I told you how John the Baptist pointed me out as "the Lamb of God that keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 2:29, see Chapter 3). At that time the disciples did not understand much of what the imagery might mean, and nor did I. But as I went into my crucifixion the picture gave me the strength I needed for the awfulness of what was happening.
I was already into the fourteenth hour of this interminable Day of Preparation (John 19:14, 31). On the one hand I shrank from the very idea of being crucified. Everybody knew that the excruciating agony was designed to be drawn out as long as possible. And Roman soldiers were experts in this method of totally horrifying execution. But now I was ready, almost eager to get it over.
As a child my mother made me memorize the text from Isaiah. I could still see it, as it was written out, in the Hebrew characters of the scroll in the Nazareth synagogue.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3 RV).
It was that sense of being despised that I found the hardest to cope with. The religious leaders of my own people had turned away from me. They couldn't look me in the eye; only point disdainfully and call me names to incite the crowd. The ordinary human instincts of self-pity, self-justification, and self protection had to be faced again and again. So far the Spirit had kept lifting me above them. But eventually a terrible weariness had set in.
Condemned prisoners were made to carry the cross on which they would be nailed. Half way to Golgotha (the place of the skull) I collapsed, and after a few kicks the soldiers saw I wouldn't make it. So they grabbed a passer by and made him carry the cross behind me. I recognized him immediately. He was an African, originally from Cyrene, and now working as an immigrant in Judea. We had baptized Simon together with his two sons, Alexander and Rufus, and they had become faithful disciples (Mark 15:21).
A large number of women from the city had joined us, wailing and lamenting what they were doing to me, and I felt a terrible sadness. I was certainly that " man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" in the text (Isaiah 53:3). But my sorrow was for the terrible fate they and their city would inevitably face. I turned to them and said "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed' (Luke 23:27-29). As you know, it is always the women and children who suffer most in a long siege (as in fact happened in the years 67 to 70 AD).
Two other condemned men were crucified with me. As the nails went in I heard their piercing shrieks, and I prayed for help. Then I saw the large sign that Pilate had ordered the soldiers to nail to the top of my cross. It was written in Hebrew and Greek and Latin. "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews." That really got the chief priests angry, and they immediately went to complain to Pilate the governor. When they came back I heard them say he had answered in Greek ho gegrapha gegrapha, "What I have written I have written" (John 19:18-23).
As I told Peter the evening before, I could have asked the Father to intervene and twelve legions of angels would have come instantly to save me (Matthew 26:52). But now as I was nailed below that prophetic sign I was able to keep reciting:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5).
The nails were bad enough, but when I was jolted upwards it seemed as if my life was being torn apart. Was it Satan who was enjoying his victory? As the pain settled in to a steady agony, I asked the Father if it was he that was smiting me? I could see that in one sense the religious establishment had caused my death. But it was Pilate who was too weak to exercise Roman justice. The soldiers were the immediate cause of my crucifixion, and they were now gambling for my clothing. To my astonishment the Spirit gave me the prayer "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). And I felt very grateful I could pray for them..
As I kept thinking of the cause of this enormity, I remembered I had kept warning my disciples that this would happen (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19). And Isaiah had described it exactly. How then would my chastisement make people whole? I remembered the words ani yahweh ropheka (I am the Lord who heals you) spoken to the children of Israel after Exodus (Exodus 15:26). How would my suffering bring healing to the world? The mystery was still too deep to fathom.
I also pictured what was going on at that very time in the temple. Every Jewish family prepared a lamb for the Passover meal which would begin in a few hours' time. "On the tenth day of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household . . . Your lamb shall be without blemish. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it" (Exodus 12:3-6). It occured to me that the Passover lambs had been chosen four days ago when I came in on the donkey and the crowd welcomed me into the city. And now I was being slaughtered on the fourteenth day in preparation for the Passover meal this evening. That brought back the next lines from Isaiah:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:6-7).
It is amazing how the imminence of a painful death clarifies the mind. All sorts of individual ideas and experiences suddenly hang together. On the one hand as Messiah I was to be the Good Shepherd, but I was also to die meekly as a lamb. This was why the Spirit guided me not to resist or complain. I was offering myself without blemish as a perfect and totally willing sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14). And the purpose was the freeing of all people of the world from the satanic powers of sin and evil that grip and destroy their lives. That was to some extent pictured in the rituals of animal sacrifice which still went on in the temple. Bulls and goats and sheep and lambs all die so we can eat, but their death could never free humans for eternal life (Hebrews 9:11-14, 24-26, 10:12-14).
My disciples had often found it hard to grasp the fact that my supreme concern was for them to be free (John 8:32, 36, Romans 8:21, 2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 5:1). I tried to explain that ransoming and redemption mean that a slave or captive is freed at great cost (Mark 10:45). And last night at the preparation meal I reminded them that the Exodus freeing of slaves had to be preceded by eating the flesh of a lamb after its blood had been put on the doorpost of every home (Exodus 12:6). But of course it wasn't the blood of those first Passover lambs that freed the people. Right there on the cross I was living out, or rather dying out, John the Baptist's words, "This is the Lamb that keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
It was a comfort to have three women standing by to support my mother Maria as she watched what was happening to me. But I couldn't cope with her tears. John was also there, so I told him to take her back to his lodging for the Passover meal that night and she could go back with his family to Galilee (John 19:25-27).
As people passed by on their way to prepare for the Passover meal with their families that night they stopped to mock me. The chief priests and scribes and elders, who had come from the Sanhedrin to witness my death, said "He saved others, he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son'" (Matthew 27:39-43).
When the two criminals and I were left alone, one of them kept saying "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him saying "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." I was deeply moved when he turned, looked me in the eyes, and said "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And I immediately assured him, "Today you will be with me in the Paradise" (a Persian word meaning the garden" (Luke 23:39-43).
Then the sun turned dark, and the two thieves and I were in pitch darkness for nearly three hours. When I knew the end had come, I began reciting "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1). But suddenly I felt relieved and knew the battle was won. So I called out triumphantly "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:44-46).
Next thing I knew was that the Spirit had taken me through death, I had my resurrection body, and the Father was there to welcome me home (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
There was a lot to talk about, and I had many questions. As the Father answered I found I could understand without any of the limitations of my thirty years of human life. Then the Father told me that my sacrifice had broken the power of Satan. And he solemnly handed over the keys of sheol (Hades, the abode of the dead). "Why don't you go and open the door for them to come and join us here?" (1 Peter 3:19, Ephesians 4:9-10). It was just as simple as that, and I was astonished to see Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and Isaiah and hundreds of others wandering around Jerusalem with their resurrection bodies on their way through to our side of eternal life (Matthew 27:52-53). It was a marvelous sight.
There was only an hour left before sundown when the Feast of the Passover would begin. So the priests were concerned that I should be taken down and safely buried. It was strange watching the soldier piercing my side with his spear. The two criminals on either side of me survived for a bit longer. And then I was able to greet the criminal I had assured about life after death (Luke 23:43) as he came through the door.
I also saw Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, and my dear friend Rabbi Nicodemus take me down from the cross, and bury my body just before the Day of Preparation ended and Passover began (John 19:38-42). That was a very costly act of faith and devotion for them. It meant that by touching a dead body they would be defiled, and unable to share in the Passover with their families. They would have to wait a month before they could do this (Numbers 9:6-11). But by then they would have been told all that the Passover really meant (Luke 24:25-27), and I would make sure their family was richly rewarded..
Meanwhile the Father, the Holy Spirit, and I had to decide what to do
about my earthly body lying sealed in Joseph's tomb. How do you dispose
of a body so that it does not become an object of worship? How do you avoid
a tomb becoming a place of pilgrimage and superstition?
Note Whether we write a life of Jesus like this, or preach about the events, or just try to imagine what happened, we are inevitably gripped by a model that for the present best explains the facts. Some think we will not receive our resurrection body at death, but we will have to wait in a state of soul sleep till a future day of resurrection. The model used here is based on Paul's assumption that when he dies he will be immediately clothed with a new resurrection body (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). He also said that our resurrection by the Spirit is the same as Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11).
The Apostles' Creed assumes that after his death Jesus went into sheol (Hades, the abode of the dead). This is based on Peter's statement that he went there to free the Old Testament saints (1 Peter 3:18-19). Most commentators have explained that Jesus had to descend into sheol (Hades) for three days before he could be resurrected. In the model used here resurrection occurs immediately we die, and Jesus was also clothed with his resurrection body immediately he died. Having been given the keys of sheol (Revelation 1:18) he freed the Old Testament saints, and these appeared in Jerusalem while Jesus' dead body was still on the cross (Matthew 28:50-54). Using this model we assume that Jesus's references to being raised the third day (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 18:33) refer to his physical body being raised early on Easter Sunday, as we picture in the next chapter.
We therefore distinguish his and our entering into glory immediately at death (Luke 24:25) from the, the removal or disposal of the old body. In our case it is by burial in the earth, placing in a sealed tomb, cremation or whatever. In Jesus' case the funeral took place early on Easter Day.
As explained in the Postscript, a model is not a proof, only one way of making sense of the facts (in this case all the New Testament texts that refer to what happens at death). Having adopted a model we are then committed to living out its implications. And we use it as our explanation until someone offers a better explanation. Meanwhile we respect those who prefer another model, and recognize that the reality is likely to have been far more wonderful than what any of us have imagined.
Chapter 14 .....