Saturday, May 23, 2009

Praying for Peace and Justice in Jerusalem

With the exception of the Likud Party in Israel and the neo-cons and "Christian Zionists" here in America, it seems to me that most everyone in the world agrees that the Palestinians should be given a state, and that the Palestinians have a right to make east Jerusalem it's capital. This is really a simple matter of justice, and until it happens there is no realistic chance for peace in the Middle East.

Yesterday the new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reaffirmed his insistence that "United Jerusalem is Israel's capital," and that "Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours. It will never again be partitioned and divided."

The notion that Jerusalem has always been the property of Israel is false, biblically and historically. The first mention is "Salem" (assuming that is a shortened form of Jerusalem) in Scripture is in Genesis 14, and its king was the enigmatic Melchizedek, who ruled the city long before there was an Israel. Centuries later, in the days of the conquest described in Joshua 1, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin tried to drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, which mixed results. In fact, it was not until the time of David (around 1010 BC) that Jerusalem was finally conquered and designated the capital of the nation (2 Samuel 5). In recent history, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan until the Six Days War in 1967, when Israel annexed the eastern section of the city.

In an ideal world, a new Palestinian state would share east Jerusalem with Israel, and extremists on both sides of the question would be silenced. Sadly, it is difficult to imagine this will ever be the case. There are Israelis like Netanyahu who refuse to acknowledge the need for a genuine two-state solution, and of course there are many Arab extremists who will not be satisfied until Israel is driven into the sea.

BUT - if history has proven anything it is that the unexpected can happen. And I don't think Christians should lose faith that God in His providence can bring about a just solution. So please pray for peace and justice in a region roiled with violence, hatred and injustice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Almost Punched an Old Geezer

Yesterday I met with what I affectionately call my "Old Ladies Class," a Bible study I do at Morningside of Belmont here in Nashville. When class was over I got on the elevator with one of the members (Frances), and an older gentleman who has visited class from time to time also got on (Bill). Bill is at an age and stage where he doesn't remember much, and Frances reminded him that he had visited our class on occasion.

As we exited the elevator, Bill looked at me and said, "You should teach about the seven ways to lose weight." It is not uncommon for older people to just blurt out things about my weight, so I just benignly smiled and walked away. I was looking for another lady who no longer attends class, but who I always try to find to say hi to.

I couldn't find her, so I turned around to leave, and then I spotted Bill imitating me as a fat person to one of the staff. I couldn't believe it. That is something little kids in school do, not adults. And I really wanted to go over and punch him in the face. Instead, I just glared at him for a minute and walked away.

I really hope that he is no longer responsible for his actions, that what he did is not an indication of a lifelong habit of cruelty, but instead the result of the infantile behavior that accompanies senility.

I have to admit that I thought later about other things I could have done to him, like:
-Grabbing his walker and taunting him to chase me for it.
-Asking him why his family doesn't love him and put him in a nursing home.
-Punching him again.

And there is a good chance he would not remember any of this tomorrow!

But the experience made me appreciate with greater awe and admiration how Jesus responded to those who viciously attacked him-

1 Peter 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

After all, I am fat - there's no denying it! But Jesus was slandered as a false prophet, impugned by false witnesses, condemned by cowards, and beaten and murdered. There was nothing true or right or just in how He was treated. But He did not "revile in return." He trusted in God.

Lots of you have been slandered and abused in ways much worse than I can imagine. Take heart in Jesus' example - put your trust in God, and in due time, He who "judges justly" will vindicate you.

Has the Text of the New Testament Been Tampered With? (Jesus, Jegend or Lord Part 3)

One of my best friends from my days in college is here with his family today, and I hope you get a chance to meet them. This May will mark 20 years since I graduated from college, and things have changed so much for students not only on those two decades, but also in the 10 years since I taught in college. I remember the frustration of typing papers on my portable typewriter, and thought I had reached the big time when I got a Commodore 64 computer (which had far less firepower than my cell phone!).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Hobby - Barbershop Singing

As I move stuff from my old blog to my new one I thought I should also make reference to my main hobby, which is singing barbershop. I am in a quartet called Lunch Break, and I am also a member of a chorus, the Music City Chorus here in Nashville. Barbershop singing involved four-part close harmony a capella music, and if you like harmony, there isn't a better form of music in my opinion.

My quartet is a "comedy" quartet, in that most of what we do is parodies, accompanied by slapstick style visual gags. Here is a photo from one of our most recent contests.

An Introduction to the New Perspective

Over the last 25 years a growing number of scholars have adopted a new view of Paul’s teaching regarding the law, a perspective which has been simply and broadly labeled as “the new perspective” (hereafter NP). While there are many variations of the NP, in this article I want to set forth the major issues raised by the NP, and explain why I believe it is a dramatic step in the right direction of understanding Paul.

The “Old Perspective”
To really grasp the basic issues raised by the NP, it is important to understand the traditional way Paul has been interpreted. The single greatest influence on interpreting Paul in the last 500 years was unquestionably Martin Luther. Luther struggled with his own sense of unworthiness in the face of a holy God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

Once he read Romans 1:17, “the just shall live by faith,” in dramatic contrast to the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism, Luther’s misery turned to joy.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. (ibid)

Since that discovery by Luther, Protestantism in general has essentially followed Luther’s reading of Romans. On this view, “law” refers to any system of commands to obey, and in such a system, salvation can only be achieved by perfect works. Since we all sin, this means of justification is impossible. As Luther wrote in his introduction to his commentary on Romans:

The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3 when he says, “No human being is justified before God through the works of the law.”

While there are obviously many variations on the traditional reading of Paul, its basic conclusions can be summarized as follows:
1. “Justification” is a legal term declaring the sinner “not guilty” (or “not punished)”.
2. The basic issue in Romans is how an individual can be declared “not guilty” before a righteous God.
3. “Law” (Greek nomos) is a generic term for any system of commands by God, of which the Law of Moses is only one example.
4. “The righteousness of God” is the gift of righteousness, or right standing, given by God to the sinner.

The New Perspective
The traditional reading of Romans and Galatians assumed that the real problem with the Jews in the first century was legalism, the belief that salvation was earned by perfect law-keeping. This understanding of Judaism was seriously challenged by E.P. Sanders’ groundbreaking 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this work, Sanders surveyed rabbinic literature, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and concluded that the traditional reading of Judaism was a gross misrepresentation.

The Rabbis certainly believed that God would punish transgression and reward obedience, but it is not a Rabbinic doctrine that one’s place in the world to come is determined by counting or weighing his deeds… Although obedience is required, no number of good deeds can earn salvation if a man acts in such a way as to remove himself from the covenant. Obedience and the intention to obey are required if one is to remain in the covenant and share in its promises, but they do not earn God’s mercy. (Sanders, p. 146-147)

Sanders argued that God’s relationship with Israel as a nation was determined solely by God’s grace. God chose the nation of Israel and entered into covenant with it by grace, not because Israel had earned his favor. Whether an individual Israelite remained in that covenant depended on his obedience to God’s law. “Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such” (Sanders, p. 421).

Furthermore, this obedience to the Law did not have to be perfect. According to Sanders, the view that was “universally held” by the Jews was this:

God has appointed means of atonement for every transgression, except the intention to reject God and His covenant. That is, those who are in the covenant will remain in and will receive the covenant promises (including a share in the world to come), unless they remove themselves by “casting off the yoke”. (Sanders, p. 157)

Sanders coined a term to describe this view: covenantal nomism. “Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.” (Sanders, p. 75)

This in turn led Sanders to conclude that in some ways Paul misrepresented Judaism as a system of works-righteousness.

Paul himself often formulated his critique of Judaism (or Judaizing) as having to do with the means of attaining righteousness, “by faith and not by works of law”…Paul agreed on the goal, righteousness, but saw that it should be received by grace through faith, not achieved by works. But this formulation, though it is Paul’s own, actually misstates the fundamental point of disagreement. (Sanders, p. 551)

Sanders concluded, “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.” (p. 552)

Other scholars of Paul have taken Sander’s argument a step further. What if it is not only Judaism that has been misread, but also Paul’s own writings? This is the essence of the NP. Paul was not inaccurately critiquing Judaism as a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” religion. But if that is not the case, what is Paul’s point in books like Romans and Galatians?

Legalism or Nationalism?
The NP argues that Paul was not dealing with the questions that faced Luther in the 16th century, but with the questions facing the church in the first century – particularly the issue of Gentile inclusion into the church. Peter was not criticized for preaching a message of grace and forgiveness; his critics spelled out why they were alarmed: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3, ESV). And when he defended himself, his critics did not say, “Now we understand that we are justified by a system of grace rather than law.” They said: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

This echoed Peter’s own discovery just prior to his preaching to Cornelius. After the three-fold vision of the unclean food on a sheet (was that “pigs in a blanket”?), the voice told him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Once he made his way to Cornelius’ house, Peter said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

It should be clear from this one episode that the issue was not perfectionism or “works-righteousness.” Indeed, Peter flatly says that “doing what is right” is necessary to be acceptable to God. Rather, the issue was, can Gentiles become Christians without becoming Jews first? While it is understandable why many Jews would have believed the answer to that question was an emphatic no, given the fact that all of the first Christians were Jews, the controversy recorded in Acts demonstrates that the issue for the Jews was not legalism as much as it was exclusivism.

No one had to face this issue more that the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. As Luke recounts Paul’s conversion and Paul’s retelling of his conversion, one detail that is carried consistently throughout all three passages is the focus on the Gentiles. “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).

In this connection, it is revealing that when Paul described his conversion before the mob at the Temple in Acts 22, they listened to everything he had to say until he spoke of his commission to preach to the Gentiles. “Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live’” (Acts 22:22). Again, the problem was not legalism, but exclusivism.

The NP and Romans and Galatians
Two of the classic proof-texts of the traditional reading of Paul are Romans 3:28 (“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”) and Galatians 3:11 (“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”). However, the very contexts in which these statements are embedded have to do with the Jew-Gentile issue. Romans 3:29-31 goes on to say, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” And Galatians 3:12-14 says, “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’– so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Frankly, these two statements are non sequiturs by the traditional reading, but they make a great deal of sense in light of the NP.

God blessed the Jews with great privileges, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). However, the Jews proved to be as sinful as the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-12). Paul is careful to exonerate the law itself, which he says is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). The only “weakness” of the Law was the flesh of those to whom it was given (Rom. 8:3). Even then, God’s purpose would not be thwarted. By causing sin to abound (Rom. 5:20), to become “sinful beyond measure” (Rom. 7:13), the Law “imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

It is almost as if God concentrated sin from all humanity to Israel to Christ himself. This allowed God to do “what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). Or, to use language rooted in the curses of the covenant (Deut. 27-28), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

Consequently, the only way in which the Law could save Israel was as a “guardian” to lead Israel to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Christ is the “end [“goal,” NASB footnote] of the law” (Rom. 10:4). By rejecting Christ, the Jews ironically rejected the only way the Law could have saved them. The choice was Christ or the curse, and they chose the curse, stumbling over the stumbling stone of Christ (Rom. 9:32).

But why did Israel reject the gospel? This is the key issue. According to the traditional reading, the Jews thought they could achieve salvation by perfect law-keeping and did not need God’s grace. If this is not a correct analysis, what was the reason the Jews rejected Christ? According to Paul’s withering criticism in Rom. 2:17-25, the Jews allowed their special status as God’s chosen people to lead to boasting and arrogance toward the Gentiles, despite their own abysmal track record of disobedience. (While my focus here is on Paul’s teaching, I think this point can be made even more strongly from the gospels. Consider the following passages: Matt. 8:5-12; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 3:7-9; Luke 4:16-30; John 8:31-58). To the Jews, the Law was the “barrier of the dividing wall” which maintained their distinct identity from the Gentiles, an identity they wished to preserve even though it meant shutting themselves up under the Law’s curse. It may even be that the phrase, “the works of the law,” refers specifically to the commands which marked out Jews as distinct from Gentiles: circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. Not only was this self-destructive, it was in direct contradiction to God’s stated promise to Abraham that all families of the earth would be blessed (Romans 4:9-17; Gal. 3:15-29; 4:21-31). God always intended for his people to consist of Jews and Gentiles.

The Covenant Context
The prominence of the promise to Abraham in Romans and Galatians is a clue as to the true focus of Paul’s teaching. Instead of seeing the “righteousness of God” (or justification) as a judicial verdict pronounced upon the sinner, “righteousness of God” refers first and foremost to God’s own righteousness in the sense of his faithfulness to his promises and covenant. As Nehemiah prayed, “You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (Neh. 9:7-8, emphasis added). Consequently, when Paul says the “righteousness of God” is revealed in the gospel, he primarily means that the gospel reveals how God will be faithful to his covenant with Abraham. This helps to explain Paul’s emphasis on the promise to Abraham from Genesis 15, which is the text in which God makes the formal covenant with Abraham. And it also helps to explain Paul’s heavy use of the “covenant” texts of Deuteronomy 27-30 in Romans 10 and Galatians 3.

While the “righteousness of God” refers first to his own faithfulness to his covenant, that is not its only dimension. God’s faithfulness to his covenant also involves the vindication of his own people and the judgment of his enemies. This vindication necessarily requires a verdict by God, and so there is a legal dimension to God’s justifying work. And there is both a present and future dimension to justification. It is present in the sense that God pronounces the status of right-standing on those who trust in Christ. And it is future in that there will be a great and final day, the eschaton, when God puts an end to evil once and for all and ushers in the new creation. To appreciate the full scope of Paul’s teaching about justification, we must keep all three of these nuances in mind: God’s faithfulness to the covenant, God’s verdict in the lawcourt, and God’s judgment at the eschaton.

From this point of view, the book of Romans becomes much more unified. Instead of Romans 9-11 being an interesting sidelight, and the end of the argumentative section of the epistle, it becomes the very climax of the letter’s argument. The key issue of those three chapters has to do with God’s covenant faithfulness: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6). And those three chapters are designed to explain why the current state of the church, predominantly Gentile, does not mean God has reneged on his covenant. As N.T. Wright summarizes:

The passage from Romans 9:30-10:21 sets out the results of what God has done in Israel’s history. God has called Israel to be the means of salvation for the world. His intention always was to narrow this vocation down to the messiah, so that in his death all, Jew and Gentile alike, would find salvation. If, however, Israel insists in keeping her status for herself, she will find she is clinging to her own death-warrant. (Wright, What St. Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997] p. 130)

This view also adds meaning to Romans 14-15. Since the entire epistle explains that God’s purpose all along was to unite Jews and Gentiles together in the Messiah, it only makes sense that Paul would also explain in practical terms how Jews and Gentiles should get along.

The NP also falls right in line with the situation Paul addressed in Galatians. The argument in Galatians was not about Luther’s “works-righteousness.” As Paul narrates the problem in Galatians 2, it was specifically about the Jew-Gentile issue. Must Gentiles be circumcised? Can Jews eat with (uncircumcised) Gentiles? We cannot correctly understand Paul’s answers if we do not understand the questions.

Responses to the NP
I think it is fair to say that most NT scholars have accepted the findings of Sanders, at least insofar as the issue of Jewish legalism is concerned. And among evangelicals there has been a strong shift toward reading Romans and Galatians in light of the NP. Even many scholars who would see themselves in the Reformed tradition have acknowledged the contribution of the NP to the study of Paul. For example, see Craig Blomberg’s review of Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said.

However, there has been strong negative reaction to the NP from many Reformed scholars. Why? Because the NP calls into question many assumptions of the Reformation. For example, most NP adherents would say that God’s righteousness is his own covenant faithfulness, which in turn casts serious doubt on the “imputed righteousness” formula of the Reformation. And without the imputed righteousness of Christ, critics say there can be no assurance for the Christian. As one opponent (Paul Barnett) says, “The huge defect with the ‘New Perspective’ is that it denies or obscures the believer’s assurance of salvation.”

From my standpoint, the NP makes great sense of the overall message of the New Testament. Just as God’s covenant with Israel was by his gracious election, so also is the new covenant, with election centered in Christ (Eph. 1:1-10; Gal. 3:26-29). And just as maintaining membership in the covenant with Israel required obedience (including repentance in the event of sin), the same holds true with the new covenant (which explains Paul’s heavy emphasis on obedience in passages such as 2 Cor. 5:10).

This does not mean that we must earn our way to heaven on the basis of perfect law-keeping! Membership in God’s covenant has never required that. Our status of being “in Christ” is a matter of God’s grace, and the obedience we surrender to God is out of gratitude for his love and by the strength which he supplies (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:8-10; Rom. 8:1-13; Phil. 2:12-13).

My own study of Paul in light of the NP is in its very early stages. I have not worked out to my satisfaction all the questions that the NP raises for Romans and Galatians, but it has certainly provided a much clearer context for those books than the traditional reading. It would be just as easy to oversimplify what Paul says in light of the NP as it has been to oversimplify his message in light of the Reformation. I encourage you to take a look at the NP and share your thoughts about its validity and value.

Further Reading

E.P. Sander, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977). This is the book that started the move toward the New Perspective.

N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). This is where to begin if you want to read a concise introduction to the NP. And if you are familiar with Wright’s work you see his obvious influence on my thinking.

N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). This is a collection of Wright’s lectures in which he exegetes key passages in Paul’s writings in light of the NP.

Three recent major commentaries on Romans from the NP are James D. G: Dunn, Romans (WBC), 2 vols. (Dallas: Word, 1988); N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts - First Corinthians Volume 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002); and Ben Witherington with Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). I recently worked through Scot McKnight’s commentary on Galatians in the NIV Application series and really enjoyed his application of the NP to that book.

In addition, there is a website dedicated to the study of the NP that I have found very useful: The Paul Page. There is also a page dedicated to N.T. Wright’s material that I enjoy.

A Note on Isaiah 7:14

The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is a very controversial passage, primarily for two reasons. First, the meaning of the Hebrew term almah in 7:14. It is translated “virgin” in the ESV, but could also be translated “a young unmarried woman.” Second, the time frame for fulfillment of the birth of Immanuel. Several verses (7:16; 8:8b, 10) seem to suggest that Immanuel would be born in the immediate future. When we come to the NT, however, Matthew teaches that this was a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus (1:22-23), using the specific Greek term for virgin, parthenos.

So was Isaiah speaking about a child in his day, Jesus, or both? I think a key to understanding this and many other prophecies is the concept of typology. A type is a category. And within that category there can be greater or lesser examples. For instance, “son” is a category. Israel was an example of a son, in the sense that the nation had a father-son relationship with God (Ex. 4:22-23). However, Israel was in most respects a very poor son (Hosea 11:1). Jesus was also a son, but he was the ultimate example of what a son should be. This is why Matthew can say Jesus “fulfilled” Hosea 11:1 – not because he was the only son God had, but because he was the ultimate model of what a son should be. So both Israel and Jesus could be categorized as “sons,” but within that same type or category of sonship they were vastly different examples of sons.

It seems to me that essentially the same thing is going on in Isaiah 7:14. The prophecy is of a son whose name indicated the presence of God. And Isaiah’s own sons indeed indicated God’s presence, either in judgment (Maher-shalal-hashbaz) or redemption (Shear-jashub). But these were only secondary models of the ultimate son whose birth would indicate God’s presence. And while Isaiah’s sons were important examples of signs from God, neither of them could begin to match the description of the ultimate son described in Isaiah 9:1-7. And that is what Matthew is teaching in his gospel. He is showing that Jesus is the ultimate “Immanuel.”

There are hints in Isaiah that “Immanuel” must have a meaning beyond his own children. First, “Immanuel” does not have the same kind of direct relevance to the historical situation as do the names of his other sons. Further, the sign of Immanuel was given not just to one king, but to the “house of David” (7:13). In fact, the Hebrews pronouns “you” and “your” are plural in verses 9, 13, and 14. Finally, the close proximity of the Immanuel passage to 9:1-7 suggests a much bigger picture than a mere son of Isaiah (as Matthew confirms in Matt. 4:14-16).

Paul Vs. James? A Brief Look at Faith, Works, and Justification

In his 1522 Preface to the New Testament Martin Luther expressed his reservations about the book of James, which he described as an “epistle of straw.” He had questions about the identity of its author, but he was even more troubled by its seeming contradiction with the teaching of Paul on justification. At one point Luther offered to give his doctor’s beret to any man who could reconcile the teaching of Paul and James.

On the surface, it is easy to see why Luther was so perplexed. In Romans 3:29 Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Yet in James 2:24 we read, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” We have basically two options: either Paul and James contradict each other, or they are using the same terms to mean different things .

And I believe this latter approach is correct.

Barack Obama and the Antichrist

Since the spring an email has been circulating which raises the ominous question of whether Barack Obama is a sinister figure whose coming was prophesied in the Bible. One version of the email says this:

“According to The Book of Revelations the anti-Christ is: The anti-Christ will be a man, in his 40s, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive the nations with persuasive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal…. the prophecy says that people will flock to him and he will promise false hope and world peace, and when he is in power, will destroy everything. Is it OBAMA??”

This is hardly the first effort to associate a current historical figure with the Antichrist. Many people who lived during the dark days of the second world war identified Mussolini or Hitler as the Antichrist. In more recent times, leaders ranging from Mikhail
Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein have been fingered as the Antichrist. One common denominator in all of these theories is a complete ignorance of the biblical usage of the term “antichrist” as well as the original context of the Book of Revelation. Here are some vital facts to bear in mind regarding these subjects:

Fact #1: The Bible identifies as “antichrist” anyone who denies the truth about Jesus Christ. There are only four passages in the Bible which use the term “antichrist,” and all of them are found in the epistles of John. And in these passages he expliclty defines as “antichrist” those who deny that Jesus is the Son of God who came in flesh.

  • “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
  • “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22).
  • “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:3).
  • “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).

Fact #2: The Bible says that there have been many such “antichrists” since the time of the first century.
In 1 John 2:18 John says: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared.” There were indeed many heretics in early church history who denied the fundamental doctrines of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and bodily resurrection. The “Antichrist” is not a single phenomenon of the twenty-first century. There were many antichrists from the days of the apostles.

Fact #3: The Book of Revelation was written about events that were to be fulfilled in the immediate future.
While it is quite common for “prophecy experts” to scan the front pages of today’s newspaper for connections with the last few pages of the Bible, the reality is that the Book of Revelation was written about specific events in the immediate historical context of the first century. In the first and last chapters of Revelation, the apostle John clarified this basic context. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the things that must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). “The time is near” (Rev. 1:3). “And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev. 22:6). “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev. 22:10). The further we get into the twenty-first century, the farther we move from the events written about in Revelation.

Fact #4: The Book of Revelation does not say anything about the “Antichrist.”
While it is commonly assumed that the book of Revelation contains warnings concerning the “Antichrist,” that term is never used in the book. It is sometimes argued that the Antichrist is depicted in a vision recorded in Revelation 13, which describes a “beast rising out of the sea.” This beast has seven heads, ten horns, and ten diadems, representing cunning and power (13:1-2). One of its heads seemed to bear a mortal wound, but the beast miraculously recovers (13:3). This beast is worshipped by the world, and makes war against God’s people for 42 months (13:5-8). And finally, it is described in numerical terms: “Let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (13:18).

Presumably, the email circulating regarding Obama is based on this text, although frankly, there is simply nothing in the text that remotely suggests anything about a Muslim leader in his 40s! More importantly, there would be zero relevance to a first century context if Revelation 13 were describing Barack Obama. There is, however, an obvious identification with this beast and the first century: imperial Rome, personified by the infamous emperor Nero.

In AD 64 the city of Rome was engulfed in a massive fire, for which Nero received much of the blame. In an effort to divert guilt away from himself, Nero instigated a persecution against Christians, which lasted 42 months. Further, Nero demanded worship as a god, casting himself as the god Apollo. The Roman Senate eventually had enough of Nero’s madness and issue an arrest warrant. Not wanting to fall into Senate hands, Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat (while lamenting what a great artist the world was losing!). Upon his death, the empire went into convulsions, as three different contenders for the throne came and went. A general named Vespasian marched on Rome and began a new dynasty as the first emperor unrelated to the Caesars.

These details match perfectly the teaching of Revelation 13 about a power which seeks worship, persecutes God’s people, and recovers from a near-fatal blow. And the clincher is the number 666. Ancient alphabets often used letters to symbolize numerals (like Roman numerals, for instance). When Nero’s name is transliterated from Hebrew to Greek, it is spelled like this: NRWN QSR. These letters add up to, you guessed it, 666.
N = 50, R = 200, W = 6, N = 50
Q = 100, S = 60, R = 200

Some Greek manuscripts record the number as 616 rather than 666. This is because Nero’s name transliterated from Latin to Greek adds up to 616.

The beast of Revelation, imperial Rome personified by Nero, has long since found its place on the ash-heap of history.I personally disagree with the political beliefs of Barack Obama, and I did not vote for him for president (I wrote myself in!). However, as a Bible teacher I am very concerned any time the Scriptures are twisted. Further, when these types of modern-day speculations prove untrue (as they always do), in the minds of many people it is the Bible that looks foolish since they do not know how to discriminate between what Scripture actually says and what people say that it says. That should be of great concern to all Christians.

The Betrayal and Arrest (Mark 14:26-52)

We have been greatly blessed by the births of several babies this past year. The only drawback that I can see is that so far none of the families has given in to my campaign to name their baby after me. No Shane or Shania or Shanita or Shaniqua or anything!

Lots of people like to consult baby name books to select names, and some of the most popular right now are straight from the Bible, like Joshua or Rachel. But one name that is not on any list of favorites is Judas. His name is so synonymous with treachery that no one wants to pin that name on his/her child.

Anytime you take a strong stand on an issue you are bound to face opposition, maybe even enemies. That is just the price you pay to be a person of conviction. But to have one of your friends, one of the people you thought stood side by side with you, to have one of them turn on you is just devastating. We have respect for our enemies; we have nothing but disdain for traitors.

In today’s study in Mark 14, we are going to read about the evening when Judas earned the infamy of history – exactly as Jesus had predicted.

I. Jesus Foretells Desertion and Denial (14:26-31)

A. Jesus predicts the disciples’ failure (14:26-28)

Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples left the city of Jerusalem and walked across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives (14:26), the same place where just a few days earlier He had predicted the fall of the city of Jerusalem. This time, Jesus predicts the fall of the disciples themselves.

Mark 14:27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’

Jesus has pointed out over and over in this final week that everything taking place was foreseen by the prophets.
• In 12:10-11 He framed His rejection by the Jewish leaders in terms of the stone rejected by the builders in Psalm 118:22-23.
• In 14:21 He said that the Son of man would be betrayed “as it is written of him.”
• And now in 14:27 Jesus tells the disciples that even their own desertion was foretold in the Bible, in the prophet Zechariah 13:7.

In the OT the “shepherd” was one of the rulers of the people (king, priest, prophet), and the people were the sheep. Jesus of course taught that He was the great shepherd, and that God’s people are the sheep (John 10). But just as the death of a king in battle could demoralize his people and send them in panicked flight, Jesus tells His sheep that God is going to strike Him, and that they are going to scatter.

But just as Zechariah’s vision was not entirely hopeless, neither is Jesus’ prediction. In Zechariah, after the shepherd is struck down, the prophet says:

Zech. 13:9 And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’ ”

And Jesus sees a time when His sheep, having been refined by fire, will return to the fold.

Mark 14:28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.

Later, in Mark 16:7 the angel at the empty tomb repeated this message to the women to pass on again to the disciples.

B. Peter’s denial of the denial (14:29-31)

We already know how quick Peter is to speak, even to contradict Jesus (8:33). And Jesus’ flat assertion that “you will all fall away” was too much for Peter to tolerate.

Mark 14:29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”

Not that long ago Jesus caught the disciples arguing over who the greatest was (9:34), so none of them hesitate to place themselves above the others. And remember that in 14:19 their response to Jesus’ prediction that one of them would betray Him was “surely not I” (NIV). So given his own impetuous nature, combined with the arrogance and self-absorption that plagued all of the disciples, Peter pledges emphatically that he will never fall away.

How unbelievable it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus’ response, which was not simply, “No, Peter, you are wrong, you will deny Me,” but that he would do so three times – within the same night!

Mark 14:30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

This is unimaginable to Peter, and indeed, it is unthinkable to all of the disciples.

Mark 14:31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

Luke says that it was Jesus’ custom to go up to the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). This is why Judas knew he could deliver Jesus in secret, because he knew a secluded spot Jesus regularly went to when He was in Jerusalem. But as the eleven made their way up the mount, their trip was about to take an unimaginable turn.

II. In Gethsemane (14:32-42)

Mark 14:32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

Gethsemane means “olive press,” and the Mount of Olives would be an obvious place to set up presses to produce olive oil. Lots of people like to pray out in nature, especially in flower gardens, enjoying the beauty of creation. But that is not the scene here in Mark. This was a dark and foreboding night of desperate prayer.

A. Instructions to the disciples (14:32-34)

All of the disciples went with Jesus, but three of them, Peter, James and John, He took with Him away from the others (14:33a). Why these three? One thing they all have in common is absolute confidence in their loyalty to Jesus and their abilities as disciples. We just heard Peter say that even if all others failed Jesus, he never would. And in Mark 10:39, when Jesus asked James and John (who requested the seats of honor in His glory) if they were able to drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, they declared, “We are able.” Maybe Jesus took these three to be closer to Him because He knew that they were the most brash members of a very prideful group of disciples.

I don’t know if James, John and Peter really believed they were the towers of strength they claimed to be, or if they were just trying to mask deep insecurities with foolish bravado, but regardless of the reasons for their cockiness, the end of 14:33 presents a completely different picture of their Master. He began to be “greatly distressed and troubled.” The words here in Greek mean “to be thrown into terror or amazement.” And Jesus did not boast about how great He was or how impregnable His faith was. Instead, He confided in the disciples, “My soul of very sorrowful, even to death” (14:34a).

Jesus “was in the grip of shuddering horror as He faced the dreadful prospect before him” (Garland), but He did not try to hide this from His disciples.

Before going a little further into the garden to pray, He told Peter, James and John, “Remain here and watch” (14:34b). This raises an important question – why did Jesus bring the disciples with him, and why did He tell them, especially these three, to watch – and later to watch and pray (14:38).

For a long time I just assumed that Jesus brought them with Him because He needed support, because He wanted His friends to be with Him and pray with Him to give Him the encouragement He needed to finish His mission. But I really don’t think that is the case. I don’t think Jesus brought them because it was something He needed; it was something they needed. This is made clear in Luke’s account: “And when he came to the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation’” (Luke 22:40).

In other words, even in this deep moment of profound grief and dread, Jesus was still teaching His disciples – teaching them by example that we must never trust in ourselves, but in the hour of trial we need to throw ourselves at God’s mercy and plead for help.

B. Jesus’ prayer (14:35-42)

And “pleading” may be too mild to describe Jesus’ prayer. Mark 14:35 says He “fell on the ground.” The writer of Hebrews elaborated on Jesus’ prayer in the garden, saying that

Heb. 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears

Jesus begged the Father to see if there was a way to avoid the grim fate that awaited Him, that if possible “the hour might pass from him” (14:35).

When we read the account of Jesus’ prayer to His Father, we are witnessing a level of communication that completely transcends anything we can relate to. It is mind-boggling to me that the gospels allow us access into this sacred, intimate moment. And it was intimate, because Jesus uses a term in His prayer that as far as we know, no Jews in early Judaism had ever used in prayer before – “Abba, Father” (14:36). “Abba” is a term of affection, almost like what a small child would call his father. Never in history had anyone ever used this term to address God, until Jesus, and until this moment.

Jesus’ specific request was for God to “remove this cup from me” (14:36). What cup is Jesus talking about? Remember that in His conversation with James and John in Mark 10 Jesus talked about a “cup” that He had to drink, one that someday they would drink, an obvious allusion to sharing in His suffering.

But in light of the OT, there may have been a very specific kind of suffering Jesus had in mind. Over and over in the OT the prophets used the imagery of a cup to describe divine judgment which the wicked would partake in, or drink (just as we might say “a bitter pill to swallow”).

Psa. 75:8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.

Is. 51:17 Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering.

Jer. 25:15 Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.

Jesus came to bear our sins, to take our place, to receive the punishment we deserve. And that punishment is the wrath of God. I don’t believe Jesus was so horrified at the prospect of just the beating, the scourging, or even the crucifixion. But for someone who was sinless, in pristine holiness, to come face to face with the wrath of God whose fellowship He had enjoyed as a young child tenderly calling to a Father, no wonder Jesus prayed for the cup of divine judgment to pass.

This was not a selfish spoiled son throwing a tantrum, demanding that his father get him what he wants. This was the perfect Son, the obedient son, whose prayer was fervent and heartbreaking, but who understood that what mattered most was doing the will of God. “Yet not what I will but what you will” (14:36b).

What an amazing lesson in humility, in selflessness, in commitment to God! A lesson the disciples desperately needed, but which was lost on them.

Mark 14:37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?
Mark 14:38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

This is even more evidence that Jesus brought the disciples for their benefit, not His. “Watch and pray that YOU may not enter into temptation.” Jesus was giving His disciples the perfect model of vigilant prayer in the face of testing, but it was a lesson they slept through.

This happened again.

Mark 14:39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.
Mark 14:40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him.

If you turn back to 9:6, this is exactly the same reaction Peter and the disciples had to the Transfiguration, another special moment of intimate communication between heavenly Father and Son. But just as then, the disciples had a bad case of heavy eyes and hard hearts.

A third time Jesus left them to pray, and a third time He found them sleeping (14:41). And with that, the time to prepare was exhausted (14:42), and Jesus was about to leave the Mount of Olives and descend into the valley of the shadow of death.

III. Jesus Arrested ( 14:43-52)

A. The betrayal (14:43-45).

Mark 14:43 And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

In 8:31 Jesus said He would be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes. In 9:32 He said He would be “delivered into the hands of men.” Now Judas and the rulers of the people are coming to fulfill what Jesus said would happen.

Because it was at night Judas arranged a signal to positively identify Jesus for these goons, a kiss. Normally a sign of affection as well as respect the ancient world, this kiss becomes the kiss of death.

Mark 14:44 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.”
Mark 14:45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him.
Mark 14:46 And they laid hands on him and seized him.

B. The arrest (14:47-52).

The disciples of Jesus panic, then try to mount a defense of their Master.

Mark 14:47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.

John tells us that the swordsman was none other than Peter; that the unfortunate victim was named Malchus (18:10). I don’t think Peter was just trying to wing him, either. He was going for a fatal blow to the heard, which in the chaos of the moment was just a glancing blow to Malchus. Peter’s violence, and the mob’s numbers and weaponry, indicated that neither Peter nor the mob understood the kind of person Jesus was. The mob thinks that Jesus is some kind of criminal, who will put up a fight and resist arrest. And Peter thinks that Jesus is the King who will conquer all of Israel’s enemies, and is happy to volunteer to be the first soldier in line. Both were wrong.

Mark 14:48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?
Mark 14:49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.”

Perhaps it was this non-resistance that completed the demoralization of the disciples. They had seen Jesus cast out demons, feed thousands, silence storms with just a word. Surely He can brush off a few of the flunkies of the corrupt priesthood! But when He makes it clear that they are not to resist, their courage breaks, and “they all left him and fled” (14:50).

As the account of Jesus’ arrest ends, there is this curious footnote.

Mark 14:51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him,
Mark 14:52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

First of all, who was this young man? From very early on in church history many people came to believe this was John Mark himself. After all, we know that his family loved in Jerusalem, that they were friends with Peter (Acts 12:12). Maybe this was Mark’s cameo appearance, like Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his movie.

There is no way to identify this young man. But the fact that even this young bystander ran away makes Jesus’ isolation even more compelling. There was no one with Him; everyone ran away.

IV. Some Lessons for Us

This morning you and I have the opportunity to learn the lessons from Jesus’ example that the disciples failed to learn because of physical and spiritual lethargy. Don’t let these lessons slip by you!

A. First, there is a great lesson for us to learn from Jesus about prayer.

God wants us to pray to Him, to throw every care we have on His shoulders. And what should excite all of us about prayer is that because of our relationship with Christ, we can have the same deeply intimate fellowship with God that Jesus did, because in two different places the Bible says we can refer to God as Abba Father.

Gal. 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (also Rom. 8:15).

So God wants us call out to Him to with the sweet knowledge that He is our tender Father who will answer our prayers. But that is not primarily what prayer is about. Prayer is not about us; it is not about what we want. It is about what God wants. “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Here is the difference between self-centered prayer and God-centered prayer:
• God-centered prayer humbly acknowledges that God’s will is paramount; self-centered prayer never takes into account that God’s plans might be different from ours.
• God-centered prayer focuses not just on what we want God to do but also takes time to thank Him for what He has done; self-centered rarely if ever takes time to express in a deep and thorough way gratitude for God’s blessings.
• God-centered prayer always leaves a sense of peace, knowing that our will has been aligned with and reconciled to God’s will; self-centered prayer leaves us just as discouraged and confused as before we prayed because we haven’t centered our prayer on God who is the only source of peace.

Please don’t misunderstand. Go to God expectantly and ask Him to supply your every need, just as Jesus asked God to remove the cup. Go to Him persistently, just as Jesus prayed three times. But go to God in prayer selflessly, convicted that what matters more than anything else is that His will, not yours, is done.

B. We need to watch and pray because the flesh is weak.

A second lesson we can learn from Jesus’ prayer is that we must watch and pray because “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (14:38).

What did Jesus mean when He said that the flesh is weak? He does not mean that our bodies are somehow inherently contaminated, because God created us to have physical bodies, and everything God made was good.

But we don’t live in a world exactly like the one God created. Our world has been invaded by sin, and the doorway sin uses to attack each of us is the lust of the flesh, and once we yield to the flesh to gratify our sinful desires, the Devil exploits that opening again and again and again. We don’t come into this world totally depraved as some dogmas assert, but we are depraved, through our own repeated choice to give in.

The problem is that like the disciples, we can become spiritually groggy, when we need to snap awake to the deadly danger of temptation, and do what Jesus said: “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

C. By God’s grace, falling away does not have to be final.

Here is the final lesson I think we need to deeply press on our mind, and that is that falling away does not have to be permanent. Just as surely as Jesus knew that His disciples would all fall away, He also knew that they would meet Him in Galilee (14:27-28).
Everyone, that is, except Judas. This is the last we read of him in Mark. We know from the gospels that Judas was almost instantly grief-stricken at what he had done, and took his own life.

So what made the difference? Why did the other disciples return to Jesus, why was their falling away only temporary, while Judas’ was eternal? I think this passage from 2 Corinthians may shed some light:

2 Cor. 7:10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

Worldly grief is the grief of the person who is sad because they got caught. Godly grief is the sorrow of a person heartbroken they have disappointed God. Judas was not living for God; he was a thief, living for what little bit he could wring out of the chief priests. For all their faults, the eleven knew that even though Jesus was often perplexing and challenging, He was God’s anointed. With just that bit of faith, their godly grief drove them to repentance.

Today would have been my Mom’s 67th birthday. My Mom had a period of her life, from her early 20s until her early 40s, when she had fallen away. I’m not sure I will ever know all the reasons she became unfaithful, but she did. I remember many times pouring my heart out to God for her to return to Him, but after a few years of this I kind of gave up. But the Lord did not. His mercies are new every morning, and one summer during a gospel meeting my Mom came back to her Lord.

There are all kinds of ways to fall away. Dramatically, like the disciples. In Mom’s case, she was completely out of service to the Lord. But some of you may fall into the category of those who by outward appearances are “faithful,” you come to church every now and then, put on a good show. But in the private recesses of your heart, you too have stopped following Christ.

But whatever your state, I want you to know that just as Jesus promised to meet the disciples again, Jesus will meet you again! If you will come to Him and confess your sins, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Have you ever wondered if you had been with Jesus if your reaction that dreadful night in Gethsemane would have been any different? I am convinced that I would have ran just like all of them did. Because “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa. 53:6).

The crucial question is not what we would have done back then, but what will we do today?

The Trials of Jesus and Peter (Mark 14:53-72)

This week was a historic moment in my life because I now have over 800 friends. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about – someone of you think that was an odd thing to say – who keeps track of how many friends they have?

Well, I don’t, but a website called Facebook does. You create a page for yourself, and then it helps you network with friends from work, church, hobbies, old schools, and so on.

We all know people we would not add as a friend if they requested it because we wouldn’t want to be associated with them, and we wouldn’t want people to know we even knew each other. But that is a pretty harsh judgment. To be honest, so far I have not turned down a friend request on my Facebook page – that is a tough trigger to pull.

Yet in what we are going to study today, Peter repudiated his friendship with the Lord. And I will suggest that just as Mark 14 describes the formal, legal tribunal of the Jewish leaders before whom Jesus is arraigned, there is another trial. Not in the legal sense, but in a personal sense. The judge and jury are a servant girl and some bystanders; the accused is Peter. The charge: “You were also with Jesus.” By the time he is finished, Peter will deny that he ever even knew Him.

Since Mark brackets the story of Jesus’ trial with reference to Peter’s confrontation with the crowd in v. 54 and 66-72, I believe we are supposed to read these stories together. So let’s begin with the trial of Jesus.

I. The Trial of Jesus (Mark 14:53-65)

In the time of Jesus the ruling authority of the Jewish people was invested in the Sanhedrin Council, composed of the priestly aristocracy (the chief priests), the prominent families (the elders), and the legal experts (the scribes), overseen by the high priest. This is exactly who Mark tells us Jesus was led to.

53 And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.

This is the same evil trinity Jesus mentioned in 8:31.

Conducting a trial in the middle of the night was highly unusual. In Acts 4 when the Council arrested the apostles for preaching the resurrection they waited until the next day to interrogate them because “it was already evening” (Acts 4:3). It would have been even more unusual to have a trial during a holy day like Passover, and it was illegal to convict and execute a man on the same day.

For these reasons many critics of the Bible assume that the gospel accounts are wrong, or even worse, that they were fabricated just to make the Jews look bad and to exonerate the Gentiles. Honestly, how anyone could read the gospels and think that Pilate comes off looking good is beyond me. The fact is that if these men were genuinely seeking justice they would have followed all the correct procedures. But these are not honest men. They had already decided to kill Jesus –
• After the cleansing of the temple, “the chief priests and the scribes… were seeking a way to destroy him” (11:18).
• After the parable of the tenants, “they were seeking to arrest him” because they knew he had told the parable about them (12:12).
• And just two days earlier, “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (14:1).

This was not the determined pursuit of blind justice. This was a kangaroo court which had already decided the verdict, and now just needed to come up with the charges, as Mark pointed out in 14:55:

55 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death…

But there is a problem: “but they found none” (14:55). They can’t find anyone to testify against Jesus – or at least whose testimony would stand up to scrutiny. The Law gave the standard of two or three witnesses as the criteria to settle legal issues. Verse 56 says, “For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.”

Think about it – based on what we have read in Mark’s gospel, what charge could they bring against Jesus? The scribes from Jerusalem leveled two charges against Him earlier-

3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”


7:1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

But as you recall, Jesus defended His actions with reason and Scripture, so that the scribes were not going to be able to win that argument. How can you put someone to death for delivering people from demonic forces? How can you execute a man for challenging you to honor God’s word and not man’s traditions?

No, to put Jesus to death they need two kinds of crimes. The need one crime that warrants His execution based on the Law; and since the Jews did not have the power to carry out executions, they need another crime the Romans would take seriously. Some false witnesses try to give them the former:

57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

If they can prove that Jesus threatened to desecrate the temple, even to destroy it, they could justify executing Him. But there is a problem -

59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

What was it about their testimony that did not agree? Jesus did say something about the temple’s destruction. Early in His ministry according to John’s gospel, Jesus said:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

But was Jesus threatening to destroy the temple Himself? No – He was challenging them to destroy the temple of His body, which would be raised up in the resurrection. Jesus’ disciples did not understand Him at the time, so I am sure His detractors didn’t either. Maybe that explains their confusion, and in the haste to get a guilty verdict they falsely claimed that Jesus Himself said He would destroy the temple.

Another factor to consider is that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple just a few days prior to this trial. When Jeremiah predicted the same thing in his time, he was nearly killed on the spot!

Jer. 26:7 The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. 8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! 9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.

So perhaps Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s ruin combined with His veiled prediction of the rebuilding of the temple of His body created the garbled and contradictory testimony given before the Sanhedrin. And it was the kind of explosive charge that could capture the imagination of the public, because as Jesus hung on the cross the mob taunted Him,

15:29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

The inability to pin something on Jesus exasperated the high priest, especially since Jesus was silent and gave His accusers no ammunition to incriminate Him.

60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 61 But he remained silent and made no answer.

Centuries earlier Isaiah the prophet foretold of the servant of the Lord, who suffered in silence:

Isa. 53:7 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 that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

In fact, there was one issue about which Jesus was silent His entire ministry. Do you remember the phrase, “the messianic secret”? This is the phrase commentators often use to describe Jesus’ insistence that people not spread the word about what He did or who He was. Let me remind you of a couple key examples:
• 1:34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
• 1:43 And Jesus sternly charged him (the leper) and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone”
• 3:11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
• After He raised the daughter of Jairus, 5:43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this.
• And of course, immediately after Peter made the great confession, 8:30 says “he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.”

It wasn’t until this very week that Jesus openly accepted Hosannas as the Son of David, but even then the crowds during Passover season would have been singing psalms of deliverance no matter who was coming in to town, so there was still no open claim to be Messiah.

Which is exactly what the high priest is after. If he can prove that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, he can convict Him on religious grounds (since Jesus in no way matches the presumed qualities of the Messiah). And he can convict Him on political grounds in the eyes of the Romans, alleging that He claims to be King of the Jews and a threat to Caesar.

61b Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

Have you ever seen Mister Deeds Goes to Town? It is a classic Gary Cooper movie in which he portrays a small-town man who comes into a fortune, moves to the big city, and ruffles the feathers of the elite because he doesn’t fit into their mold of what a sophisticated person ought to be. When he decides to give his money away, his crooked lawyer rigs phony charges against him to try to take away the fortune for himself. During the trial, Deeds sits in silence as witness after witness presents what seems to be damning evidence, and as you watch it, you can’t help but cheer him on to speak up and defend himself. When he finally does, he just completely annihilates every charge, and makes his scheming lawyer look like a fool – before he punches him in the face!

We know Jesus was capable of demolishing people in a debate – He did so in the temple just a few days prior. But at His own trial, Jesus gave no grand, stirring summation to defend Himself and discredit His enemies. He gave a simple answer, but an answer with shocking implications:

62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Two simple words (in Greek and English): “I am.” And then Jesus quoted from two passages.

The first is Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is the same verse Jesus questioned the Pharisees about in their debate in 12:35-37. Remember the question: How can the Messiah be David’s son and David’s Lord at the same time? Now, Jesus tells the high priest, He is indeed the great David’s greater son, and that He will not merely rule as an earthly king but that He will sit at the very right hand of God in heaven!

The other passage Dan. 7:13, “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man

This is the same verse Jesus quoted in Mark 13, when He said the destruction of the temple would prove that He was indeed the Son of God receiving royal authority from God (13:26). In the OT, only God “comes on the clouds.” Now, Jesus is saying that He will!

This is far more than a claim to be the Messiah. This is a claim that He will dwell where God dwells, to come as only God comes! No wonder the high priest was horrified!

63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

Jesus has given them the perfect grounds for execution – blasphemy. Now all they need is for the Roman governor to carry out their sentence. But before they go to Pilate, they decide to give Jesus a taste of what is to come.

65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.

Spitting on someone is a universal form of humiliation. They also began to beat Him, with His head covered. We have all seen the horrible images from Abu Grab and the way a few reckless soldiers humiliated their prisoners. Maybe we have read this account so often we have lost sight of how despicably Jesus was treated. Additionally, some of the Jews believed since the Messiah “shall not judge by what his eyes see” (Isa. 11:3) that the Messiah would be able to sense who people were with His eyes closed. Maybe this was their cruel parody of that prophecy.

Little do they realize that they are the ones who have eyes, but cannot see.

Isaiah did see this seven hundred years earlier, in another vision of a suffering servant:

Isa. 50:6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

Before we move on to Peter’s story, there is an important point to be made about the verdict of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish council is an easy target for disdain, given the fundamentally dishonest way they tried Jesus. But there is one sense in which they acted with conviction. If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and He was not, then He was a false prophet deserving death. These are really the only options. The idea, so common among people who want to be “spiritual” without the Bible, that Jesus was a great moral teacher and social reformer but was not God in the flesh is absurd. What kind of good moral teacher says He is the Anointed right hand man of God when He’s not?!?

The Jesus of the gospels forces us to pick a side, as Peter is about to find out once more.

II. The Trial of Peter (Mark 14:54, 66-72)

Mark included the narrative of the trial of Jesus between two references to Peter’s experience in the courtyard of the high priest.

54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire.

66a And as Peter was below in the courtyard

In the chaotic moments of Jesus’ arrest Peter and the disciples were able to escape. And apparently Peter had doubled back to see what happened to His Master, following the temple guards to the high priest’s residence. On the surface, the fact that Peter trailed Jesus all the way to the courtyard of the high priest suggests that some of his courage had returned. But all it takes for that courage to crumble is a simple statement by a slave girl.

66b one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

Peter was one of the inner circle, and this made him even more conspicuous as a disciple of Jesus. One of the young women working for the high priest sees Peter and recognizes him as one of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

68a But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

Suddenly, Peter finds himself in the middle of a spontaneous trial, and whatever curiosity or courage led him to see what was happening with Jesus were no match for his fear of punishment if he was identified as one of His followers. So he immediately responded to this slave girl in language that was the formal legal language of his day and time. He denies any knowledge of Jesus and His disciples. But his non-verbal communication gives him away -

68b And he went out into the gateway

Peter may claim to know nothing, but his move toward the exit of the courtyard speaks volumes. He is looking for another quick getaway.

But he cannot escape the prophecy of Jesus. The last part of verse 68 says, “and the rooster crowed,” immediately bringing to mind Jesus’ prediction about Peter’s denials. The crowing of the rooster also gives us a clue as to what time it is. Those who lived in Jerusalem have for years noticed that roosters typically crow from around midnight to three in the morning. So this indicates that Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denials take placed in the early morning hours.

Peter’s effort to deflect the girl’s accusation fails. Once again she fingers him as a follow of Jesus, and once again he denies it.

69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it.

And once again Peter contradicts his own testimony; this time, by his accent. Early Jewish literature often mentioned how peculiar the accent of people from Galilee was. Since it was well known that Jesus was from Galilee, Peter’s rustic accent betrays his identity as a fellow Galilean.

70b And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

Three times in the garden Jesus had asked Peter to stay awake while He prayed, and three times he fell asleep. The man who once bragged that if everyone else left Jesus he never would could not even keep himself from nodding of while his Master languished in prayer. And now, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus in the strongest possible language-

71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

The Greek says simply that he began to curse (KJV, NKJV, NASB). Was he cursing Jesus? Was he cursing himself (ESV, NIV), as if to say “a curse on me if I’m lying!” (NLT)?

There is no way to know for sure, but what we do know with certainty is that Peter’s denial of Jesus is deliberate, persistent, and emphatic. Sadly, there was a lot of truth in Peter’s denial. He truly doesn’t know Jesus, he still doesn’t really understand what kind of Messiah He came to be.

72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

We refer to someone who is brash and arrogant as “cocky,” because of the way the rooster struts around. How ironic that the cocky Peter who bragged that he would be faithful long after everyone fell away is reminded of his empty boast by the crowing of a rooster.

Peter did not deny himself and take up a cross. He denied Christ to avoid the cross.

III. Some Lessons for Us

From the time Jesus woke him up in the Garden, Peter must have felt like he was in a bad dream that wouldn’t end. First he sees His Master and friend arrested, but not before he tried to take matters into his own hands, only to be rebuked by Jesus. Then he ran like a coward. Then he decided to discreetly see what was going to happen, only to be put on the spot again, only to fail miserably again, and to break down in tears. But this is not the end of the story for Peter. He doesn’t fade from the scene like Judas. He becomes the Rock Jesus named him to be, and if I am right in understanding that Mark’s gospel was addressed to Christians in Rome, then Peter eventually gave his life for Christ in the very city to which this gospel was sent. So Peter must have learned something from what happened in the courtyard of the high priest. Here are three lessons I can think of that we need to learn.

A. We can deny Christ with our lives just as we can with our words.

It is hard to envision a time here in America when we could face grave danger for professing faith in Christ. But as I have said before, there are places in the world today where if you did claim to believe in Jesus as the Son of God you could very well pay with your life. And that was certainly a reality in the time Mark, when Nero’s persecution was in full throttle.

A couple of generations later during another outbreak of imperial persecution, an aged believer in Smyrna named Polycarp was arrested, and urged to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord” rather than Christ in order to avoid death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And so he died rather than deny Christ.

Hopefully we are nowhere close to facing that kind of persecution here. But this doesn’t mean we are immune to the temptation to deny Christ. We can deny the Lord in other ways besides saying, “I never knew the man.” The Bible teaches that we can deny Christ by the way we live.

Jude warned about those who

Jude 1:4 have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul told Titus:

Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

If you truly believe in Christ, that will be reflected in the way you live because He calls us to a total commitment. But if the way you live does not follow what Christ teaches – loving God with all your being, about loving others as yourself, about purity, about honesty– then what you are really saying is you do not believe Jesus is Lord, you do not believe He is God’s Anointed one enthroned at his right hand, because if you really believed this, you would be doing what He said to do!

We confess Him by our works, and we can deny Him by our works. What testimony does the world see in you?

B. If we deny Christ, He will deny us.

When we deny Christ, like Peter, it is because of self-interest. Peter was obviously scared, afraid of what the authorities would do if they knew he was in the inner circle (especially since he just tried to kill one the henchmen of the high priest!). And the reason we deny Christ in our conduct is self-interest. The simple selfishness of wanting our will rather than His; perhaps combined with the fear of what may happen to us if we dare stand up for His will.

Or to put it another way, it is because we are more concerned with what someone else thinks about us than what Christ thinks about us. But Christ is the only one who can create a saving relationship with the God who holds our eternal destiny in His hand. Not just a beating, not just imprisonment or even death. But eternal wrath!

And if we deny Jesus, He has made the solemn warning that He will deny us before the eternal God.

Mark 8:38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Paul makes the same promise in his final letter to Timothy:

2 Tim 2:12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us

I cannot imagine anything more horrifying than to stand before God, knowing that my only hope of mercy is to belong to Jesus Christ, and to hear Jesus say, “Shane did not want to confess that he belonged to me, and so I don’t recognize Him as one of mine.” Those are the stakes if I deny Christ.

C. If we are faithless, He is faithful.

The third lesson I want to draw is from the next verse in 2 Timothy 2-

13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

“He remains faithful.” And indeed Christ did remain faithful. While Peter was crumbling in the face of one slave girl’s question, Jesus remained faithful to His Father’s will in the midst of a flurry of false witnesses and degrading abuse.

And it is His faithfulness that gives me hope. Because I know that when I am faithless, He remains absolutely trustworthy, and will keep His promise to forgive me.

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

We don’t have to imagine how heartbroken Peter was over his failure. But can you imagine how he must have felt when the women who visited Jesus’ tomb passed on this message:

Mark 16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee

“And Peter.” Why single him out? Maybe because of all the disciples, the one who denied the Lord three times needed the reassurance that Jesus intended to see him again.

I think this explains the scene at the end of the Gospel of John when Jesus asked Peter to feed His sheep three times. For each denial, Peter received a commission from Jesus to feed His sheep. Because even though he was faithless, Jesus remained faithful.

There may have been members of the church in Rome to whom Mark was writing that had caved in and denied Jesus. They needed to know that whether we have denied Jesus three times, 70 times, 70 times seven, we can have hope that like Peter we can be restored.

Have you ever been ashamed to admit you knew someone? A few years ago I read a book called Seventy Years in Dixie. It is the memoir of a man named T.W. Caskey, who lived through the War Between the States. One of the most moving passages in the book is the third chapter, certainly not PC, called “Black Mammies.” In many southern households, a black slave would help raise the children, especially if the mother was ill or had passed away, as was the case with Caskey. “The relationship between a child and its black mammy was both intimate and affectionate. Any Southern man would resent an injury to his old black mammy, as a personal insult, as long as he lived” (p. 42).

The account turns bittersweet when Caskey admits that the last time he saw his mammy, he was embarrassed when she showered him with affection in front of his sweetheart, which offended his sense of propriety in front of his girlfriend. “I blushed for shame that I should be thus kissed, by an old negress, in the presence of my young lady friend. I have never yet fully recovered my self-respect, when I think how I blushed to be kissed and loved by one who had so nobly earned her right to a mother’s affections and privileges, by all she had done for me during my helpless, infant orphanage. It was mean and contemptible in me. But I will yet atone for it, in a measure, if I am so fortunate as to meet her ransomed soul on the glory-gilded shore of eternity. In that sweet by-and-by, I will walk right up to her, and if her face is as wrinkled and black as it was when last I saw it, I will, nevertheless, throw my arms around her neck and, before God, Christ, the angels and assembled universe, tenderly press a loving, repentant kiss upon her cheeks.” (p. 48-49)

We need to feel the blush of shame for those times we have denied our Savior who has done so much for us. But we should also feel the great joy and hope of knowing that despite our failures, our spiritual blemishes, that He is always faithful to welcome us back, because “he is not ashamed to call [us] them brothers” (Heb. 2:11).

"Crucify Him!" (Mark 15:1-20)

Now that Barack Obama has assumed the presidency, historians can debate in earnest where President Bush will rank among our nation’s presidents. It is true that he leaves office with historically low approval ratings, but so have other presidents who are now highly regarded, such as Harry Truman. Only time will tell.

Of all the characters connected to the story of the crucifixion, the one whose reputation has been debated the most over the years is Pilate. In the four gospels of the NT, he is portrayed as a waffling politician who condones a grave injustice to satisfy a mob. In later legends, he is said to have committed suicide, but when his body was dumped into the Tiber River the waters were so disturbed by such an evil presence they rejected his corpse!

On the other hand, a few centuries after the NT period, some alternative gospels were written which exonerated Pilate, claiming that it was actually King Herod who pronounced the death sentence on Jesus. Some of the accounts say that Pilate became a Christian, and this revisionist version of Pilate is so influential that in certain quarters of the Orthodox Church, Pilate is considered a saint!

You might remember that when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was released that many Jewish organizations claimed the movie was anti-Semitic, that it unfairly blamed the Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus. So, the Jews aren’t guilty; Pilate isn’t guilty; apparently nobody is guilty! It makes you wonder if none of these people wanted to kill Jesus how He ever ended up on the cross!

This effort to deflect or dilute blame is futile, because it isn’t that nobody is guilty – everybody is guilty. As Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6). No one we have read about in Mark so far comes off looking good in the story of the Passion. The disciples are faithless cowards; Judas is a self-serving traitor; the Sanhedrin is a conniving cabal; Pilate is an unprincipled bureaucrat.

So as we approach the text today, let’s do so with the transparent honesty that recognizes the guilt of everyone in the gospels, just as we confess “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

The text today is outlined for us by two uses of the word “delivered.”
• The end of verse 1: “And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate.”
• Then in verse 15, Pilate “delivered him to be crucified.”

I. Jesus Is Delivered To Pilate (15:1-5)

Remember that Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night, and tried in the time before the third rooster crow (around 3 am). Verse 1 explains why the Jewish leaders were in such a rush to carry out their trial. Roman officials began their work at daybreak, so in order to make sure the governor heard Jesus’ case, they needed to bring him to trial “as soon as it was morning,” which is when Mark 15:1 says they concluded their hearing and delivered him to the governor.

1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate.

Pontius Pilate was appointed prefect (or governor) of Judea in AD 26, and held the post for ten years. His reputation in the works of Jewish writers like Philo and Josephus is uniformly negative, even for a governor. Josephus explained that Emperor Tiberius kept the same governor in his post as long as he could…

out of regard to the subjects that were under them; for that all governors are naturally disposed to get as much as they can; and that those who are not to fix there, but to stay a short time, and that at an uncertainty when they shall be turned out, do the more severely hurry themselves on to fleece the people; but that if their government be long continued to them; they are at last satiated with the spoils, as having gotten a vast deal, and so become at length less sharp in their pillaging; but that if successors are sent quickly, the poor subjects, who are exposed to them as a prey, will not be able to bear the new ones… He [Tiberius] gave them an example to show his meaning: A great number of flies came about the sore places of a man that had been wounded; upon which one of the standers-by pitied the man’s misfortune, and thinking he was not able to drive those flies away himself, was going to drive them away for him; but he prayed him to let them alone: the other, by way of reply, asked him the reason of such a preposterous proceeding, in preventing relief from his present misery; to which he answered, “If thou drivest these flies away, thou wilt hurt me worse; for as these are already full of my blood, they do not crowd about me, nor pain me so much as before, but are somewhat more remiss, while the fresh ones that come almost famished, and find me quite tired down already, will be my destruction. For this cause, therefore, it is that I am myself careful not to send such new governors perpetually to those my subjects, who are already sufficiently harassed by many oppressions, as may, like these flies, further distress them; and so, besides their natural desire of gain, may have this additional incitement to it, that they expect to be suddenly deprived of that pleasure which they take in it.” And, as a further attestation to what I say of the dilatory nature of Tiberius, I appeal to this his practice itself; for although he was emperor twenty-two years, he sent in all but two procurators to govern the nation of the Jews, Gratus, and his successor in the government, Pilate. Antiquities Book 18.6.5

So self-serving politicians are nothing new!

If anything set Pilate apart from the usual corruption of his day it was his pattern of violent overreaction to the Jews, followed by backtracking to cover himself. Jesus mentioned in Luke 13:1 that Pilate had slaughtered some Jews from Galilee while they were offering sacrifices, and Josephus relates another story about Pilate:

On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, but their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns.” War 2.169-174, Antiq 18.55-5

Pilate was a career politician who detested the Jews but at the same time deferred to the Jews so he could keep the peace and keep his job.

Mark does not explicitly state what the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of before Pilate, but we can infer from his question -

2a And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

-that they charged Jesus with treason, that Jesus claimed to be the true king of Israel in defiance of Caesar.

Luke gives us the complete run down of charges:

Luke 23:2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”

What audacity these people have! Just a few days earlier some of these same people tried to lure Jesus into a trap by asking Him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, and He specifically said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (12:17).

And while it is true that He did say He was the Messiah, it is precisely because He is not the kind of king who came to destroy the Romans and depose Caesar that they don’t believe in Him! If He had truly been a threat to Caesar they would not have condemned Him – they would have crowned Him! But because these are the only kinds of accusations which would touch a nerve with Pilate, the leaders of the Sanhedrin deliberately lie and twist Jesus’ words to get Him executed.

In the face of such injustice I would be outraged. I hate to be accused of something I didn’t do (in the second grade Mrs. Gillespie said I hit Doyle Ratliff during lunch and paddled my hand even though I wasn’t anywhere near him, and I still haven’t recovered from the trauma!). Jesus could easily refute their charges, just as He blew a hole in their trap about paying taxes a few days previously. But instead, all Jesus said in response to Pilate’s question of whether He was the King of the Jews is:

2b “You have said so.”

This could mean, “Whatever you say,” sort of dismissing Pilate, or it could mean “you said it,” agreeing with Pilate. But the brevity of Jesus’ answer means that He is not going to mount a lengthy defense in rebuttal of these charges. He truly intends to be “like a sheep that before its shearers is silent” (Isa. 53:7).

That silence encouraged His accusers,

3 And the chief priests accused him of many things.

But His silence puzzled the man who held His fate in his hand.

4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

II. Jesus Is Delivered to Be Crucified (15:6-20)

I believe that at this point Pilate knew that whatever disagreement these Jews were having among themselves that Jesus of Nazareth was not a seditious rebel. And I think he had enough of a sense of Roman justice that he wanted to find a way to free Jesus without causing problems with his constituents. It so happened that one of his customary procedures during Passover provided him the perfect cover to do this.

6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them.

The name “Barabbas” means “son of Abba,” “son of a father”. You remember that Jesus prayed to God as “Abba Father” in the garden. This is the only similarity between these two men. Jesus taught His followers to love their enemies, to lose their lives to find them. Barabbas was a murderer, involved in some sort of rebellion against Rome. I imagine him to be sort of like Spartacus, or Robin Hood, someone who used any means necessary to carry on the struggle against Rome.

Jesus and Barabbas could not be more dissimilar – Jesus is accused of preaching disobedience to the government when He taught the very opposite, and rebuked His disciples when they tried to fight against the authorities. Barabbas not only preached violent disobedience; he practiced it!

Maybe this is the reason Pilate offered the crowd the choice between the two, because Jesus was so clearly innocent and Barabbas was so clearly guilty. Surely the people will pick Jesus, relieving Pilate of having to make the choice, while at the same time preventing a horrible miscarriage of justice.

At least, that’s how I interpret the next couple of verses:

9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.

Pilate was a veteran of underhanded political dealings; he could easily sense that the real issue here was not treason but power. The chief priests were envious of Jesus. There was no basis for these charges, and so Pilate presents the people a no-brainer: free Jesus or free Barabbas? At the same time, he couldn’t resist a chance to twist the blade a little in the chief priests, referring to Jesus as their “king.”

But Pilate had met his match in these men. They knew how to play the game with ruthless effectiveness-

11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.

With speed and cunning the chief priests manipulate the people who were present to ask for a virtual terrorist to be released instead of Jesus. How could they turn the tide of popular sentiment against Jesus so quickly? First of all, it may be that this “crowd” consisted of supporters of Barabbas who had come to campaign for his release. But even if this was a random group of bystanders, think about it. Here you are at Passover, the great feast celebrating Jewish liberation. And on the one hand you have a man of action who has risked his life to fight for the cause of freedom. And on the other hand, you have a man who says things like

Matt. 26:52b For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

In that kind of highly nationalistic and patriotic climate, who do you think most Americans would have chosen? We love men of action, men who take matters into their own hands. We revere freedom fighters. There is no doubt in my mind that if it had been people from Nashville TN standing there we would have made the very same choice those people did, with just as much enthusiasm.

Luke says

23:18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”

Here is one more irony. When the heavily armed underlings of the Sanhedrin came to arrest Jesus in Mark 14, He asked them,

14:48 “Have you come out as against a robber (lestes), with swords and clubs to capture me?

That word, “robber,” is the same word John uses in John 18:40 to describe Barabbas. They came armed to the hilt to arrest a man who was the farthest thing from an armed robber, only to trade His life for someone who was a violent criminal!

I almost get the sense that Pilate does not want to be the one to pronounce the death sentence, so he frames the issue in such a way that it is the crowd that asks for this penalty-

12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.”

The crowd is not interested in justice; it wants to see its hero released, even if it means the death of Jesus. And Pilate is certainly not interested in justice either. What he is interested in is pandering to the people-

15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

What kind of man would knowingly sentence an innocent man to a grisly death just to gain a very marginal level of public approval? This is no saint; this is a coward.

This was a brutal coward – he ordered the soldiers to scourge Jesus. It was Roman custom to scourge a prisoner before crucifying them. If you saw The Passion, you don’t need for me to explain what a nightmarish punishment this was. The prisoner would be strapped to a column, exposing their back. A soldier would take a lash which was embedded with bits of bone or metal, or even hooks, and flail away at the prisoner. Many ancient accounts describe victims whose bones or internal organs were exposed after a scourging.

Having prepared Jesus for execution, “he delivered him to be crucified.”

In our country, when a person is led to be executed, there is almost a solemn respect shown by the guards and officials who have to carry out the task. The prisoner is given a final meal of his choice and the opportunity to consult with clergy. Our Savior was not afforded any favors. He was treated in a way to strip Him of every bit of dignity, to maximize His pain and humiliation.

16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

Twenty-four hours earlier Jesus was giving His disciples instructions for finding a place to eat the Passover, which they found just as He told them they would. And now, twenty-four hours later, things have transpired just as he told them they would in Mark 10:33-34:

33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.

All that is left is for them to kill Him.

III. Some Lessons for Us

I think the best way for us to draw meaningful applications from this text is to think about how we in so many ways end up imitating the people we have studied about today. Why is it that we fail to honor Jesus as we should? Isn’t it for fundamentally the same reasons as those we have studied about today?

A. In the chief priests, I see my propensity for pride.

Jesus was threat they needed to remove. He openly challenged them by refusing to adopt their traditions, by exposing their corruption in the temple, and by unmasking their hypocrisy. Even Pilate could see that the chief priests were envious of Jesus, that they wanted to get rid of a menace to their power base.

The establishment had every reason to be afraid of Jesus. His authority was undeniable. They could question its source, as they did in the temple when they asked,

Mark 11:28 By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?

They could claim His power came from the Devil, as they did when they tried to explain away His exorcisms. But what Jesus said and did was with such conviction and power you had to take notice.

Mark 1:22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Mark 1:27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

And so the Jewish rulers could not dismiss Jesus as merely some itinerant preacher. He claimed to be much more than that, and He did so at their expense. Jesus drew sharp lines of distinction between them and Him, and the only solution left was to get rid of Him.

The other night I saw this statement on a website:

I do believe that Jesus walked the face of the Earth and died on the cross, but I want to do my own thing at the same time. This is why I don’t believe I am saved.

“I want to do my own thing at the same time.” That is the issue with us, isn’t it? Just like the chief priests, we want to be the chief in our life, we want to do what we want, and yet there is Jesus, claiming to be the Messiah seated at God’s right hand, telling is that we must be willing to give up houses and sisters and brothers and children and lands and even our own lives for His sake!

And so we have to choose – do I acknowledge Jesus as Lord and follow Him, or – like the chief priests - do I see Him as a threat to eliminate? That is why some of our brothers and sisters fall away. It isn’t because they have lost faith that Jesus lived and did miracles and taught with authority and died and rose again. No, they fall away because they are deeply convicted that is the case, that He did claim to be Lord, but because they want to jealously guard having their own way, because they want to do their own thing rather than submit to Christ, they try to remove Him from their life.

Every time you and I choose to ignore what Jesus wants us to do so we can be in charge instead, we are guilty of the envy of the chief priests.

B. In Pilate, I see my tendency to compromise.

Every time in my life I have compromised a conviction, it has been for the very same reason Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified –“to satisfy the crowd.” When I have acted like a disciple shouldn’t, it has been because I wanted to fit in with the crowd. When I have failed to speak up when I should, it has been because I didn’t want to get kick out of the crowd. But either way, it boils down to satisfying other people rather than doing what is right.

To be frank, I don’t think Pilate had many convictions to compromise. Pilate represents the cynic, the person who has no principles, no core set of values. He is the paradigm of the person whose only thought is survival, and who will cut any corner, compromise any belief, to gain any kind of advantage. A person like Pilate lives only for the here and now.

We should never allow ourselves to slip into such a nearsighted view of life that we throw away our convictions to gain some kind of temporary approval from worldly people. We are not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by the mercies of God, in hope of an eternity of love and joy with God.

But every time you and I choose the easy way of popularity for the hard road of conviction, we are compromising the truth every bit as much as Pilate.

C. In the soldiers, I see my capacity for cruelty.

I believe that one of the unique endowments God has given man is the kind of conscience that will choose to do gracious things for other people at great personal risk. You may have seen the story in the news this week about the man in Lawrenceburg who raced into a burning apartment building to save someone else’s baby. That runs counter to the instinct for survival that controls animals. But something else unique to human beings is the capacity for cruelty. When a predator attacks and kills its prey, it functions by instinct, driven by the basic need to eat. We have all seen footage of a big cat of some kind chasing down an antelope to feed. That is nature’s way. But the lion doesn’t capture the antelope, drag it back to its lair, and then torture it. That is something only people do – not by instinct, but by choice; it is what happens when our moral conscience is perverted and twisted by sin.

The Roman soldiers had a job to do – execute a convicted criminal. In one sense you can’t fault the battalion of soldiers who carried out Pilate’s orders – they were simply doing what their superior commanded. But they went beyond duty; when they pressed that wreath of thorns into Jesus’ head, it was because they enjoyed it. When they struck him with the reed and spit on Him, it was for their pleasure. When they saluted Him in a parody of the salute given to Caesar, “Hail, King of the Jews,” they weren’t just carrying out orders – they were having a good time.

And if you search your heart honestly, and deeply, you will uncover moments when you have had a good time at someone else’s expense. Maybe a moment when you did something just to spite someone, to cause as much grief or embarrassment as you possibly could. Possibly a time as a little child when you decided to hurt an animal just because you could. Perhaps a moment when you mocked someone because of the way they looked. Cruelty takes many forms.

Those soldiers were cruel because they couldn’t see who Jesus was. They didn’t know He was their true King. They couldn’t imagine they were spitting on the only being in the world who could save them from their sins. And when we are cruel to others, it is because we do not see them as bearers of the divine image, those who are to be object of our love, not our spite.

Whenever you and I are cruel, we are no better than the soldiers who humiliated Jesus.

There is one more character to consider – Barabbas. And for me, he is the one that I most easily identify with. He was a lawless man condemned to death, and by all rights should have been executed by crucifixion. But Jesus took his place.

And I stand before the great Judge as one who has sinned, as one deserving of death, and should by all rights face the consuming fire of God’s wrath. But Jesus took my place. As Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:21:

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I have no way of knowing exactly where Barabbas was held in custody. The trial before Pilate apparently occurred the in palace of the high priest, and where Barabbas may have been held in relation to the palace is not explained in the text. But just imagine you were Barabbas that early Friday morning. Just perhaps outside the walls of your cell you hear a great crowd shouting. You can’t hear the words of one man, of course – the words of Pilate as he asks,

“Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matt. 27:17).

But maybe from where you were sitting you could hear the response of the crowd as “they all cried out again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas’” (John 18:40). And when Pilate asks what should be done with Jesus, maybe if you were Barabbas all you could hear was the crowd say, “Crucify him!” As you heard the footsteps of the soldiers come to get you, if you were Barabbas, and you have just heard a mob shout “Barabbas” and “crucify him!” what would you think is about to happen?

But instead, the guards remove your chains and tell you, “This man is going to die instead of you, you’re free.”

There was a report in the news that a Saudi man who was released from Guantanamo after spending six years inside the prison camp has joined al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and is now the terror group’s No. 2 in the country. Do you think that’s what Barabbas did? Return to his life of violence and terror? I would like to think that he stopped to thank Jesus, that he made the most of his second chance, that maybe he was so intrigued by the one who was about to die for him that he even became a Christian. We don’t know.

But what I do know is this. Jesus came to “proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18), and that is the good news we offer you today. By the grace of God Jesus came to “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). And through His blood the chains of sin are broken. This man Jesus died for you, and now you can be free.

What will you do? Will you ignore Him? Will you leave here today and go back to doing what you’ve always done? Or will you entrust yourself to Him, be baptized into Him, and spend a lifetime thanking Him for what’s He’s done?