SAT 21 JUL 01
It says, rather bluntly, on the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s website: “Crucifixion was most frequently used to punish political or religious agitators, pirates, slaves, or those who had no civil rights. In 519 BC Darius I, king of Persia, crucified 3,000 political opponents in Babylon; in 88 BC Alexander Jannaeus, the Judaean king and high priest, crucified 800 Pharisaic opponents; and in about AD 32 Pontius Pilate had Jesus of Nazareth put to death by crucifixion.”
Thousands of people put to death in a rather brutal way. Thousands of criminals executed for a variety of crimes. Thousands who shared a slow, gruesome death. But when we talk of crucifixion, we usually think of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, as if it was the only one. As if being crucified was what made Jesus special. As if he was the one horrendously tortured man instead of one among thousands.
So why focus on this one man? What was so special about His death? That’s the subject of tonight’s investigation. Let’s start in the obvious place – the day Jesus was crucified.
We’re going to hear a reading now from Luke’s Gospel. If you take the sheet you should have got on the way in, it would be really helpful if you could follow the reading. It describes Jesus crucifixion.
[Luke 23: 38-43] Great. Thank you very much.
Three men, all being crucified. But three very different men. Jesus, the focus of attention, and two thieves. Jesus is the focus, because he has spent much of the last three years performing miracles and saying that He was God’s chosen King. And because of that, the authorities have decided to get rid of Him. In fact, that is the “crime” for which He is being punished. Which is why it’s written on the sign above Him. And here He is, looking rather helpless and not very much like a King. In fact He looks in need of a miracle or two Himself, as one of the thieves points out.
This thief clearly thinks Jesus is finished. His colleague, on the other hand, has a different view. He thinks Jesus is innocent and more, he doesn’t think Jesus is finished. In fact he thinks that Jesus has hardly begun. D’you see where he says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”? This thief believes that Jesus is God’s King. This thief thinks that Jesus’ attitude to Him counts. That Jesus is important for his future. And Jesus assures him of his future. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” i.e. heaven
Well, that’s all very well, but how can Jesus possibly make such a claim? Isn’t He staring defeat in the face, on the verge of death?
Well, to see the answer, let’s rewind 24 hours. We join Jesus with his twelve closest friends as they settle down to dinner.
Take your Matthew’s Gospels and turn to page… . [Matthew 26: 19-29]
I want to take three quick points from this passage.
Firstly, as you can see in verse 19, they’re celebrating a special meal, called the Passover. More of that later.
Secondly, (verse 29) Jesus is confident of victory and that He’ll be in heaven.
Thirdly, the bit which is most helpful for our investigation of why Jesus’ death is special. Verses 26-28 “This is my body” “This is my Blood”. Jesus is talking of his impending death. He knows it’s going to happen. And He knows why. Can you see where it tells us why? Look at verse 28. “This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus believes that His death will pay for other people’s sins. But why, what is so special about Him?
Well, we know that the Bible tells us He’s God’s Son and God’s final judge and ruler – so he’s pretty special. OK. But that’s not all… The Bible also tells us that He’s something seemingly very unglamorous. Have a look at the handout. Do you see where it says [1 Corinthians 5: 7b]? “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”. The author is telling us that Jesus is a lamb – a “Passover” lamb. OK, so is the author being fanciful or does he really think Jesus is a cute if stupid little animal which gambols bleatingly around a field? And what does the Bible mean when it calls Jesus the “Lamb of God”? And what’s this Passover thing that keeps cropping up? Well, we’ve already done a bit of time-travel. Let’s do a little more and rewind a further 1,300 years and move a couple of hundred miles south.
It’s Ancient Egypt and Pharoah, (when he’s not building pyramids, windsurfing or buying Harrods), is being your average tyrannical despot, and not being very kind to his Israelite slaves. So God explains to His people His Plan to get them out of slavery… As we read, watch for what a Passover lamb is and does.
[Exodus 12: 1, 3-4, 6-8, 12-14, 21-23, 28-30]
OK, did you spot what a Passover lamb does? Firstly, what would have happened without the Passover lambs? They’d all have got zapped wouldn’t they? Egyptians and Israelites and all. But the Israelites didn’t get zapped. Why? Because a lamb died in their place. They deserved judgment and a lamb died in their place. And the smearing of the blood on the doorposts shows us that they were relying on the death of a lamb to be a substitute for them. So that they wouldn’t be punished. So that they would be saved.
Now that’s a true story and it happened about 3,300 years ago. But it helps to explain the other story we were looking at, the one that happened 2,000 years ago. Because although the Passover was a real historical event, it also [because God’s clever like this] pointed to Jesus. Jesus death was planned by the authorities a few days before. It was planned by God before the beginning of time. And the original Passover story helps us to see what it’s all about. People are facing judgment. All of us, as we heard in Billy’s talk the other night. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Except.
Except that Jesus, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. When Jesus died on the Cross, He wasn’t an ordinary robber, He was God’s sacrifice to allow God’s people to be spared judgment. And in the same way that the Jews celebrated the Passover every year afterwards, so Christians celebrate the even greater Passover that happened that first Good Friday two thousand years ago.
Christians celebrate the fact that because Jesus died, as a substitute for us, we don’t have to face God’s wrath and judgment. If. If we trust in Jesus death. It wasn’t enough for the Israelites just to hear that God had a plan, or even to have seen the dead lamb. No, they had to trust that the death of the lamb and that alone would save them. And they showed this by smearing the blood on their doorposts. For us, we don’t have to smear blood, but we do have to believe, to believe that Jesus’ death alone saves us from God’s righteous anger at our sin.
What does our investigation this evening mean to you?
Let’s go back to where we began. Three men, nailed to crosses. How do you see them? Do you see them as a failed would-be king in the middle, a deranged supporter wasting his last breaths, and a realist? Or do you see God’s Passover Lamb, a man who will be saved by the death of that Lamb, and a man who will face judgment because he rejected that Lamb?
Do you believe that Jesus’s death was a terrible act of the sort Amnesty International rightly condemns? Or do you see it as the one way you are saved from the penalty your sin deserves? The one way you get to call God “Father”? The one way into the best relationship you can ever have – the relationship for which you were made?