Thursday, March 24, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 12

Though all four Gospels tell us much about the 12 men whom Jesus called as disciples and later named as apostles, we also find a much larger number who responded to His call.  The usual picture brought up to our minds is of a large crowd of bearded men accompanying Him in His travels.  However Luke in his Gospel adds to our picture.
Luke 8:1-3:  "And it came about ... that He was going through from town to town and village to village preaching and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and the twelve were with Him and also some women whom He had healed from evil spirits and sicknesses:  Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, Susanna, and many other women, who were providing for them out of their own means."
These were women, apparently all of some wealth, who like the twelve, had left all and were travelling with Jesus and providing support.  And they were there watching as Jesus was hanging from the cross.  They were there when He died.
Luke 24:49:  "And all His acquaintances and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, were standing at a distance watching these things."  Matthew (27:55-56) and Mark (15:40-41) also tell us of these women.  Matthew and Mark name some of these women and both tell us that Mary Magdalene was among them.   John too, tells us that she was standing "by the cross" right there with Jesus' mother and some others (John 19:25).
Who was Mary Magdalene, the only woman mentioned in all four gospels as being with Jesus at the cross?  I'm afraid most people who have a bit of knowledge about the Gospel stories, believe they know who she was.  She was a prostitute, right?  We've seen her in countless movies - sometimes portrayed as a sad, worn, haggard woman, sometimes as a sex-bomb, but definitely a prostitute - at least a converted one.  We've possibly even listened to sermons in which we were told that Jesus can even save someone like her!  If we look up the word "magdalene" in our dictionaries, we'd find one of its definitions to be "a reformed prostitute."
But where in any of the Gospel accounts is there even a hint of this former occupation?  There isn't!  Though Luke tells us that she had been demon-possessed, the context implies that the demons were a cause of some illness from which she had been healed.  There is no hint of any misbehavior on her part.  She is rather presented as a woman of means who contributed to the support of Jesus' ministry.
Usually in questioning those who believe the gossip about Mary, I find that she is confused and conflated with other women found in the Gospels:  the "town sinner" who had anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7:36-50 (whose story immediately precedes the mention of Mary Magdalene); another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who also anointed Jesus in John 12:1-8; and sometimes the woman caught in adultery in John 8:8-11.
But though Mary Magdalene's story is not that of popular mythology or Hollywood romanticism and sensationalism, it is much more exciting and definitely more important.  She is presented in all four Gospels not only as a witness of Jesus' sufferings and death, but also as a witness to His resurrection.  In fact, Mary is the first person to see Jesus after He had risen.

The four Gospel accounts present different glimpses of the events of that first Sunday morning, and it is not my purpose here to harmonize them, though it can easily be done.  John's account seems clearest and the most moving.  After reporting to the disciples that the tomb was empty and following Peter and John back to the empty tomb (John 20:1-10) Mary was left standing weeping outside the tomb (11-13a).  Looking in, she saw two angels who asked why she was weeping.

John 20:13b -16: "She said to them, 'Because they have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they've put Him!'  When she said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there but didn't know it was Jesus.
          Jesus said to her, 'Woman why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?'
          She supposed He was the gardener and said to Him, 'Sir, if you've taken Him away, tell me where you've laid Him and I'll get Him!'
          Jesus said to her, 'Mary.'  She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, 'Rabboni' (which means 'teacher')!"

We can almost feel Mary's tears.  She had followed her Lord; she had seen Him suffer and die a horrible death; she had gone to the tomb for one final glance; she had felt the horror of finding that His body was missing.  I'm sure that after she saw Him alive, her tears did not cease but became tears of joy.
The story continues.  Mary announces to the others what has happened and they disbelieve at first, till Jesus appears to them.  Mary's name is not mentioned again and she disappears from the accounts - except for one final note.  Luke in the Book of Acts - his second volume - tells us that after Jesus had ascended to Heaven, "The disciples returned to Jerusalem ... they went up to the upper room where they were staying ... All these were devoting themselves with one mind in prayer continually, along with the women ..." (Acts 1:2-14).

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 11
When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was forced to go through a series of "trials" in the night, conducted by the Jewish leaders, before being sent to Pilate.  The second of these was at the house of Caiaphas, the ruling high priest where we are told the scribes and elders were gathered along with the chief priests.  This was not a formal gathering of the Sanhedrin; that would follow.

Though Jesus had been on a hit list for quite some time, John in his Gospel lets us know that it was Caiaphas, the current High Priest, who was the one heading up the witch hunt.  John 18:14: "Now it was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was expedient that one Man should die for the people."

In John 12:47-53, we read of the meeting where Jesus' death had been determined.  Jesus was perceived as such a great problem that there was felt to be a danger of the Romans acting to destroy the nation.  Better for just one to die, then all.  Hence we can understand that the trial was more like a hearing in which Caiaphas and company were determined to find some accusation with which to condemn Jesus.  Perhaps we could call it a kangaroo court.  The Defendant was already condemned to death in the minds of His judge and jury.  Their task was to justify the decision they'd already made.

Mark in his Gospel describes the inquisition (Mark 14:60-64; also see Matthew 26:62-66).  "And the High Priest stood up in their midst and questioned Jesus, 'Don't you have an answer to these who are witnessing against you?'  But He stayed silent and didn't give an answer.  Again the High Priest was questioning Him, and he said to Him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?'  And Jesus said, 'I AM! And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power - and coming with the clouds of heaven!'
          Then the High Priest tore his robes and said, 'Why do we still have need of witnesses?  You've heard the blasphemy!  What is your decision?'  And they all condemned Him as deserving of death."

At first Jesus had simply remained silent while false accusations were made against Him, but when Caiaphas questioned Him directly as to who He claimed to be, Jesus could no longer be quiet.  And His answer was incriminating!

First His reply "I AM!"  The words in Mark's Greek text are "ego eimi."  If the trial was conducted in Hebrew, His words would have been "EHYEH" - the very words that God gave to Moses when asked His name!  (Related to the name "Yahweh," the One Who Is."  See:  Exodus 3:13-15.)

Then Jesus referenced two Scriptures which were not only considered Messianic, but even pointed to His deity.

The first was Psalm 110:1:  "Yahweh said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet.'"  Jesus had previously used this passage in His debates with the Pharisees in the Temple just a few days before (Mark 12:35-37; Matthew 22:41-46), to point out that the hoped for Messiah would not only be the son of David - i.e., of human descent - but He would also be David's Lord - i.e., divine.

Then Daniel 7:13ff:  "As I was looking in the visions of night, I saw coming on the clouds of Heaven, One like a Son of Man.  He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.  And to Him was given dominion, glory and a Kingdom ... "  Jesus throughout His ministry had used the label "Son of Man" (huios anthropou in Greek, but if Jesus spoke in Aramaic, it would have been Bar Enash, the title used by Daniel) for Himself.  Though the expression could be understood as simply meaning a human being, in Daniel's prophecy it referred to a coming being Who would have both human and divine characteristics.

Was this the point at which Caiaphas finally realized that the Man whom he had been out to get was more than just a wonder-working troublemaker who was claiming to be their Messiah, as other crack pots and scoundrels had done?  I suspect that Caiaphas had finally come to the realization that Jesus was claiming to be God in the flesh!

Though many in our day, as well as in the last 2,000 years, will tell us that Jesus never claimed to be God, Caiaphas knew better.  The charge was blasphemy.  How had Jesus "blasphemed"?  He had said nothing against God.  The blasphemy charge was because of His claims to Deity!  It is not enough, however, to recognize Jesus' claims; they must be recognized as true.  It would appear that this had never occurred to Caiaphas.

Instead of recognizing the trust of Jesus' claims, Caiaphas tore his robes as a symbol of his grief and undoubtedly in his blind rage at the Man standing before him.  The tearing of one's garments was a common way of showing one's grief in that culture, as it is in many cultures today.  However, the Mosaic Law forbade this action to one person.

Leviticus 21:10:  "And the priest who is highest among his brothers on whose head the anointed oil has been poured, and who has been ordained to wear the garments, shall not bare his head and shall not tear his garments.  He shall not go in to a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother."

Previously Caiaphas had unwittingly prophesied that " ... it is advantageous .. that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish," which John interpreted to mean "that Jesus was going to die for the nation ... " (John 11:50-52)

Now for a second time, Caiaphas was unwittingly making an acknowledgment.  By tearing his robes he was signifying that the priesthood of the family of Aaron was coming to an end after 1,500 years.  Standing before him was the new High Priest who was about to become not only the Priest but the Sacrifice itself!

I wonder if Caiaphas' robes were patched back together or if he had a new set made,  It made little difference; that priesthood which Caiaphas had unwittingly shown to be over, would limp on for 35 or so years before finally coming to a close.

But as for the followers of Jesus, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us " ... we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God ... for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.
          Let us come then with boldness to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace for help at the right time."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 10

John, in his Gospel, in describing the crucifixion of Jesus, mentions almost incidentally, " ... the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city" (John 19:20).  Three of the Gospel writers tell us that the (Hebrew) name of the place was Golgotha which all four tells us means "Skull" or "Skull Place" - Greek Kranion).  It was obviously not very pretty place and one wonders little as to why the title.  It doesn't take a great imagination to come up with an explanation.  (The kinder gentler Latin name, "Calvary" is not found in the Greek texts of any Gospel.)

I've never been to the Holy Land and don't have any plans to visit in the near future, but I have read and seen photos of, and arguments for, the various places that are assumed to be Golgotha.

I have, however, often pondered John's remarks.  Golgotha was "near the city," so therefore it must have been on the outside.  And, of course, we would expect that.  The prescribed place of execution by stoning in the Law of Moses was "outside the camp"; we read of this over and over in the Torah.  "Outside the camp" was also the place where lepers and other unclean persons were to stay.  It was the place where one went to relieve oneself.  These places were considered unclean.  One exception was that the remains of animals sacrificed in the tabernacle or temple were burned "in a clean place outside the camp" (Leviticus 4:12; 6:11).

Jesus, during His last week spent time teaching in the Temple.  A parable that He told at this time was one we might call "The Parable of the Tenant Farmers."  It is found in Matthew 21:33ff; Mark 12:1ff; and Luke 20:9ff.  It is a story of a landowner who keep sending messengers to his tenant farmers to collect the rent in the form of "the fruit of the vineyard."  As the story goes, the tenants mistreated, even murdered the messengers in succession, finally culminating in the murder of the landowner's son.  As Matthew 2l:39 tells it, "They took him (the son) and threw him outside the vineyard and killed him."  Luke tells it similarly although Mark has a different order.  The story ends with judgment on the tenant farmers and their replacement with others.

Though there is much depth in the story, it doesn't take a great amount of interpretive skill to recognize the meanings of most of the details.  Jesus is the Landowner's Son and His murderers are the Jewish leaders who were at that time questioning Him.

So then, what is the significance of the fact that Jesus was crucified "outside the city"?  The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews says in 13:11-14);
          "For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the Holy Place for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus, so that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate."

Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers in Christ, who for some reason were considering returning to their old religion and apparently turning their back on Christ.  The book is a series of warnings of the dangers of these actions.  The author's final exhortation is this, Hebrews 13:14:
          "So then let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach."

As mentioned before, the cross of Christ is ugly; it is stupidity in the eyes of the world, even of those who are religious.  We as followers of Christ, however, need to recognize that our identity with Him demands that we "go to Him outside the camp."  Following Him will take us outside of our comfort zone of conformity.  It may even require suffering for His Name.

Friday, March 11, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 9

In my previous post, I considered the two men who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus.  In my study of the passages in all four Gospels, I saw the words "cross" (stauros) and "crucify" (stauroo) occurring over and over.  Luke also uses the word for "hanging" (23:39).  But one word struck me - a word used 3 times of these two men.  Matthew (27:44), Mark (15:32) and John (19:32) use the word sustauroo of them  The word is a compound word - the verb stauroo "crucify" with the prefix sun, which means "with" or "together with."  Perhaps we could translate it "co-crucify."  They were co-crucified with Christ. 

Our English translations don't bring this out and this little word study wouldn't seem to be that important.  A search of my lexicons, concordances and commentaries showed nothing of importance in the word.
Except for a few matters I noticed.  First I found no uses of the word outside of the New Testament, not in ancient Greek literature, not in the early church fathers, and not in modern Greek.  Was this a word just made up by the Gospel writers or their sources?  And then abandoned?
But the word does reoccur two times in the writings of Paul.  The first is in Paul's letter to the Galatians, which is believed by many (myself included) to be Paul's earliest letter (49 AD?) and possibly the earliest of any New Testament literature.
He says in Galatians 2:19, 20:  "For I, through the Law, died to the Law, that I might live to God.  With Christ I have been co-crucified.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.  And what I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and handed Himself over for me!"
What does Paul mean by this statement?  Is he identifying with those two who hung there alongside Jesus?  Most scholars claim the Gospels weren't even written when Paul wrote; but perhaps they were; perhaps Paul had at least read the rough drafts.
Years after he wrote Galatians, Paul wrote another letter - to the Romans, in which he uses the word again in similar fashion.  In Romans 6:6 he says " ... knowing this, that our old self was co-crucified that the body of sin might be rendered ineffective, so that we should no longer serve as slaves to sin!"
What I believe Paul is saying is that God considers the one who has faith in Christ as having somehow (spiritually? mystically? metaphorically?) died when Christ died.  My old self is seen as hanging there with Him, with all my sins, just as those two terrorists were.
The death of Christ was more than a sacrifice for our sins, as great an accomplishment as that is.  His death was our death to what we once were and His resurrection is ours (Romans 6:8).  Our salvation is not only in the future; our salvation is ours right now.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 8

The four Gospel writers give different accounts of the events of the day that Jesus was crucified.  We usually try to piece together the details from all four accounts into a reasonably seamless whole.  As I've thought on these accounts, I've tried to do that with the various events and characters as each writer records them.

All four of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified between two other men.  The different authors describe them differently.  Matthew and Mark call them lestai (singular lestes), which is most often translated "robbers," the usual understanding of the word as it is used elsewhere in the Gospels.  Luke calls them katourgoi - "criminals" (literally "evildoers").  John simply refers to them as "two others."

So what about these guys?  Who were they?  And why are they significant to the story?

Well, being a word person, I was intrigued by the word lestes, which is also used by John to describe a man named Barabbas (John 18:40).  According to the Gospel accounts, Pilate the governor had offered the bloodthirsty mob their choice of prisoner to be released - Jesus or Barabbas; the mob chose Barabbas.  And while John simply calls Barabbas a lestes, Matthew calls him a "notorious prisoner," and Mark and Luke have more to say about him.

Mark 15:7 - " ... Barabbas who was imprisoned with the insurrectionists who (plural) had committed murder in the insurrection."

Luke 23:18, 19 - " ... Barabbas ... he had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder."

So it is most likely that the two men hanging on either side of Jesus were not simply "robbers" but Jewish terrorists who along with Barabbas were imprisoned as part of an uprising against Roman rule.  History tells us that this was happening more and more frequently, culminating in the revolution of the late 60's AD and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.  Josephus in his history often uses the word lestai to describe these revolutionaries.

The crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus.  Probably he was a leader in this uprising and quite possibly a hero to many in the crowd.  It has often been noted that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter (and vice versa).

Some texts of the Gospel of Mark include verse 15:28, "And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And He was numbered with the lawless.'"  (Quoting Isaiah 53:12 and Luke 22:37)  Jesus was not being executed simply as a common criminal; He was executed right along with terrorists and was identified with them.

Matthew and Mark tell us the two were mocking Jesus along with the crowds, but Luke gives us further information.  He tells us that one of them " ... spoke abusively to Him, saying 'Aren't you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!'"  (23:39)  This man knew that the Man hanging next to him was not one of his company.  He understood that Jesus was not - as he was - attempting to throw off the Roman yoke by force; Jesus was actually claiming to be the Messiah, the true Deliver of Israel.

The man on the other side however, not only recognized Jesus' claims, but in some way recognized the truth of those claims.  We don't know how he knew; perhaps he had heard Jesus earlier; perhaps he had heard rumors even while he was imprisoned; perhaps he perceived in Jesus' demeanor the reality of His claims.

Luke tells us that after rebuking his fellow and admitting that the two of them deserved their sentence while recognizing that Jesus was not guilty, turned to Jesus, "And he said, 'Jesus remember me when You come into your kingdom'" (23:39-42).  Somehow as both he and Jesus hung there dying, this man - this terrorist - recognized that while his own struggles had not only been in vain but had led to his death sentence, Jesus was offering a Kingdom that was in some way yet to come.  Wasn't this genuine faith?

"And (Jesus) replied to him, 'Amen!  I'm telling you, today you'll be with Me in Paradise'" (15:43).

Imagine that!  The first person to enter Paradise with Jesus was a convicted terrorist!

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Meditations on the Cross, 7

John alone in his Gospel tells us that Jesus' mother was standing there at the cross as her Son was being crucified.  "And there were standing by the cross, His mother, His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene."  (John 19:25)

Though John only mentions these four women at the cross the other Gospel writers mention a number of others.  But Mary is the only one that we're told Jesus actually spoke to from the cross.  The account continues, "Jesus then, when He saw His mother and the disciple He loved standing there, says to His mother, 'Woman - look at your Son!'"  (John 19:26)

As a parent, I have often tried to put myself in Mary's place, to in some way enter into her pain.  I know many parents who have lost children.  As a pastor and as a hospital chaplain, I have stood at the side of those whose children had passed or were passing away: from stillborn babies, to crib deaths, to teenagers, to grown adults.  It's never been easy, and though I have shed tears with many, the fact that I have been spared their experiences means that I can't ever completely understand what these mothers and fathers are going through.  (And to be truthful, I hope I never have to.)

Yet Mary's experience, though duplicated in many lives of many parents, was unique to her.  After all, she was the only mother who was told that her Son was going to save His people from their sins, that He was going to reign forever as the King of His people Israel.  She was the only mother who had given birth without "knowing" a man.

She had raised Jesus from childhood; she had seen His strange actions as a precocious child and as a man.  By this time Joseph her husband had left the scene, apparently having died an early death.  Jesus as the first born would have been responsible for caring for His widowed mother, but she must have felt some rejection as He drew away from her even while He seemed to be stepping more and more into His role as Messiah.

And here she was standing and watching as her Son was suffering a horrible criminal's death.  And now he tells her - demands (?) that she look on that beaten, wounded naked body.  Perhaps she took some comfort in His next words.  "Then He says to the disciple, 'Look at your mother!'"  And John continues, "And from that hour that disciple took her to his own."  (John 19:27)

Perhaps she took some comfort, but I doubt if she took much.  Her concern as a mother would not have been for her own care, but for her dying Son.  She had been told long before, when her Son was a baby, that a sword would pierce her soul because of Him.  She must now have been feeling the full thrust of the sword.

But whether or not we can in some ways imagine Mary's pain, I find it impossible to feel the pain that Jesus felt.  I can suppose that there have been many others who have suffered physically in the same way; there were in fact at that time two other men hanging on crosses, one on either side.  Yes it must have been horrible; besides the physical pain, the shame of His nakedness must have brought to His mind the shame of that original pair so many thousands of years earlier.  But more than all this, He was bearing the cup - the full force of the punishment we all deserve and that He did not.

And yet He thought of the needs of His mother.