Monday, January 18, 2016

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

The notable English linguist Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”[1] There’s nothing like staring death in the face to help one concentrate on the things that matter most. Together, the four Gospels record seven distinct sayings of Jesus which He spoke from the cross. If we were to list them in chronological order, this would be the third of them. One of the amazing observations about these utterances is that He thinks of others before Himself. His first statement was to His Father, and it was a prayer for mercy on behalf of His murderers. Second was a gracious response to the pleas of a penitent thief dying beside of Him. In this third statement, Jesus turns His attention and His words 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 four of 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 usual way of referring to himself.

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 in verse 24 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.” These words had been written by King David in Psalm 22:18.

Though David never witnessed a death by crucifixion, the language of Psalm 22 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). No one would want 25 percent of a sandal. 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. Verse 23 says that 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. This tunic for which the soldiers were gambling may well have been made for Him by His mother, and worn throughout His entire adult life. If that is so, then, as Jesus witnesses the fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, His thoughts may have turned to another portion of the very same Psalm. In verses 9-10 of Psalm 22, 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 are as profound as they are brief. He speaks 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.

How many of the Ten Commandments could you name? Chances are, if you have raised children, one you could easily rattle off is the Fifth Commandment, the command to “honor your father and your mother.” Now, the New Testament assures us that Jesus kept all of God’s Law perfectly. So, does that mean that He also kept the Fifth Commandment perfectly? 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 almost wanting to rebuke Jesus in moments like these and say, “Jesus, that is no way to speak to Your mother!”

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 inseparably connected to 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.

If there is any question about whether or not Jesus honored His earthly mother, this word spoken from the cross should remove all doubt. 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? Mark 13:55 indicates that it was common knowledge in Jesus’ day that he had at least four brothers and two sisters, and that there names were known among the people of Nazareth. So, 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 may have 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. 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 said something like, “We are glad to have my brother, Pastor so-and-so, and his family, here today.” 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 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 one of those present at the crucifixion. It is hard to tell, but it is possible to infer from the Gospels that John’s mother and Mary were sisters, making Mary 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. Christian ideals have 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 everywhere. 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. 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 your brother, your sister, your daughter in God’s family of faith. 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 half the battle, and outwrestling your opponent was the other half. If you showed up, and the other guy didn’t, 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. A lot of other teams didn’t have guys who were in his weight class, so all he had to do was step on the scales, and he won!

I want to turn our thoughts here to John for a moment. He deserves mention because he showed up. Mark 14:50 tells us 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. Verse 27 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. If that attribution is accurate, 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 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. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Unwitting Testimony of the Cross (John 19:19-22)

(Audio unavailable)

On April 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky, something was scheduled to happen for the first time in American history, which led to something else happening for the last time in American history. On that day, a crowd numbered by some at 20,000 people along with media representatives from around the country gathered in Owensboro to witness the first ever public execution carried out by a woman, Sheriff Florence Thompson. It didn’t actually happen, though, because Sheriff Thompson for some unknown reason decided to give the responsibility of springing the gallows trap to a police officer from Louisville who, like many in the crowd, was intoxicated. In fact, leading up to the event, “hanging parties” were taking place all over town, and vendors were selling hot dogs and beverages throughout the crowd. When convicted rapist and murderer Rainey Bethea dropped from the gallows, reports indicate that the mob charged toward him, tearing the hood from his head and taking for themselves souvenirs from the occasion. Many historians suggest that the raucous spectacle of the event made Bethea’s hanging the last public execution in our country.[1]

From the beginning of its institution in human history, capital punishment had always been intended as more than a punishment of the guilty. It was also to serve as a warning to others. If you commit certain crimes, this will be your end. And in order to have that effect, it was necessary for executions to be public. It was certainly that way in the first century Roman Empire. Executions have always been able to draw a crowd, owing to the morbidity of man’s fallen nature, but crucifixions proved to be exceptionally popular. In Jesus’ case, it was a perfect storm. He was a well known figure. The drama of His final hours had been played out before the watching public. There were multitudes coming and going from Jerusalem, owing to Passover week, and the place where He was crucified was near to the city. The Roman and Jewish authorities wouldn’t have wanted it to be any different. For the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus was Public Enemy Number One, and they were glad to publicly display His battered body on the cross. For the Roman establishment, it provided a good opportunity to warn the discontented Jews of what happens to those who are suspected of insurrection against the Empire.

Our text tells us that Pilate wrote an inscription. It was customary for a condemned criminal to have his crimes written for all to see upon a placard of wood that had been whitewashed with gypsum. This placard would be hung around his neck or paraded before him in the streets during the death march. Upon execution, it would hang from his neck, or in what was apparently a rare case, be affixed to the cross, as was done here with Jesus. But there are several things about this that were not customary. First, not customary is what was written. Ordinarily one would find a criminal charge written. Pilate writes a title: “Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews.” It was not a crime to be the King of the Jews. It was a crime to claim to be the King of the Jews, if one was in fact not actually the King of the Jews. That is why, upon seeing it, the chief priests said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” The Greek verb tense there in verse 21 suggests that they repeatedly asked him to change it. Previously, they were able to pressure Pilate into cowering to their demands, but this time they are met with obstinate resolve. Perhaps feeling some tinge of shame or embarrassment for how he let them get the best of him before, he is determined to hold his ground here. As for what he has written, he was never really convinced that Jesus was guilty of a crime in the first place. For all he knew or cared, Jesus might as well have been the King of the Jews. He wouldn’t have understood the spiritual implications of that anyway, and as for the political ones, he could not have cared less. Whether Jesus was actually the King or just claimed to be King, either way it was sedition, and either way Rome would demand crucifixion. But also, the placard was meant to have a sting in it for the Jews. Twice before they led Jesus to Golgotha, Pilate had goaded the Jews with taunts about Jesus being their king. The placard on the cross was the final jab. Everything about it was an affront to the Jews. Here was a bloody and battered Jesus, a Man they despised, and a Nazarene of all things. Remember what was said about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). And He was hanging from a cross, shameful and disgraceful as that was. Pilate’s words on the placard were meant to indicate that such an individual as this was the only kind of King they deserved, and this is what Rome thought of their nation, their people, and their King.

Secondly, however, it would not have been customary for Pilate, or any other high-ranking political leader, to actually write the charges on the placard. There are those who suggest that the Greek wording could allow for us to understand it as though Pilate “had the inscription written,” rather than actually taking the stylus in his own hand to write it himself. At the very least, the wording here insists that Pilate chose the words and demanded them to be recorded exactly as he stated. Or, it is not impossible that in this rarest of cases, he actually wrote it out himself. And here is where we come to the unwitting testimony of the cross. Though, from a human perspective, it was Pilate who chose the words and ordered the inscription, there was a Higher Power orchestrating it all. The God who is meticulously sovereign over all things that take place in the world and in our lives was invisibly choreographing this scene to accomplish His greater purposes. And so, as the patriarch Joseph was able to say regarding the treacherous deeds of his brothers (cf. Gen 50:20), we can say here that what Pilate intended for evil, God intended for good. God sovereignly moved Pilate’s mind to settle obstinately on the wording of this placard, and the hand of Pilate or whoever took up the stylus, to inscribe this testimony to the true identity of the One on the cross. So what does this unwitting testimony of the cross declare?

I. It declares an unintended testimony to the truth of who Jesus is. (v19)

I think most of us are familiar with the story of Cinderella, the peasant girl who goes to the ball and enamors the prince, and runs away before the magic spell ends at midnight. She left a shoe behind – a glass slipper in the famous Disney version of the story – prompting a search of the whole kingdom to find the girl whose foot fits the shoe. The great thing about fairy tales is that no one ever stops to ask logical questions. Doesn’t it seem remotely possible that more than one woman in the kingdom wore the same size shoe? But, nevermind that, the search proceeds until Cinderella’s foot fits perfectly in the glass slipper, and she and the prince live happily ever after. We’ve discovered in teaching our children literature that this story is found in many diverse cultures of the world, with various details modified. But it may have been the popularity of the version of the story involving the lost shoe which caused an old English saying about a cap and a head to be changed to the more familiar saying, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

And friends, if there is a sign that is inscribed with the words “King of the Jews,” then Jesus Christ is fit to wear it! Pilate had no intention of declaring that Jesus was actually the King of the Jews, and the Jews had no intention of ratifying such a declaration, but the eternal and undeniable truth of heaven is that Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the King of the Jews. But what does this statement even mean? King of the Jews? The hope of Israel, set forth in the Old Testament, included a vision for a descendant of David who would come to establish and reign over an everlasting kingdom. God promised this to David, ensuring him that his throne would be established forever, and occupied by David’s son, who would also be God’s son (2 Sam 7:8-16). This king would be “the anointed one,” the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Isaiah spoke of this Messiah who would come, indicating that He would suffer for the sins of His people as a substitute to save them from divine judgment (cf. Isa 53). Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled these Old Testament promises of an anointed King who descended from David’s lineage. “The theme of Jesus as King, Ruler, or Lord dominates the New Testament from beginning to end.” But it is here at the cross where Jesus “established His kingship through His sacrificial death.”[2]

As F. F. Bruce so beautifully stated it, “The Crucified One is the true king, the kingliest king of all; because it is He who is stretched on the cross, He turns an obscene instrument of torture into a throne of glory and ‘reigns from the tree.’”[3] Augustine wrote, “The title placed over his cross … showed that they could not keep Him from being their king even by His death.”[4] Indeed, by His resurrection and ascension, and in the sure and certain promise of His return, God’s promise that He will reign over a kingdom that has no end has come to pass and will be fully consummated. And then, the book of Revelation declares, we will behold Him wearing a new and different placard that reads, “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16). Yes, not the King of the Jews alone, but King of all Kings, and King over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue (5:9; 13:7; 14:6). And this brings us to the second unwitting testimony of the cross.

II. It announces an unusual message for the whole world to receive. (v20)

If you travel internationally much, you will encounter many signs that you do not understand. They are written in strange languages, some with an alphabet of symbols and characters that are completely unrecognizable to us. But in a lot of places, at least the really important signs are written both in the local language and in English. It ensures that the message is clearly understood by the most people possible.

Notice here in our text that Pilate’s placard which he prepared and affixed to the cross was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Whether the Hebrew was actually Hebrew or Aramaic, the point is that the average Jew of Jerusalem and Judea could understand the message on the sign. Not only this, but because Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, every Roman official and Roman soldier stationed in the area (and there were plenty) could understand the message on this sign. But also notice that it was written in Greek. For centuries, since the days of Alexander the Great, Greek had been the common language of the majority of the world.

The significance of this has to do as well with the timing of it. During the Passover feast, Jerusalem’s population swelled to many times its normal size. Pilgrims came from far and wide to observe Passover in Jerusalem. Tradition made it mandatory annually for all Jews, but logistics made it more practically a once-in-a-lifetime desire for most. And many came. They came from across the world. Remember that, just as is true today, following the return of the exiles from Babylon, more Jews lived outside of the Promised Land than inside of it. Jewish population in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime may have been five or six hundred thousand. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, there were perhaps up to eight million Jews.[5] Many of those were coming in, and a few days later, they would go out. On their way in or out of Jerusalem, many of them would have undoubtedly walked past Golgotha, which John says was “near the city” (v20). Those who didn’t see the crucified Jesus for themselves would have likely heard about it. And all who were able to read (which would have been a surprisingly high percentage), no matter what language they could read, could have understood the message inscribed here on the cross.

From Jerusalem, once the feast ended, they would depart and each one would return to his or her homeland. Friends and loved ones would ask, “What did you see while you were there?” Imagine how they might answer. “On the day of the sacrifices, we happened to be coming into the city, and there by the road was a Nazarene named Jesus who had been nailed to a cross. Above his head there was a sign which read, “The King of the Jews.” And so this message began to spread around the world as these travelers went back to their homelands. Soon, others would come – missionary evangelists like the Apostle Paul, ordinary folks who had heard the good news of Jesus and His salvation and believed – and they would share the message of Jesus. These who first heard the report of the crucified King would discover through the sharing of this Gospel that the King had suffered and died for them, to bear the weight of their sins beneath the judgment of God on their behalf, that they may be saved and reconciled to God by repentance and faith in Him.

And so this message of the King of the Jews, who had been crucified on Golgotha would soon sweep across the entire Roman Empire and beyond. Surely Pilate did not intend to be a global missionary for Jesus when he inscribed the words of this placard in three languages, but the words he inscribed in the three major languages of the Empire at that time certainly accomplished that in an unusual way. God providentially ordered the events of that day in order that the whole world could understand the significance of what was taking place there on the cross. The cross was an unusual coronation ceremony by which the King of kings was establishing a spiritual kingdom that transcends national borders and ethnic boundaries, a kingdom for Jew and Gentile alike who come to God by faith in this crucified King.

We see it taking shape already here on Golgotha. The other Gospel writers tell us that there was a man named Simon from Cyrene (in modern day Libya) who was coming into the city as Jesus was being led to the cross. Maybe Simon was a Jew who lived in Cyrene. Maybe he was a Gentile who had come to believe in the Jewish faith. Whichever the case, as he drew near to Jerusalem on his Passover pilgrimage, the soldiers compelled him to carry the cross of Jesus for a portion of the distance. Mark tells us that this man was the father of Alexander and Rufus, a detail which seems to have very little significance until we come to Paul’s letter to the Romans. There Paul offers his greetings to a member of the Roman church named Rufus and his mother. It seems natural to understand that Simon returned to Cyrene and told his family of his experience with Jesus, and they all became followers of Jesus and citizens of His kingdom. We also see there on Golgotha a Jewish criminal turning to Jesus from his own cross and asking Him to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. And soon after, when Jesus had breathed His last, we find a Gentile centurion recognizing that Jesus was surely the Son of God. These three men – Simon of Cyrene, the repentant criminal, and the Roman centurion – demonstrate that no matter who we are, where we are from, or what we have done, God invites us all into the Kingdom of His Son, the Kingdom which was inaugurated and heralded from the cross of Jesus Christ.

The trilingual placard that was affixed to the cross of Jesus accomplished far more than Pilate ever intended. It was an unwitting testimony for Jesus, unintentionally declaring the truth that He is the King, and unusually announcing a message for the whole world to receive. But, here and now, two millennia later, this placard continues to accomplish purposes for which Pilate could have never intended, but which God has providentially ordained. We come now the third unwitting testimony of the cross:

III. It proclaims an ironic lesson for the followers of Jesus. (v22)

In Psalm 76:10, the Psalmist Asaph writes, “The wrath of man shall praise You.” This means, at least in part, that God has the power to take the evil schemes and deeds of man and completely subvert them into a means of bringing glory to His name and furthering His purposes in the world. Make no mistake about it, there is nothing commendable or worthy of our emulation in the character of Pontius Pilate as he is recorded in Scripture or secular history. But here in our text, there are at least two lessons that we can draw from his intractability on the matter of the words inscribed on this placard.

Previously, when Jesus was on trial (if we may call it that, for the outcome was settled before the whole process began), he was vacillating and pliable, allowing himself to be pressured away from justice and truth in violation of his own conscience and conviction for reasons of personal and political pride. Now, he stands resolutely before the Jewish officials declaring in no uncertain terms that he will not change what he has written. Barclay is surely right when he says that it is “one of the paradoxical things in life that we can be stubborn about things which do not matter and weak about things of supreme importance.”[6] Though the change of wording that the Jews are demanding would have no effect on the outcome of events that day, their request is contrary to the high degree of respect that Romans had for written documents. The wording on the placard, for Pilate, represented a legally binding statement that could not be retracted or revised. Therefore Pilate says, “What I have written I have written.”

This takes on a special significance for those of us who understand that the words written on this placard originated in the mind of God, who the Bible says, turns the hearts of earthly kings like water in His hand. It was God Himself who installed this anointed King on the cross-shaped throne by His eternal decree, and it is as though we perceive an inaudible voice declaring from heaven, “What I have written, I have written.” He has declared from before the foundation of the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God who would be slain to take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). And that word, like every other word of divine revelation that He has uttered is entirely unalterable. Therefore, if a duplicitous man such as Pilate can say, “What I have written, I have written,” we must not dare imagine that the holy God of eternal glory has ever spoken any word that He intends to blot out from the record of His divine revelation. When we open the Bible, we are reading God’s very own Word. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, or as the NIV renders it (quite literally), is God-breathed. If Pilate is intractable concerning his word, our God is infinitely moreso, and we must regard His Word as something from which, in the words of Jesus, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from, until all is accomplished and until heaven and earth pass away. We may find ourselves bickering with the Holy Spirit as we come up against passages of Scripture that rub us the wrong way, pleading with Him that His words might be altered to suit our tastes and preferences. But the answer from heaven will always be, “What I have written, I have written,” and our only recourse is to yield ourselves in full submission to the gravity of His truth.

We find another ironic lesson here that certainly never entered the heart of Pilate when these words were inscribed upon his placard. John Calvin writes, “Pilate reminds us … that it is our duty to remain steadfast in defending the truth. A heathen refuses to retract what he has written truly about Christ, even though he did not understand what he was doing. How great, then, our shame if we are terrified by threats or dangers and we stop following his teaching which God has revealed in our hearts by His Spirit.”[7] Like the Jewish officials who badgered Pilate about the wording of this sign, we will face increasing pressures from the world around us to soften our message and modify our testimony for Christ. May God forbid that a convictionless pagan might have more resolve concerning his testimony for Jesus than the blood-bought, Spirit-led citizens of His own Kingdom! Our mandate in the world is to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), but let us not allow this world’s corrupted notion of love to prevent us from being bold with the truth. There is no love where there is no telling of truth, and truth presented without love can be toxic. But, when truth is uncompromisingly proclaimed in the context of unconditional love, this world will see a profound a testimony for Christ coming through His church. When truth is at stake, we must trust that the Lord is our defender and declare with the Psalmist that we shall not be moved (Psa 62:6).

Shall we allow Pontius Pilate of all people to be a better example of steadfastness to the truth of Christ than we are? Shall he have more confidence in his own words than we have in the Word of God? May it never be! Let us learn these ironic lessons in the unwitting testimony of the cross.

Looking up to the dying Savior from the ground of Golgotha, in whatever language one happens to speak, there is a message unalterably emblazoned declaring that Christ is the King. But looking down from heaven, God sees there another message inscribed on a placard visible only to Him. Colossians 2:14 says that God has taken the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us which was hostile to us, and taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. That certificate of debt was the inventory of all of our sin, and it was affixed to the cross for the God of infinite justice and mercy alone to see. There above the sacred Head now wounded was the placard of indictment – not of His crimes but of our sins. And so in the outpouring of divine wrath that took place on the cross, causing Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, our sins received the full measure of judgment they deserved in the person of our substitute, King Jesus. And because of that, this King who overcame our sin and its penalty through His resurrection from the dead, offers amnesty and welcome to all who turn to Him and invite Him to be their King. No matter one’s nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic standing, native dialect, or any other factor, this King welcomes all who call upon Him as Savior and Lord to enter into His everlasting Kingdom and have eternal life with Him. If you never have before, today is the day of salvation if you will look to Him in repentance and faith. May those of us who have publish the announcement far and wide, in every language under heaven, that Christ crucified is Christ the King, and may we be faithful and steadfast in the declaration of that good news!

[1] Accessed January 7, 2016.
[2] David Dockery, “King, Christ as” in Holman Bible Dictionary (gen. ed. Trent Butler; Nashville: Holman, 1991), 841-842.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.369.
[4] Joel C. Elowsky, John 11-21 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament; vol. IVb.; Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2007), 311.
[5] Thomas Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (2nd ed.; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 37.
[6] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 2.252.
[7] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 429. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

They Crucified Him (John 19:17-18)

On New Years Day, 2012, we opened our Bibles to John 1:1 and began an expository study in this marvelous Gospel that has gone on for the last four years. On the first Sunday of 2013, we entered into John 6; and in January of 2014, we began John 10. A year ago, we were in John 14. Today we return to John’s Gospel for the “home stretch.” By mid-year, Lord willing, we will be wrapping up this protracted study, so this is the last time we will kick off a new year by saying, “Let’s turn in our Bibles to the Gospel According to John.” We begin 2016 at the point in John’s Gospel that the entire book has been aiming toward, and, indeed, this entire 4 year study has been marching toward. With a great economy of words, the Apostle John states in a mere two words in Greek (which become three in English), “They crucified Him.”

When we speak of an essentially critical thing, we often refer to it as “the crux.” If it is a coincidence, it is only an apparent one from our perspective, that the word “crux” is Latin for “cross.” The cross on which Jesus Christ died is indeed the crux – the central, decisive, and pivotal point – of the Christian faith, the human race, and the history of the world. In these two verses which we have read, the Apostle John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explains in briefest fashion the shameful procedure of the crucifixion and the specific purpose of it. These two aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion – His death on the cross – have an immeasurable depth of significance to us all, and so we will turn our attention to these truths now.

I. They crucified Him in a shameful procedure.

Politically-motivated jealousy and hatred, betrayal fueled by greed, unsubstantiated charges, divergent testimonies of false witnesses, justice perverted by political expedience, unspeakable torture, culminating in an execution by the most heinous form of capital punishment ever imagined by sinful men: The entire procedure of the betrayal, the arrest and trial, and the death of Jesus Christ was as shameful a series of events as have ever played out on the stage of human history. Each movement of the whole ordeal is alluded to here briefly by the carefully chosen words of our text.

“They took Jesus.” Who are “they?” Though the text does not supply an antecedent for this pronoun, it is obvious that the reference is to the Roman soldiers. They had held Jesus in their custody since His arrest in Gethsemane following the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. These are they who had mocked and scourged Jesus in the courts of Pontius Pilate, and who likely had just scourged Him again more viciously following the death sentence. That sentence is alluded to by the word “therefore” in our text. We often remind ourselves that when we see the word “therefore” in a Biblical text, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s that there for?” Six weeks removed from our study of the previous passage, we must remember that verse 16 stated that Pilate had handed Jesus over to “them” to be crucified. Those “them” were the Jewish officials who had brought the accusations against Jesus, who had choreographed the betrayal, and who had long been architecting a plot to see Jesus eliminated. They did not have the authority to execute anyone without the Roman official’s sentencing, but verse 16 indicates that Pilate had handed Jesus over to their wishes for Him to be put to death. Therefore, “they (the soldiers) took Jesus.”

“And He went out.” With these words, John describes the shameful death march. Jesus went out – out from the courts of Pilate, out through the narrow, crowded streets of Jerusalem, out of the gates of the city. Forced by His tormentors to carry His own cross, a standard part of the process of crucifixion, Jesus walked in His bloody, beaten body, to the place of execution. Other Gospel writers tell us that, along the way, the soldiers compelled a man named Simon, from the North African city of Cyrene in modern-day Libya, to carry the cross the rest of the way, but no reason is given for why. John omits that detail altogether, for his emphasis is on the shameful procedure thrust upon the Lord Jesus. He went outside the city to a place with a name as gruesome as the events that were to take place there: Golgotha, an Aramaic name that means “the skull.” We’ve come to know it as Calvary, from the Latin word that means the same.

The significance of all of this is that Jesus went out of the city to die. The Mosaic Law had specified that if a person was to be executed, it must be “outside the camp,” away from the dwelling place of God and His people. Symbolically, the bodies of the sacrificial animals whose blood was to make atonement for sin, were to be taken outside of the camp to be consumed with fire. The scapegoat, on whose head the sins of the people were placed by the prayer of the priest, was to be taken outside of the camp and released to carry the sins of the people far away. All of these things pointed forward in time to the day in which Jesus Christ would carry His own cross and go outside the city of Jerusalem to die for the sins of humanity.

“There they crucified Him.” This is the climax of the entire shameful ordeal. The God of the universe had become a man, and sinful man did their dead-level best to be rid of Him altogether. The horrors of crucifixion have been well documented. The Roman philosopher Cicero called it “the most cruel and horrifying death,” while the Roman historian Tacitus said it was a “despicable death.”[1] Modern scholars and preachers are prone to elaborate on all the physiological horrors of crucifixion in an attempt to sensationalize the Biblical accounts and press upon the emotions of their audience, but it is worth noting that none of the Biblical writers do this. On a practical level, they did not need to, for anyone alive in the first century world would have known of the graphic horror of crucifixion. On a deeper level, however, it was not their aim to “play on the heartstrings of their readers.”[2] They did not use words to describe the physical agonies of the cross because there are no words that could fittingly describe it! But what they do describe is the shame of the entire procedure. And yet, the writer of Hebrews tells us that the Lord Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy that was set before Him. The joy which He came to accomplish and secure in the world for mankind was to reconcile sinful men to God through His death, and that brings us to the second aspect of His crucifixion that is depicted for us here in our text.

II. They crucified Him for a specific purpose.

All four of the Gospels record the fact that Jesus was not the only man crucified there on Golgotha that day. John sets the matter forth this way: “There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.” These two men who were crucified alongside of Jesus are referred to in Matthew and Mark by the same Greek term that is used to describe Barabbas, who was released in exchange for Jesus just before the death sentence was handed down. The word, though often translated as “robbers,” it can refer to a wide variety of violent criminals. In Matthew and Luke, we are told that Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder, and that he himself had been complicit in these crimes. That’s the kind of men between whom the Lord Jesus was crucified. They were the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low, just the sort of men for whom crucifixion was devised. And there, treated no differently from them, was the Lord Jesus in between them.

Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be “numbered with the transgressors” in His death, and here we see that prophecy coming to pass. And yet, these two men symbolize something far more important to each of us. In these two men on either side of Jesus, we find a representation of the entire human race. As these men stand condemned in the eyes of the law for their crimes, so we all stand condemned in the eyes of the Lord for our sins. Though our sins may be of a different sort than theirs or one another’s, we are all equally guilty before the Lord. Just as they deserved their cross, so we deserve ours as well. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that the wages of sin is death. If we all got what we deserved, we would face an eternal fate far worse than crucifixion.

Luke tells us that these two criminals were not silent in their suffering. One of them was hurling abuse at Jesus, taunting Him along with the mocking crowd gathered around. But something was happening within the heart of the other one. He began to rebuke the other criminal, reminding him that they were receiving what they deserved for their offenses, but Jesus was different. He had done nothing to deserve the treatment He was receiving. With a humble and earnest heart of faith, this one turned to the Lord and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.” And to this one, the Lord Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

So here in these two men crucified on either side of Jesus, we see a representation of the entire human race. The Lord Jesus has come into our midst and set Himself right in the middle of human history and the human race. He came to die a death that He did not deserve, that in His death, He might bear the sins of all who trust in Him. We all find ourselves on one side or the other of Him. We are either on the one side, rejecting Him, scoffing at Him, and adding our voice to the crowd of mockers; or we are on the other side, looking to Him with an eye of humble faith asking Him to save us and reconcile us to God, forgiving our sins, and granting us eternal life by His gracious favor. To those one the one side, He has nothing more to say than He has already said. To those on this other side, He says, “Today, you shall be with Me.” It is a promise of eternity in His presence in the paradise of Heaven, but more than that, a promise of His inseparable presence today, and all of our tomorrows without end. The wonder of this promise is not the paradise that is to come, but the presence that is offered here and now, that the God who made us and loves us, has come to be with us. The prophet said that He would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Here on the cross, we see a picture of what that means. Sinners all around Him, and He himself in the midst of us, dying on a cross He did not deserve in order to unite us to Himself in a life of faith and fellowship.

This was the specific purpose for which He was crucified, and the joy which was set before Him, for which He willingly embraced the cross, despising the shame. He went out, bearing His own cross to Golgotha, that He might bear our sins there in His death, and that He might come in to the glory of the Father, bringing our names before Him as His own people, redeemed by His blood! The writer of Hebrews says that it was so that “He might sanctify the people through His own blood,” that He “suffered outside the gate.” He suffered for us, and bore the shame of His crucifixion and the weight of our sins, so that we might be united to Him now and forever. Unity with Him may entail suffering for His sake while we are in this fallen world. He does not promise us an easy road, but calls us to follow Him. Following Him may mean enduring the same sorts of things that He endured. He endured them for us, and He calls us to endure them for Him. If life with Him in this world is difficult, we must remember that it is infinitely better than eternity without Him! And so, the writer of Hebrews goes on to admonish us, saying, “So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”

Those who truly seek that everlasting city of Christ’s Kingdom will, like the dying thief, look to Jesus and say, “Remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.” And He promises that He will, and He will do so even Today!

William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) is known as being one of the greatest English hymnwriters in Church history. What many do not know about him, however, is that throughout his life he wrestled with severe depression – a depression that drove him into temporary insanity, during which time he made several failed attempts to end his own life. This was followed by a period of seemingly bottomless despair. During his own lifetime, it was written of him that after this series of failed attempts at suicide, “he felt as if he had offended God so deep­ly that his guilt could ne­ver be for­giv­en.”[3] But it was not long after this, as a result of continual study and meditation upon the Word of God, that Cowper was able to write these unforgettable words:

There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.

“They crucified Him.” It was a shameful procedure, but it took place for a specific purpose – that there, in that fountain filled with Immanuel’s blood, sinners as vile as the dying thief who died beside of him, including you and I, may have all our sins washed away. If you have never turned to Jesus in repentance of your sins and faith in Him as your Lord and Savior, your only hope before God in life and in death, then today it is our prayer that you would do so and hear the promise of Christ that you will be with Him – even today, and forevermore in Paradise.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Vol. 5; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1496.
[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 805.
[3] Accessed January 1, 2016.