Friday, December 12, 2014

A Short Leave of Absence

In the past year, between this blog, a book, and my normal preaching schedule, I have written over 435,000 words. I shall now take a bit of a break from this blog for a month or two. When I return in the spring of next year the format will involve something along the lines of a post a week rather than every day. For those of you that have been with me on this journey through the life of Christ this year I express my appreciation. The only thing that writers like more than writing is being read, and I hope you found your time profitable.

Stay tuned...

Whom God Hath Raised Up

Life of Christ 173

        For 173 blog posts we have followed the earthly career of Jesus Christ. We have seen in His birth the fulfillment of prophecy. We have seen in His youth the acceptance of His mission. We have seen in His maturity His moral perfection. We have seen in Him the most powerful preaching ever delivered. We have seen His deep knowledge of the Scriptures. We have seen His life of prayer. We have seen His miracles testify of His credentials. We have seen His leadership, His compassion, His purity, His faith, and His obedience.
We have also seen the response to all of these. We have seen doubt and fear and greed and anger and malice. We have seen insult and attack. We have seen lies and rebellion. With awful finality we have seen violence, conspiracy, betrayal and murder.
          The Sanhedrin, secure in their ritual cleanliness, goes home to their Passover meal. Caiaphas and Annas have triumphed again. The Pharisees will feast and sleep well tonight. The Sadducees will remain in their leadership positions. The Herodians are content that a great threat to Rome has been removed. And the demons of hell run riot through the streets of Jerusalem howling with glee.
But the greatest travesty of justice ever produced from the foul heart of hell will not, cannot stand. Peter explained it well fifty days later in his great sermon at Pentecost.

Acts 2.22-27
22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:
23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:
24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.
25 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:
26 Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope:
27 Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

Up from the grave He arose. And Christianity was furnished with its great proof. And Christianity was furnished with its great peace. And Christianity was furnished with its great power.

The same Jesus that walked the hills of Judea and the towns of Galilee two thousand years ago is still alive today. And He is coming back. Someday, I shall go to Him, and ask Him to walk with me to the mount where He delivered the greatest sermon ever preached. I shall ask Him to show me where He started the first church in the mountains above Caesarea Philippi. I shall ask Him to walk with me and share His life again with me. But most of all, I will ask Him to walk with me to Calvary so that I may fall at His feet and thank Him for coming, and living, and dying, and rising again for me.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Murder of the King

Life of Christ 172

          It is 9 AM on Wednesday. Tonight at sundown Passover begins. Pilate, hands still dripping wet from his attempt to wash the responsibility for this crime off of them, stands before the howling bloodthirsty mob of Israel's religious leadership and he gives sentence that is should be as they required.
          Immediately, Roman soldiers reach for Him. They tear the simple robe off his back. Lifting His arms they tie his hands to a post above His head and they send for the scourger.
         Jesus is already weary in body and spirit. He has been awake for over 24 hours. In the past 12 hours He has endured incredible emotional distress as evidenced by bleeding during prayer in Gethsamane. One of His own has betrayed Him. One of His own has denied Him. All the rest have fled. He has been formally rejected by His own people. He has been beaten up by the Sanhedrin, twice. He has walked 2.5 miles back and forth through the streets of Jerusalem. And the horror has barely begun.
          A Roman soldier lifted the whip above his head and swung with all his force until it struck the back of Jesus Christ. At the end of the whip were several leather thongs in which iron balls and sheep bones had been set. As the iron balls struck they caused deep contusions and the bones cut into the skin and the underlying muscle. As the flogging continued the lacerations widened and deepened. Soon ribbons of flesh hung from his back, and blood first trickled and then ran down His body to drip onto the stone flagged floor of the Praetorium. Thirty-nine times the whip rose and thirty-nine times the whip fell.
          Untying his arms from the post the rough soldiers decided on a little sport. During Herod's brief examination an hour earlier he had clothed Jesus in a rich purple robe in mockery of His claim to be the King of Israel. It had been discarded in Pilate's judgment hall but now someone grabs it, throws it round the huddled bloody mess on the floor, and hauls Him to His feet. Someone else places a staff into His hand in place of a scepter and another, having plaited a circlet out of material from a bramble bush in the courtyard, places it on His head. Jeering, they act out a little pantomime of bowing before Him.
          Soon, though, the jeers turn to blows. Someone grabs the stick out of His hand and pounds Him about the head, driving the crown of thorns down around His scalp. A blindfold is tied around His eyes and one at a time they take turns punching Him in the face and stomach and demanding that He prophetically pronounce the name of the one who had so struck Him. Some yanked chunks of hair out of His head as He sank to the ground, weak from blood loss and repeated beatings. Gathering around the pitiful figure still garbed in blood spattered purple one by one they take turns, in contempt, spitting on this man who thought He could be the King of the Jews.
          A quaternion of four soldiers is assigned to Him; they are not allowed to leave His side until He has been pronounced as dead. Together with two other quaternions and prisoners He is marched through the streets of the city. Going ahead of the sad little procession was a man carrying a sign on which was written the crime of the guilty party. The sign, penned in mockery of Christ and of the Sanhedrin, reads THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. In moments it would be nailed to the top of the post from which He would hang.
          That post was already fixed in the ground on Golgotha but the crossbeam was not. Just prior to leaving the Praetorium the soldiers stretched out Jesus' arms and tied the crossbeam to them. Somewhere along the route through the city Jesus stumbled and fell beneath the hundred pound weight of that crossbeam. The soldiers forced Him to His feet but He fell again, weakened by repeated beatings and a terrible scourging. In haste, they snatch a random man from the rapidly growing crowd, and compel him, Simon was his name, to carry the crossbeam for Christ.
          Three days ago He and His Apostles had marched into the city surrounded by throngs of cheering, shouting, singing Jews. Now the King of Israel, betrayed, abandoned, unjustly sentenced, scourged, beaten, and mocked, stumbles through the same streets on the way to Golgotha.
          Those streets are largely silent; the crowds looking on hushed. From somewhere up ahead a group of women begin to lament loudly. As Jesus draws even with them He lifts His thorn shadowed brow to look at them. Not unkindly, He tells them to save their lamentation for their children – the children that thirty years would perish by the hundreds of thousands in the Roman siege of a rebellious Jerusalem.
          At the site of the execution Roman law allowed a liquid narcotic to be given to the condemned man so that some of his pain would be eased. Jesus refused this, choosing to remain in full possession of His faculties but also choosing thus to experience greater pain.
          Upon arrival He was thrown on His back and the crossbar that Simon had carried for Him placed under His outstretched arms. Taking a six inch iron spike a Roman soldier knelt over Him and placed it with great precision at the base of His hand where the wrist begins. There the radius and the ulna of the arm join together at the hand and with the carpals form a small opening of bone through which the median nerve runs. Another soldier steps up and swinging a sledgehammer drives it through His body and into the wood of the crossbeam. The process is then repeated with the other arm.
          Raised back to His feet, Jesus was lifted into the waiting hands of Roman soldiers standing above Him on ladders. Hoisted into the air from above and pushed from beneath His body hung, swaying, suspended in mid-air by those two iron spikes. The crossbeam with its now three hundred pound weight was then dropped onto the embedded post. Quickly, the Roman soldiers grab His feet and holding them together place yet another iron spike through them into the wood of the embedded post.
          In this way, suspended between earth and Heaven, the crucified man would torturously die by inches over the next several days. He would die of exhaustion, of thirst, of asphyxiation, and of blood loss from the constantly re-opened wounds on his back.
          Looking on the assembled Sanhedrin smiled with glee. Looking on, the imps of hell howled in silent triumph. Looking on, His mother wept and recalled Simeon's prophecy of long ago pronounced in that very city over her precious infant child. Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also. (Luke 2.34-35)
     For six hours He hung thus suspended between earth and Heaven. For six hours the wounds in His back wept blood down the embedded post until it pooled at the foot of the cross. For six hours the median nerve in His wrists sent fire into His brain. For six hours the iron spike through His feet by turns supported and tormented Him. For six hours the assembled soldiers and Sanhedrin mocked Him unceasingly.
Along the way He kept His head. He won the thief beside Him to Himself. He took care of His earthly responsibilities – His mother. Stunningly, He forgave the assembled Romans and Jews who were murdering Him. And the darkness stole into His soul as He contemplated being rejected and abandoned - not just by His people, not just by His Apostles, but by God Himself.
          He who had known perfect fellowship for eternity was now taking upon Himself the noxious stench of the monstrous pile of humanity's sins against God.  And as the Father turned His back on the Son the true pain of the cross was shown.
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?
          Just over the city walls in the Temple Jewish priests gathered by the thousands and Jewish men gathered by the tens of thousands. One by one, hundreds of thousands of lambs were slaughtered in representation of that long ago night in Egypt when only the blood protected the people from the death angel. And hanging on the cross the Lamb of God, with His life's blood streaming from His body, shouted a single Greek word – tetelestai – which being interpreted is It is finished.
          In moments, He dismissed His spirit and died. And the Roman centurion looked up in awe and said, Truly, this man was the son of God.

Isaiah 53:3 He is despised and rejected of men; A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: And we hid as it were our faces from him; He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, And carried our sorrows: Yet we did esteem him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: The chastisement of our peace was upon him; And with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned every one to his own way; And the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, Yet he opened not his mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, So he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: And who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living: For the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked, And with the rich in his death; Because he had done no violence, Neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; For he shall bear their iniquities.

There is only one proper response to this. It is to say, from the bottom of our hearts, 'thank you.' For mercy at no charge and the price it cost Him to furnish it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

And Pilate Gave Sentence

Life of Christ 171

          It is Wednesday morning. Caiaphas and his bunch have finished their illegal trials. They have convicted Jesus of blasphemy and sentenced Him to death. But they have no actual authority to put a man to death; only the Roman Empire does. Thus it is that Jesus just after sunrise is ushered into presence of Judea's Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
          As the Sanhedrin delivers their prisoner to Pilate he asks them what indictment they bring against Him. (John 18.29) Their initial response is laughable. They simply said that He was a bad man as if their word alone was enough to crucify a man. (John 18.30) Pilate, perceiving that the Sanhedrin had no valid political or criminal case against the prisoner, assumed all they had was a religious case. (He was correct about this, of course.) He tells them that religion is their jurisdiction and their problem. (John 18.31)
          The Sanhedrin then moves on to Plan B. They inform Pilate that the indictment is indeed political, and that Jesus was guilty of sedition and treason. (Luke 23.2) Pilate has been standing outside of the Praetorium, his judgment hall, discussing this with the Sanhedrin. (They refused to enter on the grounds that entering a Gentile dwelling would make them unclean and thus unfit to observe Passover in just a few hours. Curious, isn't it, how they were so concerned about being ritually clean while committing murder?)
Pilate turns and goes back inside to question the prisoner. Pilate asks Him if He does indeed claim to be the king of the Jews. (John 18.33) Jesus' response is that yes, He does claim to be the king of the Jews, but it is not a worldly kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom. The proof is the evident fact that His followers are not seeking to break Him out of jail, so to speak. (John 18.36) Accepting this as sensible, and mindful of his first inclination that this was a religious question after all, Pilate returns to the Sanhedrin and formally pronounced Jesus innocent. (John 18.38).
Pilate wants out from under this situation. He is being pressured to sentence a man to capital punishment that he thinks is innocent. But at the same time the last thing he needs is to make the Sanhedrin and thus the Jews mad at him. To Caesar, a governor's job was well done when his province was quiet, peaceful, paying taxes, and producing wealth for the Empire. Pilate, who had as his unhappy lot the province of the troublesome Jews, was already on thin ice with Caesar in this respect.
Despite the Jews well known abhorrence of graven images, respected by his predecessors, Pilate upon initial acceptance of his charge had a cohort of Roman soldiers take possession of the Temple Mount and Fortress Antonia with banners flying. These banners were emblazoned with Caesar's image. The resulting near riot lasted six days, and only ended when the Jewish leaders willingly submitted to threatened death. Pilate had to recant and take down the banners.
Some time later, Pilate, sensing the need for more and better water in Jerusalem, proposed a new aqueduct. So far, so good. But he proposed paying for it with Temple money. Not good. Pilate, anticipating resistance, had plain clothes men mingle with the Jewish group who came to argue with him about it. At a nod from him they fell upon the crowd with clubs, perhaps with more energy than he intended, and many died from the beatings and the resulting crowd stampede.
Additionally, only recently, Pilate had instructed his soldiers to kill a number of rebellious Jews on the grounds of the Temple itself, and the resulting butchery mingled the blood of the Jews with the blood of the sacrifices.
The current Caesar ,Tiberius, was a paranoid, suspicious, sick, and increasingly bloodthirsty man. Think Josef Stalin here. The last thing Pilate needed was for the Sanhedrin to lead the Jews in a fuss which would draw the negative attention of Rome's ailing emperor. The Sanhedrin understand the political calculations going through Pilate's mind all too well. Remorselessly, they press home their attack, demanding that Pilate execute Jesus, asserting that He had spread sedition from Galilee to Judea. (Luke 23.5)
The word 'Galilee' is like a straw tossed to a drowning man. Pilate has jurisdiction only of Judea. If the prisoner is from Galilee this is Herod's problem, not his. Herod is in town for Passover and Pilate promptly ships Jesus to Herod. He hopes thus to get out from underneath the maddening situation. (Luke 23.6-7)
Herod had long wanted to meet Jesus, not out of any spiritual desire, but because he had heard that Jesus was a miracle worker. Jesus completely ignores Herod (Luke 23.6-12) and refuses to dignify his foolishness with any response whatsoever. Herod quickly gets bored with the whole thing, and ships Jesus back to Pilate.
While Jesus had been with Herod Pilate's wife came to him and begged him to let Jesus go. (Matthew 27.19) He already thought Jesus was innocent and this only adds to his desire to get out of what the Sanhedrin wants him to do. Sending Jesus to Herod did not work so he tries something else. Perhaps a little shed blood, via a scourging, will suffice to please them. (Luke 23.13-16) No, that is also unacceptable. Undeterred, Pilate tries something else. It was his custom to pardon one Jew every Passover. He decides to frame the opportunity this time as a choice between a clearly innocent man and a clearly guilty one. (Mark 15.7-9) After all, who wants a murderer released back into the general population? The Sanhedrin, though, quickly quashes the idea and whips the people to an emotional fervor demanding, of all things, that Barabbas be released. (Mark 15.11)
Pilate, still resisting but running out of ideas, begins to transition from trying to get out sentencing Jesus to death to finding a way to make himself look good while doing it. To that end, he gets the people to verbalize their blood-thirsty intent thus supposedly getting him off the hook. (Mark 15.12-14) They oblige him by issuing a full throated demand for Jesus' death.

In this whole scene we see two contrasting desires - Pilate to let Jesus go and the Sanhedrin to kill Him. Pilate pushes back saying it is a religious question. The Sanhedrin pushes back saying it is a political question. Pilate pushes back with a legal declaration of innocence. The Sanhedrin pushes back saying Jesus is fomenting rebellion in Galilee. Pilate pushes back by sending Jesus to Herod. Herod pushes back by sending Jesus back to Pilate. Pilate pushes back by offering instead to scourge Jesus. The Sanhedrin refuses and insists on capital punishment. Pilate pushes back by framing the traditional release to be between Jesus and Barabbas. The Sanhedrin pushes back by asking for Barabbas. Pilate pushes back by asking them to specifically verbalize their intent for the record. The Sanhedrin pushes back by whipping the crowd into a fever and demanding crucifixion.
Like a skilled boxer, the Sanhedrin has Pilate up against the ropes. Now they deliver the knockout blow. If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar. (John 19.12) Pilate is deathly afraid of the autocratic paranoid Tiberius. Pilate knows full well he governs an unruly people. He has repeatedly antagonized those unruly people. He does not need brought to the negative attention of Tiberius and the Jews are promising him that he will be if he does not issue the ruling they demand. Like a deflated balloon, he collapses to the mat. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. (Luke 23.24)
Pitifully attempting to robe himself in the tattered remains of his conscience and his dignity he calls for a bowl of water. He proceeds to symbolically wash his hands clean from the blood of a prisoner he knows is completely innocent. The demonically inspired blood lust of the crowd throws this back in his face with spine chilling cry, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27.25)
 With this cry Judaism was, in the person of its representatives, guilty of denial of God, of blasphemy, of apostasy. It committed suicide; and, ever since, has its dead body been carried in show from land to land, and from century to century: to be dead, and to remain dead, till He come a second time, Who is the Resurrection and the Life!
- Edersheim

          No greater travesty of justice ever occurred. No greater consequences ever grew for those involved in an injustice. And no greater blessing ever flowed from such an injustice. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tried by the Sanhedrin

Life of Christ 169

          It is well after midnight. Jesus has poured out His soul to His Father in Gethsamane and received the strength He needs to face Calvary. He wakens the Apostles from sleep and then calmly awaits the advent of the end. And He doesn't wait long. And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. (Mark 14.41-43)
          Judas Iscariot, after leaving the Last Supper in the Upper Room, must have gone immediately to the Sanhedrin. He proceeded to inform them that Jesus was in the city after dark and that He could thus be arrested quietly. The Romans would not allow the Sanhedrin much in the way of an armed force. They appealed to Pilate in order borrow some of the Roman cohort that was stationed at Fortress Antonia adjacent to the Temple, and Pilate consented. Taking to the streets with Judas Iscariot they marched to the Upper Room and found it empty. Bethinking himself of other places to which Jesus was wont to go at night the Iscariot led them next to the Garden of Gethsamane.
          It would be easy to get confused in the dark and so the conspirators had previously agreed on a necessary signal for identification. Thus it is that Judas Iscariot comes to place the infamous traitor's kiss upon the brow of our Saviour. Once having been so marked, the Roman soldiers ask for verbal confirmation. Jesus gives it, and then asks them to spare His Apostles (John 18.8) most of whom are rapidly departing the scene. Peter puts up a bit of a fuss, wildly swinging his short ceremonial Passover sword to a not quite so deadly effect before he is calmed down. Jesus' hands are bound and He is led through the sleeping streets of Jerusalem to the high priest's palace. (John 18.12-13)
Jesus Before the Sanhedrin,
William Brassey Hole, 1900
          The position of high priest had long ago devolved into a corrupt family business. The Romans sold the position to Annas' family, and they maintained a hold on it using differing relatives over a period of several decades. The Bazaars of Annas were infamous in the day, and the corrupt monopoly they held over Temple transactions had twice moved Jesus to visible displays of wrath. Annas' son-in-law, Caiaphas, nominally held the position of high priest at the moment but it is to the power behind the throne that Jesus is first brought for examination.
          Annas seeks first to establish the extent of Jesus' teaching and of His followship. (John 18.19). Jesus retorts that this information was readily known for His ministry was nothing if not public. (John 18.20-21) This response, viewed as impudent, was met with the harshness of blows from Annas' lackeys. (John 18.22) This terminates the interview, and a frustrated Annas turns Jesus over to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, and a hastily assembled Sanhedrin. (Mark 14.53-65)
          Technically, this was a pre-trial examination. Realistically, it was a kangaroo court. How do you convict a man of a capital crime who has never done a single thing wrong in His entire life? That was the conundrum facing the Sanhedrin. At first they sought to get around that gigantic obstacle by paying witnesses to lie. That did not work for their testimony, being hastily made up, did not agree and so this angle had to be abandoned. Next they tried to question Jesus and get Him to make some kind of incriminating silence. But he held his peace and answered nothing. After all, why talk when your prosecutors are doing a swell job of making their indictment look foolish? Finally, Caiaphas asked Jesus directly if He was the Messiah, and if He claimed to be God. This Jesus, in good conscience, could not and was not willing to deny. He confidently asserted that He was and that the day would come when He would sit in judgment on those who were now sitting in judgment on Him. This answer, which included a claim to be divine, was tantamount to blasphemy. Finally, the Sanhedrin had stumbled upon a capital offense. Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.
          What followed was a demonic orgy of hate. These venerable doctors of the Law gathered around Jesus and began to spit on Him. Others struck him with open hands and even fists. The religious leadership of the nation of Israel had lain down with Judas Iscariot and woken up in Satan's bed. For the next twelve hours their actions would be marked by an increasing bloodthirstiness that is only explainable when we accept it was birthed in the pit of hell.
          Finally, the sun rose to see the worst day in the history of humanity. Once dawn had come the Sanhedrin was legally allowed to assemble. Hurriedly they formally poll the assembled quorum and a sentence of death results.
       Beyond the spiritual disaster we see unfolding it is worth noting that the Sanhedrin committed numerous illegalities in their examinations of Jesus. This was true via both common law and common sense, but it was also true via the known Jewish canon law of the day. The arrest was illegal - it was entered into on the word of Judas and he had been bribed. The examination before Annas was illegal – he was naught but a private citizen. The indictment was illegal – the Sanhedrin was not permitted to originate charges against a person only to investigate them. The trial before sunrise was illegal – examination of capital cases was limited to daylight hours because of the seriousness of the offense and the necessity for a careful, thorough, deliberate examination. The length of the trial was illegal – the Mishnah only allowed for one day trials if they resulted in acquittal; this was in order to leave sufficient time for the defense to find witnesses. Jesus' sentence of death was illegally pronounced – it was done at Caiaphas' palace and the Talmud states that capital sentences can only be pronounced in the legally specified courtroom; in this case that was the Hall of Hewn Stone within the boundaries of the Temple; to this even Maimonides agrees. Jesus' sentence was illegal – He was judged by those who had a long and deeply held animosity against Him. Jesus' conviction was illegal – the stated cause of guilt before the Sanhedrin (blasphemy) was completely changed when presented later to the Romans (sedition).
          No matter how you slice it, legally or morally or spiritually, the Sanhedrin's actions were nothing short of appalling. But hell had loosed the dogs of war on Jesus Christ. They had plenty of rebellion and hatred and jealousy and evil with which to work, and their work would not cease until the blood pooled at the foot of the cross.

          …and what precious blood that is! The imps of hell and the wicked doctors of the Law together unknowingly combined to produce the greatest of victories.  Without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9.22) But it was shed, and there is glorious remission.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Great Lesson of Gethsamane

Life of Christ 168

          It is after midnight on Wednesday morning. These are the last few moments of freedom Jesus has prior to His arrest in just a little while. He must prepare Himself for all that is coming. So much of this last day He has spent preparing the Apostles but now He must see to His own spiritual needs. So He comes, as He often did, to the lovely glade of Gethsamane to pour out His soul in prayer.
          After arriving He first separates the Apostles into two groups, one of Peter, James, and John, and the other with the rest. He lays out before these three Apostles the burden of His heart and begs them to pray for Him. (Matthew 26.37-38) He then leaves them in order to find a quiet spot of His own in which to pray. (Matthew 26.39) He prays for a while, and then returns to check back with Peter, James, and John. When He finds them asleep He responds with the burden of a great sorrow (Matthew 26.40) and asks them, once again, to pray for Him in His time of need. (Matthew 26.41) Leaving again, He makes His way back to a quiet corner and opens up His heart to His Heavenly Father. (Matthew 26.42) Returning to Peter, James, and John unbelievably He finds them asleep again. In weariness of soul, spirit, and body He turns without waking them and goes back to His quiet corner to pray for the third time. (Matthew 26.43-44) And for the second time on this, the longest day that any human being has ever lived, the Heavenly Father tenderly strengthens the Son for what He is about to face. (Luke 22.43) Finally, having prayed through, so to speak, and accessed the grace and strength He needs to face the horror of Calvary He returns to the Apostles. He wakes them, informs them His hour has come, and the quiet lovely little glade is overwhelmed with booted tramp of a cohort of Roman soldiers. (Matthew 26.45-46)
Gethsamane, Adam Abram, 2008
         This is a sacred scene to all who love the Lord. He is overcome with a burdensome sorrow and those closest to Him completely fail to minister to Him. He wrestles alone with the Lord in great agony of spirit, repeatedly, and obtains the strength He needs to face the cross. There are lessons here about friendship. There are lessons here about patience. There are lessons here about failure. There are lessons here about faith. There are lessons here about prayer. There are lessons here about all kinds of things but one particular facet of Christ's character shone brightly in that midnight hour – obedience to the will of His Heavenly Father.
          Many years ago when I first began studying the life of Christ I came across a statement in Edersheim's massive tome. He said that the outstanding characteristic of the life of Christ was His obedience to His Heavenly Father. At first, in my simplicity, I disagreed with him. Surely it must have been His miracles. After all, no other human being on the planet had ever walked on water, fed thousands with one lunch, cleansed lepers, healed the blind, cast out devils, and repeatedly raised the dead. Or perhaps it was His holiness. After all, no other human being had ever lived a completely sinless life. Or perhaps it was that He began the world's largest, best, and most enduring religion. Or perhaps it was His atoning death. After all, no one can pay for their own sins let alone the entirety of humanity's. Choosing something amazing about the life of Christ is like going to an exceptional buffet – it is all amazing. Yet as time passed I found myself gradually growing into agreement.
Saying that the most outstanding characteristic of His life is His obedience to the Father does not take away from anything Jesus did in any area. What it does do, however, is bring His life in some small way down to our level. Beloved, you and I are not going to walk on water. Well, I can occasionally if it is frozen but even then it is difficult. We are not going to raise the dead or lead lives of moral perfection. We will not atone for anyone's sins. But we should and can live lives of obedience to the will of our Heavenly Father. In this He set His greatest example.
Jesus said His meat was to do the will of His Father. (John 4.34). He said that He did not seek His own will in anything. (John 5.30) He said He did not come to do His own will but to do the Father's will. (John 6.38) He said, I do always those things that please the him. (John 8.29) And thus it is that we find Him in lovely Gethsamane gazing full on into the bitter cup of Calvary – and yielding to His Father's will on the matter.

Mat 26.39 And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
Matthew 26.42 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.    
          The great question that faced Jesus in the Garden is the great question that faces you and me today. Will we do what we want to do or will we do what God wants us to do?
          I know how Jesus answered that question His whole life long.

          How will we answer it?

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Upper Room Discourse

Life of Christ 167

          Following the conclusion of the Last Supper Jesus gives to His Apostles what is practically His last will and testament. In just a few minutes they will arrive at the Garden where He will pray for them while they sleep and then events will be taken out of their hands humanly speaking. This is the last free instruction and interaction He would have with them prior to His death. Some of it took place in the Upper Room and some of it took place as they were walking to Gethsemane.
This passage is historically known as the Upper Room discourse. It is found in John 14-16 with an accompanying prayer by Christ in John 17. It reminds me in some respects of the Sermon on the Mount in that it covers a variety of topics over the space of a few chapters. It is a very rich, rich passage. Of course, it is impossible to adequately discuss the Upper Room discourse in one blog post but I will give you a broad overview of it.
Jesus Christ was keenly aware on this Tuesday evening that His Apostles' entire world was about to be turned upside down. In twelve hours He would be dead and they would enter the dark night of the soul that would stretch from the arrest at the Garden until they received news of the Resurrection on Sunday morning. When viewed in this light it is not surprising that we find the Upper Room discourse majors on subjects such as peace, joy, comfort, and love.
It is in these chapters that we find the exceedingly precious promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit who is called, not coincidentally, the Comforter. (John 14.16) There is much discussion of peace. Indeed, I often myself reading from these chapters when as I visit dear members of our church who are laid up in hospital rooms. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14.27) Christ also points them for the second time that day to look for the Second Coming. In this context He specifically says such a knowledge ought to keep us ever rejoicing. (John 16.22)
Amongst all of these encouraging themes is also mixed in a fair amount of doctrine. One of the most famous verses in the entire Bible is in this passage with a completely valid application to salvation. Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14.6) We also find clear reference to the necessity of believing in the divinity of Christ (John 14.9) and vital instruction regarding the primacy of abiding in Him. (John 15.4)
From this broad overview I draw this thought: our religion is birthed in a belief in correct doctrine but once birthed it is a tremendous practical help to us. Many a benighted soul wants to avail themselves of Jesus' words here regarding peace and comfort and joy without placing them upon the proper foundation of belief. In short, if you are not saved there are no promises for you here. All the comfort and joy and peace you could ever possibly need is only available to you if you have placed your faith in the claims of Jesus Christ. But once you have, oh, is it ever available! What do you need today? Peace? Come get it. Joy? Come get it. Comfort? The very Comforter Himself lives within us. You cannot get any better than that.

          Over a century ago Longfellow said, 'Into each life some rain must fall.' But it is worse than that. Into each life the bleak midnight enters at some point. The sun is shining only on other people. The moon refuses to cast her reflection for you. Even the stars are blotted out. There is nothing but the blackness of darkness. When, not if, this comes to you, beloved, allow me to point you in the direction of Christ's last words to His own in the hours before His crucifixion. And may you find here all the peace and joy and comfort you need.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Last Was The First

Life of Christ 166

          One of the least appreciated aspects of the Last Supper is just how tremendously important it is in the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Perhaps I could say that more biblically by referring to the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant was entered into by the Jewish people in Sinai under Moses. The sum and substance of it was contained in the Mosaic Law. It was entered into in a solemnized blood-sprinkled ceremony.

Exodus 24:7–8
7 And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.
8 And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

          If the Old Testament shows us anything it shows us that the Jewish people singularly failed to live up to their promise. The history of the Jewish people prior to the time of Christ is a history of one failure after another. In just a few hours they will exponentially compound those failures by executing their own Messiah.
          Of course, none of this surprised God. Indeed, the Old Testament prophets themselves spoke of this (Isaiah 53 for instance). They also spoke of the necessity of a new covenant. Understanding this is very important for the Christian for it speaks directly to the transition from Judaism to Christianity.

Jeremiah 31:31–33
31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, That I will make a new covenant With the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers In the day that I took them by the hand To bring them out of the land of Egypt; Which my covenant they brake, Although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, And write it in their hearts; And will be their God, And they shall be my people.

The Old Testament prophecy of a new covenant is the scriptural support that Jesus and the Apostles used to explain their shift from an ethnically centered religion of ceremony to a world-wide religion of personal experience from the heart. This new covenant had a new chosen people – the Church (though Israel's role is not yet finished). This new covenant had a new Scripture – the New Testament (though the Old Testament is still Scripture). This new covenant had a new mission – propagation via the Great Commission.
This new covenant also needed a new ceremony. The old covenant was symbolized best in the Passover observance. This was designed to point the people forward to the redemptive role of the coming Messiah. They totally missed this but that was its point nonetheless. With the arrival of that redemptive sacrificial death tomorrow there would be no more need for the Passover observance. Instead of looking forward toward the sacrifice of the Lamb of God the new covenant would look backward on the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The purpose of the Lord's Supper as observed in the Church is to focus us squarely back on the cause and meaning of it all – Jesus Christ. This do in remembrance of me. (Luke 22.19)
          Thus it is that the Last Supper, a Passover seder, became the Lord's Supper and marked forever the transition from Judaism to Christianity.

1 Corinthians 11:23–27
23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

War at Supper

Life of Christ 165

          It is Tuesday evening. Jesus will die tomorrow. He and His Apostles have gathered in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. Typically, the head of the party led in the ordered ceremonial observance of a Passover. This includes various psalms, drinks, herbs, bread, and meat eaten at different times after different prayers. Several years ago it was my privilege to celebrate one with a group of messianic Jews here in Chicago and I enjoyed it very much.

          Toward the beginning of the meal Jesus makes the startling statement that one of those assembled there that night was about to betray Him. Immediately a babble of conversation breaks out in which each of them demands to know if they are the guilty party. Matthew tells us that Judas, sitting in the place of honor next to Christ, quietly asked Jesus the same question. Jesus responded chillingly, thou hast said. (Matthew 26.25) Can you imagine the undertone of emotion in that exchange? Judas knew his perfidy had been discovered but remained bent on his course.
          Peter, precious impetuous Peter, beckons to John at the foot of the table and asks John to privately ask Christ who the guilty party was. John does so, and Jesus answers quietly that it is he to whom He offers the sop. The sop was a crucial step in the ceremony. It involved wrapping some lamb in flatbread, dipping it in bitter herbs, and handing it to each guest. The first one that Jesus prepared was offered to Judas.
          I believe in the reality of spiritual warfare. There are examples of it from one end of the Bible to the other. But there can be no greater example than this: at the Last Supper Jesus and Satan sat side by side. Yes, you read that right, side by side. And after the sop Satan entered into him. (John 13.27) For one brief earthly moment, the primary antagonists in history's first, greatest, last, and most important war sat elbow to elbow. And Jesus kicked him out. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest do quickly. And Satan ran into the night lusting after a great triumph. In reality, the only thing he would actually accomplish this night would be his own utter defeat.
          For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. (I John 3.8)

          But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15.57)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Greatest Lesson on Service Ever Delivered

Life of Christ 164

          The visual image that comes when we think of the Last Supper is Leonardo da Vinci's famous 1498 painting. In actuality the seating arrangements would have been entirely different. On formal occasions the Jews of Jesus' day did not sit down on chairs at a table. Instead, they partially reclined on low cushions around a much lower table and their feet would have been stretched out behind them. You will recall the stories of two different women who anointed Jesus' feet while He was attending banquets and this would have been a similar arrangement. The Talmud tells us that the end of the Passover table was kept uncovered and was used to hold the various dishes of food. Instead of da Vinci's picture it would have been laid out more like this:

          We know from the interaction that takes place during the Last Supper that Jesus sat at the head of the table and had someone on His right hand and His left. We also know that at one point Christ whispered something privately to John, who was leaning on His breast, regarding the identity of the traitor in their midst. We also know that Jesus and Judas had a private conversation in which Jesus told him that He knew he was the traitor. We also know that Peter beckoned to John across the foot of the table to ask him who the traitor was. The above chart fits all of these scenarios.
          The Pharisees held that it was a great honor to be seated in the chief seats at a feast and Jesus had just that morning rebuked them for it. (Matthew 23.6) Sadly, as Jesus and His Apostles enter the Upper Room a dispute breaks out amongst them over who would get to sit where. Although the Apostles were still clueless regarding the approaching crucifixion they did realize a crisis point had been reached. Their interpretation of the events led them however to a completely different conclusion. They believed that Jesus was about to be accepted by the nation as her Messiah and they were about to fill high places of authority in the kingdom. In my opinion, some of them thought that their seats around the Passover table in the Upper Room were indicative of their level of authority in the soon arriving kingdom. Thus it was that they began to quarrel among themselves over access to the chief seats.
          What a grief this must have been to Christ! He is hours from the unspeakable horror of Calvary and the men He is counting on to hold everything together after He leaves are selfishly quarreling among themselves. Jesus contrasts that sad display of pride with words exalting the primacy of serving.

Luke 22:24–30
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
28 Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.
29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me;
30 That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

          Jesus then takes His instruction a step further by giving them a never to be forgotten illustration of His point. Assuming the garb and work of a servant He rises to wash the Apostles' feet. (John 13.1-17) To drive the point home He began, not with those seated by Him at the head of the table, but with Peter who had impetuously responded to Jesus' remonstrance by rushing for the foot of the table. Many and good are the sermons preached from this story but we must never lose sight of the context. Jesus is hours from death. The Apostles are hours from the dark night of the soul. Israel is hours from violently rejecting the very reason for her existence. Spiritual war is breaking out on all sides and the devil throws everything he has at the Son of God.

Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet
Tintoretto, 1549

          …and in the middle of all of that selfishness, pride, and horror Jesus teaches the greatest lesson on service ever delivered. The antidote to pride is a selfless and humble service.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Last Supper - Seder or Not?

Life of Christ 163

          It is Tuesday evening. Jesus will die tomorrow afternoon. The morning had already seen the unveiling of the dead fig tree and the verbal confrontations with Israel's religious leadership in the Temple. The afternoon had seen the Olivet discourse with its solemn pronouncements of a second coming and Judas Iscariot's secret arrangements to betray Christ. We come now at sundown to the evening of Tuesday. To the Jews this would be the beginning of Wednesday. This was the day of preparation in which the Jewish households made their arrangements to observe Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
          There is some disagreement over whether the Last Supper was a seder or not. Whether one holds the Wednesday or Friday view of the crucifixion does not change the fact that Scripture repeatedly says that Jesus died on the day of preparation. In other words, since Jesus died a day before Passover began then the Last Supper took place 24 hours prior to the accepted observance of the seder.
          Those against the Lord's Supper being considered a seder point out that Jesus as an observing Jew would not have celebrated Passover an entire day early. They point out that it would have been impossible to get the lamb properly sacrificed since these were not sacrificed until the afternoon immediately prior to the evening seder. How do you get a proper Passover lamb on Tuesday night when all the lambs were not sacrificed prior to Wednesday afternoon? At the same time, we must accept that Scripture repeatedly calls the Last Supper a Passover (Matthew 26.18-19; Mark 14.14, 16; Luke 22.8, 11, and 15).
          How do we reconcile these two contradictory positions? I choose to believe simply that Jesus celebrated Passover a day early with His disciples. If He claimed emphatically to be Lord even of the Sabbath day (Matthew 12.8) why could He not choose when and how to celebrate Passover? And if He could feed thousands with a simple lunch could He not furnish the necessary sacrificial lamb? Of course He could.
           Sometime earlier in the afternoon Jesus had sent Peter and John back into Jerusalem to ensure that everything necessary for the seder had been arranged. This was no small task. Cunningham Geike, a nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterian sets the scene for us in his 1893 book The Life and Words of Christ:

The head of each family, as evening closed, began the household purification with the prayer - "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and requirest us to remove the leaven," and then proceeded, in rigorous silence, to search every room, gathering every crumb that could be found, and finally tying all up till the following morning. A further search, which must end before noon, was then made for any liquid or solid product of fermented grain, and for all dishes or vessels that had held it. All were taken out of the house, and the crumbs and dough carefully burned, with a repetition of prescribed prayers. The house itself was then cleansed in every part, and no one could enter the unpurified house of a heathen, henceforth, during the feast, without being defiled. Nothing leavened could be eaten or permitted in the house during the next seven days, - for defilement, bringing with it unfitness to eat the Passover, would follow in either case.
This purification of the house, however, was by no means all. Vessels of any kind, to be used at the feast, were cleansed with prescribed rites, in a settled mode. Metal dishes &c., after being scoured, must be first dipped in boiling water - in a pot used for no other purpose - and then into cold. Iron vessels must be made red-hot; then washed in the same way. Iron mortars, for crushing grain for baking, were filled with red coals, till a thread, tied outside, was burned through. Wooden vessels, after being wetted, were rubbed with a red-hot stone. No clay dish would be used at all if not quite new, and it had to be first dipped thrice in running water, and consecrated by a special prayer. Personal purity was as strictly enforced. Every one had to cut his hair and nails, and to take a bath.

         The slaughter of the lambs, which took place around 3 PM on the day of preparation, likewise was a complex undertaking. Josephus tells us that approximately 265,000 lambs were sacrificed during Christ's day and all of this took place at the Temple. Thousands and thousands of priests would form long lines throughout the Temple. These lines culminated at the Brazen Altar. Each individual Jew would bring his sanctioned lamb to the Temple. Using a ceremonial knife or short sword they would cut the animal's throat while a priest in front of him held a bowl to catch the blood. Those bowls full of blood, hundreds of thousands of them, were then passed hand over hand to the Brazen Altar where they were poured out before the Lord. (Herod's Temple renovation included an elaborate drainage system under the Brazen Altar.) The animal carcass was then tied for roasting on two skewers of pomegranate wood (in the shape of a cross, no less) and carried home. It was then placed immediately on the fire to roast with Passover being celebrated as the sun set and the stars became visible.
          Somehow, on the day prior to the day of preparation, most of these accommodations were already provided for and thus in the evening of that day Jesus and His Apostles came to the Upper Room.

Mark 14:13–17
13 And he sendeth forth two of his disciples, and saith unto them, Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.
14 And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
15 And he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared: there make ready for us.
16 And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover.

17 And in the evening he cometh with the twelve.