Category Archives: Harmony of the Gospels

Spiritual Discernment

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ Turning, she said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).”

(John 20:16)

One of the very curious things about the resurrected Christ is that people don’t always recognize him when they first encounter him. Certainly one could suggest that this may be attached to the terrible grief that those close to Jesus were experiencing as we have discussed already. Certainly it could also be because the horrific torment that Jesus endured would have deformed Jesus and the image of the deformed body was what proved dominant in their minds. One could also make the argument that here, in his glorified body, the veil of flesh no longer hides the glory of heaven from those witnessing the resurrected Christ. 

While all of the above things can certainly be said to contribute to the reason that Mary did not initially recognize Jesus, I think that there is another element that needs to be brought into the discussion, and that being spiritual discernment. Think about it, when Peter, James, and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration, just the opposite of this event took place. Instead of not recognizing someone they knew, they did recognize two people that they had never met or seen. And thus, seeing Moses and Elijah on the mountain, they knew who those men were. Since it was not the Jewish practice to paint portraits of people, as that could lead to idolatry, and no photographs were available (it hadn’t been invented yet), the only way these men could have been recognized by the Apostles Was if the Holy Spirit had revealed it to them. Applying the principle in reverse, if the Holy Spirit kept Mary’s eyes closed as to who Jesus really was, this explains her not recognizing him until he called her by name.

And so, in recognizing him, she cries out to him in Aramaic: “Rabboni!” John explains that this means, “Teacher.” Literally, this word means “Great One” and is meant as a title of honor given to those who do teach God’s people the Word. It is a reminder as to the importance that the Jewish culture gave to those who would teach the Torah. They were given respect and honor and the title attributed to them reflected this reality. How sad it is today that so much of the Christian church does not choose to give such honor to those who teach them the Word. How different our churches would be, were that different.

Nicodemus’ Participation

“So, after these things, Joseph, who was from Arimathea and a disciple of Jesus (covertly out of fear of the Jews), asked Pilate that he might take down the body of Jesus. And Pilate commanded it. So, he went and took down his body. And Nicodemus, who had formerly gone to him at night, came also, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloe — about a hundred pounds.”

(John 19:38-39)

We find that John identifies that Nicodemus joins Joseph in securing Jesus’ body for burial. Why the other evangelists do not record Nicodemus’ presence is a matter of speculation. Joseph is clearly mentioned as the man who approached Pilate, but perhaps John has lingered still and witnesses a second man joining Joseph. Given that John is the only one to record Jesus’ earlier meeting with Nicodemus, perhaps he considers that significant. It could also be suggested that, as John is writing his Gospel much later than the Synoptics, that perhaps Nicodemus was still keeping a low profile when the earlier gospels were written (remember, he was a member of the Sanhedrin). Then, by the time John writes his gospel, his involvement has become more widely known. A definite answer on this we will not have until heaven, but nonetheless, John makes a clear point that he was present.

The practice that they are engaging in is called “Taharah,” and is a ritual preparation of the body for burial. It is considered to be the last and most sincere gift that one can give to the deceased because that kindness cannot be repaid. It is more than just the practical dressing of the body, it is an act of kindness, one that honors the fact that the deceased is an Image-Bearer of God, and is done with reverence. Even today, it is a beautiful thing.

Some commentators suggest that the weight of spices is exaggerated, given the wealth of Joseph and Nicodemus, it is hard to believe that John is exaggerating the amount. Josephus records that when Gamaliel died (between 40-50 AD), eighty pounds of spice was used in the burial of this Jewish teacher — the quantity brought at the burial of Herod the Great was even larger. It should also be noted that our English translations will vary some in the record here. The ESV and the NIV record “seventy-five pounds” and the NASB and the KJV traditions record “a hundred pounds.” Which is true? 

This is not so much a matter of textual tradition as it is that of translation philosophy. According to research done, a Roman pound was the equivalent of twelve ounces (like we would still measure gold and silver today). So, in the case of the NASB and the KJV, they are simply translating the words that are found in the text. The ESV and the NIV are choosing to interpret the weight for the reader, translating it into contemporary English measurements. Unless one is aware of this conversion, it can be confusing and even a bit misleading…it reminds me of the old puzzle my dad used to catch me with: “Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?” The answer, of course, is “a pound of feathers” because feather-pounds are 16 ounces and gold-pounds are only 12. So, which is heavier? Seventy-five English pounds or 100 Roman pounds? Neither, they are the same.

And so the final kindness is demonstrated to Jesus as these two men prepare his body for the tomb — hurriedly as the Sabbath is soon to start.

Blood and Water from the Lord’s Side

“Thus the soldiers went and with respect to the first, they broke the legs and also of the other who was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already a dead man, and so they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took his spear and pierced his side. What flowed out immediately was blood and water. The one who saw it bears witness and the witness is the Truth. He knows what he says to be the truth and it is in order that you might believe. For this happened in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘none of his bones were broken.’ And again, likewise the Scripture says, ‘They looked on the one they pierced.’”

(John 19:32-37)

As we have continually seen with respect to this account of our Lord’s crucifixion, over and over again there is an emphasis on the fulfillment of the Scriptures. These Old Testament prophecies were put in place by God for the express purpose of demonstrating his sovereignty over history and who his Messiah would be. In this case, there is a reference to Exodus 12:46 and Psalm 34:20 with respect to Jesus’ bones not being broken and then to Zechariah 12:10 as to them looking on him whom they have pierced.

A great deal of debate has circulated around the question of the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side. I have read accounts by doctors who point out that the pericardium, were it pierced at the point of death or shortly thereafter, would issue water as well as blood. And this may very well be true, though as anatomy is not my field of expertise, I will leave that to those more qualified to debate.

What I can speak to is the text and John’s statement in the verse that follows is very important. He repeatedly affirms that he witnessed this event and that his testimony is true so that we might believe. Believe what? If the purpose of John’s book is to be of any help to us (found in John 20:30-31), then the answer is clear; he writes so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ and by believing, we “might have life.” In other words, this water and blood, in John’s eyes, is a testimony to the saving work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not simply that he was dead.

So, what then does the water and blood mean? Some have pointed to Communion and the water of baptism and the blood represented in the cup, though I think that is a bit of a stretch to infer. Others connect the water and the blood with the purification ritual mentioned in Hebrews 9:19, which is an allusion to Leviticus 14:1-9. This passage in Leviticus is a reference to the ceremonial cleansing of one with leprosy, not the atonement for sin as the author of Hebrews is applying the text. That said, the context of Hebrews 9 is such where leprosy can be seen as a fit analogy for the defilement of our sin before God, making this answer, likely the best. 

It is indeed true that sprinkled blood was used in other contexts when it came to purify from sin as was the sprinkling with water, but the language of cleansing from leprosy seems to be where they are brought together. If one is to appeal to the imagery of leprosy, it brings to mind the old hymn that goes:

“Lord, now indeed I find, 

Thy power and Thine alone,

Can change the leper’s spots,

And melt the heart of stone…”

— Elvina Hall

Joseph of Arimathea

“When evening came, a rich man from Arimathea, who was named Joseph (and was also a disciple of Jesus), arrived. And he went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. This, Pilate commanded to be given him.”

(Matthew 27:57-58)

“Joseph, who was from Arimathea, a respected Counselor who was also waiting for the Kingdom of God, came and dared to approach Pilate and ask him for the body of Jesus.”

(Mark 15:43)

“And behold! A man named Joseph, who was a Counselor and a good and righteous man, who did not agree with the Council’s action toward him, who was from Arimathea (a Jewish city) and who was waiting for the Kingdom of God, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

(Luke 23:50-52)

“So, after these things, Joseph, who was from Arimathea and a disciple of Jesus (covertly out of fear of the Jews), asked Pilate that he might take down the body of Jesus. And Pilate commanded it. So, he went and took down his body.”

(John 19:38)

Here is the only spot in the Bible where we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea. We know very little about either the man or the place from where he came. Based on the writings of Jerome and Eusebius, most scholars hold that Arimathea was the contemporary city located at Ramah, where the Judge Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:19). This was a Jewish city located close to the border between Judea and Samaria and quite possibly one that Jesus frequented as he traveled through the Samaritan region.

We are also told that Joseph is a “Counselor.” Given his Jewish identity, this is most likely a reference to the Sanhedrin (which explains his connection to Nicodemus). We are told here that he was a follower of Jesus (at least behind the scenes), he was awaiting the Kingdom of God, and that he was discontent with the way that the trials of Jesus were handled. Hence he is called a “good and righteous man” — good, not in the eternal sense, but good in the sense that he was moral and had integrity.

Mark further tells us that he “dared” to approach Pilate. The term τολμάω (tolmao), which is used here, implies that there was a real sense of risk associated with this request. Perhaps it was risking his personal cleanliness just prior to the Sabbath, or it could have been his standing amongst the Jews of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps it was simply that of intruding on the home of a Roman official to request a favor on behalf of a convicted criminal. Perhaps it was all three. Even so, Joseph’s act stands as a reminder to us that no matter the risk or dangers, there are times in which we must act. In this case, not just out of Jewish propriety (as noted above), but out of integrity and to do a friend a kindness. Indeed, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do (regardless of public opinion or the consequences) is the mark of integrity.

So, as we reflect and meditate on this “Good Friday” — “good” because of the work Jesus accomplished on the cross for those who believe — one of the questions we must be quick to ask ourselves is whether we will walk with the integrity of this man and whether or not we will cease being “closet Christians” (which is an oxymoron) and be bold in our witness and in our testimony to the world that there is only one name under heaven by which man may be saved and that is the name of Jesus Christ.

The Women Who Were With Jesus at the Cross

“And there were many women there who watched from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. With whom was Mary of Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

(Matthew 27:55-56)

“And there were also women there who watched from afar, with whom was Mary of Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James the Younger and Joseph, and Salome.When he was in Galilee, they followed him and served him and there were also many who traveled with him to Jerusalem.

(Mark 15:40-41)

“But all the ones who knew him stood at a distance watching these things along with the women who had accompanied him from Galilee.”

(Luke 23:49)

“But, by the cross of Jesus were standing his mother and the sister of his mother, Maria the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdalene.”

(John 19:25)

The passage from John, we have already looked at, but included here so that we may talk about the women who faithfully stayed by our Lord’s side during his whole ordeal, for sometimes people see a disharmony here in the Gospel accounts. But, to begin with, let us recognize that there are two groups present in the account. There are the scoffing crowds, which includes the Roman Soldiers and the Jewish leaders who actually put Jesus to death. But then there is another group…one identified as having followed Jesus from Galilee. This group is described as including women, though the text does not suggest that this group was exclusively women. It only says that through the time of final suffering, this group stood at a distance from the events that were transpiring.

This is important in and of itself. Because the women are the only ones mentioned in this passage by name, it is often assumed that the Apostles had utterly abandoned Jesus at this point in time — except for John (see John 19:26-27). Yet, that need not be the case. It could very well have been that the Twelve were amongst this second group of people, gathered at a distance, arguably both for their safety and to be separate from the angry crowd. Such a reading would also be consistent with Acts 1:21-22, where in seeking a replacement for Judas, the primary qualification was that this man be one who had accompanied Jesus from his baptism to the day he was taken up…the events of the cross most certainly being included in that testimony. Interestingly, that qualification narrowed the playing field to two (Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias — note that there are no women listed here as one qualified to replace Judas, a reminder that the Apostles clearly understood God’s design for male leadership in the church).

Now, to replay the events somewhat based on what we know. Clearly from John’s account, Jesus’ mother  as well as Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas were close to Jesus as he was led up the Hill of Golgotha. Jesus gives John the responsibility of caring for his mother and it seems that John takes her away. It can be assured that Mary still wanted to be present until our Lord breathed his final breath, so John likely escorted Mary to the safety of the group of Jesus’ followers from Galilee, who stood at a distance.

That leads us to who is being spoken of. Notice that Matthew says that there are “many women” who were watching from a distance while Mark and Luke simply refer to “women” in the plural. The point is that there was no need to name all of these women by name, simply to say that there were women present. So, even if, some of these women are not the same person, we have no disharmony and no problem, it is only that each Evangelist sought to focus on a slightly different group of people.

At the same time, there is overlap. For example, Mary of Magdalene is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and John. Assuming that “Mary the Mother of James and Joseph” is Jesus’ mother (see Mark 6:3 for a list of Jesus’ brothers, the first two were James and Joses, Joses being the equivalent to Joseph), then it would seem that Jesus’ mother, Mary was recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John as well. Many scholars would hold that Salome is the name of Jesus’ aunt (the sister of Mary), and then you have her accounted for by Mark and John. If, perhaps Salome’s husband was Zebedee, then Matthew records her presence as well. Finally, John records Mary, the wife of Clopas — in this case, probably an additional person to the mix. Again, we can infer some things from the parallel, but however you harmonize the text, we must be quick to point out that, in the words of Matthew, “there were many women” present.

Why is it important to wrestle through questions like this? The presence of skeptics in this world provides likely the most obvious answer. Even so, I think that there is a more basic answer to the question. God has given us inquiring minds and a curiosity to understand things that take place as well as to fill in the gaps of what we are explicitly told. Obviously, we need to be careful about speculation and not get dogmatic about the inferences we make, but at the same time, it is an exercise of the Image of God in which we are made to want to use our minds to better understand and to fill in the gaps of what we are told. And hence, it is important that we ask questions such as this so long as we approach the text in a sober and reverent way.

Up From the Grave They Arose!

“Then the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Coming from the graves after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and were visible to many.”

(Matthew 27:52-53)

Everything…everything…for the record, everything surrounds the resurrection of Christ. At the death of our Lord, we are told that there were many (a large number of) saints (believers) who were raised from their graves. Literally, the text reads that their bodies were “awakened,” which is an euphemistic reference to death and being raised from the dead (this does not teach some sort of “soul sleep” as was popular for a brief time in some theological circles). But, while they were raised from the dead — brought out from their graves or tombs — they did not enter the Holy City until after Jesus’ resurrection. As Christ’s body laid in the tomb during that time, though raised from the dead, they too remained in their tombs.

Some object to this reading, suggesting that there was nothing physical that would have impeded these saints from returning to Jerusalem on that very Friday of the crucifixion. I would respond that it was not something physical, but spiritual that so impeded them — the very will of God the Father. And so, these saints remained at the tombs until such a time as the Father released them to come en masse into the city. What were they doing in the meantime? Probably praying and worshipping God.

What is the significance of this raising? It is an anticipation of what is to come. Jesus is the firstborn of the dead (Revelation 1:5), thus with his rising will come the rising of others. The advent of his resurrection being christened, as it were, by the raising up of many believers from the tombs.

Some ask, “what kind of bodies did these raised saints have?” The answer is that we are not told. They could have been raised to natural bodies, as had been the case with Lazarus and others and then would eventually die once again. Were I to speculate, I would suggest that perhaps these saints were raised to glorified bodies, again, joining Jesus in his triumphal entry into the heavenly realms, singing his praises as the Galileans had done a week prior as Jesus entered into Jerusalem. This speculation is one that we cannot be dogmatic about, but it would certainly add light to the language in Ephesians 4:8 that reads:

“Therefore it says, ‘Ascending on high, he led many captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

and Psalm 68:18:

“You ascended to the heights and led many captives, bringing gifts to man that even the rebellious may dwell with Yahweh God.”

and Romans 5:8:

“Yet God demonstrates his own agape love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

The appearance of these saints became visible to many as a first sign of the Resurrection of the Lord…a promise of good news that not only did the grave fail to keep Jesus, but that it would fail to keep believers as well. And did you notice of whom this text speaks? The dead were not raised indiscriminately, but it was the saints — literally, “the holy ones” — who were raised. Jesus did not die for all people without distinction, but he died for believers to pay our debt before God. Those who die in their unbelief will have to stand before God in their own merit — a dreadful thing indeed.

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom Yahweh does not count iniquity, in his spirit there is nothing fraudulent.”

(Psalm 32:1-2)

Elijah Has Already Come

“But the others said, ‘Hold on! Let us see if Elijah comes to save him!’”

(Matthew 27:49)

“So, someone quickly came and filled a sponge with vinegar to put on a stick for him to drink, saying, ‘Wait! Let us see if Elijah will come to take him down.’”

(Mark 15:36)

As we have mentioned before, people are wanting a spectacle. And what would be more spectacular than for Elijah to come from the skies and rescue Jesus from the cross…but wait, Elijah did come. So, let’s take a step back.

Jesus’ words from the cross, quoting Psalm 22 were misunderstood by some of the onlookers. That ought to be no surprise as Jerusalem was a fairly cosmopolitan city as far as cities went in the Roman Empire and the comings and goings of gentiles was quite common. So, Greeks and Romans who likely were not fluent in Aramaic and definitely not fluent in Hebrew could easily be understood to mishear “Eloi” or “Eli” as Elijah (which in Hebrew, would be pronounced “Eliyyah”). When you add to the commotion, it is also not unreasonable that not everyone would have heard Jesus’ words correctly and could come to the same conclusion.

But, why would Elijah come down to rescue Jesus? Certainly, he was taken up bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2); perhaps that is what some people were hoping to see. More likely was the prophesy in Malachi 4:5 that God would send Elijah before the “Day of the Lord” would come. The Day of the Lord, in ancient Near-Eastern writings (this is found repeatedly within Biblical writings, but there are extra-Biblical writings that capture this idea as well), was the notion that one day there would rise up a king who would defeat all of his foes in a single day. This, of course, is what Jesus did on the cross, though those shouting from the ground surely did not know that.

What they also did not know was that Elijah had come. He came in the person of John the Baptist. No, no reincarnation here, simply that all of the things that Elijah stood for were stood for by John, though John did so in a greater way (see Matthew 11:11-15; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13). Thus, just as Jesus is the greater David and Solomon and the Temple, John was the greater Elijah. Malachi’s prophecy does not stipulate that Elijah will come to deliver the Messiah from death, no, it states that he comes as a prequel to the Day of the Lord — he is a forerunner just as was John.

As is always, fools and mockers seek a spectacle. Yet the people of God need no sign for we are given His Word in the Scriptures. And the Spirit confirms these things with our Spirit. The wicked want to see what will happen next. The believer prays for their souls because the “next” for the ungodly will be the wrath of the Father. Woe be to the one who does not repent of his sins and turn to Christ in faith for shelter, lest the father whet his sword against them (Psalm 7:12).

“My God, My God, Why have You Forsaken Me!”

“Then, about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a great voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani!’ That is, ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!’ Certain ones of those who were there, hearing it, said, ‘He is calling to Elijah!’”

(Matthew 27:46-47)

“And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a great voice: ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lema sabachthani!’ which translates as: ‘My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me!’ And certain ones who were present heard it and said, ‘Behold! He is calling to Elijah!’”

(Mark 15:34-35)

Over the years, many people have written volumes on the sayings of Christ from the cross and I am no exception to that. Many of these are worthwhile, but of the sayings of Jesus from the cross, I think that this one here is the most convoluted by some commentators. People have written that God closed his eyes and turned his back upon his son. I have seen people write that God literally abandoned his Son as if the Father and the Spirit could be separated. I have even read it suggested that somehow the divine nature of God the Son withdrew from the human nature of the Son, leaving him with a sense of loss. It should be stated that all of these approaches are not only inconsistent with the text, but they also enter into heresy, suggesting either that the Trinity can be separated or that the Divine and Human natures of the Son are divisible. Such views also demonstrate a shallow understanding of the Biblical text from which Jesus is quoting.

So, let us start there, with Psalm 22. One thing we must remember is that chapter and verse divisions did not exist as such in Jesus’ day…the Vulgate (4th Century AD) would add chapters and the Geneva Bible (16th Century AD) would add verses to accommodate study notes. Thus, people knew verses by the section of scripture that the passage happened to be a part of and they did not do what Christians so often do today and pull a verse entirely out of its context and apply it however they wish (sadly, how many Biblical errors and heresies could be avoided if people were more careful about Biblical context!).

The point is, that when Jesus speaks these words (in our Bibles, Psalm 22:1), he speaks it in the context of the whole Psalm (note that this section of the Psalms contains what we call “superscripts” that identify the author and a bit about the psalm — so the psalm itself, as a whole must be taken into account. An analogy to that is how preachers (particularly from previous generations) often cite a few lines of a well-known hymn to make their point. Certainly, it is not just those lines but the hymn as a whole to which the pastor is alluding. The same can be here with the psalm.

So, what is Psalm 22 about? Much could be said on that matter, but for the sake of brevity, it is a psalm of David where he reflects on the grace of God which delivers him out of the hands of his enemies. Indeed, the psalm begins in despair (“Why have you forsaken me!”) but as we work through the psalm, we see David singing of the deliverance of God, his kingship, and how he is worthy to be praised and served. Sadly, we all too often get caught up in the first few lines, which reflects the human experience of being overwhelmed by one’s enemies, and neglect the celebration of God’s deliverance at the end.

In addition to understanding the context, we must also recognize the prophetic nature of this psalm as we have mentioned several times above. Before armies had begun practicing crucifixion, we find David describing elements of this crucifixion event as he versifies his own suffering. This psalm speaks of the mocking of Jesus, the gentiles surrounding him, his bones being out of joint, his strength being dried up, and of the thirst that accompanies this kind of death. It also speaks of the pierced hands of our Lord and the division of Jesus’ garments. Indeed, once again, it is a reminder of God’s sovereignty over history.

And so, Jesus cries out in a loud voice the opening words of this Psalm. Why? It is not a sign of defeat, but it is a sign of victory. God has anointed him to serve this task and soon the victory and the glory that accompanies that, will take place. God has not abandoned his Son and the Son is not perceiving that he has been utterly abandoned. He is feeling the wrath of his Father, indeed, but he also understands the deliverance that is to come. As the Psalmist writes:

All of the ends of the earth will remember and return to Yahweh; all of the tribes of the nations shall worship before your face. For unto Yahweh are the kingdoms, and rulership of the nations.

(Psalm 22:27-28)

Does this not sound a lot like:

Therefore, God has exalted him and has graciously given him the name that is above all names, in order that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heavenly places, earthly places, and places under the earth, and that every tongue would admit that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. 

(Philippians 2:9-11)

Friends, avoid those who would sacrifice orthodoxy to elicit an emotional response to these events. Speaking along those lines, did you notice how Jesus uttered these words? “With a great shout!” I have heard too many sermons in my lifetime which have described in gory detail the death of a crucified man on the cross. Part of that is typically asphyxiation due to the fact that the muscles cannot lift up the diaphragm to breath properly when so mounted on the cross. Yet, as a pastor, I have been with people who are suffering from pneumonia and the asphyxiation that comes along with it and to describe their words as coming with a “great voice” is anything but what I would describe. Jesus indeed died, but he died because his work was done and it was time, an act of power that could only be done by one who is fully God (we do not number our days). The other two criminals on the cross may have died in ordinary ways (with legs broken), but Jesus chose the time and place of his death in accordance with his work and his Father’s will.

As to the two sets of spellings, Matthew is recording Jesus’ words in Hebrew and Mark in Aramaic. Which language did Jesus speak from the cross? That is speculation. Given the culture and that Mark’s Gospel seems to be older than Matthew’s, it is probably that Jesus spoke Aramaic from the cross and Matthew chose to record it in Hebrew as his original audience were a body of Jewish people. And so, we speculate at that part of the harmony, but one need not conclude a mistake on one of the Evangelist’s part, simply that they chose to use language that would best communicate the event to their audience.

The Greater Temple on the Cross

“And those passing by blasphemed him, shaking their heads, saying, ‘He is the one who would destroy the Temple and in three days rebuild it — You save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross also!’”

(Matthew 27:39-40)

“And those passing by blasphemed him, shaking their heads, saying, ‘Ha! He is the one who would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. You save yourself by coming down from the cross!’”

(Mark 15:29-30)

This sounds much like the language of Luke 23:35-37, but it seems that this is an ongoing taunt from the people. “Let him save himself.” Matthew and Mark both are very clear as to the fact that these people are intentionally blaspheming Christ as they mock him. The difference perhaps between this group and the group that Luke is referring to is that here we have recorded the words of people passing by, while Luke is referring to those who are standing by, gawking at the spectacle. Here, you can almost picture them shaking their heads as they pass, but not stopping either, going about their business as if this event had no more significance than any of the other crucifixions that the Romans had performed.

At the heart of the comments here is Jesus’ remark about tearing down the Temple and rebuilding it in three days (John 2:18-22), a reference, of course, to his body. Yet, to really understand this reference, one needs to go back a little further into the Old Testament prophets. After the Temple of Solomon was destroyed the people went into exile. We read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah of the people’s return to the land and of the rebuilding of the Temple and of the city walls. During a slump in the rebuilding project, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to prod and encourage the people. As part of his prophesy, Malachi promises the people that the latter glory of the new Temple will be greater than the glory of the former Temple.

Now, here is where the people of the day (and some even today!) misunderstand the language of the glory of the Temple. All too often, they attribute this glory to the physical structure…hence the people took great pride in the years it took to build on the second Temple in Herod’s time (John 2:20) and the disciples even marveled at the size of the stones (Mark 13:1). Yet, where is the glory of this house? Surely it is not in the stones and workmanship, but its glory comes from the presence of God dwelling in the house. Thus, after the Tabernacle was completed, the Glory of the Lord entered into it (Exodus 40:34) and similarly, after Solomon finished the Temple, the Glory of the Lord entered into it (2 Chronicles 7:1).

Yet, prior to the fall of the Temple, the prophet Ezekiel receives a vision of the Glory of the Lord exiting from the Temple and from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10:4;11:23). And though Ezekiel also receives a vision of the Glory of the Lord entering a new Temple (Ezekiel 43:4), this language speaks of an eternal kingdom, not the restoration of Jerusalem during Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. Why does the Glory of the Lord not re-enter the physically rebuilt temple? Because Ezra’s Temple and Herod’s Temple expansion are not the new Temple of which Haggai was speaking…Haggai was speaking of Christ, the greater Temple. And thus, the language of tearing down and rebuilding the Temple, properly belongs to Christ, the greatest Temple and could never apply to another. Further, an understanding of that principle today will preserve us from falling into the trap of thinking we will be building a new Temple in Jerusalem one future day. Christ the greater Temple has come, so what is this house that we would build for God?

Yet, they did not understand what Jesus was talking about — and how often it is also true that professing Christians as well neither understand nor care to understand what it is that Jesus was talking about. They just make things up as they go and pronounce it to be “Christian,” but without grounding the ideas in a consistent reading of the Scriptures. Were we living in a Biblically literate world, such practices would never be tolerated or followed. But “Biblical Literacy” is something that only rarely inhabits our homes and even our churches in these last days. Judge a tree by its fruit, loved ones, and be warned of the dangers that surround us in the west these days.

INRI and Politics

“Therefore, many Jewish people read this notice, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. It was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the Chief Priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write: ‘King of the Jews,’ but instead, this man said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’”

(John 19:20-22)

As we noted above, there is no love lost between Pilate and the Jewish officials and there is certainly a lot of manipulating that has been taking place here. Nevertheless, Pilate lets the words that he wrote stand…perhaps as a bit of a passive-aggressive dig at the Jews on his part, but again, a fulfillment of God’s design in eternal matters. Pilate knew that the trials were a farce (yet he gave the Priests what they wanted to keep the peace), so this becomes his final response in the spectacle that has been put on — “The King of the Jews” will stand, written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, three common languages of his day.

It may be speculated as to why Pilate did not have the same message written in Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew that the Jews would have used in the marketplace and in their communities. Hebrew, the Jews tended to keep for religious matters in the Temple or the Synagogue. While it is speculative, I would suggest that once again, Pilate is seeking to make a point with the Jewish authorities…he will write the language of the charge in Hebrew — the language of the Temple — because it was the Temple officials who were responsible for bringing the charge. We cannot know for sure, but this seems a reasonable explanation.

It should also be noted that in many depictions of the cross, you see the letters INRI written on the scroll. This is the abbreviation for “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum” — the Latin inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” As a curious tidbit, the letter “J” in English actually derives from a variant of the letter “I” in Latin (essentially, when the letter “I” is used as a consonant — originally a “Y” sound and then a “dʒ” sound…essentially the “J” of modern usage — it wasn’t until the middle ages that a distinct character was assigned).

A final note…while Pilate and the Jewish Priests were playing politics, a man was dying. And not just any man, the eternal Son of God. How often we, too, can get lost in our own agendas and, while seeking to make political points for ourselves, injustices abound all around us. How much wiser we would be to take the message of Jesus about being a servant to others and the words of the Apostle Paul about considering the needs of others as more significant than our own. The politics will play themselves out, but at the end of the day, which is more important, our own little empires or the Kingdom of Christ? Think carefully before you answer.

Simon of Cyrene

“But going out, they found a man from Cyrene who was named Simon, they pressed him into service in order that he might bear his cross. And they were going up to the place called ‘Golgotha,’ which is called the Place of the Skull.”

(Matthew 27:32-33)

“And they pressed into service one passerby, Simon the Cyrene, who was coming from the countryside, the father of Alexander and Rufus, in order to bear his cross. And he carried it to the place, Golgotha, that is translated as the Place of the Skull.”

(Mark 15:21-22)

“And as he was led away, they seized Simon the Cyrene who was coming from the countryside and laid on him the cross to carry behind Jesus.”

(Luke 23:26)

Sometimes people see these verses as being at odds with John’s passage above. Many will also note that the Scriptures are entirely silent as to whether or not Jesus stumbled or fell on the way to Golgotha under the weight of the cross. Let us begin with the first objection and then move to the second.

First, John harmonizes easily with the Synoptic Gospels if you order the chronology as I have here. After the trial, Jesus is sent off to be crucified. Originally, in good Roman tradition, Jesus has the cross (or perhaps a portion of the cross) placed on his shoulders. Yet, on the way out to Golgotha, the soldiers grab Simon from the crowd and compel him to finish carrying the cross the remainder of the walk.

Why would the soldiers do this? Remember, everything about crucifixion was meant as a deterrent to those who might become a threat to the Roman rule. The sentenced one was beaten, humiliated, and paraded through town so that all could see. This served as a warning. Even the honor of dying on a cross was meant as a reminder to passersby (crucifixions were carried out alongside of main roads and thoroughfares. There was no question as to what crime these people were guilty of and if you were considering an insurrection, the crucified bodies were clear warnings about what the consequences would look like.

So…perhaps Simon (being from the countryside) looked like a potential troublemaker. This might be a way of dissuading him from acting out even before he committed his crime. Perhaps the Romans were simply making a point to those city folks who had just asked for Barabbas to be released…beware. Perhaps Jesus was moving too slowly and they wanted to expedite the process. Perhaps, because of Pilate’s reluctance to crucify Jesus, the captain of the guard chose to show Jesus a small degree of mercy on the way up to his execution. Leo (known as “The Great,” a 5th century church bishop) suggested that Simon’s inclusion was symbolic of the Gentiles being brought into the suffering of Christ (see Romans 8:17). Or, perhaps, most simply, Jesus stumbled and was unable to bear the physical weight of the cross.

We don’t know for sure. Church tradition has held that Jesus stumbled and fell under the cross’ weight. That is not only understandable, but also emphasizes the humanity of Christ as he was being tortured and murdered. Now, obviously the tradition is non-canonical, but it is supported by reason, so while we must not be overly dogmatic here, the notion of our Lord falling is a reasonable explanation for why Simon was pulled out of the crowd and impressed into service.

Who was Simon? Cyrene is a region that is located in what is modern-day Libya, so much like the Ethiopian eunuch, we find an early African Christian being involved in a very significant way. Africa became a place of refuge for the child, Jesus, as his parents fled king Herod, and now an African becomes a minister of grace to Jesus as he walks to the hill on which he will die. It is considered that this man is one and the same with Simeon who was called “Black,” found in Acts 13:1. What a profound impression this must have made on this man as he followed Jesus with the cross on the way up the hill to Golgotha. It may also be suggested that this influence touched Simon’s family as well, for Rufus is mentioned in Romans 16:13 as a friend and acquaintance of Paul’s (clearly, by the mention of their names, Mark’s audience was familiar with these men).

And, so our Lord, still in the lead, was followed with Simon carrying the cross. What a sad day in the history of mankind…yet, what wonderful hope and promise comes from this, not only that our Lord would be willing to bear such pain for us, but that he would privilege us to bear sorrow and pain as well so that we might appreciate our Lord’s sorrow and pain that much more profoundly.

The Place of the Skull

“And he bore his own cross and went to what is called the Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.”

(John 19:17)

After the third unjust and unfair trial, our Lord is led toward the place of his execution. He begins, battered and torn as he was, carrying his own cross. This, of course, will not last long as he understandably collapses under its weight, but we get ahead of ourselves. It is here that Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me,” find their ultimate meaning. How often we see people using Jesus’ phrase to talk about the problems and challenges they face in life, but truly, what can compare to this? What financial or family matter can compare? What difficulty or impairment could you have that would look like this? When Jesus said, “take up your cross,” this is what he was speaking of — an implement of torture and death. And to demonstrate the horror of what he commanded, Jesus literally takes up his own cross to walk to Golgotha.

The Place of the Skull, or Golgotha…literally, “the skull place,” appropriately named given that it is a roundish hill, like the top of a bald skull…in fact the name Calvary, which it is often called in old hymns, comes from the Latin, Calvarius, meaning “bald skull.” The Gospel accounts record that this is just along the road a short way out of the city…a logical place for Roman executions and an appropriate name for the purpose to which it was put.

There is also a certain sense of prophetic irony to this as the prophesy that is being fulfilled there on the cross is the crushing of the head of the serpent. Thus, much like Jael’s tent-stake driven through the skull of Sisera, Jesus’ cross was driven through the top of the skull to signify that his sacrificial death is crushing the skull of the great enemy of God’s people — the Devil, the serpent himself.