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TEXT: Isaiah 53
SUBJECT: The Passion #1: Introduction
For the last three or four years, we've spent our Wednesday nights meditating on great Christian books of the past. Most of them were written by the Puritans, men like Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, and Matthew Henry. These men lived in the 17th and 18th Century. One or two of our books were penned before this time, and a few of others came a bit later. But, starting tonight, we're going to move quite a way forward in time, and study a fine book written by a man who's still with us in the world.
The author is John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The book is The Passion of Jesus Christ. The publishing date is this year, 2004.
From the title and date, you may have guessed that it followed up the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. It did, of course, but it's not a tie-in to the movie, at all, but a corrective. I didn't see the film, but I know it emphasized what happened to the Lord. The critic, Roger Ebert, called it the most violent movie ever made. Piper has little or nothing to say about this aspect of our Lord's passion. What he's after is the why-the purpose of the Crucifixion. Not why Judas sold the Lord or why the Rulers envied Him or why the disciples quit Him, but God's purpose in the cross.
What was God doing at the cross? This is the question the book explores. It's a short book, 127 pages (including notes and an advertisement at the end), divided into fifty chapters, plus an introduction.
Though Piper is a good scholar, there's nothing scholarly about the book. His style is devotional. The book is far better than my musings upon it. If they interest you at all, I encourage you to get the book and read it for yourself-one chapter a week if you want to follow along (or correct me), or at whatever speed you like best.
And so, The Passion of Jesus Christ by John Piper.
The book begins with an introduction. Most intros bore me to tears, but not this one: there's real meat in it. He begins with the importance of our Lord's Passion, names the one who inflicted it, defines the term, and shows how it was different than the sufferings of other people, and also how it was the same.
The most important question of the twenty-first century is: Why did Jesus Christ suffer so much? But we will never see this importance if we fail to go beyond the human cause. The ultimate answer to the question, Who crucified Jesus? is: God did. It is a staggering thought. Jesus was His Son. And the suffering was unsurpassed. But the whole message of the Bible leads to this conclusion.
Who killed Jesus Christ? For centuries, most Christians blamed the Jews-and there is some truth in this. The Jews have mostly blamed the Romans-and this also is true. In the last sixty years, many have blamed us all-and they're right to say this. These are all partial answers, true as far as they go, but they don't go far enough, and they water down the Gospel (at least), and maybe pervert it.
Piper is right: God killed Jesus Christ. The chapter we read says so: It pleased the Lord to bruise Him. Theology supports this and the Gospels prove it. If God is sovereign, then nothing happens without His will (or at least His permission). But the sufferings and death of Christ did happen, which means-at the very least-He signed off on it. But that isn't quite what the Bible teaches-that God reluctantly permitted His Son to die on the cross. No, the Bible teaches He sent Him to the cross! Philippians 2:8 says of our Lord,
He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
His passion and death, therefore, were acts of obedience. But whom was He obeying? Judas Iscariot? Caiaphas and Annas? Pontius Pilate? He was obeying His Father in heaven!
Piper says this is a staggering thought-and he's right, it is. We don't want to believe it and we sure don't want to tell others about it. Because it seems to put God in a bad light, as though He is unjust, killing an innocent Man, while the wicked (like Barabbas) go free. But staggering or not, it's true! And we mustn't hide the truth from other or even ourselves.
When we understand what God was up to on the cross, we find Him as far more just and loving than we thought He was. And we find our Lord's humility and faith raised higher than heaven.
Piper is right: this is the most important question of the twenty-first century. And as God's witnesses in this century we ought to know the answer and blaze it abroad!
A HOLY GOD AND WICKED MEN
The second question the chapter deals can be easily stated, but it cannot be explained. Those who have tried to explain it have more often exploded it! I, for one, am satisfied with the answer, even if God doesn't show His work.
How does this divine act relate to the horribly sinful actions of the men who killed Jesus?
The question assumes two things-things not everyone is willing to grant: God was fully sovereign in the crucifixion of His Son and wicked men were fully responsible for what they did. Neither side should be denied or watered down. In willing the same thing, God was sinless while Judas, Pilate, and the others were sinful.
This may not satisfy our curiosity, but it's what the Bible teaches! Acts 4:27-28,
There were gathered together against Your holy servant, Jesus.both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.
How, then do we reconcile the two? Piper admits it isn't easy and offers an answer than I find adequate,
The depth and scope of this divine sovereignty takes our breath away. But it is also the key to our salvation. God planned it, and by the means of wicked men, great good has come to the world. To paraphrase a word in the Jewish Torah, 'They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good' (Genesis 50:20).
How could willing the same thing be holy in God and wicked in Herod? It's all in the motives: Herod killed Christ because he hated God. God killed Christ because He loved the world.
Well into the chapter, Piper defines his term. We all know the word, passion, has more than one meaning. John includes them all (to some degree), but mostly, he means,
The sufferings and death of Jesus Christ-that is the way I am using it here.
Next, he touches on the uniqueness of our Lord's suffering and death. Everyone suffers and everyone dies. Some human suffering-if not equal to the Lord's-is still very, very great. If you read Foxes Book of Martyrs, you'll find believers suffering the most hideous torments for Christ.
Yet no one compares the suffering of the martyrs to the suffering of Christ-least of all the martyrs! His suffering, though like ours in some ways, is in other ways unlike any other suffering. Not only worse than Job's (let's say), but belonging to a different category. Piper says,
His passion was unique because He was more than a mere human. Not less. He was, as the ancient Nicene Creed says, 'very God of very God'. Then add to His deity that He was utterly innocent in His sufferings. Not just innocent of the charge of blasphemy, but of all sin. Then add to this uniqueness, He embraced His own death with absolute authority. 'I have authority to lay it down and to take it up again. This charge I received from My Father'.
Piper names three ways in which the Lord's suffering and death were different than any other. Others will be added later in the book, but for now, three.
First, it was God who died and not a mere man. Since God is infinite, He is capable of infinite suffering. There is a limit to how much you and I can hurt, but the Lord is unlimited. And that's one reason He could die for the world while Paul or Moses or David could not.
Second, it was an innocent Man who died. No one likes being accused, but a false accusation hurts far worse than a true one. A pastor comes home from work an hour late. His wife accuses him of having an affair. He denies it, but she doesn't believe him. He tells her how heavy the traffic was coming home and she says, hah! The man has ten witnesses to where he was that afternoon, but she says he paid them to say that. Can you imagine how frustrated the man would be? Then, she tells everyone she knows what he's up to-and they all believe him. He loses his job, is defrocked from the ministry, and is excommunicated from the church. He wife won't take his calls and his kids keep saying, How could you do this to us? Why, Daddy, why? Finally, he turns to God for relief, but it seems even the Lord doesn't believe him.
The man's innocence-rather than softening the blow-actually hardens it. And this is what happened to Christ. He was not only not guilty, He was totally innocent-not only of the charges made against Him, but of all sin. Yet He suffered as the worst criminal in the world. And when He turned to His Father for help, He forsook Him.
The Lord's suffering, therefore, was atrocious, far worse than any other man's-and of an altogether different kind.
Third, His death was of His own will. No one chooses to die-not even people who commit suicide have the power to take their own lives. Many try to, but fail. Others succeed, but only with God's leave. But the Lord's death was by His own choice. Remember, when He gave up the ghost, He cried, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. This-along with the things that followed-shocked the Centurion who took it to mean, Truly, this was the Son of God.
The Lord's death, therefore, was unique in that it was voluntary, sinless, and, most of all, Divine.
The Lord's death was not final.
Because of this unparalleled passion, God raised Jesus from the dead. It happened three days later. Early Sunday morning, He rose from the dead. He appeared numerous times to His disciples for forty days before His ascension to heaven. The disciples were slow to believe what happened. They were not gullible primitives. They were down-to-earth tradesmen. They knew people did not rise from the dead. This was not the resuscitation of a corpse. It was the resurrection of the God-Man into an indestructible life, and it proved that God was satisfied.
I'm not sure what I can add to this. Rising from the dead doesn't prove anything in particular about the formerly dead man. Were the boys raised by Elijah and Elisha heroes of faith? We have no idea. But the Lord didn't just rise from the dead (as they did), He entered the Life of Heaven here on earth. And that proves a great deal! In a word, it proves He is the Righteous Man and also the Messiah.
John Piper finishes the chapter with a meditation on the Holocaust. I suppose he did it because the movie, The Passion of the Christ, was branded anti-semitic. Whether it is or not, I don't know.
Piper's after something else: the link between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of all men, especially the Jews in the nightmare of Nazi Germany. He has a great deal to say on this, but I'll single out the two lines that I think matter the most,
Is it possible to think, not of Christ's passion leading to Auschwitz, but of Auschwitz leading to an understanding of Christ's passion?
All language is comparative. We say, Tom looks like Jack or George runs like a deer or the fog was like clam chowder. But what do the words passion and death to people who are alive and healthy? To what can we compare the cross? Nothing, really, for it's one of a kind. But if we don't compare it to something, we don't know what it is. So Piper modestly suggests that maybe it was something like the Holocaust. And that Jews, still haunted by the scent of the death camps may smell something of the cross in it. And not only the Jews, but all of us who know something of the horror.
Is the link between Calvary and the camps a link of unfathomable empathy? Perhaps only Jesus, in the end, can know what happened in the long night of Jewish suffering.
This looks at the Holocaust from the other side: if it gives men a feel for what happened at the cross, then the cross gives Christ a feel for what happens in a world full of long, cruel, and unjust suffering.
The sovereignty and wisdom of God may explain suffering to us, but they do not relieve it! Only the cross does that-for on the cross, God entered into our suffering and took it all for our salvation.
That's the introduction of John Piper's little book, The Passion of Jesus Christ. It's big idea is to make us know-and feel-that the Lord's cross is not an accident or outside the love of God. And neither are the crosses we bear.
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