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.