Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons

[The first pass, here, explains what this is all about. You can find the second pass here.]

In this installment, we’ll be looking at the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, November 25.

A Few General Comments
1. This may seem like a strange Gospel lesson for a Sunday set aside for the celebration of Christ as King. But, it’s only through the cross that Christ claims His kingdom. Without His death on the cross, sin and death would still have the last word over the lives of those who turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him.

2. At the end of Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Luke says, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

The cross was that “opportune time.” Jesus could have eluded the agony of the cross. But without His death, He couldn’t have died for our sin. Nor could He have risen from the dead. He couldn’t have claimed His kingdom. Throughout His ministry, Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem, intent on fulfilling His mission (Luke 9:53). Here, on the cross, as in the wilderness, He faces down three temptations (23:35, 36-37, 39).

In each instance, the temptation is that Jesus “save Himself.” But this wasn’t Jesus’ mission. He came to save others (Luke 2:11).

The fact that Jesus didn’t save Himself is one bit of convincing evidence that He is the promised King and Messiah.

Verse-by-Verse Comments
33 When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
1. Tradition says that the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was a hill, although that’s never specifically said. But it makes sense that it would have happened on a hill, a place of prominence where criminals would be humiliated and the power of the Roman government would be brandished.

2. Crucifixion was a horrible form of execution. It went way back before the Romans, but the Romans practiced it extensively.

Crosses didn’t always include cross beams, but were pikes on which the crucified were hung.

The executed were secured to their crosses with ropes or nails. In ancient Near East culture, the hand included everything from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow. So, when the Biblical accounts speak of nails driven through Jesus’ hands, it likely has in mind the practice of hammering nails between the two major bones of the lower arm.

Once the victim was on the cross, a rope was wrapped around the neck of the executed person. Trying to remain upright and growing weaker with every inhalation of breath, the victim would struggle to keep from falling onto the rope and suffocating. Most victims of crucifixion died of asphyxiation. Others died of exposure after enduring cycles of the heat of the day and the cold of the night. Death by either cause usually took a long time, which is why in the Gospel of John, there is surprise over Jesus’ rapid death. That only points to the fact that, even in death, Christ was in control, something underscored in Luke 23:46.

34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
1. The first martyr of the Christian faith, Stephen, prays the same prayer for his executioners as Jesus prays here for His (Acts 7:60).

The Spirit lives in the followers of Jesus, making it possible for them to do and say what wouldn’t come naturally to them, reflecting the life of Jesus living in them (Luke 21:14-15).

2. It was common practice for soldiers to gamble for the clothes of those they executed.

35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.”
1. Earlier, the people or the crowds, as they’re called in Luke’s Gospel, had evidently cried out for Jesus’ execution (Luke 23:18). But here, the crowd stands silently as the religious leaders scoff at Jesus. Their silence may stem from fear of the authorities or their own hope that the miracle-worker would now miraculously save Himself. Or maybe, like others who witnessed the way in which Jesus bore suffering and death that day, they began to suspect that really was the Messiah.

Evidence from this and the other gospels suggests to me that the religious leaders didn’t execute Jesus out of a lack of belief in Him as Messiah, but precisely because they believed He was the Messiah. He was a threat to the spiritual stranglehold they had over the people.

This is the first of the final three temptations in this account of Jesus’ crucifixion.

36-37 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
1. This is the second temptation.

2. Why the soldiers offered Jesus “sour wine,” vinegar, is unknown. Soldiers commonly kept this drink with them.

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
1. This is the third of the final temptations of Jesus. This criminal would be perfectly happy to have Jesus prove to be the Messiah if it meant he could get off the hook for his sin.

None of us get “off the hook” for sin. We will either repent, submitting to the death of our old, sinful selves, or we will stubbornly refuse to repent and suffer eternal separation from God. And, except for those present on the day of Jesus’ return, we will die a physical death before experiencing resurrection. We have the same promise Jesus gave to his friend Martha after her brother Lazarus died, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die…” (John 11:25-26).

40-41 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
1. The second criminal, in effect, confesses his sins. He claims no right to heaven with God. He’s done no religious “works” that warrant eternity and he knows it.

He also understands that Jesus is without fault.

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
1. Now, comes an unlikely confession of faith. Somehow, in the suffering Jesus, who shares this man’s death sentence, He sees the promised Messiah.

The Life Application Study Bible notes on this passage point out that the second criminal evidences more faith in Jesus here than his disciples did. It cites Luke 24:21, where the disciples on the road to Emaus, express hopelessness over Jesus’ death. “We had hoped,” they tell the risen Jesus, Who they don’t yet recognize, that He was the Messiah. They couldn’t see how a dying Messiah could be their long-anticipated King. The second criminal “got” it.

2. As my colleague Rick Hinger points out, the word for remember used by the criminal is, in the original Greek, anamnesis. This is the precise word that Jesus uses when instituting the Lord’s Supper (“Do this for the remembrance of me…”). The idea is that to be remembered is more than simply to be recalled in memory. It has the idea of being “re-membered again,” to be together again. (In Holy Communion, we believe that time evaporates and we come into the presence of the “eternal now,” enjoying eternal fellowship with all who have believed in God in the past, present, and future, “in every time and place,” as we put it in our Communion liturgy.

43 He [Jesus] replied, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
1. Jesus responds to the man’s repentance and belief in Him by declaring forgiveness and that, as a consequence, he will be in Jesus’ kingdom in the eternal now.

2. Paradise is a word borrowed from an ancient Persian language. It originally referred to an enclosed pleasure park, filled with trees, something which today we might also call a garden. In fact, these parks were the dominions of kings. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, with which Jesus would have been familiar, this is the word applied to the Garden of Eden. There is a sense in which, those who have become part of Jesus’ kingdom have been restored as residents of Eden, the place where the first human beings lived in perfect fellowship with God, unobstructed by sin.

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