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. 

No comments: