It is finished

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John 19:17-37

“To die is not a problem when a man has accomplished his historic mission.”  Unfortunately for Leon Trotsky, an icepick cut short his mission to rule Russia.  His death represented a failure.  But Christ would have us believe that His death was a success.  Yet there was absolutely nothing on Good Friday that looked victorious.

“After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.  Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar:  and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.  When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished:  and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”  (John 19:28-30)

Here we have a 33 year old Jew covered in spittle and blood, stripped of His only possession – His cloak, His back pulped from flogging, His limbs pinned to a piece of wood, His body hoisted onto the upright, an accusation of blasphemy and sedition placarded above Him, His followers scattered, crowds hurling abuse, the sky black and heaven silent.  And Jesus waits until this moment to cry out “I did it!”

That’s the meaning of “It is finished.”  It’s a single Greek word that means ‘it is covered, it is satisfied, it is paid for.’  Archaeologists have found the word stamped across first century bills.  When you made that last mortgage repayment to the building society, the final notice would come back with the stamp:  ‘it’s paid for’, ‘it’s covered’, ‘you’ve done it!’

And in His final moments Jesus declares His death to be His victory:  “It is finished!”  Not ‘I am finished’.  This is not a cry of defeat.  ‘It is finished’.  This is about accomplishment.  But what exactly is being accomplished?

Well it’s an ancient work that was alluded to in the opening chapters of the Bible.  In Genesis 2 we read about the conclusion of the creation week.  At the end of the sixth day, “God rested.”  The LORD brought creation to completion, that all might find rest in a true Sabbath.

Of course the fall puts a major spanner in the works.  There is no longer any rest to be found in this old creation, only striving and failing. Therefore a new work of God is afoot.

Fast-forward to John chapter 5 and Jesus gives a sign of the new work. He brings new creation life to a lame man.  Of course the authorities – guardians of the old order – are incensed that Jesus would “work” on the Sabbath.  He replies:

“My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.”  (John 5:17)

The Father and Son have not retired from world.  Since the fall, the Father and Son have been working to redeem the old creation and bring it to its true rest.

This is the great work of God.  This is the task which must be “finished” – the destruction of the old order, that new life might be raised up.  And here on the cross we see it happening.  The Son has become flesh.  He has taken humanity to Himself and with it, the headship of this old order. He wraps our death, pain, struggle and curse around Himself so that He might put it into the ground like a seed.  Then the world can be raised up – born again. (John 12:24)

Picture Him there on the cross.  He is lifted up as the Head of this old order – shot through with sin, curse and death.  He is a figure of disgust, truly summing up the hell of our plight.  And now look at the time.  It’s Friday afternoon – the end of the sixth day.  Sabbath is closing in when no-one may work.  And just in the nick of time, He shouts “Finished!”

His work is to die, to take this creaking world down into death and finish it off once and for all.  On the sixth day, He accomplished His mission. On the Sabbath He rests.  And on the Sunday, a whole new world begins.

Gave up the ghost

Luke 23:44-49; John 19:28-30

–   An old car that breaks down for the last time.

–  A sports team that knows it can’t win.

–  A business that finally calls it quits.

In all these situations we’d say they “gave up the ghost.”

In the bible, the phrase describes death.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all said to have “given up the ghost” when they died.  It just means that they breathed their last breath.

In the biblical languages (and in old English), breath, spirit and ghost were all one word.  And so for Abraham and others, it was a case of their body returning to dust and their spirit (or ‘ghost’) returning to God. (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

We’re all destined to give up the ghost.  Death is “the way of all the earth” (1 Kings 2:2).  And the funeral service has a stark reminder:

earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Our spirits animate us for a while, but soon we give up the ghost.  And down to the dust we go.

I don’t know what you make of that song from the Lion King, “The circle of life”?  It’s incredibly catchy, but I can’t sing it.  When I realise that I am dust and I’m destined for the dustbin, I don’t feel like singing.  Especially since the bible argues it’s more of a semi-circle really!  If life naturally runs its course then we emerge from the cosmic compost heap only to sink back down to the sludge.

Just after Adam sinned the Lord told him:

“dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

That’s the kind of life we’ve inherited from Adam.  It’s not a life-cycle.  It’s a one-way arrow pointing straight to the grave.  And there’s no way out.

Our natural life – the life of the flesh – only produces more flesh.  We can’t generate spiritual life from our own resources.  We are perishing and one day we will all “give up the ghost.”

So what does the Son of God do when He sees His handiwork perishing? It should never cease to amaze us:  He comes to perish too.  Even the Word our Maker gives up the ghost.  John was there at the cross to see it happen:

“Jesus said, It is finished:  and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”  (John 19:30)

Here is the Lord of Glory going “the way of all the earth.”  But why should the Author of life subject Himself to death?

Let’s hear the 4th century Bishop, Athanasius:

“For this purpose, then, the… Word of God entered our world.  In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.  But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.  He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression… All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own… because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father.  This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men.  This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.  Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”

When Jesus gave up the ghost it wasn’t a failure.  On the contrary, as our verse declares, His death “finished” death for us all.  It was the very accomplishment of His divine mission.  More on this next time…

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do

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Luke 23:26-43

On one occasion I spoke with an atheist who made a repeated claim: “Jesus was a hypocrite.”  No matter how many times I asked him for evidence, he couldn’t point to any.  Plenty in me.  Plenty in himself. Innumerable instances in Christian history.  But none in Christ Himself.

That’s quite astonishing really.  Hypocrisy is almost the defining characteristic of humanity.  We cannot bear to be seen for the unrighteous fools we are and so we wear masks, we hide, we act and distract.  And our speech is the primary way we do it.  The magician, Derren Brown says he performs his tricks through a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.”  That’s what we do with words to try and “pull off” our own performances.

We say one thing but mean/think/do another.  Everyone’s a hypocrite. Except Jesus.

But that should shock us more than it does.  You see no-one had more scope for hypocrisy than Jesus.  Because no-one preached the kind of life that Jesus preached.  Let’s just take five statements from the sermon on the mount:

Every jot and tittle of the law must be fulfilled

Turn the other cheek

Go the extra mile

Love your enemies

You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Such talk opens Him up to the closest scrutiny.  He has set the bar so high, even to the point of saying “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

If my opponents were baying for my blood I can imagine a paralysing fear over the scandals they may dig up.  But think of the claims which Christ’s enemies could hold Him to.  The merest flaw would open Him instantly to the charge of hypocrisy.  Instead, what do we see?  Perfect integrity. Not even His harshest critics could make their charges stick.  Here is the one Man in whom life and lip speak the same language.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the hour of His death.  Christ maintains His integrity even in the furnace of intense suffering:

“And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death.  And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.  Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”    (Luke 23:32-34)

It’s the first of His ‘last words’.  And it’s a word of forgiveness.  When I bump my head my first thought is of vengeance.  When Christ was pierced, He bled mercy.  Iron nails are driven through His hands and feet, His body hoisted onto the upright, His bones out of joint, struggling for breath and He prays “Father, forgive.”  As He bore the curse of God, Christ cries for our mercy.

And so the Man who makes the highest demand – “Love your enemies” – obeys it to its darkest depths.  He is as good as His word.  But His word is not a judgement upon us hypocrites.  It’s not even a judgement upon Christ-killers!  This is what’s so astonishing about the righteousness of Christ.  It does not make Him less sympathetic to sinners but more.

This is why He hangs on the cross.  His death is not for the good.  It’s for the very people who cause it.  And His prayer is answered the next time this crowd gathered publicly – at the feast of Pentecost.  Two months later, Peter proclaimed to the Christ-killers the developments that had occurred since Passover:

“God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.  Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?  Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost… they gladly received his word were baptized:  and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”  (Acts 2:36-41)

It is an incredible answer to Christ’s prayer, an incredible response by God to the murder of His Son.  He forgives them the killing of His Son and pledges them the gift of His Spirit.  What more can God offer?

On the day of Pentecost, Christ-killers came to know the Fatherly love which Jesus called on even in the hell of Calvary.  The Father also proves His integrity in fulfilling His gracious word.

The word of Father and Son to hypocrites is not a word of judgement.  As the cross proves, at our very worst He offers His very best.  If we come to the cross for mercy we too will know Christ’s word on our behalf:  “Father, forgive.”  And He will.  He’s as good as His word.

Hail, King of the Jews!

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Matthew 27:27-31; Philippians 2:5-11

When you think of a martyr’s death, you might picture dignified suffering, noble sacrifice, perhaps a reluctantly admiring crowd, some final, well chosen words of grace and wisdom.  We often imagine a certain glory to martyrdom.  But that only goes to show we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Richard Wurmbrand wrote “Tortured for Christ”, a stunning, first-person account of the persecution of the Romanian Church under Communist Rule.  He remarks at one stage that the most effective way for the government to kill off a pastor is to spread a false rumour among the village that he is a vile sex offender.  A mob of local vigilantes would do the rest.  Such a man does not die as a hero, he dies as a paedophile – at least in the world’s eyes.

Many people imagine an applauding crowd lining the way to martyrdom. But Wurmbrand writes of the reality – those who die for Jesus are rarely known to be dying for Jesus.  They are considered the scum of the earth and those who kill them feel entirely justified in ridding the world of their presence.  Those put to death are treated as worthy of death.  There is no glory, no dignity, no earthly vindication.

But even in this shame, martyrs for Christ share a deep fellowship with their Lord.  For His death was the ultimate in shameful degradation.  In fact the shame was a key part of His sufferings.

As He looked ahead to His passion, the mockery of the Son of Man was central:

“And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him:  and the third day he shall rise again.”  (Mark 10:34)

Jesus will not merely die for His creatures.  Such sacrifice is astonishing enough.  But we could almost imagine Him laying on some altar as fearful and reverent priests shed His blood for the sins of the world.  We could picture Him reassuring His hesitant executioners, “Friend, let it be so, I do this for you.”

But in reality Jesus stoops infinitely beneath such a death.  He’s not just murdered but mocked also:

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.  And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.  And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.  And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.”  (Matthew 27:27-31)

It’s an anti-coronation service.  In the palace they robe Him, crown Him and proclaim Him King.  At the same time they mock Him, spit on Him and punch Him in the face.  If this were a mere man it would be shameful.  If he were an earthly king it would be treason.  But what is it to treat the Lord of Glory like this?

What kind of Lord subjects Himself to such treatment?  Not just to death – but to this kind of death.  He doesn’t simply die.  He is dissected before a hateful crowd.  Stripped naked, teased and spat on by His killers. Punched, and punched and punched again.

Here is a God who cares nothing for appearances.  Here is a God who cares nothing for earthly glory.  Literally nothing is beneath His dignity. There are no depths which He will not plumb in His mission to save.

Therefore this mock worship is intimately tied to a right honouring of Jesus.  Not only will these soldiers one day bow before the vindicated Lord Jesus in true worship.  Actually it’s Christ’s willingness to endure such mockery which makes Him worthy of all praise and glory:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:  Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:  That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

Crown of thorns

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Matthew 27:27-44

What does it mean for Jesus to be Redeemer?

What does it mean that He is Saviour of the world?

Some people have a gospel that depicts the Son of God swooping down to snatch a lucky few from damnation.  Souls are saved and saved out of the world into another realm.  The world itself can sink into hell – the chosen ones have a life-raft.  And they can’t wait to escape.

But then Jesus comes into the world and anchors Himself to this reality. He earths Himself into our flesh.  He takes our humanity to Himself: forever.  More than this, He takes our sufferings to Himself – bearing our sorrows and carrying our griefs (Isaiah 53:4).   He takes our sins to Himself – the iniquity of us all is laid upon Him at the cross (Isaiah 53:7). And even more than this, He takes our curse upon Himself – lifted up on a tree to bear the reproach we all deserve (Galatians 3:13).

Jesus does not ignore suffering, sin and curse.  And He doesn’t merely blast it to oblivion with some glory-gun.  He takes it to Himself.  He owns it and then puts it to death in His own body.  The Head of creation dives into this pit of our own making to take on the darkness in person.  And there’s no better symbol for this than a crown of thorns.

“The soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.  And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.  And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!”   (Matthew 27:27-29)

Thorns are the very emblem of the curse.  As soon as Adam sinned the LORD told him:

“Thorns also and thistles shall [the ground] bring forth to thee.” (Genesis 3:18)

These thorns are the polar opposite of the fruitfulness for which the earth is intended.  And they are the opposite of the fruitfulness God’s people are meant for.  While Israel is supposed to be a fruitful vine, briers and thorns come up instead (Isaiah 5).  Jesus uses the same imagery in His own teaching.  When speaking about the false prophets of His day, He asks “Do men gather grapes of thorns?”  That is, will you find the life of God in a fraudulent people?

Thorns choke the fruitfulness of the word (Matthew 13:22) and they harm those who are seeking to spread that word (2 Corinthians 12:7).  Thorns are anti-life, anti-gospel, anti-creation.

And what does Jesus do?  He dives headlong into the thornbush – He enters into the fruitless, lifeless, painful curse of this world.  Through it there is twisted a crown of thorns, and He wears it with pride.

Christ’s reign does not ignore the thorns, it includes them and takes them up into His redemptive purposes.  He turns curses into crowns, and a tree intended for death into the very tree of life.  Here is a cosmic redemption.

What regrets do you nurse?  What sins do you still lament?  How many “what ifs” do you wonder about?  Have you suffered from foolish, sinful or unfortunate twists of fate?  Do you consider that now your life is condemned to God’s second, third or 57th-best?  Look again to Christ.  He turns curses into crowns.  And that’s not just an example of redemption.  The cross is the very engine of redemption.  And there is no part of this world that it will not touch.

Whatever thorns you experience, Christ is taking them and twisting them further.  He is not discarding them.  He’s not actually straightening them! He’s twisting them into a crown.  He’s pushing on through the curse, through the cross to resurrection blessings.  But in these blessings, the curses are not forgotten, they are included.  They are glorified. Curses become crowns.

There is no pain, no weakness, no fruitlessness, no sin that Jesus does not take up into His purposes and turn to greater glory.  We’re not sure how He will do it.  But when we look at the cross we cannot doubt that He will do it.  He is the One who turns deicide into cosmic glory and blessing.  He really is the Redeemer of the world.  No matter how painful the thorns might be, we can trust the One who makes them His crown.

Pilate washed his hands

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Matthew 27:11-26

The trial of Jesus has everything backwards.  The Judge of the world is in the dock.  The Truth is cross-examined.   The Righteous One is pronounced guilty.

As we saw last time, the people act as judge and jury, while at times Pilate seems more like a public defender.  Now in this verse, the Governor seeks to abdicate all governance.

“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”  (Matthew 27:24)

During the Nuremberg trials, many Nazis sought to blame those higher up in the chain of command for their crimes.  Pilate does the reverse – blaming the people for a decision that lay ultimately at his door.  It is ironic that Pontius Pilate is known for two things today.  He was the original ‘washer of his hands’ over a matter for which he felt himself innocent.  Yet at the same time he is remembered every Sunday by millions all over the world as the murderer of Jesus:

…Crucified under Pontius Pilate… (From both the Apostles and the Nicene Creed).

No-one is innocent of Christ’s blood.  Neither the Jews nor the Gentiles, neither the masses nor the rulers.  We can perform as many rituals as we like, but we all have blood on our hands.

Yet, amazingly, this is where Christ meets us.  You see in the Old Testament tabernacle (and then Temple) there was a basin erected next to the altar.  Many times it is commanded that the sacrifices are to be washed before they are slain.  Yet in connection with this basin, only one kind of washing is commanded.  This basin was for the High Priest, to wash his hands (Exodus 30:18f).  The one who offers up the sacrifice must show his ceremonial cleanness to the people.

No doubt Pilate was unaware of this detail and yet he fulfilled it publicly. The Lamb of God would be sacrificed according to the law, and the man responsible would wash his hands for all to see.  Yet such an act does not vindicate Pilate, it vindicates Christ who, though silent like a sheep before its shearers, seems to be pulling the strings in a remarkable way.

For those viewing these events politically, they inspire only cynicism.  Pilate is trying to absolve himself, when he should be taking responsibility. For those viewing these events biblically, they inspire deep trust.  Even as He suffers the most cosmic miscarriage of justice, Christ remains in control.  The condemned Man is convicting the world.  The One in the dock is calling the shots.  “The Son of man goeth as it is written of Him.” (Matthew 26:24).  And His killers only end up serving His purposes.

Crucify him, crucify him

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Luke 23:1-25

In 1963, Stanley Milgram’s experiment asked anonymous participants to deliver increasingly severe electric shocks to subjects in the next room. Unbeknownst to the participants, the shocks were not real.  But had they been, they may have been fatal.  The great majority of participants delivered the shocks, even though there were screams of great pain from the next room.

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo ran the Stanford Prison Experiment in which participants were divided into guards and prisoners.  The guards were given uniforms and had authority over the ‘prisoners’.  The two week experiment had to be abandoned after 6 days because of rampant abuse of power on the part of the guards.  Zimbardo’s book on the subject was called “The Lucifer Effect.”

Something happens when people lose their individual identities in the crowd, when there seem to be no consequences, when they act en masse , when there is a diffusion of responsibility such that there’s always someone else to carry the can.

There was a very definite “Lucifer effect” when Pilate addressed the people during the trial of Jesus.  There was a custom of releasing a prisoner at the feast of Passover.  Pilate suggests that it’s Jesus who is released.  The crowd seem to prefer having a murderer roam free among them…

“And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man [Jesus], and release unto us Barabbas:  (Who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.)  Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them.  But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.  And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go.  And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.  And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.  And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will.”  (Luke 23:18-25)

This was a Passover crowd – drawn from the four corners of Israel.  It’s highly likely that many in the crowd had been personally healed by Jesus in the last three years.  Certainly a good number would have heard His teaching, seen His miracles and known people whose lives had been transformed by Jesus.  And yet, you can feel the electricity crackling among the people, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

On Palm Sunday many churches have a tradition of dramatising the passion narrative, with the congregation taking on the role of “the crowd.”  The readings always made a huge impact on me as a child.  But this line more than any other shook me.  It was always the loudest part of an otherwise sombre service.  And there we were, church people, and we were baying for the blood of Jesus.  Imagine actually being in this crowd. They are the people of God and the Messiah’s fate lies in their hands. They bay for His blood, even though they don’t really know why.  Pilate asks them, but they have no answer.  They just seem driven along this mad path to Deicide.

There are no reasons for putting the Son of God to death.  There is only this primeval urge in the crowd – He must be done away with.  This is our sinful condition expressed in its clearest terms.  We would rather have a murderer released among us than the Lord of life!

But even in the midst of our terrible sin, a wonderful gospel presentation is seen.  Barabbas is a name that means “Son of his father”.  He is a counterpart to Jesus.  A son of a different father whose unrighteousness reveals a different origin.  Here is Adam’s son – one very much under Lucifer’s effect – he who had been a murderer from the beginning.  But on this day, in a very real and literal way, Jesus died for him.  Jesus, the Innocent, died in the place of Barabbas, the guilty.

And if Barabbas had dared to walk up to Golgotha on that Friday he could have pointed to the middle cross and said “That should have been me.  But Jesus died in my place.”

Here is the hope for all the sons and daughters of Adam.  Here is the hope for all of us who fall under Lucifer’s effect.  Christ’s death was not merely the will of the people (v25).  It was His own will.  The cross is not simply the proof of our sinfulness, but the offer of His salvation.  His incredible love means that He wants to die for devils like Barabbas, and devils like you and me.  Therefore we too can point to the cross – the cross that we have bayed for! – and declare with wonder:

“The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me.”    (Galatians 2:20)

My kingdom is not of this world

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John 18:12-40

The myth of violence powerfully shapes our view of the world.  We imagine that force must be met with greater force if anything is to be achieved.  And of course we tell ourselves that the greater force is justified if it’s done in the name of some greater good.  Most Hollywood blockbusters follow this storyline.

Take, for instance, the highest grossing film of all time.  Avatar tells the story of a culture clash between greedy imperialists and a nature-loving indigenous people.  Yet however different the natives might be portrayed, how do they overcome the nasty invaders?  Through a loud and lengthy slug-fest. In a spectacular special-effects battle, the biggest hitters win.  And so a wonderfully imaginative beginning concludes with a predictably bloody finale.  And on the deepest level it’s neither the imperialists nor the natives who win.  In the end, violence wins.

The trial of Jesus might look like one more clash between powers.  Facing off are two contenders for the title:  King of the Jews.  But this encounter will subvert everything we know about power struggles.

Pilate claims to rule the Jews as the vice-regent of Rome.  Christ claims to rule the Jews as the Vice-Regent of God!  But this is not simply a clash of kings, it’s a clash of the kind of power by which they rule:

“Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews?  Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?  Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me:  what hast thou done?  Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world:  if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews:  but now is my kingdom not from hence.”  (John 18:33-36)

Pilate rules the way every human rules – with the sword.  His servants do indeed fight for him.  Pilate has the monopoly of violence in his province. He decides who can wield physical force and who cannot.  If you cross him, he’ll cross you – literally.  He’ll line the streets with crosses if needs be.  And if anyone were to usurp his rule it would be by bringing more earthly power.  Force would unseat force.  And yet even if that occurred, there’s one thing that would remain on the throne – force!

But Jesus hasn’t come by force to effect a slightly more benevolent reign of violence.  Jesus has come to unseat violence itself.  His kingdom is not of this world.  The kings of this world ask their servants to fight for them. Jesus subverts this kind of kingdom in two ways.  First He fights for them. Second, the way He fights is by losing.  He ends the cycle of violence by taking the blows and not retaliating.

Here is the cruciform revolution that Jesus brings to the world.  The Apostle Paul, reflecting on the meaning of the cross, said this:

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:  But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:” (1 Corinthians 1:25-28)

How does God overcome strength?  With weakness!  It’s absolutely counter-intuitive but two minute’s thought reveals its wisdom.  Power-plays are not overcome by a show of force!  They can only be unseated by the cross.  The Lord of Glory undermines all earthly glory by descending beneath it.  And through the cross, Christ establishes a kingdom of servants not fighters.  Won by His cross, we are called not to kill but to be killed, not to over-power with force, but to over-whelm with love.  The spreading of Christ’s reign ought to look completely different to the spread of any earthly kingdom.  It should look like a base and despised people pointing to a weak and foolish Victim.  But this is how we confound the mighty.  It is the triumph of grace.

Thirty pieces of silver

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Matthew 26:14-16, 47-56

What would motivate Judas to betray the Son of God?  Theories abound. Many reconstruct a supposed political radicalism.  Perhaps he was disenchanted by Christ’s non-violence.  Judas, we imagine, had been hoping for an uprising and was so disappointed by Christ’s way of peace that he sold Him out.

That’s a fascinating supposition.  But it’s both groundless and redundant. The Bible tells us exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus:

“Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.  And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.”  (Matthew 26:14-16)

Judas loved money.  John 12:6 puts it starkly, “he was a thief”.

If that doesn’t sound sensational enough as a motive, perhaps we have misunderstood Christ’s teaching on money:

According to Jesus, we either serve God or money, (i.e. mammon).  We either look to the living God or we seek the resources of this world.  Of course, with judgement coming we would be a fool to pursue an abundance of possessions.  But such fools we are by nature.  And our foolish hearts are revealed by our foolish investments in earthly treasure. (“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”). Therefore, as mad as it is to value the Son of God at 30 pieces of silver, this is precisely the motive we should expect from Judas.

But what is the meaning of this price?

Centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah was given thirty pieces of silver – this was the price he was “prised at”. (Zechariah 11:13).  Though he calls it a “goodly price” he is perhaps being ironic.  All he does with this valuation is to throw the money into the house of the LORD where “the potter” would receive it.  His feelings are understandable when we remember the legal significance of “thirty pieces of silver”.

In Exodus 21 there are rules concerning the keeping of dangerous animals.  If you have been negligent and let out an ox who kills a servant then your own life is forfeit.  You ought to die but you can ransom yourself from death by paying thirty pieces of silver.  In so doing, you, the guilty one, are redeemed and the servant is valued.

Therefore 30 pieces of silver is the value placed on a servant’s life, it’s an offensively meagre price for a prophet and it provides redemption for the sinner.  In all this we see how fitting it is that this was the amount of blood money paid to Judas.  Jesus is the Servant of the LORD, slain at the hands of the beast.  He is the Prophet, misunderstood and undervalued by His people, but prized by the Potter.  And He is the ransom price offered for we the guilty.  A ransom, infinitely more precious than silver or gold:

“Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation…  But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”  (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Betrayed with a kiss

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Luke 22:47-53

If ever there was a man who could call himself the elect of the elect, it was Judas.

He was not only Jewish, he was, in all probability, from the tribe of Judah.  Certainly his name means “Judah” – which refers not simply to the southern kingdom of Israel but also to the royal tribe from which Christ Himself was descended.  Here was Jesus’ own kith and kin.  This alone would make him the elect of the elect.

Yet Judas’s privileges go even deeper.  The Scriptures constantly present him as a close friend of Christ’s (Psalm 41:9; 55:12-13; John 13:18-30).  He had not only seen the mighty works of Christ, he had performed them too, in Jesus’ name (Luke 9:1ff).  And, of course, he was one of the twelve.  Even more, he was chosen as treasurer of the group (John 12:6).  In that sense he was the elect of the elect of the elect of the elect.

And yet here is what this chosen one does to the Eternally Chosen One:

“While Jesus yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him.  But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?”  (Luke 22:47-48)

Just hours earlier Jesus had bent down and washed his feet, then fed him, sacramentally, with His own body and blood.  Jesus had only ever done Judas good.  Yet now He is betrayed.  And betrayed with a kiss.

Biblically speaking, a kiss is not only a sign of intimacy and friendship, it’s also an act of worship.  One of the key biblical words for worship (proskuneo) literally means to “kiss towards.”  Therefore think of Psalm 2 where the kings of the earth are commanded to “worship the LORD” and, in the same breath, to “Kiss the Son” (Psalm 2:10-12).  So here is a literal kissing of the Son by a royal Judah-ite.  This should be the essence of worship, in fact it’s the height of treason.

And this is the Bible’s picture of humanity.  It was Judas, the elect of the elect, who betrays Jesus.  And betrays Him to the best of the best – the Jewish establishment.  And they, with the help of the mightiest of the mighty (the Romans) crucify the Lord of Glory.

Humanity does not stand with Jesus in His work.  No-one gives Jesus a helping hand when He saves the world.  Simon “the rock” fails, deserts and denies Him.  Judah himself betrays Him.  And the children of Abraham sentence Him to death.  The best that humanity has to offer is not an aid to Jesus – we only cause His death.  And the more we lay claim to strength, wisdom and righteousness, the more complicit we seem to be in His murder.  It wasn’t the worst of humanity that slew the Son of God – it was the best.

This scene shows the truth so starkly:  From the outside we see a respectable man of good breeding worshipping the LORD.  In fact it’s the very betrayal of God.  When it comes to salvation, humanity only stands in the way of the LORD.  And the very best of humanity, appearing with the best of intentions, proves utterly traitorous.