They Know Not What They Do

The message of Holy Week centers in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we turn our thoughts to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. We center our thoughts on this verse: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Nails were pounded through the hands. A crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head until the blood ran down his face. Yet, it was not the severe pain that finally caused the condemned person to die, but hanging in the blistering sun with no water and no food. Some would last for a whole week. Before it was all over, they were shouting tyrants and completely insane. This was the cross on which our Savior died.

Why did they crucify Jesus? Certainly it was not because of his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. No one would crucify a man for saying: “Do unto others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). No one would be crucified for saying that the first and the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

Do you think people today would crucify Jesus for the wonderful ethics he has given us? Some might argue with his teachings, but I think most would be very proud of having some contact with the teachings of this great man.

When Jesus preached and taught in his hometown of Nazareth, people were extremely proud of him. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “Where did he ever learn to teach like that?” But things were different when they heard him say that he was the promised Messiah. Then they were anxious to kill him and get him out of the way. When Jesus Christ is proclaimed as God today, it also causes a lot of turmoil because others also claim to be God.

After walking with Jesus for three years, Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). When that message got out, those in the hierarchy said he was a dangerous person. So they decided to get rid of him because of his great ability to teach and their fear that people would follow him and accept what he was saying.

When Jesus Christ claims to be God Ð whether it be in the first century or the twenty-first century Ð people get angry. When he made the statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), they said this was ridiculous and offensive to many people. As a result, Jesus is not referred to as the Savior of the world in many places.

This is Holy Week. Thousands of sermons are going to be preached. I would like to know how many of those sermons being preached from the pulpits of our churches are really holding up Christ as the crucified Son of God and the Savior of the world. He is the one who has come into this world to suffer, die, and make payment for our sins. He was not brought to that cross simply because of a verdict by Pilate.

This scene was foretold in the very beginning when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan in the garden. God said to Satan, “(My Son) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” ( Genesis 3:15). It was true that Satan would cause Jesus some suffering and a great deal of agony. That is what hurting the heel is all about. But it seems kind of insignificant in comparison to what Jesus is going to do to Satan. He will crush his head, destroy him, and gain victory for all who trust in him over Satan.

As our Savior stood before the crowd, they shouted, “Crucify him!” This crowd was made up of the blind leaders Ð the high priests, the teachers, the clergy, the Sanhedrin Ð and people who blindly followed these leaders.

What about us living in the twenty-first century? While we have not nailed Jesus’ hands to the tree, we do turn our heads from him, even as he offers answers for our personal, national, and international problems. It is for these people Ð both those who have nailed him to the tree and those who have turned their backs to him Ð that Jesus utters this prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Now this is a very interesting prayer that demands some attention. We could ask the question: Does our ignorance excuse our rejection of him? William Barclay hurries on to say, certainly not. But there is something to ponder here.

The people in Jesus’ day did not really understand who he was, and so Peter tried to remind them. Some time after Jesus had been resurrected and ascended into Heaven, Peter and John were in Jerusalem healing people. When they healed a young man, the crowd became excited and asked how they did that. Peter told them that it was not by his power but by the power of Jesus Christ. He went on to say, “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:17-19).

Peter was telling them that, in spite of the fact that Jesus told them he was the Messiah and the people still remained ignorant of who he was, the Lord Jesus is anxious to forgive their sins. But they must first repent and turn to him.

St. Paul said the same while staying in Athens. He told them that in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands that all people everywhere repent, and God will forgive them. But if they don’t, a judgment will come. Repentance is necessary, and faith in Jesus is absolutely necessary for sinners to go to Heaven.

When Paul wrote his letters to the young man Timothy, he introduced himself in this way: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).

If you were brought up in a home that had nothing to do with the church, and the message about the Savior dying for the sins of the world made no impression on you, you may ask, What about me? The same message comes to all of us on this Holy Week: No matter what our paths might have been, no matter if we denied him in one way or another, if we will confess our sins, Jesus is more than willing to forgive us.

Churches are found on many street corners in our small towns. Many churches were built by our forefathers who wanted their people to know the message of Jesus Christ. People could go in, study during the week, and hear the sermon preached on Sunday morning. They could hear the simple words, God loves you and he sent his Son to die for you.

Now I wonder if there can still be ignorance? The media today takes this Gospel to the far parts of this world. Aren’t people able to hear if they want to?

While it is true that many do not say a word about their Savior from one time to another, there are some faithful witnesses out there. These people kindly and lovingly Ð but pointedly Ð tell others, You need Jesus. How long can people say they have never heard the Gospel? Maybe it is not until something happens in a person’s life that they begin to hear the message that if they will repent and trust, they will be saved.

Let me turn back to the opening sentence of this sermon. I said the message of Holy Week must center in the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let me add to this sentence: The message heard in the evangelical church must center in the cross and resurrection of the Lord every Sunday. Only in the crucified and risen Savior do we find salvation. Jesus hung on Calvary’s tree for our sins. He also said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

This eternal truth must be echoed wherever the Christian message goes.

In Your Hour of Trial, What Will You Do?

How do you handle your life as a Christian in times of trial? This question has been of great concern to me both as a pastor and as an individual.

I have watched people in the congregation face trials, sometimes in disastrous ways and other times in glorious ways. This is also true in my own life. At times I did not know where to turn; at other times I would realize that God had given me good counsel.

Because of my interest in this question, I read the autobiography of Senator Ted Kennedy. His family has had many trials. Among them were a son who was killed in World War II, two sons who were assassinated, a daughter who was disabled, and two grandsons who were killed in accidents Ð one while skiing and another in an airplane. One of their strengths in dealing with these difficult experiences was the closeness of the Kennedy family. The Senator writes, “When I sit in our family gatherings, tears come to my eyes. I am reminded once again that family shapes us all, and that to be held in the arms of a loving family redeems even the most numbing pain.”

I think that is a great statement. Though I neither endorse all their political convictions nor agree with some of their theological expressions, I have great admiration for the Kennedys’ love and concern for each other.

But now let’s turn to one even greater than the Kennedy family. I refer to the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us great help during these hours of great trial.

At the beginning of his three-year ministry, Jesus chose twelve men to be his close associates. These people would be a source of frustration and disappointment at times. However, they were people with whom he could share his trials. The disciples were flesh and blood and were there to speak to him. Jesus used them, needed them, and prepared them to tell the story of the gospel when that day came about.

Now, you have to remember that Jesus Christ was also true man. The writer of the book of Hebrews said, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are Ð yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I would like to take three scenes from the last hours of our Lord during his walk here among the people of this earth.

The first scene is in the Upper Room. It is only a few hours before the crucifixion and Jesus said to Peter and John, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover. . . As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ÔThe Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there” (Luke 22:8, 10).

As they gathered together toward evening, Jesus could well have thought of the great experiences he had through the past three years, and that this now would be the last time when all twelve of them would be together. He had to give them sad news, as well as enjoy a time of rejoicing. Jesus said this: “One of you will betray me.” Therein was his trial.

The disciples were saddened and one by one they said, “Is it I, Lord?”

Then one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, said, “Surely not I, Lord.”

Jesus looked at him and said, “Yes, it is you.” And then he invited Judas to leave just prior to instituting the Lord’s Supper. After he had given them the Lord’s Supper and they sang a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:21-25).

Jesus had the disciples with him for three years. They had rejoiced together and laughed together. They had gone to a quiet place and prayed together. Now, even though it would be difficult, Jesus had to tell them that they, too, would leave him.

When Peter heard this, he said, Not me, Lord. Maybe all the rest, but I will never, never leave you.

Then Jesus turned to him and said, Peter, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times! (Matthew 26:33-34).

The second scene of those last hours is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had come with the eleven remaining disciples after Judas left them. As they got to the garden, Jesus invited Peter, James and John to join him in the inner garden while he prayed.

Notice that, from the many people who were Jesus’ friends, he chose twelve to be his disciples. Now Jesus needed the three disciples who had been especially close to him in his ministry Ð Peter, James and John Ð to help him face a very stressful time in his life as he confronted the agony of the cross.

Jesus then prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Luke 22:42). Then He returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. These three were imperfect men, but they were his friends, chosen by him, and Jesus found comfort in having them with him.

The third scene is at Calvary. The Bible gives us a very personal look at Jesus’ dying moments. He had been put on a cross. When he saw his mother standing beneath the cross and the disciple whom he loved (John) standing nearby, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son” and then to John, “Here is your mother.” John then took Mary to his house to live.

So there are three scenes where Jesus needed people. In the first setting you have twelve around him. In the second setting you have three of the twelve around him. And in the third setting you have one of the three with him. Thus we can say that in his hour of trial, Jesus turned to his friends. Does it not also teach us the need of having strong Christian friends with whom we can face trials? I sense this need for friends.

Now comes the question: In our hour of trial, what will we do? What have we done in the past? What are we doing in the present if the trial is right now? What will we do in the future when trials come?

The first thing to say is that, above all, we need a Savior. We need a Savior who will come to us as he came to Martha when her brother Lazarus was dead and said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Martha needed Jesus, her close friend, to assure her that Lazarus was going to be raised. But more than that, she needed a Savior Ð the Lord Jesus Christ.

We may have a lot of friends, but in our final hour we need one special person. If we know him as our Savior and have lived in a personal relationship with him, he will be the one to whom we will lift our eyes and say, Come now and take me, for the pain is too severe.

But we will have other settings in this life, too, when we will need a person to talk to. We will need a group of friends in whom we can share our differences. Friends with whom we can reveal our weaknesses. Friends, perhaps, to whom we can confess our sins. They may not necessarily be the people with whom we spend the most time, but they are the ones with whom we have shared the great message of God’s Holy Word. It doesn’t have to be twelve; it may be eight, or perhaps more than that. Maybe it is a small group with whom you have been meeting for years and with whom you have studied the scriptures. You need these people. You cannot go it alone. You cannot say I have my Savior and that is all I need. You certainly need your Savior first, but you also need flesh and blood.

I recall back in the 50s my father-in-law had a severe heart attack and was sick unto death. There was no open heart surgery in those days and little could be done. So the doctor put him to bed and told my mother-in-law to see that he got very good rest.

My father-in-law was a popular man, a clergyman himself, what we would call a bishop today. One day when my wife and I were visiting, we heard a knock on the door and here stood a pastor friend who had come to see his sick friend. He was invited in, but asked to kindly stay only a brief time.

When the visit grew long, I volunteered to go in and ask him to bring the visit to a close. The man graciously excused himself for staying too long, offered a short prayer, and then left. When my mother-in-law went in to her husband and asked if he was tired, he replied, “Oh my, no. I am so refreshed! That brother of mine shared the teachings of the Holy Word, and we talked about how Christ would soon come and take us home. He lifted my soul!” That visit from a close friend was great medicine. It brought a true sense of comfort.

Not long after that, my father-in-law went to see his Heavenly Father, and we have missed him ever since, for he was a great man of God.

If you are experiencing some difficult times right now, have you shared them with your Heavenly Father? If the future is frightening as you realize no one can escape these tough hours, remember that Jesus is always there to walk with you. Open your Bible and read of your Savior’s love for you. Then call a Christian friend who can be your comforter. We need a few close friends who are committed to the Lord Jesus and will be there when we need them the most. Probably you will come to a time when twelve are too many and you get down to three and then to one Ð you, the Lord Jesus and your friend.

Don’t you think that is pretty good counsel? That is the counsel our Lord wants to suggest that we put into practice every day of our lives, whether we are young or old, whether it is death we are facing or some other trial.

Remember Ð if you are committed to him Ð He is always with you.

Why He Died

Jesus mania was becoming a real problem for the leaders of the religious establishment.

He’s got to be stopped, one of the Pharisees said. Everything could come apart on us if he keeps these activities up.

Another member of the council said, If we let him go on like this, everyone could end up believing in him. Since he raised Lazarus from the dead, everybody is raving about Jesus!

That could mean trouble for all of us, someone chimed in. He is a menace to national security. We could end up with some sort of revolution on our hands. Suppose people rally behind Jesus and try to take on the Romans? Rome will step in and take over everything! Everyone would suffer under the harsh discipline.

They all agreed. Something had to be done. This Jesus had to be stopped. The question was, What was to be done?

It was at this point that Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke up. He had the solution. “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

They all agreed. Jesus must die. So from that day on they took counsel on how to put Jesus to death.

John, the writer of this Gospel, looking back at Caiaphas’ statement, made an editorial comment about it, which is meant to enlighten us. “Caiaphas did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the scattered children of God.”

Caiaphas was, in effect, correct. More correct than he could have ever known. One man should die for the people, but not for the reasons he and his religious comrades had in mind. Jesus should die, not simply to preserve peace and stability for the nation, but for something far more profound according to John.

We, who stand on the other side of the cross and the empty tomb, know that now. God’s truth was being spoken. When I read this text I am reminded of the passion predictions of Jesus himself who told the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer, die, and rise again. It was a divine necessity.

It was God’s plan. Jesus came to die and rescue the perishing.

So John is saying in his editorial comment that Caiaphas was speaking the truth, though he didn’t know how deep that truth was. One man should die so that all should not perish. His death will save people.

The question is why? Why must one man die?

These words of Caiaphas, inspired by God’s Spirit, tell us a predicament exists that must be dealt with. There is talk of perishing and being scattered. One man’s death would stop this.

Something is seriously wrong and must be remedied. What is it that is so wrong Jesus must die? It is a condition: sin. We all have it. The Bible says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We inherited it and, at the same time, are responsible for it. There is no human-made vaccine for it. It is humanly incurable. Millions have tried and failed.

God sees this condition for what it really is. It’s deadly. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It’s isolating for it separates me from the God with whom I was intended to live in a relationship. He is holy and cannot tolerate my sin. It also separates me from others as I selfishly live for myself. Therefore, I am separated from myself as well Ð I am a distortion of what I was made to be. The disease is burdensome and destroys lives with guilt, shame, and loneliness. It leads to perishing.

This statement also points to the truth that God has provided a solution to the dilemma that could destroy us.

“One man should die that all may not perishÉ.”

God gave us his Son, who lived a sinless life of obedience. He stepped into our world to die for you and me. He came to stand in our place and take our punishment for sin so that we might not perish.

Here we see the heart of God. He cannot let us go. He is willing to save us from perishing at all costs. He has come after us to gather the scattered and lost to himself. This is amazing love that I do not deserve. Jesus came to die for sinners like me in order to rescue me.

The good news is this: the plan was carried out. Caiaphas’ statement came to pass! Jesus died for you and me. The cross of Jesus who died for our forgiveness has bridged the chasm between God and man. Mission accomplished! He rose and is still among us today gathering people to himself as this good news is proclaimed and people believe in him.

During World War II, some GIs were preparing for battle. Of course they were anxious. Some might be killed. A discussion began over the question, What happens after death? The chaplain came by as they were talking and they stopped him. “What happens after death?” they asked.

He said, “Heaven or hell.”

They asked, “How do we know which way we’re headed?” He offered to give them a little test. Some paper and pencils were handed out, and the test began. They were to rate each question on a scale of 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest. The chaplain asked the first question.

1. How have you been at keeping God at the center of your life?

2. How have you been at using God’s name for swearing?

3. How has your church attendance been?

4. Have you been a perfect child?

These questions were about the Ten Commandments. The GIs nervously asked, “Uh, what’s a passing grade?”

The chaplain responded, “100%.”

They groaned, “What’s the use?”

The chaplain smiled and said, “I’ve got some good news for you. There is one who came into this world and got 100%. He lived the perfect life, and he died on a cross for you. Trusting in him, you get his score.”

There was silence as the men pondered the gift that had been offered. They had experienced the dilemma and now they had heard the solution: Trust Jesus Christ.

How about you?

We all sit before God with imperfect papers. But he has provided Ð Jesus came to die for us so that we would not perish. Give him your paper and take his. Claim the promise of the one who died and lives for you.

Faith in Whom

When speaking publically, it is important to be able to clearly communicate one’s thoughts to the audience. When a person says in response that, although they may not agree with what the speaker said, his convictions were stated clearly, it is a compliment. It is frustrating when the speaker is asked what he was trying to say after a sermon or speech.

Politicians have this problem. Sometimes they use an abstract presentation so that when they are later accused of saying one thing, they can reply that it was not what they meant to say. Other times they simply lack the ability to put their thoughts into words. Preachers, teachers, salespeople and others also have these problems in communication.

In the February issue of Time magazine, President Obama was asked what made him appear so calm in the midst of harsh criticism. His answer was, “I have a confession to make: at times I am not so calm. There are times when progress seems too slow and the barbs sting. At times I feel all my efforts are for naught, and I have to confront my own doubts. But during those times, faith keeps me calm.”

In my opinion, President Obama is an excellent speaker. Generally speaking, he makes his message clear and we know where he stands. But in this quote he left something unsaid Ð faith in what or whom?

Is his faith in the congress, the political party, or the talented advisors who surround him? Is his faith in an indescribable higher power?

I wish the President in all honesty could have confessed that his faith is in Almighty God; or even more specifically, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He left me wondering in what or whom he found his strength and guidance.

It is not just the politicians who use abstract thoughts and words. We preachers are guilty too. Funerals are often where we have the greatest temptation to confuse people regarding the way of salvation. Let me illustrate.

On Sunday morning a person hears the pastor clearly expounding the text for the day. The pastor repeatedly says that we are saved by grace through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ at the cross. On Tuesday this same person, who is struggling with his faith, attends the funeral for a close friend. This friend’s language and lifestyle would never cause anyone to believe he was a Christian. Yet the pastor refers to the deceased as a “man of faith.” Again we can ask, Faith in what or whom?

Do you remember when we were in grade school and learned how to diagram sentences? There has to be a subject, a verb, and an object. It might be well for us to apply this to our spiritual witness. What or whom is the object of our faith?

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered: “ÔLove the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’, and ÔLove your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “An who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, he passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ÔLook after him,’ he said, Ôand when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37).

When Jesus finished telling that parable of the Good Samaritan, the man went on his way with a clear understanding of who his neighbor was.

Do you remember the familiar story of Jesus talking to Martha after her brother Lazarus had died? In comforting Martha, Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:23-26).

In whom does the person believe if he is going to heaven? Jesus clearly gives us the answer Ð we must believe in Him. He leaves no question or doubt about the answer. A person might not believe what Jesus said, but he could never be confused about what Jesus meant. He did not present an abstract answer, but a concrete answer.

The disciples of our Lord were persecuted and killed because of their clear answers regarding the way of salvation. St. Paul writes in Romans 10:8-10, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ÔJesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Paul’s words are clear Ð Jesus Christ is the only Savior who will bring you into a personal relationship with the Lord God Almighty.

In Romans 5:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” People never had to ask Paul in whom he believed. The answer was very clear. It was the cross of Christ and His empty tomb. That’s what saves us.

Why is it that, in our conversations with others, we hesitate to mention the name of Jesus? Could it be that we are ashamed of what others will think about us? It might be well for us to remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).

If we are living in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, let us have a clear, loving testimony of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Let no one wonder who is our comfort and strength, and who picks us up and forgives us when we sin.