Luke’s Innocent Jesus: A Point From Repetition

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedSix times in Luke 23 the author wants us to see that Jesus really was innocent, and this comes from the lips of four different people. Three times Pilate states that he found no guilt in Jesus (23:4, 14, 22). Sandwiched between the second and third of those concerned public declarations, Pilate tells the crowd of Herod’s verdict on this itinerant preacher: Jesus was not deserving of death, merely ridicule (23:15). Hanging alongside Jesus, staring death squarely in the face, a convicted criminal, guilty by his own admission, holds that Jesus had done no wrong (23:41). Finally we hear the shout of the Roman centurion, ‘This man was innocent’ (23:47). Luke wants us to see that the Innocent dies.

Despite Pilate’s exasperation and Herod trivializing the charges, it seemed nothing could stop the wheels of injustice that were in motion. You might ask, “Why?” The entire scene might sicken you. Perhaps, like the thief, the truth that an obviously innocent man dying for something he did not do causes you to become indignant, furious at how unfair this good man is treated. If that is how you feel then I think you have begun to understand this section of Luke’s gospel. The repeated point of Jesus’ innocence combined with the trial hurtling towards execution is paradoxical; the reader is left frustrated by the tension, the irreversible course of Jesus’ trial. The words of the thief and the centurion bring no comfort or hope; they do not alleviate the tension. Rather, with the death of the Innocent it seems that all is lost.

Are we meant to feel pity? Like we are too often forced to do today, we throw our arms up in despair as we are stunned by another case of gratuitous injustice, another miscarriage of legal system. Or maybe Luke intended to rouse and stir our hearts and emotions, as we are in awe of this valiant sufferer. He said nothing to Pilate; he gave no answer to the trumped up charges. On the cross he prayed for those who hated and scorned him; and he even offered a glorious vision of undying hope to the thief suffering alongside him. Are we left to choose between a picture of somber failure and a gallant renegade? Stanley Hauerwas highlights the singularity of Jesus’ death and cautions us against likening it to any other; the Innocent is no mere martyr. There is more we must gather from Luke’s gospel.

Jesus at Mount of OlivesIn the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel we meet Jesus and hear his heart wrenching prayer on the Mount of Olives. This is the crucial backdrop to the Innocent being tried and abandoned at the cross. There on the Mount we hear an echo from Isaiah 53:10, ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him.’ The Father’s will would be done (22:42). Derek Tidball makes the point that Jesus was not an unfortunate victim with bad timing; instead he says we should see Jesus’ death as the deliberate result of a number of powers. I think Jesus’ agonising plea for rescue,  his weakness supplemented by an angel’s strenth, and the sweat like blood prevents us from saying that Jesus was bold before the death he was facing (22:42-44). At the Mount of Olives we meet a man with only one thing greater than his crippling fear: faith in God the Father.

With this point in mind I think that we can are better able to understand Luke’s intention: while Jesus’ death was the outworking of selfish and sinful men, manipulated by the destructive Satan, only one will prevailed at the cross: the Father’s. Jesus was not a victim tossed about by the evil engineering of men or the corrupting power of evil. He was the Innocent who dies according to the Father’s will in accordance with God’s promise to save those who are truly guilty and without hope. Jesus was not powerless in those last, fateful hours. It was not that the plans of men or Satan triumphed. That day was not an unflinching display of bravery, nor was it the unwitting and helpless death of weak man.

Luke wants us to see that the Innocent died for the guilty. And it could not have happened any other way because of the Father’s will and the Son’s faith.

What’s the deal with Sacrifices?

offeringI had the opportunity to present an assembly at Grace College. Given the lead up to Easter, I was asked to talk about sacrifices. I decided to tackle the distance we feel from a world in which God demands sacrifices by asking what’s changed between then and now that makes them make no sense. The way I answered the question was to distill Israel’s sacrificial system to three purposes: To remind them something, to teach them something and to promise them something. What follows is roughly what I said.

To Remind Them Something

reminder  Sacrifices functioned a bit like scars. Imagine one of your friends always wears long sleeves. Rain, sunshine, hot, cold: long sleeves… It’s a bit peculiar right? But who’s to judge. But it gets hot and you see she’s feeling the heat but rather than pulling her sleeves up, she pulls them down and grips them in her hands. You don’t really know her that well and as you think about it you realise you’ve never actually seen her arms? But you probably never will either nor will you find out why because she’s not going to tell you that down her arms are the scars of a suicide attempt. And every time she or anyone sees them, she remembers with shame what happened and those scars are indelible reminders of that. They’re vivid, unchanging reminders that communicate clearly to everyone who sees them, what she’s done.

In Israel, sacrifices were reminders of what they had done. Actually not just them but everyone. In the account of the Garden of Eden we read how death came as a direct consequence to sin. When Israel did a sin offering, they sacrificed an animal because death came as a result of sin. That’s why blood was sprinkled over the altar: this is what sin produces, it produces death and not only produces death but demands it. Sacrifices reminded Israel that death was the consequence of sin and where there was sin, blood would be spilled.

To Teach Them Something

teachNelson Mandela once said, “Real leaders are people who are willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of their people”. In other words, real leaders are people who are willing to give up everything they value in order to achieve what they value most. If you went to Nelson Mandela today and asked him, “Would you do it all over again, would you sit in prison for years and give up the prime of your life?” He wouldn’t hesitate to respond “Absolutely, I would sacrifice the prime of my life because I treasure freedom and equality, even if it’s not fully achieved today, I would have freedom and equality achieved however costly.”

Now picture it, you grow up on a farm, you’re the shepherd, you look after the sheep and the goats. You make sure they get food, you make sure they get water, you take care of them. When lions and wolves and dragons see your flock as a tasty snack, you fight them – you put your life on the line to defend your animals. Look you basically don’t have a life other than with your animals which become like pets, you know how to tell when they’re grumpy or upset or about to puke in your face – you love them.

Then, one day, your dad comes to you and he says “I need a sheep”.
“what for,” you ask.
“I need to make a sacrifice.”
“heh?” – “for a sin offering,”
“okay,” you say – you’re a switched on sort of lad, “this one keeps getting into fights so he has a few bite marks and his back leg is not great now so you’re welcome to sacrifice him…”
“bite marks? Back leg not great? Mmmm – no that’s not going to do. It has to be unblemished.”

What do you learn about what it takes to be right with God when your dad takes the best of the flock which, apart from being your favourite, if nothing else now means it can’t breed, it can’t provide wool (or milk if it’s a goat) or even meat (it gets burnt up). You realise that sacrifice is costly, that becoming right with God, having a relationship with God is not something you can make the second priority. It is costly to be right with him and you need to be willing to give up everything you value.

To Promise Them Something

engagementringA few of days ago  I received an email from a friend at college with the subject line “… and I said YES!!!”. Now imagine if I read that and looked at the email, if I inferred her excitement from undue use of smiley faces, enormous photos of rings and more exclamation marks than is ever grammatically appropriate and then I said, “I don’t know what she’s so excited about, she’s not married yet.” You would say, “You gigantic clot. She’s engaged. It’s happening. It’s on the horizon, he’s promised her that he is going to marry her and as she now wears that ring, she wears the promise of marriage.”

In the same way, when the Israelites carried out these costly sacrifices they were enacting a promise that they didn’t even fully grasp. A promise that affirmed everything else about sacrifices. A promise that looked back to creation, to Adam and Eve sinning and to death; a promise that said, all that will come to an end. Yes, where there is sin, blood will be spilled. Yes, it will cost everything to be right with God. But, it will cost far more than you ever imagined. The blood spilled as a result of sin will not be that of an animal: Hebrews 10:4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What then does the promise mean?

The Deal

crossHebrews 9:26 “But now, Jesus Christ has appeared once and for all … to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That’s why sacrifices don’t make sense any more, that’s what’s changed between then and now that makes sacrifices no longer make any sense. Christ has already been sacrificed. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin but now for God’s people death has had its day and sin’s consequences were unleashed in full so, for God’s people, they are over. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that being right with God was costly but now, God’s people look back and know it cost Jesus everything and that the price has now been paid: the promise that sacrifices made to God’s people have come true. So Easter becomes the centre-point of history because, as a result of Easter it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

At Easter the sacrificial system was fulfilled. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death was the result of sin, at Easter death was quenched. Sacrifices taught God’s people that a relationship with God was costly, at Easter we see what it cost God to have a relationship with us. Sacrifices promised God’s people that one day the system would change and at Easter it did. So again, Easter becomes the centre-point of history because as a result of Easter, it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

Resurrection Day

What a fantastic reminder; today, a couple thousand years ago a Galilean carpenter/teacher proved to be more than just a rabbi or even a prophet but the very Saviour of mankind.

Regarding the question of Jesus’ identity, Melito of Sardus (a second century bishop) wrote this:

Who is this Jesus?
And so he was lifted up upon a tree and an inscription was attached indicating who was being killed. Who was it? It is a grievous thing to tell, but a most fearful thing to refrain from telling. But listen, as you tremble before him on whose account the earth trembled!
He who hung the earth in place is hanged.
He who fixed the heavens in place is fixed in place.
He who made all things fast is made fast on a tree.
The Sovereign is insulted.
God is murdered.
The King of Israel is destroyed by an Israelite hand.
This is the One who made the heavens and the earth,
and formed mankind in the beginning,
The One proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets,
The One enfleshed in a virgin,
The One hanged on a tree,
The One buried in the earth,
The One raised from the dead and who went up into the heights of heaven,
The One sitting at the right hand of the Father,
The One having all authority to judge and save,
Through Whom the Father made the things which exist from the beginning of time.
This One is “the Alpha and the Omega,”
This One is “the beginning and the end”
The beginning indescribable and the end incomprehensible.
This One is the Christ.
This One is the King.
This One is Jesus.
This One is the Leader.
This One is the Lord.
This One is the One who rose from the dead.
This One is the One sitting on the right hand of the Father.
He bears the Father and is borne by the Father.

[translated by James White]

Today I read part of Carson’s book “Scandalous” on Crossway’s blog and I thought that this pretty much sums it up:

Nothing is more central to the Bible than Jesus’ death and resurrection. The entire Bible pivots on one weekend in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Attempts to make sense of the Bible that do not give prolonged thought to integrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are doomed to failure, at best exercises in irrelevance. Jesus’ own followers did not expect him to be crucified; they certainly did not expect him to rise again. Yet after these events their thinking and attitudes were so transformed that they could see the sheer inevitability that Jesus would die on a cross and leave an empty tomb behind, and absolutely everything in their lives was changed.

Indeed, it is the climax of all of history. In closing – because the other guys always say it better than I can – I am reminded of the words of Calvin. As you read, replace the word “gospel” with “message of the cross”.
Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe.