Monday, February 15, 2016

Jesus Was Dead:A Lenten Story (John 19:31-37)


MARLEY was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. 

Do you know those words? That is the beginning of one of my favorite Christmas stories: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But this is not the Christmas season; this is the Lenten Season. It began last Wednesday, “Ash Wednesday,” and is a season of 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. But unlike Christmas, we don’t have a lot of “Lenten stories.” For the season of Lent, there is only one story. It is the story of Jesus’ death, and it ends with the celebration of His victory over death in His resurrection. So, to paraphrase Dickens, our Lenten story may begin like this:

Jesus was dead. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. Jesus was dead as a door-nail. John knew he was dead. He had been his disciple for three years, and was the only apostle present at the crucifixion. And John’s testimony was true. There is no doubt that Jesus was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the rest of the story.

The Christian faith is rooted in historical events that have spiritual significance. The ancient creeds of Christianity express the core tenets of our beliefs. The Nicene Creed contains this line: “For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried.” The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried.” In our text of Scripture today, John goes to great lengths to describe the death of Jesus. But why? Is it not enough to simply say that He died, without all the added detail? Well, for reasons we shall see as we move through the text, these important details are significant for us as we consider the fact that Jesus died, and was assuredly dead, upon the cross.

I. The Physical Certainty of Jesus’ Death

The record of Scripture is attested to by secular history to such an extent that there should be no serious dispute about the fact that Jesus really lived and died. However, this fact of His death has long been debated by various groups of people. By the time John wrote this Gospel, near the end of the first century, a group known as the Docetics argued that Jesus neither lived nor died. They believed that God was far too holy to ever defile Himself by taking on human flesh. For them, Jesus only seemed to take on human form, but His humanity was nothing more than an illusion. Their writings suggest that Jesus could alter His appearance at will, and that He left no footprints in the sand when He walked. By the same token, they believed that He never actually died, but only appeared to have died.

Still today, there are those who believe that Jesus did not really die – at least not then and there at the cross. Many Muslims, for example, believe that Jesus did not die at all. With a view that is strikingly similar to that of the Docetics of the First Century, the Qur’an says concerning Jesus that “they did not kill him, neither did they crucify him; it only seemed to be so” (Surah 4.156). Though not all Muslims agree on the exact meaning of this statement, many believe that God would not expose a great prophet like Jesus to such a shameful death, and therefore, Jesus was actually substituted in His death by another, who was transformed to look like Jesus.

And then there are the rational skeptics who deny the possibility of miracles. Because of their anti-supernatural bias, they go to great lengths to explain away the miracles that are recorded in Scripture with merely naturalistic explanations. Alternative explanations are offered for the resurrection of Jesus, for example. One that is frequently heard is that Jesus did not rise from the dead when He emerged from the tomb on the third day, because He was not really dead when He was placed in the tomb. It is argued by some that He merely fainted, or swooned, as a result of agony and blood-loss on the cross. Then, after less than 72 hours of convalescence in the cool and arid tomb, He mustered enough strength to unwrap Himself from the grave-cloths, roll away the massive stone, fight off an entire detachment of soldiers, walk seven miles to Emmaus, and convince His disciples that He had actually conquered death in a glorified body.

John leaves no room for such alternative theories as these as he demonstrates the physical certainty of Jesus’ death. According to John’s account, the physical death of Jesus was ensured. Notice in verse 31 that the Jews were concerned that the bodies of the crucified men not remain on the cross after sunset, so as to not defile the Sabbath. Jesus died on Passover, the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew Calendar, which happened to be a Friday that year. Every Friday is regarded as “the day of preparation” for the Sabbath. Passover is always considered to be a Sabbath, no matter what day of the week it falls on; and since the following day was actually the Sabbath, it was considered to be a “high day” – the Sabbath of a major festival week. The Mosaic Law actually specified that those who had been executed by hanging from a tree could not remain hanging on the tree all night, but had to be buried the same day, that the curse of that criminal not defile the entire land. Of course, the Roman authorities had no regard for Jewish religious customs. Their normal custom was to leave crucified men on their crosses until the vultures and scavenger animals had devoured them. But because it was a high holy day, and religious fervor was high, there seems to have been an increased sensitivity to the wishes of the Jews. So Pilate granted their wish to hurry things along.

Because death by crucifixion could take days, a common way of speeding the process was to break the legs at the knees. This made it impossible for the crucified man to push himself up to draw breath, ensuring that death would come quickly. In June of 1968, the bones of a young man who had been crucified were discovered just north of Jerusalem. His bones revealed that a single nail had been driven through each forearm, and a single nail had been driven through both heels together. In fact, the nail had bent from the force of the hammer and was unable to be removed, and so the nail was still present. One of this man’s legs had been shattered by the blunt force of a single blow so strong that the other leg was cracked as well.[1]    

Upon Pilate’s acquiescence, the soldiers began the gruesome ordeal of breaking the legs. One took to the thief on the right side of Jesus, and another to the thief on His left. “But coming to Jesus,” the Bible says, “they saw He was already dead.” This was quite remarkable in itself, for no one died that quickly on the cross! Crucifixion was a long, slow, horrific death, and yet Jesus had died within a few short hours. For most men it would take days. But Jesus was not like most men. No one can simply decide to die and then do it – no one! But Jesus could. In John 10, Jesus speaks of laying down His life. He says there, “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” And when He had said, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) and then, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” He breathed His last (Lk 23:46). Never did a man live like Jesus, and never did a man die like Jesus.

Because Jesus appeared to already be dead, His legs were not broken. But in order to ensure that He was really dead, John tells us that one of the soldiers “pierced His side with a spear.” He was already dead, but if He hadn’t been, this would have done the job. His death was ensured. And then it was evidenced. Blood and water flowed from His side. Medical experts have set forth several plausible theories about this blood and water, and we won’t go into them here and now. John’s point was not to perform an autopsy, but to indicate that there was no mistaking the fact that Jesus was dead.

Jesus’ death was a physical certainty. The Jews and Romans went to great lengths to ensure His death, and the flow of blood and water from His side are evidence of His death. But, the physical certainty of Jesus’ death is not the only point that John intends to make. He also wants to be sure that we observe…

II. The Prophetic Significance of His Death

John has carefully explained throughout his Gospel how many of the things that Jesus said and did fulfilled prophecies that were spoken through the prophets of the Old Testament. But Old Testament prophecy was not limited merely to spoken or written words. There are also prophetic people and events that point forward to the person of Jesus, types and shadows of what the Messiah would be and do. And all of them find their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.

As we have already observed, day of Jesus’ death was the day of Passover. This was no coincidence. The entire observance of Passover always pointed to Him from its institution in Egypt in the days of Moses. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts of the Hebrew homes in Egypt spared them from the plague of death and delivered them from Egypt’s bondage, so the blood of Jesus delivers us from bondage to sin and saves us from the plague of eternal condemnation. Therefore, Jesus is described by John the Baptist as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29),  and by Peter as “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet 1:19). Paul speaks of “Christ our Passover” who has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7).

Now, for the original Passover lamb that was to be slaughtered and eaten on that fateful night in Egypt, the Lord gave a very specific instruction – “you are not to break any bone of it” (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12). And so John says here that when the soldiers decided not to break Jesus’ legs, they were unknowingly fulfilling the Scriptures. In verse 36, he says, “these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, ‘Not a bone of Him shall be broken.’” We began our service today with a reading from Psalm 34. There, David writes, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken” (34:19-20). The Lord Jesus is the perfection of righteousness, and so in a unique way this passage points to Him. It would not be uncharacteristic for John to have had both of these passages in view as he wrote, and his point may be that because Jesus is the Righteous One, He is uniquely fit to be our Passover Lamb, and as such not a bone of His body would be broken, for God would not allow it. In His death, He fulfills the Passover in an ultimate and eternal way for us.

There is further prophetic significance mentioned in verse 37. Not only is Jesus the Passover Lamb of prophecy, but He is also the Messianic King of prophecy. John says, “And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on Him whom they pierced.’” It is originally found in Zechariah 12:10. Notice how John says that this “Scripture says, not that this Scripture was fulfilled. This prophecy actually points to something yet future – the return of Christ at the end of the age. It has not yet been fulfilled – at least not in total. This promise, in its original context, points us forward to the Messiah – the God who is King – and assures us that He will come, He will be pierced, and then He will return and be seen again. So in order for this prophecy to be fulfilled, there had to be a piercing when He came. And here John describes how the soldier pierced His side so that blood and water came forth. This One who was pierced was none other God Himself in human flesh. In Zechariah’s prophecy, the Lord says, “They will look on ME whom they have pierced.” They will see the One who was executed unjustly, but who willingly laid down His life for our sins.
Remember that after the resurrection, Jesus invited Thomas to investigate the wounds in His hands and in His side. In His glorified body, Jesus still bears the wounds He suffered for our redemption. He is coming again, and when He does, every eye will behold Him. They will see the One whom John describes in Revelation as “a Lamb standing, as if slain.” The wounds of His piercing will be visible to every eye on that day when He returns in glory. For those who have trusted in Him as Lord and Savior, it will be a great day of joy and salvation. For those who have not, it will be a day of terrible judgment and wrath.

In describing the death of Jesus in such great detail, John is showing us its prophetic significance. In His death, we see Jesus as the Passover Lamb and the Messianic King that had been promised, foreshadowed, and symbolized through the centuries as God was working out His eternal plan of redemption. And that brings us to our final point …

III. The personal response to His death

Several decades ago, the late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote a book entitled, Elvis is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. Well, after reading and examining in some detail the fact that Jesus was dead, some may be tempted to say, “Jesus is dead, but what does His death have to do with me?” Perhaps John knew that some who read his Gospel would feel that way, and so he pens a personal note in verse 35.

He says, “He who has seen has testified.” John began his Gospel by saying of Jesus that “we saw His glory.” In 1 John 1, he says that we have heard Him, we have seen Him with our eyes, we have looked at Him, and touched Him with our hands (1 Jn 1:1). John was among those who saw the Lord Jesus performing amazing signs and wonders among the people of His day. But John was the only one of the twelve apostles to witness the greatest display of Christ’s glory. That display of glory was seen ultimately in His death on the cross. Though the other disciples had all fled and forsaken Jesus before He went to the cross, John says, “I saw it.” He was there. And this is his testimony of the things that happened there on that day. And John says of his own words, “his testimony is true.” In other words, it is an eyewitness account, and it is trustworthy. He says, “he knows that he is telling the truth.” He knows that he has not included any details that are not factual or left out anything of importance. And this trustworthy, eyewitness account has been recorded for a specific purpose: “so that you also may believe.”

Belief is the personal response that we are invited to make to the death of Jesus. But what is it we are to believe? In Chapter 20, verses 30-31, he writes, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

That passage tells us that life comes through believing that Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah who was promised to come for our salvation; the Son of God – that is God in human flesh. He has fulfilled all the prophecies. He is the Passover Lamb and the Messianic King. He is the God who became man, to live among us, and to die for us – that our sins could receive their full penalty in Him as He died in our place, and we can be forgiven. Just as blood and water flowed from His side when He was pierced, so His atoning blood flows freely to us to cleanse us from our sin and reconcile us to God in a covenant relationship. We are washed in the living water of the Holy Spirit as He shapes us to be like Christ while we live by faith in Him. Believe in Him, that you may have abundant and eternal life in His name as a free gift of God’s grace. 

Jesus was dead. One day, if He tarries His return, we will all be dead. The season of Lent serves in part to remind us of this fact. Just as we behold the death of the Savior, so we know that we are all mortal, and will die as the wages of sin takes effect in our lives. But the Bible promises us that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23). Death is nothing for the believer in Christ to fear, because it has been swallowed up in His victory over it (1 Cor 15:54). As we approach death, we are following by faith the One who has died our death for us, and overcome it in resurrected glory! Jesus has died, and we will too. But we follow Him to death, and we follow Him by faith through death into everlasting life if we believe upon His name!

[1] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.367-368, 375.

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