The Wickedness of Humanity Exposed and Healed by the Cross (Matthew Sermon 146 of 151)
June 02, 2013 | Andrew Davis
Sinful Nature, Glory of God, Justification, Grace, Original Sin, Indwelling Sin
So we come at last, in Matthew's Gospel, to the account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. We come to the message of the cross, and it says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” And so we are going to hear and see displayed before us, even today, the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes this message of the cross.
The Costliest Education in History: The Knowledge of Good and Evil
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… We Have Gotten an Education
When Adam stood before the tree in the Garden of Eden, at that fateful moment in history, as he reached out his hand and he took the fruit from that tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as he made that fateful choice to eat that fruit, in one way of thinking, you could say he decided to get an education. He decided to learn what evil really was. Now, he was in a world surrounded by good. Remember that God had made the world perfectly good, and God had declared the world very good, but there was that tree and there was that testing, that temptation. And the only thing that could have been added to him was the knowledge of evil. He would learn goodness, but because he ate from that fruit, the first Adam at the first tree, for millennia now, his progeny, his descendants have been learning evil.
The High Cost of that Education
And what a bitter education it's been. We could argue, the most costly education in all of history. And frankly, it's not just on a grand scale, all of history, the march of redemptive history, and just the learning of how great and wicked is evil, and how evil is sin. It's not just that, but that we ourselves, individually, as we go on in our lives, we are getting that same education, and we are learning to hate evil and to hate sin. And so the first Adam made that decision for all of us, and in him all of us sinned and became corrupt.
The Education Reaches its Climax: A Full Display of Human Evil
And now we have the account of a second Adam at a second tree, and the education continues, and isn't it amazing, how in this account, we're going to see the great wickedness of human beings really coming to its absolute lowest point, its nadir. This is the worst that human beings have ever acted. And yet, it was instrumental in our salvation, that it is by the sinfulness of humanity that Christ, the Son of God, was killed. We have that very powerfully displayed for us in Matthew's gospel today as we're gonna be looking at it. And so the message of the cross for us that I'm going to preach today is as it says, foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. And so that's just a powerful statement for me. I am in the process of being saved, so I'm hoping to get power today from the cross for that process. And not only that, but I hope to give you some of that power, too. I want you to see in the cross of Christ, power for your own ongoing salvation.
Cross Also an Exposition of Human Wickedness
But we also see in another sense, and we're gonna see this very clearly in Matthew's Gospel, how it is foolishness to the world. We're gonna see four different groups of people in the account mocking Jesus, we're gonna see the soldiers mocking Jesus, we're gonna see the thieves on the cross mocking Jesus, we're gonna see the passers by, just the citizens of Jerusalem those walking by on the road, stopping and mocking Jesus. And we're gonna see the chief priest and the teachers of the law, the religious authorities mocking Jesus. And then we're going to see them all in one sense, collectively murdering Jesus.
And really, these are two of the great responses to the cross of the unbelieving world, mockery and then murder, foolishness. We've seen it again and again. On the day of Pentecost, when Peter is there filled with the Holy Spirit, preaching the gospel on that great day, some of the crowd mocked him saying that he was drunk, that they, the apostles, were drunk. And one of the first things Peter had to say is, “We're not drunk, it's only 9:00 in the morning,” I think maybe starting with a little bit of humor; it's too early to be drunk. But there's that mockery.
And we saw it also in Acts 17, when the Apostle Paul was in Athens, and he's there on Mars Hill. And these philosophers were there who gathered every day to talk about and listen to the latest ideas. And they heard Paul preach the gospel very beautifully and powerfully. And when he got done, they sneered at him, they mocked at him.
And in the unfolding of the history of the church, the Romans mocked and misunderstood the gospel, they mocked Christians, and then they murdered them. And the Vikings mocked the military prowess, so to speak, of the monks at the monasteries. They mocked them. They were not worthy military adversaries, and then they murdered them and took whatever was valuable and burnt the rest. Voltaire mocked the gospel with his enlightenment philosophies and his humor and his satire. Thomas Jefferson mocked the doctrine of the trinity, he mocked the doctrine of the incarnation, he mocked the resurrection, he mocked all the miracles. Mark Twain mocked. And in our time, we see the mockery in television, these sitcoms that mock, we see stand-up comedians and talk show hosts mocking and making fun of Christianity. That's our age. Next stage is murder. That's what they do, they go from mockery to murdering. And we're gonna see that in our text as well.
So the cross is an exposition of human wickedness and human sin, and we're gonna see it in four different groups of people. After Jesus was born, at the beginning of his life, a godly man named Simeon blessed Joseph and Mary and Jesus, and then turned and said to Mary, his mother, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against. Listen, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And so in the crucifixion of Christ, we see the base motives, the heart inclinations of people exposed. And we know from Jeremiah, the heart is desperately wicked and beyond understanding. Who can comprehend it? We need a Savior, and thanks be to God, in the message today, we have the evidence of that salvation. We have the culmination of everything that Matthew has been trying to tell us about Jesus, and how at the very beginning, you will give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Here in this account, that's exactly what he's doing.
The Wicked Soldiers: Ignorance on Display
So let's look at these different soldiers, and it's a bit odd, the way I'm preaching today, I hope you noticed that, I'm not gonna be here for a while. It's gonna be about three months, and I only got halfway through the crucifixion. How odd is that? So I'm hoping and trusting that God will let me live and let me return to this pulpit and preach the other half of this sermon.
And it's really amazing how Matthew writes the crucifixion account. Really, it comes in two halves. We have the human perspective on the cross through all this mockery, and then in the second half of his account, we're gonna have God's perspective on the cross, and we're gonna see the supernatural power of God, even as Jesus is dying, with an eerie darkness that comes over the land and an earthquake and a curtain in the temple torn in two and dead people rising. That's God's reaction to the cross. But here on this half, we're gonna see that human mockery and wickedness and the exposition of human sin. And so at the cross of Christ, we have all of these major themes coming together, human sinfulness on the one side and the attributes of God on the other. And we're gonna have to wait a number of months to hear the second half, but actually, you can read it this afternoon and you can enjoy it, or you can read it while I'm preaching and enjoy it. You could do that too, whatever God leads you to do.
But let's look at these groups that were mocking Jesus. And first, we're starting with these wicked soldiers as they put their ignorance on display. Look at verses 27-31, “Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews,’ they said, they spit on him and took the staff and struck him on his head again and again. And after they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him, and then they led him away to crucify him.”
Setting the Context
So let's set this in context. Jesus has already been tried and convicted by the high priest and the Sanhedrin. Because of the Roman law at the time, they could not execute Jesus as they wanted, so they turned him over to Pontius Pilate. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of these charges, that it was only out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. And so he tries to set Jesus free. Again and again, he tries. He tried to placate the Jews by flogging Jesus, almost killing him in that way. He tries to exchange Jesus for Barabbas, but that doesn't work.
And finally, in a cowardly act, he gives into the crowd and the pressure they're putting on him as they threatened to go over his head to Caesar. And he washes his hands of the whole affair and hands him over to be crucified, verses 24-26, “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent to this man's blood,’ he said, ‘It's your responsibility.’ And all the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children.’ Then he released Barabbas to them, but he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.” And so that's the context, and the soldiers took charge of Jesus.
Who Were These Soldiers?
And all of the soldiers of the governor's palace, the Praetorium, gathered around in large numbers. These Romans in a distant land filled with hatred and resentment toward the Jews took it out on Jesus. They're ignorant, they don't know who he is, they knew the charge against him, that he claimed to be king of the Jews, and I think that became the focal point of their mockery. They're gonna mock him as a king, but they didn't know who he was.
And if anything, their ignorance shows the coldness of their hearts and their wickedness just as human beings. You know how Jesus prayed, I think concerning them, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they're doing.” I think he was really speaking of the Romans who were there executing him. They didn't know who he was, they didn't have any sense of the history, the prophecies, none of it. They were just ignorant, and yet very cold, filled with hatred, willing to get some sport at his expense, the coldness and the wickedness of their ignorance.
The Wickedness of Mockery and Humiliation
And so they mock him, they humiliate him. They gather the whole company of soldiers, maybe dozens, perhaps even hundreds of soldiers gathered around to see Jesus. And they strip him of his clothing and they expose him, and he's humiliated in that way. And then they begin to mock him around the theme of him claiming to be a king. They put a scarlet robe on him, and they twist together a crown of thorns. And they put a staff in his right hand, and they kneel in front of him and they mock him. And they say, “Hail, king of the Jews.”
The Wickedness of Physical Abuse
And we see the wickedness of their physical abuse. Even this mockery isn't enough, but in verse 30, it says they spit on him. This is the second time in the account of Jesus' passion that Jesus gets spat upon. As I said earlier, it's a sign of tremendous disrespect, stripping him of really, of his humanity. And then comes the physical abuse. They took the staff, imagine it like some kind of a rod of some sort, like a broom handle or something, some kind of lightweight wooden staff perhaps. And then they smash him on the head where the crown of thorns already is, smashing the thorns down into his scalp and causing blood to flow down his face, undoubtedly. John's gospel indicates they also beat him with their fists. So they're belting him, a defenseless man. Now, realize, he's already been flogged. So my guess is he's barely able to stand. Just the cruelty of the human race at its full exposure here.
The Symbolism of the Crown of Thorns
The thorns are a fascinating touch here. I think for us, we should see the symbolism and the connection back to what happened with Adam. You remember how when he sinned, God cursed the ground because of Adam. “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil, you'll eat of it all the days of your life, and it will produce thorns and thistles for you.” And again and again, in the prophetic books, in the book of Isaiah, the thorns represent the curse of God. And so here is Jesus, the very one who had said to his Father he would drink the cup that God had given him to drink, is immersed in the curse. The curse is just smashed into his head, smashed into his face, into his scalp, symbolically. Physically, really, with the thorns, but they represent the curse of Adam. And so here's Jesus, the second Adam, bearing the curse for us.
The Wickedness of the Crucifixion: Cruelty on Display
And so the soldiers mock him, and then they crucify him. Look at verses 31-37, the wickedness of crucifixion put on display, their cruelty, “After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him, and then they led him away to crucify him. And as they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull. And there, they offered Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots, and sitting down, they kept watch over him there. And above his head, they placed the written charge against him, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’”
So we come to this, the cruelest form of death that had ever been devised, crucifixion. According to Herodotus, it was developed by the Persians. Darius the Mede apparently crucified 3,000 Babylonians in 519 BC. Alexander the Great and the Greeks took it over and began doing it, the Romans probably learned it from them, and they employed it liberally. They considered it the worst possible punishment, the worst punishment there could ever be. Cicero called it “the most cruel and disgusting penalty” known to man. Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.” A Roman lawyer named Julius Paulus listed crucifixion in the first place as the worst of all ways to die.
Roman philosopher Seneca said this about crucifixion: “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, letting out his life drop by drop rather than expiring once for all and quickly? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to an accursed tree, long, sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.” And so this was the most despicable, the most humiliating and the most painful form of death that they could devise.
The Journey to Golgotha
And so they lead him away up to Golgotha and they lay the cross on him. Again, you can imagine, weakened by the flogging, barely able to stand, how could he carry the weight of the cross? It's unclear whether it was the whole cross. Many scholars think so, or just the cross beam, but at any rate, a heavy piece of wood laid on him. And it seems he's unable to carry it any further. And so the Romans forced a man who was just walking by, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross.
Now, Cyrene was a Greek settlement, west of Alexandria in modern day Libya. Simon is a Jewish name, so this man was probably a Jewish pilgrim, come for the feast from Cyrene. It is possible, we don't wanna read too much into the text, but it is possible that this whole incident of him carrying Jesus' cross was instrumental in his own salvation and that of his family. In Mark's account, in Mark 15:21, it says, “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.” Clearly, Mark felt his readers knew who Alexander and Rufus was. Why bother mentioning them if they didn't? Mark wrote for a Roman audience, and it's very possible that this is the same Rufus that Paul mentions in Romans 16:13, where it says, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord and his mother who has been a mother to me, too.” So Rufus' mother would have been Simon of Cyrene's wife, and it's possible that this whole thing might have been instrumental in the salvation of this family.
So at any rate, they arrived at Golgotha where the crucifixions were to take place. Literally, it means “the place of the skull,” probably because it was shaped like a skull. One commentator said it was because Adam's skull was there. How would you ever know that? After the flood and everything? Don't believe everything you read, even if they're really intelligent scholars. I don't know how anyone could ever know that. Some say it was because there were so many skulls there, but I don't think they would have just let skulls accumulate, it's probably because of the physical shape of the hill.
Now, the King James Version of Luke 23:33 gives us the only mention in any English translation of a very familiar word, and that word is “calvary.” You hear it again and again in songs, churches take their names, but it's actually a bit of an anomaly when it comes to translations. KJV is the only one because it's not a Greek word, and it's not an Aramaic word, it's not a Hebrew word, and it's not an English word. It's a Latin word. It comes from the Latin “calvaria,” which means skull. And so basically, for some strange reason, the King James translators decided to keep the Latin from the Vulgate “calvaria,” and they brought calvary over. And hence you have all these, even denominations, coming from this one rather interesting moment in translation history. But the fact of the matter is, this is the place where the crucifixions were done, and it was outside the city gates.
The Procedure of Crucifixion
Now, the procedure of crucifixion is not in any way described here, and I find that fascinating. It's not described at all by the gospel writers in detail. They really just kind of accept it and assume it, and they describe other things that are going on. In verse 35, all it says is “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” Literally, the translation will be something like this, “The ones who had crucified him divided up his clothes,” so the focus, even in the sentence, was on the division of the clothes, not on the crucifixion.
Now, this was, of course, a direct fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, where it says, “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” But the crucifixion itself is only mentioned in passing. As a matter of fact, only from Thomas' comments about the nail marks do we even know he was nailed to the cross. Sometimes, they were latched to the cross with leather thongs, but he was nailed because it says, “I need to see the nail marks in his hands,” and Jesus showed him.
Now, non-biblical descriptions tell us what happened, Jesus would have been placed on the cross as it lay flat on the ground. First, his feet would be nailed, one nail through both feet, they would cross the legs, to the upright beam. And then his arms would be stretched out across the horizontal beam and nailed through the wrists just above the hands, allowing a slight bend to the knees when the body was extended. The cross would then be picked up and dropped into a hole. And I can't even imagine what the agony would have been like when that cross dropped down into its hole. The jarring would have caused unspeakable pain, agony to the wounds in the hands and the feet.
The Sufferings of Jesus Were Immense: Yet He Refused the Sedative
The sufferings of Jesus, physical sufferings, were immense and yet he refused to be sedated. He said to his Father in the garden that he would drink the cup that the Father gave him. And that meant in his mind not drinking the cup that was offered here at this point, which was a sedative. “They offered him wine to drink mixed with gall but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.”
Now, many have studied the medical aspects of the crucifixion, and you can read them, I'm not gonna take you through them, but it was an agonizing, an excruciating way to die. The biggest problem for the one being crucified was how to breathe; very, very difficult, especially to exhale. And so they had to push up on their feet to draw in breath and to exhale. And so everything that Jesus said from the cross, the seven different statements he makes from the cross would have been through really gulping breaths.
The Invisible Suffering
It would be all he could do to push up and to take in air and to speak those words, but infinitely beyond the physical suffering, because there were two other men that were going through the exact same physical suffering as Jesus was - and frankly, it was not uncommon, the Romans crucified a lot of people - but infinitely greater was the invisible spiritual suffering that Jesus was going through. And as I mentioned, God willing, I'll mention that next time. And Jesus alludes to it when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That's something Mel Gibson couldn't show in his film, but it is infinitely weightier and more powerful than anything you can show, namely the physical sufferings. Jesus was our wrath bearer, he was our propitiation, he was shedding his blood in our place, he was taking the lightning strike of God's wrath in our place that we might not have to suffer the destruction of hell. Jesus went through hell for us and that's what he was going through in the cross.
The Wickedness of the Robbers: Criminality on Display
Jesus Not Crucified Alone: Two Others With Him
And so we see the wickedness of the soldiers in their mockery and in their murder of Jesus as they killed him by crucifixion. We also see the wickedness of the robbers. And this is a bit strange, hard to put it all together, but he was crucified with two robbers or thieves, verse 38, one on his right and the other on his left, Jesus in the middle. And in verse 44, at the end, the very end of the account we're looking at today, it says, “The robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”
Direct Fulfillment of Prophecy
This, the fact that Jesus was crucified with these criminals is in direct fulfillment of prophecy, as it says in Isaiah 53:12, “He poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors.” So he was just crucified along with them as though he was nothing special.
May Have Been Insurrectionists, But More Likely Highway Robbers
Now, these robbers may have been insurrectionists. Most likely, they were just simply highway robbers who thought only about themselves, a threat both to the Romans and to their own countrymen, probably their neighbors, very selfish individuals who lived for themselves and were willing to break the law in order to do that.
All They Wanted to Do Was Survive
And at this point, all they want is to survive, they just wanted to survive. And they insult Jesus to the end that he might use his supernatural powers to save them. In Luke 23:39, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him, ‘Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us.’” And so they're mocking him to some degree. Now, at that point, neither one of them feared God or saw Jesus with eyes of faith, but that's going to change. And it's gonna change magnificently. So at the end of this message, I'm gonna talk about the conversion of one of these two men as a trophy of God's grace, but still, he began his time on the cross mocking Jesus and insulting him.
The Wickedness of the Crowd: Fickleness on Display
Language Comes Directly from Psalm 22
And thirdly, we see the wickedness of the crowd, the passers by, the citizens of Jerusalem, fickleness on display as you look at verse 39 and 40. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You, who were going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.’” Fickleness of the crowd, they're just walking by.
Remember, it's feast time, so there would have been hundreds of thousands of people crowded in the city. Their language comes almost, it seems, word for word from Psalm 22. If you compare this account in Psalm 22, it's amazing. Psalm 22:7 and 8 says, “All who see me mock me, they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him, let him deliver him since he delights in him.’”
This Was the Same Crowd that Had Seen Him Do Miracles
Now, I don't know if these are the exact same people that a week ago were saying “Hosanna,” I don't know. I think both are just representatives. I think the ones that were outside the city gate shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna,” were representatives at that point of an aspect of the Jewish population who would have been ready to crown Jesus their king because of all of his miracles. But once the thing turned and he became an object of scorn and it didn't seem that he was any different than any other criminal, now we have representative Jews mocking and rejecting him as they pass by.
Here is the Shame of the Cross
And here, we see the shame of the cross that the author of the Hebrews mentioned in Hebrews 13:12 and 13, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace that he bore.” Here is the disgrace, it's the mockery, it's the rejection, and it's the hatred and the insults.
The Wickedness of the Religious: Hypocrisy on Display
And we see fourthly, the wickedness of the religious leaders, hypocrisy put on display. Look at verses 41 and following, “In the same way, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can't save himself. He's the king of Israel, let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him for he said, I am the Son of God.’”
It's interesting how both the passers by, the population, and these rulers are doing the same kind of temptation that the Devil did, that Satan did out in the desert, which is to the effect, “Use your supernatural power to save yourself.” They're both saying the same, it's a Satanic, a demonic attack. Could he? Could Jesus have come down off the cross? Absolutely, he could have. He can do anything, there is nothing he cannot do. And yet, it was his love, his commitment to his Father's plan, his love for the Father and his love for his sheep that kept him on the cross.
The Greatness of Jesus: God’s Glory on Display
And so all these four groups mocking Jesus. Mockery is a form of arrogance, isn't it? It's a display of arrogance and pride, it's a way of feeling superior to others, putting yourself above others. And how ironic is it that these wicked, low sinners felt they were greater than Jesus? And even at the time in which he is giving the greatest display of the glory of God there's ever been. And so we have mockery by the Roman soldiers, we have mockery by the thieves, we have mockery by the population, those that pass by, and mockery by the religious leaders. And yet, in the middle of that, we have the greatest display of the glory of God there has ever been.
The Cross the Prism of God’s Glory
A number of years ago, I preached the sermon called “The Cross: A Prism of God's Glory,” and how we have a triangular wedge of crystal able to break white light out into a beautiful spectrum, a rainbow of the various colors that there are already in the white light, but they have to be seen, broken apart to be seen. And so the cross does that, it takes the glory of God, the white light of the glory of God and breaks it out so we can see aspects of God's greatness, the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overcome it.
The Glory of God: Attributes on Display
And so we see God glorifying the Son and the Son glorifying the Father, and these attributes put on display. We see the grace of God put on display here, don't we? How it was God pouring out judgment and wrath on the substitute and not on us?
It says in Romans 3:23 and 24, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And so what is God's grace but a settled determination in the heart of God to do good to people who deserve his wrath and his judgment? And it's out of that determination inside God that every good gift you've ever gotten has come to you, all of it blood bought, paid for by Jesus' work on the cross.
And so we see the grace of God, we also see the love of God. Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It's a “how much more” argument. If when we were powerless, if when we were this wicked, he loved us this much, How much more now that we are adopted children of God, will we be saved by his love, will we be cherished and rewarded and brought into heaven by his love? I tell you this, all of us underestimates the love that God has for us in Christ, all of us do. You don't realize how loved you are; you don't realize how beloved you are in Christ.
And so in Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul prays that we would have power together with all the saints to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and that you would know that love that surpasses knowledge so that you would be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. My prayer is right now, you would have a sense through the text and through the Spirit of God's outpoured love on you, and he has an eternity to show you that love.
And so we see, in the cross, a demonstration of the love of God. And we see also a demonstration of the kindness of God. And what's the difference between grace and love and kindness? I don't know, but they're all good things. And the Bible uses these various words to talk about what God's done for us. Kindness is in Titus chapter 3, it says, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”
Kindness is a little bit different than love in one sense. I think it's just bringing in that other aspect that Paul's getting at. “If I give all that I possess to the poor, and I surrender my body to the flames, but I have not love,” you're like, “Wait a minute, wait. That's... How could that not be love? You're giving everything you have to the poor, even to the point of dying.” Yeah, but there's something missing, apparently. Maybe it's kindness that would be missing, you see? It's how you're doing, it's the demeanor, it's what the people are feeling as you're doing it for them. And so it is the Father's good pleasure to pour out his Son unto death for you, he's happy to do it. Now, that's a mystery that will blow your brain, but he is kind to you in Jesus, and he says, “Come in, welcome into heaven now that Jesus has died for you.”
We can see God wrongly. We can see him as a stern taskmaster. “Alright, I'll forgive you. Alright, I'll accept you, I'll atone for you but I'm not gonna like you very much.” That's not the kindness of God displayed for us in Christ. He is delighted to save you, he is delighted to adopt you as his sons and daughters.
We see also in the cross of Christ, the holiness of God put on display. God would rather torture and kill his Son than allow unholy people like you and me, unsanctified, unjustified into heaven. That's the measure of his commitment to holiness and justice and righteousness. So you could cluster all of those together and the cross' display of the holiness of God.
And we see, in Romans 3:25, God presented Jesus as a propitiation through faith in his blood to demonstrate his justice, a clear demonstration of the justice of God. And the word propitiation, a display of the wrath of God. I've said before, the two greatest displays of wrath there are in the Bible are hell and the cross of Jesus Christ. These are the two greatest displays. You wanna know how angry God is about sin, how much he hates it, how passionate he is? Look to the cross and look to hell. Those are the measurements of the wrath of God, but because of the cross of Jesus Christ, because he drank the cup of hell for us, we, his sheep will not ever suffer that wrath. There is no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus.
And we see the wisdom and power of God. In a few weeks, you're gonna hear a marvelous sermon in 1 Corinthians 1 on the cross, the power of God, and it says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, for the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God stronger than man's strength.”
So here we see God's power and his wisdom, and we see his infinity, for it says in Zechariah, “I will remove the sin of the land in a single day.” How awesome is that, Zechariah 3:9? And we see all of these beautiful attributes flowing.
So yes, this account is a display of the wickedness of the human heart, it's a display of how wicked we are. And don't separate yourself, don't say, “I wouldn't have been like the soldiers. I wouldn't have been like the thieves, I wouldn't have been like the passers by on the road, I wouldn't have been like the religious people.” Don't kid yourself. Find yourself there because Christ didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The healthy don't need a doctor, but the sick. Find yourself in those four categories. Say, “That's who I am, it's a display of my wickedness. That's what's going on in this account.”
Bunyan’s Applications on “Jerusalem First
And so what applications can we take from this? Well, come to Christ, believe in him, trust in him for the forgiveness of your sins. I just finished teaching a class on the Puritans at Southeastern, and I read an incredible sermon by John Bunyan, an evangelistic sermon. There is maybe nobody in history, no preacher in history, that was so effective at making passionate evangelistic appeals as John Bunyan. He was a tremendous pleader with people, tears coming down his face, pleading with people. He gave something like 15 applications to unregenerate people to come to Christ, that's only the Puritans can do that. But just one after the other.
And then it's a marvelous sermon. It comes from Jesus' statement in Luke 24 that repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name, beginning at Jerusalem. And so the name of the sermon is “Jerusalem First,” and the logic of the sermon worked like this. In Bunyan's sermon, the way he thought of it was this way: These sinners in Jerusalem were the worst on the face of the Earth at that time. They were the most wretched, wicked sinners on the face of the Earth at that time, and God sent the gospel to them first. What can we learn from that? And he draws out one application after another from it, and it's powerful. Look it up, it's online. I think it's public domain, I don't think Bunyan's still getting royalties from it but at any rate, just see what you can find, but “Jerusalem First.”
And he uses a marvelous illustration. If you were walking by a swimming hole and you saw four kids and you sense that they were in over their heads literally and figuratively, they're not good swimmers, and they're in trouble, but one in particular is thrashing around and seems openly to be drowning, who are you gonna try to save first? The one that's openly in the deepest trouble. And so God sent the gospel to Jerusalem first.
And so what applications can you take from that concept? Well, if Christ can save the worst sinners that we've seen on display in the account today, if he can save the worst sinners, then learn by this, that Christ's heart is filled with love for wicked people. Look at the love of God and see it as a measure, say “If he can love wicked sinners like that, if he can say, ‘Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing,’ then he can love me.” If Christ can save the worst sinners, then how great are the merits of Christ? If they infinitely are greater than this kind of sin, then how great does the Father esteem the blood of Jesus? How precious is it if it can save sinners like this? If Christ can save the worst sinners, then this should be an encouragement to you if you think you're the worst sinner of all, and that Christ could never save you.
If Christ can save the worst sinners, then come to Christ because you'll never find a better savior than him. There's not gonna be any other Christs, this is it. There's not gonna be any other saviors making an appeal, there won't be any other name by whom your sins will be forgiven. Come to Christ, there's no other savior. If Christ can save the worst sinners, then why should you despair of salvation? Has somebody come back from the other world and told you you'll never be saved? Well, then, you're still alive. You're still drawing breath. There's still hope for you. Come to Christ. I'd love to hear Bunyan preach. Wouldn't that be great? But he's reaching out and he's saying while you live, there's still hope. Trust in Christ. Don't think that the gospel has passed you by. You're here today, you're hearing it, there is power for the salvation of sinners right here, right now in this room.
If Christ can save the worst sinners, then he can also save lesser sinners, too. Not everybody is the worst sinner. Now, every sin is worthy of condemnation, eternal condemnation. We should meditate much on the fact that all Adam did was eat a piece of fruit, and how great then is sin. And it metastasized, it didn't stay the same. So all sin is equally condemnable, but there are some sinners that are worse than others, there are some that are more hardened than others. And if Christ can save the worst sinners, he can save lesser sinners, too. Think about children. Think about children. They're not hardened in their ways. They're open, they're ready to learn, eager, somewhat humble, somewhat. God can save little children from their sins. Christ can say, “Let the little children come to me because if I can save great sinners like those Jerusalem sinners, I can save you.” And so if he can, Bunyan put it this way, “If a door is big enough for a giant to walk through, it's big enough for a dwarf.” What a great image that is. And so, how much more can he save you?
And if Christ can save the greatest of sinners, do you not see now why Satan orchestrates the mockery of the gospel in every generation? 'Cause he's afraid of it. Sometimes people mock things because they're afraid of it and they don't understand it. And so Satan orchestrates mockery because of the greatness of the salvation that is there.
Consider the Most Amazing Conversion in the Bible: The Thief on the Cross!
I wanna finish by urging you to consider, please, the most, I think, the most astonishing conversion there ever was in the Bible, and that is the thief on the cross. Now, I'm asking your indulgence here from strict exposition because if all you had was Matthew's gospel, you'd think both of them would be condemned, because they both mocked Jesus. People who question inerrancy say you have a contradiction here. “In Matthew's account, they're both mocking, but in Luke's account, only one of them is mocking and another has some other things to say.” There's no difficulty for me harmonizing these things. I think they both began their time in the cross mocking, but only one of them ended his time mocking. And what do we call that but conversion, and how great is that conversion?
I've said before, those four great conversions worthy of meditation. Rahab, who was a Canaanite woman, apart from redemptive history, having heard rumors and stories of what God did in Egypt comes to faith, amazing. Nebuchadnezzar, most powerful man on Earth, filled with pride and arrogance, a murderous tyrant, mind changed into an animal and then changed from that into a sincere worshipper of God. Saul of Tarsus, who some of you will say, “I think that Saul is greater than the thief on the cross.” Well, listen, either way, they're in heaven, both of them. Breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples, converted in a day.
But then we have this thief on the cross. Now why would I say this is the most astonishing conversion in the Bible? Well, it's because of what God apparently had to work with and the timeframe. What did he have to work with? Some stories about Jesus that the thieves apparently heard, “You're the Christ, save yourself.” So they knew some things about Jesus, they weren't starting from scratch. No one can call on someone they've never heard of, no one can believe in Jesus without some facts of his life. And so the thief had some facts, but he has a lot of contrary visual evidence, too. Here's Jesus bleeding out on the cross, looking absolutely horrible, looking weak and frail. And the timeframe, very short. We're talking about a matter of hours.
And yet, as it says in Luke 23, “The other criminal rebuked him” - the first criminal - “saying ‘Don't you fear God, since you're under the same sentence and we are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve but this man has done nothing wrong?’ And then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today, you'll be with me in paradise.’” How sweet and powerful is that interaction.
You remember how in Caesarea Philippi, Peter made that confession saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Do you remember what Jesus said to him? “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” Do you think the Father revealed Jesus to this thief on the cross? Yes, he did. And how quick was the Father's work, how powerful was the Father's work. God showed him his power to condemn sinners. The thief said, “Don't you fear God?” And not only to condemn them to a physical death, but you should still have fear for him, there's still more he can do to you. So he showed him the power of God to condemn sinners in hell. And he showed him the justice of God, “we deserve what we're getting for we have done evil,” the justice of God. And he showed him also, his own wickedness. “We are getting what we deserve,” and so he's humbled by the power of God.
Not only that, he revealed to this man the innocence of Jesus. This man has done nothing wrong. He's sinless, and he showed him the resurrection, the kingship of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Why do I say that? “Remember me, Lord, when you come in your future kingdom.” Wow, what kind of faith is it that can look at an almost dead Jesus with blood coming down his back and his wounds and all that and says, “I see a king here.” Jesus, the King of the Jews? No, the King of the World. I see Jesus as the coming King. And he sees Jesus rightly as the powerful coming King. And he sees beyond the cross to the resurrection. This is not the end of Jesus' kingship, not at all. This is the beginning of it.
And beyond that, perhaps most amazing of all, God showed him his willingness to forgive him of his sins and bring him into that kingdom though he had nothing to offer, not the possibility of giving any money or doing any good works, nothing at all. Here, you have justification by works dying in this, that religion of works, this man had nothing to offer. And yet, he's got the faith to believe that he has a place in the coming kingdom. “Remember me,” he says, “when you come in your kingdom.” And so Jesus speaks a precious promise to him that must have comforted him, his physical suffering not abated at all, the death sentence still there, but a promise beyond, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
So never give up on anyone in evangelism. Do you hear what I'm saying? Never. We may know who the elect are by how they react to the gospel, but we may never know who the reprobate are in this world. We never give up on anyone. Never. We keep preaching, keep hoping, keep trusting. Pray for your elderly relatives, pray for people you've shared with once, share a second time. Don't give up on people. Even to the end, go into the hospital room, go into the ICU, whisper the gospel into the ears of people as they lay there. There is always hope, even while there's breath. Never give up and just stand in awe of the grace of God to accept sinners like this thief, and let's be honest, you and me. Praise God for his grace. Close with me in prayer.
Father, we thank you for the display of the cross of Jesus Christ. We thank you for all that we can learn from it And we thank you for the display of the wickedness of human hearts. And Lord, we find ourselves there. We know that we are capable of mocking you and of not believing in you, but we also know, Lord, that you are capable through sovereign grace, through the spirit of saving sinners like us. Lord, I pray that you would speak directly to the hearts of unregenerate people here in this room right now, if there's any that are here that are outside the grace of God right now, that they would flee to the cross, and that they would trust in Christ. And I pray that we would as witnesses, not be ashamed of the cross, but go outside the city gate and bear the mockery and bear the disgrace that he bore. Help us to be effective evangelists. And God, thank you for the lesson of the thief on the cross, and how your sovereign grace is able, at any time, to step in and transform everything. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.