THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

THE PASSION NARRATIVE
Luke 19:11-24:53

The Death of God
Luke 23:26-56

. INTRODUCTION

When we come to this passage, we come to holy ground. The whole earth is littered with the graves of those who have gone before us; however, only once has history witnessed the death of God Himself, God the Son, nevertheless God Himself. It is the defining moment for Christianity. It is the very purpose for which God Himself came to earth--to die for you and me.

One thing that strikes our attention is the reticience with which Luke and the other Gospel writers approach this event. For example, not many details are given to describe the physical torment and pain Jesus endured on the cross. It may simply be that the audience Luke and the other Gospel writers addressed their Gospels to already knew about the horrors of crucifixion and did not need to be given any further details. If somebody from the 50's were to tell you about a certain criminal receiving the electric chair, he probably would not go into gory detail because he assumes you already know the gory details. It may be though that the Gospel writers are almost overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this event, that God Himself would come to die for our salvation. Too many words and too much description might take away from the magnitude of this event.


THE ROAD TO CALVARY (23:26-31)

Simon of Cyrene (23:26)

After the physical torture Jesus has just undergone, He is incapable of carrying His cross to the site of execution. In Gibson's The Passion of the Christ Jesus literally walks miles from Pilate's palace to Calvary. The actual distance though was a lot less than that portrayed in the movie. Even though the distance was not that great, it was still too far for the battered Jesus to carry His cross. In fact Mark states that the soldiers "brought," even better, "carried" Jesus to the site of execution.

Why would the soldiers carry Jesus? To make sure that He lived until they crucified Him. They had been given orders to crucify Him, and crucify Him they will. Moreover, the Jewish religious leaders heading up this tragic affair are determined that Jesus die on the cross. They seem to have been successful up to this point in convincing the people that Jesus was not the Messiah/Christ. For example, all the Jews believed that the Messiah would gain an ultimate victory over the Roman oppressors. The fact that Jesus was being slapped around by the Romans proved He was not the Messiah. Their Law stated that if a person hung on the tree, God placed His curse upon him (Deut. 21:23), something God would NEVER do to the Messiah. Finally, Jesus too was determined to go to the cross. He and He alone would determine the timing of His death (John 10:18). He too was determined to have God's curse fall upon Him so that God would lift it from you and me. Jesus took our curse upon Himself so that He might place the blessing of God upon us.

There is probably more to this particular episode than meets the eye. Mark, writing to the Roman Christians, states that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). It is most likely that these 2 men were not only members of the Roman church, their father Simon himself also became a believer in Jesus. In fact Simon carrying the cross behind Jesus literally fulfilled Jesus' condition for discipleship: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, TAKE UP HIS CROSS daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23).


The Daughters of Jerusalem (23:27-31)

In the next episode as Jesus is journeying to the cross (this journey is called the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering), women from Jerusalem begin to mourn His sufferings and impending death. Jesus though tells them not to mourn for Him but to mourn for themselves. The Jews after 1700 years of rejecting God have been given one last chance with the sending of God's Son. They have thrown that chance away. All that awaits them is certain death and destruction.

Jesus tells them not to mourn for Him but to mourn for themselves and to pray that they not have little children or be in the midst of childbirth during those days. Normally childbirth and rearing little children are times of great joy in the life of a mother. Not in this situation though. For a child to suffer the siege upon Jerusalem in 70 AD would be a terrible thing for a mother to behold.

How bad was it going to be for the city of Jerusalem? Jesus tells the ladies by means of a little parable. While it is normal to chop down a dead dry tree, it is natural to cultivate and treat well the tree which is green and healthy. If they treated the healthy green tree poorly (Jesus), then how much worse will it go for the dead dry tree (Israel and Jerusalem).


JESUS ON THE CROSS (23:32-49)

The Roman soldiers transport Jesus and the 2 other criminals who were also to be crucified to a place called "the skull." We call this place "Calvary" because Calvary is the Latin translation of this word (cranian). The site of crucifixion was called "the skull" most likely because it had the shape of a skull. The traditional site of the crucifixion (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) is actually a rocky mound projecting out of the earth. It was elevated so that the person on the cross could be seen from quite some distance. Luke informs us that the 2 men who were crucified with Him were robbers. [This fulfills Isaiah's prophecy 800 years earlier that Christ would be put to death among malefactors (Is. 53:9).]


The Abuse on the Cross

While Jesus is on the cross, various groups are heaping abuse upon Him. First, the people themselves are standing gawking at Jesus. Normally the population of Jerusalem was 70,000; however, at Passover its ranks swelled up to 250,000 people. By this time of the day most of the populace of the city was up and about; moreover, Jesus was crucified at such a prominent place that most of the people would have been able to see Him. The image of the word Luke uses to describe the people staring at Jesus is that of a spectacle, a circus. God is hanging on the cross dying for their sins, and the people respond by treating it like a circus.

The second group is that of the Jewish religious leaders. They are so proud that they have the upper hand. Not only is Jesus dying, the people themselves with a few exceptions have come out in support of their deeds. They are now embolden to taunt Jesus on the cross. They claim that although He saved others, He was not saving Himself. They meant this as a form of abuse, taunting. Yet two things are happening here. First, the Jewish leaders condemn themselves with their own words. They admit that Jesus saved others. Since they admitted this was true, why were they in the process of trying to kill Him? Moreover, ironically the Jewish leaders do get it right. Because Jesus did not save Himself, He was able to save others. His death was for the express purpose of letting others live. (What is ironic is that Pilate too got it right. He had a placard placed over Jesus' head which titled Him as the King of the Jews. Pilate did this in retaliation against the Jewish religious leaders; yet there on the cross Pilate placed a placard which told the truth, that Jesus was the King of the Jews.)

The third group to heap abuse upon Jesus were the Roman soldiers. As was their custom, while the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, they stripped Him down to His loin cloth. (The Jews would have never let the Romans strip the crucified completely naked.) Jesus has been robbed of His friends. He has been spat upon and beaten within an inch of His life. The Jewish leaders have heaped abuse upon Him. Now He has been stripped even of His clothes. Jesus has been humbled to the greatest degree in this experience of the cross.

Finally, one of the robbers crucified with Jesus heaps abuse upon Jesus. This robber does not deny that Jesus is the Christ. Rather he is ticked off that Jesus does not use His messianic powers to free not only Himself but also the 2 thieves themselves.

This thief represents so many of God's people. Whenever bad things happen to us, we get upset with God because He does not step in and use His miraculous powers to save us. Many times God does step in and rescue us; however, sometimes He does not. Why? Because through our sufferings many times God is doing something wonderful. The NT speaks of our sufferings as being like birth pangs. Labor pangs show the mother that something wonderful is being produced and delivered through her body. Jesus does not save Himself because His labor pangs are producing something wonderful.

Gibson's The Passion of the Christ wonderfully captures this very principle. After Jesus' scourging, His mother Mary is so overwhelmed by the experience that she can watch it no longer. Although Mary Magdalene and John are urging her to reach out to her Son, she can't because she is so overwhelmed. At one point though Jesus stumbles and falls down. When He does, Mary reflects back to an earlier time when the little boy Jesus fell down. At that time she rushed to help Him. Now her heart goes out to Jesus, and she rushes to Him beneath the cross and says, "Son, I am here." In probably what is the best part of the entire movie, Jesus says slowly, "Mother, I am making all things new." In other words, what is going on is not a tragedy. These sufferings are labor pangs. Through His labors Jesus is producing a new heaven and a new earth.


Jesus' Response to the Abuse

What is Jesus' response to all this abuse? First, He prays that the Father forgive them because when it is all said and done, they don't know exactly the significance and ramifications of what they are doing. It's not that they have not been given enough information. It's just that in their blind hatred, they have refused to process what Jesus has been saying to them for the past 3 years. Even though it's an ignorance based on rebellion, it nevertheless is still ignorance.

How many of us would have responded towards our enemies the way Jesus responded to His enemies while on the cross? Jesus was able to respond this way because He knew first He was doing the Father's will, second because He knew He was in the right and did not have to "prove" Himself, and third because He genuinely loved those He was dying for. When it was all said and done, life for Jesus was not about Himself. It was about the Father and about other people.

Several of the great NT commentators on the Gospel of Luke say that the Father honored Jesus' request. Instead of wiping out the nation of Israel immediately after Jesus' crucifixion, God waited another 37-40 years before He brought judgment upon the nation. Through the preaching of the apostles and the early church, the Jewish nation received an extension of God's grace. Unfortunately, they proved true to nature and rejected God's final offer of grace.

Whereas one thief cursed Jesus, the other thief rebukes the first thief. Unlike Jesus these 2 thieves deserved what they were getting. The second thief though knew that Jesus was totally guiltless, that He had done nothing to deserve this fate. The second thief asks Jesus to remember him whenever Jesus comes into His kingdom.

What's interesting here is that everybody around the cross is rejecting Jesus as the Messiah except for this second thief. When it is all said and done, if the whole world rejected God, maybe God would be the problem. Yet the truth is that throughout history there have been notable exceptions to the rejection of Jesus by so many people. Their faith in Jesus has demonstrated that the problem all along was not with God and Jesus but with unbelievers. When even a common thief can recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the problem lies with the Jewish religious leaders and not with God.

Jesus though has something marvelous to tell the second thief. Jesus is not going to enter into His kingdom at some far off distant date. Rather because Jesus has suffered to the greatest degree upon the cross in obedience to His Father, His Father now is going TODAY to exalt Him to the status of Lord over the universe. Because this thief has turned to Jesus at this darkest hour, Jesus tells the thief that he will TODAY participate in Jesus' exaltation: "TODAY you will be with me in paradise." (Paradise is simply another term used to refer to the place of divine bliss.)


Darkness Over the Land

Luke informs us that from 12 noon till 3:00 that afternoon darkness covered the land, possibly even the whole earth. The sufferings which Jesus has endured up to this point don't even begin to compare with what He is suffering during these 3 hours. Paul tells us that Christ actually became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) while on the cross. John the Baptist called Him "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). It is during this time that God turns His back on His Son and pours out His wrath upon this ultimate sacrificial offering.

Some well-meaning Christians misunderstand the author of Hebrews when he writes that God does not change (Heb. 13:8). By this the author of Hebrews meant that God's character never changes. Yet God does change in other ways. Before the creation of Satan, God never experienced wrath. Before the coming of Jesus into the world, God had never been a man. Here on the cross we see God experiencing something He had never experienced before--separation from His Son. Throughout eternity the Father and Son were in constant fellowship and communion with each other. Here on the cross the Father turns His back on Jesus. The fellowship is broken. Jesus cries out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" The darkness covering the land means that the cross affects not just mankind; it affects the physical universe itself.

Not only is the physical earth affected. Luke tells us that at this time the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was rent in two, from top to bottom. (Karen Long stated that the fact that the curtain was torn from the top shows that God did the rending; man would have torn it from the bottom up, while God would tear it from the top down.) The rending of the curtain means that access to God has been made available for you and me. Until this time the Gentiles could enter only the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple, while the Jewish women could enter only the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women. The Jewish men were allowed to enter the previous 2 courts and also the Court of the Jewish Men. The priests could enter these first 3 courts and also the Holy Place. Only the High Priest could the Holy of Holies. The rending of the veil caused by the death of Jesus means that we all now have complete access to God--through the person of Jesus.

The rending of the veil probably also signifies that God is through with the nation of Israel as being His primary instrument of bringing people to Him. Because of Israel's rejection of Jesus, great destruction is coming upon the Jewish people. [Some claim that this incident never occurred. It is interesting to note though that many of the priests who were so hostile towards Jesus actually later became Christians (see Acts 6:7). Such an incident would persuade many of them that Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews.]


The Death of Jesus

It is at the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.) that it is all over. Jesus has accomplished all that the Father has sent Him to accomplish. By His death on the cross Jesus has opened the floodgates of salvation. He has achieved a decisive battle over Satan; it's now just a matter of time before He returns and finishes what He has begun. Like a little boy going up and committing his safety and care to his father when bedtime comes, so Jesus places His life in the hands of His Father: "Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit." With these words Jesus dies.


THE BURIAL (23:50-56)

As the Sabbath is approaching (6:00 p.m.), the Jewish religious leaders want the bodies of the 3 criminals taken down from the cross so that the land would not be defiled during the Passover. (Little do they realize that by their very acts they have defiled the land of Israel; in fact they have polluted it to such an extent that God is going to destroy the nation of Israel.) The Jewish leaders receive permission from Pilate to speed up the deaths of the 3 criminals. Such an act is unnecessary in Jesus' case because He is already dead.

At this point emerges one of the few heroes of the Passion story--Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin which had condemned Jesus to death. Apparently he had been powerless to prevent Jesus' crucifixion because he had not been in favor of the sentence of condemnation. The Gospel of John though seems to imply that out of fear Joseph had not spoken up for Jesus. He had only been a secret disciple of Jesus. Now when all seemed to be lost and when there was nothing to be gained by aligning yourself with Jesus, Joseph emerges from the shadows and aligns himself with Jesus. It may cost Joseph his reputation, his seat on the Sanhedrin, his possessions, possibly even his own life. Whatever, he was determined now at the end to show himself a follower of Jesus.

Note 2 things about the burial. First, Joseph and his helpers put Jesus in a tomb which had never been used before. In other words, Jesus' body was not going to get mixed up with a lot of other bodies in a tomb. On Sunday the women were going to be able to identify whether or not His body was there. There would be no mix-ups. Also, the women at the cross followed Joseph to the tomb where Jesus was buried. On Sunday they were not going to get mixed up and go to the wrong tomb. They were going to go to the right tomb. It's just that they are not going to find what they were expecting.