A Look at the Cross: John

Sometimes colors run together.  Like a damp water color, John paints the crucifixion with many colors that converge to make one.  His point is “life” and how to gain it, but his colors are numerous.

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)

Thirty six times in his book, will John use the word zoe, or “life”.  For John, life wasn’t just a few more sunsets and it wasn’t just eternal, but a manner of life that can be lived today.  In John’s many years and many experiences, he found that life was to be lived all out on this earth.  The point of his gospel was to communicate that with his readers.  It is fitting that life for us can only come through the death of him (Jesus).  So how do we attain “life”?

The formula for John is fairly simple and can be summed up in one word “believe”.  Belief and life are inextricably linked.  You can’t have one without the other.  Within John’s gospel, it is easy to see that with simple glance at the places where “life” and “believe” occur in tandem.

  • “…everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (3.15-16)
  • “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5.24)
  • “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (6.40)
  • “he who believes has eternal life” (6.47)
  • “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (11.25-26)
  • “…by believing you might have life in his name.” (20.31)

The end result of belief, as attested to by John, is life.  Only through belief in Jesus does one find life.  What is fascinating about John’s book is how he lays out the case for belief.  At every major encounter, through all the 7 signs, and the 7 “I am statements” found in the words of Jesus, John is laying out a case for belief.  In the purpose statement of the book, found in John 20.30-31, John writes: “I have written these things so that you might believe…”  That is not the first time John used that phrase though.

Back one chapter, in John 19, John’s case for belief is solidified.  Sure the resurrection was the final argument for Jesus being the Son of God, but what he did for us was proved on that Friday.  A resurrection is only a resurrection if he was really dead so John writes:

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)

Believe in the testimony.  Over half the times this word [martureo] is used in the New Testament it is from the pen of John (47 times out of 76 total).  Thirty three times it is used in his gospel.  Jesus is doing what God sent him today and that work testifies his identity (John 5.36).  The miracles he performed (10.25) and the Scriptures (5.39) testify or give witness to who Jesus really is.  Do you believe?

Believe in the Truth.  At the end of their meeting, Jesus told Pilate: “I testify to the truth.” (18.37).  Pilate responded by asking: “what is truth?”  Truth is a big word for John.  Just over half of the time in the New Testament, when “truth” [alethia] or one of its cognates occur, it is in one of John’s writings (92/183).  John is awful preoccupied with truth, what is real, and what is “solid”.  Truth, first and foremost, comes from God (John 8.40).  Secondly, Jesus is full of it (John 1.14,17; 14.6; 17.3, 17).  Truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, which is what John is trying to get through to his readers.  Twice in our text, John uses the word.  The first time it is of his words (“the testimony is true”) and the second is of the actions of Jesus (“he tells the truth”).  One is a nod to the account, the other a nod to the event.

Believe the water.  The spear thrust into Jesus side let forth a mixture of blood and water.  Nicodemus was told that he needed to be born of the water (3.5).  The woman at the well needed living water (4.7-14).  In both instances, Jesus was clear, through John’s words, that water was directly connected to life.  Belief, testimony, truth, and now water…all seem to connect back to the life John wants us to have.  Jesus says it in John 7.38: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  But when Jesus says “water” he doesn’t just mean “water”…sure he means “water” but this is other “water”.  The Spirit, who is also connected to truth, will reside within them.  This life giving Spirit, also sent from God, and also testifying to Jesus, will well up inside.  O how we need more water.

Believe in the Blood.  In all of John’s word-smithing, with his deep view of truth, his detailed testimony, his dual-meaning water, and the sheer volume of belief, when he says “blood”, he means it, kind of.  John 6 recalls Jesus talking to the crowds beside the lake.  He connects himself with the bread that the Lord sent down from heaven.  He is the bread of life.  The Jews began to argue because they didn’t understand how they could eat his flesh.  Understandable.  But Jesus replies that the only way to life is by drinking his blood. (6.54)  His flesh is “real” [alethia] and his blood is [alethia].  This is the same word for “truth”.  Life and truth is found in the blood of Jesus Christ…John did some work on this.

The question remains: Do you believe?  Jesus has been talking about belief since the beginning, but here, for the first time, John steps back from the narrative, and interjects the question.  It is implied but present.

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.34-35)


A Look at the Cross: Mark

Mark’s cross illuminates the identity of Christ.

One of the major questions answered by Mark is: Who is Jesus?

It starts with the opening of the book.  “This is the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1.1)  Mark, the author, knows who Jesus is.  With the end in mind, Mark takes the reader on a journey of discovery about the identity of Jesus.   Through the next 16 chapters, Mark gives an introduction to the person of Jesus Christ.  It is not comprehensive, he leaves that job to others, but it is enough to see who Jesus really is.

The Spiritual World knows who Jesus is.  Twice in the book of Mark, God will speak audibly about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.  At his baptism (1.11) and at the transfiguration (9.7), God proclaimed him to be the Son of God.  Three times his identity was declared by evil spirits.  The first were the spirits inhabiting a man in the synagogue.  As Jesus was teaching they cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are–the Holy one of God!” (1.24)  The second sounds like a series of encounters.  Mark says that every time the spirits saw him during a period of his Galilean ministry, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” (3.11)  The final declaration by demons comes from the legion that took residence in the Gadarenes Demoniac.  He fell on his knees before Jesus and the demons spoke out: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you wont torture me!” (5.7)  The Spiritual world knew without a doubt who Jesus was and the power he possessed because of his identity.

Humanity is discovering who Jesus is.  The verdict is still out on his identity.  Whereas Mark knew the ending, and both God and the demons knew the truth, Mark takes the reader, the disciples, and the people on a fast-paced journey of discovery about the real identity of Jesus.  Mark shows more of the humanity of Jesus than any other Gospel.  Mark also discloses more details about the stories he communicates than any other writer.  He is dead set on showing the real person of Jesus and letting us realize in pieces who he is and what he is doing.  The journey begins in chapter 4.

The first potential confession begins with the question Mark is getting at.  Jesus has been asleep in the boat while the disciples are trying to keep it afloat in a storm.  They wake him up as they are about to capsize and ask him to do something.  Jesus rouses himself and immediately quiets the storm and the waves with just the words: “Quite! Be still!” (4.39)  And from the lips of the disciples comes this question: “Who is this?” (4.41)  Is that not the most important question ever offered?  Is that not the greatest decision that we will ever have to make?  A determination of who Jesus is?  Their question comes from the curiosity that “even the wind and the waves obey him!” (4.41)  Who is Jesus? A man with power over nature.

The second potential confession comes from his hometown crowd.  He has been teaching in the synagogue and the people begin to notice that this isn’t the same Jesus who was running through the narrow streets and playing with the other kids.  He has grown up.  The problem is meshing the two images: of boy playing in the street with the man-teacher before them.  Their amazement leads them to question: “Where did this man get these things?   What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn’t this the carpenters son?…” (6.2-3)  Their confusion is rooted in their familiarity with him?  Could it be that we sometimes get so comfortable with the Jesus next door that we forget that he is the Jesus who Created the Universe?

Thirdly, Jesus had come to the region of the Decapolis, where people again met him with the physically handicapped.  He pulled a deaf and mute man away from the crowd and healed him.  The crowd was “overwhelmed with amazement” [ekplesso hyperperissos] at the healing that he performed.  Their amazement was put into words and the third potential confession as to the identity of Jesus: “He has done everything well…He even makes the eaf hear and the mute speak.” (7.36)  He is more than just a weather changer and more than just a miracle worker; now “he does all things well.”  The journey of discovery is continuing.

Peter provides the most intriguing of potential confessions in just the next chapter.  Jesus asks his disciples point blank: “Who do people say I am?” (8.27)  The disciples can handle this question.  They just go through a Who’s Who of leaders in response: Elijah, John the Baptist, some unnamed prophet.  But Jesus wants to know about them and their hearts.  “Who do you say that I am?” (8.29)  Peter, always the first with a response, replies: “You are the Christ.” (8.29)  That is God’s Anointed…the Messiah and the one sent by God.  A great confession.  But the thing is, Cyrus was the Messiah (Isaiah 45.1) but he wasn’t the Son of God.  There is a difference between being the Ambassador (the one sent) and the Prince (the Son of the King) and discovery still awaits.

Fifthly, as Jesus is walking towards to Jerusalem, as he enters Jericho, they come across a blind man.  Bartimaeus is his name.  His occupation was begging.  Many passed by him every day without a scene, but on this day, as Jesus approached, he confessed, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10.48)  “Son of David” meaning King David of the Old Testament.  Jesus has gone from miracle worker to sent one to now King of Israel.  Jesus heals him and he begins to follow the kingly parade that would culminate with a title above Jesus head declaring him “King of the Jews.”

Still all these times they missed it.  Mark started his book to reaveal Jesus as the Son of God (1.1) and 10 chapters in they are still falling short.  That is until a Roman Soldier sees the death of Jesus.

The Centurion knows who Jesus is.  He is first mentioned in Mark 15.39 but he has been on the scene for some time.  He was in charge of the detail that would ensure the death of Jesus and the two criminals.  It was common place in those days, especially for a detachment of soldiers in a backwoods province like Palestine, to perform crucifixions.  This man was hardened to the process and had seen it all.  But something was different about this one.  Mark 15.39 says:

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

When he saw “how” he died.  That word is puzzling.  What made Jesus death so different?  Could I posit one of probably many answers?  Could it be that Jesus death brought together seamlessly his identity and his purpose?  The “how” that the Centurion saw could be a man’s death meeting with a man’s identity and purpose.

Not only has Mark been peeling away at Jesus’ identity, but his purpose has been slowly being revealed through out the book.  Look at Jesus own statements:

  • “I have come to preach.” (1.38)
  • “I have come to call sinners.” (2.17)
  • “I have come to suffer.” (9.31)
  • “I have come to be betrayed and to suffer.” (10.33-34)
  • “I have come to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” (10.45)

All of these things, Jesus accomplished on the cross.  This was not lost, without a doubt through God’s revelation, on the Centurion.  The confession that Mark has been searching for since 1.1, is found when Jesus identity, as the Son of God, and his purpose, “to give his life” are brought together in an instant.  That is what caused the centurion to confess, the same thing that we can confess today: “Surely, this was the Son of God.”  And that is why it took 15 chapters.


A Look at the Cross: Luke

Refracted from the cross, as Luke tells it, is a warm glow of home.  Orange would call it the red of home.  Others would say it would be the smell of warm pancakes wafting up the stair case of their childhood home; the familiarity of a small town, or the back corner of a coffee shop.  Everyone has a place where they just “feel at home”.  If Luke had one message as displayed through the cross, it is this: it’s never too late and you are never too far gone to come home.

It is conveyed in his biography.  Luke, the Gentile doctor, has always been outsider.  His life was a life of exclusion.  Then he started traveling with Paul. And things just got worse.  Paul was trained as a Pharisee, so he held honor in whatever town he went into, especially a Hellenistic Jewish community.  But the trips to Synagogue, his stop in Jerusalem at the temple, and his meals with Jewish families, ended up with Luke again reminded that because of his race, he was too far gone.  Still it is Luke that records Simeon’s words at Jesus’ dedication at the temple: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of ALL people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (2.32)  It is also easy to see why Cornelius, the centurion and first gentile convert, played such a huge role in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts.  This was a chance for Luke to come home.

It is conveyed by his hero’s.  The first people to spread the word about the arrival of Jesus were lowly shepherds who found themselves on the list of the Rabbi’s unclean professions.  Matthew brings wise men with gifts; Luke brings dirty old shepherds.  When he heals 10 lepers, the only one to return and thank him was the mixed-race Samaritan (17.11ff.).  Salvation came to the house of Zacheuss the tax-collector, a traitors man (19) and a widow found her offering praised (21).  Everyone in the book of Luke (and Acts for that matter) seems to come with some baggage, an “as-is” sticker as John Ortberg put it.  But these people who are broken and crippled and shattered were never too far gone and never too late to go home.

It is conveyed by his parables.  Luke has the famous lost chapter of Luke 15 where a sheep, a coin, and two sons need to find their way home.  Though the courage of the shepherd, the persistence of a woman, and the mercy and grace of a Father, do they eventually find their way home.  Each story builds with it the anxiety and wonder if the characters are going to make it back.  “How long will it take?”; “Do they make it?”; “Will the searcher give up?”  He also tells the story of a Samaritan man who has mercy on a traveler.  The story really begins with the question of “what is the law really about?” (10.25)  Jesus asked the question and the the expert of the law answered it correctly.  In an effort to skirt the application, the teacher of the law wanted to know “who is my neighbor?”  When we start excluding people, it makes loving people easier.   Jesus replied with the story.  The reason for the story was to show the man how to live; translation: how to get home.  A Smaritan made it home, where as a priest and a Levite, missed it.

It is conveyed in the moments before his death.  Bursting onto the scene at the crucifixion, a minor character in the story takes on a major role.  We know nothing of this man directly.  Luke calls him a “criminal” [gk. kakarugos].  Luke uses the word 3 times from Luke 23.32-23.39 and the only other time in scripture that it is used is by Paul in 2 Timothy 2.9, where he recounts that he was chained like a “criminal”.  Some things can be found in parallel passages.  Matthew calls him a “robber” [lestes] (Mt. 27.38) but he also uses the same word when Jesus asks the crowd that is arresting him: “Am I leading a rebellion?”  So the word most likely should be rendered “insurrectionist” or “bandit” if you are the fan of the Old West.  Needless to say, this “criminal” was a revolutionary or outlaw.  Chances are good that he was probably supposed to die that day beside his leader, Barabbas, whose cross Jesus now occupies.  The day began with him hurling insults at Jesus (as recorded by Matthew) but if there is a theme to Luke’s gospel it is: you are never too far gone and its never too late to come home.  His fellow criminal is mocking Jesus until he steps in.  This is for another time, but there seems to be a connection between these two and the two sons in Luke 15.  One is “coming to his senses” and the other is dying in his self righteousness.  Needless to say, this is how Luke records the event:

“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us?’

But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since youa re under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for wear are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.’

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23.39-43)

Moments before his death…this man finds home.  The gospel about being lost and separate, about homecomings and forgiveness, shows this criminal finding his way home.  What brought him home?  I can’t say for certain, but as Mark Scott once reminded me: “In the cross, you can see a lot of love in just a few hours.”  Was that what brought this man home?  Was it Jesus statement, also only found in Luke, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?” (Luke 23.34) that brought this criminal home?  I can’t be certain.  Probably a little of both.

It is comforting that it is never to late and that we are never so lost that we can’t come home.

A Look at the Cross: Matthew

Like a stained glass window, the cross is one event bathed in multiple colors.  The authors of scripture each put their own tint to it.  Though they all saw the same thing (or talked to people who had), each added their own flavor to the mix.

Matthew, the Jewish Tax-Collector, colored his with the Kingdom.  Subtly so as not to over power the entire event, he mixed in a kingdom story fit for the arrival of a King.

The Ancestral line of the King.  It started with the genealogy in chapter 1.  The first thing Matthew pens links Jesus to David and every Jew knew the implications that brought.  Not only in his words does Matthew connect the two, but in his structure.  The genealogy depicts 14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and the Exile to Jesus (1.17).  There were more people in those lines, but Matthew was communicating more than just a historical lineage.  Hebrew uses letters as numbers as well, so the letters that make up David’s name in Hebrew, D-W-D, also represent the numbers 4-6-4 which equal 14.  Matthew was sure to show a Davidic connection to Jesus.

The Visitors of the King.  The Magi had come from far off (2.1) following a cosmic event (2.2).  It wasn’t uncommon for people to connect the birth of a King with a celestial event in the Ancient Near East.  Luke places lowly shepherds at the birth; Matthew has wisemen bringing treasures fit for a King.

The Kingdom of the King.  In Jesus first address, he lays out how the Kingdom that he is bringing will run (Matthew 5-7).  He is instituting a new way to live.  “You have heard it said…but I tell you” is the way he frames his message.  Forgiveness, anger, adultery, lust, retribution, love, charity, money, worry, judging…it’s like he is reading my email.  The new kingdom is going to an upside down way of living, but it is strangely appealing.

The Power of the King.  Jesus can heal the leper (8.1ff), a servant far off (8.5ff.), unnamed multitudes (8.14), demon-possessed men (8.28), a paralytic (9.1ff), a dead girl (9.18ff), a sick woman (9.18ff), the blind and the mute (9.27; 9.32).  Oh yeah he can also calm the storm (8.23).  His disciples asked the question: “What kind of man is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (8.27)  They soon would be imparted with some of the power they witnessed (10.1).

The Arrival of the King’s Kingdom.  When his disciples were sent out to preach, they were to take a simple message to the people.  No three points and a poem, no alliteration or extended out line, but a simple quote: “The Kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 10.7)  It isn’t a new message in the book.  John proclaimed it in Matthew 3.  It was his go to sermon.  Jesus preached his first sermon in Matthew on the subject. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (4.17).  Now he gives it to them to proclaim among the people.

The Identity of the King and His Kingdom.  The quote from Isaiah opens up the discussion on Jesus true Identity.  He is “God’s servant” (12.18) but the verdict of the people is still out on him.  Some say he is the Son of David but other’s think he is the prince of demons (12.23-24).  They want to see a sign that will show him to be who he really is (12.38ff.) but the King doesn’t have to answer to them.  The sign will be there soon enough.

The Pictures of the Kingdom.  What will this kingdom be like?  Castles and armies and power and fortune?  It will be like a harvest, a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure, a pearl, a net, a banquet…its more than you might think.  Jesus tells them the parables, the secrets of the kingdom, so that those will willing hearts and hearing ears will understand.  It’s like a vineyard, or a forgiving King, or ten waiting women.  The stories hit home with some, yet with others, they only cloud the picture of what they thought the Kingdom would be.

Entrance and status in the Kingdom.  Only more disheartening to the religious elite than what the kingdom will be, is who will gain entrance.  It isn’t the rich young man (19.16) and it isn’t the greatest and best.  It is the little children who will enter (19.13) and the ones who labored no matter what time they arrived (20.16).  The kingdom belongs to those who’s hearts are ready, not the ones who know the right things to say (21.31).  Its the tax collectors and prostitutes…really?  The chosen ones (22.14) seem to be the wrong ones…

The Kingdom theme in Matthew’s book is punctuated at the Cross.  The color that Matthew shines on the cross is the purple of royalty.  Matthew 27.27ff says:

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him.  They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head.  They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, King of the Jews!” they said.  They spit on him and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.  After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then they led him away to crucify him.

The other gospels record the flogging and the beating that Jesus recieved, but only Matthew frames it in a mock coronation.  The others record the robe and the crown of thorns, but only Matthew places a fake staff in his hand.

The soldiers mock the vanquished King.  Jesus entered Jerusalem a week earlier as Messiah, the one who would come and deliver his people, and now the same voices are asking for his death.  Why?  Because the King that we wanted was not the King that we got.  Jesus was the King of the Jews, but he wasn’t the type of King that would overthrow the Romans, rule from a throne, or save the people from their subjugation.  Instead he would overcome death, rule from heaven, and save the people from their sins.  Back in the Old Testament, the Hebrews desperately wanted a king to be like other nations (1 Samuel 8.19-20), but what they didn’t understand was the king they wanted was not the king they needed.  How often do we look at the world and think to ourselves “how nice would it be to have that or be that or do that?”  Jesus was killed because he wasn’t the King we wanted…but he is all that we ever need.