Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

This sermon was preached on April 5, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

It’s interesting to see how people react to this pandemic we find ourselves in. Some people don’t take it very seriously. There were stories of college students on spring break who weren’t going to let a virus stop them from their vacations. And some of them became sick.[1] It’s not surprising that some young people wouldn’t think much about their own mortality and the mortality of others. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are very afraid. Some people are afraid of getting sick, or they’re afraid of their loved ones getting sick. I think more of us are afraid that this situation will cause other problems. We think we’ll lose our jobs, run out of money, or run out of food and basic household supplies. Why do people hoard? Because, at the end of the day, most people fear death.

This pandemic only highlights what was and has always been a reality: We will all die. That’s a hard truth. But I think it’s a good thing to think about death, for the very reason that we will all die. In one of the most fascinating books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we read these words:

 It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart (Eccl. 7:2).[2]

Death is a great teacher. Since we’re all going to die, we should think more carefully about what matters most in life.

One of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal, thought deeply about the meaning of life. He uses this illustration to shock us to think about the meaning of our lives:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.[3]

That’s a cheery thought, isn’t it? We’re all sentenced to die, we see other people much like us who receive that sentence, and we know our time is coming.

Since that is the case, it’s foolish not to think deeply and carefully about death. If death is a great teacher, what should it teach us? There’s a great book called Remember Death, written by Matthew McCullough, that came out a couple of years ago. In that book, McCullough writes these words: “Death makes a statement about who we are: we are not too important to die. We will die, like all those who’ve gone before us, and the world will keep on moving just as it always has. No one is indispensable. It’s a harsh, even terrifying statement.”[4] Let those words sink in a bit: “we are not too important to die.”

But those are not the last words that McCullough writes. He also writes this: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.”[5] The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” We’re looking for good news these days. And the best news is that God would send his Son to die in place of his enemies.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, I urge you to keep listening. It’s ironic to think that anyone’s death could be good news. But that’s what Christians have always believed. At the heart of the Christian faith stands Jesus. And the central act of Jesus is to sacrifice himself for his people, which is what we’ll talk about today. The other act that is central to what Jesus has done is to rise from the grave in a body that can never die again. We’ll talk about that next week, on Resurrection Sunday, better known as Easter.

Today, we’re going to continue to study the Gospel of Luke. We’re going to look at Luke 23:44–56. I invite you to turn there in your Bibles, or your Bible apps. You can find the passage easily enough with a Google search, too. If you don’t have a Bible, would you let us know? You can send a private message or contact us through our website. We’ll mail a Bible to you to make sure that you have your own copy.

Let’s start by reading Luke 23:44–49:

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

Over the past two months, as we have studied the closing chapters of Luke, we have seen that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by Jewish leaders who didn’t believe that he was the Christ, the anointed King of Israel, or the Son of God, that he was put on trial for making himself out to be those things, and that he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate in order to satisfying a bloodthirsty mob. Last week, we saw that Jesus was crucified, nailed to a cross as if he were a threat to the Roman Empire.

Jesus was crucified at the third hour (Mark 15:25), which would be about 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise. At the sixth hour, at about noon, darkness appeared until the ninth hour, 3 p.m. Obviously, this is an unusual event. Why is darkness appearing in the middle of the day?

This darkness has everything to do with how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. Light and darkness have deeper meanings in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, we’re told that the human condition is one of darkness. Think about what light does. It shows us what is real. Without light, we couldn’t see. Light exposes what is truly there. Light also gives life. Without any light from the sun, life on earth would end rather quickly. The Bible says that our real condition is that we’re separated from God. We have broken a relationship with God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. That relationship is broken by our failure to love him, honor him, and obey him. Instead of coming into the light, into a true relationship with God, we hide from him in the darkness (John 3:19–20). It is our running away from God, our hiding in darkness, that is ultimately responsible for what is broken in the world. That is why we die. We run from the source of light and life.

But Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12). Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus came to bring light to those who were in darkness (Luke 1:79). God the Father sent God the Son to reveal what is true, and to shine a light on the path back to God. In fact, Jesus is not only the light, but he is also the way to God (John 14:6). It was appropriate that when Jesus was born, in the middle of the dark night, the sky was filled with angels and glory, a brilliant light (Luke 2:8–14).

But now it becomes dark in the middle of the day. Why does this happen?

The answer is that this darkness is a sign of judgment. If you’re familiar with the story of the Bible, you know that Israel was rescued while they were slaves in Egypt during the time of Moses. God delivered Israel out of Egypt through a series of plagues. The ninth plague was darkness that covered the land for three days (Exod. 10:21–29). This darkness was a sign that judgment was coming. And, indeed, the next plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land (Exod. 11:1–10). So, this darkness that lasted for three hours as Jesus was hanging on the cross was a sign that God was judging sin, rebellion against him.

God, as the perfect judge, must punish wrongdoing. He must punish crimes. And this is a loving thing to do because sin is destructive. A loving person will want to crush that which destroys. God has promised that in the end, he will do that.

In fact, that judgment against sin was often foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. They referred to a “Day of the Lord,” a day of salvation for God’s people and a day of destruction for those who rebelled against him. These prophets spoke of what would happen when God judges sin, and this often involved darkness. Here are a few passages. This is Isaiah 13:9–11:

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
10  For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
11  I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.

And here is another word from God about the Day of the Lord. This is Amos 8:9:

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

Again, here is another word about this day of judgment. Here is Zephaniah 1:14–16:

14  The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15  A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16  a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

So, what is happening here in Jerusalem, when the sky turns dark in the middle of the day as Jesus is dying? It is a sign that God is judging sin. But, as we saw two weeks ago, and as we’ll see again today, Jesus is completely innocent. He never did anything wrong. He never sinned. So why is God judging him?

Remember those words I shared earlier: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.” Jesus was dying in our place. He was enduring the judgment of God that we deserve. All rebellion against God and all the destruction that comes with failing to love him and love others, failing to live life on the Creator’s terms, will be judged. But God did something amazing. He sent his Son, who came willingly, to bear the penalty that we deserve. Jesus was enduring the Day of the Lord on the cross. He was dying to pay the penalty for sin, a penalty that all of us should face.

There’s another sign that Jesus was atoning for the sin of his people. We’re told that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The temple was where God dwelled among his people. It was a place of worship, where people taught God’s word and prayed. It was also a place of sacrifice. God told Israel to sacrifice animals, symbolically transferring their guilt to animals who would die in their place. Now, an animal can’t bear the penalty for a human. So, these sacrifices did not actually satisfy justice. But God told the Israelites to do this, and it was a sign that sin deserves to be killed. It also was a sign that the death penalty could be taken by another.

When Jesus died, he fulfilled the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. His death made the temple obsolete. (The book of Hebrews makes this abundantly clear.)

In the Old Testament, for people to approach God, they had to go to the temple. They had to go through priests. But now, to go to God, we only need to go to Jesus. So, the curtain’s tearing was a sign that there is now open access to God. You don’t have to go to a special building. You don’t have a go to a priest. You have direct access to God through Jesus. In fact, Christianity says that all Christians are part of God’s temple. The Spirit of God does not dwell in some manmade building that you must visit. The Holy Spirit dwells in God’s people. And the Bible says that all Christians are royal priests. Jesus is our High Priest, and we must go to him to get to God, to be reconciled to God. This doesn’t mean that there is no longer any kind of structured religion. Jesus gave the church pastors to lead, teach, and protect his people (Eph.4:11ff). And his people do often meet in buildings. But none of these things are necessary to know God and have a right relationship with him. All you need is Jesus.

Though Jesus seems to be passive in his dying on the cross, he is in control. He lays down his life. He yields his life to God the Father. He continues to trust in the Father, even as he’s enduring hell on earth. When he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he’s quoting something from the Old Testament. He’s quoting a part of Psalm 31. This is what Psalm 31:1–8 says:

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul,
and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.

Even as Jesus is enduring the greatest physical suffering we can imagine, and even as he’s enduring greater spiritual and psychological pain that we can ever imagine, he trusts in God. God is his refuge, his help. He knows that God will deliver him. Even as Jesus saves his people, he serves as an example of how to trust God even in our darkest moments.

When Jesus dies, we see another example. We see a positive reaction to Jesus. A Roman solider, a centurion, a leader of a group of one hundred soldiers, sees Jesus suffer and die, and he comes to this conclusion: “Certainly this man was innocent!” This is the seventh time that someone claims that Jesus is innocent. Luke makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t dying for his own wrongs, crimes, or sins. He was dying for ours. If you want to know why Jesus’ innocence is important, go back and listen to my message from two weeks ago.[6] Jesus fulfilled God’s designs for humanity by living the perfect life, and he takes the penalty of sin for all who trust in him, so that his people, those who believe that he is Savior, Lord, and God, those who trust in him and are willing to follow him, are regarded by God as perfectly righteous, and their sins are removed from them, so that they can be forgiven by God and reconciled to him.

We also see other reactions to Jesus. The crowd leaves the site after Jesus died and they lament. And we see women watching Jesus’ death. This is important for at least three reasons. One, Jesus had female followers (Luke 8:1–3). While his inner ring of disciples consisted only of men, Jesus loved women and treated them with respect. Sometimes you hear how the Bible is misogynistic or somehow against women. But that’s not true at all. It’s also important to see that Jesus’ faithful followers are willing to follow him to the end. That, too, is an example for us. And, third, it shows that these women witnessed Jesus’ death. Jesus truly died. Some people claim he didn’t. Islam teaches that Jesus only appeared to die, that either he didn’t die or that someone else who looked like him took his place on the cross. But that’s not true. These women knew Jesus, they knew what he looked like, and they saw that he actually died.

Now, let’s read the rest of today’s passage in Luke. Here is Luke 23:50–56:

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

This passage is important because it talks about Jesus’ burial in the tomb. We’re now told of a man named Joseph, who was good and righteous. He was a member of the Jewish council that was opposed to Jesus. And he didn’t agree with their decision. We don’t know if he actively worked against them, or if he silently disagreed. But it’s clear that he knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. In the other Gospels, we’re told that he was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38).

Joseph wanted to honor Jesus by giving him a proper burial. Jesus would have been buried in a shallow, common grave if Joseph hadn’t stepped in. To be thrown into a ditch is dishonoring. It was particularly dishonoring in the view of Jewish people, though we would think the same thing today. Just recently I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, and that documentary showed footage of the emaciated corpses of Jews being pushed by a bulldozer into a ditch. It was a horrific thing to see. Though these people had already died, it was a further offense not to treat their bodies with care.

Joseph, a follower of Jesus, wanted to honor Jesus, to treat his body with respect. After all, the body is no less a creation of God than the soul. So, Joseph asks for Jesus’ body. In Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that Joseph “took courage” to do that. Pontius Pilate, the Roman leader, might have treated Joseph poorly for asking for the body of an enemy of the state. But he doesn’t do that. Joseph is allowed to take the body, and he puts it in his own, unused tomb. This is important because we see that Jesus’ body had a specific location after he died. He was put in a tomb, one that these women saw, a tomb that would be empty less than forty-eight hours later.

It is also important because it shows that even Jesus’ burial fulfills a prophecy of the Old Testament. Isaiah 53:9 says this:

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Jesus really died. Joseph would be able to see this. Jesus’ female followers saw it. They saw exactly where Jesus was entombed. We’ll see why this important next week, when we consider Luke 24 and Jesus’ resurrection.

Luke also tells us that Jesus that it is now the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, a day of rest. In Jewish law, all work was to be done on six days. The seventh day was for rest and worship. So, Jesus died on the sixth day, when his work was done. He accomplished all the work that is necessary for us to have a right relationship with God. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And then, on the seventh day, Jesus rested in the tomb. On the eighth day, or the first day of a new week, Jesus will rise from the grave, to begin a new era.

Now that we have looked at this passage, I’ll ask the question that I always ask: why does all of this matter?

It’s important to see why Jesus dies. He dies to satisfy God’s justice against sin. Since he is innocent, he didn’t die for his own sin. So, he must have died for the sins of others. And he did. All who come to Jesus in faith, who are willing to confess their sin, to acknowledge that they are not God, that Jesus is God and the world’s only Savior, and who are prepared to follow Jesus like these women and Joseph, are cleared of all their wrongdoing. They are innocent. They are reconciled to God. Our greatest need to is be connected to God, to have a right relationship with Jesus. And Jesus gives us that. He gives us open access to God. We simply need to come to him.

The death of Jesus is also very important to people who fear death. And I think all of us fear death in some way. There’s a book in the Bible called Hebrews, which talks about how Jesus is all that we need to be in the right before God. Jesus is greater than angels, prophets, and priests. He is the true temple, the true priest, the true sacrifice for sin. Early in that book, the author of Hebrews says that the Son of God was made to become like us. He became a human being, to live a perfect life and to die in our place. And Hebrews 2:14–15 says this:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Through his death, Jesus destroyed the work of the devil (also 1 John 3:8). The devil wants to tempt us to sin and then accuse us of our sin. In other words, the devil wants to separate us from God. And we willingly separate ourselves from God when we hide in the darkness. But Jesus came to destroy Satan’s work and to bring us back to God. If you have put your trust in Jesus, you have no reason to fear death. You are delivered from the fear of death, which is a form of slavery. And that is so important in this time.

If you’re a Christian, you should find the idea of Jesus’ death comforting. That’s not only true because he died to pay the penalty for your sins. But Jesus knows what it’s like to die. Jesus can relate to us. He knows what it’s like to die.

You may wonder how it is that the Son of God can die. Well, we should remember that dying isn’t ceasing to exist. Death is the dissolution of the body, a separation of body and soul, something that is not God’s ultimate plan for us. Christianity says that the body is important, because God made it. That’s why it’s important to honor the body, even after death. So, Jesus was separated from his body, but he continued to exist. There’s never a moment when the Son of God hasn’t existed. But he did take on a human nature over two thousand years ago, and that meant having a human body, one that could die. But even as a man, Jesus never stopped existing. His soul endured and went to paradise, which was opened up by Jesus’ death. The curtain is torn, heaven’s gate is open, and Jesus invites you to come in.

If you do fear death, trust in Jesus. Jesus has died. He knows what it is like to be mortal. But he came back to life. And Jesus has reported what happens after death. He knows what lies beyond the curtain of death. That’s not a frontier that scientists or politicians or journalists can tell you about. Science is important. I would say it’s a gift from God. But it has its limits. It cannot tell us what lies beyond the grave. We need someone to report that to us, someone who has died and come back to life, someone who knows everything because he’s God. Jesus is that someone.

We’ll talk more about the resurrection next week, but I think it’s important to say this even now. Jesus once told someone mourning the death of her brother these very important words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). That is a question for you, too. Do you believe? If not, I urge you to. At the least, learn as much about Jesus and the Bible as you can. I would love to help you do that.

Notes

  1. David Montgomery and Manny Ramirez, “44 Texas Students Have Coronavirus After Spring Break Trip,” New York Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/us/coronavirus-texas-austin-spring-break-cabo.html.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 434/199, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, rev. ed. (London: Penguin, 1995), 137.
  4. Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 28.
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://wbcommunity.org/i-find-no-guilt-in-this-man.

 

Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit (Luke 23:44-56)

Why did Jesus die? What is the meaning of his death? Find out by listening to his sermon, preached by Brian Watson on April 5, 2020.

Father, Forgive Them

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 29, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

For some people, this is a very tense time. To put it mildly, some people are freaking out. We may feel like we’re under pressure. We all have experienced other times of stress, times when we feel like we’re being squeezed. When we’re under pressure, what comes out of us? What comes out of you when you are put in the vise grips of life? I imagine that there are times when you’ve been under pressure and something ugly has come out of you. I can imagine that because it’s true of me. When I’ve been in stressful situations, some ugly things have poured out of me.

It’s during those moments that our true selves are revealed. So, what comes out of you when you’re stressed out and under pressure? What does that reveal about you?

Now let us think about what comes out of the greatest man who has ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, when he was under tremendous stress. This morning, we’ll see what comes out of him when he is pressured in ways that you and I will never be. When he has been betrayed, rejected, abandoned, mocked, tortured, and put to death, what comes out of him? And how do people respond to Jesus in this situation? Those are the questions we’ll consider as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke this morning.

We’ll be looking at Luke 23:26–43. I would encourage you to look at the text if you can. You can find it easily through a Google search, or by visiting www.esv.org/luke+23.

To give us some quick context: this is the moment when Jesus is about to die. Jesus isn’t just a man, he’s the God-man, the Son of God who has existed forever, and who took on a human nature over two thousand years ago. He has spent two or three years teaching and performing miracles. In this last week of his pre-crucifixion life, he was in Jerusalem for the time of the Passover. A conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day increased throughout the week. These religious leaders did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or the Christ (or Messiah), which is a reference to an anointed king, a descendant of King David, who would come and reign over Israel forever, defeating their enemies and bringing about perfect justice and peace. The religious leaders were jealous of Jesus, they wanted to maintain the status quo and their power, and they simply didn’t believe him. So, they arranged for Jesus to die. They told the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire. Pilate didn’t believe that Jesus had done anything to deserve death, but because the mob demanded that Jesus die, Pilate gave in to their demands.

And now we come to Jesus’ crucifixion. Let’s begin by reading Luke 23:26–31:

26 And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”[1]

Jesus was put on trial inside the walled city of Jerusalem. Law required that crucifixion take place outside the city. It was custom to have the condemned carry the cross beam to the place of crucifixion. But Jesus is probably too exhausted to carry his own cross. He has been awake for twenty-four hours. He probably hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in about twelve hours. He has been beaten and flogged, so that he probably has already lost a significant amount of blood.

So, the cross is given to a man named Simon, from Cyrene, which was in northern African, in what is now Libya. This man was probably in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. I don’t want to read too much into his carrying the cross, but perhaps this is an echo of Jesus’ earlier teaching, that all who want to be part of God’s kingdom must be willing to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). To have a right relationship with God, we must be willing to change, to deny our natural desires, to be willing to suffer along with Jesus.

As Jesus is making his way to the place where he will be crucified, some people mourn and lament for him. Jesus turns to the women and says that they shouldn’t weep for him. Instead, they should weep for themselves and their children. That’s strange, isn’t it? Jesus has already been tortured, and he is about to die, and yet he says that they shouldn’t be sad for him, but for themselves? Why? Because a time of suffering will come upon them. Jesus already taught that in the future, great suffering would occur in Jerusalem. Roughly forty years later, the Jewish people would rebel against the Roman Empire. Rome would respond by besieging the city, surrounding it, attacking it, and destroying it. The suffering would be great. Many Jewish people would die. This destruction was God’s judgment against Jerusalem for rejecting Jesus. Yet even though Jesus knows that God’s judgments are just, he is sorrowful about them. And he warns these women. If God’s judgment falls upon him, the only truly innocent person who has ever lived, what will happen to those who have rebelled against God?

The fact that Jesus is concerned more about these women and their future grief than his own suffering brings me to my first point. In all that is happening, Jesus is not primarily concerned with what is happening to him. He is concerned about others. This is what a perfect person looks like. First, that person is primarily concerned about God, because God is the greatest being there is. Second, that person loves others and cares for their welfare. Jesus puts us to shame in both ways. When we are doing well, we often don’t look to the needs of others first. But when we’re suffering, that’s the time we usually turn inward. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He looks outward. If you want to suffer well, do what Jesus does. But the fact that we don’t look outward when we suffer is proof that we’re not perfect. It’s proof that we need someone like Jesus.

Let’s move on now and read verses 32–38:

32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Jesus is not crucified alone. There are two others with him. Luke says they’re criminals, but it’s wrong to call them thieves. Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state. It’s more likely that they we’re insurrectionists of some kind. We might call them terrorists today. At any rate, they arrive at the place of crucifixion, called “The Skull.” In Aramaic, it is called Golgotha, which means skull. Sometimes, we use the word “Calvary,” which is a good example of Christianese, a language that we Christians understand but others may not. Calvary is an anglicized version of a Latin word that means “skull.” It was probably called that because it was a bit of land that looked like a skull. It was there, outside that city walls, in view of passersby, that Jesus and these two criminals are executed.

Crucifixion involved attaching the condemned to a cross beam, either by rope or by nails. Jesus was nailed to the cross. At the least, nails would be driven through his wrists, and perhaps also his feet. The Gospels don’t get into the gory details, however. Crucifixion was a word that wasn’t used in polite society, because crucifixion was so gruesome. It’s enough to know that Jesus endured a terrible death.

And as he’s hanging on that cross, left to die a slow, agonizing, literally excruciating death, what does he do? What does he say? What comes out of him in that moment of pressure and pain? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is amazing. Jesus prays to God the Father that these people who are putting him to death would be forgiven. Now, they should have known what they were doing. They should have known who Jesus is. But because of their unbelief, they thought they were putting a blasphemer to death. They were wrong. They were doing something tremendously evil. Yet Jesus wants them to be forgiven.

Now, I don’t think Jesus expects that they will be forgiven without their realizing what they have done. To have forgiveness, or at least to have forgiveness and reconciliation, there must be confession on the part of those who have done wrong. There must be remorse. There must be a desire to change and repentance. We don’t know how many people involved in Jesus’ death later repented and sought God’s forgiveness. But the important thing is to see that Jesus has a heart of forgiveness. He doesn’t want to hold their sin against them. He wants them to be reconciled to God.

The fact that these people have stripped Jesus and are casting lots for his clothes, and the fact these people are mocking Jesus, even after he has prayed for their forgiveness, highlights how unworthy they are to receive God’s forgiveness. But we’re not much different. Sure, we haven’t mocked the Son of God to his face, but we have often ignored him, acting as if he doesn’t exist, or acting as if he’s not King. No one is worthy to receive God’s forgiveness. That’s why his forgiveness is an act of grace. It’s a gift. And Jesus seeks that gift for others.

I want to point out two other things before we move on. One, what happens here fulfills a prophetic psalm. Psalm 22 is one of many Psalms written by David. It begins with the famous line, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Both Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cried out those words while he was on the cross. Psalm 22 also contains other words fulfilled by Jesus. Here are verses 6–8:

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

And then look at verses 14–18:

14  I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15  my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16  For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17  I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18  they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

These words illustrate the kind of pain and suffering that Jesus endured. He was surrounded by evildoers, who gloated over him and mocked him. “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him.” Jesus must have looked like a joke to those who mocked him. What kind of king is this, who is crucified? How can this man be the Son of God if he’s dying, and dying in such a shameful way?

Jesus could have saved himself. He could have come down from the cross. He could have accessed the divine power that was always at his command. He could have summoned legions of angels to crush his enemies. But he didn’t do that. He laid down his life for his enemies. Why? If Jesus saved himself, he couldn’t save others. Jesus came to earth not only to live the perfect life, but also to die in place of sinners. He came to take away the death penalty that we deserve. He came to receive God’s wrath, God’s just penalty against sin. This was God’s plan. It was the Son of God’s plan. Jesus can’t save himself and save others. So, he endures suffering in order that others can be forgiven. What comes out of Jesus in his suffering? Forgiveness and sacrifice. He focuses on God the Father and on those who will be reconciled to God through his selfless act of love.

Let’s move on to the last section of today’s passage. Here are verses 39–43:

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

When the people who were killing Jesus said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they were mocking Jesus. They thought it was a joke. But one of the criminals who is being crucified alongside Jesus picks up this language. Luke says he “railed” against Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” He must have been desperate for a rescue.

But the other criminal rebukes him. It’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t you realize what’s happening here? We’re both guilty. We deserve condemnation. But this man is righteous. He’s done nothing wrong. If you realized who we are and who this man is, you wouldn’t talk to him that way. If you feared God, you wouldn’t talk to this man that way.”

This is something of a confession. This second criminal realizes he’s guilty. He makes no excuses. He doesn’t expect to be rescued from the punishment that he deserves. So, it’s a confession of his sin. But it also seems to be a confession of faith. Perhaps he doesn’t realize exactly who Jesus is. But he knows that Jesus is innocent. And he also knows that Jesus has the power to bring him into God’s kingdom. He realizes that Jesus is a king. Perhaps he realizes Jesus is the King of kings. That’s why he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

How did this criminal know this about Jesus? Perhaps he heard about Jesus before this day. Jesus had become well known. But Matthew, in his Gospel, says that those who were crucified “reviled” Jesus (Matt. 27:44). Matthew uses the plural to indicate that both men reviled Jesus. So, what could move this one criminal from disdaining Jesus to having faith in him? It must have been seeing how Jesus suffered, seeing that he didn’t hate those who hated him. He saw that Jesus didn’t curse those who cursed him. Instead, he asked for their forgiveness. What kind of man would do that? Perhaps, this criminal must have thought, Jesus’ claims are true.

If the people who killed Jesus, who mocked him, provide a negative example of how to respond to Jesus, this criminal provides a positive example. He knows he’s guilty and he knows Jesus is his only hope. And in response, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is a word that comes from the Persian language. It refers to an idyllic garden. Paradise is where God put the first human beings, Adam and Eve. When they rejected God, he removed them from paradise. And ever since, we have lived in a world marked by suffering and death. That’s why we have thing like viruses that kill people. It’s because of the first sin, and also because we continue to sin—all of us. Ever since mankind was kicked out of paradise, we have tried to get back in. We also desperately want to get back to the garden, to be with God, because that’s our real home. That’s what we were made for. We can’t find paradise in money or politics, in romantic relationships or careers, in convenience and entertainment. Paradise only comes with having a right relationship with God.

The one way back to paradise is Jesus. He is the only road that leads back to God. And to make it possible for rebels, enemies of God, to come back to the garden, someone must take their sin away from them. God is a perfect judge who must punish evil. He can’t let the crimes of our failure to love him and to love others go unpunished. If we received what we deserved, we would be like this criminal, condemned. But Jesus came to save his people from their sin. He seeks forgiveness. So, though he is perfectly righteous, he lays down his life, allowing himself to be arrested, tortured, and killed, so that we can go free. Jesus was numbered with the transgressors, and he takes away their sin.

In dying among criminals, Jesus fulfills another prophecy from the Old Testament. This is what Isaiah 53:11–12 says:

11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The Righteous One makes others righteous. He bears their iniquities, their sins.

But Jesus doesn’t do this for everyone. He makes “many to be accounted righteous”—not all. He “bore the sin of many”—not all. He only takes away the sins of those who come to him in faith, those who realize who he is and who realize that he is their only hope.

What do we do with this passage? What does it have to do with us? Let us think of what we have already seen.

I want to speak first to Christians. Christians, we must look first to God and then the needs of others. We must love God and we must love others, just as Jesus did. Jesus is more than an example, but he’s not less than an example. We can follow him by caring more for what God wants of us than what we want for ourselves. We can follow Jesus by looking first to the needs of others instead of being so concerned about our own needs. Even in our suffering, we must not forget the needs of others.

In this time, there are people around us who have needs. Most of those needs will probably be very practical. People will need help getting groceries and other supplies. Many people will need financial help. Over three million people filed for unemployment just last week. We should check in on our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to see how they’re doing. We should be prepared to help as we are able.

One way to help is to give to our benevolence fund, also known as the deacons’ fund. That money is used to help people in need. If you want to give to that fund, you can simply mail a check to the church and put “benevolence” or “deacons’ fund” on the memo line. But you don’t need to go through the church to help others.

The greatest need that we all have is to be reconciled to God. And to do that, we need to know Jesus. So, Christians, use this time to help other people know about Jesus. Tell them what you believe. Share with them this video, or other resources we have online. Give them a book to read, or even a Bible.

Christians, we should also seek to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. We should never curse our enemies or respond to hate with hate. It’s not just Jesus who asked for the forgiveness of his enemies. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, did the same. As he was being stoned to death, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). We should have that same gracious, forgiving spirit.

Now, to those who are not yet Christians: In this passage, we see two different ways to respond to Jesus. You can respond by laughing off the idea that God can become man and die in your place to take away your sins. Most of you won’t mock Jesus or the Christian faith, though of course there are some people who do that. You’re more likely to be apathetic or indifferent, to shrug your shoulders and say, “That’s a nice story, but I don’t believe it.” But that’s just another way to reject Jesus. Jesus is not someone you can shrug your shoulders at. He’s either God incarnate, or this is all a lie. If he’s the Son of God, then he demands a response like the one the criminal gave him, a confession of our sin and a humble request for help. If he’s not the Son of God, if this is all a myth, then you can feel free to reject Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible.

But in order to reject Jesus, you must first know about him. And most people have never taken the time to think deeply about the claims of Christ and of Christianity. I encourage you to do that today. You’ll find a lot of resources on our website that will help you. You can listen to other sermons on the Gospel of Luke[2] or you can check out a series of messages I gave about Jesus a few years ago.[3] Or you can simply read the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Learn about why the Bible is historically accurate. Consider the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. If you want to know more, you can personally contact me. You can find my contact information on our website or send a private message through our Facebook page.

Last week I said that one of the things that prevents people coming to Jesus is that we have an authority problem. We don’t want a king to reign over us. We don’t want someone telling us what to do, especially when that involves making hard changes. Another reason that keeps people from coming to Jesus is having to take a hard look at ourselves and see that we’re guilty of rejecting God, that we’ve done wrong. That rejection of authority and that failure to confess our wrongdoing both stem from pride. But pride is foolish. We don’t have the power to fix ourselves or to fix this broken world. The coronavirus is proof of that. And even if a foolproof vaccine is developed very quickly, something else will occur that will kill us. We will all die. And before we die, so many other things beyond our control will happen to us. And we’ll do so many things we regret doing. We’re not in control, and we are all guilty.

The good news is that there is one who is in perfect control, who desires the forgiveness of sinners. Jesus welcomes such people into his kingdom. But we must realize we can’t force our way or earn our way into God’s kingdom. The criminal on the cross realized there was nothing he could do to earn God’s favor. He simply asked Jesus for help. That’s all that you need to do. Admit you’re broken, and that you haven’t loved God or others the way that you should. Ask Jesus for forgiveness and help. All your sins can be erased. You can be forgiven of everything you’ve ever done wrong. And you can have the promise of living in paradise with God. You can have that promise today if you turn to Jesus in faith.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://wbcommunity.org/luke.
  3. https://wbcommunity.org/jesus

 

Father, Forgive Them (Luke 23:26-43)

What comes out of us when we’re under pressure? Contrast that with what came out of Jesus when he was dying on the cross. Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 23:26-43, on March 29, 2020.

I Find No Guilt in This Man

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 22, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

This is a very strange time in our lives. And it can feel like a very heavy time. It’s a time of uncertainty, and it can be a time of fear. We have already heard the reports of high death counts in China and Italy, and it’s natural to wonder how many might die of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in America. As we respond to this pandemic by shutting down public gatherings, we know that life won’t be the same for us for some time, and that can lead to anxiety and panic. At times like these, we long for hope. We may wonder what all of this has to do with God. We may wonder what God is doing, and why there are things such as deadly viruses in the world.

Those kinds of responses and questions are natural. They come with living in an uncertain world. They come with living in a world that is marred by diseases, natural disasters, and death. So, where is hope? What does this have to do with God? What is God doing? I’m not sure that I can answer all those questions completely this morning, but I think we can get partial answers as we turn to another heavy time in history. In fact, I would argue that this was the heaviest time of all history. This is the time when God himself was subject to the powers of darkness.

This morning, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. If you haven’t been with us before, you should know that we’re a church that is committed to studying the whole Bible. That means that we go through entire books of the Bible, looking at one passage each week. If you want to learn more about the rest of this book of the Bible, you can visit wbcommunity.org/luke. This morning, we’re going to look at Luke 23:1–25. If you have a Bible at home, I’m sure you can find that passage rather quickly. If you’re on your computer, you can pull it up by typing into your web browser “esv.org/luke+23.”

To give us some context: Jesus has been arrested by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They have charged him with blasphemy, for claiming to believe that he is the Messiah, or the Christ, and the Son of God. Messiah or Christ mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, God promised that there would be a king of Israel who would reign forever and who would defeat Israel’s enemies. He would bring about justice and peace. He would be a perfect king. Now, Jesus is that perfect King, and he is the Son of God. But the Jewish leaders didn’t believe that.

The Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus, but they didn’t have the authority to put someone to death. They were living under the rule of the Roman Empire, the world’s superpower. If they wanted to put Jesus to death, they had to present him to the occupying forces. So, they bring him to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea. The prefect was in charge of keeping the peace. He had the power to enforce capital punishment. That’s why Jesus is now presented to Pilate.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 23:1–25:

1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

When the Jewish leaders bring Jesus before Pontius Pilate, they make three accusations. They say that Jesus is misleading the nation, which means that his teaching is somehow dangerous and deceptive. Or so they think. But the fact is that they were misleading the nation, whereas Jesus only taught what was true. They also claim that he has forbidden giving money to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. But that is false. Jesus said it is right to pay taxes to Caesar Luke 20:25). Then, they say that Jesus has claimed to be the Christ, a king. That’s true. Jesus is the Christ, and he is the King of kings. But not in the way that some people might think. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t come to command an army and lead a revolution. He was no political threat to the Roman Empire. But the Jewish leaders hope that by presenting Jesus to Pilate in this way, that would be enough to get him executed.

Interestingly, similar charges are brought against Christians in the book of Acts. Paul was a great missionary and teacher, who traveled through the Roman Empire after Jesus’ death and resurrection, telling people about Jesus. When he was in the city of Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece, with his associate Silas, they taught about Jesus in the local synagogue. Some people didn’t like what they heard about Jesus, and they tried to get these Christians in trouble with the local authorities. They couldn’t find Paul and Silas, but they brought a man named Jason before the city’s authorities and said, “These men who have turned the world upside down . . . are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). Jesus has always been viewed as a threat by some people. That’s still true today. It’s true in totalitarian countries, like North Korea. It’s true of Communist countries like China. But it’s also true of individuals. A lot of people reject Jesus because they realize that Jesus is an authority. You can’t really be a Christian without coming under the authority of Jesus. People realize that if you become a Christian, your life must change in some way. There are some things that you may have to give up. And they don’t like that. Some people just don’t like being told what to do. They want to be their own authorities.

Now, you can remain your own authority in this life and reject Jesus. But you can’t be your own king and have Jesus. If you reject Jesus, you reject your only path to God and to eternal life in a new creation where there are not more diseases and deadly viruses, where there is no more death. If you come under Jesus’ authority, you must admit your own failures and limitations, and you must start to obey King Jesus. You can’t have it both ways.

When Pilate is told about these charges, he asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews. Jesus only says, “You have said so.” These are the only words that Jesus says in this whole passage. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make any qualifications to the charges made against him. This must have puzzled Pilate. He must have looked at Jesus, who was already beaten and must have looked rather weak, and not seen a threat to the Roman Empire. So, he says, “I find no guilt in this man.” Luke makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving of death.

But the crowds aren’t happy with that. They try to convince Pilate that Jesus is stirring up the people, and not just in Jerusalem. He has taught throughout the regions of Judea and Galilee. When Pilate hears this, he wonders whether Jesus was a Galilean. Galilee was a separate region, to the north, and it was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who was the Jewish ruler when Jesus was born. These Jewish rulers were under the authority of the Roman Empire, but Rome allowed them to exercise some power. So, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod Antipas. Perhaps Pilate was trying to pass the buck. He saw an innocent man and an angry crowd, and he didn’t want to take responsibility for whatever happened to Jesus.

At any rate, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. Let’s read what happens next. Here are verses 6–12:

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

Herod Antipas was the Jewish ruler over Galilee and another region called Perea. He didn’t have all that much authority, since he was under Roman rule. He certainly didn’t have the authority that his father, Herod the Great, had. Herod the Great was a king, known as “King of the Jews.” But after his death, his kingdom was divided among his sons. Several years after this episode, this Herod sent his wife, Herodias, to Rome to ask if Herod could be given the title of “king.” The emperor refused and Herod was deposed.

This Herod was, like his father, a bad man. He took his brother’s wife as his own wife. He had John the Baptist beheaded. He wanted to see Jesus for some time (Luke 9:9). There was even a rumor that he wanted Jesus dead (Luke 13:31). But here we’re told that he wanted to see Jesus because he was hoping that Jesus would perform a “sign,” a miracle for him.

If you’ve ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, you might remember that Herod sings a song in which he asks Jesus to turn his water into wine and walk across his swimming pool. He wants Jesus to perform for him. That’s how some people treat Jesus today, or how they treat God more generally. They expect God to perform wonders at their command. If God did that, then we would be the authorities. We would be kings. But God isn’t obligated to do what we demand. He has performed miracles, signs that point to his existence. Jesus did perform miracles, signs that illustrated what he came to do, which was to heal people of their greatest disease, sin. But he didn’t come to perform tricks or to entertain people’s curiosity.

So, Jesus doesn’t play that game. He doesn’t answer Herod’s questions. He knows that Herod is not sincerely interested in his identity or his mission. Yet, apparently, Herod doesn’t find Jesus to be a threat, despite the accusations given by the Jewish leaders. So, he sends him back to Pilate, but not before his soldiers mock Jesus. They put him in “splendid clothing,” as if to say, “If you’re such a great king, let’s dress you like one.” Of course, they didn’t believe he was king.

Then, Luke gives us this interesting little bit of information. Pilate and Herod had once been at odds with each other. But now, they became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. They both agreed that Jesus was no threat. Yet neither of them did anything to save Jesus from the accusing Jewish leaders and the angry crowds. They were typical politicians, lacking courage and acting to save face.

So, Jesus is sent back to Pilate. Let’s read verses 13–16:

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

This section is important because it establishes once again that Pilate didn’t find Jesus guilty, and neither did Herod. Jesus did nothing wrong. Ever. He certainly didn’t do anything to deserve the death penalty. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. But first, it’s interesting to see that Pilate was hoping he could release Jesus. He thought that if Jesus were flogged, that would satisfy the blood lust of the crowd. And he did have Jesus flogged (Matt. 27:26; John 19:1). That was a terrible punishment on its own. Flogging was done with a weapon torture: a wooden handle with leather strips that had bone or metal attached to them. Flogging would tear the skin and could even kill a man. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied by some blood; they wanted Jesus dead.

Let’s now read verses 18–25:

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Pilate had a habit of releasing one criminal on Jewish holidays. The crowd knows this. They know that Pilate might release Jesus. So, they ask him to release another man instead, a man named Barabbas, an insurrectionist who had committed murder. He was basically a terrorist.

When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead, the crowds demand that Jesus be crucified. Crucifixion was a terrible way to kill someone. Roman citizens couldn’t be crucified. But enemies of Rome, people suspected of treason, could be. Crucifixion meant attaching a person to a cross with rope or nails and letting that person hang there until they could no longer breathe. It was a slow, agonizing way to die. And it was a public execution. It said: “Don’t mess with Rome.”

Pontius Pilate finds himself in a predicament. He can release Jesus, whom he finds to be innocent, but then he knows the crowds will not be satisfied. They might riot. And Pilate’s job was to maintain order. Or, he can give an innocent man over to the will of the people and release a real criminal. Pilate tries to plead with the crowd, but in the end, he gives into their demands. He releases Barabbas, a murderer, and he puts the only truly innocent person who has ever lived to death.

There’s a great irony here. Barabbas literally means “son of the father” (bar = son; abba = father). Jesus is the Son of God, the true Son of the true Father. Barabbas, obviously a guilty man and a true threat to the Roman Empire, is released. Jesus, who wasn’t a political threat and is the only sinless person who ever walked the face of the earth, is given the death penalty.

But that’s the message of Christianity, and Jesus’ death is no accident. And to understand this, we must consider the broader message of the Bible. The Bible says that God created the universe for his purposes. He didn’t have to create anything outside of himself. It’s not as if he was lonely or bored. But God chose to create the universe to display his greatness and to share his existence with human beings. God created humans in his image, which means they are supposed to reflect what he is like, to represent him on earth, and to rule the world by carrying out God’s commands. God also made us in his likeness, which means that we were made to be his children, to love him and obey him the way perfect children would love and obey a perfect parent. That’s good news, because it means that our lives have meaning and purpose. If there is no Creator, there is no ultimate meaning to life. We’re just cosmic accidents, and in the end, our lives don’t matter.

But there’s bad news. From the beginning, people have turned away from God. Instead of realizing that he is King, they wanted—and they still want—to be their own kings and queens, their own masters and lords. We tend to think the world revolves around us. And if there’s a God, he should do what we want. The result is that we live life on our terms, and not on God’s. We don’t do what he wants us to do, because we don’t love him as we should.

God desires perfect children, perfect covenant partners. God is perfect, and he can’t tolerate people making a mess of his creation. The first human beings lived in a garden paradise, where there was no death. But they were evicted from the garden, and were put in the wilderness, where life was hard, where we find diseases, where we die. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from God. We don’t see him; we don’t always feel his presence. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from each other. We have conflicts, we fight, we’re greedy and selfish—we hoard toilet paper and other supplies! And because of our sinful nature, we feel at odds internally. We realize we’re not who we should be, and we get depressed and anxious. We know we have thoughts and desires that are wrong. We know we have done and continue to do wrong things.

As I said, God cannot tolerate people making a mess of his creation. So, he kicked us out of paradise. And in this wilderness, we find things like viruses. The reason why things like the coronavirus exist is because of sin, because humans turned away from God in the beginning, something we call the Fall.

All of this is bad news. If we were to die separated from God by our lack of love, by our rebellion, by our sin, we would be alienated from him forever. And God would be right to punish and condemn us in that way.

But there’s really great news. There is a way back to God, a way back to paradise. And that way—the only way—is Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. That means that he is God. He’s divine. He has always existed. He created the universe. (It’s most accurate to say that the Father created the universe through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.) But over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a man. When Jesus was conceived in Mary, a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God added a second nature to himself. He still was and is God, but he also was and is a human being. This was God the Father’s plan, and it was God the Son’s plan (and God the Spirit’s plan, too).

The Son of God became a man for two reasons. One, to live the perfect life that God demands of human beings. That’s why it’s so important to see that Jesus was innocent. He is the only one who lived the way God wants us to live. He always loved God. He always worshiped God. He always obeyed God. He always loved other people perfectly. He was never greedy and selfish. So, he fulfilled God’s plans for humanity. And when people have a right relationship with Jesus, when they put their trust in him and are willing to follow him, then they are credited with his perfect standing, his innocence, his righteousness.

The second reason why the Son of God became a man was to pay the penalty for sin that his people deserve. We all deserve condemnation. And that sounds harsh, I know. But think about this: If you have a home, would you allow people there who don’t love you, who don’t abide by your rules, and who do things that are harmful to your family? You might put up with such a guest for a little while, but if they keep acting that way, you would kick them out. And that’s essentially what God does. He says, “You don’t want me, you don’t love me, you don’t want to obey my rules? Fine. Go your own way.” But that’s a terrible thing. God is the source of love. When we turn away from him, we find a world of hate. God is the source of beauty. When we turn away from him, we find ugliness. God is the source of light. When we turn away from him, we find darkness. God is the source of truth. When we turn away from him, we find lies. And God is the source of life. When we turn away from him, we find death.

If you want proof that people don’t really want God, consider something that happened this past week. We find ourselves in this strange world threatened by a new virus. You would think that if ever people would turn to God and humbly ask for his help, now would be the time. But we don’t see that happening. Sometimes, we something else, like a video of celebrities singing John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” You might have seen the video. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman on the big screen, starts to sing the song, and then other celebrities follow her, singing one phrase at a time. It’s supposed to be a hopeful thing, signaling that we’re all in this together. If you know the song, you may remember some of the lyrics. The song can be taken as a hopeful vision of humans working together, united in harmony. But if you stop and think of the lyrics, it’s a troubling song. John Lennon asked us to imagine that there’s no heaven—“above us, only sky.” In other words, imagine that there’s no God. So, in a time of crisis, people are singing a song that says, “We don’t need God and religion. That stuff is divisive. We just need to love each other and get along, and then the world will be as one.” That song is proof that we don’t love God the way we should, that we don’t see that he is the one who gives us life and who sustains our lives at every moment. That song shows that we don’t see our desperate need for God. There’s no admission of our real problem, which is our sin. Frankly, the song is naïve, and it doesn’t provide us with any real answers to the very real problems of the world.

But Jesus is the answer. Jesus lives the perfect life. And Jesus pays the penalty for sin. He was crucified not just because some people didn’t believe him and hated him. He didn’t die just because Pontius Pilate was weak and was afraid to stand up to the crowds. He didn’t die just because he was betrayed, and because the powers of spiritual darkness wanted to destroy him. He died because it was God’s plan to have someone rescue us from the penalty of sin. This was Jesus’ plan, too. He laid down his life to pay for our sin. That’s why Jesus didn’t defend himself, and why he hardly says a word. The prophet Isaiah predicted Jesus’ sacrificial death roughly seven hundred years earlier. He said,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth (Isa. 53:7).

Right before that verse in Isaiah 53, we read these words, also about Jesus:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:5–6).

When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered the death penalty, but also much more than that. He took on God’s righteous punishment against sin, his holy wrath. He endured hell on earth so that we don’t have to.

We don’t have to experience hell if come to Jesus and put our trust in him. If we trust in him, he takes away our sins. Our punishment has already been paid. And we are credited with his perfection. That’s the good news. We don’t have to earn our way to God. In fact, we could never do that. Christianity says that even our best efforts are always tainted by bad motives. But God came down to us. He entered a world that can be beautiful but also ugly, a world that is governed by orderly laws of nature but can also appear to be chaotic, a world that supports life but ends in death. He did this to rescue us and to bring us back to God, to bring us ultimately to paradise, which will come in the future, when God remakes the world and removes all suffering, sin, and death.

So, why do we have things like the coronavirus? They are the result of sin in the world. These things are part of living in a fallen world. Cancer and earthquakes, toilet paper hoarding and murder, are the result of sin in the world. But there’s good news. God entered this world, and he subjected himself to rejection and betrayal, to mocking and torture, and even to death, so that he could save us. God has not promised that this life will be free of pain and sickness. But he has promised that he will sustain his people, even through death. And he has promised that one day, Jesus will return to bring human history as we know it to an end. And on that day, a new era will begin. There will be no more pain, no more disease, no more wars, and no more death. It will be God and his people dwelling in a renewed and perfected creation.

I urge us all to put our hope in God. Let us look to him during this time. I don’t know exactly why God has us in this situation, but I know that he uses things like this to teach us lessons and to draw us closer to him. So, let us focus on God. Specifically, let us focus on Jesus. If you don’t know him yet, learn more about him. And put your trust in him. Only he would lay down his life for you. No politician will do that. No one else can save you from your real problem, which is a broken relationship with God. But Jesus can, and he stands ready to receive you if you come to him.

 

I Find No Guilt in This Man (Luke 23:1-25)

Before Jesus goes to the cross, he is brought before two political leaders: Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. Both find him innocent, but both don’t let him go. This was no accident; it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 22, 2020.

Pray That You May Not Enter into Temptation (Luke 22:39-46)

Jesus resisted temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane by praying to the Father. Though the cup of God’s wrath was not taken from Jesus, he yielded to the Father’s will and was strengthened for his mission. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 22:39-46 on February 9, 2020.

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?[1]
Brian Watson
December 3, 2017

People believe many different things about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a man. (Jesus has always existed as God, and at one point in human history he added a second nature, of a human being, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.) Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet and not the Son of God. Other people, like those drawn to New Age spirituality, believe that Jesus was a wise man or a spiritual teacher. Some have imagined that Jesus was a political revolutionary. And still others believe the whole story of Jesus is fictional, no more than a legend or myth. How can we know the truth about Jesus?

Examining History

The Christian claim about Jesus is that he was born in roughly 5 B.C. and that he died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[2] How can we know what happened two thousand years ago? To state an obvious truth, we don’t have audio or video recordings of what happened then, so we can’t hear or see what happened at that time. Obviously, we weren’t there.

In order to discover what happened the past, we have to operate like police detectives, examining the scene of a crime. Detectives look for evidence, which may include physical evidence and personal testimony.

Many historians turn to physical artifacts, ones that archaeologists discover. These can range from structures that have inscriptions (buildings, columns, etc.) to coins or any other objects that might give us information about the past. Often, these objects are rare. With Jesus, we wouldn’t expect to find much, if anything, along those lines. He was not a political ruler or a wealthy man.

More often, historians look for written testimony. That’s what we’ll have to look at to know the truth about Jesus. And we do have various writings that mention Jesus.

Before we look at those, keep some other truths in mind: Two thousand years ago, there was no printing press. Everything was handwritten, and writing materials were relatively expensive and scarce. Also, literacy rates were lower, so fewer people knew how to write (and read). Furthermore, most materials decay or can be destroyed. We can assume that many documents have been lost or destroyed, or have simply decayed. That explains why we have few historical documents about anyone who lived in the ancient world. For example, Tiberias, the emperor who reigned A.D. 14–37, was the most powerful man in his day and yet there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death that exist today.[3] (Another thing to keep in mind: There was often a significant gap of time between historical events and written histories. Often, decades elapsed between an event and when that event was chronicled.) Fortunately, we have many documents that detail the life of Jesus.

Non-Christian Histories

Let’s first examine histories of Jesus that were written by non-Christians. I don’t think that these sources are more trustworthy than Christian sources. The only reason to think so is an anti-Christian bias. But I begin here because the non-biblical evidence for Jesus’ life is not well known.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c. 100), who lived in Palestine and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in 66. After he was captured by the Romans, he became a Roman citizen, and he began to write. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus is in his Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[4]4 The Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed Jewish King who would usher in a reign of peace and righteousness. Josephus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he observed that other people thought he was.

Josephus refers to Jesus elsewhere in the Jewish Antiquities (18.63–64). There is some evidence that Christians added words to this text to create a stronger witness to Jesus. Yet it’s likely that in the original quote, Josephus acknowledged that Jesus was known for his virtue, that he had followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that his followers reported that he rose from the grave, and they did not abandon the way of Jesus.

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[5] “Chrestus” is most likely a misspelling of “Christ.” It seems that Suetonius thought he was a person living in Rome and causing unrest. (Christians began preaching about Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.) Suetonius also referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He [Nero] likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[6]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[7]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” a Latinized version of “Christ.” Notice that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples weren’t active until they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Within three decades, Christianity had spread to Rome.

Yet another Roman wrote about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He says that the prayed to Jesus “as to a divinity.”[8]

Christian Histories

Not surprisingly, there are more Christian documents that mention Jesus, and these documents are far more detailed. The New Testament of the Bible consists of twenty-seven documents written by eight or nine authors. (We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews.) Four of these documents are Gospels, theological biographies of Jesus. (“Gospel” means “good news.”) One of those documents is a history of the early church (the book of Acts), which includes more information about Jesus. Twenty-one of those documents are letters that provide theological commentary on Jesus’ identity and works. Though they are not stricly histories, they include historical information.

The Gospel writers clearly saw themselves as writing history. Luke is the best example. He begins his Gospel by acknowledging that other accounts of Jesus existed. He decided to write “an orderly account” based on the testimony of “eyewitness and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–4). In his Gospel and in its sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is careful to provide a historical context for his writing. He begins by recounting events that occurred in “the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Jesus was born during the time when Caesar Augustus required citizens to be registered, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). Jesus began his public ministry in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Many more historical details are provided in the book of Acts.

The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet. He couldn’t have invented the historical details he includes in his writings. New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[9]

Much more can be said about the historical reliability of the New Testament, though space allows me only to provide three reasons why we should trust the historicity of the New Testament.[10]

One other reason to trust the New Testament is that its writing is not like myths. The Gospels read like other ancient histories or biographies. They are more restrained than later documents that were not based on eyewitness testimony and that are rather fanciful. (Compare this to fanciful events in The Gospel of Peter, which comes from the second century and is not written by Peter. The Gospel of Peter features a resurrected Jesus whose head extends to heaven, not to mention a talking cross!)

Another reason to trust the New Testament is that the documents were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some think these documents were written later, perhaps in the early second century, but those arguments are based on speculation and they lack supporting evidence. Take the example of Luke as an example: He claims to have used eyewitness reports. This means he must have written his Gospel within a few decades of Jesus, while those eyewitnesses were still alive. It’s unlikely that he wrote after the 60s because he doesn’t write about significant events that took place after the year 62, such as Peter’s and Paul’s deaths as martyrs in the mid-60s or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Luke and Acts couldn’t have been written as late as the end of the first century because passages from both books are alluded to in 1 Clement and 2 Clement, non-biblical Christian documents that were written at the end of the first century.[11] There is no good reason to assume that any of the New Testament documents were written after the first century.

A third reason to trust the New Testament is that we have more and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than other ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[12] Yet, when it comes to the New Testament, we have a wealth of manuscripts. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in part or in whole. We have more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

The point is that, based on what we know, the New Testament are historical documents that reflect what truly happened about two thousand years ago. They testify that Jesus is the God-man, the eternal Son of God and Jesus of Nazareth, who performed miracles, taught with unmatched authority, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death for the sins of his people, and rose from the grave. The question is, will we trust the message about Jesus and put our faith in him?

Notes

  1. For more details, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  2. Some people imagine that Jesus was born in the year 0. There is no year 0. The year after 1 B.C. is A.D. 1. For details, see https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born. It might seem strange that we don’t know the exact dates of his birth or death. However, this is not strange when compared to other figures in ancient history. The modern calendar didn’t exist at that time, so events were often dated with respect to other events. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and we know that Jesus was born prior to his death. We also know that Jesus died at that time of the Passover sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberias and when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. That could be A.D. 30 or 33.
  3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215.
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  5. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  6. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  7. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44
  8. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  10. For more on the reliability of the New Testament, see https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.
  11. 1 Clem. 2.1; 5.6–7; 13.2; 48.4; 2 Clem. 13.4.
  12. Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.

 

The Death of Jesus (Luke 22-23)

This message is from the March 25, 2016 Good Friday service at West Bridgewater Community Church. Pastor Brian Watson recalls the story of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest and trial, and his crucifixion and burial. The message is an exposition of Luke 22-23.