SAUL AND DAVID: The timelessness of the scriptures
Although the lives and times of Saul and David concern the years 1050 and 970 before the birth of Jesus, the scriptures of Samuel’s two books portray and display human characteristics no different from our own times.
The human race is endowed with a restless spirit which, as history shows, results in repetitive cycles of strife and hardship interspersed with periods of relative stability. My outlined perspective of Saul and David incorporates views from American Pastor Stephen Morefield’s book titled Fierce Grace: 30 days with King David published in 2018.
Circumstances which prevailed during David’s time had their origins earlier. Although under Samuel as Judge, Israel enjoyed peace for many years (1Sa: 7: 13-16), in his old age, the elders of Israel requested that he appoint a king to lead Israel as Samuel’s sons were dishonest (1Sa: 8: 1-6). Reluctant to accede to their request, Samuel prayed to God whose response was very critical. “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their King,” said the Lord (1Sa: 8: 6-8). God instructed Samuel to warn that there would be consequences if they appointed a king: “Let them know what the king who will reign over them will do” (1Sa: 8: 9). Samuel did as he was instructed: “When you cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, the Lord will not answer you,” warned Samuel (1SA: 8:18). But the people rejected God’s warning and insisted on having a king so as to be like other nations, so they claimed. Reluctantly the Lord told Samuel to heed their wishes and give them a king (1Sa 8: 19-22).
Here we see the basic fault of Israel – seeking to replicate the fashions of the ungodly instead of holding fast to God’s guidance. Israel desired to be “of the world” instead of appreciating that although “in the world,” if it adhered to God’s will, it would enjoy his protection.
So Israel reaped havoc. Saul’s reign of 42 years was one of war, instability and intrigue. Within months his army was reduced to just 600 men by the Philistines (1Sa: 13: 11-15). As Samuel tells us: “All the days of Saul, there was bitter war with the Philistines” (1Sa:14:52). When Saul failed to destroy the Amalekites, as God instructed, and, instead, plundered the best of the Amalekite livestock, the Lord said to Samuel: “I am grieved that I have made Saul king because he has turned against me and not carried out my instructions” (1Sa 15:11). But when Samuel informed Saul of God’s disappointment, Saul rejected it. The two never met or spoke again. A kind of Cold War ensued in which Samuel feared for his life (1Sa: 15:34).
That was when God sent Samuel to Bethlehem saying that he had chosen one of the sons of Jesse to be anointed as the new King. The oppression of Saul’s reign, of which God had warned, was evident in the fear with which the elders of Bethlehem received Samuel (1Sa: 16: 1-4). Under God’s guidance, Samuel’s selection of David came as a surprise because he was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons – an example of how man’s reasoning differs from God’s. Nonetheless, Samuel anointed David in the presence of his brothers. As scripture says, “From that day the spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (1Sa:16:13).
Troubled by the evil spirit that now resided in him, Saul was advised to employ a harp player to ease his torment. Jesse’s son David was recommended and so came into Saul’s service and, initially, was well- liked by Saul. But that cordial relationship did not last. Following David’s slaying of the giant Philistine, Goliath, Saul became jealous and resented the favour which his subjects bestowed on David (1Sa: 16: 15-23; 17: 26-45; 18: 6-10).
So resentful was Saul of David’s status that twice he attempted to kill him. In frustration, Saul sent David away to lead military campaigns. But enjoying the Lord’s favour, David’s successes simply exacerbated Saul’s mindset. (1Sa: 18:16). In an attempt to curb his influence, Saul twice offered his daughters to David in marriage. But David rejected the offers saying that he had no desire to become Saul’s son-in-law. Outraged, Saul than plotted to have David fall into the hands of the Philistines (1Sa: 18:18-25). But that failed when David again defeated the Philistines. However, in an attempt to soothe relations between himself and Saul, David expressed readiness to marry Saul’s daughter Michal.
However, Saul’s resentment of David became more pronounced than ever with David’s on-going success against the Philistines. Saul then instructed his attendants and his son Jonathan (who was loyal to David) to kill David. But Jonathan remonstrated with Saul warning that his Father would suffer if such evil was perpetrated (1 Sa: 19: 1-5). For a while matters stabilised until Saul once again succumbed to evil and demanded that David be brought to him so that he could be killed (1Sa:20:31). Before fleeing the palace as a fugitive, David made a pact with Jonathan out of love for each other (1Sa: 20: 42). As he said to Jonathan “there is only a step between me and death” (20: 3)
Chapters 20 to 22 of Samuel’s first book tell of David’s on-going flight to evade Saul’s efforts to capture him. Saul was so consumed by hatred of David that those who assisted him, like the priest Ahimelech, became the target of Saul’s wrath. To their credit, Saul’s officials refused to kill Ahimelech pointing out that he was a priest of the Lord. But Saul was so under the influence of evil that he hired Doeg, an Edomite, to kill Ahimelech and 85 others along with women, children and livestock (22: 16-20).
In what has transpired thus far, we see that every desire that finds its fulfilment outside of God, comes at a price. So why did God allow this course of events? The answer is, as it always is under such circumstances: to discipline his people for trying to do life without him and to pay the price of wanting a king when he advised against it. At the same time, however, the grace of the Lord enabled David to navigate the ills of Saul’s kingship. From that experience we should take heart that when circumstances become difficult and dangerous, God is testing our commitment to him. As verse 8 of Psalm 62 states: “Trust in him at all times….pour out your heart to him for God is our refuge.”
In chapter 23 of Samuel’s first book, we see David being hunted like an animal by Saul, constantly having to evade and flee Saul’s marauding army. Each failed search simply increased Saul’s frustration. Yet despite David’s fugitive status and the fact that his life was in constant danger, an event occurred that shows that he was not vengeful.
Having sought refuge in a cave with his men, David was surprised to see Saul enter the cave to relieve himself. Unseen by Saul, David crept up to the crouching figure and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. Returning to his men at the back of the cave, David became conscience-stricken. Although his men urged him to kill Saul, David’s response was gentle and Christ-like. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed.” Going out of the cave, David hailed Saul with the words “My lord, the king,” and prostrated himself before Saul saying: “I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you….I have not wronged you but you are hunting me down to take my life” (1Sa: 24: 11-12).
Understandably, Saul was gobsmacked by this encounter. He wept aloud, praised David for his righteousness and conceded that he had treated him badly. “May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today,” he said (24: 16-20). Vengeance, we see, is God’s prerogative to take, as and when he sees fit. A reconciliation of sorts followed with David giving Saul an oath of loyalty and Saul leading his army back home. But the truce was short lived.
After an interlude during which David took two more wives – Abigail and Ahinoam – Saul’s conflict with God drove him, once again, to pursue David. And once again, we see God’s hand over David. The Lord put Saul and his soldiers into a deep sleep which enabled David to enter Saul’s camp undetected and go right into the tent where Saul was sleeping. David could easily have killed Saul. Instead, he reproached his men with the words: “Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed one and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him down; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish” (26: 9-10).
As we saw with the confrontation between Saul and David outside the cave, so a similar exchange took place. David asked Saul why he was pursuing him and said that if men had put Saul up to do so, they were cursed before the Lord. Saul, in response, pleaded guilty of having sinned and vowed not to try and harm David again. They parted company in peace (26: 18-25). But intuitively David did not trust Saul and decided to escape to the land of the Philistines and to ask for refugee status. King Achish agreed but on two conditions: that David raided and plundered Achish’s enemies and joined the Philistine army to attack Israel. (27).
At that point in his life, David found himself testing the adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. It’s a man-made solution which, as Proverbs (14:12) tells us, does not work out: “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death.” Thus, David found himself compromised. If he refused Achish, he would be killed. But if he made war on Israel, he would be a traitor.
Yet in this vexed situation, God continued to work in David’s life. The commanders of the Philistine army refused to have David under their command and demanded that he return to the land of the Philistines which is what he did (29). In the meanwhile, Saul’s army proved no match for the Philistines. Seeing his army routed, Saul took his own life. His body was later mutilated by the Philistines. Thus God vented his wrath and vengeance on Saul. Had Saul honoured his commitment to peace with David, his fate may well have been different. On three occasions Saul had promised to do so, but reneged each time. In the end he paid the price for his deceit.
Saul was a failed leader – an unrepentant hypocrite, coward and a deceiver, just like so many leaders today. Israel’s plight under Saul showed that it needed more than a man to hope in. All men are fallible. Under Saul, the land God had promised to his people since the time of Moses was desecrated by the Philistines. Righteousness was mocked and denounced by the pagans – just as it is today. Falsehood and false gods were esteemed.
The second book of Samuel commences with David going into mourning after receiving the news of Saul’s death. Despite Saul’s malevolence, David bore him no malice and continued to refer to Saul as “the Lord’s anointed” (2Sa:1: 11-14). In this we see a reflection of Jesus’s exhortation that, as Christians, we must not bear malice towards those who persecute us. Instead, we should recognise that such persons have succumbed to the same evil forces to which we are exposed without the grace of God.
God then instructed David to proceed to Hebron where, at the age of 30, he was crowned king over the house of Judah and ruled for the next 40 years. But Abner, the commander of Saul’s shattered army, refused to recognise David. A feud erupted between the house of David and that of Saul, led by IshBosheth. But the Lord was with David and the rebellion collapsed after two years. Epic victories followed against the Philistines, Moabites and Amonites with David’s sovereignty extending to the Euphrates River in the east. As scripture states, “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2Sa:8:14). Obedience to God brought Israel peace and stability. As David stated in praise of God: “You have established your people Israel as your own forever and you, O Lord, have become their God” (2Sa:7: 24).
But, as the cycles of life demonstrate, the prosperity and security that Israel enjoyed under David led to complacency and to sin. No longer needed to lead his armies, boredom and temptation seduced David. His adultery with Bathsheba and his consignment of her husband, Uriah, to death in frontline fighting angered God. As the prophet Nathan informed David, God intended to exact punishment from David (2Sa: 12: 11). But God was swift to forgive David for his repentance. “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die,” Nathan told David. Instead, the child that Bathsheba had conceived through David would perish (2Sa: 13-14).
What this episode shows is that God remained loyal to his covenant with Israel. He did not waver despite David’s sinfulness. He accepted David’s contrition and rewarded him with a new son from Bathsheba called Solomon, who, as we know, became famous for his wisdom.
Patience and mercy, two Godly virtues, are often lacking in our lives. God’s walk with Israel through disobedience, disgrace and defeat through the centuries, depicts his character. Israel did not deserve that any more than we do for our sinful ways.
David’s treatment of Mephibosheth reciprocated the compassion and mercy God had showered on David’s life and is a salutary lesson in the dignity and respect that can accrue when power is infused with humility.
In ancient times, when a dynasty was overthrown – in this case Saul’s household –it was common practice to kill off any surviving male heirs so as to consolidate the new ruler’s position and eliminate any future challenges. Saul’s son, Jonathan, who had died along with his father in battle against the Philistines, had a son named Mephibosheth who had a severe deformity: he was crippled in both feet.
Leviticus chapter 21, verses 17 to 23, lists physical defects and deformities which prohibited a person so afflicted [quote] “to come near to present the offerings made to the Lord by fire…..he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar and so desecrate my sanctuary.” As we know from the New Testament, many of Jesus’ miracles involved healing deformities and disabilities such was his compassion for the physically stricken. In ancient times, however, such people were consigned to the margins of society and regarded as expendable burdens.
David’s treatment of Mephibosheth, therefore, is significant. He could have had him killed or exiled. Understandably, Mephibosheth was terrified when he was summoned to appear before King David. But David’s first words of greeting were “Don’t be afraid.” Mephibosheth’s surprise and opinion of himself was reflected by his response: “What is your servant that you should notice a dead dog like me?” He must have been astonished and relieved when David informed him that he would inherit everything that belonged to his grandfather, Saul, and that Mephibosheth would “always eat at my table” – like one of David’s sons (2Sa: 9: 6-13).
How do we relate to this? The answer is that we are the Lord’s Mephibosheths. In Hebrew the name means ‘mouth of shame.’ We are crippled- inside. Sin is inherent in our DNA. Just as Mephibosheth was spared and cared for by the grace of David, so only by the grace of God do we sup at his table.
David’s last years
The cycles of history repeated themselves in David’s last years. Just as he had had to flee from, Saul, so David found himself having to escape from his son, Absalom, who conspired to supplant David as king. Once more David became a fugitive. In the turmoil that followed David’s abandonment of Jerusalem, Mephibosheth, to his discredit, remained in Jerusalem under the impression that [quote] “today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather’s kingdom.” David was disgusted and promptly awarded everything that belonged to Mephibosheth to Ziba, his loyal steward who served Mephibosheth (2Sa: 16: 1-4).
This turn of events reflects the very real rollercoaster that is our sinful human existence. Mephibosheth was gifted by David’s grace. Yet he saw nothing remiss in attempting to take advantage when his benefactor’s fortunes were down. Mephibosheth’s opportunism reflects the self-centredness and greed that thrives in human nature and which can only be defied and denied if we are subservient to God.
Just as David mourned the death of Saul, so he mourned the overthrow and death of Absalom. Whereas the messengers of that news had thought David would be pleased that Absalom’s rebellion had been crushed, David was heart-broken –“If only I had died instead of you,” he cried (2Sa:18: 33). David then faced the task of winning back the hearts and minds of his subjects who had transferred their loyalties to Absalom (2Sa:19: 13-14). When he encountered Mephibosheth, David again showed mercy. He could have punished him but instead, despite Mephibosheth’s lies about Ziba, David ordered that the fields he had granted to Ziba be divided between the steward, Ziba, and Mephibosheth. David could have thrown Mephibosheth out, which is what he deserved for being a turncoat. But instead he displayed magnanimity and waived Mephibosheth’s attempts to patronise him. It’s the same kind of generous spirit Jesus displayed towards his apostles on occasions when their faith in him faltered or failed. And, of course, the same spirit of forgiveness that Jesus had towards his executioners on Good Friday.
Hardly had the sedition of Absalom ended, when a new rebellion arose under Sheba, the Benjamite, who declared that he and his men had no faith in David (2Sa:20: 1-2) Fortunately that sedition was short lived . But strife and dissension plagued the last years of David’s reign as king. Yet he never questioned his lot in life or cursed God. When the anger of the Lord burned against Israel following David’s failed government of his kingdom, he implored God as follows: “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you take away the guilt of your servant” (2Sa: 24: 10). He was distressed at the suffering of his subjects, following the Lord’s unleashing of a plague which killed 70,000 Israelites and said to the angel: “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2Sa: 24:17).
David offered himself as the scapegoat of Israel. But God ignored David’s offer because he had a far more worthy offering to atone for the sins, not only of Israel, but for all of mankind, namely, Jesus. In many ways, Jesus was, as Stephen Morefield contends, “the Greater David.” He conquered temptation and sin completely, whereas King David’s achievements depended on the grace of God which, on occasions, he forfeited through sin.
From a broader perspective, the annals of Saul and David’s lives characterise the range of human behaviour: faults, failings, highs, lows, deceit, lust, devotion, foolishness, opportunism, victory, defeat and death. Occupying two books of the Old Testament and nearly a century in terms of history, it is an account which focuses deeply on how God works. His patience, compassion and mercy are infinite but depend on repentance and subservience. Saul failed in that regard. Consequently he met an ignominious end. David also succumbed to sin but repented and showed subservience to God and met an honourable end.
Psalm 12*, which was written by David, shows that the challenges of the world during his time, have become even more severe in our own time. The relevance of Psalm 12 to our time reflects the timelessness of the scriptures.
Help, Lord, for the godly are no more;
the faithful have vanished among men.
Everyone lies to his neighbour; their
flattering lips speak with deception.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue that says
“We will triumph with our tongues;
we own our lips – who is our master?
Because of the oppression of the weak
and the groaning of the needy, I will now
arise, says the Lord. I will protect them
from those who malign them.
O Lord, you will keep us safe and protect
us from such people forever.
The wicked freely strut about when what
is vile is honoured among men.
(* 12.6 – omitted)
------------------------------------------Duncan Du Bois © October 2018
BELIEF, TRUST, OBEDIENCE: THE ESSENCE OF FAITH
Faith is the essential core of Christianity. It is given concise expression in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
The Creed is an emphatic statement of belief and trust. But there is a third emphatic and essential pillar of faith, namely, obedience.
Besides the example of Enoch who walked with God (Gen 5: 21-24), the earliest demonstration of faith in the Bible is that of Noah. Genesis chapter 6 tells of God recognising Noah’s righteousness and tasking him with building an ark. In carrying out God’s instructions, Noah showed obedience in addition to his trust and belief in God. He must have been subjected to ridicule and harassment while labouring on the enormous task of constructing the ark. Yet he never wavered and adhered faithfully to God’s command.
Abraham’s obedience to God’s request that he sacrifice his only son, Isaac, again exemplifies true faith. He travelled all the way to the Moriah region with Isaac, built the altar, bound his son up and was on the point of killing him when the angel of the Lord intervened and stayed the execution of Isaac because God was satisfied with Abraham’s absolute faith. What is starkly and chillingly apparent is Abraham’s unflinching and unquestioning obedience to God. From the point of view of a parent, to be confronted with such a mission is unthinkable. Yet Abraham resolutely and calmly carried out God’s test of his faith. (Gen 22: 1-12). In the New Testament, James wrote of Abraham’s righteousness: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2: 24).
The story of David and the Philistine giant, Goliath, is another remarkable illustration of faith. For 40 days the Israelites hesitated to meet Goliath’s challenge in battle. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons was a mere shepherd boy. Summoned by Saul, David was adamant that he would confront Goliath. When Saul remonstrated with him on account of his youth and inexperience, David pointed out that he had fought off a lion and a bear that had seized a sheep from his flock.
But what really illustrated David’s commitment, belief and trust in God – his faith – was this statement: “The Lord, who has delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of the Philistine.” So evident was David’s faith that Saul at once gave him his blessing (1Sam: 32-38).
In confronting the well-armed, nine foot tall Goliath, David’s courage and expression of faith is legendary. Armed with only a pouch of pebbles and his sling, David said: “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel. This day the Lord will hand you over to me and I will strike you down and cut off your head,” (1 Sam: 17: 45-46). And that is exactly what happened. Faith triumphed over adversity in a totally uneven contest. That episode is a fine example of St Paul’s statement that “we live by faith and not be sight,” (2Cor:5: 7).
The Book of Daniel has two exemplary illustrations of faith. Following Nebuchadezzar’s construction of an image of gold, 90 feet in height and nine feet in width, he commanded all peoples of his kingdom to fall down and worship the image at the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre or harp. Failure to do so would be punishable by death in a fiery furnace (Dan 3: 1-6). When it was reported that three of the Jews in Babylonian captivity, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were refusing to pay homage to Nebuchadezzar’s golden idol, they were summoned to appear before him. Steadfastly they informed Nebuchadnezzar as follows: “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it.….But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods….” (Dan 3: 12-18).
Outraged, Nebuchadezzar ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than its usual temperature. So extreme was the heat that it killed the soldiers who cast Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace. To Nebuchadnezzar’s amazement, the flames failed to singe even a hair on the heads of the three men. On his command they came out of the fire – completely unharmed. Their faith in God had saved them and converted Nebuchadnezzar as he exclaimed: “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation” (Dan 4: 3).
Subsequently, however, Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to show obedience to God and his reversion to ways of arrogance and oppression resulted in God deposing him from his throne and exiling him to live like an animal. Only when he renounced the error of his ways and acknowledged God, was his kingdom restored (Dan 4: 28-36).
The prophet Daniel’s faith was put to the test when under the new ruler of Babylon, Darius, he refused to adhere to a decree requiring that all men pray to King Darius. As a result, he was cast into a den of lions. After a night in the den, Darius was astounded to see that Daniel was unharmed. His faith and trust in God had saved him and served to convince King Darius of the truth and righteousness of God (Dan 6: 10-28).
Job, as we know was the subject of a test God allowed Satan to impose by covering Job’s body with sores. Not only did Job suffer physical pain and extreme discomfort. He also suffered social alienation. Here is an excerpt from chapter 19 of his book: “My acquaintances are completely estranged from me. My kinsmen have gone away; my friends have forgotten me. My guests and my maidservants count me as a stranger; they look upon me as alien. My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own brothers. Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear they ridicule me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones” (13-20).
Job’s suffering caused him to question his plight and for his faith to falter. But he never capitulated to doubt and allowed Satan to triumph. Instead, he insisted that: “As long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness and my tongue will utter no deceit……I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it” (27: 3-6).
Job’s righteousness and steadfastness defeated Satan. As Job said of God: “I know you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted” (42: 2). For his obedience unto God, Job was richly rewarded: he was granted prosperity and greater material wealth than he had had before.
As Psalm 37 states: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (5-6).
Jeremiah warned that faithlessness leads to ruin. He urged Israel to acknowledge its disobedience and return to Godly ways; that by doing so, God would show mercy and to restore his favour. “Return faithless people and I will cure you of backsliding,” says the Lord (Jer 3: 12-13; 22).
In each of the afore-going excerpts, virtuous outcomes were determined by obedience to God. But as the Old Testament repeatedly demonstrates, disobedience to God has consequences – from the fall of Adam and Eve, the flood, exile in Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Babylonian exile.
Faith is bedrock of the New Testament. John’s gospel is called the ‘Gospel of belief’ on account of his extensive reference to faith – some 98 times. The shining, unblemished, insuperable example of faith is, of course, Jesus. His unwavering obedience to his Father particularly in submitting himself to a death of indescribable agony and humiliation serve as an example second to none.
The relationships and associations people had with Jesus during his public ministry were all subject to faith in him. Of the many such occasions, let us consider some instances. The healing of the man with leprosy in Matthew chapter 8: contagious and incurable disease, lepers were social outcasts. It took courage and faith for that leper to dare to approach Jesus as he was in the midst of a crowd of followers. His words “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” are brimming with the definition of faith – belief, trust and obedience. Jesus instantly recognised that and cured him. The same absolute faith in Jesus was shown by the woman who had suffered menstrual bleeding for 12 years. Her conviction that she would be healed was so strong that she felt it necessary only to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Knowing her thoughts, Jesus praised her and healed her (Mt 9: 20-22).
The example of the Roman Centurion is astonishing because of his pagan culture. The modest and courteous way in which he addresses Jesus even had Jesus blown away by the expression of his faith: “Lord, my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering……I do not deserve to have you come under my roof, but just say the word and my servant will be healed’ (Mt 8:5-10). The servant was healed within the hour. As with the leper, the Centurion’s request reflected acceptance of whatever Jesus decided. The terms and conditions of faith were all there: belief, trust, obedience.
Yet for the apostles as followers of Jesus and, therefore, already possessing some faith, trust was lacking. It showed in the example of the storm on the lake. Fearing that the boat might capsize and that they would drown, the apostles woke Jesus from his slumber. He rebuked them with the words: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” In other words, Jesus exposed their human weakness which allowed them to doubt that their safety was threatened despite his presence (Mt 8:23-26). Lapse of trust was shown by Peter when, seeing Jesus walking on the water during a storm on the lake, decided to try the same thing. But after a few steps his fragile human nature prevailed and he began to flounder and sink. Catching Peter by the hand, Jesus said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14: 25-31).
Obedience unto God’s will is no more resolutely demonstrated than on the Mount of Olives on the night Jesus was betrayed. Knowing what was going to happen to him, Jesus prayed to his Father: “If you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.” So great was Jesus’ anguish that he perspired blood. An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. (Lk 22: 42-44).
There is supreme significance in this event. Just as Satan had tempted Jesus at the outset of his public ministry, so now he attempted to weaken Jesus and to thwart him from his mission as Savior. For Jesus, his anguish was not only at the prospect of the death he faced, but primarily at the prospect of his sinless state being smothered and overwhelmed by the sins of humanity and the wrath of God. He felt vulnerable at being severed from his Father during this ordeal; his human side, exploited by Satan, urged him to relent and to evade what was coming. But despite his sorrow and extreme trauma, Jesus was obedient to his Father’s will. Demonstrating obedience is thus the ultimate test of faith.
The early church
The death of Jesus shattered the faith of his followers. Of the eleven apostles, only John was present at the cross. The fact that Jesus entrusted his Mother to John’s care, showed that John’s faith was intact. Of course, Jesus’ resurrection and multiple appearances before his ascension served to rekindle faith in him. But, as we know, the apostles were in a very vulnerable position and were obliged to keep a low profile for fear of reprisals by the Jewish authorities. Nonetheless, with the exception of Thomas, they retained their belief in Jesus.
The refusal of Thomas to acknowledge the risen Jesus reflects human weakness and vulnerability. Filled with doubt, Thomas was unable to fulfil the requirements of faith – belief, trust and obedience. But when confronted by the risen Lord, his words are a tribute of the highest order – “My Lord and my God.” And in responding, Jesus pays the highest tribute to all who since that time have come to accept him: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20: 26-30). From this we see how belief is the fundamental premise of faith.
The infusion of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which Jesus had promised, not only stabilised faith and trust in Jesus and the mission he had entrusted to his followers, but it energised them in a way that continues to manifest itself to this day amongst many who preach and teach God’s word and all adherents of faith in Jesus.
Paul in his letter to the Romans provides guidance on how to live up to the requirements of faith. He tells us that while no human is righteous, by having faith in Jesus we are freed from the power of sin and placed in a right relationship with God in which we should strive to live lives that are pleasing to God. As Jesus stated in the Beatitudes, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10).
The 11th chapter of Hebrews recounts the examples of faith from Abel to Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, the prophets through to the martyrs for Christ. Faith, Hebrews states, is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see….without faith it is impossible to please God” (1; 6). And without faith, Hebrews tells us, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God (3: 18-19).
In all of the above instances, faith was tested by adversity and strengthened by adversity. As Peter states: “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering…..But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet: 12-14). Where there is adversity in the world today, that is where Christianity is strongest. There are more martyrs for Christianity today in Asia and the Middle East than in Western countries where churches are poorly attended and little attention is paid to servicing faith. In one of the Emirates states in the Middle East, five services are held every Sunday, each one is filled to capacity. Yet in many Western countries, God has been banished from public life and substituted by man-ordained precepts. Such situations are tailor-made for ungodly life in which virtue is replaced by vice, righteousness is ridiculed and faith in materialism is exalted.
Where faith is under siege, we should recall Jesus’ warning that “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (Jn 15: 18-19). Belief and trust in Jesus is the antidote to adversity and persecution. But above all, obedience to his ways and his will is the sure path to salvation.
Duncan Du Bois © September 2018
Give God the glory
Persecution – retributive and redemptive
There are several forms of persecution: harassment, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, oppression, physical torture, violence, killing.
The only time life has been free of persecution was in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve sinned. However, even then there was a warning of persecution. In Genesis 2: 17, God made it clear that, on pain of death, Adam was forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Upon disobeying God, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. The price for forfeiting their idyllic life was condemnation to a life of labour, pain, torment, strife and persecution (Gen: 3: 17-19).
There are 74 references to persecution in the Bible. But as we will see, persecution is a two-edged sword: retributive and redemptive. While it is used by God to inflict punishment on persons and nations for disparaging and forsaking him, it is also used to bring glory to him when it is endured by the righteous for which they are blessed and richly rewarded.
The first and greatest persecution in the Bible was The Flood. Genesis chapter 6: 5-8 tells us that, disgusted by man’s wickedness, God decided to rid the earth of humans. Only Noah and his family were exempted. After The Flood, God then promised that he would never again subject the earth to such a curse (Gen: 9: 11). Subsequently, on a restricted scale, God did destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness and initiated the destruction of Jericho.
Three Old Testament instances of personal persecution and redemption
1] Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. But despite his situation in terms of rejection and discrimination, he enjoyed God’s favour. Within the pagan Egyptian political structure he was able to prosper and was put in charge of the entire logistical operation of Egypt by the Pharaoh. Indicative of Joseph’s appreciation of his blessings from God was the name he gave to his second son – Ephraim. “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41: 52). But for disowning their brother Joseph, Jacob’s sons paid a price. Not only did they have to endure famine, but they were humbled in having to beg for food from Joseph, who they did not recognise, in his role as the arbiter of food supplies during the famine that came over the land. Joseph, to his credit, held no grudges. He freely acknowledged God’s role in him being brought to Egypt – “It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household…” (Gen. 45: 8).
The retribution Joseph suffered from his brothers and later when he was falsely accused of trying to procure sexual favours from an Egyptian official’s wife, on both occasions were tempered by God’s favour. In turn, Joseph did not seek vengeance on his brothers. Although he imposed terms and conditions by way of redeeming them, he did not persecute them. In this episode, therefore, one sees virtue evolving from adversity. That was further illustrated when Pharaoh gave Joseph and his brothers together with their father, Jacob, property in the best part of Egypt, the district of Rameses (Gen. 47: 11).
The story of Job is perhaps the most stirring in terms of the extremes of retribution to which Job was subjected all the while sustaining his conviction in God for which ultimately he was generously rewarded.
Job was a wealthy man. He had seven sons and three daughters; owned 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys and had a large number of servants. He was “blameless” and “upright,” and “shunned evil” (Job: 1:1-3). One day, Satan presented himself before God. In the exchange between them, God boasted of Job’s faultless and upright character and expressed confidence that Job would never renege on his faith in God no matter what suffering was imposed on him. To prove his point, God allowed Satan to put Job to the test.
In the first test, in the course of a single day, Job received four devastating messages. The first three concerned the loss of all his livestock and servants. The fourth one informed him of the death of all ten of his children when the house collapsed on them. Job tore his clothes and shaved his head in mourning, but he remained resolute in his faith in God, saying: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1: 21).
Determined to succeed in breaking Job, Satan again came before God who granted him a second chance to test Job. This time, Job was afflicted with painful sores from head to toe. Appalled at his state, his wife urged him to curse God and to give up and die. But Job’s response was: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2: 10). Bravely he bore his suffering and refused to curse God.
Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to visit him. They sat with Job in silence for seven days out of respect for his mourning. On the seventh day, Job spoke, beginning a conversation in which each of the four men shared, at length, their respective thoughts on Job’s afflictions.
Job cursed the day he was born, comparing life and death to light and darkness. The visitors’ responses and interpretations of his condition merely speculated on the reversal of his fortunes causing Job to scorn their opinions.
Nonetheless, Job pondered man’s relationship with God; how God is unseen and his ways are inscrutable and beyond human understanding. He lamented that God let wicked people prosper while he and countless other innocent people suffered. He wanted to confront God and complain, but could not bring himself to do it. Instead, he resolved to persist in pursuing wisdom by fearing God and avoiding evil. As is stated in Proverbs, “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom” (1:7).
The exchange of opinions was further protracted by the entry of a fourth visitor, Elihu. But eventually God intervened. Calling from a whirlwind, he commanded Job to be brave. Overwhelmed by the encounter, Job acknowledged God’s unlimited power and admitted the limitations of his human understanding.
In appreciation of his steadfast resolution and faith, God restored Job’s health, made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before, namely, 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 oxen and 1,000 donkeys. His family of 10 children was also restored. (42:10-14). Job’s faith and endurance in the face of extreme adversity earned him God’s reward and redemption from succumbing to Satan.
Around 627BC, at the age of about 18, Jeremiah first recognised his vocation. “The word of the Lord came to me saying: Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations…. Do not be afraid.. for I am with you and will rescue you” declared the Lord (Jer:1 5-8).
Jeremiah’s mission was, as one writer has put it, one of anguish and gloom as a consequence of God making his intentions known. The pagan kingdoms to the north of the Israelites were destined to lay waste the land of Judah because of its idolatry and wickedness in forsaking God. “For I am bringing disaster from the north, even terrible destruction” (Jer 4: 6). So awful was the punishment that God intended to inflict on Judah, that he instructed Jeremiah not to take a wife because in the destruction that was to come, families would perish.
A bearer of bad news is never welcome. From the outset, Jeremiah was subjected to ridicule and insults for proclaiming God’s word and exposing the religious rot of Israel. His role as a prophet, as all the prophets experienced, was one of persecution for his obedience to God’s instruction. Here’s what he was up against: the worship of false gods that even involved human sacrifice; priests engaged in ritual sex with so-called holy prostitutes in the temple, a practice that was supposed to promote the fertility of crops; a shrine to Ishtar, the Assyrian goddess of love and war, which had been placed inside the temple.
Despite Jeremiah’s efforts, the spread of paganism continued. But his courage never flagged. In October 608 BC, at the time of the annual feast of Tabernacles, God instructed Jeremiah to interrupt the ritual display by the priests as they circled the altar in the temple. Boldly Jeremiah declared: “Reform your ways and your actions and I will let you live in this place…But you are trusting in deceptive words…Will you burn incense to Baal and other gods you have not known?.... Has this house which bears my name, become a den of robbers to you?” (Jer 7: 3-11).
Outraged at his words and his prediction that the temple would be trashed, a furious mob seized Jeremiah and demanded that he be executed. Unfazed, Jeremiah continued to urge his detractors to mend their ways and thereby earn the Lord’s mercy. Temple officials decided to spare his life on that occasion. But his outspokenness had made him a marked man. Even in his birthplace, he was warned that if he prophesied in the name of the Lord, he would die.
Not long afterwards, again in the temple, Jeremiah declared: “This is what the Lord says: Listen! I am going to bring on this city and the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words” (Jer 19: 15). The chief priest, Pashhur, was outraged at Jeremiah’s prophesy and promptly flogged him with a lash. Then had him shackled to the stocks near the Benjamin gate of Jerusalem. The next morning Jeremiah was released but not before prophesying that Pashhur would be carried away into captivity and die there (Jer. 20: 1-6).
Jeremiah’s persecution distressed him. Now banned from the temple, he complained to the Lord that everywhere he was ridiculed, mocked and insulted. “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” he asked. But at the same time he acknowledged that God’s “word is in my heart like a fire… I am weary of holding it in…” (Jer. 20: 18; 9).
In 597 BC, the first of Jeremiah’s prophesies was realised. Babylonian legions took Jerusalem after a three month siege, ransacking the temple and palace and taking many into captivity. Jeremiah told the captives that they would be in captivity for 70 years – absolutely correct as it turned out.
When Judah’s new puppet ruler, Zedekiah, tried to declare independence from Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, imposed a new siege on Jerusalem. Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to surrender. But his God-inspired advice was ignored. Upon trying to leave Jerusalem, Jeremiah was accused of desertion, beaten and thrown into a dungeon. Subsequently, he was condemned to death for continuing to urge surrender. Lowered into a swamp-like mud at the bottom of a cistern, Jeremiah was left to die. But God had promised to protect him and prevailed on Zedekiah to change his mind. And so Jeremiah was lifted out of his deathtrap.
The siege of Jerusalem lasted two years during which famine resulted in some resorting to cannibalism. In July 587, the siege ended with Nebuchadnezzar’s forces utterly destroying the temple, looting the city and slaughtering the populace including Zedekiah’s family. Jeremiah was spared because he had advised surrender instead of resistance (Jer: 40:1-5).
Jeremiah prophesied retribution if the Israelites did not abandon their wickedness. He also prophesied redemption after 70 years of captivity. His prophesies turned out to be absolutely accurate. For his unrelenting prophesying he suffered severe social and physical hardship and pain. In a word: persecution. Yet he remained obedient to God’s mission.
In carrying out God’s wishes and being faithful to God, Joseph, Job and Jeremiah each endured pain and suffering. Is not the lesson here that persecution of the righteous is God’s way of testing the endurance of their faith? Thus, God rewards those who see the setbacks of life as opportunities to acknowledge God as the arbiter of all things and remain steadfast in their adherence to him.
Persecution of those who neglect and reject God and of those who remain faithful to him, are consistent themes in the Bible - a constant interplay of retribution and redemption. Many of the Psalms lament the plight of the weak and the upright who are exploited and persecuted by the wicked. They implore the Lord to help the oppressed. The prophet Amos in chapter 4 provides an account of the occasions God inflicted retribution on Israel: from imposing plagues, withholding rain, sending locusts to devour crops. “For I know how many are your offenses and how great are your sins” (Amos: 5: 12). But God’s warnings are tempered by mercy. “Seek good, not evil that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,” said Amos in relaying God’s word (5: 14).
Isaiah in chapter 52 refers to Jesus as the “Suffering Servant.” That description is widely associated with Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday. But if one considers the life of Jesus, from his birth to Calvary, he was constantly subjected to persecution. In the first place, he humbled himself to live amongst humanity with all our faults, failings and sinfulness. He chose to be born in a stable, to be a refugee as a baby, to do common labour as a carpenter, to be tempted by Satan after spending 40 days in the wilderness fasting; to have his wisdom and understanding despised and disparaged by the elite of his time because of his humble origins. As the Messiah who had been predicted for centuries, Jesus had to suffer not only non-recognition of who he is, but rejection, betrayal, denial and death – the ultimate form of persecution.
Jesus experienced persecution on a daily basis. He was intellectually harassed by the Sadducees and Pharisees, badgered by those who saw him as an entertaining medical wonderworker, rejected by Capernaum and Nazareth, threatened with an early death, frustrated by the fickle nature of his apostles. He had to balance his divine nature with the weakness of the human form that he embraced. As Jesus said on the night of his betrayal, “the spirit is willing but the body is weak” (Matt: 26: 41).
Since we live in a fallen world, persecution is an unavoidable reality. Therefore, we should see it as a virtue. For as Jesus said in relating the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven… (Matt: 5: 10-12).
As Timothy has stated (2:3: 12): “In fact everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Thus, for us, persecution is not retribution but our sure means of redemption.
To conclude, let us reflect on and pray daily for Christians who are undergoing vicious persecution in China, Pakistan and in Islamic states. It is a tragic reality that there is more persecution of Christians in our time than in any previous age.
------------------------------DUNCAN DU BOIS © June 2018
God works in mysterious ways
The title of this address is inspired by Isaiah 55: 8 which reads: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Fifteenth century German cleric Thomas a Kempis put a more modern spin on Isaiah’s words when he wrote: Homo proponit sed Deus disponit – Man proposes but God disposes.
To illustrate the incomprehensible ways in which God often works, I shall consider three examples from the Bible and one current example. All four examples concern very unlikely characters.
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk all proclaimed the same message, namely, that the people of Judah and Jerusalem were doomed to destruction because of their idolatry and sinfulness. Isaiah, warned more than 100 years before it occurred that Solomon’s temple would be destroyed and that God would condemn his people to exile. But, like Ezekiel, he prophesied that God would cause the Israelites to be returned to their land and have their kingdom restored.
Isaiah was martyred around 680 BC. Jeremiah witnessed the corrosion and corruption of the Israelites and their pagan ways in defiance of God’s ways. His warnings of the impending doom were scorned and ignored. In 589 BC Jerusalem was besieged for two years until, crazed by famine, the city capitulated to the forces of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. On his orders Jerusalem and its temple were looted and demolished. Those inhabitants who avoided being slaughtered, were rounded up and deported to Babylon. God, through the prophet Habakkuk, provided a graphic description of the ferocity of the Babylonians. He described them as “ruthless, “dreaded people” “bent on violence” (1: 6; 7; 9).
Despair and uncertainly as to their future was the lot of the exiled Israelites for over 50 years. As a result of ignoring the ways of God, they had permanently forfeited the land given to their forefathers. Or so it seemed. Ezekiel, who had accompanied the first batch of Israelites into exile in 597BC, preached a message of hope, deliverance and redemption.
Signs that the Babylonian captivity might not be indefinite occurred from 562 BC with the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent growing instability within the Babylonian empire. A rebellion in part of the empire led by a warrior called Cyrus of Persia gained momentum. By 546 his Persian empire extended from the Indus River in the East to the Aegean Sea in the West. In October 539, Babylon, the greatest city of the ancient world fell to Cyrus. He was hailed as liberator. The following year he issued the Edict of Restoration which directed all Babylonian Jews to return to their homeland. Furthermore, he directed that the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt at the expense of the Babylonian treasury.
About 160 years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied those events in chapter 44, verse 28: Cyrus is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” In the opening verse of chapter 45, Isaiah stated: This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor…
Thus, against all expectations, God chose a warrior and an adherent of pagan Zoroastrian beliefs to liberate his people from captivity. Yet Cyrus proved the most enlightened ruler of ancient times. He proclaimed religious tolerance and compassion and, as such, is credited with establishing the world’s first human rights declaration. The book of Ezra has substantial detail about Cyrus whose name is mentioned 23 times in the Old Testament – and on each occasion in a positive spirit. Although he passed on before work on the new temple was completed in 515 BC, he fulfilled God’s intentions and what the prophets had foretold.
Without precedent in history were twelve human beings exposed to the intimate company of God in the form of Jesus. And not for a brief moment, but for three years. The purpose of that exposure or apprenticeship, as it turned out, was to prepare them for the greatest mission ever undertaken: to establish and propagate Christianity, worldwide.
In terms of human thinking and human resources – HR – as we call it, the sort of persons we would have chosen for such a mission would all have had sound affinities and distinctive aptitudes. We would have expected biblical literacy; oratory skills; persons who were socially well-connected; persons with appropriate track records.
Yet the twelve men Jesus chose bear no resemblance to any of those criteria. Some years ago a story did the rounds concerning an HR firm that was given the characteristics of twelve nameless men who happened to be the twelve apostles. The HR firm was asked to do a blind review on each of them in terms of their suitability for the active promotion of a new product. The findings were not very flattering. Only one of the twelve was considered to have some potential. It turned out to be Judas Iscariot.
Jesus’ selection of the twelve apostles is a classic example of God disposing of man’s thinking and of working in a way totally contradictory to human perspectives. “Neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. Let’s briefly review who the twelve apostles were. It has to be brief because there is so little hard evidence on them. Peter and Andrew were brothers whose trade was fishing in the Sea of Galillee. Humble, simple, ordinary folk, as was James, the son of Zebedee. John was his brother and was regarded as having firm views. Philip from Bethsaida shared the ordinary social trappings of the others but was believed to have been quick to appreciate who Jesus is. Bartholomew, also called Nathaniel, was regarded as scholarly. Thomas or Didymus as he was also known, was a shallow soul with no particular commendable idiosyncrasy. Matthew was the tax collector of Capernaum. Socially tax collectors were reviled by their fellow Jews. Jude and James the Younger were brothers but beyond that nothing is known of them. The record is equally vague about Simon the Zealot. Judas Iscariot fulfilled the role of treasurer among the group. He was known to be covetous and to have strong Jewish nationalist feelings.
Flawed and vulnerable, uninitiated and unschooled for the task at hand, nonetheless, each was obedient to Jesus’ invitation to “follow” him. But once infused with the Holy Spirit, with the obvious exception of Judas, they proved unstoppable in propagating Jesus’ message and his Resurrection. Each one of the eleven was martyred for his love for and loyalty to Jesus. Each one and many more ordinary men and women after them gave their lives for Jesus and for securing the foundations of the Christian faith.
The third example
The most widely travelled among the early propagators of the faith; the man who contributed 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament – seven of which are considered entirely authentic and were dictated by him; the man who has made history’s most remarkable personal contribution to religious thought and practice: - St Paul.
Yet from his early life a more unlikely person to lead and to mentor the growth of Christianity would have been difficult to find.
Saul of Tarsus was a Greek-speaking Jew from Cilicia in Asia Minor, then part of the Roman Empire. A tent-maker by trade, he was a member of the Pharisee religious party and a keen student of the Hebrew bible. As was common amongst such members, he had memorised large tracts of scripture.
Although he believed in life after death, he rejected the view that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that God had chosen to favour Jesus in that way. Alarmed at the growing groundswell of conversions to the new faith based on the teaching and example of Jesus, who the Jews rejected as a false messiah, Saul headed a mobile persecution unit. He travelled from synagogue to synagogue urging punishment to Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah. He endorsed the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and was present when it occurred.
Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that a general persecution followed Stephen’s execution. Saul led a house to house search for Christians. Men and women were summarily thrown into prison. Fledgling Christian communities were shattered and dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria. As the opening lines of chapter 9 of Acts state, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to The Way, [as converts to Christianity were called] he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
From this it is obvious that Saul was spear-heading the persecution and annihilation of Christianity. He was the leading, proactive protagonist in the struggle of the Jewish religious authorities to halt what was considered an insidious movement threatening the very foundations of the Mosaic law and Judaism’s religious structures.
Yet Jesus chose Saul to lead his Church and to spread his message. Saul’s conversion from antagonist to protagonist of the faith is one of the most remarkable events in early church history. Jesus’ dramatic intervention in Saul’s life is well-known and gave rise to the phrase “Damascan conversion.” In the blinding flash that toppled Saul to the ground and by Jesus directly confronting him as to why he was persecuting Jesus himself, the direction of Saul’s life was changed in an instant. Three days later Saul was infused with the Holy Spirit and baptised. Thus the early church gained a unique and powerful champion known as Paul. To appreciate that, one has only to consider how much poorer the New Testament would be without the writings of Paul and those he influenced.
Fourth example: a phenomenon of our times
From the examples of Cyrus and Saul, it is apparent that God’s ways are confounding and astounding. But we should not take the view that such interventions are confined to ancient history. One began in 2016 and continues to unfold.
Grave concern for the direction their country was headed, gripped many Americans by 2016. The land of freedom had become the land of debt, unemployment, excessive regulation and declining morals. The number of adults on welfare food stamps had grown from 35% to 47%. Three quarters of the states were financially insolvent. Powerful political forces in Washington DC prevailed regardless of election outcomes and of the needs and opinions of ordinary Americans.
When the presidential election campaign kicked off in February 2016, little attention was paid to a wildcard candidate known only for his brash television show, his billionaire status as a savvy businessman and his materialistic lifestyle. Besides, he was one of 16 candidates running under the Republican Party banner. The mainstream media wrote him off as a joke. Few people even within the Republican Party establishment took him seriously.
But the wildcard candidate entered primary after primary in state after state. Primaries are polls held by states for candidates to test their popularity and acceptability so that ultimately a party can see which of its candidates would be best to field in the November presidential election.
To the astonishment – and dismay of the political elite – the wildcard candidate edged out one Republican candidate after another, progressively narrowing the field. His public meetings with the message ‘Make America great again,’ drew capacity crowds wherever he went. Despite his wealth, he connected with the common man; he empathised with unemployed and the marginalised, whilst the opposing candidate dismissed such voters as “deplorables.”
By late June 2016, the wildcard candidate, against all odds, had become the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate. But his success attracted the most vicious, character-hating campaign ever seen in the democratic world, promoted by every major newspaper and television network. If the wildcard was to survive that onslaught, he needed a running mate – a vice presidential candidate – to temper the critical heat. He had a few names in mind but Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana, was not on that list – until July 12.
On that day Donald Trump was in Indiana for a short campaign swing when his plane broke down on the runway. Nowhere to go he accepted a dinner invitation from Mike and Karen Pence. Three days later Trump announced that Mike Pence would be his running mate.
Who is Mike Pence? Born in 1959 into a Catholic Irish family, he became a born-again Christian in 1978. He describes himself as a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order. His favourite Biblical passage is Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you….plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
If Trump was to win the presidency, like George W Bush before him, he would need the Christian evangelical vote. Mike Pence delivered that vote but not before having to endure relentless accusations that he had sold his soul to a brash, worldly materialist. But Mike Pence prayed and prayed and stayed the course. Like Paul, whom initially the apostles doubted as a convert, so Pence assured his critics that he had made the right decision.
Against all odds, the Trump/Pence ticket secured victory on 8 November 2016. When the combined wrath of the political establishment, the enemies of Christianity and the dark forces that constitute the underworld, is taken into account, it is difficult to deny the role of the hand of God in the outcome of that election. Like Cyrus, who began as a rebel leader whom God chose to liberate his people from captivity, Donald J Trump, in many respects irreverent like Cyrus, with the help of a devout Christian, Mike Pence, was elevated to the world’s most powerful secular position.
And just as Saul’s conversion energised and strengthened the Christian movement, after one year in office dramatic changes have come about under Trump and Pence. Last Christmas, for the first time in decades, nativity scenes were exhibited in government buildings in 25 states. Of 15 cabinet secretaries, eight are evangelicals. Unprecedented access to the White House has been granted to evangelical Christians. Trump’s nomination of pro-life judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was successful despite huge opposition from the anti-Christian network. On the political side, Trump has overturned much of his predecessor’s socialist agenda, slashed taxes, brought back jobs that had been lost to Mexico and elsewhere, defused the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and recognised the great danger Islamic extremism poses to freedom.
The practice of Christianity was an unquestioned fundamental in the founding of the USA which accounts for much of what made America great. With the influence of Mike Pence, Trump, despite his character flaws, is steering Christian ethics of dignity, honesty and respect for life and law back to its rightful place in American life. Here are some examples: he has issued an order enforcing the provisions of the First Amendment – freedom of religious practice and expression; he has restored the freedom of military chaplains to espouse biblical morality which Obama had curtailed and instead encouraged transgender morality; Trump has revoked an Obama order that public school toilets be open to both genders. On May 4, the Republican Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, signed into law new legislation concerning abortion. The new law prohibits abortion if a foetal heartbeat can be detected. Only in cases of incest and rape may abortion be carried out. The state of Mississippi has already passed similar legislation. On May 9, the Secretary for Education, Betsy de Vos, announced that regulations restricting faith-based education institutions from obtaining government grants and student aid, were to be amended.
Three Sundays ago, after the FBC service, Beverley and I spent 83 minutes on Youtube watching Donald Trump address a public meeting held on April 28 near Detroit in Michigan, a state which had not voted Republican since 1988. Ten thousand people were in the venue and as many outside. Some people had travelled over 100 miles to be present. Many got there the day before so as to be assured of a seat inside the venue. Their enthusiasm was evident also from their hand-held slogans, banners and the T-shirts they wore. Although we were watching a recording of the event, we felt the awe and the spirit of those people. We saw their deep appreciation for President Trump and the patriotic roots he stirred in them. We saw the range of support he has which the mainstream media prefer to ignore: African Americans holding placards bearing the words ‘Blacks for Trump;’ women of all ages holding placards with the words ‘Women for Trump.’ But beyond that, what energised the whole occasion was the message of sincerity and success, illustrated by the banners on the stage: ‘Promises made and Promises kept’; the sense of good triumphing over failure and falsehood; a sense of upliftment and hope; a celebration of traditional values.
The roles of the 45th President of the United States and his Vice President are a work in progress but we should recognise that it is another instance of God working in unexpected ways.
-----------------------------------Duncan Du Bois © May 2018
The Resurrection: - applying
history to conquer scepticism
So, what are the nuts, screws, bolts, bricks and mortar of history – primary source material, as it is called? Documents, reports, letters, artefacts, buildings, photographs, recordings, gravestones – such relics constitute the essential stuff of history. Our world is full of such relics to which all archival repositories attest. Grand examples of that heritage are, of course, castles, churches, ships and houses. Westminster Abbey in England is 1,000 years old and houses the tombs of several English monarchs. Mount Vernon in Virginia, USA, is the preserved stately home of George Washington. In such examples, history and heritage are indelibly and indisputably bound up.
Yet no such personal, physical relics exist as far as Jesus is concerned. He left no personal writings or artefacts. We do not know the exact location of his birth in Bethlehem nor do we know whereabouts in Nazareth he lived. Even the exact location of Calvary and the tomb in which he was laid are subjects of debate. Of course, there is a substantial primary source - the Bible. But even that is the subject of query by sceptics, particularly the New Testament and specifically about the most significant event of all time: the Resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Despite that scepticism, the reality is that Jesus is the most referenced, noted and enduring figure in the world. Our very dating and chronological reckoning takes its cue from his birth. Outside of the Far East and parts of the Middle East, there is not a village, town or suburb in a city that does not have a structure glorifying Jesus. Churches, as we call them.
So, how do we dispose of doubt and scepticism that continues to question who Jesus is and what his mission on Earth involved? How do we rebut the challenges of the sceptics and detractors who claim that the Biblical record of Jesus has flaws and inconsistencies?
Part of the answer is to match the prophecies of the Old Testament with the accounts of the New Testament. As the saying goes, the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. Beyond that, one needs to rely on the forensic skills of writers like Lee Strobel who closely interrogates the ministry, character, conviction, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in his book The Case for Christ.
For nearly a thousand years before Jesus came on Earth, prophecies foretold of the Anointed One and as such, created a fingerprint, an historical DNA, that only the true Messiah could fit. Only Jesus, through all those prophecies matched and fulfilled the fingerprint. According to Max Lucado, in his time on Earth, Jesus fulfilled 332 prophecies.
I am neither qualified nor do we have the time to list and consider those 332 prophecies. But before coming to the crux of this discussion, the Resurrection, let us briefly consider nine random Old Testament references as beacons attesting to the life and existence of Jesus.
Let’s commence with David’s Psalm 22 from which Jesus quoted when he was on the cross and which foretold what crucifixion entailed some 700 or more years before some demented mind devised it. Psalm 72 written by Solomon spoke of the “royal son” to whom the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba would bring gifts at his birth. 700 years before Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus had sought refuge in Egypt from the evil intent of Herod, Hosea wrote “out of Egypt I called my son,” (11; 1). Isaiah (49:7) foretold how the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel would be despised. At the Last Supper, Jesus quoted from Psalm 41 (verse 9) when identifying Judas as his betrayer – “He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” In chapter 53 Isaiah provides graphic details of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion – again centuries before that gruesome form of execution was known. Zechariah writing in 520 BC prophesied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with the words: “See, your king comes to you…. gentle and riding on a donkey” (9:9). Zechariah also forecast the grief and mourning that would occur in Jerusalem for “the one they have pierced” (12:10). Micah foretold of Bethlehem producing “one who will be ruler over Israel” and “whose greatness will reach to the ends of the Earth” (5: 2; 4). Of course, Jesus himself reminded the two disciples he accompanied to Emmaus on that day of his resurrection that “beginning with Moses and the Prophets what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke: 24:27).
In that the very cornerstone of our Christian faith and belief is Jesus’ Resurrection following his suffering and death for our redemption, it is the aspect which attracts the most critical attention from naysayers and sceptics. For as Paul states emphatically in 1 Cor. 15:17, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” So, to use a popular expression, let us join the dots to make our case.
That Jesus would rise from the dead was foretold by David nearly a thousand years prior to the event. In Psalm 16, verse 10, he wrote: “because you will not abandon me to the grave nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”
The starting point for those who dispute the Resurrection is, as CS Lewis has noted, that nobody actually saw Jesus revive, remove his burial clothes and walk out of the tomb. All four gospels refer to the empty tomb and, with the exception of John’s account, the evangelists record the presence of an angel or angels stating that Jesus had risen from the dead. In her state of shock, Mary Magdalene suggested that Jesus’ body had been removed and hidden. That was the angle which the Jewish authorities exploited in their attempt to explain how the closely guarded tomb came to be found open and empty.
Confusion and dismay at the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb preoccupied the Jewish chief priests and elders. As Matthew tells us (28: 12-15), they concocted the story that Jesus’ disciples came in the night and stole his body. Anxious to ensure that their story prevailed, they bribed the tomb guards into silence. As an early example of fake news, it was intended to discredit the view circulating that Jesus had risen from the dead. But the key point in all this is that nobody denied that the tomb was empty.
In rebutting the sceptics of the Resurrection, what source evidence do we have? Lee Strobel lists nine appearances by Jesus that are recorded collectively from the four gospels. A tenth one is listed by Paul in 1 Cor: 15: 6 and will be discussed later. There were also several sightings referred to in Acts 1-5 and 10-13.
Briefly, the details of the nine are as follows: Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb on that Easter Sunday (John: 20:14-18). Then He appeared to the other women who were returning from the tomb after an angel had informed them that Jesus was alive and would see them in Galilee. They clasped his feet and worshipped Him (Matt. 28:8-10). The third appearance was when Jesus accompanied Cleopas and another disciple who were walking to Emmaus. When Jesus supped with them and broke bread they recognised Him (Luke: 24:13-32).
The fourth appearance occurred when Jesus appeared in the midst of the apostles and others who were gathered in a room in Jerusalem. Rebuking them for thinking he was a ghost, he asked them to touch his hands and feet and ate a piece of fish before opening their minds to what the Scriptures had stated about him (Luke: 24: 36-46).
Although the fifth encounter seems similar to the fourth one, the context is different. John 20: 19-23 relates how Jesus appeared to the disciples who were in a locked room for fear of the Jews. He showed them his hands and his side. He then breathed on them, infused them with the Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive sins.
The sixth occasion is well-known because from it the expression “doubting Thomas” was coined. Thomas, called Didymus, had not been present previously when Jesus appeared to his apostles and had famously declared that unless he could put his finger into the marks where the nails had pierced Jesus’ hands, he would not believe. A week after Jesus had appeared to the ten apostles, Thomas was present when Jesus came into their midst. After allowing Thomas to inspect the wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him for doubting and blessed those who believed in his resurrection without the benefit of first- hand experience (John: 20: 24-29).
The shore of the Sea of Tiberias was the location of the seventh occasion that Jesus was in the presence of his disciples. Peter and five others had been out fishing but had not caught anything. When Jesus urged them to cast their net to the right side of the boat, to their amazement it filled to breaking point with large fish – 153 in all. They then shared a meal ofgrilled fish with Jesus (John: 21: 1-14).
The mountain or hilltop in Galilee, where Jesus had
directed his apostles to gather, was the location of
the eighth appearance (Matthew 28: 16:20). There
Jesus instructed them on their evangelising mission
to the world.
As Lee Strobel relates, these encounters and occasions were not about some shadowy, fleeting figure observed by only one or two people. They were substantial; they involved physical contact and the consumption of food. As such, Jesus’ multiple appearances devastate the sceptics’ denial of the Resurrection. Twice John implicitly mocks the sceptics when he states that the risen Jesus “did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book” (20: 30) and that if every one of them was recorded, they would fill many books (21: 25).
The Acts of the Apostles are also “littered with references to Jesus’ appearances,” as Strobel observes (p. 317) and are found in the first five chapters and from chapters 10 to 13. In Acts 3:15, Peter was emphatic when he told the Jews: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” Paul twice refers to his personal encounters with the resurrected Jesus (1Cor: 9:1; 15:8)
The appearance of Jesus to a crowd of 500 is mentioned only by Paul in 1 Cor: 15:6. The fact that the four gospels omit reference to it has caused sceptics to reject it as an authentic event, claiming Paul probably fabricated it. Biblical scholar Dr Gary Habermas, in defence of the appearance to 500, points out that if Paul was fabricating the event, he would not have invited people to check on the fact by stating that many of the 500 who saw Jesus on that occasion were still alive.
Although Jesus appeared to many during the 40 days before his Ascension, the news of his resurrection was not openly proclaimed by the apostles. Fear of reprisals by the Jewish authorities caused them to keep a low profile. During that time, the Chief priests and elders stuck to their fake news story that the apostles had stolen Jesus’ body. That was the spin they put on the fact that the tomb was empty. And Jesus himself advised the apostles not to leave Jerusalem until “the gift” of the Holy Spirit had come upon them (Acts: 1:4).
As we read in the second chapter of Acts, the infusion of the Holy Spirit emboldened the apostles. On that Pentecost day, they burst forth loudly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour in a multitude of languages. Again the sceptics tried to denounce them claiming they were drunk, a charge Peter promptly rejected as he launched into an authoritative and moving address citing the Prophet Joel and quoting Psalm 16 at length while attesting to the apostles as direct witnesses of the risen Jesus. There in the heart of Jerusalem under the very eyes of the Jewish Sanhedrin, on that day, 3,000 people accepted Jesus.
In the weeks and months that followed, the Jewish religious elite saw their fake news about Jesus shredded as thousands more accepted the teaching of the apostles. Coupled with Peter’s miraculous healing of the crippled beggar and the scriptural authority the apostles displayed, the Jewish establishment found itself on the back foot. Their plot to terminate Jesus in the most gruesome fashion – crucifixion – produced an outcome which continues to reverberate 2,000 years later.
Returning to the point raised about the validity and credibility of sources in determining historical truth, the case for Christ’s existence on Earth is strengthened by the corroboration of at least 10 non-Christian sources and writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his time on Earth. They are: Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Lucian, Celsus, Phlegon, Mara-Bar-Serapion and the Jewish Talmud (Beyond Today, April 2016, p.13).
Those writers supply anecdotal information which corroborates Gospel sources. For example, Phlegon, a Greek author, noted that in a year which, transposed from the pagan Greek calendar, works out to 33AD, the likely year in which Jesus died, “there was the greatest eclipse of the sun; it became night at the sixth hour of the day [i.e. noon] so that the stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia and in Nicaea.” (Bithynia and Nicaea were in north western Turkey near the Black Sea, that is, about 1,000 kms north of Jerusalem.) What Phlegon described was also observed in Rome, Athens and other places around the Mediterranean according to essayist Tertullianus (see: Strobel, p. 111). The gospels tell us that from the sixth hour to the ninth, darkness came over all the land and that when Jesus died the Earth shook and rocks split. (Matt: 15:45; 51; Mark: 15: 33; Luke: 23:44-45).
The Talmud, an important Jewish work completed in
500 AD makes reference to Jesus, albeit in a
negative way, as a false messiah who practised magic
and was justly condemned to death (Strobel, p.113).
Roman historian Tacitus, writing of the persecution
of Christians by Emperor Nero around AD 66, noted
that the Christians took their name from Christus
who had “suffered the extreme penalty at the hands
of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.” Significantly,
Tacitus remarked that those Christians were willing
to die for their belief in Jesus (Strobel, p. 107;
To conclude: the willingness and determination of
Stephen, Peter, Paul, James and the early church
leaders to persevere against the menacing political
order of that time in propagating the Christian
message and to be martyred for their belief in
Jesus, surely serves as an additional reason to
accept the resurrection of Jesus and all that is
based on that event.
SIGNIFICANT SYMBOLISM IN OUR REDEMPTION
Alan Foster, a former Elder of FBC who now lives in Brisbane, introduced me to the writings of Max Lucado, an American evangelist who is the author of several books on the Bible.
The particular book which inspired much of this discussion, is titled He chose the nails, published in 2007. In examining the details of Our Lord’s passion and execution, Lucado focused on the various symbols involved. In tracing their origins he unlocks much profound relevance and significance of what took place on Good Friday. It is only by tracing the origins of those symbols and the contexts to which references are made, that one acquires a far greater insight into Jesus’s suffering and torment and the meaning of it all.
According to Lucado, in his lifetime Jesus fulfilled 332 prophesies of the Old Testament. Several of those were fulfilled in the last hours of his human life. Let us commence by considering the significance of the crown of thorns which was thrust onto Jesus’s head (Matt 27:28).
There are 50 references to thorns in the Bible – 34 of them in the Old Testament. Here are some random references:
Genesis 3: 17-18: To Adam, God said: “cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you….”
Numbers: 33:55: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides….”
Proverbs: 22:5: “In the paths of the wicked lie thorns and snares….”
Isaiah: 7:23-25: “In that day, in every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, there will be only briers and thorns… for the land will be covered with briers and thorns….you will no longer go there for fear of the briers and thorns…”
From those references, it is clear that thorns represented the fruits of sin, failure, woe, suffering, punishment, despair, torment. In that Jesus took upon Himself our sins, the crown of thorns, roughly and crudely thrust onto his head in order to mock his claim of being a king, was a key symbol of the dress of sin with which Jesus allowed Himself to be clothed as part of his sacrifice to redeem us. Besides the obvious excruciating pain of the thorns piercing his head and the blood that would have coursed down his face and neck, the placement of the thorns on his head represented the cynical rejection that Jesus suffered because of who He said He is, a rejection that He forecast would occur among the wicked and the un-believing until the end of time. A rejection, as we will see, which would even be represented in the placement of the crosses on Calvary.
The dictionary refers to the act of spitting as the ejection of saliva from the mouth. As such, it is an act of getting rid of something foul, distasteful and unwanted. A rejection; an unclean act intended to curse and humiliate when aimed at a fellow human being.
Leviticus: 15:8: “If a man with a discharge spits on someone who is clean, that person must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean until evening.”
Numbers: 12:14: “The Lord replied to Moses: If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?”
Job: 30:10: “They detest me and keep their distance; they do not hesitate to spit in my face.”
Mark: 14:64-65: “They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him….”
As the Old Testament references show, to be spat upon meant being in disgrace, being socially evicted and detached because one was considered unclean and unworthy of society. Those who did the spitting were expressing contempt, scorn, hatred – and rejection.
The saliva that landed on Jesus’s face was another significant symbol of sin; another part of the dress of sin with which He allowed Himself to be clothed. The slime and ooze of saliva discharge from his tormenters’ mouths on His face and body represented the ugliness of sin. Yet Jesus embraced it because of his commitment to redeem us from sin.
There are over 200 references to clothing in the Bible. Most refer to the tearing of garments. That practice was an expression of extreme emotion – shame, anger, mourning or rejection. It could also have been an act of self-denial or abnegation such as Joshua performed after the Israelites acted unfaithfully and God’s anger burned against Israel: “Joshua tore his clothes and fell face down on the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening” (Joshua 7:6). In some respects tearing of clothes was a symbolic disrobing.
Jesus was stripped of his clothing when he was scourged. His nakedness exemplified the extreme state of shame and sinfulness before his tormentors that he accepted on our behalf. When afterwards the crown of thorns was thrust on his head, Jesus was clothed in a purple robe. The colour of that clothing was associated with authority, kingship and wealth. Although clothing Jesus in that robe after having savagely scourged him and crowned him with thorns was meant to be the ultimate mockery, the reality is that Jesus is the king of kings, the ultimate authority and possesses all.
Before his passion and death, Jesus’s cloak was associated with divine power. Mark 5: 28-30 tells of the woman in the crowd who had suffered menstrual bleeding for twelve years. Her faith was such that she believed that if she could merely touch the hem of his cloak, she would be healed. And she was. Jesus noted that when she touched his clothing “power had gone out of him.”
At the Transfiguration, Jesus’s clothing “became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke: 9:30). The point here is that dressed in his own clothes, Jesus exuded divine power and influence. Stripped of that clothing he was brought down to our level of sinfulness, scorn, shame – and, as we will see, - despair.
On Calvary, the removal of Jesus’s seamless robe has huge significance. Its seamlessness represented his unblemished character, purity and sinlessness – his perfection. By being reduced to nakedness when he was crucified, Jesus assumed a different wardrobe – one of indignity and the criminality associated with crucifixion. In other words, he was clothed in the full apparel and disgrace of sin. In other words, he changed places with us and bore and wore our sins.
The nature of Jesus’s seamless garment even had an effect on his executors. They cast dice to see who would own it as they did not wish to tear it into pieces (John: 19:24). The significant word here is “tear” – and what we know it meant Biblically.
Clothing was significant in the discovery of Jesus’s resurrection. The Jews tried to claim that the apostles had stolen his body. But consider the following facts: If his body had been stolen, how come his grave clothes were neatly folded up? Why, if stealing a body, would you want to remove the burial garments? (See: John 20:6-7). Of symbolic significance here is that Jesus’s unclothed state on Calvary had represented death – the death of sin, whilst the folded burial clothes in the tomb that Sunday morning attested to Jesus’s resurrection, his triumph over death and the very foundation of our Christian belief and faith.
There are over 270 references to blood in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament.
Exodus 12:1-12 recounts the safe delivery of Israelites in Egypt who had painted their doorposts with the blood of a sheep or goat that was without blemish. Blood was fundamental in offerings seeking atonement. Bloodshed marked the birth of Jesus when Herod ordered the slaying of first-born males in an attempt to eliminate his fear that Jesus posed a threat to his position as King.
Of course, the most significant reference to blood was made by Jesus at the Last Supper when he gave notice that his “blood would be poured out for many” (Mark: 14: 24) as the founding of the new covenant between God and Man. As St Paul states in Colossians 1:20: “ For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through his blood on the cross.”
The blood Jesus shed on Good Friday is the blood of the new covenant which purchased our redemption. Just as the sheep or goat slain at the Passover in Egypt had to have been without blemish, so Jesus, the offering on which the new covenant was based, is without blemish. Without that and without his resurrection, there would be no foundation to our Christian faith. Thus, the blood Jesus shed during his torture, scourging and crucifixion was all part of his sacrifice to gain our redemption from sin.
Jesus’s bloodshed began when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. His anguish at his coming ordeal was such that he perspired blood. Severe pain always accompanies bloodshed. Excessive bloodshed causes a loss of consciousness. Scourging as inflicted by the Romans was intended to be so extreme that the victim was left literally half dead. Add to that the crown of thorns and the beating he received in trying to carry the cross and falling three times through severe loss of blood. The effects of the crucifying nails simply drained whatever blood reserves Jesus still had. In saying that his blood would be “poured out,” Jesus could not have been more specific.
Pilate’s sign – INRI
Scorn, contempt and mockery constituted the psychological aspect of Jesus’s suffering and death even to the extent of the written sign which Pontius Pilate had placed on the cross above Jesus’s head. INRI – written so as to be internationally readable – stands for: Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.
Meant to ridicule Jesus and to placate the political sensitivities of the Jewish Sanhedrin for Jesus’s alleged crime in claiming to be a king, the irony of Pilate’s sign is its eternal truth. As Revelations 17:14 and 19:16 states: Jesus is the Lord of lords and the King of kings.
The three crosses
There is great significance in the fact that Jesus’s cross was placed between those of the two criminals who were also crucified that day. The one criminal rejected Jesus by mocking and scorning him. The other showed respect and repentance.
Thus, the placing of the three crosses is of profound relevance: Jesus’s cross represents redemption as the centre of Christian faith. He was flanked by rejection on the one side and repentance on the other. Our world is characterised by rejection of Jesus and by recognition of Him as Redeemer only through repentance.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in front of the atonement cover of the ark, the most holy place, the barrier to the holiest of holies, was ripped in half. That curtain measured 60 by 30 feet in size. To tear it in half in a flash was physically impossible. Yet that is what happened. The tearing of the curtain paralleled the tearing of Jesus’s flesh when he was scourged and crucified.
Levitcus 16:1-2 tells of the extreme holiness of the temple’s sanctuary:
“The Lord said to Moses: tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover of the ark, or else he will die…”
Exodus 33:15-33 indicates the great barrier that existed between God and Moses. Despite their dialogue, God made it very clear that “no one may see him and live.”
By his death Jesus destroyed the curtain barrier to the holiest of holies. For 1,500 years that curtain had separated God from human beings. It had rendered him remote and unapproachable. By defeating sin Jesus removed that barrier, opened access to God and initiated, dramatically, a new beginning in the relationship of Man with God.
Excerpts from Psalm 88: 7-18 illustrate this: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves….. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief; I spread out my hands to you….the darkness is my closest friend.”
Soon after that Jesus died. He had fulfilled his mission completely as the scriptures foretold. (See in particular Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53). As Isaiah stated: ‘For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12).
Jesus’s greatest humility was to be born and live amongst humanity; to experience all the slings and arrows of life whilst simultaneously remaining sinless; to be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver; to be sentenced to the harshest, most inhumane of punishments exacerbated by vindictive, wilful, bestial cruelty, sentenced to crucifixion in place of a criminal who was released to go free.
Jesus’s ordeal on our behalf can never be atoned by us. Yet he accepted it as Isaiah states, “like a lamb to the slaughter, as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth….Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…” (53: 7; 10).
Darkness and light
Finally, darkness and light played a highly significant role in the drama of Good Friday and its aftermath. There are over 200 references to darkness in the Bible. One of the most significant and symbolic is to be found in Exodus 10:21 – the plague of darkness. One of the punishments God unleashed on Pharaoh’s Egypt was to cover the Egyptians in extreme darkness for three days, so that no one could see anyone else or leave his place. “Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.”
Darkness is associated with God’s wrath and the prevalence of evil. When Jesus was arrested, anticipating what was coming, he said to the delegation of temple guards and priests: “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53).
When Jesus was on the cross, St Luke recorded that “darkness came over the land… the sun stopped shining” (23:44). As noted above, that darkness served to heighten Jesus’s feeling of the oppression of sin and evil and to manifest his anguish. Yet that gloom spelled doom for sin on account of Jesus’s sacrifice.
In contrast, light represents joy, justice and God’s grace – “let us walk in the light of the Lord,” says Isaiah 2:5. Not surprisingly, there are over 250 references to light in the Bible. Jesus lucidly contrasted the relevance of darkness and light when he said: “I have come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:46).
The darkness and all it represented on Good Friday was extinguished and dispelled by the sunshine and brightness of that Easter Sunday morning when the resurrection of Jesus was discovered. Mark’s gospel tells of the visit of the women to Jesus’s tomb “very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise” and of their alarm at seeing the tomb empty (16: 2; 6). But subsequent references in the four gospels to Jesus after his resurrection are of enlightenment in understanding his redemptory role and of unprecedented joy. Jesus’s entry into the world was indicated by the brightness of a star that illuminated the sky. His resurrection and ascension into Heaven took place in the light and brightness of day. As John wrote in Revelations (22:5), for those who accept the redemption Jesus offers, “there will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
DUNCAN DU BOIS ©2018