Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 12

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Chapter 12

An X-Ray of Reality

Jesus’ death dictates choices

Nobody likes feeling foolish! But sometimes we get caught by a deficient set of facts. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let me tell you about what happened one August. At that time every year the drinking water in my hometown tastes bad because of algae growing in the warm lake waters. The water company dumps in great quantities of chlorine to kill the offending life-forms. That tastes awful!

I decided to fix the taste problem by installing one of those water filters that you attach to the kitchen water faucet. It took only a few minutes to attach the little metal cylinder that holds the filter, and I felt very pleased when the job was finished.

I decided to convince my family about the benefits of the new device by conducting a taste test of filtered and unfiltered water. My family didn’t know which glass had been filtered and which one had not, but they all picked the water that had passed through the filter as tasting better. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty smug by that point!

In about three months it was time to change the used filter and put in a new one. I carefully unscrewed the filter container and found — nothing! There was no used filter inside. There never had been!

What about the taste test, you ask? There is only one chance in eight that my family members would all pick the supposedly filtered water as tasting better when in reality it was no different at all. But they did. My original wrong assumption about the filter had been confirmed by a statistical fluke.

You see, reality isn’t always what we think it is. Fortunately, it didn’t matter very much that I entrusted the water quality of our home to a nonexistent water filter. But each of us regularly relies on things that have far more import. We trust a life-partner, a career, an airplane or a way of raising children. But if we entrust ourselves to something that will ultimately fail us, then we are in trouble.

Christians, who have access to the inerrant Scriptures, have a tremendous advantage over others in terms of knowing true reality. For example, one such reality is that a person must entrust themselves to Jesus Christ to have eternal life.

In addition, God has also revealed many principles for living that guide us in making the complex choices of modern life. He tells us in general terms what will work out better and what will not. But, in the short run, events may seem to contradict what God has said and may make the faith approach look foolish.

A Shortsighted View of Reality

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar
37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
(Luke 23:32–39)

All those who watched as Christ was crucified encountered a reality that was very hostile to any kind of faith in him. The hearts of many believers must have sunk to rock bottom as they saw that the One to whom they had entrusted themselves now seemed powerless to resist Roman justice. The unbelievers who were watching had ample evidence to confirm their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Everything they saw seemed to cry out that his messianic claims were false.

But behind such dark external “reality,” the hand of God was moving those events toward final victory. Only by using the expanded reality of revealed truth could those grim events be seen as progress toward that glorious goal. The eyes of faith must always be able to look beyond the circumstances of the moment.

Just the night before, Jesus had warned his disciples about what was to follow by quoting the Isaiah prophecy that he would be “numbered among the transgressors.” Now it was all taking place right before their eyes as he hung on a cross.

Crucifixion inflicted tremendous suffering on its victims. Death came partly through starvation, partly through blood loss, and to some extent by exposure and long-term pain. The Romans found crucifixion so repulsive that Roman law prohibited its citizens from being crucified.

The Roman statesman Cicero once said, “Even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears.” In spite of their revulsion against this penalty, the Romans had no hesitation in using it against foreigners such as Jesus.

It is significant that Luke did not dwell on the brutality of crucifixion. In fact, none of the Gospel writers stressed that — though preachers sometimes do. Instead, Luke focused on the response of those watching Christ’s crucifixion. He paid careful attention to the varied reactions of the onlookers to the reality in front of them. I feel confident that this was Luke’s intent because of the way he arranged his historical material. He presented four responses of condemnation toward Jesus followed by four responses that vindicate Jesus.

All history is selective, and Luke arranged his account of the crucifixion to contrast the responses of the people who saw it. This can be best seen by looking at Table 7.

Table 7

Responses to Christ’s Crucifixion

Condemnation Vindication
1 The People 5 Second Criminal
2 Rulers 6 God
3 Soldiers 7 Centurion
4 First Criminal 8 The People

                    Condemnation = Rejection | Vindication = Faith

Perhaps by this arrangement Luke was implying that the people in the first column should have listened to the testimony of their counterparts in the second column and responded to Jesus in faith.

The four condemning responses are expressed in Luke 23:35–39. Here Luke described the people, the rulers, the soldiers, and one of the criminals. In his entire account Luke tended to downplay the role of the people, but here he grouped them with those antagonistic to Jesus. The other gospel writers also inform us that the people were mocking Jesus while the crucifixion took place (Matt. 27:39).

The Greek verb tense strongly suggests that the rulers “sneered” at Jesus over a considerable period of time. Jesus hung on the cross beginning not long after noon (John 19:14) and the rulers responded to him in this way even while darkness fell on the land. When the rulers mocked Jesus, they quoted a psalm from the Old Testament, twisting it to suit their interpretation of the events at hand.

We have seen the same tactic used on Jesus before. Satan tried the same thing when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. At the end of his description of these temptations, Luke said that Satan would return at an opportune time (Luke 4:13). This is it.

Satan does not speak with his own voice, but through the mouths of others as they jeer at the dying Messiah. The rulers derisively challenge Jesus to save himself if he were who he had claimed to be.

The Roman soldiers also join in the black humor of the occasion. The Jewish people hated the Roman army of occupation, and the feeling was mutual. These Romans felt little sympathy for this Jew dying on the cross. Over Jesus’ head there hung a notice that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Roman justice demanded that the condemned person’s crime be specified on the notice. What then was the crime? Can you find it? Well, Pilate couldn’t find it either, and in writing those words — “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” — he again made the point to the Jews that Jesus was innocent.

Roman society had a strong sense of class consciousness. The common soldiers of the execution squad could afford only the very cheapest kind of wine. It bordered on vinegar, a drink that would hardly be offered to a king. So, in extending this swill to Jesus, they mocked him in yet another way. They also took up the refrain of the others: “Save yourself.”

Even one of the criminals — an insurrectionist against Roman rule (Mark 15:27) — hanging next to Jesus joined the taunting crowd and rulers. Perhaps he hoped to ingratiate himself to the crowd, the Romans, and the religious leaders. Perhaps in that way he hoped he might be spared from death. After all, one other criminal, Barabbas, had already been delivered by the voice of the multitude from Roman justice that day.

The criminal’s only source of hope seemed to be the surrounding crowd. By entrusting his hope to them, however, he assured not only his physical death but his spiritual death as well. He relied only on what he could see. Such tragic consequences overtake those who do not take advantage of God’s revelation to guide their trust.

The people, the rulers, the soldiers, and the unfortunate criminal all shared a common view of reality. They did not accept Jesus for who he really was, and they considered his death on the cross as the final proof of their views. So that we do not condemn them too quickly, we should consider how common it is in our own culture to focus on short-term results.

Looking Beyond the Cross

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
(Luke 23:40–43)

Having considered those who condemned Christ, Luke shifts attention to those who spoke to vindicate him. Those groups stand in stark contrast to one another, and the contrast begins with the two criminals. Consider carefully that the second criminal looked out on exactly the same scene as the first one. He saw the jeering mob, and beside him the man from Nazareth, dying just as he was. But he obviously brought far more than just those few surrounding facts to guide his understanding of the whole situation.

The Greek verb tenses suggest that as frequently as the first criminal mocked Jesus, this second one spoke up to defend him! By doing so he made it clear that he did not share the earthbound perspective of the first thief. Instead, his view of reality had been expanded by the truth of God, so he responded to it in an entirely different way.

The rebel who defended Christ repeatedly called on the other criminal to consider his own plight before God. He had only a few short hours to make whatever peace with God that he could. For him to waste his time by condemning an innocent man was the height of foolishness. This whole discussion may have been repeated several times in the course of the hours.

When death for all neared, the second rebel said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). To “remember” someone in the biblical sense of that phrase does not mean to recall certain events in which they took part. That’s how we might use such a phrase, but they used it differently. It means to remember others for good; to remember them in such a way that you act in their behalf.

This man was clearly looking beyond the moment at hand, when Jesus was hanging on the cross dying. He was looking toward a time when Jesus would be in a position to confer such benefits. He asserted that Jesus would have a kingdom and implied that he was the King of the Jews, just as the notice over his head declared.

Jesus quickly rewarded such faith that could look beyond the grim circumstances. Jesus remembered the man for good by bringing him to paradise that very day (Luke 23:43).

By using the word “paradise” the translators don’t do the reader any favors, for that word simply spells out in English the Greek word used by Luke. To the Jewish mind the word represented the conditions of the garden of Eden. The Jews imagined that when the Messiah set up his kingdom, he would refashion the world to resemble the Garden of Eden. There would be immediate communion with God, an absence of the effect of sin, and tremendous bounty on every side.

The contrast between the two criminals reminds me of a verse Luke recorded earlier in his Gospel. Jesus had said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). The first rebel had tried to save his own life and lost it. The second rebel, who defended Christ, lost his life for Jesus’ sake and saved it.

The two criminals who hung on either side of Jesus illustrated quite clearly the great difference it makes to have faith to guide one’s choices in the face of contrary “reality.”

Further Vindication

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
 47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
(Luke 23:44–49)

The second person who spoke in defense of Christ did so without words, but with a message of compelling power. God the Father spoke through supernatural events first in the heavens and then within the temple itself. Starting at noon when the sun reached its zenith, darkness fell over the whole land until three in the afternoon. The darkness likely extended over the entire land of Israel. In this way, the Father spoke eloquently to authenticate the claims of the One who hung on the cross.

Some have suggested that the darkness was caused by a solar eclipse, but they simply misunder­stand astronomy. It was the time of Passover, which occurs during the full moon. When the moon is full, it stands in exactly the opposite side of the sky from the sun. So it would have been physically impossible for the moon to block the light of the sun, as it does in a solar eclipse.

No, this darkness had a totally supernatural origin. The darkness that God sent was probably identical to that which he sent in the time of the Exodus (Exod. 14:19–20), a gloom so deep as never to be forgotten by those who experienced it. Thus, God spoke in cosmic terms to the entire nation.

The second sign God gave occurred before the eyes of a very few. He caused the curtain in the temple to split down the middle! The curtain in the temple was sixty feet wide and thirty feet high and had a thickness equal to the width of a man’s palm. It took over three hundred priests to hoist the curtain into place, and it was replaced every three years so that deterioration of the fabric would not occur.

This curtain stood between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. It was no human hand that ripped this curtain in two. Among its other meanings, the ripping of the curtain probably communicated that the way between man and God had now been opened through the death of God’s own Messiah.

When it first occurred, I’m sure only a few of the priests even knew about the event. But such a thing cannot long be hidden, and perhaps that helps to explain how a number of the priests trusted in Christ during the early days of the church. (Acts 6:7). So it was that in cosmic signs to the people and in supernatural miracles before the priesthood, God the Father spoke to vindicate the Son.

Finally Luke brings forward the final two witnesses to speak for Jesus by their responses to the overall situation. The first is the Roman centurion who led the execution party. After watching Jesus die, he repeatedly praised God and declared the innocence of Christ. What this man had seen transformed his whole opinion. We can only imagine what it must have taken to overcome his dislike for the Jewish people and his revulsion against anyone who was being crucified.

The people, who began by condemning Christ, also changed their attitudes because of the events that took place. Many of them “beat their breasts,” symbolizing their remorse over what had happened. Luke used the very same word (Luke 18:13) when he described the repentant tax collector who was so ashamed of his sins that he could not even look up to heaven.

Those people came to jeer, but having seen everything, their hearts had turned. Perhaps that explains why in a few short weeks so many thousands of people in Jerusalem trusted in Jesus as their Messiah when Peter preached on the day of Pentecost.

A Backward Glance

All of the people involved in this story were looking at the same set of external events. Jesus, in whom so many had placed great hope, seemed powerless to prevent his own death on the cross. Those who did not have a spiritual perspective could see only the external realities, and so they joined in the condemnation of Jesus.

However, another group of people who believed in him responded very differently because they had additional revelation to help them interpret the situation. Through faith they could take a longer view and look beyond the realities of that moment.

Responding to the Reality of the Cross

I find that believers don’t usually understand what biblical faith is. Sometimes that’s because they have been soured on faith through exposure to some distortion of the real thing.

Faith is not some inner experience or intuition totally separate from our ability to reason. That’s mysticism. We have a faith that can be explained, is based on revelation, and which involves the shared experience of other believers. Faith does not involve some secret insight that is magically given to one person.

Faith is not some emotion, mood, or experience. That’s emotionalism. I don’t think the second thief (hanging on a cross) felt very good, but he had a lot of faith!

Faith is not knowledge alone (even biblical knowledge). That’s intellectualism or Pharisaism. Biblical knowledge is not faith, even though it provides a basis for faith.

Now I will define biblical faith. Faith is a certain response to reality, including revealed reality. Faith is a response of surrender or obedience to the reality of revealed truth. In salvation, the emphasis falls on the surrender aspect, as a person surrenders himself to Jesus Christ as his Savior. In Christian living the emphasis lies on obedience to the teachings of the Lord.

To help clarify what faith is, consider the following diagram:

Those who don’t know Jesus Christ can only respond to the reality that they can see, perceived reality. Like those who condemned Jesus, their observable world imprisons them. But believers have access to a far larger perspective of reality, including unseen reality and future reality, both revealed through the Word of God.

The Holy Spirit is one example of an unseen reality of which the Scriptures inform us. Jesus held out a future reality to the second thief when he promised him that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. That man could not have known that, apart from Jesus telling him. But it was a fact. It was a reality.

Use the following ideas to sharpen your own understanding of what faith is and how you respond to short-term situations.

1. How would you respond to the following statements:

The world doesn’t live by faith, and I have/have not conformed to such a viewpoint.

I have/have not reacted against faulty forms of faith and denied true forms of faith much room in my life.

With my education as an engineer, I like to consider myself a no-nonsense kind of person. People like me may be more prone than most to let distortions of real faith turn us off. At some point we may have been exposed to mysticism, emotionalism, or intellectualism and reacted by saying within ourselves, “If that’s what living by faith is all about, then you can keep it.” If you have overreacted to some situation like that, I would like to encourage you to reconsider the whole issue and give faith a larger place in your life.

2. Americans are constantly encouraged to look for short-term results or payoff. As a culture we have embraced pragmatism; we determine what is true by looking at short-term, positive, measurable results. But many of the results and rewards of living for Christ lie beyond our view or measure. That puts our faith in tension.

Have you given up on living by faith because you did not see immediate results and rewards?

3. Biblical faith always involves real-life responses to God and his Word. Perhaps you know of a response you personally need to make in faith. Why not commit yourself to do it now?

The area I need to respond in:

The specific thing I need to do:

A Final Word

All of us have to respond to life situations in one way or another. By our behavior, we will entrust our lives to something — a person, a concept, a truth that we hold as reality. But biblical faith always involves more than mental assent to an idea. It always involves committed action in response to what God has revealed.

In the nineteenth century, a young man destined to be the ruler of Germany sat in a chemistry class, learning about the Leidenfrost effect. If you have ever ironed a shirt, then you may know what this effect is. Perhaps you have licked your finger before touching an iron to find out if it was hot.

When you touched the hot iron, your finger didn’t get burned because of the Leidenfrost effect. The moisture flashes to steam and forms a small vapor barrier between the sensitive finger and the hot surface of the iron. Now, consider one other physical fact: lead melts at a temperature of 621 degrees Farenheit.

After teaching the whole class about the Leidenfrost effect, the chemistry teacher approached the young man destined to rule. He asked whether the young man believed in the principles of chemistry. When he said yes, the teacher asked him to go over to a bowl and soak his hands in ammonia.

Then he had the young man cup his hands together. Into his outstretched hands the teacher poured molten lead! Because the ammonia formed a vapor barrier ? the Leidenfrost effect ? his hands were not burned for the brief seconds of contact.

Believing in the Leidenfrost effect was not faith, but trusting his hands to it was!

In a similar way, God wants us to respond with living faith to the realities that he sets before us.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 13, we find that the stunning resurrection of Jesus from the dead was not only a historical fact but also provides the basis for Christians to live a new life for God.