Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 13

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Chapter 13

Not in Vain

Jesus’ resurrection promises meaning

In the lush, misty hills of Vietnam lies the A Shau Valley. In this picture postcard setting rises a hill with a harsh American name — Hamburger Hill. A name well earned.

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, American paratroopers had assaulted the North Vietnamese who were entrenched atop Hamburger Hill. For nine straight days the battle-hardened enemy beat back the American attack. Finally, on the tenth bloody day, the assault forces drove the enemy off the summit. To win that height, 430 American soldiers had given their lives, and many who stood on that summit thought of friends suddenly ripped from this world.

Within hours after the hard-won victory, orders arrived from headquarters, directing that the hill be abandoned because that specific position had become strategically worthless. Someone had decided that it wasn’t needed. The paratroopers greeted those orders with burning rage; for the first time in American military history the troops almost mutinied.

This tragic story demonstrates that each of us wants to live for something; we don’t want to live or die in vain. Whether knowing it or not, every person searches for meaning and purpose for their life.

It may strike you as a mystery that Paul connects meaning and purpose for our lives with the resurrection of Christ, but that’s exactly what he does in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul tells us that, because of Christ’s victory over sin and death at the cross, you and I can live for him in full knowledge that we do not live in vain. As we put our faith in Jesus Christ and then live for him in a way that is pleasing to God, we are making an eternal investment that we will never regret.

Such meaning and purpose in Christ will prove vital at several crucial points in our earthly lives. Research reveals that at about ages thirty, forty, and fifty, men look back over their years and take stock of their lives. An evaluation that looms even larger comes sometime after age sixty, when virtually every man evaluates his life and judges whether it has been worthwhile or wasted.

If his backward glance reveals drifting purpose and faded value, then his later years may be spent in bitterness and regret. But a life of purpose, meaning, and lasting value can give a sense of closure that allows a person to face the last years with a satisfied feeling inside. How true that should be for believers!

Jesus among the Dead

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
(Luke 23:50–54)

In Joseph of Arimathea we find a godly man, “waiting for the kingdom of God.” Surprisingly, we find that he held membership in the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council comprised chiefly of Sadducees and teachers of the law. The Sanhedrin had orchestrated Jesus’ death, so it is doubly surprising that one of its members approached Pilate to ask for his body. The explanation lies in the fact that Joseph had become a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57).

I want to concentrate for a moment on the fact that Jesus was truly dead. That may seem strange, but some have tried to deny the resurrection by claiming that Jesus was not really dead at the time.[1] But to say that, one must deny the statements of the biblical record. The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus dead; he had caused them no end of trouble.

They spared no pains in accomplishing that goal. They had stood among the crowd around the cross to confirm that their efforts had been crowned with success. You can be sure that no member of the Council went home that day before satisfying himself that Jesus was dead.

Consider the Romans as well. Once Pilate had given the death sentence, Jesus was taken by Roman troops out to the cross to be executed. The Romans had executed thousands of Jews in this manner and knew how to do the job. So the Sanhedrin watched while experts carried out their will.

The Roman centurion declined to break Christ’s legs to hasten his death, after confirming with a spear point that he had already died. When Pilate received Joseph’s request to bury Jesus, he did not grant it until he had personally asked the centurion in charge to confirm that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44–45). Only then did he give the body to Joseph. We can be sure that the body Joseph took down from the cross had no vestige of life in it.

A Short Tour of the Tomb

Try to use your imagination for a moment to picture the tomb in which Jesus was buried. Being a man of wealth, Joseph placed Jesus in his own freshly made tomb cut from rock (Matt. 27:57–60). The tomb probably had a round opening leading to an antechamber about ten feet square. In this area the mourners made final preparation of the body.

The walls around the room usually contained shelves cut from the rock; these shelves were used to hold each of the bodies placed in the tomb. In this way, whole families could be buried together, much as is our own custom.

The door of the tomb consisted of a large round stone, rolling in a stone groove to control access to the doorway. These closure stones weighed many tons and were often accompanied by a smaller stone, rolled up against one side to prevent the large stone from moving in its track.

Joseph probably put Jesus in his own tomb not only out of personal kindness, but also because he was sorely pressed for time. Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon, and very little time remained before the sun would set and the Sabbath would begin.

Because no work could be done after sunset, Joseph had to move quickly to obtain Pilate’s permission to take Christ’s body down from the cross and to place it in his tomb. In all probability, Joseph did not finish the preparations of the body that he had hoped to accomplish. That would explain what happened next.

Vigil of Sorrow

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
(Luke 23:55–56)

These loyal women had been with Jesus for a long time, and they didn’t leave his body until they had seen exactly where Joseph had put it. Some skeptics have claimed that the tomb was later empty because the women found the wrong tomb. But the women knew exactly where to look.

Besides the women, Joseph was assisted in his hasty preparation by Nicodemus (John 19:39). At least two members of the Sanhedrin had trusted in Christ and were honoring him in his death.

Jesus among the Living

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
 (Luke 24:1–3)

The word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew word that means seventh. The seventh day was Saturday. Jesus was crucified on Friday, the sixth day of the week, and the women did not return to the tomb until the first day of the following week, which was Sunday in our terminology. As God-fearing people, they did not work or journey on the Sabbath day, Saturday.

Jesus had said that he would rise on “the third day,” and he stayed in the tomb for parts of three different days. His body was placed in the tomb on Friday, the first day, and was unobserved in the tomb on Saturday, the second day. He departed from the tomb alive on Sunday, the third day.

As the women were walking on their way to the tomb, they expected that the stone would present a big problem (Mark 16:3). They didn’t know it, but God had removed an even bigger problem than that from the scene. On Saturday, the religious leaders had obtained Pilate’s permission to post an armed guard at the tomb. They remembered what Jesus had said about rising on the third day, and they wanted to prevent any theft of the body that might be used to spread such a lie (Matt. 27:62–66).

With Pilate’s permission, they posted a guard and then placed a seal, probably on the boundary surface between the large stone covering the door and the small stone beside it. The seal meant that the tomb was not to be opened without Pilate’s permission.

But God opened Christ’s tomb without his permission! While the women were still approaching the tomb, an angel of the Lord had arrived and thrown the stone aside. He also frightened the guards to the point that they first collapsed in fright and later ran away to report to the chief priests (Matt. 28:2–15).

Those guards would only have run away from mortal danger, because a Roman guard could be executed for abandoning his post. The religious leaders not only paid them to spread an erroneous story, but also promised them that they would keep Pilate from punishing them. Luke tells us only that when the women arrived, they found that the stone had been rolled away and the body of Jesus was gone. He does not mention the guards, because they had already fled.

An empty tomb in itself doesn’t mean a whole lot; that could exist for any number of reasons. The town in which you live probably has some empty tombs. The reason this empty tomb is so important is that God has revealed to us why it was empty. God spoke first through angelic messengers and later through his risen Son, appearing alive before his followers. The empty tomb means little, but the living Savior means everything.

A Forwarding Address

4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8Then they remembered his words.
(Luke 24:4–8)

After his death, fear and despair overwhelmed most of Christ’s disciples. Only a few, like the women and the two Sanhedrin members, dared to move in public. Most of Christ’s disciples hid themselves, trembling at the possibility that the authorities might arrive and haul them off at any moment. They were looking back at those last few years and thinking that it had all been in vain. They thought they had found the Messiah, but he had been taken away from them, and they were left with regret and fear.

In every description of the disciples, both male and female, we find that they were very slow to process what had really happened. Christ’s death so shattered them that they struggled to begin accepting that he had truly risen from the grave. Using the remainder of Luke’s account, let’s consider for a moment how they gradually changed from despair to confusion, to shock at his appearing, and finally to triumphant joy.

An Amazing Transformation

Two of the first disciples Jesus encountered were making a journey to Emmaus. Jesus supernaturally prevented them from grasping who he was as he probed them on the events of the previous days. Then Jesus rebuked them for being “slow to believe” all that had been told to them beforehand (Luke 24:25). The women had fled straight from the tomb to the men to tell them what had happened, but the men had responded with unbelief and scorn.

Later in the day, after Jesus had appeared to Peter and James as well as others, all the disciples had gathered and were still having a hard time believing what they had seen. That’s when Thomas made his memorable statement that he would not believe that Jesus had risen unless he could see the nail marks in his hands and put his finger there (John 20:25).

A week later Jesus appeared in their midst and called on Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). Only then did they all accept what had occurred. Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Luke ended his account of Christ’s life by describing how the disciples worshiped Jesus and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:52). In his sequel (Acts 1–8), Luke described how those who had hidden in fear of death went out with tremendous boldness to witness all over Jerusalem, and elsewhere, too. An incredible reversal took place in their attitudes and behavior because they had been with their risen Lord.

I want to present what I see as the leading reasons that the resurrection of Christ must have happened exactly the way the Scriptures tell it.

First of all, Christ’s opponents could never produce his body to refute the claims of his followers. You can imagine how quickly this popular movement would have dissipated, if they had only brought his dead body before the crowds. You can also be sure that the Sanhedrin that plotted so carefully to put him to death searched far and wide to try to produce his body.

They thought they had solved their problems when they put him to death, but he didn’t stay where they put him. The leaders could not just produce another body, because Jesus had been seen by too many people, and his appearance was quite well-known. Thousand of Jewish worshipers came to Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean world to worship at Passover, and many of them had observed Jesus firsthand.

Second, whenever you see a big effect, you should look back earlier to find a big cause. Only big causes produce big effects. Let me explain. The explosive spread of Christianity within the hostile environment of Judaism and Roman persecution is what I would call a big effect. Christianity first arose in a Jewish setting that found it absolutely abhorrent.

The Romans did not hinder Christianity much in the early days, but they did later when it became apparent that the Christians would not worship the Roman pantheon of deities. That was considered treason in the eyes of many Romans. For most of the Roman world to become Christian within two centuries after Christ’s death constitutes a big effect. Can you really get such a big effect from someone lying dead in a tomb? No, to get such a big effect requires a cause as big as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The resurrection filled Jesus’ disciples with explosive zeal because they knew that even if they lost their lives, they had not lived in vain. They had something to live and die for.

Third, Paul and James, the Lord’s brother, would never have trusted Jesus as their Messiah apart from his appearing to them after the resurrection. Only an encounter with the resurrected Lord could change Paul from a murderous persecutor of Christ’s disciples into an equally zealous proponent of Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 9). The same is true for James (see John 7:5 about the unbelief of Jesus’ brothers).

The apostles and others were willing to die for their faith because they knew that the resurrection was true. Liberal scholars have claimed that the apostles fabricated Christ’s resurrection because the church wanted to believe that it had happened. But such views run into fatal psychological difficulty when we realize that these men had to lay their lives on the line for what they were saying. People simply will not die for a lie.

If the apostles had conspired to fabricate a resurrection lie, they would have produced a more airtight story. They would not have written four Gospels that tend to stress different aspects of the event from different viewpoints. To sell a lie, it would have been far easier to invent one simple story and get everybody to spread the tale.

But the apostles didn’t worry about that. They were telling the truth. They knew their story hung together; they had been there to see it! Further, a fabricated story would never have included women as witnesses, because Jewish society did not accept their testimony about anything. Finally, a fabricated story would have contained no evidence of residual unbelief (Matt. 28:17). But God need not feel insecure just because few people don’t believe. He could afford to tell the truth and not worry about unbelief.

The Domino Effect

Even some believers hesitate to accept the resurrection because it does not fit well in a modern world that feels skepticism toward the supernatural. But the fact of the matter is that the resurrection links up with other things that Christians desperately want to believe. Paul connects the reality of eternal life with the reality of Christ’s physical resurrection (Col. 2:13). If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no such thing as eternal life. That’s a loss few Christians would be willing to accept.

Paul also links the resurrection of Christ to the power God has given us for Christian life (Rom. 8:11). Without the resurrection, sin still reigns over our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12), and we remain dead in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17).

I have given you only a few examples among many of the importance of the resurrection. These things are theologically connected to the resurrection by the writings of the New Testament. Like dominoes in a row, if the resurrection falls, then other things that Christians value dearly fall as well. Believers cannot reasonably choose to defend only those parts of the Scriptures that they find comfortable. The whole thing stands or falls together. God says it stands!

The Resurrection and You

Use the following applicational ideas to drive home the truth of the resurrection in your own life.

1. The resurrection of Christ proves that God has accepted his sacrifice for our sins. The penalty for our sins has been paid in full.

I agree that my entire guilt before God has been taken away.

2. The resurrection of Christ brings every believer a new power to live for God. The dominating power of sin has been broken. In Romans 6 and 8 we are told that believers share the same kind of power that raised Jesus from the dead. Only by our access to this power can we successfully resist the domination of our sinful nature. Peter tells us that God has “given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet. 1:3). Through the presence of his Holy Spirit, God has given us all that we need to live our lives unto him.

I agree that God has granted me power through the Holy Spirit to live for him.

Are you taking advantage of this resource that God has provided, or has your behavior remained unchanged since you trusted Christ?

3. We can respond to Christ’s resurrection with thankfulness that living for God is not a futile gesture. Managing our lives for him will have eternal significance. Perhaps you will find it appropriate to express yourself in prayer thanking God right now.

A Final Word

At the midpoint of the Civil War, a solemn journey brought Abraham Lincoln to the scene of the bloodiest battlefield, Gettysburg. Here, in a hard-fought battle, tens of thousands of Union soldiers were slain in the hills and fields near the town. Lincoln had come to dedicate a national cemetery to honor the Union dead.

He gave the very short speech that we call the Gettysburg Address. He looked back at the awesome loss of life and noted that these men had made the ultimate sacrifice that anyone could make. They had given their own lives for a cause that they believed in. But when they perished, they did not know whether or not they had died in vain.

Lincoln said that only by winning the final victory could the Union make those men’s profound sacrifice worthwhile. He challenged all present with the responsibility to win the war so that their dead companions would not have died for nothing. Two more bloody years of doubt passed before that question was finally answered.

No one who believes in Jesus Christ will ever have to face such doubt. Jesus tells us that the final victory has already been won. He settled that first by dying for our sins and then rising from the dead. As we continue our struggle, our fight in life, we can do so without ever worrying that it will prove a waste.

With Paul, I reach this conclusion: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58).

[1]A classic example of this: Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York: Bantam, 1971).

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.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 11

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 Chapter 11

Stress Test

Jesus’ trial mocks justice

Vera Menchik, the world’s first women’s chess champion, found the whole situation quite amusing. It all started when she became the first woman to play in an international chess tournament with men. Few chess tournaments either before or since have gathered such an array of stars — all men, except Vera.

But some of the men didn’t think Vera belonged at the tournament. In particular, a master named Albert Becker declared before the tournament that if anyone lost a game to her, they ought to be forced to join the Vera Menchik Fan Club.

During the competition, Vera won only one game: she defeated Albert Becker! He became the first member of the Vera Menchik Fan Club.

That story both amuses and pleases us because we have a God-given sense of justice. We feel closure when the punishment so beautifully fits the crime.

But things don’t always turn out like that. Justice is not always done. I’m sure you’ve seen at least one grade-B western in which the leader of a lynch mob glances with cold rage at an unfortunate prisoner and says, “We’re going to give this man a fair trial and then hang him.”

That raises a note of fear within us, because we realize that real justice is being thrown to the winds. Unfortunately, that perverted kind of “justice” prevailed on April 3, A.D. 33, in the trial of Jesus Christ.[1]

Twisted Justice

On the previous night, Thursday, Jesus had observed the Passover with his disciples, a time we refer to as the Last Supper. Before the celebration had run its course, Judas left the group to consummate his betrayal of Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders. After singing a psalm to conclude the Passover meal, Jesus and the others crossed over a ravine into the garden of Gethsemane. As he was arrested there, Jesus said to his captors, “This is your hour — when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53).

Through that long night, Jesus faced the mock justice of a crooked court composed of the leaders who had plotted his death and held in the home of Caiaphas the high priest.

On the way toward their certain verdict, they broke literally dozens of the Sanhedrin’s laws regarding trials. Their own laws accused them of perverting justice, but in Christ’s case they plunged ahead. At about dawn, when they had reached the appointed verdict, they took Jesus to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

Into the Pressure Cooker

In the early morning stillness, the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to the entrance of Herod’s Palace. In this imposing structure, surrounded by his own Roman troops, Pilate stood tall, ready to meet any disturbance that might arise during the Passover celebration. I find it ironic that, in such a position of power, it was Pilate who would come under enormous pressure and would ultimately crumble.

The Jews had to bring tremendous pressure on Pilate to accomplish their goal of putting Jesus to death. The Romans had wisely reserved to themselves the right to execute criminals so that civil leaders couldn’t start trouble through rash actions. The Sanhedrin also faced the double difficulty that Jesus had done nothing wrong and that they could not show any breach of Roman law.

Little survives from Roman times down to our present day, but the rigorous Roman legal system has profoundly influenced our own forms of justice. To accomplish their goal, the Sanhedrin knew that they would have to put such enormous pressures on Pilate that he would be forced to violate the legal system he had sworn to uphold.

The Jews accused Jesus of three things before Pilate (Luke 23:2–5): (1) opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, (2) stirring up the people by his teaching, and (3) claiming to be Messiah, a king. Pilate totally ignored the first two charges. He knew that Christ’s teaching had not led to any insurrection.

Knowing the Roman sensitivity to possible trouble, we can surmise that Pilate’s agents had heard what Jesus said about rendering to Caesar that which was Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21). Accordingly, Pilate realized that Jesus had not made any attempt to subvert the taxation system.

Only the charge about kingship gave Pilate any concern at all. As Caesar’s agent, Pilate had to ensure that no person set up his own authority in opposition to Roman authority. For anyone to do that would constitute high treason, punishable by the death penalty.

An Open and Shut Case

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
   Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
 38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
(John 18:33–38)

Christ’s Roman trial began quietly enough. Pilate seemed unruffled and in complete command of the situation. Jesus, in spite of the fact that his life was at stake, betrayed no hint of fear or concern about the outcome. He cogently observed that if he were the kind of king that Pilate was concerned about, then his followers would be fighting for him at that moment. Pilate hardly needed to concern himself with a kingdom that was “from another place” (John 18:36).

Pilate continued to press Jesus on the central issue of his kingship. By admitting he was a king only when directly questioned by Pilate, Jesus demonstrated that he was not flaunting his right to rule in opposition to Rome. All of the initiative on that subject had originated with Pilate.

At the end of Pilate’s remarks, Jesus skillfully took the offense by saying, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Implicitly he was asking whether Pilate was on the side of truth. But the mighty governor had come to ask questions, not to answer them, so he contemptuously swept the matter aside. The quiet phase of Christ’s Roman trial ended with Pilate’s declaring Jesus innocent of all charges. Before the whole matter ended, Pilate would pronounce Jesus innocent three different times, yet he was executed.

Because Jesus was innocent, we ought to be told that he was set free. But the fact that Pilate, who held supreme power in Palestine, did not release Christ has caused controversy for many years. Research into this period of history has provided a satisfying explanation.[2]

In his early years as governor, Pilate had treated the Jews quite brutally and had done whatever he pleased. How then could he appear as such a weak and vacillating figure, allowing an innocent man to be crucified? The answer lies in Pilate’s relationship to Roman central authority.

During all of the years of Pilate’s governorship, Tiberius ruled as Roman emperor (A.D. 14 – A.D. 37). However, Tiberius bordered on insanity and isolated himself on the island of Capri. He ruled through deputies and seldom took a direct part in the everyday affairs of the Empire. The real power behind the throne during those years was a man named Lucius Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guards, who guarded the Roman Emperor. It was he who appointed Pilate as governor in A.D. 26. Sejanus hated the Jews and undoubtedly backed Pilate’s harsh measures against them.

But in A.D. 31, Emperor Tiberius had Sejanus executed and began to take a stronger role in the affairs of the Empire. Late in that year he issued orders that the Jews should not be mistreated. And in A.D. 32 Tiberius reversed certain actions that Pilate had taken toward the Jews.

So by the time Jesus came to trial before Pilate, the prefect was skating on very thin ice with Tiberius. Because of Pilate’s tenuous political situation, the Jewish leaders knew exactly where to apply pressure on him. Table 6 in the Appendix to this chapter summarizes the historical background of the trial.

An Attempt to Wiggle Out

39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.
1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
(John 18:39–19:6)

Knowing that the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus to die, Pilate tried to maneuver around them by appealing to the Passover crowds. He first attempted to release the popular teacher, in accordance with a custom that had long been followed at Passover. But by working hard among the crowd, the leaders thwarted this attempt and prompted the crowd to call for the release of Barabbas, a common thief.

The Aramaic name Barabbas means “son of the father.” The guilty son of a human father was released, while the innocent Son of the divine Father was condemned to death. That irony highlights the miscarriage of justice that occurred on this day.

Frustrated in his first attempt to free Jesus, Pilate then tried a second strategy. He would have Jesus reduced to a bleeding, savagely beaten state and bring him back before the crowd in hope they would feel pity for their fellow countryman. To carry out this plan he had Jesus flogged with a Roman whip. How understated the Gospel account is! A Roman whip normally had pieces of glass, bone, and metal tied in the strips of leather so that every blow would tear the victim’s skin open.

In mockery of his claims to be a king, the soldiers gave Jesus a crown of thorns and then greeted him in a way similar to the way a person would greet Caesar. Matthew and Luke tell us that after issuing these greetings, they beat Christ across the head with rods.

What a sight Jesus must have been when Pilate declared him innocent the second time and then had him hauled out before the multitude. But the moment Jesus came into sight, the leaders again incited a shout that Jesus should be crucified. Pilate was becoming more desperate by the moment!

The Final Crunch

7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).
(John 19:7–13)

In the grip of a moment of emotion, the Jews finally unveiled before Pilate their real reason for wanting Christ’s death: he had claimed to be the Son of God. If Pilate had any remaining doubt about Christ’s innocence, that must have removed it, for he could now see that the charges were strictly religious in nature. He had suspected that from the start.

We know that the Romans were commonly superstitious, and Pilate had several experiences on that day that must have shaken him severely. In the midst of the questioning of Christ, Pilate’s wife had sent a message, warning him not to have anything to do with the innocent man, Jesus, because she had been warned about him in a dream (Matt. 27:19). Further, Pilate may have been rattled by the utter calm that Jesus displayed. To risk Caesar’s displeasure was bad enough, but if he offended the gods — what would become of Pilate then?

Jesus calmly responded to Pilate’s many questions and then declared that the Jewish religious leaders had the greater guilt. By implication, he was saying that Pilate, the judge, had the lesser guilt. How totally uncommon for the prisoner to declare who was guilty and how much. When Pilate began to crumble under the pressure, Jesus continued to demonstrate his calm reliance on the guiding hand of the Father.

At the height of Pilate’s desire to free Jesus, the Jews moved in on Pilate’s political weakness. They shouted, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). To be a “friend of Caesar” meant that a man was loyal to the Emperor and was part of the ruling aristocracy. In effect, the Jews were saying that for Pilate to release Jesus would demonstrate disloyalty to Tiberius. The hidden threat was that if Pilate didn’t go along with their desire to crucify Christ, they would make enough trouble to have Pilate removed from office.

John makes it clear that when Pilate “heard” those words his resistance finally broke (John 19:13). In John’s Gospel, the Greek word for “hearing” always means to hear with comprehension; the words sank in and had their intended effect. Pilate knew what the Jewish leaders were threatening.

Pilate Surrenders Jesus to the Mob

14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.
(John 19:14–16)

I find it quite significant that Pilate resisted the pressures brought on him throughout the morning and did not break until noon (“the sixth hour”). To understand the significance of that hour, we will need some background.

New Testament scholar Harold Hoehner presents evidence that the Galileans (including Jesus and his followers) observed Passover on Thursday, whereas the Judeans (and the temple officials) conducted Passover on Friday.[3] That explains how Jesus could share the Passover meal with his own disciples on one day and be slain as God’s appointed Passover sacrifice on the next day. There were two different observances of Passover on consecutive days.

The Passover celebration looked back to that time when the death angel had passed over every Jewish home marked with the blood of a lamb (see Exodus chapter 12). Any home in Egypt not marked with lamb’s blood on that night suffered death of a firstborn son. It was customary to begin slaying the Passover lambs at noon (the sixth hour) on Friday according to the custom of the Judeans. So at that very hour God’s Lamb was surrendered to the religious leaders who put him to death.

Pilate made a last weak attempt to sway the crowd, but when he failed he washed his hands before them, symbolically cleansing himself of any responsibility for what was to occur. An uproar was starting, and he had to avoid that at all costs (Matt. 27:24). Pilate had finally buckled under the stress.

Meeting Pressure Head-On

I would like to offer a few suggestions about how you can face pressures that are put upon you.

1. How easy it is for the end to justify the means. To do what is expedient rather than what is right eventually leads to disaster. Here are some critical questions to guide you when you have to make decisions under pressure:

As you consider God’s standards, would this action be right — for you, for your family, for others?

In a week or a year from now, will you feel good about your decision?

Are you simply taking the easy way out?

Are you merely forcing the answer to come out the way you want it, or are you being objective?

2. Many forces in life can put us under extreme pressure. How can we cope with it?

Pray for the Lord to strengthen you to resist pressure.

Get support and wisdom from other mature believers.

Be willing to trust God, even if obeying him leads to unjust suffering (see Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8; 1 Pet. 4:12–19).

A Final Word

Every hour of the day a military aide stays near the President of the United States. The aide carries a briefcase known as “The Football,” which carries the authentication codes that the President would give to unleash nuclear war upon the world. Imagine what it would be like to live with the stress of knowing that you might someday have to make such a decision. No wonder our presidents seem to age during their years in office.

Few Americans will ever have to worry about stress from “The Football,” but each of us will face things at various points in our lives that feel just that intense. Only by relying on the Lord, his power, and his principles for life can we hope to bear up under the strain and do what is pleasing to him. Jesus called upon those same resources during his stress test. That’s a lead we can follow with confidence.

 Appendix to Chapter 11

Table 6

Roman History and Jesus’ Trial

A.D. 26

Pilate appointed governor by Sejanus

October A.D. 31 Sejanus executed
Late A.D. 31 Emperor Tiberius’ order not to mistreat the Jews
A.D. 32 Pilate reversed by Tiberius
April A.D. 33 Jesus tried before Pilate


Coming next . . .

In Chapter 12, we realize that the death of Jesus on the cross brought a crisis of faith on everyone who saw it. He has been a test of faith ever since that day!

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 114.

[2] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 111–112.

[3] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 86–88.





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 Chapter 10

A Big Difference

Jesus commends serving others

Years ago I made a large astronomical telescope, which provided me with hours of fun. Whenever I set up my telescope in the front yard, it took about fifteen minutes to draw a crowd. When people walk up, they see a large cylinder pointed up toward the sky. Invariably, someone will go around behind the telescope, crouch down, and look up through the bottom, expecting to catch a glimpse of the heavens. It shocks them to realize that they can’t see a thing!

Anyone who grows up in America develops a general concept of how telescopes work. Through limited experience they develop the idea that you use every telescope by looking in one straight line through the optics to the target. That holds true for most telescopes, but not for mine.

The eyepiece on my telescope is on the side, near one end of the tube. To observe with me, people have to give up their time-honored ideas about how telescopes work. They must use my telescope according to its special — Newtonian reflector — design.

Sometimes the way we look at things makes a big difference indeed. I’m personally convinced that our principle of looking at things in culturally conditioned ways applies to the way we see the church and its leaders. Having grown up in America, the great majority of us have become accustomed to thinking of the church as working much like a corporation. As we will see, that is quite different from the way Jesus Christ designed his church to work.

As a direct result of adopting corporate culture, some churches don’t function as they should. Some church leaders don’t follow the role that Christ intended; they too are caught up in the cultural pattern. That makes a big difference.

One of the most critical Gospel passages on church leadership comes from Mark 10. This passage also illustrates why the authors of the Gospels sometimes put stories side by side. At first glance, many of these stories may seem unrelated, but further study will reveal a strong connection. Such is the case in Mark 10.

Mark’s account flows through three stages of thought. In the first stage the focus is on serving self, strictly catering to one’s pleasures. The second stage stresses serving other people, placing other people’s interests ahead of your own. The final stage involves serving God, putting his kingdom above all else.

A Faulty Design

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
(Mark 10:35–40)

Those events probably took place on the east side of the Jordan River while Jesus and his disciples journeyed south toward Jerusalem. It may have been during a brief rest stop that James and John made their play for power.

They began with one of the most open-ended requests in the history of the world: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35, italics added). When they got down to specifics, they were asking for the number two and number three positions in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be the second and third most powerful people in all eternity.

The other Gospels inform us that, at that point, James and John still thought Jesus would set up the millennial kingdom very soon. They believed that the trip to Jerusalem would conclude with his glorious reign. I really don’t know why they expected that, because Jesus told them repeatedly what would actually happen. He was going to Jerusalem to die. From their request, we can plainly see that his plans did not fit into theirs.

Some days before the approach by James and John, the disciples had argued vehemently among themselves (Mark 9:33–34). Jesus asked them what they had argued about, but none of them wanted to tell him. They were ashamed to admit that they had fought over who was the greatest among them.

Their self-interest had not gone away. That’s why James and John reasserted their claims. They were trying to sneak in front of the other ten by asking Jesus for those privileges first. Such tactics would have been logical, had they been serving in the court of King Herod, that master of political intrigue. That’s the way the game is played in this world’s councils of power. But James and John had totally misunderstood the design of Christ’s kingdom.

In responding to James and John, Jesus tried in several ways to point them in the opposite direction. First he warns them that they don’t know what they are asking (Mark 10:38a). And so, Christ’s question likely means, “You can’t drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, can you?” (Mark 10:38).

To drink someone’s cup means to share his fate, in this case, death on a Roman cross. To be baptized means to be overwhelmed or engulfed, in this case by God’s wrath against sin that would engulf the Son of God. But James and John demonstrated their lack of spiritual insight and the keenness of their self-interest by ignoring the rebuff Jesus had given them. They said, “We can.” They were willing to do whatever was necessary to gain supreme power!

Jesus then predicted that they would experience part of his suffering. (In A.D. 44, James was martyred by Herod Agrippa. John was ultimately banished to the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean, from which he wrote Revelation.)

Next, Jesus flatly denied the two brothers’ request by saying that those places of honor “belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mark 10:40). In my view, Jesus didn’t have anyone specific in mind; he was speaking of a certain kind of person. It would soon become obvious that James and John did not fit the description!

An Astonishing Design

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:41–45)

The two brothers’ power politics soon blew up in their faces. The other status-seekers learned what had happened and became “indignant” with the two. This word means to be angry at impropriety.

In trying to sneak in ahead of all the others, James and John hadn’t played by the rules. The other ten apostles actually wanted the same thing James and John did, but they didn’t get off the starting blocks quite as quickly. So, in the midst of his solemn journey to Jerusalem, where he was to suffer for humanity, Christ had to straighten out the twelve men in whom he had invested the most.

Jesus cut straight to the heart of their problem. They had totally misunderstood his design for the relationships among his followers. They had drawn their model for behavior from the surrounding pagan world. The rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them”; the Greek verb has the clear nuance of self-interest.

The Herods and Caesars did not rule in the interest of those being governed, but solely for their own purposes. Their kingdoms functioned for maximum personal benefit. In the Roman world the high officials “exercise authority” over others, again with the implication of self-interest and exploitation. The whole power structure of the Gentile world served the interests of the people at the top, at the expense of the people on the bottom.

We should understand that, because we live in a world just like it. Like James and John, we have all grown accustomed to it and think that such power structures are normal. Within their cultural context, the request of James and John made complete sense, but they had drawn their model for the followers of Christ from their culture.

In response to that viewpoint, Jesus uttered four of the most important words in the New Testament: “Not so with you” (Mark 10:43). With this firm and simple statement, Jesus wiped the top-down model — power exercised for self-interest — right off the blackboard. Those who follow Jesus must adopt a totally different design.

Jesus then described what it takes to be great as a follower of Christ (Mark 10:43–44). To be great involves voluntary service on behalf of others, which is the underlying meaning of the Greek noun translated “servant.” To be first in the body of Christ, as James and John wanted to be, requires even more. Such a person must be the “slave” of all. The Greek noun refers to a person who has completely subjected his own interests to the interests of another.

Instead of drawing their model from the world, the disciples should have watched Jesus, who put his own interests aside. Christ voluntarily set aside the privileges of heaven to come to our world and share our struggle. Paul tells us that Jesus condescended to come in the very form of a slave (Phil. 2:7). God was trying to teach us something by the way that his Son came into the world. His message to us was totally counter-cultural and goes against the designs that we’ve all grown so accustomed to. But among us Jesus wants a different design, and leaders are to function there in a completely different way.

A Missed Opportunity

Now I want to give you a brief exposition of what is not written in the biblical text at this point. Mark should happily have reported that James and John repented of their extreme self-interest and bad attitude. But we don’t read that, do we? They appear unaffected by what Jesus had said.

And what would you expect Jesus to have done, in light of their lack of response? We might guess that Jesus would rebuke them and tell them that he was going to make them act like servants. He had the power to make them act any way he wanted. Jesus had both the power and the right to do that, but he knew that would be a violation of the very principles he was trying to teach them. It would have violated his design for those who follow him.

The church does not function by its leaders’ forcing others to do what they are supposed to do. Jesus didn’t work that way, either. He did exactly what he wanted future Christian leaders to do: after teaching others by word, he taught them by personal example.

An Incredible Request Granted

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
(Mark 10:46–52)

After teaching his disciples in a private setting, Jesus modeled for them in a public setting. Because Jesus was near Jericho, a large crowd had gathered around him. As the crowd walked along the road with Christ, suddenly one of Israel’s many blind men cried out. Most blind men probably would have welcomed a crowd as an opportunity to receive alms, but Bartimaeus was not like the others. He had heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming (Mark 10:47).

Bartimaeus began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Think carefully; Bartimaeus was told that “Jesus of Nazareth” was coming. Nazareth is not the city of David; that distinction belongs to Bethlehem. So, Bartimaeus must have known more about Jesus than the average blind man did. He apparently understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do (“have mercy”).

Bartimaeus didn’t ask Jesus for position or power, but for something in keeping with the design and purpose of Christ’s mission. James and John had requested something in opposition to Christ’s mission, and they had been denied. Jesus didn’t come to hand out seats of power, but to show the mercy of God.

For his outcry, Bartimaeus received nothing but grief. The crowd, the disciples, and — I would be willing to guarantee you — the Twelve joined together to rebuke the man. In effect, they said: “Shut up! Keep quiet. The Great Man doesn’t have time to fool around with the likes of you. Don’t you know he’s going to Jerusalem to do something important?”

They considered it improper for a blind man to halt Jesus on his holy mission. But Bartimaeus understood the design of Christ’s life far better than the multitude or the disciples did. He simply cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:48).

At this, Jesus stopped dead in his tracks, and the whole multitude must have gradually ground to a halt. The Son of God, on his way to atone for the sins of the world, paused to meet the needs of one blind beggar. By his example, Jesus showed that he came to serve and not to be served.

Christ instructed those around him to call the blind man. Then the mood of the entire group changed, and the people began to encourage the blind man. When Jesus called him, Bartimaeus demonstrated all of the spiritual insight and faith that James and John had previously lacked. He threw his cloak aside and quickly approached Christ to make his request. In a matter of seconds, his eyesight was restored.

Consider what this man had done even before he approached Jesus. He had thrown his cloak aside! It gets cold in the Jericho valley at night, and he undoubtedly would have needed that cloak to survive. The poor often had to depend on such garments for shelter, because they couldn’t afford a house. In my opinion, Bartimaeus threw his cloak aside because he knew that in a few moments he would be able to find it with no difficulty. He believed that Jesus would grant his request.

Consider too why Bartimaeus wanted to see. He didn’t use the gift for his own interests. He immediately began to follow Jesus with his newfound eyesight. He wanted to use it to serve God and not just himself. The other Gospels tell us that he gave praise to God along the way to Jerusalem.

A Backward Glance

By placing these two incidents side-by-side, Mark made his point powerfully. The section begins with two men who were serving themselves. Jesus rebuked them and taught that anyone who wants to become great among his followers must put the interests of others ahead of his own. Jesus then modeled this principle, with the result that men praised God. Selfish interest leads to quarreling and bickering, but serving others leads to the glory of God.

James and John failed to understand the design of relationships among the followers of Jesus Christ. They lacked spiritual insight and drew their model from the world. By contrast, Bartimaeus understood what Jesus had come to do and tailored his request to fit that. As a result, Bartimaeus came away a big winner. It makes a big difference to follow the design that Jesus has revealed.

Finally, I think these incidents amply demonstrate how leaders ought to function within the body of Christ. Not only should they set aside any interest in power and status, but they should also realize that they will not accomplish Christ’s goals by commanding and controlling others. Jesus taught first by word and then by the model of his own life. He expects leaders in the body of Christ to follow the same pattern.

Greatness in the Family of God

What Jesus taught his disciples applies to everyone, not just leaders. Use the following ideas to evaluate your own life:

1. Climbing to some pinnacle of power is the sole pursuit of many in our culture. But Jesus firmly rejected power-seeking as a relational model among his followers.

Are you involved in the great power game advocated by this world? In what settings?

If so, have you brought those values modeled by James and John into the church or into your circle of Christian relationships?

2. Jesus did not say that a Christian must reject a position of great authority within the power structures set up by this world. Indeed, a Christian general in the Army or CEO in a company could have a great influence for Christ. But . . .

How would a Christian’s leadership in a secular setting be influenced by the idea of serving others rather than oneself?

In a secular setting, how might a Christian’s ambition and efforts to rise above others be affected by the values Jesus taught his disciples?

3. Above all, the church must honor the leadership design that Jesus taught his disciples.

To what extent does your church or Christian group function according to the design Jesus intended?

A Final Word

A problem once developed deep under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. This granite giant houses the North American Air Defense Command and contains huge electronic display screens that signal the onset of any foreign military threat. One morning, a screen lit up suddenly, indicating that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed for the east coast — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or some other major city might only have a few minutes to live.

Signals immediately went out to American defense forces all over the world. Our bomber forces launched their armed flights to retaliate. At about that time, the attack signal vanished from the screen. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Later, military technicians discovered that within the computer a forty-nine-cent part had malfunctioned and reported an attack when, in fact, there had been none. That tiny part nearly changed world history.

What we need, for the church to function as Christ designed it, is a small but crucial change in each of our hearts. I think it boils down to a willingness to do things his way, not ours.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 11, we learn how Jesus dealt with enormous pressure during a trial that was awash in Roman politics.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 9

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Chapter 9

Wise Nonsense

Jesus changes the unchangeable

In this chapter I’m will try to help you to feel less spiritually knowledgeable so that you can learn something. In fact, if I can help you feel as spiritually informed as a seven-year-old child, then I will have succeeded beyond my highest expectation. That probably sounds like complete nonsense, but I’m convinced that it’s wise nonsense.

You see, there’s more than one way to teach and to learn. Jesus once told his disciples, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). Jesus knew that what his disciples considered completely settled about God and about themselves was blocking them from further spiritual growth. He challenged them to become more childlike so that they might grow up in the things of God.

Like Jesus’ first disciples, we have each absorbed certain erroneous ideas and habits that we have cast in personal concrete. Such barriers of the mind must be broken down for us to make spiritual progress.

Jesus often used paradoxes to shatter personal complacency. One expert in biblical literature defines a paradox as “an apparent contradiction which, upon reflection, is seen to express a genuine truth.”

Paradoxes help us learn, because they sneak up on us from a totally fresh perspective. They force us to stop and think like few other techniques can. The title of this chapter, “Wise Nonsense,” expresses a paradox. It seems contradictory because wisdom and nonsense describe opposite ideas. On reflection, we realize that some truths sound like nonsense but actually express the very wisdom of God.

Jesus expressed such a truth when he said, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Seeming contradictions abound in his teaching. Such paradoxes give us an opportunity to go back and become a little more childlike so that we can see God’s truth like spiritual adults.

The Rich Man’s Poverty

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
(Mark 10:17–22)

With a love for vivid action, Mark’s Gospel describes a young man dashing up to Jesus, falling on his knees, and repeatedly asking him what personal deeds would lead to eternal life. The young man’s question unveiled the very heart and soul of common ideas about salvation in his time. First-century Judaism taught salvation through certain merit-producing works. We might call it salvation by the “merit system.” This rich man wanted to add eternal life to the bulging portfolio of his wealth.

The Jews considered the Mosaic Law a way of earning merit with God. The Pharisees had listed over six hundred commandments from the law and then had elaborated those even further to provide additional ways of making points. The Jews imagined a steadily accumulating account of merits that God would weigh in his balances at the end of a person’s life. In the time of Jesus, the law-abiding Jew fully expected the balance to tip in his favor.

On the other hand, they regarded Gentiles as totally without any prospect of salvation because they lacked knowledge of God’s merit system. That whole concept guided the wording of the rich man’s question: “Good teacher . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).

Jesus responded to the question in strong terms; he attacked being addressed as “good teacher” (Mark 10:17). Jesus threw the whole idea of human merit into the trash by saying, “No one is good — except God alone” (Mark 10:18). In criticizing the man’s question, Jesus began to cut away at the cultural, foundational ideas that undergirded it.

As long as men think they can attain goodness through human works, they are not ready to attain the only goodness that will ever bring eternal life. Only by renouncing their own goodness can a person obtain the gift of Christ’s goodness through faith. Jesus bluntly shot the man’s question down because it was hindering his approach to God. In effect, Jesus expressed a paradox: only by denying any merit do we gain merit.

Jesus next focused the man’s attention on the commandments of the Law. Here the man revealed the depth of his blindness. By claiming that he had kept all of the Law since he was a boy, he had missed the whole point of the Law!

A sincere Israelite who tried to keep the Law would soon realize that he could not possibly do it. His failure should lead him to throw himself upon the mercy of God. But the insidiousness of Pharisaism lay in the fact that it had diluted God’s law and made it humanly attainable. Such a heinous deception had captured this man’s mind.

In trying to reach this rich man, Jesus moved him from something hard to something even harder for him. After challenging him with the Law, Jesus then confronted him with the need to give away his wealth. Paradoxically, Jesus told the man that he had to give up all of his treasure if he wished to have treasure.

That idea also struck at the foundations of Jewish piety, which taught that charitable gifts, fasting, and prayer were the three best ways of pleasing God. The rich were thought to have heaven “in the bag” because throughout a lifetime they could dole out little token gifts from their great wealth. The Pharisees forbade anyone from giving away all of their wealth at one time because that would be throwing away salvation — or so they taught.

By asking the man to give away his wealth, Jesus was taking away the best hope for salvation that the man had, according to the thinking of his day. In essence, Jesus told the man that the only way he could get to heaven was to give away the exact thing that he thought would get him there. Give away all to gain all. What wise nonsense!

Many commentators have likely misunderstood Mark 10:21a, which says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is often said that Jesus felt some special regard for this man. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Mark was simply telling us that Jesus looked at the man and then loved him in the full, biblical sense of the word.

Biblical love does not consist of some warm and fuzzy feeling toward someone else, but rather it is an act of self-giving for the benefit of another person. Jesus loved this man by revealing to him what was blocking his way to heaven. Paradoxically, Jesus’ love brought this man shock and sorrow. In Mark 10:22 we are told that “the man’s face fell,” which means that he was both shocked and appalled by what Jesus had said.

While Jesus was trying to reach through mental barriers to save this rich man, the disciples were standing beside him, taking it all in. Their heads were swimming with confusion and their hearts were filling with despair.

Possible Impossibilities

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
(Mark 10:23–27)

Jesus’ first statement hit the disciples like a ton of bricks: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). In telling us that “the disciples were amazed,” Mark used a Greek verb that indicates they didn’t get over their astounded state quickly. Something shattering happened right in front of their eyes and yet defied belief. Jesus knew that his own disciples held the same erroneous beliefs about wealth that the rich man did!

Jesus then treated the disciples much as he did the rich man, by moving from something hard for them to accept to something even harder. Jesus had them off balance and then knocked them further off balance so that they might learn. The approach is counter-intuitive but very effective.

With a piece of exaggerated humor, Jesus took the biggest animal in Israel, the camel, and imagined it passing through the smallest opening, the eye of a needle. By implication, Jesus was saying that it is impossible for someone who trusts in riches to enter the kingdom of God.

The effect of Christ’s words was to bring his disciples to the point of despair. Mark wrote that the disciples were “even more amazed”; the Greek verb means “to be overwhelmed.” Jesus had knocked flat all their ideas about wealth. In despair, the dumbfounded disciples turned to one another and wondered how anyone could possibly be saved.

That exchange led to two more paradoxes. The first is that men must reach despair in order to find hope. The disciples had to abandon all hope in the methods of this world so that they might gain the only true hope. Jesus extended that hope to them with another paradox: with God the impossible becomes possible. Their hope did not lie in themselves but in him.

The entire sequence, including both the rich man and the disciples, expresses a profound paradox about wealth. Wealth seems to men of all ages to bring the greatest security, but that security is deceptive. By relying on wealth, they fail to seek the only security that really does exist, security in God. So, paradoxically, the greatest security brings the greatest peril.

Those who have everything stand in the greatest danger of ending life with nothing. Being overwhelmed by Christ’s words, the disciples reacted like the rich man. Yet, unlike him, they did not leave Jesus. That illustrates the vast gulf that lay between those who responded to Jesus and those who walked away from him.

After wiping away the thoughts that his disciples cherished so deeply, Jesus then began to build new ways of thinking. They must leave behind cultural patterns and ways of thought, which lead to dead ends of impossibility. They must instead trust in the Lord, with whom all things become possible.

The Last First

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
(Mark 10:28-31)

Quite understandably, Peter sought reassurance from Jesus. In reply, Jesus acknowledged that his disciples had given up both families and inheritances for his sake. As a result, they would win the grand prize. Paradoxically, they forsook all to receive even more in its place. Those who seem according to the standards of the world to have it made, those using the world’s patterns, will in fact be last in the age to come. By contrast, the disciples of Jesus, whom the religious establishment considered to be the last, will prove in the age to come to be the children of the Father, and therefore the first of all.

Paul puts it in another way in 1 Corinthians chapter 1. The world considers the cross foolishness, but the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. The very thing the world considers laughable is the thing that God will use to save those who will put their faith in his Son. Paradoxically, through death (at the cross) comes life (for all who believe).

I hope that you can see how Jesus used paradoxes to get his disciples to think new thoughts about God. He knocked them off balance and brought them to the point of despair so that they might find the only true hope.

Becoming Childlike Adults in Christ

I want to apply this passage by asking you to rethink some things in a manner similar to the way Jesus taught his first disciples. In setting aside long-established ideas, we can become more like children for a little while, and more pliable in Christ’s hands. Use the following ideas to guide you:

1. One of our greatest needs is to develop Christ’s viewpoint on life’s complex issues. As you study the Scriptures, here are two suggestions:

Meditate the most on the verses you like the least.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Such behavior would be paradoxical, and it would have a significant purpose. When God says something that you find most uncomfortable, that is probably the very time when the theological system in your head needs to be changed!

Look for situations in which Jesus behaves in a way that would feel embarrassing or very unnatural for you.

Remember how Jesus treated the unsaved rich man. He didn’t deal with him the way any contemporary Christian would. What can we learn from that? In teaching his disciples, Jesus first knocked them off balance and then knocked them totally down! How can we take advantage of this novel method in terms of teaching and learning in our own lives?

By carefully evaluating such unusual approaches, we can pick up profound insights about our own ways of doing things. Such situations certainly should lead us to wonder whether we derive our own patterns of behavior from our surrounding culture or from Jesus.

2. Things are not always what they seem to be. Wealth and accomplishment can deceive us by promising something they can’t deliver. Wealth promises security, but there is no lasting security except in the Lord.

Great or numerous accomplishments can deceive us into thinking that we are doing something of lasting value. But only those actions that serve Christ, his people, and his kingdom will truly endure and be rewarded.

Thousands of years ago, three pharaohs each erected a great pyramid outside of Cairo; each pyramid took over twenty years to build. Can you personally name a single one of these men? Can you imagine putting out such vast effort without even accomplishing lasting fame?

Where is your security based? Is it based in your bank account? Or in your good acts?

Will your busy actions stand the test of time?

3. Some of the things that the Lord calls on us to do bring us struggle, because our life experiences cry out, “That won’t work!” But the very essence of living by faith is doing things his way even when we can’t see what the consequences will be. The rich man considered Christ’s ideas nonsense. By contrast, the disciples were willing to follow him even when the road led them to despair.

4. What are your two greatest strengths, personally or spiritually? I want you to think of something concrete about yourself and even to write it down.

Are you reliable, loving, or intelligent? What do people value about you? Are you giving, articulate, honest or kind?

When I filled in those blanks, I put down knowledge first. A great deal of my life has focused on accumulating and teaching knowledge. But, you know there is something paradoxical about knowledge, because Jesus couldn’t teach some of the scribes anything. They already considered themselves so smart that they didn’t think there was anything that an untutored teacher from Galilee could tell them.

Here is the point: have you considered the seemingly absurd possibility that your greatest strengths may be your areas of greatest weakness in your walk with Christ?

What you do best may need some rethinking and readjustment. The purpose of that is not to do away with your strengths, but to keep them from becoming weaknesses.

As believers we need to be willing to open every door of our lives, including those areas that we consider totally settled. We need to re-evaluate even our greatest strengths so that Jesus can make us ever more effective for him.

A Final Word

As strange as it may sound, I hope I have helped you feel less certain about your beliefs, about yourself, and about how to live for Christ. If you feel a little more like a child, a little off balance, then this chapter has met its goal.

I always loved downhill skiing. I found it exhilarating to ski up to a steep place and look down. The thing that’s tough about it is that the way to ski a steep run is to lean downhill and begin to pick up speed. That doesn’t sound right, does it!

To go that fast is scary and seems like the last thing you would want to do. But — paradoxically — up to a certain point, the faster your skis go, the more control they can give you. And so, what feels like the worst thing you can do is actually the thing that can bring you the most stability and control.

So, if you feel a little off balance by what has been said, don’t fight it. Take your uncertainty and your new concerns right where a child should go — to the Father. Study his Word. Pray for renewed wisdom. What you will find is that Jesus will take your weakened convictions and rebuild them, just as he did for his first disciples.

Coming next . . .

In Chapter 10, Jesus must pause in his daunting journey to Jerusalem and correct disciples who are scrambling for personal power in a manner more suited to Herod’s palace than to their Lord’s trek to the cross.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 8

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 Chapter 8

What’s in it for me?

Jesus models loving others

In the dark and dreary years of the Great Depression, Kitty McCulloch was known as a generous person. As hunger stalked the land, Kitty and her husband often didn’t know for sure about their next week’s food, yet a steady stream of hungry men found their back door to ask for a hot meal. And Kitty always gave it to them.

An especially ragged man came near Christmastime one year. Kitty, feeling great pity for him, gave the man one of her husband’s few suits. Though she didn’t know it for many years, her house had been marked as a message to other needy people that here was a person who cared.

We could define biblical love as a spontaneous desire moving a person to self-giving for the benefit of another. Kitty McCulloch exemplified that kind of love by meeting the needs of others, even when her own resources looked terribly thin.

Jesus Christ modeled such love more than anyone else. He took great personal risks to teach and demonstrate real caring for others. That sets him in stark contrast to the message our modern world gives to each of us. Culturally, we are all trained to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Jesus faced the very same attitude when he encountered the religious leaders of Israel. On one particular occasion, he confronted them with the ugly truth about their selfish way of living.

Caring About Others

1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” 6 And they had nothing to say.
(Luke 14:1–6)

As Jesus traveled south through Perea on his way to Jerusalem, he was invited to dine with a leading Pharisee, probably a member of the Sanhedrin. This banquet took place on the Sabbath, the trickiest day of the week. If God had made the Sabbath holy, the Pharisees had made it burdensome with the dense web of legislation they had created to control Sabbath behavior.

Pharisaic theology called on people to care for others, but their contemporaries considered them uncaring to a fault. They generally turned a blind eye toward the poor, the maimed, and the needy among their people.

One story from rabbinic literature should illustrate the issue quite well. A Pharisee once encountered a woman drowning in a pond. She died while he looked on without making any effort to help. He feared that if he touched her, then he might become ceremonially unclean.

You never can tell about a drowning woman. She might be having her monthly menstrual cycle, thus rendering anyone who touched her ceremonially unclean. That might affect the Pharisee’s income for a few days while he remedied his defilement. So, to avoid such terrible inconvenience, he simply let her drown. (I’m writing with sarcasm!)

We know that Jesus had a hostile audience because of the language used by Luke. He says that Jesus was being “carefully watched” (Luke 14:1), and this translates a verb that means to lie in wait to ambush someone. Beneath the external hospitality of this man lay the treacherous hook of a trap.

The Pharisees earnestly hoped that Jesus would make a big enough mistake so that he could be eliminated once and for all. The Pharisees and scribes had the callousness to use a human being to bait the hook. How else can we account for the fact that a man with a debilitating disease would show up for Sabbath lunch with a member of the Sanhedrin? He was planted there! The scribes and Pharisees were counting on Jesus’ feeling compassion toward this man in spite of the dangerous context.

The Law of Moses permitted miracles to be worked on the Sabbath. However, the super-religious crowd felt that such miracles smacked of working on the Sabbath day, which they abhorred — unless it served their own interests! These men had no concern for this sick individual; he was simply there as a tool to finesse a miracle out of Jesus. Sitting among the guests were scribes who knew every nook and cranny of the Law of Moses as well as the man-made rules that had been added.

Before working the expected miracle, Jesus asked the assembled theologians for a theological opinion about helping others: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3). Perhaps fearing the Lord’s well-known abilities, these leaders kept silent.

Jesus then healed the sick man in spite of the grave personal risk he was taking in doing so. He knew they would slander him as someone who had profaned the Sabbath. But such considerations never stopped Jesus; he cared for people even when there was a cost involved.

After sending the healed man away, Jesus confronted the religious leaders with the inconsistency between their own behavior and their super-strict Sabbath rules. Those men could not deny his charge that any one of them would do whatever work was necessary to save his son or his ox on the Sabbath day (Luke 14:5–6).

The Pharisees would gladly do the very thing they were condemning Jesus for, if their own interests would be served by such action. A Pharisee would not necessarily save his own son out of love. Their culture had no such thing as Social Security, and a man’s sons could be depended upon to support him in his elder years.

I think a better translation of Luke 14:6 would be, “they could make no reply to this.” Jesus had them, and they knew it. The hunted one had unexpectedly become the hunter!

The Basis for Caring

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 14:7–11)

To understand this parable, notice first that the moral is expressed in Luke 14:11: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole parable drives toward this truth.

Second, observe that the word “but” at the beginning of Luke 14:10 divides the parable into two contrasting halves. Jesus firmly rejected self-exalting behavior in the first half, while he affirmed humility in the second half.

Jesus based the parable on his own observations of guests taking their places at the table. The Jewish culture used a very strict pecking order to determine seating assignments at such banquets. Even in the ranks of the Pharisees some had taken stricter vows than others, and so earned the right to a seat of higher honor. To give a banquet like that, with a large number of guests arriving at slightly different times, could involve a tremendous amount of shuffling around.

Jesus poked fun at this self-serving game of musical chairs. The whole system was driven by a desire to say to others, “See how important I am!” Jesus pointedly reminded them that such self-interested behavior could ultimately result in humiliation if a more important guest arrived. In fact, the important people in that society usually did come late so that they could be widely noticed.

In the second half of the parable, Jesus threw social custom to the wind by urging the guests to take the lowest seat upon their arrival. In taking the usual approach, the guest assigns himself the honor, while the method Jesus described would involve the host giving the guest an honor. With his story Jesus said that if you deserve exaltation, let it come from others and not from yourself (applying Prov. 27:2).

Jesus capped off the parable with the principle, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.” By whom? God. Jesus customarily used the passive voice to express God’s actions, as that was considered preferable to the frequent mention of his name. God is also the one who will humble the person who exalts himself.

Unfortunately, you seldom meet a Christian who aspires to be “humble.” This word conjures up an image of a person who is so self-effacing that they will hardly even look you in the eye. They feel bad about themselves and are so shy that they will never talk to anybody.

But that picture bears no resemblance at all to the biblical meaning of humility. Jesus was a humble person, in the biblical sense of the word, yet he never acted in any of those ways. Humility is not denying our own value, but involves granting value to others.

Giving to Others

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Luke 14:12–14)

A high official like the Sanhedrin leader would have held banquets quite regularly, and invariably such a person would have invited members of his own social class. Strong taboos held the social classes apart from one another.

In my opinion, Jesus was not telling the Pharisees — and by application, he is not telling us — that they had to invite someone who was poor, crippled, lame, or blind every time they held a dinner.

His real point was that they never showed any concern for such people because of their uncaring attitude. Jesus simply used the example of a banquet because he was sitting at one. It served to illustrate the broader problem.

It is amusing that Jesus mentioned “rich neighbors” (Luke 14:12), because that captured the Pharisaic mentality. A Pharisee might well have both rich and poor neighbors, but only the rich neighbor was invited to banquets. Only a rich neighbor could pay the Pharisee back by responding in kind.

In this subtle way Jesus pointed out the inability of the Pharisees to give to others of a lower station than themselves. He was asserting that their whole life revolved around what would ultimately flow back to them in the way of honor, repayment, or social status. Like some members of our own society, the Pharisees were constantly calculating: “What’s in it for me?”

In the place of their intense self-concern, Jesus exhorted the Pharisees and scribes to meet the needs of others, even if they had to wait until the resurrection of the righteous to receive their repayment. To act that way requires a very farsighted view of life. It won’t pay off in the short run. Instead, you have to trust God to reward behavior that pleases him.

Caring About Ourselves

I am not saying that it is wrong to care about yourself. That would simply solve one problem by creating another one!

Caring about ourselves is fundamental to spiritual, emotional, and physical health. What the Pharisees did not have, and what Jesus was seeking to give them, was a healthy allocation of concern for others in addition to their concern for themselves.

Unfortunately, Christians sometimes overreact to the presence of sin. They see self-concern as simply another manifestation of their sin. Yet each of us is made in the image of God and we should value ourselves accordingly! It is not more spiritual to put a low value on what God values highly.

Increasing Our Concern for Others

Use the following applicational ideas to apply the truth that Jesus taught.

1. In our hurried world, the clock seems to work against us as we try to care for others. The urgent can become the enemy of the important. How do you see yourself, in terms of caring for others?

Hiding from them

Overcommitted to them

Involved with them to a reasonable degree

It’s too easy to hide from people’s needs by simply avoiding venues in which we know that their needs will be revealed. Such behavior can betray that we would rather not know about the needs of other people. On the other hand, if we overcommit to meeting the needs of others, then we may be overlooking other priorities that God has given to each one of us.

2. Jesus made it quite clear that we should have a healthy concern for the value and needs of others.

How do you cope with social status and the needs of others in your own life?

Do you find yourself quite conscious of someone else’s social class, income, education, and so on?

A friend of mine told me a disturbing story about a prestigious Christian school. After many years of working there, a man was promoted to a higher level, but he still had friends among his former associates after the promotion. He was soon informed that he could not socialize with those (lower) people anymore! They didn’t share his status, so they couldn’t share his presence, either! Jesus spoke directly against that kind of thinking.

Do you find it difficult to roll up your sleeves and go to work in some thankless but vital job?

Every church has vital jobs that go begging because Christians aspire to something “higher.” Certainly all of us enjoy recognition, but Jesus said we should be willing to forego immediate rewards and recognition and to wait, if necessary, to be rewarded in eternity. After gaining some experience in the ministry, I started looking for people who willingly take such thankless jobs simply because they love Christ. Those are the people I would recommend for positions of leadership.

3. One estimate of our concern for others is whether we can give to them (time, money, a listening ear) without any thought of receiving any return.

When was the last time you gave something to someone who could never repay you?

When was the last time you gave a gift without concern for what had been or would be given to you by the other person?

4. Remember that the person who most needs your caring, serving, and giving may live within your own home. Or they may live next door.

A Final Word

Edith Evans found someone nearby to serve. She was cruising across the Atlantic, bound for New York from Liverpool on one of the most famous ships of history, the Titanic.

Before the Titanic sailed, one of the stewards had told a passenger that not even God could sink the ship, a view which most people aboard had believed as well.

But an iceberg struck the Titanic and ripped away part of the ship’s bottom. The ship began to sink quickly by the bow while the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats. However, over sixteen hundred people had no lifeboat, because the unsinkable ship had set sail without its full number of lifeboats!

Edith Evans and Mrs. John M. Brown showed up at the railing just as the last boat was about to be lowered from the sinking ship. Apart from that boat there was no hope; the dark freezing waters below would kill a person in minutes.

Only one seat remained when the two women got to the rail, and the boat was to be lowered as soon as it was filled. Edith turned to Mrs. Brown and said: “You go first. You have children at home.” Edith quickly pushed her over the rail and into the boat just as the deck officer shouted, “Lower away!”

Edith Evans gave up what I would call the seat of honor — the last seat. She had put the young mother’s needs ahead of her own.

Jesus was certainly like that. He gave his life for our sins, not because we deserved it or because we could ever repay him, but because he loved us that much. Those who follow him have a lot to live up to.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 9, Jesus deals with an issue that plagues every disciple: what is already settled in the disciples’ minds can stand in the way of what Jesus wants them to learn. How does he get past that barrier?


Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 7

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Chapter 7

Conflicting Signals

Jesus pleases the Father

Anthony Turner had a decision to make, and he knew it was a whopper. He was engaged to a woman who expected him to take a job with a steady, dependable income to allow them a normal life. He even had a job offer that matched what he needed.

But Anthony had dreams of his own that would take him along a more risky path: he wanted to fulfill a long-standing desire to write a book. However, that path didn’t offer the financial security that his prospective wife felt was so necessary. Anthony was being pulled very strongly in two opposite directions.

Finally, Anthony made his choice. He declined the job and wrote the book. But, in making his choice he paid a price; his engagement was broken.

This story illustrates the kind of choices we commonly face. We live in a world that tugs and pulls us in many conflicting directions. As a result, we wind up saying yes to one thing and no to something else. Sometimes saying no can be tough because it involves rejecting something very good to do something better still. And that’s hard.

In the midst of conflicting interests we must choose who we are going to please. An old proverb says, “You can’t please everyone.” So, who are you going to please? How can you make such choices in a world of conflicting interests and demands?

I don’t have any easy answers for living in such a complex world, but Jesus models an approach that will help us to sort out our choices.

Jesus Models a Strategy

To illustrate how Jesus handled this problem I have taken incidents from three different Gospels. In each case Jesus faced a group of people who wanted something from him. In the first story Jesus was pressured by his own brothers, who were trying to influence him in an unfair and coercive way.

The second story involves a large group of needy people who wanted Jesus to meet their needs. They also behaved in a demanding way.

In the final story, Jesus interacted with his disciples. Like others, they wanted to take his life in a direction different from the one the Father had given to him.

You see, Jesus had to face pressures and expectations just as you and I do. He was being pulled in many directions, and people were trying to make him into different things. Jesus cut through all these pressures and expectations in a remarkable way!

The key to Christ’s approach was to set his own life agenda by living to please the Father. That gave him a very clear idea of what he should say no to and what he should say yes to. In other words, Jesus set his own priorities without regard for pressures from his disciples, his family or a needy multitude.

Family Tug of War

1 After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. 2 But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
6 Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do.
7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. 8 You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee.
(John 7:1–9)

It turns out that Jesus was dealing with opponents here. I feel sad about that, because they were his own brothers. But how real that is! Some of the strongest pressures any of us face come from our own families. Our parents, spouses, children, brothers, and sisters wield enormous influence over all that we do. Family life frequently involves subtle tactics by one person to bring about action in the life of another. That’s exactly what Jesus’ manipulative brothers tried on him.

From John 7:1, we gather that the death plots against Jesus were common knowledge. Nevertheless, his brothers tried to set his priorities and dictate his actions to send him into this danger when they said, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea.” The translators properly supply the italicized words to capture the ploy Jesus’ brothers were using on him.

They implied that he was not living as he should. (Pause for a moment here, and reflect on how many people have tried to tell you what you ought to do or should do).

In their next attempt, the brothers — wrongly — suggested that Jesus was seeking fame. By acting in secret, they said, he was foolishly squandering an opportunity to gain a following at the feast.

I cannot personally accept the translation given by the NIV (2011) in the latter half of John 7:4, because John himself informed us that Christ’s brothers did not believe in him. The brothers actually said to Jesus, “If indeed you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4b).

The brothers crassly dared Jesus to work his miracles where all could see. Just imagine, this was an opportunity for Jesus to witness to his own brothers. What an awesome tug that would be!

One option Jesus had was to consent to their wishes to maintain good relations with them. Or, he could have worked a miracle in their presence to bring them around.

But Jesus didn’t pursue peace at any price. He didn’t put pleasing people at the top of his priority list. Instead, he said, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right” (John 7:6). Jesus easily freed himself from the expectations and pressures of his own family by a simple means; he made his own choices, guided by his mission from the Father.

One lesson that emerges from this incident is that Jesus did not allow others — not even his own family — to set the agenda for his life. By application, this means that the Lord does not expect us to lead our lives to please other people. In fact, by following Jesus we may even suffer rejection from others.

Jesus also modeled firmness in resisting manipulation. He did not automatically respond to the “oughts” and “shoulds” placed upon him by others. Nor did he react to their scornful dares. Jesus showed us that living as a servant calls for courage and strength. Being a good Christian does not mean that we must comply with the wishes of others.

The Pressure of People’s Needs

42 At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. 43 But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” 44 And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
(Luke 4:42–44)

This second example took place near Capernaum, a city on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had moved there after being rejected by the people of Nazareth. When he arrived, he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a serious fever. News of this miracle traveled quickly through the city, and before long the whole town had gathered (Mark 1:32–34). Jesus stayed up late into the night, meeting people’s needs.

We join Luke’s story on the following morning, well before dawn, when Jesus had gone out alone into the countryside to pray. Jesus was acting according to a spiritual priority, that of prayer to his Father. Prayer was more important to him than what other people wanted.

Although Jesus had met many needs among people in the city of Capernaum on the previous night, many more needs undoubtedly remained. The people from the city searched diligently for him and actually tried to restrain Christ from leaving. They physically tried to hinder his departure. They didn’t want to let go of this miracle worker who had done such great things for their town.

They must have thought that if Capernaum could have a man like Jesus around for a few years, just think how good it would be for the community. Jesus would have become a civic treasure that they could have shown off to enhance their profit and influence.

Jesus realized that their motivation was not a response to God’s claims upon them, but a desire to experience more miracles. Would it have been evil for Jesus to stay in Capernaum to work more miracles? Would it have been wrong for him to continue preaching the gospel there? No! That would have been a very good thing, but sometimes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Those people had legitimate needs, in spite of their poor motivation. But Jesus didn’t respond automatically every time he encountered a human need; he had to decide whether to meet such needs or not.

Jesus weighed their needs against what his Father had sent him to do. And for him to stay and become the great miracle worker of Capernaum would have been inconsistent with what the Father had intended.

Jesus didn’t come to be the great doctor of Galilee or the favorite son of Capernaum. He came to be the Savior of the world. Because Jesus had a clear idea of his own priorities, he was able to say yes to some things. To other things, even to good things, he said no!

Jesus told the crowd that he “must” leave them to preach elsewhere (Luke 4:43), in keeping with his mission. Undoubtedly that announcement led to disappointment, frustration, and anger on the part of those who so desperately wanted him to stay. Even to us it may seem that Christ didn’t take advantage of a great evangelistic opportunity here. He had a crowd that was ready to eat out of his hand, and yet he moved on.

It’s jolting to see how differently Jesus operated than we do. He turned his back on the needy people of Capernaum and went on to accomplish his mission without regret or apology.

We, too, will encounter demanding people in the course of our lives. Some of them will be believers and may need us to be involved in good and godly causes. Others will be unbelievers who desperately need to know the Lord Jesus Christ. But just because these people have needs doesn’t necessarily mean that we are the ones to meet them.

I realize that we could use such thinking to avoid some legitimate responsibilities before God. But it concerns me that Christians can easily let the pressing needs of people set the whole agenda of their lives instead of making their choices in order to please the Lord.

Shattered Expectations

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
(Mark 1:35–39)

Mark here described exactly the same incident that we previously looked at in the Gospel of Luke. But Mark’s perspective is different. Luke focused his attention on the interaction between Jesus and the seeking multitudes. Mark concentrated attention on the relationship between Jesus and the disciples during the same set of events.

We would probably assume that Christ’s disciples would have responded in a more mature and understanding manner toward him in this situation. We naturally have a higher level of expectations about the disciples. So much the worse for our expectations!

As Simon and the others looked for Jesus, they searched with a special kind of intensity, as expressed by the Greek verb (Mark 1:36). The verb is also used of hunting for an animal or hunting for a fugitive from justice. They seemed driven by a special intensity to find him, and we soon discover the source of that intensity.

They said, “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). This statement has an air of rebuke and displeasure in it. It is as if the disciples were saying, “Jesus, what are you doing out here? Capernaum is where you’re needed. And the people are getting upset with us, because we don’t know where you are. You’re not where we expected you to be.”

So, Jesus had to deal with the expectations of his disciples, especially Simon, because Capernaum was his hometown. The disciples wanted Jesus to go right back into town and do his thing. Even as their Lord and leader, Jesus must have cared about what his disciples thought of him, and with the multitudes also nearby searching, they wanted him to go back and meet those needs.

But in his remarkable way, Jesus did not bend to the expectations of his disciples. He didn’t say yes based on what people expected out of him. As the multitudes sought him and the disciples exhorted him, he said: “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38). The reason we find this startling is because our expectations tend to be like those of the disciples. But Jesus made his own decisions based on his own priorities from the Father.

A Summary of the Main Point

Jesus did not necessarily respond to people’s expectations, even those coming from people who were very important to him, In the three passages we have examined, people tried to use manipulation, demands, needs, and expectations to compel our Lord to take certain actions. He simply didn’t let that happen!

In the face of many attempts by others to impress their wills upon him, Jesus maintained autonomy — the freedom to make his own choices before God. His example sets me free, because I have led much of my life giving in to the manipulations, demands, needs, and expectations of others.

I acted that way for many reasons, and partly because I thought it was the moral, or right, way to behave. But Jesus’ example forces me to reexamine the whole question and to see that, if I am to be a responsible person before God, I must sometimes say no to others.

The Compassionate Christ

40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees,  “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” 41 Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
(Mark 1:40–42, NIV 1984)[1]

As Jesus walked away from the demanding multitude, he encountered a man with leprosy, who begged him for mercy. I am confident that Mark included this story to show that Jesus didn’t make his choices in an uncaring way. He deeply cared about the pain of this man, as he did about the pain of others. He met his need and cleansed him of leprosy.

Jesus lived compassionately, but he was not about to be diverted from his primary mission in order to become something else. He came primarily to be the Savior not the healer.

No wonder our Lord’s sensitive heart was filled with compassion. Leprosy savagely attacks the body and often leads to the ugly loss of fingers, toes, and other body parts. Perhaps worse than that, lepers in Israel had to walk around shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” Imagine how you would have felt calling attention to your own ravaged body in that way.

But our caring Savior had a cry of his own: “Be clean!” Even beyond that, Jesus touched the man — something no Pharisee would ever do. Jesus touched the untouchable because that’s the kind of person he was.

In summary Mark presents this careful balance: Jesus cared deeply about people’s needs, but his life was not ruled by them.

Finding Your Own Way through the Maze

Our lives confront us with a bewildering array of tactics, demands, needs, and expectations. Use the following application concepts to try to clarify your own life in these areas.

1. Here are several questions to help you define the main sources of pressure, expectations, and demands in your life.

Who primarily influences your life agenda (i.e., how you spend your time and what you’re trying to do)? Is it your parents, your boss, your mate? Who really dictates how your life is lived?

Whoever you name may be robbing you of your responsibility before God to make choices about your own life.

Who in your life places significant expectations on you? Jesus’ disciples certainly had expectations for him. They wanted him to go back down to Capernaum to heal more people. Are there people in your life who are like that? It’s not evil for them to have such expectations, but should you meet them? Should you affirm them, or say no?

Whose rejection, criticism, or disapproval most influences your choices and behavior?

Do you think Jesus wanted to be rejected by his brothers? Of course not! Do you think he wanted to fail to meet the expectations of his disciples? He knew that would cause some friction.

There are people whose rejection wouldn’t phase me at all. And yet certain other people’s disapproval can devastate me. My life can get wrapped up in trying to please the latter group of people. In fact, I can get so wrapped up in pleasing them that I even lose sight of pleasing God. Is it the same for you?

Who in your life tends to use guilt, withdrawal of love, or threats to get certain responses from you?

Some people directly or indirectly say to us, “If you really love me, you will do [something].” That falls in the same category as the kind of thing Jesus’ brothers were attempting to pull on him.

2. You determine who you are by what you affirm and what you refuse. Saying yes and no are two of the most important tools you have in living your life for Christ. Many of us have good intentions, but what we actually do with our lives reveals more about who we really are.

If saying yes and no are so important, then a deep problem exists: very few people know how to say no.

If Jesus Christ restructured your life today, where would he say yes, and where would he say no?

3. To say yes and no effectively, we need guidance from God more than anything else. Our family, our friends, and our culture can play constructive parts in setting our course, but they cannot replace wisdom from God. I mean that we need to have the principles of God’s Word at our disposal to guide the choices that we make as we live our lives for Christ. God’s will stands revealed in his Word. To help you gain this wisdom, I would encourage you to set three goals:

(1) To spend time reading God’s Word

(2) To spend time in prayer

(3) To spend time in solitude thinking about what God wants in your life

I know these goals are very basic. But if we don’t keep them, our lives may become a reflex movement, lurching this way and that in response to an agenda set by others.

A Final Word

Jesus doesn’t ask us to seek popularity or to please everyone. He certainly didn’t. And he doesn’t promise that our lives will ever be free of conflicting demands. He faced them constantly, and so will we. But Jesus does call on us to follow him in learning to make hard choices.

If we follow that path, then at times we will have to say no to others. That’s hard. But in freeing ourselves from the treacherous net of other people’s demands and expectations, we free ourselves to live for God in the most effective way possible. Jesus modeled exactly that style of life.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 8, we see Jesus on the long road south toward Jerusalem where he has an appointment with a cross. As Jesus walks toward his own self-sacrifice, what values will he model to the disciples?

[1] In Mark 1:41, I prefer NIV 1984 to NIV 2011.