Nearing the Cross - Questioned
by Pastor Mike Fortune
April 3, 2010
Introduction Video: The Wonder of the Cross
- Grace isn't cheap because it cost Jesus His life [John 18:28-32; John 12:32-33]
- Grace is costly because it compels us to obey [John 18:33-37; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15]
- Jesus offers us new starts [John 18:38-40; Acts 2:37-38]
Today, as our video clip reveals, we live in a time when we have lost the wonder of the cross. It reminded me of an article I read years ago in Christianity Today (“Trivializing the Cross” by Wendy Murray Zoba in Christianity Today June 19, 1995 page 17). The author was discussing a recent caricature published on the cover of a magazine that ran during Easter week. The picture was of a rabbit dressed up in a business suit crucified on the top of a tax form. You can guess the article was addressing the woes of taxes, but that is not important. The important element was obvious in the distasteful trivialization of the cross and was not only illustrated by a crucified business bunny on the cover but also in the following story found in the same article. A customer walked into a jewelry store to buy a necklace. The clerk asked if she could help. The customer pointed inside the display case to a necklace she wanted and the clerk reached inside to pick it up. Without the slightest sense of embarrassment the clerk asked, “Would you like the plain gold cross or the one with the little man on it?”
What she failed to add is that the little man was naked on it. Today we have the decency to cover Jesus on the cross, but the Romans didn’t. This additional element of shame and exposure before family and friends in all kinds of weather added to the torture of being nailed or tied to the very cross you carried to the public place of execution. I’ve got a picture of the place some folks think is the place where Jesus died. The bottom of this quarry on the northern side of Jerusalem is a bus stop today. But hundreds of years before Christ, King Solomon had his workmen dig out the limestone required for the construction of the temple from this quarry. Because it sort of looks like a skull, with the holes hewn out of the rock, some identify it as Golgotha.
Older more reliable traditions place the site where Jesus died west of the city where today the Church of the Holy Seplechure sits. Regardless of where he died, the point is more and more Americans fail to recognize that he did. And according to The Barna Group; while most Americans describe Easter as a religious holiday, less than half of U.S. adults [42%] link it specifically to the resurrection of Jesus. So even though more people think about the cross and resurrection of Jesus at this time of year than any other, increasing numbers of young people do not recognize the little man on the cross and also have difficulty explaining what Easter has to do with the Resurrection of Jesus. As we continue our study of the book of John, I hope we can reverse those trends, recapture the wonder of the cross, and the accept the new start Jesus’ death offers each of us to live.
John 18:28-40 says, “28Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" 30"If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." 31Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. 32This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. 33Pilate 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. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" 36Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." 37"You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." 38"What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. 39But 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'?" 40They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!" Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.”
Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. Since Josephus says Caiphas was appointed high priest by the Romans about 18 or 19AD and continued in his office until about 36AD [Antiquities xviii.2.2], we know he was the high priest throughout the ministry of Jesus. It was he who united the Pharisees along with his fellow Sadducees according to John 11:47 in their plot to kill Jesus and it was he who later jailed Peter and John for preaching about Jesus in Acts 4:6. John 18:15 adds that Caiaphas was also the one who advised the Jews it would be good if one died for the people. But apparently, Pilate disagreed. At least initially.
Because the beginning of our passage today explains how the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor Pilate. Pilate was the fifth in the series of procurators or governors of Judea. Though his official residence was in Caesarea, where in 1962 a block of limestone with his name on it dating to 26-37AD was discovered in the Roman theater I had the opportunity to walk through a couple months ago, during times of great Jewish festivals, when there were thousands of additional pilgrims in Jerusalem, it was the practice of the governor to move temporarily to Jerusalem in order to guard against disorder of any kind.
After illegal trials before Annas and Caiphas, where they tried to extort a confession from Jesus in the darkness without witnesses, John 18:28 says that now it was early in the morning—probably around 6am. We know this is true because in Mark 13:35, the same term is used for the fourth watch of the night from 3 to 6am.So they wake Pilate up really early in the morning sometime before 6am and verse 29 says he comes out to them since they wouldn’t go in to see him. Isn’t it interesting what we care about? Obviously unconcerned about conducting a legal, proper trial, they were very concerned not to appear unorthodox before Pilate. And doesn’t that happen today? Tons of people eat meat, but at church they pretend they’re vegetarians. Tons of people go to movies and watch way too much tv, but at church they pretend they’ve never heard of either one. Why can’t we just be ourselves? If God loves us just the way we are, why don’t we?
That’s not point number one. That’s just an extra thought along the way. So Pilate walks out to meet them in his jammies. Just joking. The Bible doesn’t say what he was wearing. But it does say it was pretty early in the morning and his first grumpy question in this passage all about questions is found in verse 29: “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
And if you notice, in John’s account, they don’t have any. They just snarl, “If he weren’t a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Since they had no formal charge they could back up with witnesses, they hoped Pilate would simply accept the verdict of the Sanhedrin and sentence Jesus without a formal inquiry into the charge. Apparently, Pilate was the kind of ruler who routinely did that sort of thing. Or they wouldn’t have assumed, quiet arrogantly in verse 30, that he would. But it hadn’t been a full week since Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead and it had been but a few days since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that Pilate surely would have heard about. And now this very same Jesus who the multitudes previously adored is at his door at six in the morning. There is no way even a dumb ruler would treat this case like every other. So Pilate attempts to actually do his job well for a change and insists that a formal charge be brought against Jesus and that if none could be raised, this wasn’t his problem since the Sanhedrin can judge according Jesus to their laws.
But the crowds, once again concerned about appearing orthodox and law abiding, reply that they have no right to execute anyone. And for once, they told the truth. The right to execute capital punishment was taken away from Jewish courts about the time Judea became a province around 6AD. In other matters, the Sanhedrin had full jurisdiction. But in matters relating to capital punishment, they could pass sentence, but ratification was required by the governor. Though this too wasn’t always followed either. Proof of this can be found in Acts 7 when they stoned Stephen and in Acts 12:2 when Herod arrested James the brother of John and put him to death with the sword.
But Jesus had predicted that he would die via crucifixion. That’s what he meant in John 12:32-33. “‘32But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ 33He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” And that’s why John 18:32 says, “32This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.”
Which leads us to point number one. Grace isn't cheap because it cost Jesus His life. I didn’t come up with that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned those words on page 45 of his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. But they’re as appropriate today as they were when he wrote them because Christians today are occasionally accused of believing in cheap grace. A grace without the cross, without discipleship, without obeying Jesus. But rightly understood, grace cannot be anything but costly and compelling because point number one, it cost Jesus his life, and because throughout his life, Jesus asked us, some would even say, compelled his professed followers to obey. And this is point number two also found in The Cost of Discipleship: Grace is costly because it compels us to obey. Which you can see illustrated in John 18:33-37.
Pilate goes back inside and the questions begin again. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answer the question with a question. “Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” Jesus is giving Pilate the opportunity to confess his own opinion about him, not to conclude what Capiphas and the crowd has falsely accused him of. This moment must have seemed like an eternity to Pilate especially since Matthew 27:19 says “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
So aside from common sense and his own conscience, Pilate also had his wife’s! And undoubtedly all of it was pleading with him to choose not to sentence Jesus to death because he was innocent. Isn’t the only way Pilate’s wife’s dream makes sense? Doesn't it only make sense if Pilate could have chosen not to condemn Jesus to death on a cross? So I think he could have preserved his dignity not to mention his soul by proclaiming Jesus innocent and releasing him. And though Jesus would have still been killed, probably by stoning since that’s how the Jews already tried to kill Jesus in John 10:31 and 39, Jesus must have known Pilate wouldn’t change his mind since he predicted in John 12:32 that he would be crucified. But isn’t it fascinating that Jesus still gave Pilate the opportunity to think about it? “Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” But all too soon, Pilate’s pride kicks in and he snaps arrogantly in reply. “Am I a Jew? It was your people and your priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Three times in Peter’s life Christ’s love compelled him to follow and obey. Once in Mark 1:17 when he first was called. Another half way through his ministry in Mark 8:27-30. And the last time on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias where the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples a third time in John 21:1-14. Bonhoeffer notes that “Each time it is the same grace of Christ which calls to him ‘Follow me’ and which reveals itself to him in the confession of the Son of God.”
Now, even though Pilate is arrogantly rejecting Jesus, again Jesus extends grace to him. Compelling him to accept him by assuring him that his kingdom is not a threat to Pilate. “If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. But now my kingdom is from another place.” But instead of humbling himself and receiving the grace being given, Pilate seizes upon the fact that Jesus is a king and his moment to obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit through his conscience and even his wife’s is gone.
Grace isn't cheap because it cost Jesus His life. Point number one. Grace is costly because it compels all of us including Pilate to obey. Point number two. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 says it this way: “14For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
And while Christ’s love and grace, even to the most arrogant among us, is repeatedly offered. It must continually be accepted. And Pilate clearly rejected it flippantly asking the way, the truth, and the life what is truth in verse 38. He wasn’t asking because he wanted to know anymore. He had already made up his mind. And so had Caiaphas and the rowdy crowd. And so had Barabbas. Which leads us to point number three: Jesus offers us a new start.
I’m not sure Barabbas realized it at the time, but I bet he thought about that moment for the rest of his life. He was released because Jesus was taken captive. The Gospel is scandalous. Though we don’t deserve it, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Luke 22:19 says Barabbas had been thrown into prison for leading an insurrection in the city and for murder. In that volatile time, there were numerous Messiah type zealots who arose. A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin after Jeuss’ resurrection and described some of them in in Acts 5:36-37. “36Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
And apparently, Barabbas was someone like that. A robber and murderer yes. But not a terrorist. At least not to the Jews who admired zealots rebelling against Rome. They weren’t choosing Barabbas just because he was the only one Pilate offered to them in place of Jesus. They were choosing him because they genuinely approved of what Barabbas did but rejected what Jesus did. How ironic is that? One compelled others with love. The other with force. One killed to get his way. One was willing to be killed instead.
Scripture doesn’t say what happened to Barabbas. Whether like the one thief on the cross, he saw Jesus and was compelled to love him. Or whether like the other thief, he cursed God and his overtures for eternal life. But what we do know is that same offer still stands today. And today is yet another opportunity that the Holy Spirit is using to compel you to say yes to Jesus and follow him.
The Bible says in Acts 2:37-38, “ 37When the people heard this [Peter’s sermon], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” And that’s what I think you should do too. But that’s tough to do because we live in a world where we have lost the wonder of the cross. But the Bible says when we recapture it, we are compelled to obey it because grace isn’t cheap. Rightly, understood it is extremely costly. It cost the Son of God his life! It is also costly because it compels us to sincerely obey and follow.
And one of the things Scripture calls us to follow is Jesus’ example in baptism. That’s why Romans 6:3-5 says, “Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And if we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”
Just like Barabbas, whether he realized it or not, Jesus is offering us a new start. And can I tell you, I used to be embarassed to ask you to make the most of these new starts. I used to be afraid of making invitations for people to publicly say yes to Jesus. You know why? I was afraid no one would! And if nobody said yes, I was afraid that would make me look bad! How backwards is that? But that’s the truth. Thankfully, today, I’m not worried about that anymore. God’s love and grace compels me to make the most of every opportunity I get to give you the chance to say yes to him and today is one of those days.
Last week, I prepared you for the fact that this week we were going to have a baptism. Not because I had anybody specific who told me they wanted to make that decision today. But because by faith, we were filling up the tank assuming someone would walk into it. Since then, at least one person has decided they’ve waited long enough to make that decision and that is Luann Ostrander. So very shortly, Lulu as she likes to be called, is going to be getting baptized even though she’s only been attending our church for about a year now. But I bet there are others of you here today who have been thinking about doing this for a long time. But for various reasons, you’ve never felt compelled to actually do something about it until now.
Maybe that’s because you’ve been waiting for the moment you would be less sinful. Well, if that’s what you’re waiting for, you’ll never be baptized because Philippians 1:6 says God won’t be completed with us until the day Jesus returns. Maybe it’s because some of you think you’re too old or it’s too late to make that decision. But it wasn’t too late for Pilate to say yes to Jesus so why would it be too late for you? Maybe some of you don’t want to get baptized today because you haven’t studied enough or learned enough yet. May I remind you that none of us have either? Disciples by definition are life long learners. You’ll have an abundant life ahead of you to learn and study and grow not to mention an eternal life as well.
I’m not big into altar calls with organ music and the lights dimming low. I don’t want you manipulated into following Jesus. But I am asking you to do so. Because Christ’s costly love compels us to sincerely obey. Christ was sinless and didn’t need to repent and be baptized, but he got baptized anyway. How much more should we who are sinful be baptized and follow his lead?
So like I said last week, I brought extra draw-string shorts and T-shirts with me today. They’re in the back over here. And there are a bunch of extra robes. And as Lulu and I get ready, I’m asking anyone else here today old enough to understand what I’ve been talking about to join us back there in just a minute. There are private changing rooms. You can put on those clean shorts and shirt underneath the robe, get baptized today, and then put your clothes back on.
When we’re all done, we’ll have a prayer back out here and that will conclude our service today. Jesus is offering you a new start—whether you realized he would before you got here or not. This church would love to cheer you on. My hope and prayer is that you’ll let them. And that in doing so, you will recapture the wonder of the cross and be compelled to live a sincere new life with the resurrected Christ in your hearts. So Lulu and I are going back there now and anyone who loves Jesus and wants to follow His lead and be baptized today should please follow. In the meantime, we’re going to have some music to sing God’s praises.