Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Known by the Scars


While flipping through the channels on the television one time, I happened upon a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.  I have not watched this show all that many times, but I stopped for a moment because I heard one of the characters mention God and the Bible.  Knowing that most sitcoms disparage God, Christianity and the Bible, I was, nonetheless, stuck with curiosity as to what would be said.  There was some predictable poking of fun at matters concerning the Faith, but I had to take pause concerning a serious question that was raised.  The question – “what is the meaning of life?”  They were looking half-heartedly at the Bible for answers, (with the irony being…the Bible really does have the answer to this question).  One of the characters came up with the agreed upon answer that – “the meaning is in the pursuit itself.”  This is rather vague…although, it is true in a sense.  But what is that pursuit?  Glorify God and keep His commands.  Yet, this is only half of it, because there is not only the pursuit, there is also the discovery!  Jesus Christ, the Son of God is Savior and Lord!  This is where purpose and discovery meet with eternal destination.  Pretty important stuff they were talking about…and they didn’t realize the half of it.  And this is why I am here to tell all of it…the whole story.  This is really part two of John’s resurrection story, following Mary Magdalene, Peter and John at the empty tomb.

Following Jesus’ resurrection, the news that Jesus is alive begins to spread among His followers…at first with hesitation, but then with enthusiasm. (John 20:19-29)  Even the disciples do not believe the first reports, but whenever people are confronted with the reality of the resurrection, their lives are transformed.  The Lord turns the fear of the disciples into courage.  How so?  First…He comes to them.  We do not know where these men were, but Jesus finds them…and it is amazing how it happens.  In His resurrection body, Jesus is able to just appear among them without ever opening a door. Yet, He has a solid body which can be touched, as we will see.  What we realize is that Jesus’ spiritual body is not limited. And it causes us to realize -- you could never really play “hide and seek” with Jesus. :-)

It is somewhat amazing that these men are actually afraid.  The women reported to them that Jesus was alive and the two Emmaus disciples likely added to their witness.  Jesus’ first word to them is the traditional greeting – shalom, (peace).  He could rebuke them for their unfaithfulness and cowardice, but He doesn’t.  He reassures them – He shows them His wounded hands and side, giving them the opportunity to discover that He is indeed their Master and not some sort of phantom.  The wounds mean more than identification – they are also evidence that the price of salvation has been paid and that man truly can have peace with God.  When Jesus sees that the disciples’ fear has now turned to joy, He commissions them (v.21)…this being His dedication of His disciples to the task of world evangelism (Matthew 28).  It must have given these men great joy to realize that, despite their many failures, Jesus still entrusts them with His words and His work.  Finally, Jesus enables them through His Holy Spirit, giving them a portion of power (v.22) in order that they should continue to grow in wisdom to be able to witness with power.

Now we come to the big question?  Why is Thomas (called Didymus – twin) not with the other disciples when they are together?  What we know is that Thomas is a man of courage (John 11:16), and is spiritually-minded, asking questions of Jesus (14:5).  Still, there seems to be this underlying “pessimism” to Thomas.  Many call him “doubting Thomas.”  Perhaps, this is too harsh of a designation…since he is looking for assurances.  Jesus does rebuke him, but it is not for doubt, as we call it, but unbelief.  Doubt is often an intellectual problem – we want to believe, but faith is overwhelmed by problems and questions.  Unbelief is a moral problem of the will – we simply refuse to believe. So, it is important to separate the two.  And this raises another question…what is it that Thomas does not believe?  Apparently, the reports of the other Christians that Jesus is alive. And this may be why Thomas had not been with the other disciples.  He reasons like a man – “seeing is believing.”  On the one hand we can admire Thomas for wanting personal experience.  On the other hand, we must fault him for laying conditions for the Lord to meet!  The other ten disciples had told Thomas that they had seen the Lord’s hands and side (v.20), so Thomas makes this his test.  Thomas’ own words help us to understand the difference between doubt and unbelief.  Doubt says, “I cannot believe”…there are too many problems.  Unbelief says “I will not believe unless you give me evidence.”  After one week, Jesus deals with Thomas and his unbelief.  The grace of our Lord is amazing, if you consider – he stoops to our level of experience to lift us up!  He grants Thomas’ request.  There is no record that Thomas accepts the Lord’s invite to touch Him, but his response seems to indicate such.  When the time comes to prove his faith, Thomas steps up.  Jesus’ next words are, literally, “stop becoming faithless, but become a believer.”  Jesus has seen a dangerous process at work in Thomas’ heart and He wants to put a stop to it.

One day, a group of agnostics asked a Christian scientist this question: "As a person rooted in science, how can you believe that God will raise the dead from the dust?"  Working quickly, the scientist mixed a few handfuls of sand with the smallest of iron shavings. Then he challenged the unbelievers, saying, "Before I answer your question, let me ask one of my own: Which of you can take this pile and separate the particles into two groups?"  Taken off guard, the unbelievers didn't really think their answer through.  This is what the Christian scientist did -- he took a high-powered magnet and held it over the mixed pile. In a second, the filings "jumped" from the desktop onto the magnet.  Turning to the unbelievers he then challenged them with this thought: "If the Creator establishes the laws which give such powers to a magnet, how can you believe He does not have greater powers Himself? I believe if the unseen power of the magnet can pull iron shavings out of the dirt; my God can use His almighty power to call forth bodies which have turned to dust."

How many disciples were in the room when Jesus first arrived?  That is right, ten.  Judas did not make it. Number eleven, Thomas, nearly did not make it.  I am thankful that he did not choose to continue on in his unbelief and have the same fate as Judas…and as so many others who live in this world choose.  We have every spiritual opportunity in Christ, just as did Thomas, to make the right decision about Jesus.  This is why Jesus says at the conclusion – “blessed are those who have believed without seeing.”  The Lord has a personal interest in each and every one of us.  In every way, He wants to strengthen our faith and include us in the blessings He has for us!  Thomas’ unbelief represents the “scientific approach” to life – I need proof.  It may be where some are today, but as with Thomas…it doesn’t work.  Only faith works…belief and assurance concerning what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us.  We must understand that we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and our obedient faith response to Him.  He is the basis for all peace; He died for all people – rich and poor, black and white, male and female, old and young, Jew and Gentile.  He rose from the dead victorious over Satan, sin and death for all time – and now He lives for us…and in us through His Spirit.  God has given us a most precious gift – our souls.  How can we not trust Him who made us, saves us, and knows us better that we know ourselves…with or souls?  In this we fulfill the pursuit…we have the discovery, and our lives have meaning!

Blessings, Don

Sunday, April 5, 2015

On the Third Day


What is interesting about the gospels, and in this case -- the Gospel of John, particularly -- is that there would be no chapter 20 if Jesus’ story was a normal biography…the story would end with the death of the individual.  If the story ends in chapter 19, then it is truly the end of the story…for Jesus and for all of humanity.  But, the account of this miracle (John 20:1-18) is proof that Jesus is unlike any other human being ever to live.  The Resurrection is an essential part of the Gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) and a key doctrine in the Christian faith.  From the very beginning, the enemies of the Lord try to deny the historic fact of the Resurrection.  The Jewish leaders claim that the Lord’s body has been stolen from the tomb.  But, this is absurd…because if the body was stolen, then how on earth would they have done it? The tomb is guarded by Roman soldiers and the tomb sealed with an official Roman seal.  Also, the disciples have not believed that He is to be raised from the dead; it is His enemies who remember His words. (Matthew 27:62-66)  The opponents certainly would not have taken the body.  The last thing they want is anyone believing that Jesus actually has risen from the dead.  As the women approach the tomb, they are worried about who would roll back such a heavy stone (Mark 16:1-3).  And this brings us to Mary Magdalene, the first of the women to arrive at the tomb on the first day of the week. As we consider her experience that Lord’s Day morning, we can see her comprehension of the truth of the Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene and several other women agree to go to the tomb of Jesus following His death on the cross and His burial.  These women, desiring to show their love for Christ, want to complete the burial preparations.  Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had been forced by the circumstances to prepare the body quickly, but now the ladies are going to finish the task.  What they are not aware of is that an earthquake has taken place and the stone guarding Jesus’ tomb has been rolled back by an angel.  It is apparent that Mary Magdalene goes on ahead of the other women and gets to the tomb first.  When she sees that the stone has been rolled away, she believes that someone has broken into the tomb and stolen the body of her Lord.  Given all that we know, and have already discussed concerning the circumstances surrounding what has happened to Jesus, it is not difficult to believe that Mary thinks this way.  Mary runs to break the news to Peter and John at an unknown location. The other women arrive at the tomb, then leave and carry the angels’ message to the other disciples.

Meanwhile, Peter and John start off for the tomb.  It is John who follows initially, but being fleeter of foot, he gets there first. When he arrives, he cautiously remains outside but looks in.  What does he see? Grave clothes lying on the stone shelf.  Peter also arrives and…true to form…impulsively heads on into the tomb.  There, he also sees the grave clothes.  John then enters the tomb, looks at the evidence and is awestruck!  It is as if the light goes on all of the sudden, because the text says, “He sees and believes” (v.8). Resurrection faith begins to take hold.  It is amazing that Jesus’ followers did not expect Him to come out of the tomb alive…after all, He had told them on numerous occasions that He would be raised from the dead (John 2:19, etc.).  Peter and John experience faith that is based on the evidence.  They see grave clothes…they know that Jesus’ body is not there.  After the resurrection, Jesus does not reveal Himself to everyone, but only to select witnesses who share the Good News with others (Acts 10:39-43).  Peter and John see and believe – soon the Holy Spirit will confirm their faith.

Peter and John have returned home by the time Mary Magdalene decides to come back to the tomb. She has stayed in the garden, such is her love and devotion to her Lord.  Mary has not reached the same conclusion as have Peter and John, for she believes that Jesus is still dead. Her weeping is the loud lament associated with how her people, the Jews, express sorrow.  When she comes to the tomb and looks inside, she sees two men dressed in white. Their positions at either end of the shelf where Jesus had been lying, makes us think of the cherubim on the mercy seat. (Exodus 25:17-19)  It is as though God is saying, “There is now a new mercy seat – my Son has paid the price for sin, and a new way is opened up to the presence of God.”  Mary does not seem to be disturbed at seeing these two men, and there is no evidence that she knows that they are angels. But, her conversation with them does nothing to calm her, or dry up her tears. 

Mary is determined to find Jesus, and at once, she turns around and sees Jesus, although she does not know that it is Him.  It is interesting that she does not recognize Him…perhaps it is too early to see well, or her tears are blinding her somewhat, or perhaps Jesus is concealing His true identity from her for the moment, as He did with the Emmaus disciples.  Jesus asks her why she is weeping…and who is it that she is seeking. Jesus recognizes her broken heart and tenderly reveals Himself to her, simply calling out her name – Mary.  When He does this, she immediately recognizes Him. All she can say is “Rabboni!” (Which means “my Teacher”). She not only speaks to Him, but grabs onto His feet, and holds onto Him…sort of like we did when we were little kids and we didn’t want a parent to leave the house.  Jesus tells her not to hold on to Him…which is curious.  One reason is that she will see Him again, as He will be on the earth another forty days before ascending to the Father. Mary does not need to panic…as if this is her last opportunity to be with Jesus.  A second reason is that she has a job to do – go tell people that Jesus is indeed alive.  She does, indeed, get up from there and share the Good News, “I have seen the Lord!”

Every year, thousands of people climb a mountain in the Italian Alps, passing the "stations of the cross" to stand at an outdoor crucifix. One tourist noticed a little trail that led beyond the cross. He fought through the rough thicket and, to his surprise, came upon another shrine, a shrine that symbolized the empty tomb. It was neglected. The brush had grown up around it. Almost everyone had gone as far as the cross, but there they stopped.  Far too many have gotten to the cross and have known the despair and the heart break. Far too few have moved beyond the cross to find the real message of Easter. That is the message of the empty tomb. (Lavonn Brown, "The Other Half of the Rainbow," submitted by Michael Adams, First Baptist Church, Union City, TN.)

This has long been one of my struggles with how people view the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Some have put so much emphasis on the cross that they nearly miss the most important event, and this is the Resurrection.  We must not only recognize the power of the cross, but we have to live in the power of the resurrection of Jesus!  The kicker with all of this, going back to the beginning of the message today -- as good as the evidence is to convince the mind, it cannot change the life.  What do I mean?  Those of us who live centuries later cannot examine that evidence, for it is no longer there for us to inspect.  But, we do have the record of the evidence in God’s Word as it has stood the tests of time.  It is faith in the message found in the Word that Jesus wants to cultivate in us through His Holy Spirit.  And that message…the undeniable message of the Resurrection…is that – Jesus is alive!  He is alive in order that you and I may be able to be alive forever…and this is Good News!

Blessings, Don

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Crucifixion and Burial of the Son of God


This is lengthy…but I believe worth the read.  At one point early in Julius Caesar's political career, feelings ran so high against him that he thought it best to leave Rome.  So, he sailed for the Aegean island of Rhodes, but in route the ship was attacked by pirates and Caesar was captured. The pirates demanded a ransom of 12,000 gold pieces, and Caesar's staff was sent away to arrange the payment. Caesar spent almost 40 days with his captors, jokingly telling the pirates on several occasions that…he would someday capture and crucify every one of them to a man.  The kidnappers were greatly amused, but when the ransom was paid and Caesar was freed, the first thing he did was gather a fleet and pursue the pirates.  They were captured and crucified...to a man!  (I guess he wasn’t joking after all).  Such was the Romans' attitude toward crucifixion. It was to be reserved for the worst of criminals, a means of showing extreme contempt for the condemned.  The suffering and humiliation of a Roman crucifixion were unequaled. And so this brings us to the place where we are in the story of Jesus.  He has been betrayed, arrested, subjected to a mockery of a trial, questioned by Pilate and Herod, only to be turned over to be subjected to this most horrible of punishments.  In fact, Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero, would say concerning crucifixion, “It was the most cruel and shameful of all punishments. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen.”  So, let us consider what takes place as Jesus is delivered to be crucified, and what this means for us.

This mode of capital punishment was for the lowest kind of criminals, particularly those who promoted insurrection. Today, many think of the cross as a symbol of glory and victory.  But, in Pilate’s day, the cross stood for the ultimate rejection, shame and suffering. It is with this understanding that Pilate delivers Jesus to the chief priests, and they…with the help of Roman soldiers…take Jesus to be crucified.  It was customary for the criminal to carry his cross, or at least the crossbeam, from the hall of judgment to the place of execution.  Jesus begins the mile long walk carrying His cross, but He receives some relief from Simon of Cyrene, whom the Roman soldiers draft to do the job. We are not given a reason as to why…apparently Jesus is run down, worn out.  One thing is certain – bearing the cross is a mark of guilt, but Jesus is not guilty.  It was also required that the criminal wear a placard over him announcing his crime, such as “thief,” “murderer.” Pilate writes, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  The chief priests protest the title, but Pilate refuses to change it. He knows that this statement embarrasses them. It is his final statement about the Jewish establishment, wanting it to be clear that this is their decision.  Jesus is crucified outside of the city (Hebrews 13:11-13) between two others, possibly associates of Barabbas. They are notorious criminals, which fulfills Isaiah 53:12, “He was numbered with the transgressors.”

This all takes place at Golgotha, which means “cranium” or “skull.” “Calvary” is the Latin equivalent.  Most executions were carried out in private, but Jesus is nailed to a cross and hung up for everyone to see. It is Passover season at this time, and so, there are thousands of visitors in the city.  There are also soldiers there…it is their job. At most Roman executions, a centurion would be assigned with four soldiers to assist him. Since Jesus is a popular teacher with a large following, there are likely more guards there. It was a privilege for the soldiers to share whatever personal belongings the victims had, so they divide up all that Jesus owns, which would not have been much, but it does fulfill Psalms 22:18.

A group of women, along with the Apostle John, stand near the cross. John says they are – Mary, the mother of Jesus…Salome, his mother’s sister…Mary, the wife of Clopas…and Mary Magdalene.  It takes great courage for these ladies and John to stand there in the midst of the hatred and ridicule that is displayed toward Jesus. But, their presence is certainly an encouragement to Jesus.  Jesus assures His mother of His love for her, and gives John to be her “adopted son” to care for her. We know that he does care for her, and that she is among the believers in the Upper Room as they await Pentecost. (Acts 1:14)  Our Lord understands what is taking place. As we have noted several times, Jesus is fully in control as He obeys His Father’s will.  He refuses to drink the pain deadening wine that is offered to those who are to be crucified (Matthew 27:34), and this is in order to fulfill the Scriptures (Psalms 69:21).  He says, “I thirst”, for He is enduring real, physical suffering, for He has a real human body.  Jesus does take some vinegar offered to him by a soldier who shows Him some pity, but it does enable Him to utter His shout of triumph in a loud voice – “It is finished!”  While it is true that Jesus’ sufferings are now complete, many of the Old Testament types and prophecies are now fulfilled, and the once-for-all sacrifice for sin is now fulfilled.

I thought it would be good to have a telling picture of what took place the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, so I go to the famous artist, Rembrandt.  Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, painted his famous “Three Crosses” in 1653. The painting presents a harsh depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus hanging lifeless between two thieves. At the foot of the cross are soldiers and onlookers. As you scan the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross, you’d notice how the Dutch Artist had captured various facial expressions and actions of the people. Some are laughing, some crying, others are bewildered. What is most fascinating about the painting, is a lone figure standing in the shadows (on the left). It is a representation of Rembrandt himself. This was Rembrandt’s way of saying, “I was there, too. My sins helped nail Jesus to the cross, too.”  And we are there with Rembrandt, because it is also our sin that Jesus took to the cross.  He went to the cross to die for all mankind…for slave and free, young and old, good and bad, and for people of every nationality and social status.

There are two groups of people involved in Jesus’ burial – the Roman soldiers and the Jewish believers.  It was not unusual for victims to remain on a cross and experience a lingering death, so the Jewish leaders do all that they can to hasten the death of Jesus and the two thieves.  Jesus dismissed His spirit at the ninth hour, which was 3 pm according to how they recognized their days.  It is amazing that the Roman soldiers did not do what they were supposed to do – break all of the victims’ legs – but they did do what they were not supposed to do – pierce Jesus’ side.  But, in both of these matters, they fulfill the Word of God.  The bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken (Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12), so Jesus’ bones are protected.  However, one of the soldiers pierced His side (fulfilling Zechariah 12:10). John sees some special significance to the blood and water that comes from the wound in His side.  For one thing, it proves that Jesus has a real, genuine body, and that He does experience death.  In his first letter, John deals with evidence that Jesus is God come in the flesh, and He presents three symbolic witnesses -- the Spirit, the water and the blood. (1 John 5:7-8)  The Spirit relates to what is going to take place at Pentecost, the water relates to His baptism by immersion, and the blood to His crucifixion.  In each of these events, God makes it clear that Jesus is who He claimed to be…God come in the flesh. (19:35) 

Once the soldiers are finished with their work, Jesus’ friends take over. God has prepared two high-ranking men to prepare His body for burial and to place it in a proper tomb.  Joseph of Arimathea is an interesting character, for certain…he is rich (Matthew 27:57), a prominent member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:43), a good and righteous man who has not been in agreement with the council (Luke 23:50-51), and he is Jesus’ disciple.  He, along with Nicodemus (whom we first meet back in chapter 3), make preparations for Jesus to have a decent burial. It is apparent that Nicodemus has become a full-fledged follower of Jesus at this point.  It is important that these men follow where the Lord is leading them, because if Joseph and Nicodemus are not there, who knows what happens to the body of Jesus?  Haste is important…it is important to get the body away from the Romans and the Jewish leaders…so, the men work quickly.  Matthew, Luke and John all tell us that Joseph has this new tomb that has just been dug (and who knows for what reason) and it is here that he wants to bury Jesus. The men also assemble the cloths and spices needed for burial.  What is apparent is that these two have done a lot of careful planning…none of this (getting costly spices for the preparation of the body, or securing the tomb) was going to take place at the last minute.  Some of the other women are also there to witness Jesus’ burial.  They are planning to return after the Sabbath and complete the burial procedures.  Joseph and Nicodemus boldly identify with Jesus Christ at a time when it seems like all is a failure and His cause hopelessly defeated.  The Sabbath is now about to dawn, and Jesus has fulfilled His work, the mission for which He came into the world.

The Roman emperor Charlemagne knew this.  An interesting story surrounds the burial of this famous king. Legend has it that he asked to be entombed sitting upright in his throne. He asked that his crown be placed on his head and his scepter in his hand. He requested that the royal cape be draped around his shoulders and an open book be placed in his lap.  That was A.D. 814. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Othello determined to see if the burial request had been carried out. He allegedly sent a team of men to open the tomb and make a report. They found the body just as Charlemagne had requested. Only now, nearly two centuries later, the crown was tilted, the mantle moth-eaten, the body disfigured. But open on the skeletal thighs was the book Charlemagne had requested…the Bible. One bony finger pointed to Matthew 16:26 "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"  You can answer that one.  (From The Applause of Heaven [Word Publishing, 1996] Max Lucado, p. 139-140).

I guess that this is a really good, pertinent question, isn’t it?  Charlemagne seemed to understand it.  It is true that, as the old saying goes, there are two certainties in life – death and taxes…well, make that three, the Cleveland Browns will be terrible. :-)  But seriously, because of what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden, we all have a meeting with the grave that we are going to make at some point.  And as at all funerals, the question is – what was this person’s life about?  I can honestly say that I have done some funerals where this question was easy to answer…and at other times, it has been much more complicated.  The apostle Paul gives us a great illustration of comparison between Jesus’ experience and our own, when he says in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  The point that Paul makes is that…just as Jesus died on the cross for us, we have to die…die to ourselves.  But that we must also be buried in a grave, just as Jesus was buried in a grave.   But, our burial takes place in water, so that when resurrection takes place (which we will discuss next time), this also assures our own resurrection.  But, when we are baptized, we are burying our old self so that our new self can come to life.  This is critical.  I believe Paul captures one of the best arguments for baptism, in that burial is a necessity because it connects us with Jesus.

Blessings, Don