Sermon - John 18:28-19:30 - Our Sin, His Love
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God's throne.
Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly - not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
'Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?' snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. 'We endured terror . . . beatings . . . torture . . . death!'
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. 'What about this?' he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. 'Lynched . . . for no crime but being black!'
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. 'Why should I suffer' she murmured, 'It wasn't my fault.'
Far out a cross the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that human beings had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a girl from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth - as a human being!
'Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
'At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.'
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Today is the third and final part of the series I've been doing on the passion, so today we'll be coming before one of the two greatest mysteries in the Bible, the dying God.
Let me tell you where we're going:
Okay, let's recap what's happened so far, can anyone remember what's been going on in our story from the last two sermons? If you can't think of anything cheat and glance at Matthew 26 and John 18.
(Write up on Asertate)
Okay, let's get to our passage.
John 18:28-40 then 19:1-15
From various historians of the period we know that Pilate was a bloody ruler, prone to random acts of violent suppression, an example of which is recorded in Luke 13:1. There are many scholars who claim that Pilate comes off too well from the gospels, too much of a scent of roses. Let's examine John's account and see if they're right.
From the Sanhedrin's surprised defensive reply of v30 I would conjecture that they thought they already had a tacit arrangement with Pilate for Jesus' execution, which is why they're taken aback at what seems a very natural question. Pilate doesn't make it so easy for them. He seems to be expecting to meet a political revolutionary, I would guess that's how the Jews sold his execution to Pilate, but Pilate finds a rather different Jesus. A Jesus whom he knows is innocent.
So he offers to release him. Release him from what? You already know he's innocent of any charges! Pilate is trying to make an astute political move here, by specially releasing Jesus he will imply that Jesus' was guilty of something, thereby placating the chief priests, while not crucifying a man he knows is innocent, and at the same time avoid releasing anyone he'd actually like to keep in the jails. Pilate's plan is to involve the voice of the crowd which he thinks will favour Jesus, since he realises the Chief Priests are acting, in part, out of jealousy. He's mis-estimated the crowd however, and finds himself officially imprisoning a man he knows is innocent. Instead he had to release Barabbas, who from Luke's gospel we discover is revolutionary, and a murderer (Luke 23:25).
So Pilate's next move is to go for a pity vote, he has a man he knows is innocent flogged, beaten and mocked by the soldiers, and pierced with a crown of thorns. These aren't bramble bush kind of thorns, these would be thorns from the date palm which can grow up to 12 inches in length. And after this Pilate declares (v4) "I find no basis for a charge against him."! If this is how you treat an innocent man Pilate I'd hate to know what you do to a guilty one.
The issue ends with the Jews saying in v12 "If you let this man go you're no friend of Caesar". 'Friend of Caesar' is an honorific title bestowed by the Emperor, Roman sources inform us that Pilate had acquired it through the effort of one Sejanus. The timing for this is a little uncertain, but scholars think that Sejanus was executed in a palace purge some months before, leaving Pilate, with his known connection, in a precarious situation. Pilate sees the threat, and hurries to pronounce judgement by the proper formalities.
This then is the Pilate presented to us by John, a contemptuous bully, a coward, and in the final analysis, a murderer. He may make a fuss about it being on their hands, but Pilate, mate, you're the only one round here who can issue a death sentence, the soldiers leading him away follow your orders only. Say what you will, the blood is on your hands.
Twice recently I've been shocked by misconceptions about sin. One Christian friend said to me "I'm happy telling atheists the gospel, but not people like Jews, they already have a religion, a way to God." Another told me "all sins are equally bad". This morning I want to deal expose what's wrong with those statements by presenting what sin is, first in more abstract terms, and then in the acts of the Jewish establishment in having Jesus killed.
We tend to think of sins as the bad things that we do to other humans, but that's not the real crime (it's more of a symptom). You see the real issue is rulership. It works like this:
I decide that the present law against rape is one that I don't like, I want to break it, so I plot to overthrow the government so that I can rape people, and perhaps I rape some along the way to pass the time.
I have committed high treason and will be locked up for life because of it. You could mention the rape charges at the trial, they are serious, I deserve to be punished for them. But since I'm already getting a life sentence, the matter is a little academic.
I decide that the present law against copying a particular song by Steven Curtis Chapman is wrong. I want to break it, so I plot to overthrow the government so that I can chose my own copyright laws. And probably copy said track in the meantime, so I can listen to it while putting my coop into operation.
I have committed high treason and will be locked up for life because of it. You could mention the copyright violation at the trial, it is not all that serious, though still I deserve to be punished for it. But since I'm already getting a life sentence, the matter is a little academic.
The matter of rape is more serious than the matter of illegal copying, because the impact of rape on the victim is very high, the impact of my copying on Mr. Chapman isn't. However, both are completely overshadowed by the matter of high treason - since both equally involved trying to overthrow the rightful government to satisfy my whims both are equally high treason.
Sin, us breaking God's law, is high treason against God. We're saying 'God, I don't approve of your rule, I want to overthrow it and set up my own regime over my life'. You can see this back in the garden in Genesis 3. There the matter is made explicit: there's no other moral consequence to eating the fruit in the sense of harming other humans by it - no copyright violation or matter of rape, instead Eve is tempted to take it in order to "become like God". She's being tempted to dethrone God, to set up her own judgements in place of his ("Knowing good from evil").
Those furthest from God in Jesus' day, and ours, were not the tax collectors or the prostitutes, it was those with the pride to think themselves righteous off their own bat, to think that they didn't need God's help, they were worthy of him already.
I think it was Cliff Richard who said "Religion is man reaching out for God; Christianity is God reaching out for man". I think he was being too generous.
There is an irony to v28 that would be hilarious if weren't so tragic. The Pharisees are so precise in following the law that they won't break even the smallest part by entering a Gentile's dwelling, in their pursuit of the death of Jesus. Make no mistake this is the pinnacle of man's attempts to build himself up to God's level, of legalistic religion, of I'm good enough theology, this is its great triumph: the execution of the Son of God.
I find v15 staggering. Who is Israel's King? Bruce Milne puts it beautifully, "Nothing was more fundamental to the covenant than the kingship of God [...] It was a conviction that no invading power could weaken or eradicate, whether Persian, Ptolemaic, Syrian, Greek or Roman. [Isaiah declared] 'O Lord, our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone do we honour' (Isaiah 26:13) Secure in that conviction they waited patiently through the long centuries for the appearing of his messiah to vindicate Israel's faith and establish his rule visibly and powerfully over the whole earth."
But when he comes they discover a Messiah who has not come to prove them right, but to make them right, and instead of humbly submitting to him they would rather reject the whole covenant so as to be able to reject him.
All too often legalistic religion is not the search for God, it is the search to not need God. The religious are not a group who don't need to hear the gospel, they are desperately in need. Human religion does not bring man closer to God, it is man's last and best defence against admitting his sin, his worthlessness. His need. Let Forsyth say it: "As a race we are not even stray sheep, or wandering prodigals merely; we are rebels, taken with the weapons in our hands."
This is the depth of man's sin. If you haven't already met its rebellion talking to people as you gave out videos you will meet it one day. It was a sorry and embarrassing day when I first heard a mathematician at no lesser institution than Cambridge University go through the most tortured illogic to avoid accepting Christ. I thought mathematicians were better than that, turns out human sin is stronger than human training. Do not be discouraged, it is not that you're bad at witnessing, telling people the gospel has always been hard.
Why do you think we put so much prayer into evangelism? It is because no one will ever be saved unless God intervenes. You are not here by good luck, or because you were smart enough to figure out the truth of the gospel. You are here because God performed a miracle on the level of raising the dead. Some of you may remember the pains I took in my last sermon to emphasise that we need to be acting in and relying on God's strength, not ours. There is no area for which this issue is more pronounced than that of evangelism.
I do need to give a clarification before we move on, I am not saying there is no good in humans, or that none of the principles held by the great religions are right. There is still, in man, the image of God. Marred, but present, and it finds it's way out in all sorts of ways. Many of the rules of legalistic religion are praiseworthy, none of them deal with man's greatest problem: his rejection of God; that problem they only exasperate.
That's the bad olds, but the gospel is good news. Let's read on.
As [name] reads this next passage to us I want you to bear in mind Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane: realise that Jesus is not here magically shot with painkillers, or hidden away in some haze of being God. He suffers the full experience of crucifixion.
Before we dive in I want to draw your attention to v25-27. Muhammad, unable to accept that God would let his holy prophet, Jesus, die, wrote in the Quran that God prevented Jesus being crucified, then to avoid all the eyewitness accounts which clearly stated that Jesus was crucified he said that God had swapped Jesus for someone else, they only thought they crucified Jesus. Verses 25-27 are a good place to start an attack on this when talking to a Muslim; their culture understands very well making provision for your family at even a time such as this, but why would a stranger care about Jesus' mother? How does this event make any sense if the man on the cross isn't Jesus? It doesn't.
V.30 is rendered rather weakly in the NIV "It is finished." "It is done" or "It is accomplished" would be closer, what is done? What has been accomplished?
The notice fastened to Jesus' cross is charge sheet, every criminal who was crucified got one, so that people would know what happens to those who commit such crimes. Jesus is convicted of treason by the Romans and blasphemy by the Jews. The two great charges against humanity are the crime of defying the rightful authority of God and of trying to set itself up in the place of God. Treason and blasphemy.
Jesus has died our death for us. The death of a traitor and a blasphemer, the separation from God that comes with all sin. This is the drinking of the cup of God's wrath against mankind that Jesus spoke of just before his arrest, this is what he meant when he said that he had not come "to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The New Testament repeats over and over again "He died for our sins".
The bad news was that we couldn't earn a right standing with God, the good news is we don't have to. We don't have to lift ourselves up to God, he's come down to us. Not the smallest mite of your salvation, not the last percent is because of anything you do, it's all because of what Jesus has already done on the cross. Some of you are turning off now, thinking 'I know all this stuff'. Wake up. It is one of the easiest, most insidious errors in the Christian life to get so caught up in all the things you're doing for God that subconsciously the notion grows that you're pretty good, look at all the stuff you're doing, God must be pretty pleased with you. Check your hearts, check your minds, if you find any trace of that heresy there, root it out.
One of my friends says "Becoming a Christian is not free, it will cost you your pride". He's right. But it won't cost you your self-esteem. How much do you think you're worth? God thinks you're worth laying aside the glory of heaven and dying on a cross for. Jesus is God, before he undertook his mission on earth he knew exactly who would be saved by his sacrifice, he didn't die for people in general, he died for you personally. You are not a random hanger on to salvation, an accidental extra. Remember what we said about sin? God specifically performed a miracle in your life to bring you to acceptance of his son.
I have no idea why he thought you or I was worth that. If it were anyone else I would say he was nuts, but this is God and I trust his judgement. I have no idea why he loves us as much as he does, I just don't understand it, but you know, while I'm curious, it doesn't bother me a bit.
How come? Let me use an example: I know that my parents love me, and love me far more than I deserve, they've proved it time and again over the last twenty two years. I have no idea why. If I asked them they'd probably give some inane answer like "Because you're our son", what kind of reason is that? That doesn't give me doubts about their love, I may not understand why but the evidence remains crystal clear.
You and I may not understand why God loves us, in fact I'd bet good money that we don't, but that's no reason to doubt it: the evidence is nailed up for all to see.
You are not especially good, or especially worthy, or especially virtuous, but you are especially loved.
How can we respond to that except by thanking and praising him? Let's have a period of open prayer, pray out loud or quietly in your heart thanking God, at the end I'll pray to close us.
I said there would be time for questions at the end, and that's now. If you're fed up of my voice you can run off now, if you have any questions from this, or one of the other sermons in this series stick a hand in the air.