JOHN PIPER ON THE “FIERY TRIALS”

I begin my Sabbatical this week; I won’t be posting my own sermons for the next six weeks or so. In the meantime, continuing on the theme of suffering, I want to direct you to one of the great Bible Teachers of this generation: John Piper. This is one of Piper’s sermons on suffering.

John Piper’s Sermon on the Fiery Trials.

A few notes:

  1. The link above will take you to a page where you can listen to the audio only, or watch the video, or download either one, or read a shorter, written, version of Piper’s sermon.
  2. If you choose to listen, be warned: it is an hour long. All of it is very good. If an hour is just too much, then I suggest that you to start at the sixteen minute mark. The first sixteen minutes are very good, but they are mostly introductory. They cover the cultural changes that have altered the role of Christianity in our society. The main sermon starts right at about 16 minutes.
  3. Though the written version is good, I think the spoken sermon is a bit better.

 

Grace and Peace to you all. I may post some other sermons by other people (or perhaps Piper again) but in the meantime, I’ll see you in May!

HOW CAN A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

suffering - mother and baby

When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible.

And it is only in Christianity that suffering is redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Suffering Part 2

Suffering #2. WHY DOES GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

 Last time, we considered the fact that New Testament clearly teaches that suffering is a normal part of being  a follower of Jesus. I want to unpack that more, later in this series. I believe that trust in Jesus gives us tremendous hope and grace when we experience suffering. But many people have trouble seeing it that way. One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians have about suffering is this: How can a God who is good, loving, and all-powerful allow some of the terrible suffering that we see in the world?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. Many people turn away from the Christian faith because they feel that God has abandoned them in their suffering. Many others use some version of this question to keep God at a distance, and claim it as a reason they could never become Jesus-followers.

This issue of God’s role in human suffering is very deep, and dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written on the subject, most by people who are much smarter than I am. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t. But sometimes, I think we make this more complicated than it has to be.

One thing I find interesting is that usually, the people who turn away from Christianity because of suffering have not really considered what they are turning toward. In other words, what are the alternatives to the Christian view of suffering? Just so that we are thorough, I want us to briefly think about how other world-views and religions approach suffering. Obviously, this is all vastly simplified, but I think we can get to the basic idea of each. See if these other approaches can really bring you any better satisfaction than the Christian view.

Buddhism, and many similar religions, take the approach that the physical world is meaningless. The way to deal with suffering is to learn to not let it bother you. So when a five year old boy is repeatedly abused by his step-father, it isn’t a tragedy – it is meaningless. Don’t allow it to affect you. If you let such things bother you, you will never find ultimate peace. In addition, Buddhists generally subscribe to the idea of karma. From the website Buddhanet.net:

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life.

In other words, people suffer because they deserve to suffer (possibly because of actions in previous lives).

Hinduism, and many philosophies like it, also view suffering around the idea of karma. So, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the little boy who is abused by his step-father deserves it. Eventually, (in Hinduism) after about  8.4 million lifetimes of suffering, you’ll finally be free. But in the meantime, you should accept it in your own life, and in that of others, as justly deserved. Is this more satisfying to you than the Christian God, who offers us His presence in the middle of suffering, and even suffers on our behalf?

Secularism (which is more or less based upon atheism) sees suffering as a senseless tragedy. Secularists are motivated to try and minimize future suffering, for the good of the human race. So secularists respond to child-abuse by making laws against such things. They want to build a society of laws and technology to benefit all humanity. But secularists don’t have any compelling reason for why we should care about the human race in the first place, or build that better society. Most would object to that statement, but if we are just the product of a random series of events, there is no meaning to life, nor any value to it.

Secularists may want to make the world a better place, but they don’t have much in the way of comfort for someone who suffers anyway. So, the little boy who is abused is suffering from senseless tragedy. There really isn’t anything to make it OK. And yet, on the other hand, there is no compelling moral logic telling us to care about him in the first place. Is senseless suffering more comforting to you than a God who can impart meaning and significance to pain?

Some religions, like Islam, are more or less fatalistic. Suffering just is what it is, and all we can do is get through it as best we can. God has his reasons, which we won’t understand. So the little boy must simply endure it well. There is no sense that God shares our pain, or participates in suffering on our behalf. While it is noble to suffer well, there is no real assurance that it means anything, or accomplishes anything.

Only in Christianity is suffering redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

Now, I know that this is still hard to swallow. What good outcome could possibly justify the repeated abuse of a little child?

The answer is quite simple: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

But the God of the Bible is not only revealed as good, he is also revealed as infinite

For everything was created by Him in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

15God will bring this about in His own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, 16the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen. (1Tim 6:15-16, HCSB)

3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. 5Our Lord is great, vast in power; His understanding is infinite. (Ps 147:3-5, HCSB)

3Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1Sam 2:3, HCSB)

8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. 9“For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9, HCSB)

We human beings are not infinite – there are definite limits to our physical bodies, to our brains, even to our souls. This means that we can only ever grasp a very, very, tiny piece of God. When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible. We are demanding that an infinite God must act in such a way we tiny, finite creatures can understand with our tiny little minds. That is not the God described by the Bible.

All of this is addressed in one of the oldest books of the Bible: Job. Job is good man, with a good life, when God deliberately allows him to suffer terrible tragedies, one after the other. Four friends come to be with Job in his suffering. Job speaks out about his anguish, and he demands an explanation from God. Job’s friends rebuke him, arguing that Job is suffering (basically) as the result of his own karma – in other words, he deserves it. Job disagrees, and maintains that God must explain Himself, and show him the reasons for his suffering. They argue back and forth about this for most of the book. Finally, in chapter 38 of the book, God breaks His silence.

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight, and answer the questions I ask you.

Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world?

In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:1-7, Today’s English Version)

I can just hear someone saying, “Ha! We do know better than God: we know the earth isn’t supported by pillars!” That sort of response is a bit silly. This is clearly poetic language, expressing the main idea that next to God we know nothing.

After going on for four chapters reminding Job of all that he doesn’t know, God stops a moment. Job repents. Next God rebukes Job’s friends, who had insisted that Job’s suffering was essentially the result of karma. He spoke to the friend named Eliphaz:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, HCSB)

He tells them to offer sacrifices, and to beg Job to pray for them:

“Then my servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer, and not deal with you as your folly deserves, for you  have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (42:8, HCSB).

Job did not have the right to an explanation, but in all his demands, he did not say anything untruthful about God. But God says that Job’s three friends – who said many things that some modern Christians often say – were wrong in what they said about God. Note the final twist of the knife against the idea of karma – God says he will not punish Job’s friends, even though they deserve it. The message is clear:

  1. We will not always have an explanation for suffering. We cannot begin to understand God’s perspective, and we are simply not smart enough to comprehend God’s reasons for allowing suffering.
  2. The idea that suffering is always the result of what we do, or don’t do (in this life, or in past ones) is simply wrong. We often have no control whatsoever over our own suffering.

This is the starting point for a Christian view of suffering: God is bigger than we are. He is infinite, we are not, and so we cannot possibly understand the reasons for everything he does, or does not, do. The rest of the Bible, however, calls us to trust this God that we cannot understand. He is willing to suffer Himself, on our behalf. He promises to redeem and make good come from all of our suffering, if we trust Him. Trusting God when we don’t understand may be difficult, but it is not complicated. You don’t have to be a genius to deal with the questions of suffering – you simply need to trust – something any child knows how to do.

I do know – from personal experience – that sometimes trust is a tall order. I haven’t always been able to trust God in the midst of suffering. But when I can, it changes everything. It helps tremendously to remember that Himself has suffered.

18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:18, HCSB)

God, and His actions are beyond our understanding. But He isn’t just some distant puppet-master. He himself entered into our suffering, and suffered on our behalf. He has helped many millions of people in the midst of their suffering. I know he can help us, also. I know He is trustworthy to do so. Won’t you trust Him yourself?

SUFFERING IS A NORMAL PART OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

suffering-crying

Suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. It can be very, very difficult, but it does not have to be evil. In fact, the best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about some good?

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Suffering Part 1

Suffering #1.

I’m not quite ready to launch into another long book-of-the-Bible-series. Instead, I’d like to do something that I don’t do very often – preach on a topic, with various scripture passages as support for the topic. In general, this is not the best way to learn the Bible, but at times, it can be an appropriate way to teach about some part of the Christian faith. I want to spend a few weeks talking about the topic of suffering.

As I write this, I am battling a chronic pain condition that often severely affects me, and limits what I can do. I may not be able to finish one sermon each week. I do appreciate your patience with me as we go through this. If you check for a sermon and don’t find one, maybe you could use that as a reminder to pray for me.

You may think it ironic (depending on how you use that word) that I want to speak about suffering while I am suffering from chronic pain. I’m not so sure. I think the fact that my life is not all rosy right now might be a good place from which to consider the issue.

Before I go any farther, however, let me say this. I do think I’ve suffered a little bit. I haven’t known an entire day without pain for more than two years. A significant amount of my time and energy goes into managing my pain every day. I’ve suffered enough to learn some practical things about the topic. But I don’t think I’ve suffered more than anyone else. I know many, many people who have undergone suffering that, from my perspective, looks much worse than my own. I don’t pretend to know what those other types of suffering are like. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I have suffered as much as many people I know. But I do know that the same Lord who is with me in my pain can be with you in your pain – whether that pain is physical, emotional, relational, or something else. I am not an experiential expert on suffering. But the main thing I have to offer is to teach and apply what the Bible says about the topic. That’s why I’m taking on this sermon series.

Within the past sixty years or so, people in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand (“Western culture”) have entered into a unique period in human history. Many of us who live in these places have come to look upon suffering as some sort of an aberration. What I mean is, we think suffering is an interruption to “normal life;” we picture it as something unusual, something that is not meant to happen. People in other parts of the world (and probably most people in my grandparents’ generation and earlier, in Western culture), understand that suffering is a normal part of life.

I grew up in a third-world country. A school-mate of mine always had to use crutches, because he had polio when he was little. Another acquaintance of mine died from tetanus. I had malaria nine different times. One of my closest friends nearly died from dengue fever. In Western Cultures, no one gets polio or tetanus anymore, because everyone is vaccinated for it. No one gets malaria in those cultures, and most have never even heard of dengue fever. Where I grew up, malnutrition was common. In America, the biggest “nutrition problem” among the poor is obesity.

Because Western cultures have reduced physical suffering, and increased life expectancy so dramatically, we can be lulled into thinking that suffering of any kind should be unusual. When suffering comes, we are surprised, and we often find ourselves in a spiritual crisis because of it. It doesn’t help that many Christians have been ensnared by the false teaching that if we follow God, things will go well for us in our lives. Christian author Tim Keller writes:

“Within the western secular view of things, suffering is seen as an interruption of the freedom to live as makes you happiest. The circumstances that cause suffering and the emotions that go with it must be removed and minimized or managed.” (Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg188)

However, the shocking truth is that Jesus taught the opposite:

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25, ESV2011)

 

27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, ESV2011)

The cross in the time of Jesus was a symbol of intense suffering and death. Clearly, he was saying that to follow Him means to deny ourselves, and submit to suffering, and even perhaps death, along the way. Clearly, that is exactly what happened to many of the first generation of Christians.

I realize that many Christians are unsure about this. Is suffering really supposed to be part of the Christian life? Consider these verses also:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:32-33, HCSB)

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1Pet 2:19-21, ESV2011)

Now, some people might say, “Ah, but Tom, those verses are only talking about persecution. If we live in a time and place without persecution, we should not expect to suffer.” Really? The Greek word in John 16:33, above is “thlipsis.” The literal meaning is “pressure.” It is translated variously as: tribulation, affliction, distress,  and pressure. The Greek word for persecution is quite distinct from this: diogmos (diokos for the verb). Jesus very clearly did not say “persecution,” here. Likewise, in the verse above, Peter does not use the word diogmos, but rather the most common New Testament word for suffering (patho, and various forms of it), which is far more general than just persecution.

There are a few other words used of suffering in the New Testament. I won’t bore you with them all, but they are all quite distinct from the word for persecution.

For instance, James writes of “trials”:

12A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12, HCSB)

2Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jas 1:2-4, HCSB)

Though the words for suffering might include the possibility of persecution, they can, like in English, encompass all sorts of different pain, distress and hardship. If the Holy Spirit had meant us to believe that the only suffering Christians should face is persecution, then all these verses would have used diogmos, not the words that are actually there.

Here are a few more verses:

14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  (Rom 8:14-17, ESV2011)

3Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. 4He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2Cor 1:3-7, HCSB)

How about this one:

29For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, 30having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have. (Phil 1:29-30, HCSB)

I could do this all day. Excluding the word for persecution, suffering is mentioned literally hundreds of times in the New Testament, most often in the context of the lives of Christian believers. Paul describes his sufferings for Christ in 2 Corinthians:

23Are they servants of Christ? I’m talking like a madman — I’m a better one: with far more labors, many more imprisonments, far worse beatings, near death many times. 24Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews. 25Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans. Once I was stoned by my enemies. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. 26On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; 27labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing. (2Cor 11:23-27, HCSB)

Paul does mention persecution, and suffering imposed upon him by sinful people. But he also mentions natural dangers (the sea, rivers) the suffering that comes with hard labor, travel, sleepless nights, lacking food and clothing. Later on, in the same letter, he mentions physical illness. All of it is “suffering.” All of it might be expected in the life of a believer.

Some people seem think, particularly about illness, that Jesus promised to heal every physical illness of all of his followers, even here on earth (before heaven), if they just have enough faith. Not only is there no such all-encompassing promise anywhere in the Bible, but these dozens and dozens of verses about suffering contradict such an idea. It is no lack of faith to say that true and faithful Christians suffer in a variety of ways – it is a core teaching of the New Testament. To argue otherwise is to claim that the apostles did not have enough faith. It would also cast condemnation upon every Christian who suffers from an illness.

Now, I don’t think that all this means that we are supposed to deliberately seek out suffering. I believe that would be foolish. But all of these verses about suffering are actually good news. If we are in the middle of suffering, it is good news to know that we are not alone, that Jesus and the apostles expected that we would encounter such things in this life, as they, themselves, did. In other words, suffering cannot derail God’s plan for your life. Suffering does not mean that somehow, something has gone horribly wrong. I want you to consider this carefully: Suffering can be very, very difficult. But it does not have to be evil.

God can work wonderful, amazing things through suffering. In fact, the very best thing that ever happened for humankind came about through suffering. It came not in spite of Jesus’ suffering, but because of it. Ultimate suffering was the means of bringing about ultimate good. If this tremendous good (our salvation) came through suffering, is it possible that our own suffering might bring also bring about good?

This is a big topic, and there is a lot more to say. I encourage you to write to me, and ask questions about it. At the same time, please be patient – I will try to cover some of the most obvious issues connected to suffering.

Let’s close with more words from Tim Keller:

“So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.” (Tim Keller, Walking With God through Pain and Suffering)

GOING WITH JESUS

go-therefore-feet-walking

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 100

Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

16The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20, HCSB)

This section of scripture is often called “The Great Commission.” One way or another, all four gospel writers record that after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to spread the word about Him. So Luke writes, at the beginning of Acts:

3After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.

“This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time? ”

7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:3-8, HCSB)

Mark has it like this:

15Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, HCSB)

And John includes this incident:

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

I doubt that any of these refer to the same incident. Instead, it seems that after his resurrection, several different times, and in different ways, Jesus told his disciples that they were to continue on with his mission after he left the earth, and that he would empower them with the Holy Spirit to do so, and that His presence would be with them through the Spirit.

This mission was not only for the eleven faithful apostles. Earlier on, Jesus sent seventy of his followers on a smaller mission, preparing them for the time when they would have the opportunity to share the full good news (Luke 10:1-12). Almost immediately after Jesus left the earth, we find not only the apostles, but other Christians as well, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was not one of the twelve, shared it so boldly that he became the first Christian martyr. After his death, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution, but even as they left their homes, they brought the good news to other places:

4So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. (Acts 8:4, HCSB)

Mostly, they spoke to other Jews, but eventually, they began sharing with the culture at large:

19Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.

20But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, HCSB)

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. I italicize “spoke” because many people think they shouldn’t have to say anything. I have heard many Christians express enthusiasm for the saying: “Share the gospel. If necessary, use words.” It sounds cool, but it is utter nonsense. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone coming to faith without hearing someone speak. Cornelius was a man who was seeking God. He had a vision from the Lord. The Lord did not reveal the full gospel in that vision. Instead, he instructed Cornelius to find Peter, and he instructed Peter to share the good news with him. In order to make disciples, we must be willing and able to speak about Jesus.

Of course, it is important how you live your life as well. Both things: Living your life for Jesus, and speaking about Him, are important. The rest of the New Testament backs me up with this.

14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, 15but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1Pet 3:14-15, HCSB, emphasis added)

5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col 4:5-6, HCSB, emphasis added)

Even in our text for today, Jesus emphasized that teaching is an indispensable part of making disciples.

These texts show us that speaking about Jesus is the responsibility of all Christians. Obviously, some are called to do it in a special way, full time, but every Christian should be willing and able to share about Jesus at any time. The Greek expression for “go therefore” might also be translated “as you are going.” In other words, this is something all Christians do, as we go through life.

To more fully express the mission Jesus gave us, we might say this: all Christians are supposed to be disciples and help make other disciples, as we go through this life. Most certainly, that is what the very first Christians did (and not just the apostles).

Let me clarify some things that many Christians seems to get confused about. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In other words, to be a Christian means you are a disciple. To be a disciple means you are a Christian. Being a  Christian (and thus, a disciple) means that you trust Jesus, and, however imperfectly, try to allow him to be in charge of your life. This means that you make decisions based on what you believe Jesus wants you to do. You treat others the way you think Jesus wants you to treat them. You live your whole life that way.

In order to do this of course, you have to get to know Jesus. Disciples spend their whole lives getting to know Jesus more, and more. They do this through reading the Bible (which is His special message for us, so it is listening to Him), praying (which is talking to Him), and “doing life” with other disciples so that you can help each other along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.”

Jesus did not say “make converts.” A convert is someone who goes from believing one thing, to believing another. Often, becoming a disciple involves being converted. But that is only part of the process. Once you are converted, you are supposed to continue to walk the path of discipleship. Conversion is only one step in that path.

Jesus did not say “make churches.” However, becoming a part of a church is a necessary by-product of being a disciple. A real disciple is part of the family of God, and according to the New Testament, the family of God is not “all humanity,” but rather, it is the church. We need other disciples of Jesus to encourage us, pray with, and for, us, tell us when we are being stupid, work together with us for the purposes of Jesus, and help us through tough times. A church can also get together and call Bible teachers, who can assist people in understanding God’s Word (the Bible), which, again, helps us to be better disciples. A real church navigates the ups and downs of life together. If you don’t have a group of fellow-disciples-of-Jesus with whom to do that, you need to find one, as soon as possible. Christians quickly drift away from really following Jesus when they don’t have a church.

Even so, being a part of a church is merely part of being disciple. In other words, if we make disciples, and pursue discipleship ourselves, we will naturally join together and form churches. If we keep the proper mission in view (“Make Disciples”), then churches will indeed form. But we need to remember that our main goal is not to form churches, but to be, and make, disciples. The emphasis should always be not on growing churches, but growing, and making, disciples.

We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Luke and John, and the rest of the New Testament, teach us that when Jesus returned to Heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus is always with every one of His disciples.

16And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. (John 14:16-18, HCSB)

Now, I hope you know that this is a scary thought. That’s right, he’s with us always. When you did that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the Holy Spirit saw you. That’s why Paul writes:

30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, HCSB)

And:

15Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Cor 6:15-17, HCSB)

But it isn’t just that Jesus knows when we sin. Through the Spirit, he applies the work He did on the cross, to us. Through the Spirit, he forgives, washes and renews us:

4But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, HCSB)

Through the Spirit, he teaches us, comforts us and guides us.

25“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. 27“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

We can only do the work of discipleship, and making disciples, through our connection with Jesus by the Holy Spirit:

5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5, HCSB)

I am embarrassed when I sin, and then after, remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. But His grace and forgiveness are bigger than my sins, and bigger than yours, also. He reminds me of all the teachings of Jesus, and applies all of the work of Jesus to my heart.

All in all, the promise that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit should bring us tremendous comfort and joy. Relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance, if we give Him our willingness, we can be sure to find joy in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, in being His disciples, and in helping other disciples to come to Him, and grow.

THE PEOPLE OF HOPE

resurrectionmatt2017

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory.

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Matthew #99.  Matthew 27:62-28:15

Many people seem to have the feeling that the Bible is a bit like a fairy tale. In a fairy tale, all sorts of strange and magical things happen. In the Bible, all sorts of strange and miraculous things happen. It’s somewhat understandable that some people get confused, especially if they don’t read fairy tales, or the Bible, very often.

Even so, the Bible is very unlike a fairy tale in several respects. In the first place, fairy tales take place in a vague and imaginary place. The classic beginning to one is “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away,” or some such variation. If you searched for the time and place where the events in a fairy tale took place, you would not be able to find them: they don’t physically exist.

The same is true of the people in the stories. When did Snow White live? Where was she born? In what year did the evil queen take power? It is silly to ask such questions, because clearly, when you are dealing with a fairy tale, you aren’t supposed to think it really happened.

Another thing is that in fairy tales, we accept magical and improbable events as simply ordinary parts of the story. Returning to Snow White, there is no explanation given as to why a mirror could talk to a queen. These things aren’t considered out of the ordinary, in the context of the tale. Of course the mirror can talk. The story doesn’t tell us how or why.

Let’s set this in contrast to our text today. Matthew 28:1-8 tells of a miracle. You might say, it tells of THE miracle, the most significant one that has ever happened: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death.

THE miracle didn’t happen “Once upon a time,” or “far away in a strange Kingdom.” Matthew tells us where it happened: Jerusalem. The place where it happened still exists today. The people in the story of the resurrection are likewise real people. Pontius Pilate was really a Roman governor – all historians agree about that. Romans really did crucify people. Caiaphas really was a High Priest in Jerusalem. There really was a temple there. People really did and said the kinds of things that Matthew describes. The only resemblance to a fairy tale is that Matthew says something unusual happened: Jesus Christ was truly physically dead, and then later, he was truly physically alive.

However, the miracle of the resurrection is not treated as if such things happen all the time. Matthew records it as amazing and astonishing to everyone who learned of it. No one in the story of Snow White is amazed that the mirror talks, or that a kiss could cure a fatal illness. But miracles in the Bible, including the resurrection, are always treated as remarkable. It’s not like, according to the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. In fact, no miracle is considered “commonplace;” by definition a miracle is something extremely unusual and amazing.

Matthew also deals with the skepticism of his readers. There was a counter story, circulated by some, that the disciples had stolen the body. Matthew tells us about it and explains how the story was concocted. How did Matthew know all this? Remember two of Jesus followers – Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus – were members of the Jewish ruling council. They were probably there as these decisions were made.

By the way, when Matthew says the story is told “even today” that “today” was only twenty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t know about you, but I can easily remember the major events in my life from twenty years ago. My oldest child was three, and my youngest was one. I had recently started a church in which many wonderful things took place. Almost all of those who were part of that church are still around, and could verify the many stories I tell about it. The same was true with Matthew. Most of those who witnessed the resurrection (more than 500, before Jesus returned to heaven) were still alive at this point. The apostle Paul explains, a few years after Matthew wrote his gospel:

3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:3-8, ESV2011)

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory. If the New Testament described what it does, only without miracles, everyone would believe it: it describes real places, real people, and real first-century culture. People only disbelieve parts of it because they have a pre-existing bias against miracles.

The point of all of Jesus’ teaching hinges on the resurrection. We have seen throughout the book of Matthew that in a variety of different ways, Jesus claimed to be one with God. He continually acted as if the most important thing was how people responded to Him. Numerous times, he predicted not only his own death, but also his resurrection. If he wasn’t God, and he wasn’t raised from the dead, then much of his teaching doesn’t really make sense, and he would have to be considered an arrogant narcissist. We would also have to admit, that his major prediction – that of his resurrection – didn’t come true, so he certainly couldn’t be Divine.

This means that resurrection is incredibly powerful, and incredibly joyful. It means that what Jesus said is true! We are forgiven for our sins! We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive and love others! If we submit our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus, we, like him, will be raised from the dead ourselves!

The first people to see Him alive – the women – responded with fear and joy. The fear part is that you don’t see a dead person come to life…really, ever. It filled them with awe. The joy is that everything he said was now proved to be true, and this man who filled them with peace, grace and love was still alive!

Christians, more than any other group on earth, are people of hope. The ultimate hope of Hindus is to cease to exist as individual personalities. The hope of Buddhists is to cease to exist entirely. Atheists have no real hope – they believe that death means the end of existence, which, though they usually refuse to admit it – makes all of life meaningless. Jews believe in a resurrection, but it’s a bit tough to know if you really qualify. Muslims hope they’ve been good enough to live in paradise, but the end, even for good Muslims, is very much in doubt. Allah makes no promises.

Only Christians, out of all the major world religions, have the concrete hope that we will be resurrected with new bodies to inhabit a new creation and live glorious eternal life, free from pain and sorrow. And that hope is based entirely upon the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore, our relation to him. If we entrust ourselves entirely to Jesus, and give him free reign in our lives, we are promised that wonderful, eternal future.

That promise makes a difference, even here and now. As I write this in February of 2017, I have been struggling with chronic pain for more than two years. For the past 8 months or so, it has become much worse. Even doctors at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic will not promise me that I will ever be free of this pain. But Jesus does. I may not be free of it in this life, but I will in the next. Through Jesus resurrection, I have the assurance that I will have  new body, perfected, and ideally suited to the new creation. There is more out there than this life can offer me. That gives me hope to endure anything. It can do the same for you.

THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY

centurion-at-cross

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, after his death has broken every barrier between us and God.

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Matthew #98.  Matthew 27:51-61

Christianity is a faith deeply grounded in, and connected to history. The Bible is not a book of fairy tales. Scholars have confirmed, countless times, that the people in the Bible were real people, the places were real places and the events that are recorded actually happened.

According to our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the pivotal moments in all history. Something happened at that time in Jerusalem that is unique in all of human existence. You might expect that a moment so special might look or feel different than other moments. All four gospel writers confirm that it did indeed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record a three hour darkness, leading up to the death of Jesus, from the sixth, to the ninth hour. (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). This was not an eclipse: eclipses do not last that long. It may have been simply heavy cloud cover, but that’s not exactly what they say. Also, cloud cover that is that dark usually turns into a storm quickly, and passes quickly, but everyone agrees that this darkness lasted three hours. At the very least, we could say that it wasn’t coincidence that the clouds were so heavy that day that it felt like darkness.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple was torn into two (more on that in a moment) and there was an earthquake that split open rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown in Jerusalem, but it is interesting, to say the least, that one occurred the very moment of Jesus’ death. Also, in order to split rocks, it would have to be a very violent earthquake indeed. Matthew also says many dead people came alive from their tombs, but he also mentions that they showed up after the resurrection, not immediately after Jesus’ death.

He also writes this:

54When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son! ” (Matt 27:54, HCSB)

Luke and Mark also tell us about this centurion. A centurion in the Roman legions was something like a Master Sergeant in the Marines today. He had the primary responsibility for one-hundred, hard-bitten, violent, unruly legionnaires. It was up to him to make sure that his “century” (100 men) obeyed the orders of officers, kept their equipment maintained, marched in formation, and maintained discipline. He had to force these mean, angry, violent men to do what he told them to. He had probably seen men die, and certainly, he had seen men beaten and whipped. He’d probably been in some brawls and seen and done some nasty things. In other words, a centurion had to be one tough, no-nonsense son-of-gun.

Something about the way Jesus died touched this hard-bitten, cynical, violent man to the core. He makes what is in the New Testament, a basic declaration of faith: “Surely this man (Jesus) was really God’s Son!” We don’t know what all went into this man’s faith. I tend to believe it was a combination of the way Jesus handled himself on the cross, along with the physical signs of darkness and violent earthquake.

We don’t know a lot more about this centurion, but I have some speculations. John records one moment when he and Jesus’ mother were close enough to the cross to hear Jesus speak. Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us that most of the time, the women were all standing off, watching at a distance. So, how do the gospel-writers know what Jesus said and did on the cross? How do they know what he said and did at Pontius Pilate’s trial? I suspect that this centurion ended up as a member of the early church. He was certainly there, right at the foot of the cross. He was probably there at Roman headquarters, when Pilate questioned Jesus. He may be the source of some of that information. Of course, Jesus himself could also be the source of that information, after his resurrection. In any case, I think it is testimony to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that a Roman centurion came to faith because he witnessed it.

Another one of the unique events was that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn in two (Luke 23:45; Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). This is actually a tremendously significant event, but we need to understand more about the temple to know why.

The temple at the time of Jesus was actually a complex of buildings. There were two large courtyards which contained various covered porticos, and other rooms and smaller courts around the edges, but within the walls of the larger courtyards. One courtyard was generally for women and Gentiles, with a sub-court for lepers. A second, more exclusive courtyard was for only Israelite men. Within this inner courtyard was the “sanctuary” which we might think of as the “main building” of the temple. The sanctuary was also called ‘the holy place” (actually, the English word “sanctuary” comes directly from the Latin for “holy place.”) Only priests could enter the sanctuary, where they would change out bread on the altar of bread, and offer incense on the altar designated for that, and light candles. The priests were divided into divisions for these duties, and then chosen by lot. To enter the sanctuary was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for priests. The sanctuary was a large rectangular room. One end of the sanctuary was curtained off, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Behind that curtain was the “most holy place,” or “holy of holies” (sanctum santorum, in Latin – a phrase some people still use in different contexts). It was believed by the Israelites that the very presence of God dwelt in the most holy place of the temple. Only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once each year, to offer atonement for the sins of the people.

The message of all this was that the presence God was separated from the vast majority of the people at all times. Women, gentiles and lepers could not even enter the courtyard that surrounded the sanctuary. Israelite men couldn’t enter the sanctuary. Even priests almost never got to go into the sanctuary, and inside the sanctuary, the curtain kept them from the most holy place.

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, so we can’t really conceive of what it was like before. But the Old Testament gives us glimpses of it. Before the death of Jesus, some tribes of people were so beyond redemption that they had to be entirely wiped out (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s holiness could kill you if you simply worshipped at the wrong time, or in the wrong way (Leviticus 10:1-3). Before Jesus, God’s holiness could kill if you simply reached out to prevent a holy artifact from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 6:1-7). Before the death of Jesus, more than half of those who wanted to worship could not even enter the courtyard where the sanctuary was built. Almost all of the remaining half could not enter the sanctuary itself. The message was this: “We need God, but his holiness destroys us, because of our sin. We have to stay separated from him in order to be safe.”

But Jesus, by his death, ripped down the barrier between us and God. The physical tearing of the curtain in the sanctuary was a manifestation of the spiritual reality that Jesus accomplished by his death. He has definitely destroyed the barriers between us and God.

Now, let’s make this real in our own lives. What are the barriers that you feel between you and God? What keeps you distant from him? I want you to pause and think about this. Let the Holy Spirit bring things to mind.

After you have thought about that for a moment, ask yourself this question: “Did the death of Jesus remove this barrier?” (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

The next question is this: if the death of Jesus removed the barriers between me and God, how do I “take hold” of that? What I mean is, it’s fine to say the barrier was removed, but what if I feel like it is still there? How do I live in the truth that it is gone?

The centurion shows us the way: repentance and faith. If you hold on to your sin – that is, you do not repent, and turn away (however imperfectly), then  you yourself are holding the barrier in place. Repentance drops that barrier. Faith – as the centurion shows us – is simply trusting it is true. Yes, Jesus is the son of God. Yes, his death did remove the barrier between me and God. I am going to act and feel as if this was really true. The more you do so as an act of will, the more real it becomes in your life.

The death of Jesus changed history. It changed everything. Will you let it change you?

GRACE: FREE TO US, COSTLY TO HIM

crucifixion

God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

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Matthew #97  Matthew 27:11-50

[This is a slightly longer message than usual. Be prepared, if you are listening, to take 35 minutes or so. If you are reading, please be ready for just a few more words than normal.]

At this point, I want to consider the extreme suffering of Jesus – all of which was for us. Some of you will read this long after I post it. In “real time,” as I write, it is only a few weeks until Christmas. This may seem like a weird topic to cover during this season of joy and goodwill. But consider this: I have already mentioned that in Jesus’ life on earth, every single moment that included physical or emotional pain, was suffering on our behalf. Even a stubbed toe was suffering that Jesus did not have to experience, but that he endured for our sake. So, in a way, his atonement for our sin began with his birth.

Of course the atonement could not be complete without his death. He came into the world for exactly this purpose: to die, to receive in himself what we deserved. Let’s consider what that meant for him, physically, spiritually and emotionally. As always, many other sermons might be preached on these same verses. I am choosing to focus on just the one thing, although I do think it is the most important thing in this text. By the way, even if you don’t normally “share” things online, I think this would be a good one to share.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. After the mock trial, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

Next, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – that is, beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him; a cohort was made up of about 500 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. Also, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross, again a humiliating experience.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself. This is why Jesus cries out:

46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, HCSB)

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin, to Jesus, on the cross.

23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26, HCSB)

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say, essentially: “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. About a year ago, I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!