Friday, 4 September 2015

‘That you may believe’ (John 19:17-41)

I am not ashamed to tell you that I am a Munster Rugby supporter.  I have been to some of their biggest matches, if you look in my wardrobe you will find a couple of their jerseys, I have a Munster sticker on my car and I will happily tell complete strangers about my feelings for the team.  Even when I am with my Dublin friends I feel no need to hide my love of Munster.

What team do you support?  Maybe it is not a sport but a hobby, political party, a cause, a type of music or a television programme.  We all have things that make us passionate, and when the heart is full the mouth will speak.  It is natural to identify with the things we love!

But do we speak about Jesus?  Are you glad to be known as one of his people?  I know that it is more difficult to say ‘I belong to Jesus’ than ‘I support Munster’ because people think it is odd to be into God.  However, surely our love for him should put every other passion in the shade.

John tells us why he records Jesus’ crucifixion—‘that you may also believe’ (35).  One of the features of this belief is that it makes us go public about our love for Jesus.  Such a desire to stand by our man can be fuelled by thinking what about what we believe.

We believe Jesus is King of kings (17-22)

Jesus was crucified at a place outside Jerusalem called ‘The Place of the Skull’, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha, and we know it by the Latin translation ‘Calvary’.  There the crucified him.  Unlike the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’, none of the gospel writers draw out the gory details of what it looked like to be crucified, for their main purpose is simply to show us that meaning of what Jesus achieved.

They crucify him between two criminals.  Isaiah had foretold this hundreds of years earlier when he wrote of the crucifixion of the suffering-servant being ‘numbered among the transgressors’ (Is. 53:12).  Pilate has a sign put above Jesus’ head that reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ (19).  He is mocking Jesus, and does not realise how true his words are.  He has the sign written in three languages—Aramaic (the local language in Palestine), Latin (the language of Roman officialdom), and Greek (the language spoken throughout the empire).  Jesus is the Saviour of the World (4:42).

All through his gospel John has wanted us to see that Jesus is God’s promised eternal king.  Believing in Jesus involves enthroning him as your Lord.  His rule must shape your life.  Later we will meet Joseph of Arimathea who had ‘who feared the Jews’.  However, the opposite of the crippling fear of people, with their opinions of us, is the joyful fear of God.  Having Jesus as our king involves the reverent awe of a loyal subject—a fear of not living in a way that brings honour to our king.

We believe the evidence presented by the Old Testament (23-25)

John draws contrast between the four soldiers who divide Jesus’ garments and four of the women who stand by Jesus at the cross.  In his life, in his death and to this day Jesus divides people into one of only two camps—those who won’t take him seriously and those who stand by him to the end.

Notice that the casting of lots for Jesus’ tunic was ‘to fulfil the Scriptures’.  He presents us with evidence.  Including the evidence of how even minute details of Jesus’ death were prophesied centuries in advance.

In the Book of Psalms the Lord’s Anointed King declares, ‘they divided my garments among them, and for my clothing cast lots’ (22:18), ‘for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink’ (69:21b), and ‘he keeps all of his bones, not one is broken’ (34:20).  These and many other Old Testament prophecies find a fulfilment in this morning’s reading.  

The fact that Jesus’ death fulfils such minute prophecies reminds us that God is in charge of all that is going on.  Jesus’ enemies thought they were witnessing his defeat, but God was working all things for good.  No matter who is giving you a hard time, they are not mightier than God, and they have not knocked God off his throne.  Even in the midst of the darkness we have to trust that God knows what he is at.

Added to the evidence of Scripture being fulfilled is John’s own eyewitness testimony.  ‘He who saw this has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you may also believe’ (35).  John is putting his reputation on the line, and in the following decades he would endure much hardship because of his commitment to the truth he is sharing.  John doesn’t ask us to take a blind leap in the dark!

We believe we are part of a new family (26-27)

Sometimes the people who compose the church aren’t very good at loving the Christian who belong to it.  A friend told me that the people in her church don’t really enjoy hanging out with each other.  Writing after Munster’s first European Cup win one writer suggested that, ‘Maybe in years to come, the sociologists will decide that the Munster phenomenon was down to people needing to identify with a big-hearted and inclusive movement at a time when there was a dearth of such churches.’  Jesus prayed that his people would be one, ‘that the world may believe that you sent me’ (17:21), but the world doesn’t always see this truth lived out.

In a beautiful moment of compassion Jesus looks down from the cross and sees his mother.  By this stage she is almost certainly a widow.  He instructs John, ‘Behold, your mother!’  And from that hour the disciple took her into his own house (27).  It seems that his natural siblings did not yet believe in him.  So there may be significance in the fact that he entrusts her to John rather than to them.  Certainly Jesus saw the family bond we share with fellow believers as being more significant than the natural bonds of our blood relatives.  If Jesus loved our fellow-believers enough to die for them, is it too much for us to care for them?

We believe we are freed from condemnation (28-30)

The words ‘It is finished’ must be amongst the most comforting words in the Bible.  Jesus has accomplished the task for which he came.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we can know peace with God, for he has taken the full punishment for our guilt.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we can speak about being justified by grace only, not by works, so that no person can boast.  In fact if you are trying to prove yourself to God with your own reputation and good works, you are denying the gospel by seeking to add to what Jesus finished.  If you are allowing yourself be made miserable with regret over past failure then you are not grasping the full implications of ‘it is finished’.  It is because ‘it is finished’ that we delight in the fact that there is no condemnation for those who believe.

We believe in a godly sorrow that leaves no room for regret (31-37)

The Sabbath began on the Friday evening, so the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to ensure the bodies would not be left on the cross—which would break the Old Testament law.  Therefore, the soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals, to cause a swift death.  But they did not need to break Jesus’ legs because he had already given up his spirit.  To ensure that Jesus was certainly dead they pierced his side with a spear.  John points out that he saw this, in case anyone might believe the silly idea that Jesus never actually died.  This piercing fulfilled Scripture in a couple of ways.

The psalmist had spoken of none of the bones of the Lord’s Anointed being broken (34:20), but the Jews would have also remembered the preparations for the Passover (Ex. 12:46, Num. 9:12), which said that none of the lambs bones were to be broken.  John has repeatedly linked Jesus to the Passover.  Like the Passover lamb, Jesus dies as a substitute so that we can be spared from God’s judgement.

Another interesting fulfilment of Scripture comes is that ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced’ (37).  In Zechariah these words are in the first person—God says, ‘they look on me, whom they have pierced’ (Zech.12:10).  God has been pierced, because the unique Son of God is God the son.

But Zechariah gives a word of hope.  Listen to the context of the words John quotes.  ‘I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him … On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanliness’ (Zechariah 12:10-13:1). 

The old hymn asked, ‘were you there when they crucified my Lord?’  There is a sense that in our natural hostility towards Christ we shouted for his death and pierced his side.  When we remember that it was our sin that necessitated the crucifixion, we should be moved to the godly sorrow that produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret (2 Cor. 7:10). Believing involves a godly sorrow that leaves no room for regret.

We believe in being open about our allegiance to Christ (38-41)

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus make a brave move to ensure that he receives a proper burial.  Both these men were on the Jewish ruling council, so being a follower of Jesus would turn their lives upside down.  Previously Nicodemus had approached Jesus at night, and Joseph had been a secret disciple, for fear of the Jewish authorities.  But now they step out of the dark and go public.

There are times when Christians in the persecuted world have to meet in secret, so as not to be needlessly imprisoned.  But that is hardly the case for us.  All Christian know those times when God calls us to put up our hands and go public.  People want religion to be a private matter, but belief in Jesus often involves public declarations.  If love causes us to broadcast the team we support or the country we are from, how much more should love cause us to declare the Saviour who won us!

I realise that it is easier to speak about sport, hobbies or even politics than Jesus because people may see you as a religious nut when you tell them that you belong to him.  Indeed, it can be hard to speak about Jesus because there is a necessary offence in a gospel that tells people that they are condemned without Christ.  But what about the glorious things we believe?  That Christ died for us while we were yet sinners in fulfilment of what had been foretold; and that we will never experience a greater love than the Christ who considered us friends and laid down his life for us.  Rejoice in these truths, and let them emerge from your mouth.  Dwell on these things and make them your delight.  For when the heart is full, the mouth must speak!

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