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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).

Augustine of Hippo, Satan comment on the Vancouver riot — June 19, 2011

Augustine of Hippo, Satan comment on the Vancouver riot

[Analyst Bob Whitelaw] says the riot would’ve likely happened whether the Canucks won or lost.

“With the loss, that seemed to give people the right to set police cars on fire, turn vehicles over, but the excitement of winning would’ve spilled over,” Whitelaw said, adding that it appears some of the instigators were not hockey fans.

—Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun article

There was a pear tree near our vineyard, heavy with fruit, but fruit that was not particularly tempting either to look at or to taste. A group of young blackguards, and I among them, went out to knock down the pears and carry them off late one night, for it was our bad habit to carry on our games in the streets till very late. We carried off an immense load of pears, not to eat—for we barely tasted them before throwing them to the hogs. Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden.…

What did I enjoy in that theft of mine? Of what excellence of my Lord was I making perverse and vicious imitation? Perhaps it was the thrill of acting against Your law—at least in appearance, since I had no power to do so in fact, the delight a prisoner might have in making some small gesture of liberty—getting a deceptive sense of omnipotence from doing something forbidden without immediate punishment.

—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions II.iv.9, II.vi.14

[Augustine’s] thought went like this. “Everyone knows there is a divine law which forbids theft, so if I can steal and get away with it this will show that I am not subject to God or to any divine law. And if I am not subject to any law which defines what is good, then the good will simply be what I say it is. Hence I will be free and omnipotent. I can do what I want and what I want is the good.”

—Colin Starnes, Augustine’s Conversion, p. 42

Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?…You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

—Satan, Genesis 3:1, 4–5

Jesus has come to reject those who won’t make him central, so shape your life around him (Mark 12:1–12) — January 23, 2011

Jesus has come to reject those who won’t make him central, so shape your life around him (Mark 12:1–12)

Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve lived in houses which I’ve rented from several different landlords. I’m familiar with what it’s like to be a tenant. It’s only in the last few months, however, that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be a landlord. I’ve been working for an apartment management company, and while most of our tenants are well behaved, it’s the 10 percent that misbehave who give us 90 percent of our headaches. Nearly every day, I come home with new stories about irresponsible or clueless tenants.

But it’s tough to complain when you read about tenants like these.

It’s not hard to see who Jesus is pointing the finger at. His opponents, the religious leaders of Israel, recognize themselves right away as the tenants. After all, the prophet Isaiah had also compared Israel to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7), and they saw themselves as tenants of that vineyard. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord had condemned Israel for its rebellion, and now Jesus specifically condemns the religious leaders who have opposed him.

The tenants in the parable are traitors. They have been given great responsibility to care for the landlord’s vineyard and produce a crop for him. However, they don’t want to serve him; they want the vineyard for themselves. So they humiliate and beat and kill the messengers he has sent, just as the religious leaders of Israel have rejected the prophets whom God has sent, all the way up to John the Baptist. And when he sends his only son, whom he dearly loves—an act of mercy and madness!—they kill him, too, hoping that his inheritance would end up as their own.

Jesus is shredding the righteous disguise of his opponents. They appear to be doing the work of God, but in reality they are opposing his Messiah, the anointed King he has sent to rule Israel. They want control; they want to rule God’s kingdom for themselves.

Even though these leaders have been trained in the Old Testament scriptures from childhood, Jesus challenges them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” He quotes Psalm 118:22–23:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Why would the builders of a palace or temple reject a stone carved out of a quarry? Obviously, it’s because they see some sort of defect in it. It doesn’t fit into their blueprint for how the structure should look. The Psalmist felt like such a stone; he was rejected by his enemies as unfit to be one of them. Yet he and his allies marveled as the Lord delivered him, turning the rejection upside down and giving him victory over his enemies.

Jesus is the culmination of this pattern of deliverance. He is to be rejected, betrayed, and crucified by the powerful and influential men of his day. Then, despite their best efforts to destroy him, the almighty God will raise him from the dead and give him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).

Jesus doesn’t fit into the plans of the religious leaders. He is a threat to their positions of power. If he is put in charge, they can no longer have authority over Israel; they can no longer demand that people follow their traditions; they can no longer run their lives the way they want to.

When the rejected stone is made the cornerstone of the building, then the blueprint must be changed, and the building plans must be altered to fit the new cornerstone. This means that Jesus will not “fit in” to our pre-existing lifestyle. No, Jesus demands thorough and foundational change from you and me. He will not be added as an extra ingredient in your life to make you feel spiritually fulfilled. He insists on being your foundation; he insists that you reorder your dreams and goals and values and morals around him. You must shape your life around him as the center. If you and I do this, his triumph will be “marvelous in our eyes.”

If you and I will not do that, then we appear in this parable as the wicked tenants, attempting to kill Jesus so that we may usurp his throne. But “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)—the Lord will bring about a great reversal, our kingdoms will be flattened, and his eternal kingdom will be built over their ruins, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.

So are you a faithful tenant of the Landlord? Or will you oppose him until he comes, inevitably, to reject you?

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13) — June 21, 2010

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.

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