The Scriptures only know two types of people—those who are natural and those who are spiritual. And Paul, in this letter, is writing to those who know Christ and are therefore rightly called spiritual. He also calls them “the mature”. Those who are spiritual, those who know Christ, are mature. Who is the spiritual and mature person? It is the person who knows God. This is the search the whole world is on. How do we know God? How do we get to him? What is the right way?
Maybe a better way of framing the same problem would be, Why are some churches empty but religious bookshelves crowded? Why is TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter full of pastors and gurus who have thousands of followers? Because everyone is searching for something, and it’s usually called personal fulfillment. Sometimes it’s presented as a search for God. But are people looking for the true God to bow down and worship or the best god to give them all they want? The church obviously wants people to know the one, true God. But our primary task as God’s people is to worship and adore the Son. From that paramount task flows a desire to see the lost be saved, as we once were, to worship and adore Jesus Christ just for who he is. So how does that happen? How do people come to know God? There’s a lot of noise and nonsense and pandering when it comes to this question. And Scripture presents an entirely different answer than the world. Scripture teaches:
Knowing God begins with God knowing you.
Clarity on what the gospel is means cutting through all the noise and confusion about how God is to be known. The gospel is not that you can be a better person. The gospel is not five secrets to a great vacation. Unless both people are red-hot on-fire for the Lord, the gospel may or may not fix your relationship with your kids or your spouse or your parents. In fact, Jesus says that people will be divided over him. So we can’t believe a more palatable adaptation of the gospel that gives good advice but doesn’t raise dead men to life.
Paul, here in 1 Corinthians, emphasizes that we don’t seek God on our own. Sure, we want what God can give us, but that is not the same thing as seeking God himself. We want what God can give us, and what we want is what we want, not what he says is good. One does not necessarily lead to the other. We’re spiritually dead. That’s why the Bible turns seeking God totally on its head. Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Because this is such a remarkable shift from the normal way of seeking after God, Paul starts by saying:
vv.1-5. The gospel needs clarity, not color.
The Corinthians had a strong start as a church. Many people were converted in the early days, and the church grew. Acts 18 tells us the story of Paul and his crew planting a church there. There was a sizable synagogue of Jews in Corinth, so the church started as mostly Jews. But Corinth was full of people like military veterans and freed slaves. There were some wealthy people, but it’s primarily what we might think of as working-class. What really made Corinth stand out is that it was just under 100 years old. It was destroyed and then rebuilt under the Romans. So it was a relatively up-to-date kind of city. Like shiny new things often do, it drew a lot of people from all walks of life very quickly.
Here’s a quick overview of both 1 an 2 Corinthians: church politics, sexual immorality, believers suing each other, divorce and remarriage, watering down the gospel, worship wars, denying the resurrection, gender roles, and celebrity pastors. Essentially, it’s a church full of non-stop brushfires here and there, some bigger than others. The unifying factor between these problems is a lack of gospel clarity, which Paul focuses on in the beginning to set the tone for the rest of the first letter. Gospel clarity will maybe not entirely preserve us from falling into the same traps as the Corinthians, but it will help us see that we live between two worlds and two ages—the flesh and the spirit, this age and the next. Christians are constantly negotiating between these two ends. The flesh and the spirit are at war. This age and the next have overlapped. That is our challenge. These letters could quite literally be written to any church in the 21st century. And they should be received as such.
Corinth’s problem is that because of a lack of gospel clarity, division has formed among the believers. The letter starts out by Paul saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10). That’s the bottom line. And what are they dividing over? Who the most eloquent preacher was. Now, are some preachers more eloquent than others? Sure. It’s not bad to want to be persuasive and articulate. In fact, Paul will later tell them where to focus their persuasive abilities. But dividing over things like that is symptomatic of something darker: living like the present age from which you’ve been saved.
The Corinthians had been applying the wrong metric to ministerial success. They had been using a bad definition of the church’s ministry. This is touchy, because it’s not uncommon to see this today, as well. There is nothing wrong with theatrical lights, trendy clothes, and millions of dollars poured into production. But is it possible churches can do all that, not to communicate the gospel with greater clarity, but to resemble entertainment culture?
Here’s the point—this is what Corinth had done. Instead of venerating actors and actresses, the Roman Empire’s version of a Hollywood celebrity was the expert speaker who could razzle-dazzle with words. That was entertainment. Mel Brooks was not far off with the stand-up philosopher. Like people gathering for movies or plays today, people gathered to be entertained by the way someone was able to string words together and be interesting on a certain topic. Think Shakespearean Ted-Talks.
Paul warns the Corinthians that defining ministry by popular standards is not only wrong but unsustainable. And nobody is immune from this temptation. He says in 1:22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom”. Everybody wants more. We think the power of persuasion is in the flash, the sound, the circus. Maybe we know we shouldn’t say it, but sometimes we think we need to dress the gospel up a bit before people will listen. Will anybody believe a message that sounds impossible if we don’t set it to music? If we don’t have flashing lights? If we don’t have a spit and polished social media presence?
But Paul says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2). This is a simple, straightforward approach to gospel ministry that Paul extends to us. The Corinthians had lost the fire in their belly for the pure gospel, so they thought worldly approaches would get that excitement back. Paul, on the other hand, describes his time in Corinth with the words “weakness,” “fear,” and “trembling.” Paul didn’t break out the big guns when he preached. He didn’t try to entertain the Corinthians with popular tactics. He was certainly eloquent and persuasive. But he didn’t use the phony maneuvers of his age. He didn’t use worldly wisdom to communicate God’s truth. Why? “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5). Paul didn’t dress up the gospel because it stands on its own. That’s the wisdom of God, and:
vv.6-9. Godly wisdom always leads to Christ.
There is a kind of self-congratulatory pride that goes along with doing things in a way that looks impressive but has no substance. You might get the impression that Paul cares little for intelligence and wisdom. “Don’t worry about the deep things of God; in fact, those things don’t matter much at all. They just cause problems.” But on the other side of things, there is also a kind of self-congratulatory pride in ignorance. Some say they like to keep it simple as a way of masking theological laziness. Remember that in Hebrews 6, the author commends the believers to expand upon elementary doctrine and move on to maturity. This refusal to grow as a believer in our knowledge of God leads to disobedience and pride.
So Paul is not saying that wisdom and knowledge is useless. He is saying, however, that the source of wisdom is what makes the difference. “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (2:6). Earthly wisdom will pass away, so what is it? How do we avoid it? Earthly wisdom is any so-called knowledge, philosophy, or movement that puts man at the center of it. In today’s context, it’s any worldview or theology that wants to keep faith and practice in a little bubble away from the public. The wisdom of this age believes God, if he exists, to be nothing but a distant mind who cares little for this world. But it can also be any worldview that views Christ as anything less than the incarnate God. Paul even says that the rulers of this age crucified Christ because they did not have this wisdom. This pretty well lumps together both the Romans such as Pilate and Herod as well as the Jewish leaders such as the priests and scribes. The line connecting them all is that they refused to see the Lord as the Son of God who came to offer himself on their behalf. If they had known the Scriptures and the power of God, they would have seen Jesus for who he truly was.
The wisdom of God, the wisdom that Paul is preaching, is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:7). Literally, a secret is a “mystery” and hidden wisdom. We think of mystery as Sherlock Holmes solving a riddle with clues. But biblically, a mystery is truth that is something God determined in eternity past that is revealed perhaps in fits and starts but then only finally and fully in Christ. It is the mystery that through Christ, Jew and Gentile are reconciled. The reconciliation of two peoples is the evidence of God’s work of redemption in the world. But it is a mystery which needs to be revealed. Even after his resurrection, in Acts 1, the disciples ask Jesus when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus essentially responds with, “Wrong question.” Even Peter, his lead disciple, will later need a radical vision from heaven of clean and unclean animals being eaten together for it to finally click that Jews and Gentiles are no longer separated. In fact, if you read it as a whole, huge swaths of Paul’s letters deal with the misunderstandings of how Jews and Gentiles now relate to each other under the same Lord Jesus Christ.
This mystery is not something we can find out on our own. Men and women with darkened hearts do not seek Godly wisdom. So:
vv.10-13. Godly wisdom is not discovered but revealed.
If this is a mystery, if it is secret and hidden, how do we know it? You can’t imagine the good that God has done for you in Christ, and it’s that which “God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10). We know this mystery because God has revealed it to us. It was revealed first to prophets of Israel. Peter tells us, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
It was then revealed to the apostles. Jesus tells them in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Then from the apostles, this mystery was passed on to us in all of Scripture. Peter again tells us, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).
God has revealed himself and his mystery, which is Christ crucified. To the world, it is still a mystery, but not to the church. Paul makes the comparison of a person and his inner thoughts. The only person who really knows what I’m thinking is me. The only person who really knows what you’re thinking is you. The only person who really knows what God is thinking is God. It’s such an obvious statement, but Paul’s point is that for us to know God’s thoughts and think God’s thoughts after him, he must reveal his thoughts to us. And he has done so by his Holy Spirit, “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (2:12).
What the prophets and apostles knew were taught by the Spirit. This mystery of Christ, that he unites all men into one new covenant people, has now been revealed. But only the spiritual understand it. Now Paul is not making a distinction between believers, as if there are ordinary Christians and then super-duper “spiritual” Christians. “Those who are spiritual” refers to those indwelled by the Spirit, who can now understand spiritual truths.
During WWII, the Axis Powers encoded their messages to each other. The codes changed all the time, and they got more and more complex as the war went on. But the American military employed about 10,000 women who worked as codebreakers. These women intercepted Axis messages and did the impossible task of interpreting the ever-changing encrypted missives of evil. Because the women were able to crack the codes, generals were able to keep troops out of harm’s way and keep the Allied Forces one step ahead. Without these codebreakers to interpret what the enemy was saying, the Axis messages remained impossible to understand.
The Spirit of God is the person who interprets the word of God and makes darkened minds understand the deep things of God. The Spirit is who made Paul’s preaching so powerful. The Spirit is who brought salvation to Corinth. The Spirit is who opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts. The gospel is a mystery; it is a message the world cannot understand but must be revealed. You have come to understand and believe the gospel for no other reason than the Spirit of God resides in you. No one can boast about the salvation the Father decreed, the Son achieved, and the Spirit applied. Salvation is entirely a work of God, from start to finish, and:
vv.14-16. The spiritual person has been brought from death to life.
Now we really get to the crux of how we know God. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). There is a darkness to the unbeliever’s mind that the unbeliever cannot naturally overcome. No one who the Scriptures call a Christian made themselves a Christian. That is a work of the Spirit. Knowing God begins with God knowing us. It is the Spirit of God who transforms the one who is dead in their sins to the one who is alive in the Spirit.
There is immeasurable grace and mercy from God to sinners. Speaking of such great love, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-10, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The grace of God is spiritually discerned. As he calls all believers “spiritual” who are born of God, so also spiritual discernment is entirely from God. The spiritual person is one who possesses the Holy Spirit, and spiritual discernment is knowledge of God that comes from the Spirit. That is only known by those who are first known by God. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The natural person does not slowly become spiritual. We are dead in our trespasses and sins; there is no spiritual life in us. Dead men don’t raise themselves. People who are alive can be persuaded. People who are dead need resurrected. Sometimes it’s thought of as a little morbid, but I wish more churches had their own cemeteries. They’re not only a good reminder of where you’re headed, but they’re a good reminder of where you were. The gospel goes into the graveyards, calling dead men to wake up, to have faith in the risen Lord, and come to him in repentance.
Does that glorious truth brings you joy and comfort? Then you are a spiritual person, a born-again believer, a Christian. Does the gospel seem silly and worthy of ridicule and mockery? Then you are still in your natural state and not a spiritual person. How often do we hear the cliche, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Most people wouldn’t identify themselves like that, but it is no less true of many. The apostle Paul would tell you, “You are actually quite religious. You have your own rites and rituals. Even if you wouldn’t call it this, you’re quite superstitious. But spiritual you are not.”
Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Being a spiritual person is the most reasonable kind of person you could be. Being known by God is the only way to know him. That is why the gospel needs clarity, not color. Paul’s straightforward approach to the gospel meant he didn’t try to be the most impressive preacher by worldly standards. He dared not distract from the gospel with a show. He could have left a mark in Corinth in a lot of ways, but Paul stayed focused on Godly wisdom, which stays focused on Christ and him crucified. We must never deviate from the central message of Scripture. We must behave and speak in such a way that people leave our presence not being impressed with us but captivated with the God who saves. There is only one way to know God. It begins with him knowing us. And as he calls us to know him, we see his glory, his mercy, his justice, and his love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself to us through the Son, in order to bring us from death to life.
This world deeply wants to be spiritual, but aside from being known by God, they best they’re going to get is religious. Scripture totally flips spirituality and knowing God on its head. It’s not some vague notion about hope or faith. Biblical spirituality is being red-hot for the glory of God. It is never deviating one bit from Christ and him crucified. Godly wisdom always directs you to Christ. And what love must this be, if even while we were sinners, if even while we didn’t care to know him, he loved us. Knowing God begins with him knowing you.
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The first Christians did exactly that—they gathered for worship on the day that Christ rose from the grave to memorialize his victory over sin and death and to highlight the expectation of his return. The words we read, the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, all these are focused on one, single thing, what one Puritan called “the death of death in the death of Christ.”
In John 10, we read, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may pick it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (vv.17-18). In ancient days, in eternity past, the Father and the Son formed a binding agreement to redeem the people of God. God the Son came to earth to become the Son of David, the anointed one of God’s people.
In the Psalm you heard read this morning, Psalm 30, David is calling the people to sing this song with him at the dedication of the temple. David of course did not see the building of the temple, because that was left for his son Solomon to do. But David looked forward to the house of God, where God would dwell among his people and bless them. In this Psalm, David looks back and remembers God’s mercy. It is this mercy that has saved David from the grave, from death, from the penalty of sin. It is a psalm that knows the power of God to raise the dead to life. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Resurrection is the constant hope of God’s people.
This psalm was written because David had come face-to-face with death on more than one occasion. Whether he was running from Saul, fighting the Philistines, or bearing the consequences of his sin, David was aware of just how flimsy this life can be. Everything can change in a moment. But the constant in this world is the sovereignty of God. Over his sin, over his life, over his death, David knew God was the one who bore him up at every turn; because if David was left to his own devices, he would fall into sin every chance he got. There would be no eternal rescue. David’s great hope was that the grave would not hold him. There was another side to the grave. And the only passage to that other side was the sheer mercy of God.
Whatever the specific life-threatening experience David is writing about, we don’t know. There were plenty to choose from. But he looks back on the provision of God during that time. David’s enemies would not get the upper hand, the final say. At the time that David prayed for God’s providential help, he received it. David even describes his experience as death, as going down to Sheol. But God would not abandon his soul to the grave; he would live again. Even if David is speaking in metaphor in his time, he does so because he believed in the ultimate reality of resurrection. Resurrection is the constant hope of God’s people, old and new covenant alike. David would die one day, and his death would be like everyone else’s. The true Son of David would truly go down to the grave, and he would die on behalf of his people.
David fears death not only for himself but for God’s name. Should David be defeated by his enemies, should David lose his throne, wouldn’t the covenant God made with David be brought to shame? Where would Israel’s hope be if there was no line of David to bring about the messiah? David’s enemies would of course be glad to see an end to God’s promises. But David had faith that a descendent would have his throne and redeem God’s people, because God had made that promise. The messiah’s enemies might rejoice in his death, but they would not get to hold on to that sentiment very long.
We know too well the mockery that Christ faced as he hanged on the cross. The priests, the soldiers, and the thieves all blasphemed the name. They formed quite the team. And if you had asked them over the course of the next few days, they would have been of one accord that they had succeeded in quieting Jesus and his disciples. But God quiets the voice of his enemies. We learn to pray as in Psalm 3, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the check; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v.7). God overcomes all those who blaspheme his name. In the death of Christ, paradoxical as it may seem, God’s enemies are declawed. Their teeth were broken. Their death warrant was signed. “Victory” is the name of the game.
David was saved from Sheol, and the Son of David was restored to life from the same. Where David could not defeat his enemies, his Son, the Christ, would be the first to not only go to the grave but leave it behind in victory over his enemies.
David calls for the people at the dedication of the temple to praise God for the brevity of his anger and the longevity of his blessing. David’s sin was egregious, and God was rightfully angry at David. David let his lust have full reign, and after committing adultery, he tried to trick Bathsheba’s husband to think he was the father. When that didn’t work, Uriah had to die. David became a conspirator to murder. As a consequence of all this, the child of his adultery died. God was right to be angry at David, the king, the one who was to lead his people in covenant faithfulness to the law of Moses.
David earned the anger of God. But God extended mercy to David, as well. God did not take the throne from David or his posterity. However, the Son of David willingly and voluntarily took on the cup of God’s anger and wrath. It was an innocent man who gave up his life in place of ours. No one has felt the wrath of God like the Son of God did at the crucifixion. He received no mercy but received the fullness of the penalty we accrued through our idolatry, our lust, and our greed.
But because of the nature of his sacrifice, his perfect righteousness, he could pay for that debt in a moment of time. He did not need to suffer forever. When he rose from the grave that Sunday morning, there was joy like never before. The debt is paid, God’s anger and wrath have been satisfied, so now we enjoy his favor and blessing for eternity. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
As king, David became proud. He had wealth like we can’t imagine. Those things were blessings to David, but those gifts can become traps if we’re not careful. David said to himself, because of his great wealth, “I shall never be moved.” He didn’t say that because he had wealth and prosperity; he said that because he trusted in his wealth and prosperity to sustain him. Self-sufficiency is a dangerous place for a child of God. David became like a strong mountain—immovable and strong, like an impenetrable fortress. He thought he was the captain of his own ship. Everything he did he did in his own power. For someone who started out so humble, for someone who was taken from the sheep pen, he became so proud.
But in an act of mercy, God hid his face from David. God was not being cruel to David, but he was showing David where all the blessings of life come from. He was showing David where every breath, every day, every moment of joy comes from. Scripture often speaks of God’s presence as his blessing. To remove himself, or to hide his face, is to replace blessing with wrath. When God was with David, he was like an immovable mountain. Nothing could overcome his fortress. But when David turned from God, God turned his face from David to let David see that his own strength is nothing compared to his Creator’s. Strength does not come from the self but from the Creator.
Even if God hid his face from David for a brief time, the presence of God was still in the temple, in the holy of holies, lifted above the cherubim. God was not far. In the crucifixion of Christ, we see the veil delineating the holy place from the common place being ripped in half. That veil or curtain was there to keep impure people, those who were not priests, from even catching a glimpse of God’s glory and presence. But now, God was no longer there, and that was no longer the holy of holies. The true most holy place would be raised in three days.
When God hid his face from David, David experienced dismay. This is a phrase that, again, reminds the people of the presence and blessing of God. Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We often take that to mean that God rejected Jesus or hid his face. But verse 24 says that God did not hide his face from his anointed, specifically from the one crying out, from the one speaking in this Psalm, which Jesus speaks on the cross. So did the Father literally turn his face from the Son at the crucifixion? No, he did not. The Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—remains fully intact. But the turning of God’s face is a very biblical way of describing the wrath of God. And as he died, Jesus received the full cup of God’s wrath against your sin and my sin.
David cried out, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit?” David was a man like you and me. Sinners. Idolaters. Unclean. David was correct; there was no profit in his death. There was no benefit. There was no advantage. There definitely was no redemption. David did not want to die. Whatever life-threatening experience David was facing was something that he knew would bring shame. The Son of David prayed in the garden before his arrest that he would not have to face what was coming. But regardless of whatever pain and mockery he would face, regardless of the life-threatening experience he would face, he would rather fulfill his Father’s will than run from the shame and contempt it would bring. Christ’s death would be profitable for his people; they would be redeemed, saved from wrath, and made fit for God’s kingdom.
Just as David was shown mercy and God turned his mourning to joy, so Christ was taken from death to life. He died an agonizing death, was taken to Sheol where he freed the captives, and ascended to heaven to the right hand of Majesty where he reigns until his enemies are his footstool. God loosed David’s sackcloth and clothed him in gladness; the Father loosed the Son’s burial cloths and clothed him in majesty.
It’s fitting that this was a song of David written for the dedication of the temple. The temple housed God’s special presence among his people. It was there that God took up residence and blessed his people. Jesus said that there would be a time when every stone that made up the temple would be torn down and a new temple would be built in its place. Early in the gospel of John, when Jesus cleanses the temple and removes the impurities, those watching ask him what kind of sign he can give that proves he has the authority to do this. He tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John interprets this for us, saying, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Christ is the cornerstone of a new temple, a temple of living stones offering living sacrifices, the church, the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Christ did rise from the dead, and he did build a new temple. On that first Lord’s Day, the women went to the tomb where Jesus used to be. They don’t know what to expect, but they at least expected to find Jesus just as they left him. When they see the stone has been rolled away, when they run to get Simon and John, they are still confused as to what’s just happened. Simon and Peter run back to the tomb with the women, but then they just go home. Mary Magdalene stays at the tomb and weeps. Where is he? Who did this to him?
But two angels show themselves to her and explain that her mourning is about to be turned to joy. John tells us that she turned around and saw Jesus. But even then, she mistakes him for a gardener. Thinking he may have some information on what happened, she asks if he took the body. Jesus then calls her by name, and she immediately is given the grace to recognize Jesus for who he is. He gives her a task, to go to the disciples and tell him that he will be ascending to the Father. The cornerstone has been laid and the temple is being built. Mary tells them, “I have seen the Lord.”
As David hoped to be brought up from Sheol, so we have that same hope. We have been restored to life, and so we sing praises and give thanks to his holy name. In this life, we may weep for a moment, but the joy that comes with every morning will one day be our eternal experience. On Resurrection Sunday, we announce like Mary that we have seen the Lord. He is not in the tomb but on the throne. We have had our sackcloth of mourning removed and have been clothed in his righteousness, all so that, like David, we would sing his glory now and forever.
There are all kinds of debates these days about the nature of the founding of America. Was it primarily religious? Was it political? Was it just about taxes? Was it just about representation But beyond the complexities of the founding of a nation, there is no debate about facts and figures. America declared independence on July 4, 1776. The Constitution was enacted as our founding document in 1789. There are 50 states. We have a national bird. We have three branches of the federal government. Every state has a governor. If someone were to ask us about America, we could relatively easily describe it to them. We could give them all kinds of facts and figures about the Federalist Papers, the revolution, the declaration of independence, and important dates.
Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would be established. After all, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20b-21).
When Jesus is asked to describe the establishment of his kingdom, he knows that the people are asking questions they’re not ready to have answered. They already had expectations for how a new kingdom would look, and they need to change those expectations. Nations and kingdoms have a king, they have militaries, they have houses or parliaments, they have government projects, all kinds of ordinary things. But Jesus tells these Pharisees that if you are just looking for the ordinary things any kingdom, you’ll be greatly disappointed.
I think this explains a lot of the various responses to Jesus and the things he said. When I read the account of the two thieves who were crucified beside Jesus, I can see no explanation for what happened apart from divine sovereignty, of God turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. One criminal could see the kingdom of God, but the other could not. One criminal saw a king dying for the salvation of his people, but the other did not. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.
But from the very beginning, the gospels have presented Jesus as nothing less than the cosmic king of the universe who deserves praise and adoration from all people. Luke makes clear that Jesus has the right lineage to be from the house of King David, so he has the rightful claim to the throne in Israel. The angels that speak to the shepherds announce that Jesus will be king for all people, not just Israel. Matthew presents the wise men from the east looking for the one who was born king of the Jews. At no point in Scripture is Jesus presented as anything less than the king of all the whole world who will welcome citizens from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. But in the words spoken to the thieves on the cross, we see that:
Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
To some, the very notion of a king over the whole universe is a silly fantasy. The gospel is a myth. Jesus was a momentary figure in history whose life was snuffed out by a few soldiers who did that kind of thing regularly. Jesus wasn’t even on Rome’s radar. In fact, it’s his insignificance that best explains the response of those who have the authority to permit crucifixions. Pilate doesn’t understand why everyone is so up-in-arms about Jesus. He doesn’t know what to do, so he sends Jesus to another local ruler, a man named Herod. Herod winds up being just as confounded about why this man matters so much. There’s so much mist and confusion surrounding Jesus that Pilate finally authorizes his crucifixion just to have it behind him.
But are we surprised that people are confused about Jesus if his kingdom is not seen with human eyes? But what if his kingdom is larger than just what is visible to the human eye? Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
vv.32-34: The goodness and mercy of Christ is never more clear than at the crucifixion.
In the previous passage, Christ’s cross was temporarily carried by another man, Simon of Cyrene. There is no relationship to Jesus that does not involve a cross. Whether or not Simon knew Christ at that moment is unclear, but we do not know Christ if we do not know of his cross. In this passage, we see two criminals now on their own crosses for their own crimes. Their actual crime is unknown to us, but if they were crucified they must have been considered a real threat to the empire. Crucifying people together was an even greater shock to the eyes than a single person. It showed that Rome had no problem ending the life of anyone and everyone who threatened to disrupt good Roman society.
You have maybe heard more times than you care to remember just how horrendous crucifixion really was. “Agony” maybe begins to describe it. And yet, the gospel writers, all four of them, refuse to go into the gruesome detail that seems to be so interesting to us. Here in Luke, all we read is, “There they crucified him.” No notes, no word-pictures, no gory details. The story jumps from Jesus walking along the street to being mocked on the cross. We don’t need to focus on just how gruesome it was. We need to see that as Jesus hanged there, he never doubted the goodness of God.
Jesus does not address anyone on the ground or on the other crosses at first. The first person that Jesus addresses is his heavenly Father. Despite his impending death, Jesus never loses his trust in the Father. He knew that on the other side of the grave was a heavenly throne and a sanctified people. It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus would endure anything, any amount of suffering, any method of execution, to satisfy divine justice. He would have the full cup of God’s wrath poured out on him on behalf of the elect, that he might have a purified people to give to his Father.
Jesus does not pray to be taken down. He does not pray to have his pain satiated. He prays instead that those watching and those who nailed him to the crossbeam would be forgiven this great sin. He taught his disciples to do exactly what he is doing now. In Luke’s recording of the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). Jesus is being executed for blasphemy, having his name spurned as evil. He is taking these people to the Father in prayer. There is no love like his.
Jesus has already been stripped down earlier as he was beaten beforehand. In this same chapter, verse 11, the soldiers place Jesus is royal clothing, or “splendid clothing”, to show how ironic it is that the so-called king of the Jews has no soldiers of his own to guard their king. But again, the kingdom of God is not observable to the naked eye. Even as he prayed in Gethsemane, an angel came and ministered to him to strengthen him. He could have called down 10,000 angels to remove him from the cross and bandage his wounds. Instead, for the joy set before him, for the kingdom of God, Christ took the wrath of God on himself.
vv.35-38: You can be close to Jesus but far from the truth.
The religious leaders mock him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the thieves on the other crosses mock him. Luke is pulling heavily from Psalm 22 to show that what is taking place is in direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 22 is a Psalm about one who is suffering at the hands of evil men, all the while praising God for his provision. Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Luke has already pulled from Psalm 22:18 in how the soldiers dressed Jesus and took his clothes. It says, “They divide my garments among them; and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18). The church saw just how much of the crucifixion was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Jesus is mocked by the religious leaders telling him to save himself. He helped so many people, but all of a sudden, he’s too weak to do anything. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One” (Luke 23:35). Little do they know that Jesus is God’s chosen one, as made evident in his transfiguration. When Jesus is on the mountain, speaking with Moses and Elijah, God the Father speaks out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Luke is just shining a light on the irony of everything they’re saying. They’re so close to Jesus but so far from the truth. The religious leaders were Bible experts, you could say. But how much of it did they choose to ignore because of how much Jesus threatened their lifestyle? You can know every word of the Bible, but if you do not know the Lord of the Bible, you do not understand what you are reading.
The soldiers are also mocking him. They offered him sour wine, which was a typical drink soldiers took with them as they went about their day. It would stay clean and drinkable. Knowing that Jesus is not coming off that cross alive, they’re not offering it out of kindness to a dying man. It’s a taunt. Not only that, but it also looks back at the Psalms. Psalm 69 is another psalm about God’s anointed one suffering in the hands of evil men. Verse 21 says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
What’s perhaps most incredible is that both of these psalms, Psalms 22 and 69, both begin with the anointed one waiting on God to act, both describe the agony of the anointed one, and both end with the anointed one trusting that God will save him from the hands of his enemies. Jesus goes to the cross in anguish, but he stays up there because he knows that it is not the end. Christ knows that:
vv.39-43: The suffering of the saints ends in the presence of God.
In the third act of mockery, now one of two soldiers just wants Jesus to let him live. “If you’re who you say you are, then do your thing and get us off of here.” How is that any different from what the Pharisees have said? Actually, how is that any different than what Satan has said? In his wilderness temptations, Satan waited until Jesus was exhausted and starving and told him to turn stones to bread to feed himself. Satan then showed Jesus global power and authority and said it could be his if he would just worship Satan. Satan then takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells him throw himself down. If he’s the Son of God, then angels will save him. What Satan tempts Jesus with is autonomy. Satan tells Jesus that the whole world has been delivered to him, and he can offer Jesus everything. Satan in fact is called the god of this world and the prince of the power of the air. But Jesus denies Satan all three times, showing that he will not deviate from the redemptive plan of God. Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down watch the angels save him. The thief tells Jesus to get himself down and save the thief as well. There is a way of looking at Jesus that only wants what he can give. Having Jesus get you off of your own cross is not the gospel. Having Jesus suffer and die on his cross while you bear your own cross beside him—that’s the gospel. Instead of seeing the cross the gateway to the kingdom of God, this criminal slanders God’s divine plan of redemption.
The other criminal, appointed to eternal life, tells the other criminal to mind who he is talking to. Jesus is innocent while they hang there for good reasons. Even if crucifixion is an awful way to die, this criminal knows it’s better than his miserable life of sin and rebellion deserves. This criminal asks that Jesus remember him when he enters his kingdom. The thief asks Christ for mercy and sees him as the doorway into the kingdom. Everyone else is asking, “What kingdom?” But those who have been given faith, paradoxically, can see the unobservable kingdom.
Merciful Jesus tells the second thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Jesus’ ministry of redemption did not end at the cross. This raises the question, where exactly did the soul of Jesus go when he died? Where is paradise? If he was truly dead, as the church confesses, until the third day, where was he?
The doctrine of the descent of Christ affirms that upon his death, Christ descended to the realm of the dead as every human did, up until that time. He declared victory over sin and death to the spirits in prison and released the captives. Understandably, sometimes there is some discomfort about this because of certain language that has been used, such as in the creeds. The apostles’ creed says, “He descended to Hades”, or as most English versions say, “He descended to hell.” “Hell” really means the grave. But sometimes we use the word “hell” to mean where evil people are in torment forever. And obviously, we do not affirm that Christ went to hell to suffer. That is far from what Scripture teaches.
But if Christ went to paradise, where did he go? Many Psalms, as we have already seen, which speak about the suffering of God’s anointed one also speak of him descending to Sheol, or the Hebrew word for the realm of the dead. As Hebrew culture eventually came in contact with Greek culture as Jews spread throughout the Greek-speaking world before Jesus’ time, Hades became another common word meaning essentially the same thing as Sheol. It’s where every soul went upon death.
But the Scriptures also speak of Sheol or Hades or Hell as if it had distinctive levels, kind of an upper and lower section. For example, when the prophet Isaiah taunts the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, he tells the king that he will go down to Sheol, even to the “far reaches of the pit” (v.15). The Psalms and Proverbs speak of this pit and give it the name Abaddon, which means “destruction”. Proverbs 15:11 compares Sheol and Abaddon when it says, “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord.”
Now, in no way should we go from these clear passages to enormous speculation about the nine levels of the inferno. Instead of overreacting to that egregious error, we should simply correct it. While the Old Testament may not spend an inordinate amount of time on the afterlife, we should never say that it was not clear.
As we move on in to the New Testament, there is no change or contradiction. There is still one realm of the dead yet division of that one place into “rooms” or “compartments”, you might say, of comfort and torment. This is perhaps no more clear than in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
If you’re not familiar with the story, a rich man refuses to address the needs of a poor man named Lazarus at his doorstep. Once both of them die, the rich man goes to Hades in torment while Lazarus is carried by the angels to a place called “Abraham’s bosom” or “Abraham’s side”. Lazarus is comforted there and is with other saints. Lazarus and the rich man can clearly speak to each other. In fact, Abraham himself speaks to the rich man who is in torment. The rich man wants someone to rise from Abraham’s side to find his brothers and warn them of their impending fate. But central to the story is that the two places are not interchangeable, no one can cross from one place to the other, and both are considered to be in the heart of the earth.
In addition to the gospels, the apostle Peter teaches the descent of Christ in 1 Peter 3:18-22, which says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Ironically, this is a passage often used to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. What it really teaches is that as Christ went to the prison, IE Sheol, Hades, Abraham’s side, or paradise, so baptism corresponds to that. Baptism is descent into the water and is a symbol of death to self. Coming up out of the water is a symbol of new life in Christ, which he achieved in his resurrection.
The apostle Paul speaks of Christ’s descent in Ephesians 4. He says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth [Literally, the lower regions OF the earth]? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (vv.8-10). Christ freed from the grave the righteous saints who died before his once-for-all sacrifice and led those captives free into heaven. That’s why Paul can now say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). All the dead in Christ are now with him rather than Sheol or Hades.
In his descent, Christ proclaimed to the captives that he had won the victory over death and Hades. It is not the word for preaching, in the sense of gospel preaching aimed at the salvation of souls, but proclamation of victory over the forces of evil. Those in Abaddon, in the deepest recesses of the pit, are reserved for destruction and eternal torment. When Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church, he includes the fact that the gates of Hades will not prevail. In his descent, Christ opened the gates to Hades and proclaimed his triumph and took those at Abraham’s side with him to the court of heaven. As Jesus speaks to John in Revelation 1, he says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (v.17b). The keys are his because he has all authority over the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
The days are finally getting warmer. If you go to Lowe’s or Menards you already see patio furniture and grills on display. My family loves the state parks, and it’s about this time of year that they start getting busy. We’ll start spending more time outside. We’ll barbecue more. You’ll start treating your pools before long.
But in Indiana, one of the sure signs that spring has sprung is tornado season. It’s basically become a meme these days, but a true Hoosier hears the sirens and safely gathers his family into the middle of the house with water and flashlights, right? Absolutely not. He gets off the couch, heads out on the front porch with no shoes, and says, “Man, it’s lookin’ bad.” Everyone who grew up in the ‘90s or earlier can’t help but think, “Cow. ‘Nother cow. No, I think that was the same one.”
People have different responses to sirens. But whatever you do when you hear it, whether you get in your truck and pretend you’re chasing twisters or whether you have a duffel bag for every person in your family loaded with MREs and batteries, you ignore a siren at your own peril. It’s when we hear the sirens that we realize that what comes next is going to be a disaster. In the last few years, we’ve seen some really horrendous tornadoes and the wreckage they leave behind. The sirens are a big help, but even then, sometimes it’s too late. Not everyone can get to safety in time. And those who are left to face it head-on are stuck to deal with the aftermath.
The gospel of Luke presents Jesus Christ as someone who was always in total control of the events surrounding him. You’ll never read about Jesus being surprised. Jesus is not at the mercy of soldiers and zealots. We see this truth as clearly as ever in today’s passage. After an act of treason by one of his disciples, after an embarrassing arrest, after a sham trial, after being beaten and stripped naked, Jesus is now walking through the streets of Jerusalem to the place where he’ll die. And he’s in control?
In this scene, Jesus gives one of his most dire warnings to the people of Jerusalem. One of the things that the contemporary church could learn from Jesus is to just be direct and not beat around the bush. There are true followers of Jesus, true disciples, who are mourning that their teacher is being treated like a terrorist and executed. Is that not a reasonable response? After all, Jesus drew real crowds of thousands when he taught. He was welcomed by a throng of people in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had enough close disciples that he could send seventy of them to preach on his behalf. Jesus had real, loving disciples during his lifetime. So seeing a group of mourning people as he is walking to his death is no surprise.
Yet many of them scattered out of fear. To the ones who were left, to the mourning women he addresses on the way, he tells them to stop their crying and think about their future. What is happening to him is unbearable, but what will happen to them is nearly as bad. Jesus is not the first man to be crucified, and won’t be the last. But because of the hardness of heart of the people of Jerusalem, because they have turned their hearts toward themselves and not toward the one who could save them, judgment is near. And when God’s judgment comes upon them, it will be better to be crushed by a mountain than to bear the wrath of God. Even as he’s walking to his death, he warns us:
It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
Jesus has sounded this siren dozens of times. He told of the coming destruction on Jerusalem and the temple so many times that every gospel author records some version of it. The wrath of God may be an uncomfortable doctrine, but we ignore it at our own peril. If Jesus is even sounding the alarm as he bears his cross on the way to his execution, then we cannot ignore the siren.
As a culture, we like to think we can postpone the inevitable. Medicine has come so far, sanitation has come so far, security has come so far, that there can’t possibly be anything coming down the pipeline that could be that bad. Surely tomorrow will be just like today. Threats about the end of the world, overpopulation, the environment, have all proven ridiculous or at least highly inflated over and over. So even as the church, it’s easy to get comfortable in the way things are and suppose that things will always be like they are now.
But when Jesus says that the wrath of God is all too real and not to be neglected, he tells us that it is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
Jesus has gone through a sham trial, has been beaten and flogged, and now he’s being forced to carry his own cross to the site of his execution. Luke goes into the most detail about what Jesus faced leading up to his execution. If you found yourself in a place that had never known a Christian or the church but you had access to Luke’s gospel, you might think that Jesus was about to be released. Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent of his charges three separate times. Pilate says, “I find no guilt in this man” in verse 4, “Nothing deserving of death has been done by him” in verse 15, and “I have found in him no guilt deserving death” in verse 22. Clearly, Jesus is about to be freed. Nobody is executed just because of a mob, right?
But instead of releasing an innocent man, Pilate lets politics win the day and sends Jesus to be crucified. Jesus has already been beaten and flogged, but that’s not enough for the religious leaders. They have formed an unruly mob that will only rest, they think, once Jesus is dead and buried. So Jesus is now walking with Roman soldiers, who will be his executioners, to the place of the skull, Calvary, or Golgotha. Luke doesn’t spill a lot of ink on this macabre display, but what he says communicates a lot.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the kind of treatment that someone sentenced to crucifixion would face. Not only would they be nailed or tied to a cross and left to asphyxiate, but they would be beaten half to death beforehand. The whole purpose was to treat the criminal as less than a dog, something undeserving of life. Violence was a show of strength, of who was really in charge. The crucifixion of Jesus, in this regard, was no different. And after being beaten and spit on, the crucified would carry their cross, or at least the upper beam where their hands would be nailed or tied, to the execution site. This made sure that everyone who wanted to see the dead man walking could. If the crucifixion wasn’t humiliating enough, now you’re carrying your own cross. Imagine a death row inmate being forced to carrying the needle that will inject the poison into their own body. It’s utterly humiliating, morbid, and debilitating.
The Roman soldiers regularly executed criminals or insurrectionists. Their job depended on getting the man sentenced to death to the execution site. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape he’s in, but Jesus needs to at least be alive when they arrive at Calvary. And after being beaten like he was, the likelihood of that drops with every step. That’s probably why the soldiers choose someone from the onlookers to finish carrying the cross of Christ the rest of the way. Jesus, as a man, is simply unable to do so anymore. The man they choose was named Simon from Cyrene, an ancient city in Africa. He seems to be a Jewish man living away from Jerusalem at the time, as it says he was coming in from the country. To be a traveler in Jerusalem during the Passover, one of the busiest times of the year, means he was more than likely there as a Jew to celebrate the Passover. “The country” was just the area surrounding Jerusalem that could accommodate a large number of travelers. Simon, perhaps unwittingly, shows us that there is no relationship to Jesus that does not involve a cross.
Did Simon know anything about Jesus? Had he heard of Jesus in the preceding 3 years of public ministry? Did Simon even know whose cross he was carrying? We simply don’t know. We don’t know if Simon considered himself a disciple. He may have been in the crowd as an onlooker, or he could be one of those who were mourning Christ’s death. For this to be our introduction to Simon, so close to the end of the book, it seems like Jesus is someone who is unknown to Simon. But we do know that it was not the last we would hear of him. In the gospel of Mark, we’re introduced to Simon in the same place in the timeline of the crucifixion. In Mark 15:21, there is seemingly a throw-away comment that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus. That might not mean much to us, because we don’t know who Alexander and Rufus were. It would seem strange that Mark would include something that does nothing for the story if the original readers did not know the people. Mark’s original readers knew of Alexander and Rufus, and quite possibly Simon if he was still alive. It’s as if Mark was saying, “If you need to corroborate anything I’m saying, you can still talk to the kids of the guy whose footsteps splashed in the blood of Jesus.” Alexander and Rufus may have been fellow Christians in the church to whom Mark was writing. If you’re looking for them, there are all kinds of notes here and there that show the gospel authors were going out of there way to present the gospel as a historically accurate and reliable message.
We’re told a great multitude followed him. This isn’t referring to discipleship but just the fact of a huge crowd. People follow true crime and courtroom shows almost like they’re addictions, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus drew a crowd. Like in life, as he gathered a crowd in his teaching, in his death, he attracted a lot of attention. These people seem to be very different from the mob Judas and the priests gathered together. You might think of this crowd as similar to the crowd that waved palm branches as he rode a donkey into the city nearly a week earlier. What has happened to their victorious king? Riding on a donkey instead of a horse was a sign of victory and peace, that the fight was over. Victorious kings do the crucifying; they don’t get crucified.
But Jesus is turning all of that on its head. Instead of destroying his enemies, Christ the King is dying in their place. He is redeeming men and women from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. Christ is submitting himself to the punishment we incurred through our rebellion. We rightly earned God’s wrath, and in the greatest act of mercy imaginable, God turned that wrath back on himself. The debt was paid because God paid it. It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
We understand somewhat why there were people mourning and lamenting his execution. Luke notes that there was a multitude of people and of women who were mourning for him. You would think that Jesus would have a difficult time speaking at all, after all he’s gone through, but as he passes by these women he addresses them. He says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” How could he say that? He’s the one who will be dead in a few hours, and he tells the women to mourn for themselves. Why is that?
Because Jesus knows what’s to come. His death is only the beginning. Jesus’s death inaugurates the new covenant. His death satisfies the old covenant. The only way to know God from that time forward is to know Jesus Christ. There is no more need for a Levitical sacrificial system once Christ entered the heavenly tent and offered his blood once for all. There is no more need for a brick-and-mortar temple once the church becomes the temple of the Spirit of God. There is no more need to worship in any one place, on this or that mountain, because God’s people will from that time forward worship him in spirit and in truth.
Jesus goes on to say that there will be a time when death will be preferable to living. He says in essence, “You think what they’re doing to me is bad? What will happen to the people who let this happen?” Jesus is calling back to the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah prophecies abut the crucifixion, even this very moment of the women mourning over Jesus. Through Zechariah, God said, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10-11a).
It’s staggering that anyone would miss the connection. God clearly says that the people of Jerusalem will have pierced God himself. They will look on him, whom they have pierced. Jesus Christ is God the Son, co-eternal with God the Father and God the Spirit, equal in power and authority.
The prophet Hosea speaks of God’s punishment on Israel for their idolatry. God says to the people, “Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars [meaning that the altars will be decimated and unusable], and they shall say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us’” (Hosea 10:8). When God judges the people for their rebellion and idolatry, it will be better for a mountain to crush them or for a hill to collapse and smother them than to endure God’s judgment. It will be easier for the women who never had children because they won’t have to see their children endure the pain and misery.
Jesus uses a proverb to give some added weight to his words. “If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If you’ve ever tried to burn freshly cut wood, you know it’s hard to get started and it doesn’t stay lit. When wood is green, it’s full of moisture. Have you tried to saw through wet wood? It’s just about impossible. You usually have to kiln dry wood before it’s any use to you. Jesus compares his life being snuffed out to green wood being burned. The lives of the people in the crowd are dry and easily burned to ash. His point is that if an innocent man can be treated like this, what should guilty people expect?
Jesus is speaking primarily about Jerusalem, hence “daughters of Jerusalem”. This is not the first time that Jesus spoke about the destruction that Jerusalem would soon face. Jesus predicted that the temple and city would fall within a generation after his life. After Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the week, he weeped over the city and said, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).
When Jesus hears his disciples talking about how beautiful the temple is, he says to them, “‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ And they asked him, ‘Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?’ And he said, ‘See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!” and, “The time is at hand!” Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once’” (Luke 21:6-9).
Both the city and the temple would be nothing but a memory within a generation. The Jewish-Roman wars went well into the second century, but they started in AD 66, just over 30 years after the crucifixion. Several other so-called “messiahs” tried to push out Rome. But you don’t go up against an empire and survive to tell the stories if you’re just a man. By AD 70, after barely four years of fighting, Rome plundered the temple and started taxing the Jews to support the temple of the Roman god Jupiter. Not only did the Jews no longer have a temple for their God, but they were now paying for the upkeep of the temple of pagans. Jesus’ warning proved true.
It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment. The warning of certain destruction also comes with a signal of hope. The end of the old covenant meant the beginning of the new, which itself meant the fulfillment of the promise of the forgiveness of sins. If the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins, then the blood of the Lamb of God would. And through Jesus comes the forgiveness of sins. Those who die in Christ from now on will be with him and will not face the judgment of condemnation.
If you know well enough to take action when the weather sirens sound, how much more should you know to take action when Christ warns of the coming wrath? So let me make the call clear. Jesus warned of the destruction of Jerusalem multiple times, and it happened just as he said. A few chapters earlier, when Jesus has a much longer teaching on the destruction of Jerusalem, he ends with a general plea for staying spiritually alert in every generation, even long after the city and temple are destroyed. He said, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 20:34-36).
Since the day Christ sat down at the right of Majesty, he has been at the very gates. Your greatest concern today is not the “cares of this life” but of your own soul and the souls of your family. Each one of us will stand before the Son of Man. As you stand before him, are you clothed with your own rags or with his righteousness? To die in Christ is to be freed from bondage to sin and death. And only in Christ are we spared from judgment. Hear his warning today. It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.