137. The cross and the grave.

[John 19:17-42]

THE CROSS

There was no death more terrible than by way of crucifixion.  Even the Romans trembled by the thought and found it despicable.  No Roman citizen could be crucified.  For a Roman, execution was mostly beheading or forced suicide by drinking poison.  Crucifixion was for slaves and criminals.  The cross was originally a Persian method of execution.  They argued that a criminal could not defile the earth while dying and should be lifted up.  The Carthaginians in North Africa took it over from the Persians.  Through them it came to Rome.

Jesus died the death most dreaded in the ancient world.

Execution took place immediately after a verdict was pronounced. The convicted had to carry his own cross.  After scourging it was a bloody procession of lashing and mocking to get the staggering prisoner to the place of execution.  In front of him was a soldier with a placard stating his crime.  He was led through as many streets as possible to serve as a warning to all watching, but also possible leniency.  If there were any person who could bear witness in the prisoner’s favour, he was allowed to come forward. If so, the procession stopped and the trial was repeated.  Nobody came when Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa.

In Jerusalem the place of execution was called the Place of the Skull (Hebrew = Golgotha). Calvary is Latin.  A criminal could not die in the city so it was outside the city walls.

The name could have come from the shape of the hill as a skull, but others suggest that the Romans never buried the body of the criminal.  They simply let it lie on a “rubbish” heap of bodies until it rotted away.  Death by crucifixion could last for days.  The Jews, however, buried a body by nightfall.  They would never have a place for dead bodies just outside the city walls.

Bleeding, in shock of the cruel beating, Jesus carried His cross to Calvary.

The placard for the cross was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. They were the three great nations of the ancient world at the time. The culmination of their talents could have been great.  The Romans taught law and good government, the Greeks taught philosophy and art and the Hebrews had access to the one true God.

Jesus was the supreme beauty and highest thought of God.  In him was the law of God and the kingdom of God. In him was the very image of God.  All the world’s seekings and strivings found their consummation in him.  It was symbolic that the three great languages of the world should call him king. [William Barclay]

The inscription on the cross was to irritate the Jews.  Pilate did it on purpose. The Jewish leaders asked him to remove it and he refused saying: What I have written, I have written.  Stubborn about his words, he yielded to them condemning an innocent man to death.

The soldiers received the clothes of the victim.  Crucifixion needed four soldiers. There were probably five items – shoes, turban, belt, tunic and outer robe.  They threw a dice to divide the items and the outer tunic was left.  It was seamless, woven in one piece and they could not cut it in a way that each one would have something of value.  They probably carried dice with them to while away the hours below a cross waiting for death.  They had to guard the body lest any of the friends would cut Him down.  The soldiers could have been intoxicated. Usually they had alcohol with them to dull their senses in carrying out such cruelty.

Their indifference to the agony of the dying man is shocking.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Behold and see
If there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
Which has been brought on me,
Which the Lord has inflicted
In the day of His fierce anger.(Lamentations 1:12)

The tunic woven in one piece was described exactly as the one the High Priest wore. The function of the High Priest was to be the connection of the people to God.  The Latin for priest is Pontifex, which means bridge-builder.  This is exactly what the cross did.  Jesus was the perfect High Priest, the bridge-builder to the presence of God.

The dividing of His clothes is foretold in Psalms 22:18.

There were four women at the cross.  Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, Salome, Mary, the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala.  It was always dangerous to be associated to anybody on the wrong side of Roman authority.  Their love overcame their fear.  They had to be with Him, in His presence until He died.

His mother’s presence was natural and expected, although risky.  There was Mary’s sister, Salome, the mother of James and John (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56).  She is the one who asked about her son’s positions in the Kingdom and received a correction from Jesus.   Even after being reprimanded by Jesus, she is here at the cross, which demonstrates His perfect love in correction.

Mary of Magdala is the woman mentioned in Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2. Jesus cast out seven devils from her.  He rescued her life.  The third Mary, wife of Clopas, is unknown and only mentioned in John.

In a beautiful concern for the immediate future Jesus committed the care of His mother to John, his cousin and trusted disciple.  As her eldest son He cared for her and He never failed in His duty as a son.

John’s presence also speaks of love that overcomes fear.  He took a great risk to join the woman and be present at a time when most other criminals would be completely alone.  Jesus was no ordinary criminal.

Jesus expressed His thirst.  It emphasizes the agony of the cross. Many people believed Jesus to be a phantom-like godly figure.  Here John underlines His humanness.  He felt the pain of the cross.  Jesus became fully man to redeem man.

In Psalms 69:21 the thirst of Jesus and the vinegar drink were foretold: They also gave me gall for my food,and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

The other Gospels tell of Jesus dying with a great shout on His lips. They do not say the words (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46).  John tells us what He said.  He said these words not in weary defeat, but in a voice one does not expect from a dying man.

The words: it is finished is one word in Greek = tetelestai. It also means great shout.  He died when the price was paid and God said enough.  He leaned back His head and gave up His spirit as if He rested after the work is done.

THE GRAVE

The Romans left a body on a cross for days.  After they have taken the body down, it would be left to the crows and dogs get rid of it.  The Jews buried by nightfall (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

In this case the next day was the Sabbath.  The burial had to take place before sunset.  Every so often the Roman soldiers finished a criminal off by smashing their limbs.  It was done to the two criminals crucified with Jesus, but Jesus was already dead.  In Numbers 9:12 it is said that not one bone of body of the Passover lamb shall be broken.

To make sure that Jesus was dead, a soldier drove a spear into His side and out flowed water and blood.  It was a sure sign of death but also the sign of a very sick man.  He literally took our sickness on Him.  Another prophecy was fulfilled: They look on him whom they have pierced. (Zechariah 12:10)

It is said by some commentators that Jesus died of a broken heart.  When the heart ruptures the blood mingles with the fluid of the membrane around the heart.  The spear was thrusted towards the heart.   Blood and water flowed.

John was the eyewitness to all this. It is a symbol of water-baptism and the blood that saves.

The disciples were poor and a proper burial was expensive.  Two men came forward.

Joseph of Arimathaea was a member of the Sanhedrin and a disciple of Jesus.   He kept his discipleship secret but now came forward.  Nicodemus was the nightly visitor of Jesus (John 3), a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin.

It is said that both of them were left out of the meeting with the High Priest when the nightly trial was conducted.    The Sanhedrin never met at night.  The High Priest could therefore say it was out of the ordinary and for some members only.  He probably realized he would face opposition from Nicodemus and Joseph.  The dark workings of the Jewish council had to take place under the cover of darkness.

Joseph and Nicodemus stepped out boldly.  Joseph fearlessly approached the Romans for the body of Jesus.  In His death he drew men unto Him just as He prophesied (John 12:32).

Two prominent leaders cast their hesitation and reputation aside and honoured Jesus with their leadership and wealth.

How often does death confront with the deep issues of life?  People get caught up in everyday life with little regard to the profound questions of truth, humanity and life after death.  Death itself compels the mind to focus on more than the superficial.

Death is an intimate experience into the unseen.  Jesus stepped into the unseen from where He came.  Three days…

 

Advertisements

37. C.h.u.r.C.h.

It is unavoidable that the word church is received with a whole bunch of emotions and reactions. For some the negativity comes unrestrained, fuelled by hurt and disappointment over many years. The pain permeates into the conversation about church and leads to sharp rejection of people and organization in the hearts of individuals.

I am truly thankful that I was privileged to enjoy a loving and welcoming church community as a teenager. I cannot clearly remember all the teaching and sermons, but I remember the friendliness of the leaders, the organization to have fun together and my fellow youth very well. For my two eldest sons however, church was not the comfortable home that we so desired for them.

It is intentional that the heading for this Pebble is written like an acronym. We have to establish a new and positive concept within the principle of CHURCH. There might be a lot of possibilities but for now let us define church as a:

Congregation of Hope Unified and Redeemed by the Cross of Healing.

The Cross is the crux – always and everywhere. In every situation, every crisis, every feast, every life-event it is the Cross of Jesus that gives meaning and healing.

With this principle firmly in place as priority, we can look back to the exiles returning with Ezra to restore the temple in Jerusalem. God stirs the heart of this learned man to lead the way and guide the people. He comes equipped with the approval and support of the dominant Emperor of the ancient world at that time. Even within these very beneficial circumstances Ezra writes about God’s hand on his endeavour.

Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord, which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes.

So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me. (Ezra 7:27,28,NKJV)

Church organization starts on the journey. Ezra makes a meticulous record of the families accompanying him and finds no Levites. Traditionally the Levites were responsible for temple ministry. When Joshua divided the Promised Land, the Levites received no land to free them in order to serve the people full time with regards to their service to God.

Ezra organizes 220 temple servants from the tribe of Levi to come to Jerusalem with them. (Ezra 8:15-20) He appoints twelve leaders to the priests and entrusts all the valuables of the temple to them. On arrival they secured the treasure of silver and gold and prepared the sacrifices.

Personal worship is restored, but reveals the sin in the community. Ezra becomes deeply aware of it and intercedes for the people to plead forgiveness. He tears his clothes and pluck out his hair and beard – an extreme display of deep emotional distress. He prayed so powerfully and sincere that the people gathered around him in tears, realizing and repenting their sin.

The occasion is marked by prayer, repentance and reverence to the Word of God. It is significant that Ezra’s reaction to the sinfulness and imperfection of the situation is a heartfelt, earnest prayer emphasizing the sovereignty and might of God. He prays and repents on behalf of his people. He did not go amongst them with judgment and blame for the sad situation and reproach for the lack of enthusiasm in the restoration project.

Before the restoration could begin the people had to divorce their pagan wives and send them and the children away. (Ezra 10:44)

For our modern ears this is radical and drastic. The Old Testament is our symbolic guide to spiritual purification. Secular attitudes so comfortably embedded in the church like a “wife” corrodes the church from inside and render it powerless. We all know that the church is often victim to gossip, offence, pride, lovelessness, selfishness, self-importance and haughtiness, unforgivness – oh, the list is shockingly long and nasty.

In the Gospel of John we read about the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem to be judged and executed by the “church”. Read the story in John 8:1-11.

The Scribes and the Pharisees actively devoted their lives to ministry. They were the leaders responsible for the spiritual well being of their people who were distinct in their worship of their one God Yahweh. His commandments were the foundation of the community. Their lives were lived wholly dedicated to faithful service. Their passion often smothered compassion when the zealous application of the letter of the law brought harsh and ruthless verdicts. In case of doubt about the application of the law and sentencing, it was quite normal to bring the matter to the rabbi.

Although they did not fully accept Jesus as part of their exclusive theological community, the respect from the people, which He spontaneously received, caused them to try and trap Him into an argument that would discredit His teaching.

Any Jew would know that adultery, murder and idolatry were punishable by death. Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 prescribed the death sentence for both parties to adultery. Interestingly, the man in this case was not a co-accused.

Death by stoning was the obvious conclusion in this case. The Law of Moses was clear. An added bonus was a theological ambush for Jesus. In the words of William Barclay: …and here they thought they had impaled him inescapably on the horns of a dilemma. [New Daily Study Bible]

If He supports the execution, his message of love and grace would be discredited and He will not be called the friend of sinners anymore. He would at the same time be in trouble with the Roman authorities, since the Jews were not allowed any execution rights, even within the limits of their own people and religion. Rome was the ultimate authority and held life and death in their power. Maybe Jesus would not realize that this would bring Him into trouble and then Rome could get rid of him.

On the other hand, if He chooses to forgive her, He will be in conflict with the Law of Moses and would indirectly condone the sin of adultery.

Jesus bowed down and started writing in the sand. On this matter the commentaries name countless possibilities and the mystery that clouds the content of his sand secrets, has been the subject of many sermons and discussions. Rightly so, there is room for interpretation on multiple levels. Let us consider only two. Maybe he could not face the hate and condemnation in the eyes of the spectators and church leaders and knelt down to pray for guidance and wisdom. Maybe His godly insight in the lives of the executioners gave Him the opportunity to write their sins and transgressions to expose them as hypocrites. The Greek word for write is graphein. In this case the word katagraphein is used, which means to write something on the record against somebody.

Could it be that Jesus went on record against these sadistic stone throwers?

Nevertheless the church leaders insisted on an answer. An answer they received:

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (John 8:7 NKJV)

The loud accusers disappeared quietly. They left the woman, but they also left the key to their own forgiveness and renewed lives. They left the scene where the Source of forgiveness and reconciliation with God remained standing.

When Jesus and the woman were alone he asked: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” (V10)

Jesus never denied her sin and the condemnation following it. How could He free her so unconditionally? Adultery is serious. According to His own teaching a ground for divorce. (Matthew 5 – the Sermon on the Mount.)

Jesus knew He was on his way to the cross to die for her sin. He lived in the awareness of His ultimate purpose. He spoke liberty over her just because of who He was.

His words of farewell are significant, but sound almost casual.

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (V11)

Jesus did not send her to the synagogue for training in the Law of Moses, or to the rabbi for spiritual guidance and teaching. He neither gave her a long lecture on a pure life and new thinking. He sent her away with words of grace in the full knowledge of who His father is and the power of the Holy Spirit to lead her into a future of victory over sin.

Grace is the unmerited favour of God. God’s grace cannot be earned and He gives it freely without reproach for our benefit because He is a good, good Father.

Mercy is defined as follows:

Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.

According to Merriam-Webster: mercy implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it.

Mercy is the withholding of punishment from somebody in a position of authority over you. God defines Himself to Moses as a God of mercy. (Exodus 34)

Not only does He withhold the punishment. He took our punishment on Him!

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, (Isaiah 53:5 NKJV)

This was real church in the streets of Jerusalem. Not a place of condemnation and execution. It was a place of liberty and bold entrance to a future of victory over sin and shame.

Jesus knew that His words of freedom would ensure her to His father and the Holy Spirit. She will be safe and secure. The Holy Spirit will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment. (John 15)

It is not for the church to shout the sin and judgment. The church is the place of love and mercy to enable the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of men. Without love there is no constructive confession of sin.

The Holy Spirit prepares the people for the Presence. In the Presence, in the holy light of His countenance, sin is realized, confessed and replaced with restoration and victory. This is church at the foot of the Cross.