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Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8) — October 25, 2011

Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8)

Jesus is dead.

Mark is very clear on the matter. He introduces three women to the story, and he follows their eyewitness accounts of the events following Jesus’ crucifixion. The women watch Jesus breathe his last and die. Two of them take note of where he is buried, seeing a great stone rolled as a seal across the entrance. The man who buries him, a secret disciple named Joseph, handles Jesus’ body, taking it down from the cross and wrapping it in a linen shroud before laying it in his own tomb. The centurion who observed Jesus’ rapid death also confirms it to the Roman governor Pilate.

Jesus is dead, dead, dead.

It’s really hard for me to imagine the effect Jesus’ resurrection had on his disciples. For us, the events have already taken place, and we know from the beginning that he will rise from the dead. It’s no surprise. But to Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was a thundering shock. When the women arrive at the tomb early on Sunday morning, they are convinced that they will find a dead body. They’ve prepared their anointing spices and are ready to play out the familiar postmortem rituals. Their only question is, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Even as they’re worrying aloud to one another about this rather important detail, they catch sight of the tomb from a distance—“and they saw that the stone had been rolled back.” Suddenly, events are taking an unfamiliar turn. As they enter the tomb, they see “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” And they suffer a collective heart attack.

This strange young man sitting in a tomb immediately tries to calm them down. First, the obvious: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Then, the shocking twist: “He has risen! He is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The young man gestures toward the niche where Jesus’ body was placed. It’s empty now. The women see the truth with their own eyes.

This “young man” (clearly an angel!) gives them a message from Jesus. He says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Even though the disciples (especially Peter) have abandoned him, Jesus hasn’t abandoned them. Not only is he alive, he plans to meet with them again!

Now, the angel’s commands to the women are “go” and “tell.” So what do the women do? Mark records that they “went out”…and “fled.” And “they said nothing to anyone”—at least not right away.

What gives? Why did they fail to carry out the angel’s instructions? Mark explains that “trembling and astonishment had seized them…they were afraid.” In other words, their response to the angel was pure terror. They panicked and ran away.

So why the hysteria? Well, their actions speak loud enough. They were fully expecting a dead man. Their minds were locked into the usual pattern of things; it never occurred to them that Jesus might not stay dead. So when the angel’s announcement shattered the orderly reign of Death, they were utterly unable to process what had taken place. Mentally overloaded, they turned and ran.

The women had stood at a distance and watched Jesus’ death. They could handle that, albeit with great pain. Joseph could even exercise courage when it came to preparing Jesus’ body for burial. But when Jesus breaks loose from the dominion of Death, the women can’t take it.

Jesus calmed a storm which threatened his disciples, and they became afraid of him. Jesus drove a legion of demons out of a wild man, and the people nearby responded with fear and asked him to leave. Now Jesus has conquered the undefeated enemy, Death, and the response is shock and terror.

These people responded in fear because they underestimated Jesus. He seemed to be a good teacher, perhaps a prophet, even the Messiah. But when he began to overpower natural and spiritual forces, that caught them by surprise. Then he announced that he would triumph over the grave—and so he did, “just as he told you.” No one believed him.

It is not possible to underestimate Jesus. He is the Son of God. He has authority over Death itself. If you have not given up on yourself and bowed the knee to him, this is very bad news. If he can conquer Death, what will he do with a rebel like you?

But if you belong to him as his disciple and servant, Jesus’ victory will fill you with confidence in his limitless authority:

Fear not! I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17–18)

Jesus has come to be forsaken by God, so worship him as the Son of God (Mark 15:33–39) — October 5, 2011

Jesus has come to be forsaken by God, so worship him as the Son of God (Mark 15:33–39)

It is high noon, and an execution is taking place. The Middle Eastern sun has beaten down on three criminals being crucified by the Roman empire. But now, a mysterious gloom covers the land, and for three hours, Jesus suffers alone in the darkness.

Eloi! Eloi! lema sabachthani?” Jesus’ words have burned themselves into Mark’s heart, and he records them in the original Aramaic. For our benefit, he translates them: “My God! my God! why have you forsaken me?” It is three o’clock in the afternoon, and Jesus has been nailed to a cross for six hours. Normally, the victims of crucifixion last much longer than this. But Jesus is about to die, and he knows that God has chosen not to save him.

His body is dying from the physical abuse it has suffered, but his spirit is being killed far more quickly because he knows his Father is crushing him (Isaiah 53:10). His ravaged mind grasps for the words to describe his agony, and finds them in the Psalms. His ancestor David had cried to the Lord:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)

As the day has worn on, and an unearthly night has settled on the land, Jesus cries out to his Father but finds no rest. His own people have betrayed him into the hands of their Gentile overlords, who have crucified him. His closest friends have abandoned him, denied him, betrayed him. Priests and criminals have reviled him. And now Jesus knows that God himself has forsaken his Servant. He is alone.

His cry is so mangled that a bystander mistakes the tortured Eloi for Elijah. He remembers a Jewish tradition that the prophet Elijah is available to rescue righteous people in need. Seeing that Jesus is dying rapidly, the bystander offers him a sponge soaked in sour wine to keep him alive a little longer. “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down,” this person says. Perhaps God will show his love and favour by sending Elijah to rescue this suffering man.

Elijah never comes.

And finally, Mark records, “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” His strength doesn’t ebb away; he doesn’t slowly lapse into unconsciousness. Unlike any other crucified man, Jesus dies with a loud scream of agony. He is not defeated by Rome; he dies with strength remaining in his broken body.

On the Temple Mount, one of the great curtains of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom, by a supernatural hand. This curtain has barred God’s people from accessing his throne room, the holy inner rooms of the temple. Now, the way is opened through the death of Jesus.

At Golgotha, a Roman centurion stands facing the dead body of Jesus. He has stood guard over many crucifixions, but he has never seen anything like this one. He sees that Jesus has died like no other man, and in fear he says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Jesus is dead. His enemies have gotten rid of him at last. He has been despised and rejected by everyone around him, and forsaken by God himself. But now, for the first time, a human being has declared that Jesus is the Son of God.

This Roman centurion, an outsider, understands what Jesus’ followers never could. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” Jesus had said, “and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” And then he said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).

Jesus has been forsaken by God, but this doesn’t mean that he is a worthless failure. On the contrary, his willingness to do his Father’s will and “give his life as a ransom for many” proves that he truly is the greatest man in all of history—and not just a man, but the divine Son of God.

Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32) — September 11, 2011

Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32)

When Jesus comes to claim his throne, a coronation ceremony is held. But it’s not meant to honour him. It’s meant to disgrace him.

Jesus has been betrayed by the leaders of his own people; now their Roman overlords have sentenced him to death. He has been identified as “King of the Jews” by the Romans. This would be their way of calling him the Messiah, God’s anointed king. The Gentile soldiers bring him into the palace and gather the whole battalion around him. Before this assembly, they dress him in a royal robe of expensive purple dye, place a crown on his head, salute him as they would their Caesar, and kneel down in homage to him.

The catch is that his crown is a wreath of twisted thorns whose spikes are pressed into his skull. Their salutation, “Hail, King of the Jews!” is a sarcastic barb. When they kneel, it’s meant as nothing more than a charade. They strike him on the head with a reed and spit on him. Even the lowliest conscript in the Roman army can slap him around without consequence. They can defy the man who claims to be God, just as the serpent in Eden promised, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4).

They strip Jesus of the royal garments and lead him away to an ominous hill—Golgotha, or Skull Place. He is so weakened by the scourgings that another man is forced to carry his cross for him. But when Jesus arrives at Golgotha, he refuses to drink any wine. Whatever he is about to face, he will do so without an anesthetic.

Mark records simply, “They crucified him.” They hoist him on a wooden cross and nail his hands and feet to it. Mark doesn’t need to write any more, because crucifixion is a horrible and shameful death, practically taboo in polite company. The empire of Rome means it to be a public spectacle. It demonstrates that this man, once a rebel against the empire, has now been crushed under the boot of Caesar. When Jesus is crucified, Rome is saying that he is nothing more than a man, a subject of the empire. He has no property to call his own, not even his clothes—the soldiers gamble over who will get to keep them. His crime is posted for all to see: “The King of the Jews.”

Make no mistake: Jesus is not being crucified for being a good moral teacher. No one gets crucified for telling people to love each other. Jesus’ message runs much deeper than that. Mark summarizes it with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When asked by the Jewish leaders whether he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus has replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Jesus is crucified for claiming to be God’s anointed King over all the earth, and a divine King at that—the Son of God himself.

His disciples, James and John, once asked their King, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). But now they are nowhere to be found. Instead, Rome crucifies two criminals with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left.”  These are the royal members of his court. His audience passes by and ridicules him by shouting, “Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” The religious leaders join them: “He saved others; he cannot save himself!” This man is no Saviour. He is no King.

Look at this horrible spectacle of a bleeding, dying criminal! To think that anyone had faith in this man! “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe,” they taunt him. And then, even the criminals who are crucified with him begin to revile him. Jesus is humiliated and condemned by everyone—Jew and Gentile, ruler and criminal, priest and sinner.

Why does his coronation look like this? Why the shame without even a trace of honour? It is because Jesus must be validated as King through shame, suffering, and death. Here in God’s world, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). By becoming the lowest man in the world, Jesus has established that he is the greatest. And by refusing to save himself, he is able “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Perhaps today Jesus is well-liked and popular and a good teacher. But he remained on the cross, bleeding and dying, to save a people for his own kingdom. That is why he is Lord.

Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15) — August 8, 2011

Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15)

Authority figures like to hold on to power. Politicians in the USA campaign constantly in order to hold onto their elected offices. Dictators such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria kill anyone who questions their rule. When you’re king of the hill, you fight to stay on top.

So what in the world does Jesus think he’s doing?

“Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s the only question Pontius Pilate cares about. If Jesus is simply a maverick religious leader, then Pilate isn’t interested in the case. He is the Roman governor, and he has no interest in getting entangled with Jewish religious matters.

However, if this Jesus is claiming to be a Jewish king, as the Jewish religious leaders insist, then Rome has no choice but to act. There can be no king but Caesar.

But when Pilate asks his question, Jesus simply responds, “You have said so.” It’s a terse way of telling Pilate, that yes, he is King of the Jews, but he’s not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. Beyond these words, Jesus says nothing to defend himself against his accusers. Pilate is shocked. Doesn’t Jesus realize that his life is at stake here? Why won’t he say a word to defend himself?

Pilate instinctively suspects that the only thing Jesus is guilty of is being the object of the chief priests’ envy. They are afraid of his growing influence in Israel. So he looks for a way to escape this awkward situation. He doesn’t want to enrage the chief priests; the last thing he needs is an uprising. His opportunity comes when a crowd gathers in his courtyard to ask him to pardon a prisoner, which is his custom during the Passover. So he appeals to the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”

What Pilate hasn’t foreseen is that the chief priests have already gotten to the crowd. They demand that Pilate release a murderer named Barabbas. Mark comments that this man “committed murder in the insurrection”—a recent revolt against Roman rule. So instead of calling for Jesus, their rightful king, the mob cries out for Barabbas, a rebel and a murderer.

Pilate is at a loss. “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” he asks. “Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.

“Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate is a cruel governor, but even his conscience is bothered by this injustice. Without giving any reason, the mob roars, “Crucify him!”

Pilate gives in. He wants to spare Jesus, but if sacrificing an innocent man is what it takes “to satisfy the crowd,” he’s willing to dispense with this obscure Galilean rabbi. He orders Jesus to be crucified, after being viciously scourged by his soldiers.

Up to this point, it has been the Jewish leaders who have rejected Jesus. Now, Pilate rejects him as well. Both Jew and Gentile conspire to crucify the Son of God. They stand in judgment over him and condemn him as unworthy of life.

Our English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “robbers.” In fact, the word translated robber was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to describe insurrectionists who opposed the Roman government. Rome had no interest in crucifying common thieves; crucifixion was a public spectacle meant for rebels against Rome. This Passover, three crosses have been prepared for three rebels. But on the central cross will hang a King in place of a rebel. Jesus will die so that Barabbas may live.

The crucifixion is horrible and beautiful. The rightful King is put to death by his own people, the Jews, and by the Gentiles to whom he offers hope. He is a threat to their power, so they attempt to eliminate him. But all this is part of his plan to die as a substitute for rebels who oppose the kingdom of God.

Nobody escapes guilt here. You and I fight every day to maintain control over our lives, to try to manipulate God and other people to give us the security and power and approval that we want. Each of us wants to be king. So we are the chief Priests, we are Pilate, and we are the hostile mob. And we are Barabbas, alive and free because our King was crucified in our place.

May we praise our King and give him the honour he deserves, because he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus has come to be unrecognized, yet he is a true witness (Mark 14:53–72) — August 2, 2011

Jesus has come to be unrecognized, yet he is a true witness (Mark 14:53–72)

Words are cheap. Emotions are cheap. There’s a difference between youthful infatuation and true, loyal love. And there’s a difference between saying you’ll be faithful to Jesus and then truly acknowledging him when the people around you begin to get hostile.

Jesus has been arrested and is being led off to a preliminary hearing at the home of the Jewish high priest. Following him “at a distance” is Peter, the disciple who claimed that he would never deny Jesus. We’ll get back to Peter in a moment.

Mark records that “the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death.” In most trials, the charges are already in place, and the question is whether or not the defendant is guilty, and if so, what his sentence should be. In this hearing, it has already been decided that the defendant is guilty and the sentence is death. Now, his judges simply need to find a charge. They need an excuse to get rid of Jesus, who is a threat to their authority.

False witnesses are paraded before the Council, each one accusing Jesus of wrongdoing. But they are contradicting one another. Things are not going well for this kangaroo court.

The high priest takes control of the situation. He confronts Jesus, asking, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” Jesus says nothing, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7. The charges are absurd and don’t deserve a response. Jesus is totally innocent of wrongdoing.

Finally, the high priest demands, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus has never said so publicly, but his actions and his parables have strongly implied it. Finally, his enemies challenge him to reveal how he sees himself. Will Jesus back down in order to save his own life?

“I am,” he replies, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Not only does Jesus agree that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, but that he is the Son of God. He also claims to be the Son of Man, a divine figure whom God grants authority over the whole earth (Daniel 7:13–14). He is both God and man, deserving all power and authority as the Lord over all creation.

“You have heard his blasphemy!” the high priest shouts as he tears his garments in rage. The Council has been standing in judgment over this maverick Galilean preacher, and now he claims to have authority over them! And he even sets himself up as equal to God!

He deserves to die, they decide. The members of the council spit on him; they blindfold him and slap him, mocking him by demanding that he prophesy to them. They release him to the guards, who beat him with closed fists.

As Jesus is being abused and condemned to death, Peter is also facing a deadly threat: the teasing of a servant girl. The poor man is just trying to keep warm by a fire while waiting for news of Jesus, but this girl recognizes him as a Galilean and pipes up, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” Peter denies it and abandons the fire for the safety of the darkened gateway, while a rooster crows ominously. The girl finds him and identifies him again, and others agree, “This man is one of them.” Peter denies it again, but they persist in identifying him with the criminal, Jesus. Finally, he begins to lob curses, and he swears, “I do not know this man of whom you speak!”

The rooster crows a second time, and at once Peter remembers what Jesus told him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter was brimming with self-confidence at the time, and he refused to believe it. Now, his self-esteem has been stripped away, and he sees himself for what he really is. He is a failure, a coward and a traitor; he has abandoned his Lord to avoid disgracing himself. He is ashamed of Jesus and his words (Mark 8:38).

Peter breaks down and weeps. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, he is broken. There is no more hiding from his sin.

We leave Mark’s account at a dark and miserable place, and the story is only going to get uglier. But there is hope here. We know that Peter has failed to confess Jesus as his Lord. But Jesus has not failed. He has insisted on his Lordship even when faced with death. He succeeds where Peter fails.

That’s where our hope comes from. If you see yourself as a stalwart defender of the Christian faith and an all-around great person, you’re going to be broken. God loves you; he will not let your self-confidence harden you into a creature fit for hell. He will break you down first. And then you will see that Jesus is your only hope. You cannot remain faithful to him; you will fail to acknowledge him as your Lord in your actions and words. That’s why Jesus did it all for you that night. And this act of courage and faithfulness belongs to you now; it’s what God sees when he looks at you. Jesus stood in your place before his bloodthirsty enemies, and when asked if he was their Lord, he declared, “I am!” Then he was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3) so that you would never be despised and rejected by God.

You are not good. You are not strong. But Jesus was. And that’s all that matters.

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