from the innermost being of a soul that has found Him as the object of their true and everlasting joy, even as Mary has done here in her song.

II. We sing of who our God is. (vv47-50)

Worship is chiefly about the nature of God in all of His glorious attributes. In worship, we are praising God in view of who He is. In the nature of His being, He is worthy of our worship and praise. In worship we are saying, “We worship You, O God, because You are _____________,” and in that blank, we can inscribe any of the attributes that He has revealed about Himself in His word and works. Mary does this in her song of worship, and so should we.

Notice firstly that she worships the God who saves. She says in verse 47, “my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” She recognized that God was sending into the world through her womb the one who would accomplish the redemption from sin that mankind so desperately needed. But, her praise is not lifted up in the general terms of what this saving God can do for others, or for the whole race of humanity. No, her worship is more personal than this, for she recognizes that the God who saves is her Savior. He is not just the Savior that the world needs, He is the Savior Mary needs! Mary sees herself before God as one who is as guilty of sin as any other, and whose only hope is that there is a God who saves coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. The angel said that she shall name this child Jesus, which means “salvation.” Jesus is the God who saves. He will be her son by His birth, but her Savior by His death and resurrection. When the Bible says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the virgin Mary is no exception. When it says that there is no name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, or when it calls us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that we might be saved, it applies to Mary as much as to the vilest offender. One of the greatest errors that has been taught about the virgin Mary is the doctrine of her immaculate conception, by which she came into the world without the stain of original sin. Friends, if Mary be not a sinner, then Mary needs not a Savior. But here she rejoices in the God who is coming into the world to be her Savior.

From this she moves on in verse 48 to worship the God of compassion. She says, “He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave.” She was merely an insignificant peasant girl from Nazareth, the place of which it was said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). She was a nobody from nowhere. She had perhaps lived her entire young life to that point unnoticed and unappreciated by anyone else. But the God of compassion had not overlooked her in the dispensation of His kindness. He had sent His angel Gabriel to announce to her that, of all the women on earth, God had chosen her to bear His Son. When the angel came to her, he greeted her with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). These words puzzled her (1:29), but the angel went on to say, “Do not be afraid Mary; for you have found favor with God” (1:30). The words translated as “favor” and “favored” here are from the Greek word that is normally translated as “grace” in the New Testament. God’s sovereign choice of Mary was a gracious favor, not something she had earned or was entitled to. It was grace, and she knew it, so she worshiped the God of compassion in her song.

She sings next of His great power. In verse 49, she says, “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” God is the Mighty One who does great things, and Mary knows this because He has done great things for her. The angel had told her that she would conceive and give birth to one who would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High (1:32). She asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). And the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would accomplish it, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). Mary has come to know that the Mighty One has all power to do all things and there is nothing is beyond His power to accomplish.

From here, she moves seamlessly to the holiness of God in her worship. “And holy is His name” (v49b). Remember that, in the model prayer, Jesus said that we should pray, “Hallowed be Your name.” This is not a declaration, it is a petition. The Christian prayer-warrior is to plead with God that His name would be known in all the earth as HOLY. That’s what “hallowed” means. Mary knew that God’s name was holy. Hers was not a request but a proclamation of praise, that God’s name IS holy! What does this word, holy, mean? The primary meaning is something like “separate,” meaning that He is transcendent. He transcends anything and everything in existence. He is in a category all to Himself, unique, distinct, beyond comparison – in a word, holy. Throughout the Bible, we find God making things holy, and making people holy. But no one or nothing makes God holy. Holy is His name; it is who He is in the nature of His being. The angel had told her that God the Holy Spirit would accomplish this miraculous conception within her, and that the holy Child she would deliver would be called the Son of God. Holy Spirit, Holy Child – holy is who God is. But the greatest miracle of Christmas, indeed of all Christian theology, is that this holy God, who transcends time, space, and comprehension, has come near, by the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Child. Holiness has come to dwell in this unholy place to redeem us, we unholy people, from all of our unholiness. Holy is His name!

Then, Mary exalts the Lord in her song because of His great mercy. In verse 50, she sings, “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.” The salvation God is bringing into the world in His Son, the Lord Jesus, is a demonstration of His mercy. Those who fear, who revere the Lord in humble faith and obedience, do not receive judgment from God, through it is deserved of all men because of sin. God, in His mercy, has withheld His judgment and showered generation after generation with His saving mercy through the gift of His Son.

Friends, the God of whom Mary sings is unchanging. Those same attributes that Mary recited in her song are still true of Him. Mary could sing of these things because they were personal to her. She had experienced these attributes of God in His dealings with her. And all who have come to know Christ as Lord have experienced the same and can sing a song just as glorious as hers. We know that His name is holy, that He is rich in mercy and compassion, and that He is mighty to save because He has revealed Himself to us in all these ways and more through the work of Jesus Christ in His life, His death and His resurrection. Mary’s song of worship is a model for ours, because she sings of who her God is, and you and I must do the same as we worship Him.

Then thirdly, we observe in Mary’s Magnificat

III. We sing of what our God has done. (vv51-53)

God is worthy of worship because of who He is, even if He never did anything to or for us. But, because of who He is, He has acted in history, in our lives, and will act in the future. Mary praises Him with her song because “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (v51a). She enumerates five specific mighty deeds that He has done with His mighty arm.

He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed. This is, generally speaking, how God has acted throughout history. God turns things upside down in the world. As Luther said, “He can make great things small, and small things great, like a potter at his wheel.”[4] He blesses those who are humble and know of their desperate need for Him, and He brings down those who in their arrogance give no thought to Him. He raised up humble Moses to lead His broken people out of Egypt, while He laid Pharaoh and his armies low, drowning them in the sea. He raised up the lowly shepherd David, and scattered the arrogant Philistines when their mighty champion Goliath was felled by a single stone. He delivered Daniel from the den of lions, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace in Babylon, while bringing the mighty Nebuchadnezzar down from his throne.

Mary is not just reciting old history lessons here. She is singing of how this same God has done the same for her. She was humble, and saw herself as the Lord’s bondslave. And the Lord in His mercy exalted her to a place of highest honor, that all generations might count her blessed (v48). He did not choose a daughter of Caesar or a daughter of Herod, but by His sovereign grace, He chose the most humble of servants to bear His Son.

Her words are also applicable to her son, God’s Son, the Lord Jesus. He will do mighty deeds with His arm, and He will humble Himself even to the point of death on the cross. But God will highly exalt Him and give Him the name that is above every names in raising Him from the dead and coronating Him as King of kings. The prosperous and proud rulers who conspired against Him on earth, as well as the Satan and his demons, will be scattered, brought down from their thrones, and sent away empty handed as King Jesus triumphs over them in His death and resurrection.

These mighty deeds which God does by His arm also speak to how He will act toward those who belong to Him. She speaks in the past tense, but she speaks of future acts that have been promised by God, and when He makes a promise, it is as good as already done! The one who in humility sees himself or herself as a sinner before God and in need of a Savior, and turns in saving faith to Jesus, will be highly exalted, reigning with Him and sharing in His eternal glory. The one who hungers for God and thirsts for His righteousness will be filled with all this and more! But the one who thinks that he has no need for God, who refuses to allow God to rule over him or her, whose security lies in the things that he or she possesses, these will be humiliated and laid low by the strong arm of the Lord. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”

IV. We sing in response to what God has said. (vv54-55)

In the final stanza of Mary’s hymn of worship, she exalts the Lord who has come to the aid of His people in faithfulness to the Word which He has spoken in days past. “He has given help to Israel, His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and His descendants forever.” With the birth of her child, God was bringing to pass the fullness of all that He had ever promised. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen” (KJV). Christ was bringing about the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, in which the Lord had said, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God had promised that Abraham would have a descendant who would bring blessing to all nations. He continued to broaden and clarify His promise to Abraham’s descendants, generation after generation. He promised to David that he would have a descendant who would reign forever over an everlasting kingdom. Centuries had come and gone and the promises had not been fulfilled. But Mary recognizes that in the good news she has received from heaven about the birth of her son, all of the things God had spoken in the past – promises of help, promises of salvation, promises of mercy – were coming to pass.

Her entire hymn is built upon the promises that God had spoken. Every line finds a parallel in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, as either a direct quotation or overt reference. She borrows from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 1-2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three portions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Mary included references to all three sections in her song. As Phil Ryken has said, “Mary knew her Bible! … [She] tried to put virtually the whole Bible into her song!”[5]

In verse 29, after being greeted by the angel, the Bible says that Mary “kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” As she pondered, she must have reflected upon the Scriptures. That is a mark of great spiritual maturity. She was not about to be led astray by a mystical experience, as so many are inclined to do. She carefully measured what she was hearing and experiencing against what God had revealed in His holy word. She was like the Bereans, whom Luke says were more noble than the Thessalonians, “for they received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Ac 17:11). So must we all measure what we hear, what we experience, and what we imagine as being of God against what God Himself has declared in His word, the Bible. But in order to do this, we must know our Bibles, and it is obvious that Mary did. As Gresham Machen says, “The author of such a hymn must have lived in the atmosphere of the Old Testament, and must have been familiar from the earliest childhood with its language. Only so could elements derived from so many sources have been incorporated without artificiality in a single poem. The synthesis must have been made in life, long before it was made in literary form.”[6] The vocabulary of the Bible had become her own vocabulary, and when she sang to God, she sang His own words back to Him.

But it is not just her knowledge of the words of Scripture that impresses us here. It is also her careful handling of the word of God. She understood that all of Scripture was to be interpreted through the lens of God’s redemptive promises which were coming to pass in the birth of her Son. This, after all, is how Jesus taught His disciples to interpret the Bible. In Luke 24, as the Risen Jesus gathered with His disciples, “beginning with Moses and the with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). He said to them, “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And then, the Bible says, “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (24:44-45). Mary’s mind was seemingly already opened to see how all the various threads weave together into a tapestry depicting none other than her son who was to be born to her, the Lord Jesus. But she also understood what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” She understood that God’s word applied to her own life and experiences. We must come to understand these truths as well if we would handle the Bible accurately. We must know that it all points us to Jesus, and it all has application for our daily lives and our varied circumstances. And then, we will be able, like Mary, to sing God’s promises back to Him, infusing our worship with the very words which He has spoken.

So, in conclusion, we may say that Mary’s Magnificat is a great example for us in how to rightly worship God. She sings a song of joyful exaltation, a song of who God is, what God has done, and what God has said. As we comprehend His Word, as we grow in our understanding of who He is, and experience the mighty deeds of His outstretched arm in accomplishing salvation for us through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus, we will erupt with an equally glorious and beautiful song, and crown our Redeemer King with joyful exaltation. May it be so, not just in the songs we sing, but in the lives that we live and the witness of our words and deeds for Him in the world.

[1] W. Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1948), 371.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Mary’s Song.” Accessed November 24, 2015.
[3] Spurgeon, “Mary’s Magnificat.” Accessed November 24, 2015. 
[4] Martin Luther, “The Day of Mary’s Visitation,” in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther (vol. 7; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 353.
[5] Philip G. Ryken, “Magnificat.” In Daniel Doriani, Philip Ryken, Richard Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 73.
[6] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930), 84.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Jesus: Friend and King (John 19:12-16)


I once heard a story from the great Welsh preacher John Phillips about one of England’s Kings. I don’t recall exactly, but I think it was George V or Edward VII. At any rate, when he was just a boy, he used to slip away from the palace to play in the streets with some mischievous boys, who had no idea that their playmate was the Prince of Wales. On one occasion, the boys ran afoul of the law and had a run-in with a local policeman. The officer said, “I’m going to need your names.” The young royal piped up first and said, “I’m the Prince of Wales.” The officer seemed unimpressed and pressed further, “Come on now, lad, enough with the games, I need your name.” Again the boy retorted, “I told you I am the Prince of Wales.” Seeing that he was getting nowhere with the boy, he turned to another of the children and said, “OK, how about you? What’s your name?” The boy quickly replied, “Who me? Oh, I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury.” Phillips did not relate what ultimately happened with the boys on that day, but suffice to say that on that day, the street children discovered that their dear friend was an heir to the throne, the one who would become King.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that the King of all kings has come into the world. He is God in human flesh, and He has come to befriend sinners by His love and grace. In a very real way, you have an opportunity to become a friend of the King. Every person who is confronted by the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for us is invited into this relationship. But, as our text today shows us, not all who receive this invitation respond to it. Together, Pontius Pilate and the religious leaders of Israel show us that we must carefully consider who will be our friend and who will be our king.

I. Who is Your Friend? (vv12-13)

Of all the good advice I’ve forgotten over the course of my life, it is sometimes surprising what has stuck in my memory. I can remember from childhood being told, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” I suppose we could call that good advice, but it should go without saying. Nonetheless, the choice of who will be our friend in life is an important one. In a day when Facebook has made the word “friend” very elastic, we would do well to remember the counsel that Dr. Howard Hendricks used to give to his students: “Two things will determine where you are ten years from now: the books you read and the friends you make. Choose them both very carefully.”[1]

Pontius Pilate is remembered as a political opportunist. His entire life had consisted of building strategic friendships with the right people. A Spaniard by birth, Pilate had joined the ranks of the famed Roman military commander Germanicus in time for the wars on the Rhine. After the wars came to an end, Pilate came to Rome, where he met and married Claudia Proculla, the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus.[2] But perhaps Pilate’s most important relationship was the friendship he had forged with Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Sejanus had experienced a meteoric rise through Rome’s ranks, from distinguished soldier to the commander of the Emperor Tiberius’s personal security force. During the reign of Tiberius, Sejanus had more power than anyone except the Emperor, and at times, seemingly even more than the Emperor. It was undoubtedly through Sejanus’ influence with Tiberius, perhaps combined with some influence of Pilate’s wife, that Pilate was offered the position of prefect of Judea.

Pilate knew the importance of choosing friends carefully. Just as his choice of friends had led to his rise, so too, as we see here in our text, it would lead to his downfall. Remember that when Jesus was first brought before Pilate, it was on the political charge of insurrection. Pilate interrogated Jesus about His claim to be a king, and seemed satisfied that Jesus posed no threat to Rome’s authority or the political stability of the region. So, in John 18:38, he declared to the Jewish officials, “I find no guilt in Him.” Still, in order to appease the bloodthirst of the Jews, he ordered Jesus to be scourged and allowed Him to be tormented by the soldiers. Again, he announced to the Jews in John 19:6, “I find no guilt in Him.” At this second verdict, the Jews regrouped and tried another tactic. They pressed Pilate to enforce Jewish law and find Jesus guilty of the religious charge of blasphemy. Frightened, offended, and surprised by the responses of Jesus to a new line of questions, Pilate begins here in verse 12 to find a way to release Him. But before he could do so, the Jews cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” And it was here that their trump card was played.

The words “friend of Caesar” struck Pilate like a ton of bricks. Within three decades of the events of our text, the title “Friend of Caesar” would become an official honor given by the Emperor Vespasian to the distinguished leading men of the Empire. Already by this time, however, it was an unofficial moniker given to those who were faithful and loyal to the Emperor Tiberius. It is likely that through his friendship with Sejanus, Pilate was either in line for, or had already received, this honor. The Roman historian Tacitus said, “the closer a man [is] with Sejanus, the stronger his claim to the Emperor’s friendship.” However, it was around this very time in history that Sejanus experienced a plummeting fall from favor with the Emperor. Tiberius was known to be very suspicious of others who may threaten his power, and very cruel in his dealings with them. Sejanus had even persuaded Tiberius to have the Emperor’s own son murdered on suspicion of treason. In 31 AD, which would be either just before or just after the trial of Jesus before Pilate (depending on one’s dating of the events), Sejanus himself fell prey to the Emperor’s suspicions. For reasons that are seemingly lost to history, Tiberius removed Sejanus from his position, had him arrested and strangled to death. If that had just happened, Pilate would have good reason to suspect that he was dangerously close to falling from the Emperor’s favor as well. His hopes of gaining, or maintaining, his status as a friend of Caesar were slipping from his grasp already.[3]

It isn’t like he wasn’t already on thin ice. As soon as he arrived in Judea, he bucked the trend of his predecessors who were careful to not offend the sensitivities of the Jews. Pilate’s deep-seated anti-Semitism was well known. In one of his first acts as prefect, he sent soldiers into Jerusalem bearing standards with images of the deified Emperor Tiberius, causing the Jews to protest that he was forcing idolatry upon them. When they refused to relent from their protests even as he threatened them with mass murder, he reluctantly removed the standards. On another occasion, he raided the temple treasury to pay for an aqueduct he was building. This time, he followed through with the killing of the protestors. When Pilate ordered the display of shields devoted to the worship of Tiberius on the palace of Herod, the Jews sent a petition to Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to remove them. And then, in Luke 13:1, Jesus tells of an occasion when Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans while they were worshiping.[4] Somehow he had managed to hold onto his post in spite of all these incidents, but at this point, he did not need another negative report getting back to the Emperor on this occasion. Even though he wanted to release Jesus, he was too enamored by the prospects of being a friend of Caesar, and too terrified by the Jews’ threat, to follow through. To foul up here in this instance could mean political suicide for him, if not execution as well!

Pilate represents here the dilemma that has faced many throughout history. Will we court the friendship of Jesus or the friendship of the world? Like the Caesar whose friendship so enamored Pilate, the world offers advancement and opportunity, prosperity and achievement to those who will violate conscience and conviction to accommodate its values and priorities. This is why the Bible warns us repeatedly of the dangers of becoming too friendly with the world. In John’s first epistle, he writes, “Do not love the world nor the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15-17). Similarly, James 4:4 warns, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

But it does not have to be this way. The Lord Jesus offers His friendship to all who turn to Him in faith and repentance and call upon Him as their Lord and Savior. He came to befriend the most unfriendly of us, and was not ashamed to be known as a friend of sinners. How could the holy God of perfect justice and righteousness be a friend to sinners? Jesus said it Himself: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). It was in the laying down of His life on the cross – the cross to which Pilate would sentence Him, but which was prepared for His sacrifice from the foundation of the world – that He made it possible for us to become His friends. There on the cross, He received the penalty that was due to us for our sins which had separated us from God. By His death and resurrection, the sins of those who trust in Him are washed away in His blood so that we may become His followers, yes, but also His friends by faith.
To be sure, as one considers becoming the friend of Jesus, there is a cost to consider. Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “The Cost of Discipleship” in his book by that title, and concluded that ultimately suffering is the cost of following Jesus. Pilate had already begun to see the high price of becoming a friend of Jesus. There was the barrage of harassment heaped upon him by those who are friends with the world. And there was a great cost of personal sacrifice – the risk of losing his position of influence, his prosperity and security, even the jeopardy of his own safety and life! But, the cost of being a friend of Jesus cannot be compared to the alternative. The Bible says that if God be for us, who can be against us? The necessary corollary of that promise is that if God be against us, who can be for us?

But Pilate opted for friendship with Caesar – friendship with the world, we might say. The friendship of Caesar is fickle at best, as many of Tiberius’s friends discovered all too painfully. So it is with any friendship with the world that spurns the gracious offer of friendship with Christ. There is no hope in life or death to be found in friendship with the world. Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt 16:26). But the Bible assures us that there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24). Pilate refused the offer of that friendship, and reaped destruction for himself. Had he turned to Christ, yes, it would have likely been a difficult road for him the rest of his life. Jesus never promised any of His friends an easy life. But He promises us an abundant life and an eternal life (Jn 10:10; 3:16). When all this world’s friends have forsaken us, we can have the assurance of a friend who has promised to never desert us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5), and who promises to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt 28:20). Jesus said to His followers, “No longer do I call you slaves … I have called you friends (Jn 15:15). He offers His friendship to us all, if we will heed His call to repent and turn in faith and trust to Him as Lord and Savior over our lives. This is something Pilate seemed unwilling to do. Will you? Who is your friend? As the hymnwriter says, “What a friend we have in Jesus!” I hope you have, or will, come to know Him as your friend.

Now the second question that this text puts before our consciences is a similar one:

II. Who is Your King? (vv14-16)

Americans have a luxury that most people in the history of the world have not had. We have the opportunity to choose our nation’s leaders by voting. Now, the people we vote for don’t always win, but in most cases, four years later, we can take another crack at it. Most people in the world, and most throughout history, don’t have that freedom. But whether our nations are governed democratically or not, every person has the right and responsibility to choose his or her king – the one to whom their ultimate allegiance is pledged. As Bob Dylan put it so well:

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls;
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes,
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.[5]

So, that being the case, the question for us all is, “Who are you going to serve?”, or, “Who is your King?” The question was before those present in the scene described in our text today.

When they had first brought Jesus to Pilate, the initial charge was that Jesus was guilty of treason because He had claimed that He was the true King of Israel. It was on this allegation that Pilate had begun to interrogate Jesus in John 18:33. He asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Of course, if Jesus had made no claims to be king at all, He could have merely cleared the whole matter up then and there. “Who, Me? A King? No, there’s been a misunderstanding.” Or, if a claim had been made as a pretense, He could have confessed that and plead for mercy before Pilate. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, He began to clarify to Pilate what kind of King He really was. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate picked up on it. Anyone who claims to have a kingdom is simultaneously claiming to be a king. So Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” And Jesus acknowledged that Pilate had drawn the correct conclusion (18:33-37). Upon hearing Jesus’ explanation of the nature of His kingship, Pilate determined that He posed no threat to the Empire, and thus, found no reason to have Him executed – at least not on that charge. Pilate didn’t understand it all, but he reasoned that Jesus would not be raising an army to overthrow Rome. The Jews didn’t think that either, but this entire line of accusations had no basis in fact anyway.

That Pilate was exasperated by the entire ordeal is obvious from the way he conducts himself from about the mid-point of the trial to the end. Attempting to reason with unreasonable people can cause any of us to lose our cool, and Pilate was well past that point. He began to say things that only further irritated the Jewish leaders. In verse 14 of our text, he again presents Jesus to the crowd and says, “Behold, your King!” Why did he say that? The text does not specify, but it is not hard to imagine that he intended to ridicule the Jewish leaders. They were not amused by these words and began to shout, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” And again, Pilate rubs the salt of sarcasm into the wounds of their zeal and pride. “Shall I crucify your King?” And here, in response to Pilate’s stinging mockery, they make a shameful and tragic declaration: “We have no king but Caesar!”

Make no mistake about it, there wasn’t a soul in that crowd who felt any sense of loyalty or allegiance to Caesar or the Roman Empire. They hated Rome, and they hated the Emperor’s oppression of their nation. Their testimony of allegiance to Caesar was as phony as the charges they had brought against Jesus. But while they feigned allegiance to Caesar, their words were a confession of treason against their God.

Remember that early in Jewish history, God declared Himself to be the King of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jdg 8:23, et al.). In the days of Samuel, the elders of the nation came before him and demanded, “Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). Samuel was grieved by this demand and began to pray. The Lord said to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (8:7). The Lord answered their demand and gave them a king just like all the other nations had, and King Saul came to the throne. Their demand for an earthly king nearly destroyed the nation. But in God’s timing, He raised up David, a man after His own heart, to replace King Saul and lead the nation. God’s promise to David was that he would have a descendant who wound reign over an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:12-13). All of the prophets looked forward to the day when the Son of David would come as the long awaited King of Israel, and in the Lord Jesus Christ, He had come.

Pilate had spoken better than he knew when he said, “Behold your King!”, for Jesus was truly the King of Israel, and indeed the King of all kings. But the religious leaders of Israel did not recognize Him as such and did not receive Him. When the Jewish authorities rejected King Jesus, they not only rejected God’s promised Messiah, but all of their hopes of a Messiah. If they will not receive the Messiah that God has sent, there will not be another one to come, nor are they presently seeking one. I asked a Reformed Jewish rabbi on one occasion, “What is your idea of ‘messianic hope’?” She quoted Rabbi Robert Levine as she said to me, “There is no Messiah, and you’re it! We have stopped waiting for God to come and change the world and started trying to do it ourselves.”[6] I wanted so much to ask her how that was working out for her, but I was too shocked by her words. But, her statement was not overly different than those religious leaders who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus before Pilate.

Ultimately, they are once again dethroning God as King over their nation. On that day, they chose their king. “We have no King but Caesar,” they said, and though there was not an ounce of genuineness in their claim, the history of the nation seems to confirm that God took them at their word. By rejecting God’s chosen King and pledging allegiance to a pagan Gentile here, they gave testimony to just how spiritually dead the religion of Israel had become. And, as Arno Gaebelein writes, “Their declaration has come upon their own heads, for ever since the Gentile world has domineered over them and the nation has had … [a] history of blood, tears, and sorrow as Jerusalem has been trodden down by the Gentiles. Nor will there be a change till the day arrives when the rejected King returns and a believing remnant welcomes Him as the Redeemer-King.”[7]

Who will rule over you? Who will be your king? It will be Jesus, or it will be yourself or some other. The cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus was a declaration that this One would not rule over them! And today, multitudes continue to raise a clinched fist to heaven and declare to Him, “You will not reign over me!” But, the pledge of allegiance to any other sovereign is an invitation to disaster – if not here and now, then certainly in eternity. But it does not have to be that way. King Jesus welcomes all who will yield their allegiance to Him to become citizens of His everlasting Kingdom. Though He was crucified, He lives, and He reigns, and His Kingdom is marching forward in victory and will ultimately triumph over all the petty kingdoms of this world. As Revelation 11:15 declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

The King who was crucified has defeated death by His resurrection. In His death, He took our sins upon Himself and received the full measure of our penalty as a substitute, and He offers us a share in His victory over the grave if we will but turn to Him as Lord. The Bible says that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved (Rom 10:9-10). To call upon Him as Lord is to make Him your King, the one whom you gladly render allegiance and service as you walk with Him by faith. And this King has promised that He is coming again to reign on His everlasting throne. In Matthew 24:30, He said, “all the tribes of the earth … will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.” The apostle John depicted the day of His coming as the return of a mighty warrior, seated upon a white horse, and crowned with many crowns, striking down the nations with the sword of His word, and with His robe emblazoned with His name: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 21:16).

For those who have come to know Christ as their King by faith, this is the day for which we long with great expectancy. We have become citizens of His kingdom, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The day of His coming does not fill our hearts with fear, for on that day we will celebrate the return and the rightful reign of the One who, by His grace, has become our friend.

Pilate had the opportunity to become His friend, but He chose friendship with Caesar instead. The nation of Israel had the chance to know Him as King, but they opted for the kingship of Caesar instead. Each and every one of us must decide for ourselves. Who is your Friend? Who is your King? Will you choose to render your friendship and your allegiance to this world and all that it contains? Or will you turn in faith to the King of all kings, who has become the Friend of sinners by laying down His life on the cross to rescue us from our sins? His offer still stands – the King is willing to be your Friend.

[1] Accessed November 18, 2015.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Vol. 5; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1421
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 602, 607.
[4] Boice, 1421-1422.
[5] Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Sombody.” Slow Train Coming. CD. Columbia. 1979.
[6] The book to which the Rabbi referred was Robert N. Levine, There is No Messiah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2002).
[7] Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of John: An Exposition (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1965), 363.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Surprising Answers of Jesus (John 19:9-11)


Here’s a question for all of you Bible scholars out there: Should you, or should you not answer a fool according to His folly? The Bible tells us that the answer is, “Yes.” In Proverbs 26:4, we read, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him.” Yet, in the very next verse, Proverbs 26:5, we read, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.” Is this a contradiction? No, what we have here is a set of statements which simply mean that there are times when an answer is necessary, and times when an answer is not necessary. And in the text we have just read from John’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates both.

The context of our passage is unchanged from our previous studies in John’s Gospel. Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, having been accused by the Jewish religious authorities of, first, the political charge of insurrection, and second, the religious charge of blasphemy. Pilate was unconvinced by the first accusation, and thoroughly confounded by the second. The Jewish officials have said that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. This leads Pilate, who has already declared Jesus’ innocence twice, to reopen the case and begin a new round of questioning. The questions are not surprising. The answers, however, are quite surprising – for Pilate and for us – because in these surprising answers, we find insights into several important spiritual issues. Let’s look at them.

I. It is surprising how Jesus responds to futile questions (v9).

“Where are you from?” It is a rather innocuous question that is often asked. I was either blessed or cursed with a very undistinct accent, and people have a hard time figuring out where I’m from, so I get this question a lot. Maybe you do too. Pilate asks the question here of Jesus. Undoubtedly, it has to do with this “new information” that has come to light about Jesus claiming to be the Son of God. It seems like a good place to start in considering the issue, so the question itself is not surprising. What is surprising, to both Pilate and the readers of this Gospel, is how Jesus answers. He didn’t. Verse 9 says, “Jesus gave him no answer.”

In American judiciary practice, we are accustomed to the concepts of “pleading the Fifth” and “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment to our Constitution provides that a person cannot be compelled to be a witness against himself. He or she has the guaranteed right to decline any to answer any question that may further incriminate himself or herself. So, in the famous words of the “Miranda Warning,” an arresting officer will say, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law.” But you have to understand, these rights do not exist everywhere, nor have they ever. Jesus did not have this right before the prefect of Judea. An answer to the question was expected. But no answer was given. Why is this? It seems there are several reasons.

First is the issue of understanding. Pilate did not possess the capability of understanding the full answer to this question. Had Jesus said that He was from heaven, assuming Pilate were to have taken the words at face value, he would have merely drawn from his reservoir of pagan mythology and filled those words with all sorts of unintended meanings. But then again, such an answer could have been merely chalked up to the ramblings of a madman after all. Had Jesus said He was from Bethlehem, Pilate would have been incapable of understanding the prophetic significance. Pilate did not know the prophecy of Micah 5:2 which had foretold that the Messiah would be born there. Had Jesus said He was from Nazareth, Pilate’s response may have been similar to that of Nathanael in John 1:46. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” For that matter, Luke tells us that Pilate had already ascertained that Jesus was from Galilee, and all that accomplished was to prolong the case, for he sent Jesus off to Herod who was the Jewish governor of that region. Herod merely bounced Jesus back to Pilate. So, there was no way that Jesus could have answered the question in a way that would have been meaningful or comprehendible to Pilate.

There is yet another reason for this silence, and that is the issue of necessity. Because Pilate could not have comprehended any answer that Jesus could have supplied, the question was entirely futile. He did not need this information. His responsibility was to render a verdict on whether or not Jesus was guilty or innocent of a crime punishable by death. Knowing Jesus’ origins would not have any bearing whatsoever on that decision. This, then, is the core of the matter. Jesus had already said enough to convince Pilate to announce, not once but twice, that He was not guilty. And yet, knowing already of Jesus’ innocence, Pilate had ordered Jesus to be scourged, and had allowed Him to be tortured by the guards. It was obvious that Pilate’s interests were not those of pure justice. Further questioning at this point only demonstrated Pilate’s spinelessness to enforce the decision he had made. There was simply no need for Jesus to answer his question. And so He was silent. The question was futile and did not deserve an answer. Jesus deems that the information He has already provided to Pilate is sufficient for him to make whatever decision he needed to make, and therefore no further information would be given to him. It is a silence of merciful judgment: judgment in that Pilate stands condemned for rejecting the truth that he has already received; mercy in that Jesus prevents him from multiplying his guilt by rejecting more truth.

All around us today, people are asking all sorts of questions about Jesus. Some of them are genuinely curious and are making serious inquiry into who Jesus is and what He has done. Jesus has much to say to these. They will be satisfied to know what has been revealed in Scripture about Him, His words, and His works. We can point them to these answers as we dialog with them. Others, however, are merely engaging in futile debates that are entirely unproductive. To those asking futile questions, our Lord Jesus would not utter a syllable of response if He were face to face with them. Nor should we. The revelation found in the Word of God is sufficient for them to make a decision for or against Jesus, and no amount of debate or dialog is going to bring them any closer to a truth that they have already determined in their hearts to reject. Jesus was no waster of words, and He would not have us to be either. It was perhaps best said by one of the poets of our own generation: “You got to know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away, and know when to run.” There are times when the best answer we can give is silence. Our “interrogators” (as it were) have no interest in truth, no capacity to comprehend it, and no desire to accept it. They merely want to prolong a futile debate. Once the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been presented to them and clarified for them, it is entirely appropriate, even if surprising, for us to respond to them as He did: with a deafening silence.   

That is but one of the surprising answers of Jesus that we find here in the text. Moving on, we discover another. …

II. It is surprising how Jesus rebukes hollow boasting (v10-11a).

A story is told, the truth of which is uncertain, about Muhammad Ali, which finds the famed boxer seated on an airplane prior to takeoff. When admonished by the flight attendant to fasten his seat belt, Ali purportedly quipped, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Those familiar with Ali’s reputation for making grandiose claims would not be surprised by this assertion. If the story is to be believed, however, the response of the flight attendant is most surprising. She is said to have immediately retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane.”[1]

Pride often compels people to make audacious assertions. Jesus’ silence in response to Pilate’s question about His origins had irritated him. He blurted out, “You do not speak to me?” The word “me” here is emphatic, as if to say, “ME, of all people.” Pilate says here to Jesus in verse 10, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Bold and audacious though Pilate’s boast may be, it was as hollow as his integrity. If anyone ever dares to think that the Lord Jesus owes him an answer to his every inquiry, there is an overly inflated sense of self. If the Lord ever imparts any word to man at all, it is an act of His grace, and never something that we deserve. God would have been perfectly just to never give man another word at all following the sin of Adam. That Jesus had said even one word to Pilate before was more than he deserved.

Let us also notice that any line of questioning of Jesus Christ that begins with the words, “Do You not know,” is immediately wrong-headed. He is the all-knowing One, and any ego which boasts of having any knowledge superior to His teeters on a dangerous and slippery precipice inviting humiliation upon himself. We have reason to be suspect of anything else Pilate may go on to say when his words are rooted in this kind of soil. But when he begins to boast of his “authority,” we immediately see how hollow his boasting really is.

“I have authority to release You,” Pilate said. If you’ve read the preceding verses to this passage, you might like to say, “O do you now? Then why is that twice you have declared Him not guilty, and yet the trial is ongoing?” He may theoretically possess this legal authority, but in practice, he demonstrates himself to be subservient to the whims and wishes of the Jewish officials who are politically strongarming him. He also says, “I have authority to crucify You.” Legally, I suppose, it is true enough. But there is a difference between what is legal and what is just. As Matthew Henry writes, “he magnifies his power to an exorbitant degree when he boasts that he has power to crucify one whom he had declared innocent, for no prince or potentate has authority to do wrong.”[2]

The boasting was hollow, but Jesus did not respond in silence this time. He addressed it in another, equally surprising way. Just as a fool in his folly at times warrants a response of silence, there are also times, the Proverb says, when a fool in his folly must be answered for his own good, “that he not be wise in his own eyes.” Jesus speaks a word that is sharp as a sword to slice through the vain pretensions of Pontius Pilate. “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (v11a).  

This is one of the most loaded statements in the New Testament. First, it says that, inherently, Pilate has no authority over Jesus. He has more legal authority than any man in the nation of Judea, in fact more than almost anyone in the world, save his ultimate superior, the Roman Emperor. But Jesus says that this position he holds does not qualify him to have authority over God. No one in the universe has that kind of authority. Secondly, whatever authority he has or thinks he has now over Jesus is not his own, but has been given to him “from above.” This is a typical Jewish idiom to refer to God without using His name. This is in full agreement with the classic biblical treatment on God and government in Romans 13, where we read, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” If Pilate has any authority at all, much less over the Son of God in this instance, it is because God Himself has granted and allowed it. 

But even this is not all that is contained in Jesus’ words. It takes a keen eye for the Greek text to notice the third thing (keener than mine, for I am indebted to the scholarship of others for this observation). When Jesus says, “unless it had been given you,” the word “it” is a pronoun that requires an antecedent. What is “it”? It is most commonly assumed that the antecedent is “authority,” however in the Greek text, there is a disagreement in the forms of these words. Therefore, it is most likely that when Jesus says “it” has been given to Pilate, the “it” He is referring to is this entire situation. This entire situation has been laid in his lap: the position he holds has been given to him by the Roman emperor (as a result of connections through Pilate’s wife); the opportunity to render a verdict has been presented before him by the treacherous leaders of Israel; the authority to render a verdict has been afforded him by God Himself. Pilate, strutting with hollow pride as if he were an inherently powerful dictator here, is reduced by these words to the state of a beggar. He only has what others have given him.

Friends, Pilate was not the last man to ever vaunt himself in a parade of self-aggrandizement. Strands of hollow pride run through the fabric of all of our lives, and many have woven those strands together to form a garment by which they cover themselves on a daily basis. “I am in complete control of my life and the lives of others. I answer to no one but myself. No one tells me what to do. I choose my own destiny and blaze my own trail. I can trample on anyone in my way if I so desire, because there are no rules governing me except those of my own making.” Few would come out and say those words verbatim, but countless lives are built on the foundation of that kind of thinking. What they fail to realize is that every breath they take is a gift of God, and every accomplishment of their lives is owed to His blessing, or the sovereign restraint of His wrath. Unseen to themselves, there is an invisible hand moving pieces on the chessboard of our lives until the moment when God unveils Himself to say, “Checkmate.” That moment has come for Pontius Pilate. Has it come for you? Has it come for those whom you know and love? The greatest victory any of us can ever know is found in the moment of surrender when we acknowledge that there is a God, and I am not Him; there is a Lord over my life, and it is not myself, it is Jesus Christ, from whom everything I am and have has come, and to whom everything I am and have is owed. It seems that Pilate never found that victory of surrender. The more important question is, will you? And if you have, then will you help someone else find it? There are times when the best thing we can say to someone is nothing. Then there are times when we owe them the favor or reminding them that their boasting is hollow. It may be the most welcome surprise they ever receive.

And this brings us to the final surprise here in the answers of Jesus. …

III. It is surprising how Jesus regards human sin (v11b).

In a criminal justice, there are misdemeanors, and there are felonies. The difference has to do with the nature of the crime, the intent of the criminal, and the severity of the punishment. But in no court of law does a judge ever declare, “I will let you off the hook and declare you not guilty because you have only committed a misdemeanor, and not a felony.” Justice requires that a guilty verdict come down in either case.

Jesus’ final word to Pilate suggests to us that this is the way that He regards human sin. In verse 11, He says to Pilate, “For this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Now, lest we make a disastrous mess of these words, let’s be clear as to what Jesus did not say. He did not say that Pilate has no sin. He did not say that Pilate’s sin was not great. He did not say that Pilate will not face a severe judgment for his sin. That must be clear before we move on.

Jesus here makes a distinction between the sin of Pilate and the sin of the one who delivered Him over to Pilate. Who is that one? It is often assumed that the person in view here is Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed the Lord. In fact, the same Greek word translated “delivered Me” is translated as some form of the word “betray” in several passages regarding Judas. However, Judas did not ultimately “deliver” Jesus to Pilate. He betrayed Him into the hands of the Jewish officials, and then Judas exits the narrative almost completely. It was the Sanhedrin, the governing council of Jerusalem, who delivered Jesus over to Pilate. But Jesus here speaks of a singular individual, and no one fits into this description better than Caiaphas, the high priest.

Now, we must ask, why is the sin of Caiaphas greater than the sin of Pontius Pilate? After all, it was Pilate who ordered the crucifixion. There are, I believe, two reasons why Caiaphas was guilty of the greater sin, and these two reasons are important for us all to understand. The first reason has to do with responsibility. You see, no matter what decision he makes, he has the responsibility of making a decision. It’s his job. He didn’t ask to be put into the position; he was thrust into it. He has a job to do. He might do it poorly, and if he does, he will answer for it, but it has to be done. Now, contrast this with Caiaphas. Concocting murderous schemes, bribing betrayers and false witnesses, distorting laws to accomplish what he wants – this is not his job as high priest. He is acting outside of his God-ordained role and willfully using his influence and authority to accomplish evil. This is one reason that his is the greater sin.

The second reason has to do with revelation. Caiaphas had complete access to the Scriptures as the high priest. Every law, every prophecy, every Psalm and Proverb was well known to Him. And in Luke 24, Jesus said every single one of them pointed to Him (vv27, 44; cf. also Jn 5:39-47). He had opportunity to witness Jesus perform miracles and hear Him teach and preach. I don’t know if he ever did, but he could have. At the very least, he had access to abundant of people who heard Jesus speak and saw Him work. He could have, and should have, been able to clearly see that Jesus had come forth from God to do the work of God on the earth. His very title of “high priest” indicates that he should have been an expert in the things of God, yet he did not recognize the promised Messiah when He stood before him face-to-face. Contrast this with Pontius Pilate. He may have never read a word of the Hebrew Bible, and likely wouldn’t have understood it if he had. For that matter, prior to this day, Jesus was likely a virtual stranger to him. If he’d ever heard of Jesus at all, it was only in whispers and hints of the occasional gossip on the wind. He didn’t know who Jesus was, and there was not really any good reason why he should have at that point. To have the kind of revelation available and accessible to you, as Caiaphas had, and to willfully act contrary to it, is to commit a greater sin.

It is a principle of God’s word that the more revelation a person has, the more guilt they accrue before God if they do not heed that revelation. It’s why Jesus said that the day of judgment would be more tolerable for the people Sodom than the people of Capernaum, who had witnessed the power of Jesus at work with their very eyes and refused to believe in Him. It will be more tolerable for Pilate on the day of judgment than for Caiaphas, because Caiaphas’ has the greater sin.

Now, lest you think for a moment that there is any comfort in coming in second place in the sin competition, there isn’t. Like we said earlier: Jesus never said Pilate wasn’t a sinner, never said he hadn’t committed a great sin, and never said that Pilate did not have a severe judgment awaiting him. He only said that Caiaphas’ sin was greater. We are prone to look around at others and say, “They have the greater sin, so I’m ok. I don’t have to worry about where I stand with the Lord, because there are much worse sinners than me out there.” That would be a dreadfully mistaken notion. Sinners who are guilty of greater sins and sinners who are guilty of lesser sins are both equally guilty before the Lord – they are both condemned as sinners. And the Bible says that we are all sinners, and we know it is true. Now, there are varying degrees of penalty, but the baseline penalty is eternal separation from God and the torment of divine wrath in the place the Bible calls hell. That’s baseline – it gets worse from there. “More tolerable” does not mean “tolerable.” As Joel 2:11 says, “The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it.”

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, because it tells us of a God who loves us so much that He became one of us, lived a sinless life that fully satisfied the righteous demands of God’s law, and yet died in our place as our substitute so that the penalty for our sins could be punished in Him. He bore our sin so that we could be forgiven, reconciled to God, clothed in His own righteousness. No matter how great your sin is, or how it compares to the sins of others, there is no sin that greater than God’s grace. When you stand before God to give account for the sins of your life, God will not ask how your sins compare with those of others. What will matter on that day is whether or not your sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ which was shed for you.

The God we serve and proclaim is big enough for you to ask Him any question you can imagine. He will never be surprised by your questions, for He knows what is on your heart already. But you should be prepared when you ask them, for you may well be surprised by the Lord’s answers. He loves us too much to tell us what we want to hear. He tells us what we need to hear – even if the truth hurts, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if sometimes what we need to hear is silence. The answers given to Pilate here in this text are the last words Jesus would ever speak to him. That day will come for every one of us as well when Jesus speaks a final word to us. The Bible says that some will hear the Lord speak, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” while others will hear, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:35, 41).  Humble yourself, and turn in faith and repentance to Jesus, if you never have before, and lead others to Him, lest any of us should be surprised by His final words to us.  

[1] categorizes this tale as “Undetermined.” Accessed November 13, 2015.
[2] Matthew Henry, Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible. Online at commentaries/mhm/view.cgi?bk=42&ch=19. Accessed November 13, 2015. 

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Trouble with Jesus (John 19:5-8)


John 19:5-8
The Trouble With Jesus

With the possible exception of the Doobie Brothers and a handful of other musical acts that have recorded a song by this title, the one thing that no one in the history of the world has ever been able to say about Jesus is that He is “just alright with me.” If you could travel the world in a weekend, only stopping in at Christian churches on every continent, you may come away from the experience with the conclusion that Jesus is the most popular and beloved Person in history. Songs of praise and adoration are sung to Him and about Him; prayers are prayed to Him and to the Father in His name; sermons are preached about Him and the words that He said, and people are called to follow Him in faith and obedience. But if we were to look outside those churches, in the ivory towers of secular academia, in the corridors of political power, in temples of other faiths, and in the places where people gather and talk about the important issues of the day, we have reach a far different conclusion. We may conclude that Jesus is the most hated Person in history.

One place where we can find this sentiment expressed is in the Gospels themselves. In contrast with disciples who left all they had behind to follow Him, multitudes with faith enough to believe that He could heal them, and throngs who held to His every word, we find a group of people whose hatred for Jesus led them to conspire for His murder. Who were these people? Throughout all four Gospels we find them to be the religious leaders of Israel. The moral standards of Jewish religion were higher than those of any culture that had ever existed in the history of the world until that time. And yet, human history is filled with examples of the evil that results when religion turns bad. As J. C. Ryle wrote, “In every age, none have been such hard, cruel, unfeeling, and bloody-minded persecutors of God’s saints, as the “ministers of religion.”[1] It was certainly true of these elite Jewish officials, who are described in verse 6 of our text as the chief priests and their officers.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The name of Jesus today can still evoke just as much ire. If you’ve ever tried to speak up for Him in public, you know this. It is hard to understand sometimes, but Jesus and His follower have a long history of getting in trouble. So, what is the trouble with Jesus? The brief passage we have read presents us with several answers to that question.

I. The trouble with Jesus is that He just won’t go away (v6).

Jesus had gotten under the skin of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. His teachings challenged their traditions and their authority. He had called them out as hypocrites, a brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, sons of the devil, and blind guides because of their corruption, greed, and spiritual ignorance. When multitudes began to follow Him because of His teachings and His miracles, they felt threatened by Him, and they determined to do away with Him.

On several occasions, they had tried to seize Him and stone Him to death on the spot but they were unable to (Jn 8:58-59; 10:39). At long last they had gotten a foothold through an insider – Judas Iscariot – who would betray Jesus over to them. Finally, they had Him before Pontius Pilate, who alone could issue an official death order. When Pilate took Jesus away, they must have thought that they had at last secured a victory over Jesus. But in verse 5, Jesus reappears, bloody and beaten, but still alive. Pilate called out to them: “Behold the Man!” And verse 6 says that they saw Him. But He wasn’t dead, so they cried out all the more, “Crucify! Crucify!” Weymouth translates the phrase, “To the cross! To the cross!”

Here for the second time, Pilate announces that he has found no guilt worthy of death in Jesus. He will not crucify Him, so he says, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him.” Now, this is a loaded statement. The Jews had no power to execute criminals. That power belonged only to Rome. So Pilate is saying essentially, “I won’t put Him to death, so if you want Him dead, you will have to do it yourselves, if you dare.” For them to do this would bring the wrath of Rome upon their own heads. So Pilate won’t crucify Jesus, and the Jews can’t crucify Jesus. They will have to revise their tactics if they want Him dead.

As the text goes on, we will see that they do, and finally they will persuade Pilate to issue the order to crucify Jesus. Jesus would go to the cross and die. The Jewish officials will see His lifeless body hanging on the cross and think that at long last they have finally made Him go away. That was Friday. But on Sunday morning they would find out that even death could not make Jesus go away, because He would rise from the dead! That’s the trouble with Jesus: He just won’t go away!

Two millennia later, people are still trying to make Jesus just go away. They try to avoid, ignore, and disregard Him. They refuse to believe in Him. But this is just the thing: disbelief, ignorance, and avoidance of Him will not make Him go away! C. S. Lewis tried when he was an atheist. As he was laying in a hospital ward recovering from an illness he acquired in the trenches of World War I, he began to read. He had never heard of G. K. Chesterton, but he began reading a volume of Chesterton’s essays. He said, “I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere – ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises … fine nets and strategems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”[2] Suddenly, every book he read, every friend he made, every conversation he had, was seemingly thrusting God-in-Christ before him. After several years of this, he said,

Really, a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side. … Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat. … I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ … That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. … I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[3]

As Hebrews 4:13 says, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.” You will deal with Him here and now, or you will deal with Him before the judgment seat of eternity, but you will deal with Him. He just won’t go away. And for many people, that’s the trouble with Jesus.

For some, they would say …

II. The trouble with Jesus is that He makes such radical claims. (v7)

As Christmas approaches, many popular magazine covers switch from their usual fare of celebrities and world affairs and feature instead full-color portraits of nativity scenes. The check-out lanes of the local grocery store become virtual art galleries with more glossy images of the baby Jesus than are found in many churches. Television documentaries follow suit, with features on the birth of the baby at Bethlehem. These scenes, meaningful as they are to us as Christians, are very palatable and non-threatening to the world because the infant Jesus is somewhat different from the full-grown Jesus we read about in the Gospels in one very important way: He is not speaking. Just like in the first century, so today, people don’t seem to mind a silent Jesus. It’s when He starts talking that things get uncomfortable. This Jesus makes radical claims that demand a response from all who hear His words.

The Apostle John says in the closing verse of this Gospel that the whole world could not contain the books that could be written of all that Jesus said and did. But none of those things are in focus here as He is brought to trial before Pilate. There is a singular claim that is the center of attention: “He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (v7).

The religious officials of Jerusalem had been very crafty in seeking to secure a death sentence from Pilate. Knowing that Pilate would not care to meddle in a Jewish theological debate, they presented Jesus as an insurrectionist, a rabble-rouser who posed a threat to national security and Roman authority. The charges were set forth in Luke’s account: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King. … He stirs up the people” (Lk 23:2, 5). It was on the basis of these charges that Pilate had interrogated Jesus, and concluded that He was not guilty of any serious threat. Twice at this point, he had announced the verdict (18:38; 19:6). They had been unsuccessful in persuading him to convict Jesus on political charges. Their only remaining resort was to appeal to the religious charges on the basis of their own laws.

As the Roman prefect of Judea, Pilate’s primary responsibility was enforcing Roman authority in the land. But, in the interests of preserving the Pax Romana (the “peace” of Rome), he also had the responsibility of enforcing local laws as well, so long as they did not contradict Rome’s interests. Knowing this, the Jewish officials make an appeal to their own religious law as a last ditch effort to gain Pilate’s cooperation in putting Jesus to death. They say in verse 7, “We have a law.” In other words, “Though you do not find Jesus in violation of any of your Roman laws, He is in violation of one of our laws!” The law that they have in mind is the law concerning blasphemy, stated in Leviticus 24:16. The Law of God states there, “[T]he one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.” To blaspheme is, in the words of Calvin, “to assume any honor which belonged to God,” or to claim for oneself “what belongs only to God.”[4] This, they say, Jesus has done by “making Himself out to be the Son of God.”

They understood that the title “Son of God,” as used by Jesus was a claim of equating Himself with God. It was to say that He was of the same nature as God, and possessed the same authority and power as God. Now, to be sure, if anyone ever made himself out to be something of this order, that person would most definitely be guilty of blasphemy. That is, unless it were true. So the question that Pilate must now consider, and which each of us must consider, is that: Did Jesus make Himself out to be the Son of God? Or was He truly the Son of God?

Make no mistake about it, Jesus clearly claimed to be the Son of God on multiple occasions. He spoke of God as His Father, and referred to Himself as the Son (e.g., John 10:36). On that very evening, when He was interrogated by the high priest, He was commanded: “Tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” His answer was, “You have said it yourself” (Mt 26:63-64). It was fresh in their ears. Others had called Him the Son of God, and He never once corrected them. Even the demons whom He cast out of possessed people had called Him the Son of God (Mt 8:29), as did the angels who had announced His birth (Lk 1:32, 35). At least twice, God had spoken from heaven with an audible voice to declare that Jesus was His beloved Son with whom He was well pleased (Mt 3:17; 17:5). He was known in heaven, on earth, and in hell as the Son of God. But Jesus also demonstrated His unique power as the Son of God through His words and deeds. When He taught, He amazed the people because of the divine authority of His words (Mk 1:27; Lk 4:32). In one of the most telling of His miracles, He told a paralytic man that his sins were forgiven. When the religious scribes protested that He was blaspheming, for only God can forgive sins, Jesus said, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” And the Bible says that he got up and immediately picked up the pallet and went out (Mk 2:5-12).

He was not making Himself out to be the Son of God. He had existed from the beginning as the Son of God, or God the Son as we may say, and proved His radical claims over and over. Ultimately, on the Sunday after His crucifixion, He would provide the ultimate proof by rising from the dead. In Romans 1:4, Paul says that He “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”

Yes, Jesus made radical claims – like the claim to be the unique Son of God – and those claims created a lot of trouble. But you and I must do what the religious leaders of Israel were never willing to do. We must consider whether or not these claims, no matter how radical they were, might be true. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He commanded His followers to continue to spread His message to all nations. He did not commission them to draw pictures, but to write and to proclaim His Word, because in His Word we come face to face with His radical claims. That is something many people refuse to do. And they would say that this is the trouble with Jesus. He was always making these sorts of radical claims about Himself.

But our text shows us yet one more thing some would say is the trouble with Jesus.

III. The trouble with Jesus is that He strikes dread in the hearts of those who don’t know Him. (v8)

In the first chapter of his book, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis asks us to suppose

…. you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost.[5]

Lewis says that this is a special kind of fear that may be called “Dread.” He says, “Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. … [T]he disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking.” Lewis says, “This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.”[6] It is like that feeling you get when you are all alone, and suddenly feel as though you are not alone. It is akin to the sensation you have when, in the middle of the night, you hear a noise, and do not know what caused it. Maybe it is nothing, or maybe it is something – something that could be wonderful or terrible for all you know. In his most well-known book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis says that when Mr. Beaver said that Aslan was on the move, “None of the children knew who Aslan was … but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. … At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.”[7] It was an encounter with the Numinous.

I suggest to you that this is exactly what came over Pontius Pilate upon hearing the officials say that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God. Verse 8 says that “when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.” There was already a spark of fear within him as he dealt with Jesus. His wife had warned him of an ominous dream she had about Him the night before (Mt 27:19), and he had surely detected that there was something unusual about Jesus as he had interviewed him. Now that spark of fear was fanned into full flame as he heard these words, “Son of God.” It was the awestruck dread of the Numinous.

Though Pilate was a well-educated man, and a seemingly hardened cynic, like any other Roman, he was a deeply superstitious man. The Roman universe was haunted by the stories of a pantheon of deities and their half-divine offpring who sojourned among men from time to time. Though he’d never personally experienced it, he’d heard enough stories to believe it was just barely possible. And if possible, then perhaps this was just such an encounter. Perhaps here one of those stories that he had written off as mythology was becoming a fact before his very eyes. If this Jesus is who He says He is, then Pilate has just had a divine Person scourged and beaten to a bloody pulp. Surely, there would be a literal hell to pay.

So far as we know from Scripture and secular history, Pilate never acted on the dread that he experienced at the sound of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. His life ended in a shame, being deposed from his position and later taking his own life. How different it might have been for him if he had turned that moment in faith and repentance to the Son of God who had struck such dread in his heart.

Jesus is still doing this. That’s the trouble with him, some would say. He strikes such a sense of dread in the hearts of those who refuse to believe in Him. You don’t believe me? Here’s a little experiment you can try. In a few weeks, when you gather with your family and loved ones for Thanksgiving, and the conversation lulls as everyone fills their mouths with food, simply say, “I thought it would be good for us to talk about Jesus together.” Watch the looks on their faces. The room may clear, or a food fight might erupt. No one wants to do business with this dreadful deity, for to do so will mean confronting one’s own sins.

I remember the day well. It was a sunny summer day, and I found myself on a bench on the back side of Oak Island with a Bible in my hand. Before that day, I had never given thought to the possibility of God, much less of Jesus Christ. I had been invited, almost dared, by my Christian friends to join them for a week of summer camp. Every morning there was a Bible reading assignment, and I decided I would play along. On the final morning, there I sat on my little bench reading. I sat down an atheist. Before I got up, I was convinced that there was a God, that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, and that He was as near to me as if He were sitting on the bench with me. But my only thought was of my own sinfulness. Seemingly every sin I had ever committed, every time I had taken His name in vain, every time I had ever blasphemed Him, every time I had ever rejected and debated Christians who sought to persuade me, came flooding back. To me, it was all very bad news. I spent the rest of that day in a fog of holy dread, fully aware that I had a well-deserved sentence of eternal hell awaiting me. But that evening, I heard the Good News … that Jesus had come to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven and have a personal relationship with God. My fear turned to joy as I surrendered myself to Him.

C. S. Lewis says that when he began to read the Gospels, he found them to be very unique. They were not like the myths he had grown up reading. They presented a Person, Jesus Christ, who was so “numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world.” He confessed, “if ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. … Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man.”[8]

Here before Pilate stood this One – the numinous Word-made-flesh, God-become-Man, more real than all the mythology of his culture and tradition. He struck dread in Pilate’s heart. Maybe you have experienced the same. That’s the trouble with Jesus. He has a way of doing that. He isn’t going to just go away. He’s going to keep thrusting those radical claims that He made upon your conscience. And there will be this gnawing sense of dread at even the mention of His name. That’s the trouble with Jesus. Deny Him, avoid Him, ignore Him, or as these in our text found out, even kill Him. But He isn’t going away, He isn’t shutting up, and He isn’t leaving you alone. It is only as you turn to Him in repentance of your sin and faith that He is Lord and He is the Savior who can deliver us from sin, that dread becomes joy, and life becomes abundant and eternal in Him, and with Him. The Son of God has become a man, and lived among us in the Person of Jesus Christ. He died for our sins, and conquered sin and death by His resurrection, and thus He was declared with power to be the Son of God.

What’s the trouble with Jesus? Well, as it turns out, there’s really not any trouble with Jesus. There’s only trouble with us, who keep wanting Him to go away, to be quiet, and to leave us alone. He’s never going to do that. There is no trouble with Him, but He has come to bear the trouble of us all.

[1] Quoted in Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 614.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 1:106. 
[3] Ibid., 1:124-1:125.
[4] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 422.
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 14-15.
[6] Ibid., 15.
[7] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 67-68.
[8] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1:129.