God’s Acts of Providence (33)

sample-21-1040x400The Way that Refused to Go Away (10)

The Apostle Looks Back

Galatians 1:13,14

Saul knew exactly what he was doing by accepting leadership for destruction of Christ’s church.  Looking back on the experience approximately fourteen years later he is unflinching in laying bare his motivations.

113For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

Saul was on the fast track to power.  Had he succeeded he would have been elevated to the top leadership in Judaism at a very young age.  In addition, the Roman authorities would have recognized in Saul a man with whom they could do business with confidence.

All that was required to attain this glory was the destruction of a strange but amazingly stubborn cult of personality around this man Jesus.  Of course many lives would have to be destroyed in the process, but they had challenged the faith of his fathers and the peace of the empire.  Such fools had asked for whatever was to be their fate.  If a clever man’s career could be accelerated in the process, well, then all the better.


Closing Thoughts

And so we take out leave from this account with Christ’s Church scattered and on the run for their very lives, and, in pursuit, Saul of Tarsus, who in his hatred and capability was as close as can be approximated on earth to a demon raised from Hades.  Surely this was finally the end of this ridiculous Jesus-Way; must have thought the self-satisfied religious and Roman leadership.

For all things human they had every reason to think so.  What they didn’t know, but should have by then was that this wasn’t something human.  The wise Gamaliel had said when the Sanhedrin was debating what to do about the apostles (Acts 5:38b, 39).

“for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”

And that is exactly what they were doing – opposing God.  So, what looked from a human point of view like a steamroller to victory was actually one heading for a cliff.  All the wisdom, might and hatred of the world focused on the eradication of this Way was only so much fluff for God to blow aside.

It didn’t look that way to these early Christ followers.  They must have been living in tremendous fear.  But, when the dust settled and God’s action had been revealed, it would be the simple followers of Jesus who would understand the amazing truth buried inside the astonishing response and counter response to Christ’s crucifixion.

but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong  (1 Corinthians 1:27)

The “wise” of this world would learn nothing.

God’s Acts of Providence (32)

flameThe Way that Refused to Go Away (9)

The Persecution

Saul was the equivalent of a specialist enforcer, brought from out of town to clean up a particularly difficult problem.[1]  He had no history of failure in dealing with this cult.  He had no connection to previous decisions.  He was a new agent, free to act with confidence and ruthlessness.  And act he did, with the brutality of one who saw a hateful human contagion of heresy that must be crushed into oblivion.

Acts 8:1-3

8 1And Saul was consenting to his death.

Yes, Saul gave approval.  But for his approval to have any meaning a deal would have had to been struck with the Roman authorities.  Only they could legally condemn a man to death.[2]  Saul and the religious leaders must have laid their plans with precision.

The Roman authorities would have also reacted with great concern when the followers of Jesus refused to slink back to their pitiful villages.  It appears likely that a new man had arrived with a plan to stop this madness in its tracks.  And so, authority was given to do whatever must to achieve the agreed end.  The man to whom this authority was given was Saul.  So, when he gave approval to the mob stoning Stephen, they knew that they were in the clear.

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Sama’ria, except the apostles. 2Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Finally, the rising tide of this cult is checked!  They are sent fleeing; the slow are arrested and thrown into prison.  Their flock abandons the so-called apostles.  An example has been made of Stephen that will finally still the tongues of these fool Jesus-Way preachers.  Saul is executing on his mission with all of the excellence and comprehensiveness that they had hoped for!

Acts 9:1,2

9 1But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Note the violence in the language.  The very breath of this man Saul was a horrid vapor of murder.  Not content to rout the Way in Jerusalem, he was determined to chase them down and bring them back to face punishment.  Damascus was likely only the first of numerous cities to which Saul was planning to bring his campaign of annihilation.

[1] Although never said in Scripture, this is my opinion based on the facts at hand.

[2] Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” (John 18:31)

God’s Acts of Providence (31)


Saint Stephen, depicted by Carlo Crivelli

The Way that Refused to Go Away (8)

The Martyrdom of Stephen

Acts 7:51-60

Much of importance occurs between Peter and John’s confrontation with and this, the finale of Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin.  The Church’s roots had grown deeper and its branches had spread higher and broader, reaching eagerly for the Son.  The Apostles had survived a second round of persecution, this time ending in a flogging.

And, the Church had grown in organization with the creation of the Office of Deacon. Stephen was one, and likely the leader, of seven men chosen to see that food was equitably distributed to all widows in the church, Grecian and Hebraic alike.  Stephen though was no simple distributor of bread.  He was also a powerful evangelist of Christ, working miracles while fearlessly preaching the Gospel.

It was through Stephen that the main counterattack was launched.  The Apostles had twice been attacked and both times the Sanhedrin had been repulsed.  A softer target was needed, one that was exposed and ready to be exploited.  Stephen was, so it seemed, the perfect choice.  He was not one of the original disciples, nor was he a native of Israel.[1]  False charges of blasphemy were made against him and he was dragged before the Sanhedrin.  It is here that Stephen made an impassioned speech in defense on the gospel and its roots in the Old Testament, with the following fateful finale.

7 51“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Stephen’s speech prior to verse 51 appears to be a fairly conventional recitation of Jewish history, starting with Abraham.  There is a reoccurring theme of disobedience; but not obviously beyond the bounds of the underlying Biblical narrative.

However, at verse 51 Stephen suddenly breaks from the story line and launches into this personal, direct attack on the Sanhedrin members.  What provoked this outburst is a mystery.  Perhaps he saw the hardness in his inquisitor’s eyes and realized that there would be no mercy.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit moved him suddenly to confront their evil.

Whatever the reason, Stephen had slapped the Sanhedrin full across the face in broad daylight.  There was no backing down.

54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. 55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

Now insult had been followed by blasphemy.  The end of his speech had been gasoline thrown onto dry brush.  This statement was a lighted torch being thrown on top.

57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Note the passion of this crime.  For a crime it was to execute a man without the proper judicial decision of the Roman authorities.

But take note of the last sentence.  There is this man named Saul who has arrived on the scene.  He stands apart from the passion of the stoning, apparently in a position of some responsibility.  This is the point at which – the Great Apostle – the Slave of Jesus Christ – the poet of Faith, Hope and Love – the man for whom nothing could separate from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord – enters the Biblical record – at the moment of and as an accessory to the creation of the first Christian martyr.

59And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Stephen like his Lord and God asks at the moment of his murder that the crime not be held against its perpetrators.  What happened at the foot of the Cross, where a hardened, violent man saw how the Savior died?

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

Yes, Saul in his cold rage, drove forward.  But we are bound to ask if after witnessing how Stephen died, somewhere deep down, buried under the dead weight of Law, pride and ambition a tiny spark was ignited that would not be taken up until hearts by the thousands were burning bright with the love of Christ.

The response of Jesus’ followers to His humiliation and death was astounding.  Even more so was the fact that this riff-raff was able to pick right up where Jesus left off – performing public miracles of healing, preaching, converting multitudes and besting their betters in every encounter.

Though knocked off balance, these men of prestige and power were not so easily defeated.  They regrouped and brought in a new man who had the intellectual firepower and cold-blooded determination to see that this insane cult would finally be ground into powder.  That man was Saul of Tarsus, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” (Philippians 3:5,6).

[1] The name Stephen is Greek and suggests that he was a Hellenist.

God’s Acts of Providence (30)

Pope-peter_pprubensThe Way that Refused to Go Away (7)

Healing, Preaching and Conflict (2)

Acts 4:8-22

8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, 10be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. 11This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. 12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The New Testament speaks with one voice on from where the apostle’s power came.  It was not from within them.  No, it was from the Holy Spirit.  Peter, Paul, John, none claimed anything for themselves.  So captivated were they by the love of Christ and surrendered to the Spirit’s power were they that their own selves became bound instruments of God’s will.

But far from finding themselves will-less, they had become the freest men alive; and perhaps who ever will live this side of Christ’s return.  No man, no council, no empire held the slightest power over them.  No fate held fear for them.

They truly were in this world but not of it.  For they had seen the Risen Lord, placed their hands in His pierced side, their fingers through His hands.  They had heard His risen voice call them to follow, to lead others to find this new life.

Nor were they giving up anything of their individuality by surrendering so completely to the Spirit’s power.  In fact, they were discovering the amazing truth that the more they lived in Christ the more they became the unique individual that God had created.  This aspect of Christianity – its startling emphasis on each individual’s worth while maintaining the emphasis on community – would transform the geography of both religious thought and civilization’s path.  But both occurred only because the Holy Spirit descended in power to touch hearts with courage, hope and love at just the right moment.

And so Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks words of dazzling truth and power that send shock waves through these elite inquisitors.

13Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.

15But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred with one another, 16saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to any one in this name.” 

Of what use was their wisdom, their standing, their power? They conferred in helplessness.

18So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

We can only imagine them doing their level best to puff themselves up into an impressive, threatening posture from which to issue this command, only to be deflated by the calm, unbending response.

21And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people; for all men praised God for what had happened. 22For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.

It is the religious leaders who are left baffled and in retreat at the end of this skirmish.  These were not men who take defeat lightly.  This experience had likely only convinced them of the deadly danger that this new movement held.  Their response would not be subtle.  It would be swift, it would be violent, and it would be for keeps.  It would require a man of keen intellect and ruthless determination.  Now, they must find him and then set the counterattack in motion.

God’s Acts of Providence (29)


Plaque with Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man – Walters

The Way that Refused to Go Away (7)

Healing, Preaching and Conflict (1)

Acts 3:24 – 4:7

At the beginning of this chapter Peter heals a blind beggar.  The beggar had asked for money from Peter and John as they walked to the temple.  Peter responded that “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6).  The man was miraculously healed, his broken feet and ankles becoming strong at that very instant.  The man was filled with joy and began to jump and praise God as he went with the Apostles into the temple courts.

The people there recognized this man as a well-known cripple and were filled with amazement.  They came running to see this miracle, forming a crowd.  Peter, seeing the opportunity began to speak.  What follows is another sermon explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ and claiming the name of this same Jesus Christ as the power through whom this beggar had been healed.

We join Peter at the climax of this second great founding sermon of our faith.

3 24And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days. 25You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 26God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness.”

What was uncertain in the first Pentecost sermon is now made absolutely clear – the circle of grace expanding with its center there in Jerusalem would encompass the entire earth.  It’s once again exceedingly difficult to capture the psychological and theological challenges that such a position would create for a sect beginning in the center of Judaism; God’s own chosen and holy people.

4 1And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sad’ducees came upon them, 2annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3And they arrested them and put them in custody until the morrow, for it was already evening. 4But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

The specific proximate cause of Peter and John’s arrest is that they were proclaiming the resurrection of the dead through Jesus.  This would have been a particularly provoking teaching for the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection of the dead.  However, teaching resurrection was not in itself an issue of blasphemy, for the Pharisees, another Jewish sect in good standing, also held this position.

Clearly it was the larger teaching, of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah that led to their arrest.  The fact that this dead troublemaker’s disciples were now apparently reproducing his miracles, insisting that he had risen from the grave and winning converts by the thousands must have hit the religious authorities with the impact of a body blow.

How to account for this remarkable response?  Were these men mad?  But how were mad men convincing others by the thousands to join in with their madness?  A crucified, humiliated criminal was the Messiah?  He has been raised from the dead?  All sins would be forgiven through him?  All people of the earth would be included in the blessing?  Madness!  And yet it was happening!  Their perfectly executed plan turned into ashes in their mouths.  Well, they were men of wisdom and action, so continued action they would take to understand and then stamp out this madness.  How hard could it be?

5On the morrow their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest and Ca’iaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”

Do you remember?

So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him.  First they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Ca’iaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Ca’iaphas who had given counsel to the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. (John 18:12-14)

They had tried and seen to it that Jesus was condemned to die on the cross.  Now, standing before these same men of power, the Sanhedrin[1], were two men.  One, Peter, had made a public display of betrayal by denying fellowship with Jesus three times.  The other had stood passively by while Jesus was arrested, beaten, tried, flogged and crucified.  Neither showed signs of noble birth or great learning.  They were the dregs of society standing before the elites, ready to be dealt with and disposed of.

[1] San·hed·rin n

the supreme Jewish judicial, ecclesiastical, and administrative council in ancient Jerusalem before AD 70, having 71 members from the nobility and presided over by the high priest [9]

God’s Acts of Providence (28)

The Alexamenos graffitoThe Way that Refused to Go Away (6)

Pentacost (2)

Acts 2:37-41

37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

How can we account for this reaction?  Skeptics will seek to cast doubt on this narrative.  However, the undeniable fact of Christ’s church’s existence means that this response in some form had to have occurred thousands of times over, and in rapid succession for the movement to take hold.

We also know with as much certainty as anything can be from antiquity that the core of the Gospel preached in the primitive church was Christ crucified, risen and reigning as Lord and God.  How can we, after centuries of Christianity as the dominant religion of the West, after the sanitization of the disgrace of the cross, possibly understand the impossibility of such a gospel were it powered merely by human belief?

Perhaps the “Alexamenos graffito,” the earliest known depiction (parody) of Christ’s crucifixion will provide a small sense of the shame and scandal of this gospel’s foundation.  The description from Wikipedia (on January 16, 2008) reads.

The image depicts a man with the head of a donkey who appears to be attached to a cross. To the left is a young man raising one hand in a gesture suggesting worship.

Beneath the cross there is a caption written in crude Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον, “Alexamenos worships [his] God”. ϲεβετε appears to be a misspelling of ϲεβεται = “worships.”

The general consensus is that the graffito dates from some time in the third century, although dates as early as AD 85 have been suggested.

The graffito was discovered in 1857, when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The emperor Caligula had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which after Caligula died became used as a Paedagogium or boarding school for the imperial page boys. Later the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries. The graffito is today housed in the Palatine antiquarium in Rome.

Look closely on both the original and tracing.

The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion is that this is a derisive depiction of early Christian worship.

1045123-electric_chairIf we want to gain a more immediate sense of the emotional impact of claiming our Savior is a crucified man, consider the notion of God having waited until modern times to send Christ.  In the place of a cross might be an electric chair.  Imagine the Apostles preaching Christ electrocuted, dead and risen.  In this case we would find ourselves transforming an electric chair from a device of death to a symbol of eternal hope and love.

If you are shocked and a bit sickened by such an idea then you can begin to appreciate the cultural chasm across which the Apostles and Saints had to cross with their gospel.  To imagine that human power is sufficient for such a task requires a greater leap of faith than anything that Christianity has ever asked.

38And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Peter’s response only adds to the already astounding nature of this new faith.  Let’s enumerate.  First, since it is only God who can forgive sins[1], it would appear that Jesus is being announced to a monotheistic crowd as in some sense God as opposed to just the Messiah.

Second, Peter was promising the general gift of the “Holy Spirit” to this crowd.  If you think that mainline Christians have difficulty with this Person of the Trinity, that’s nothing compared to the issues that traditional Jews of ca. AD 30 would have had.  In Jewish theology the Holy Spirit was conceived of as an aspect of God’s action in the world as it applied to specific (and very selective) people and situations.  Here Peter was promising this gift as a part of each person’s conversion experience and continuing relationship with God.  This was no small change in theological situation that was being announced.

Third, and finally, Peter announces that the boundaries of this faith are uncertain but expansive.  Anyone who had knowledge of Jesus’ ministry would remember His inclusion of the Samaritans, the Roman Centurion, and the outcast within His circle of grace.  Thus, to speak in these terms left open the real possibility of a faith that would ultimately expand beyond its Jewish center.  Chances are that only the most knowledgeable and perceptive would have made such a connection.  It’s even doubtful that Peter understood the full import of these words.

But let there be no doubt – though this new faith would begin as a sect within Judaism, its self-understood theology from the very beginning guaranteed that it would be ejected and persecuted.  And, on this glorious day, the multitudes were being told the truth about the nature of this new faith; were they to fall upon their knees and accept it as their own.

40And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

The crowd must have been huge and the rate of conversion extremely high for such a result.  Can we but conclude that the Holy Spirit was moving with tremendous power to bring Christ’s Church into being?

[1] See Mark 2:7 and Luke 5:21.  Jewish theology held that God alone could forgive sins (Isaiah 43:25), which left out even the Messiah.  Thus, this formulation directly confronts the charge by which Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders – blasphemy (see Mark 14:64).

God’s Acts of Providence (27)


Saint Peter Preaching at Pentecost by Benjamin West

The Way that Refused to Go Away (5)

Pentecost (1)

Acts 2:14-17; 22-25; 36

Pentecost occurred fifty days after the Resurrection and ten days after the Ascension.  All the Resurrection accounts in Scripture tell of encounters limited to those who most likely had been Jesus’ followers prior to the Crucifixion.  It therefore is reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of these earth-shattering events were occurring outside the consciousness of the civil and religious authorities.

It’s possible that they were watching the Disciples, and, if so, would have been perplexed as to why they weren’t disbanding and slinking back to their homes.  There are also accounts of striking events associated with Christ’s death and resurrection such as the tearing of the curtain of the temple from top to bottom, an earthquake and reports of the holy dead walking through Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51-53).

Thus, there could have been reason for unease in the authority’s minds.  However, given the general peace and ability to write off disquieting information as mere coincidence or ignorant superstition, it’s reasonable to presume that, fifty-three days after the death of this Jesus of Nazareth there was a sense that normalcy was returning.

That false peace was about to be shattered by the bold words of a fisherman.  Never again would kings or priests own the field unopposed.  For on that Pentecost morning The Body of Christ rose up anew. And though it has been sorely attacked and known terrible inner strife, it still moves forward with sovereign purpose towards its goal.

2 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.

15For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day;[1] 16but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;

Note first the eloquence of this introduction.  These are not the halting, muddled words of an ignorant fisherman.  No, they are the clear, confident, inspired words of a polished orator.  But how could this be, as Peter would have been dressed in simple garb and many must have known him as the coward who had betrayed his master when the chips were down.

The sermon continues…

22“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– 23this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken

Now the stunning news has been revealed.  Peter began by saying, “These men are not drunk.”  He now makes a claim that places into question not their sobriety but rather their sanity.  But prior to that he accuses his listeners of a crime against the LORD God Himself.

Can a more precarious position from which to announce a new faith be imagined?  Let’s review.  Your leader will be a crucified criminal, you are guilty of committing a terrible crime against the LORD God, this criminal has been raised from the dead by the testimony of some country bumpkin fisherman and finally, King David, the most beloved and revered of all rulers, had prophesized that this criminal was his “Lord.”

The word “insane” seems terribly inadequate as a holder of meaning for such a claim.  Recall that the risen Lord had not made Himself generally visible, but rather appeared only to His Own.  Recall also that the authorities had made it absolutely clear how they would deal with those following this troublemaking messiah.  And, finally, recall that many, or most, in this crowd had seen Jesus die is shame and solitude outside the city, nailed to a tree.

And yet, the claim was made.  Not timidly, but boldly.  Meditate on this.

The sermon concludes…

36”Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The sheer audacity of this conclusion cannot be overstated. The mind simply reels at the thought of such a claim.

What should have happened is that Peter and his little band of fellows were tarred, feathered, mocked and run out of town on a rail (or the equivalent for that time).  Or, more likely, they should have ended up hanging on their own crosses outside of Jerusalem.


[1] 9 A.M.

God’s Acts of Providence (26)


The Entombment” by Rubens

The Way that Refused to Go Away (4)

The Burial

Mark 15:42-47

15 42And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathe’a, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.

Consider this act of boldness with care.  Joseph had nothing to gain by this request.  Jesus was to all appearances destroyed – body, character, soul – and yet Joseph still chose to identify with Him.  He was requesting to show honor to a publicly condemned criminal and a man cursed by God: “his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:23a).

This act of self-sacrificial love was the first small flicker of the blinding light that was about to break into the world Sunday morning.  Though it would take the Resurrection and Pentecost for the Disciples to be set on fire, Joseph’s heart already was burning with new light.

44And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

We last saw this centurion at the foot of the cross, exclaiming, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) when he saw how Jesus died.  Now he stands before Pilate, a man whose main response to all that has happened is to be surprised at the speed of Jesus’ death.  The rapidity of transition from ultimate holiness to vile commonness could not but have made a powerful impression.

Joseph’s boldness is rewarded.

46And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

Joseph has time to make only the most limited provisions for burial prior to the beginning of the Sabbath.

47Mary Mag’dalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Throughout Christ’s passion it has been the women who have followed most closely.  They continue to follow right up to the entombment, surely already planning to return after the Sabbath in order to make their one last offering of devotion.

We terribly devalue the foundations of our faith by passing lightly over the depths of defeat to which the followers of Jesus found themselves at this point.  They had been witnessing a man who healed the sick, drove out demons and even raised the dead.  His words were astonishing in their originality, piercing in their impact and overpowering in their authority.  He had bested his opponents in every encounter, even though they were the supposed elite religious teachers and he the hick from Nazareth.  He had walked on water, calmed storms, fed the thousands and been transfigured on the mount.  He had entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” as the conquering Messiah.  This is only a partial summary of all that they had witnessed.

And then, this same man had been taken, bound, beaten, flogged, mocked and crucified.  He had been marched nearly naked through Jerusalem, bleeding from his head, back and likely legs, chest and face.  He had been laid out on a wooden cross and had nails driven through his arms and feet.  He was then raised up, transfixed, unable to move, exposed to insects and birds, to mockery; unable to deal with the most basic bodily functions with any vestige of privacy.  And there he remained, stripped of all honor, stripped of all hope, stripped of all grace – a cursed thing hanging from a tree until it died.

That is a tiny taste in words of the depths of defeat to which the followers of Jesus had been driven by the powers of this world.  Don’t look away.  Dare to look upon it.

49. How did Christ humble himself in his death?*

A. Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.

50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?*

A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words: “He descended into hell.”

For unless you truly take it in you can’t begin to comprehend the astonishing nature of what happened next.