Did you ever feel like God was watching as injustice raged some place – but He was just sitting on the sidelines?
As we sit here today:
• Central Africa is still raging with waves of savagery, where innocent men, women and children are being killed – some in the name of a religious faith.
• Syria is still divided as many families have lost loved ones and others are clinging to fading hope – their life now in shambles. Churches have been targeted, and believers have been killed.
• In the Ukraine, people are living nervously, particularly Jews who have seen the return of terrible pamphlets that warn them to register as Jews, in anticipation of the return of Moscow’s power to the now independent country.
Those are just the political realities where evil seems to be having its day and its way. We could pile on top the literally millions of homes where children are neglected, and then add in the many who are today in elder care that has become a scandal in our times – and in all God seems like He is doing little or nothing to fix the problems we face on this little planet. Haven’t you been tempted, at least once, to wonder why God doesn’t step in? The truth is, He did, and He will – but even that didn’t look like a victory…yet.
Nowhere is that sentiment that God is sitting more close to the surface than your initial reading of the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, as told by the Gospel writers. Jesus was being delivered from one bad situation to another, as men literally tortured Him without cause, and yet nothing bad happened to the torturers in the story. When you are a young believer, or new to the text of Scripture, you almost cannot help but feel like God was “sitting on high on the Holy Throne” with little engagement in the evil dances of defiled men and their demonic helpers… but you would be WRONG. God was doing something…He was winning. He was conquering sin – making a way of escape for man while beginning the war against death itself – that will one day be won as well. It just didn’t look like it at the time.
Key Principle: God isn’t being forced out of our country, nor is He losing His grip on our world – even when it looks like He is being shown the door. He is writing the next chapter of a story that ends in His victory!
Let me explain:
Long before George Foreman was the name of an electric grill – the man George (whose name is on the grill) was a top-tier world championship boxer. On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman squared off in the boxing ring in Zaire. Ali had dubbed it “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali had a catchy name for everything he ever did, and was never afraid to use a microphone to let you know what it was! Foreman was heavily favored, and considered the hardest puncher in heavyweight history. Ali did something in that fight that no other fighter had ever dared to try. He held up his arms against his face and leaned back against the ropes allowing Foreman to punch away at him for eight rounds. Ali barely scored a single point for landing a punch. The strongest boxer in history beat on Ali until he could punch no more. When the right moment came, Ali bounced off the ropes and knocked out Foreman, sending him into retirement. Ali called his technique “rope-a-dope.” Even though it looked like he was losing the fight, and losing badly, he was in control the whole time. He took all those punches because he knew he would deliver the final blow. (Adapted from Sermon Central illustrations).
That is the story of the last week of Jesus’ ministry. That is the story of the Passion Week, and that is the story of the Cross. It is a story about hard-hearted men, clueless disciples, a pounded Savior – and an unlikely but unmistakable victory… first over SIN at the Cross of Calvary… eventually over DEATH ITSELF beginning at a grave nearby.
It is worth your time to look at the story again. Not everyone sees it. Not everyone understands. The story isn’t over yet. For some in this room, the story may just have found its beginning. Some are still distracted by the punches that were landed by the enemy – blow by blow in the story – and they have missed that Jesus took the punishment, because He knew He could and would deliver the final blows that would mean victory…
Go back in the story… Remember three chapters of John’s Gospel outline the major events of the last hours of Jesus’ ministry – John 18, 19 and 20. We don’t have the time to dig deeply into any part of the story, but rather we are going to “skip a stone across the top” of these ending chapters of John’s Gospel. Start by picking up the story in the three settings of John 18, where an emotional drama unfolded:
John 18 begins with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, moves to the house of Joseph Caiaphas – the High Priest, and ends with the Roman Governor’s meeting (Pontius Pilate) at a building called the Praetorium of Jerusalem.
First, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane in John 18:1-12. Look at who and what you observe there. If you listen closely to the words of the text, you will observe the worst attitudes of lost mankind. John wrote:
John 18:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden, in which He entered with His disciples…3 Judas then, having received the [Roman] cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, “Whom do you seek?”
• You can see a heavy dose of male macho “mojo” as the soldiers march into the dark grove beside the Kidron Valley in John 18:1-4. The rattling of swords, buckler shields and armor smacking against the lanterns as the men walked with power and aggression would have easily gotten your attention. These were men on a mission, and they were all about the power and domination – but they forgot love and care.
In John 18:5 it continued: They answered Him, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He said to them, “I am [He].” And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them.
• Stepping from the shadows was an unarmed tunic-clad Jewish man. He was nothing special to look at, but he had a sheepish look in John 18:5. Another Gospel writer tells us that Judas broke from the crowd and kissed the Master, but the gesture was unsure. Deception and betrayal is never comfortable.
John 18:6 So when He said to them, “I am [He],” they drew back and fell to the ground. 7 Therefore He again asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus the Nazarene.” 8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am [He]; so if you seek Me, let these go their way,” 9 to fulfill the word which He spoke, “Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one.”
• Jesus spoke. He asked the men who they were searching for. When they indicated they wanted Him in John 18:6-9, He turned and uttered words that rippled through the universe – “I Am” – a holy title… a name of the Most High. In obligatory reverence, they fell back. While Jesus spoke with the confidence of TRUTH, the men of the Temple guard fell back in the duty of their man-made religious fervor – just as they were about to assault the very One to Whom they claimed to give worship.
John 18:10 Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave’s name was Malchus. 11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put the sword into the sheath… 12 So the [Roman] cohort and the commander and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him,
• My flesh cries out in a “moment of victory” in John 18:10-12 when I read that Peter lunged out of the pack to attack with his sword, but I can’t help but notice he didn’t aim at one of the important men, or even a trained soldier – he took his shot at a mere slave – and then he missed his head! All he got was an ear! There is nothing worse than throwing an uncertain punch on a lesser man, and then elegantly missing in the process! So impressive was Peter’s display that they didn’t even bother to arrest him. If that was the level of the resistance – Rome was certainly secure of this sudden uprising among armed “flailing fishermen of Galilee”. How humiliating, he couldn’t even get himself arrested for the cause. Sadly, that was a “high water mark” for Pete’s night – things were about to get much, much worse.
In the face of bumbling disciples, self-righteous and pompous religious types, dark deceivers and stone-faced warriors God didn’t raise a finger to help His Son…
Move on to the second setting, where events at the House of the High Priest are recorded in John 18:13-27:
Three more emotional outbursts appear in the home of Annas and Caiaphas – the family called in Hebrew “Beth Hanan” or “household of Hanan”. If it helps, Eleazar ben Ananus was the Jewish High Priest in the years 16-17 CE, under Roman Governor Gratus, and Emperor Tiberius. By the time of our gospel text, Annas was old and retired… living in the family estate and still an “emeritus” of the office. His son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas did not succeed him directly, but became High Priest after Simon ben Camith. Caiaphas continued in office from 26 to 37 CE, until the proconsul of Syria named Vitellius (father of the Vitellius that became Roman Emperor for a short time in 69 CE) deposed him. His prestigious family villa on the western hill of Jerusalem was the backdrop of John 18:13-27:
Cruel Political Leaders
John 18:13 [they] led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.
• John 18:13-14 Who can miss the obvious story of the “Conniving Caiphas”? This was a man who was to intercede and represent his people as a priest, but our story reveals a leader who calculated that “sometimes you have to break an egg to make an omelet” – an echo of a cold heart that lacked full sensitivity. “One could die – even if innocent – for the others to have better lives?” Really?
John 18:15 Simon Peter was following Jesus, and … 16 … Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. 17 Then the slave-girl who kept the door said to Peter, “You are not also [one] of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the officers were standing [there], having made a charcoal fire, for it was cold and they were warming themselves; and Peter was also with them, standing and warming himself…25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You are not also [one] of His disciples, are you?” He denied [it], and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, said, “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” 27 Peter then denied [it] again, and immediately a rooster crowed.
• John 18:15-18; 25-27 What would the story be if we missed the embarrassed and fearful Peter – lying about his associations but trying to keep his toes near to the action inside the High Priest’s judgment chamber? Fear is often the worst motivator for good action. Pete had a panic attack that made him shake in his sandals. Obviously the first place the fear hit was his tongue. All he seemed to be able to say is “I am not”. One little three letter word… NOT… that is all he had to keep inside. He could have said, “I am” – but he was too afraid. As troubles rose against Jesus, disciples were tempted to defect with their mouths. They stopped telling the truth. In our day – it happens again. When the message is not popular, some will chase the foolhearty errand of trying to make the message more palatable. The problem is they will change the message to something different – and it isn’t their message to change.
Belligerent and Arrogant Career Officers
John 18:19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about His disciples, and about His teaching. … 21 “Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” 22 When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?” 24 So Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
• John 18:19-24 On the first reading, we can barely contain ourselves when facing the belligerent guard – stepped forward and slapped Jesus. I guarantee you that is an action that will be remembered in the judgment if this man didn’t come to Christ. The was a man who thought himself of the appropriate rank to slap the Creator of the stars across the face! Yet, many in our day deem themselves of sufficient standing to shake a fist in God’s face.
All this was happening as the fate of Jesus hung in the balances – and yet GOD DID NOTHING…
A third scene emerges, as we read, we are quickly pulled from the house of Caiaphas to the Roman Praetorium in Jerusalem in John 18:28-40.
It might help to know that the Latin term praetorium originally meant a general’s tent within a Roman encampment (castrum). It was taken from the name of one of the chief Roman magistrates – a “praetor”- which simply means in Latin “leader” – but in this case denoted a rank just below a consul (one of Rome’s highest positions). By the time of Jesus, these buildings that took the name “Praetorium” simply meant the official center where Roman officials could conduct business in the name of the Emperor. Everyone engaged in significant business of the day would surely know where the local Praetorium was located in the city. Archaeologists have found the remains of a number of them in places around the Roman world. The buildings were profoundly important in Roman society, for on the outside they would normally display information regarding the sportulae (singular sportulus from the word for a “woven basket”; these were schedules of official gifts of benevolence (i.e. donatives), as well as fees and taxes) of its region carved directly onto tablets and placed on the walls of this important public building. This was the setting for John 18:28-40. Here we meet…
John 18:28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early … 29 Therefore Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?” 30 They answered and said to him, “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.”….
John 18:28-32 It gets under your collar when you read of deflecting leaders that won’t offer a straight answer to a very simple question. Pilate noted the early hour of the day, and the fact that the men wouldn’t enter the Gentile quarters and thought there must be something very urgent for him to attend to. He asked a simple question: “What is the charge?” The response he got was this: “He did bad stuff! Trust us!”
Close-eared Power Broker
John 18:33 Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” … 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” 37 Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say [correctly] that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” 38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.
In John 18:33 we meet the classic “close-hearted, close-eared politician” – notice he TALKED, but he didn’t LISTEN. He asked about truth, but he didn’t stay there long enough to get an answer. He walked away and kept on about his important tasks of the day. If only he had actually engaged the TRUTH of what was going on that day. His life would have been changed. Sadly, he thought HE was the one with power. He did not know Who he was standing in front of. One day he will.
As chapter 18 closed and chapter 19 began, Pilate struggled to gain control over the situation. He tried to release Jesus – but the crowd insisted he surrender a criminal named Barabbas. When he argued that he “found no guilt in Jesus” the crowd insisted on punishment, and even made noise that they would get Pilate in trouble with Rome if he didn’t deliver Jesus for crucifixion. Finally, Pilate just “washed his hands of the whole affair. We pick up the story in John 19:16…
Finally, Jesus was nailed to the Cross.
John 19:16 So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. 17 They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. … 30 Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. … 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
In all this, God sat in Heaven and did NOTHING!
How can you NOT be outraged. When you check even the most ardent critics of Jesus, no one called him guilty OF ANY CRIME.
• He was arrested without proper cause.
• He was chained like an animal, though he showed no resistance, and assisted one hurt by another of His followers.
• He was blindfolded, smacked, jeered and beaten.
• He was lashed, lacerated and mocked.
• Blood matted his hair, bruises covered his face and body… and He did NOTHING WRONG!
• The Roman official who questioned Him knew there was no reason to suggest guilt there…
• Yet, a Son’s life was forcibly taken by the state right in front of his mother’s weeping eyes.
Round after round of pounding, and not a single punch thrown back… but VICTORY was already in sight. Jesus cried: “It is finished!” because He was working a bigger plan! The work that would provide a path back to God that was severed in the earlier mutiny of man. His death would break the absolute power of sin over mankind, and eventually even abolish death itself. His plan was slowly dripping out, with each drop of blood, and each pang of pain. Jesus was taking MY PLACE, and paying MY PENALTY on that Cross. As Isaiah had long before foretold: Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being [fell] upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.” The prophet knew the plan.
As a Christian, my past ended at the Cross of Calvary. My guilt, despair and mutiny was destroyed there, crushed and eliminated in the body of a substitute. My stains were purged with each blow of the hammer, in the eyes of the only Judge Who eternally matters. Yet, I was not gone. I was being transformed. In dying with Him, I would find life. My future began when His stone rolled away, and my new life saw its first dawn, and felt its first morning dew. He was Risen, His sacrifice accepted. My new life came with assurance that all was completed well…. It is a true saying: In His death my past was done; from His tomb emerged my new life.
God wasn’t ignoring His Son’s pain – He was using the “rope-a-dope” technique on the world of evil… watching His Son take back what was lost. Paul made the situation clear in his treatise on salvation in Romans…
Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous..”
Demons may have danced at Calvary, and mocked their angelic cousins from the outside of the tomb – but that only went on for a short time. Jesus lay crushed in the ground, broken. Yet God wasn’t done the fight.
UP FROM THE GRAVE HE AROSE… AND WHEN HE DID…
Evil’s power WAS EMPTIED. It became a smoke screen – broken at the Cross. Satan’s credentials as lone prince of the world were made counterfeit. Jesus broke the curse, cancelled the choke hold of sin, and soon will rescind the very power of death itself. Don’t miss it, because even today evil just wants to empty the message of its victory and discredit the work of God. Consider this story:
One lady wrote in to a question and answer forum. “Dear Sirs, Our preacher said on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely, Bewildered.”
The forum writer replied: “Dear Bewildered, Beat your preacher with a series of heavy blows. Place a barbed wire crown on his head. Keep him up all night. Strap him to a post and remove his skin with a leather lash embedded with glass and lead using some 39 times with heavy strokes. Give him lumber to carry up a hill. Nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for 6 hours; run a spear thru his side…put him in an air-tight tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Charles.” (Sermon central illustrations).
His death was no surprise, nor was it His end. Jesus testified death and the grave would not be His end. He said: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31; see also Matthew 17:22; Luke 9:22). He offered the people of His day the “sign of Jonah”—three days in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus PROMISED He would throw the last punch – even when no one would believe He could. But He was right! The first disciples saw the Risen Jesus walk among them, even after that awful Crucifixion experience – and they were forever changed. The clueless and fearful men from the Passion Week were suddenly transformed by the Spirit into bold witnesses of the Resurrection (Acts 2:24, 3:15, 4:2).
Don’t stop at the tomb. Keep walking…
That is the symbol of the payment for all that was broken. Wait until you see the stone rolled back. Watch Jesus throw the final blows…
Every year, thousands of people climb a mountain in the Italian Alps, passing the “stations of the cross” to stand at an outdoor crucifix. One tourist noticed a little trail that led beyond the cross. He fought through the rough thicket and, to his surprise, came upon another shrine, a shrine that symbolized the empty tomb. It was neglected. The brush had grown up around it. Almost everyone had gone as far as the cross, but there they stopped. Far too many have gotten to the cross and have known the despair and the heart break. Far too few have moved beyond the cross to find the real message of Easter. That is the message of the empty tomb. (Lavonn Brown, The Other Half of the Rainbow.)
God sat back long enough for the payment to be made in full, but then He stepped in, and raised up His Son.
GOD WASN’T IMPOTENT, HE WAS PATIENT.
Even though the enemy has been so very strong and destroyed so many for so long, he will not win… the Lamb will win the fight and become the Lion that will again roar over His wayward Creation.
Remember: God isn’t being forced out – even when it looks like He is being shown the door. He is writing the next chapter of a story that ends in His victory!