Friday, April 27, 2007
Thursday, April 26, 2007
By Jerry Filteau 4/26/2007
Total recorded inclusive membership in 2005 was 165,878,323, up more than 2.4 million from the previous year, the yearbook said.
With an increase of 1.94 percent over its previous year's total, the Catholic Church was also among the fastest-growing of the nation's 25 largest churches, followed closely by the Assemblies of God, which recorded 1.86 percent growth, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 1.63 percent growth.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
A brief post: today the pastors of the Foothill Association of Baptist Churches (formerly part of the ABCPSW, now TransMin churches, plus one dually aligned ABC/TransMin church) met at FBC Alhambra. A large portion of our time was consumed by discussion of the Virginia Tech attack. I offer two observations on the conversation:
1. There was absolute agreement that NBC was irresponsible to air the shooter's ramblings. It served no public good and provides encouragement to other unstable homicial manics that if they do the same, they get the fame.
2. There were many observations that such crimes of violence happen daily. Someone cited the statistic that 37 people die monthly in random violence in Los Angeles (source unverified). While no one would detract that the horror of the V-Tech attack, everyday violence is a far greater problem. Sensational attacks like this smother the news that a three-year old in East LA died by random gunfire.
For a good website devoted to prayer for the V-Tech family, click here.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
1. The Valley Forge execs have learned nothing by the loss of the PSW (now Transformation Ministries). They continue to grub for SOS money from the regions and other ABC related organizations. (In this case, SOS stands for Save Our Shack.)
One way in which I differ from Dennis McFadden is that I remain an ordained American Baptist (even while my church followed PSW’s lead in withdrawing from the ABC), and I hold out hope from the reformation of the ABC. I see the key to this being the dismantling of the central directorate of the ABC, which I express as “Valley Forge delenda est!” (Check your history of the Punic Wars.) The behavior of the VF execs have done nothing to change my mind about the need to abolish the central structure. However, the gathering in Newton is the sort of thing that dents my hope for positive change in the ABC at large. Theological perversion, notes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is ultimately more a greiveous deviation than individual moral acts.
Friday, April 06, 2007
The last installment in my Lenten series...a blessed Good Friday to all.
March 25, 2007
This week we finish looking at just a few of the faces around the cross. We’ve looked now at four people who played roles in that day. First we saw Pontius Pilate, who judged Jesus worthy of death and sent Him off to be crucified; then we looked at Peter, who denied Jesus despite being a follower for the three years leading up to the crucifixion. Last week, we examined an interesting minor character in the story: Simon of Cyrene, the man who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross the last part of the walk to Golgotha. And now we finish with the disciple John, the only disciple actually present with Jesus when He was dying on the cross.
John was the only one there. Not Peter. Not Matthew. Not Andrew. Only John. How did John overcome the natural fear that a person would have under these circumstances to stay at the side of Jesus even as He dies on the cross—and what does that say to us?
As we piece together the story from the gospels, I want to suggest three reasons why John did what he did in staying with Jesus right to death.
- John stayed because He’d experienced Jesus as the one who can really change a life.
- John stayed because He was compelled by love.
- John stayed because He was appointed by God to be a witness to the crucified Jesus.
Let’s start with this admission: most people think of John as a kind of a creampuff. A really nice guy, gentle and meek and all that. That’s not really accurate. John started out as a mean-tempered nationalistic Jewish zealot.
Go to Mark 3:17. In Mark’s list of apostles, we have a curious note:
James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder)…
Sons of thunder? I thought they were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus gave them a nickname: “sons of thunder.” (If it were today, it’d be something like, “the thunder boys.”) Why did Jesus give them a name like that?
Well, I don’t think it was because they meek little lambs. You don’t call the guys with the sweetest disposition in the room The Thunder Boys. That’s a name you give to guys who tend to shoot first and ask questions later.
Is there any evidence of this? You bet. Check out Luke 9:51-56:
51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" 55But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56and they went to another village.
Well, isn’t that just sweet! “They weren’t nice Jesus. Can we blow em up? Please?” It was especially easy for them because they were Samaritans. Any good Jew knew that there is no such thing as a good Samaritan! Surely it’s God’s will to fry half-breed Samaritans who aren’t nice to the Messiah!
This may have been the worst behavior on the part of the Thunder Boys, but it wasn’t the only time they acted up. They were jealous of the behavior of others. They let their ambitious mom try to talk Jesus into making her boys number 2 and 3 in the kingdom of the Messiah. Yes, Jesus named them well!
But on the other hand, in spite of his weaknesses, John was dependable, prompt and courageous, faithful and devoted. He was one of three closest to Jesus. He wasn’t a cartoon: he was a real man. He had both good and not so good traits. Many of us have struggled with some of the same spiritual immaturities that John struggled with. John in his spiritual immaturity had to face up to his spiritual pride and self-centeredness. And gradually, more of the thunder side of John drops away. It’s like Jesus was chiseling away at the worse parts of him to reveal the man God always knew John could be.
Ephesians 2:10 says,
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Jesus had something special in mind for John from the very beginning. And Jesus has something special in mind for you as well. God wants to work in your life your whole life making you more and more like His Son in our character and especially in our love of God and love of people.
“People can’t change.” That’s an idea we Jesus-followers reject. Our whole faith is centered on the idea of redemption by the power of God expressed through the cross of Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit. We believe people change.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says,
9Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(Sounds pretty bad so far, doesn’t it? But listen to this:)
That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The church is full of “formers.” Former sex addicts, former homosexuals (yes, I said that and meant it!), former criminals, former drunks, you name it. John was a former hothead, a former bigot (remember, he wanted to nuke the Samaritans), and a former egomaniac.
But God put him in the gem polisher and tumbled him around and wore off his rough edges so much that within a few years he’s a very different person.
Many years later, John wrote his version of the story of Jesus. He may well have been an old man by then. And he faced a dilemma: how do you modestly write a story in which you have a major part without making yourself look like a hero? His solution was ingenious. He never refers to himself by name. The only person named John in the gospel of John is John the Baptist, not John the apostle.
Instead, John refers to Himself as “the disciple that Jesus loved.” John’s identity changed from Thunder Boy to Loved-by-Jesus. Love transforms. Love changes people. John was changed.
That leads to the second reason why John stayed with Jesus even at the cross:
John stayed because He was compelled by love
One of the reasons we think of John as such a “softie” is the great emphasis on love that we find in his gospel and in the three letters that bear his name (1, 2 and 3 John). But now we see that John could be fierce. Under Jesus’ influence, he turns that into fierce loyalty. He has a love that will no be turned away.
Peter had said that even if everyone else turned away from Jesus, he wouldn’t. As we saw two weeks ago, that wasn’t a promise he could deliver on. He bailed out. Why did Peter and nine other disciples run? They were afraid. They had a reasonable fear that if they were coming for Jesus, they may come for them too.
Was John fearless? No, I’m sure he was afraid as well. Like a soldier in battle, he went ahead not because he was fearless but in spite of the fear. I’m not a veteran, I don’t know what it’s like to be under fire, but I’ve been told that you do what you have to do for your “buddy.” Love of that friend is what keeps you going.
If you go back to the meaning of “love” in Hebrew, you find a surprise. The Hebrew word ‘ahab means a bond or an alliance. It is a promise to come to your aid, no matter what. That’s what real love is: a promise to be there, no matter what.
Jesus had come alongside John and extended to him that kind of love. John had seen Jesus extend this same “no matter what, I’ll be there” kind of love to so many people: a woman caught in adultery, blind beggars, a crazed, demonized man, Mary, Martha and Lazarus; crippled people, and on and on and on. He put away his thundering and learned to love.
Is it possible to learn to love? How else can we love, expect by learning. We become what we observe and what we value. In Psalm 135:18 says about idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You actually become like whatever or whoever you worship and trust.
If you trust in and worship sex, you become an animal. If you trust in and worship money, you become a consumer. If you trust in and worship power, you become an egomaniac. And if you trust in and worship Jesus Christ, you become like Him: a real Christian: a “Christ-like one.” John trusted and worshipped and loved Jesus and became like Him.
Now the third and last reason why John stayed with Jesus to the end:
John stayed because He was appointed by God to be a witness to the crucified Jesus.
Appointed by God! Let me explain.
I mentioned two weeks ago that John actually knew the High Priest, probably from business dealings. That’s how he got entrance to the room where Jesus was questioned right after his arrest. With that place established, it was far easier for John to stay nearby through Jesus’ trials right through to His crucifixion.
In John 19:25-37, John tells us about what it was like to be there when Jesus was dying on the cross. Start with vs. 25-27:
25Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," 27and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Do you think John was appointed to be there to take care of Mary? I think so.
Go on to vs. 28-30:
28Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
None of the other disciples were there to hear these words, “It is finished.” Jesus wasn’t saying that He was finished: He was saying that the task the Father had sent Him into the world for, to pay the price for human sin, was accomplished. Do you think that John was appointed by God to hear these words of triumph? I sure do.
Go on to vs. 31-37:
31Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
Pay attention now: John wants us to pay special attention:
35The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken,"37and, as another scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced."
John wants us to see some special here: blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side when His dead body was pierced by the spear. There are several possible medical reasons why a wound like this would produce a flow of blood and water. That’s only a small part of what got John’s attention. It must have been a scary sight that later struck John as full of meaning. First there’s the blood, the blood sacrifice of the Son of God, God’s own and final Passover Lamb. But after the blood comes water: the water of cleansing, the water of the Spirit, the water of a new beginning symbolized in baptism. John was appointed by God to be a witness of this post-mortem demonstration of Jesus’ mission: to die for us and to cleanse us.
John was appointed to be a witness of the cross. We also are appointed to be witnesses of the cross of Jesus. That doesn’t mean getting into a time machine and landing on the west side of Jerusalem in 30 AD. It means that we bear the marks of change and love that John bore as well.
We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross in the kind of people we are. We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross by
overcoming immaturity and self-centeredness. We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us with the Love of Jesus.
John the Thunder Boy became John the Apostle of Love. John surrendered his all to Jesus. He became a different man. Jesus does that to people. He can and will do the same for you.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
March 18, 2007
The second installment in my Lenten series...
Mark 14:27-31, 66-72
March 11, 2007
We’re continuing this week, as we come up to Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, to go to the events right before Jesus died. We’re looking at four people who played roles in that day. Last week we looked at Pontius Pilate, who judged Jesus worthy of death and sent Him off to be crucified; today we’ll look at Peter, who denied Jesus despite being a follower for the three years leading up to the crucifixion. Next week, we’ll examine an interesting minor character in the story: Simon of Cyrene, the man who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross the last part of the walk to Golgotha. And we’ll finish with the disciple John, the only disciple actually present with Jesus when He was dying on the cross.
Now, the reason to look at these people isn’t just to learn about them. There’s value in just that, learning about people in the Bible, but we want to do more than that. The real value is when you get a lesson or two from someone’s life. And these life lessons bring us closer and closer to Jesus. When you look at Pilate, we have a total spiritual failure. Then with Peter we have a believer who falls flat on his face but recovers. With Simon of Cyrene, we get a lesson about walking with Jesus and bearing our own cross. And then finally with John, we get a lesson in faithfulness to the end.
I have a dear friend from Puerto Rico, Victor Felix. Today he’s back in Puerto Rico, but for ten years he was the pastor of the First Spanish Baptist Church of Philadelphia. That’s in a lousy neighborhood, full of crack houses and warring gangs. Victor had a great ministry with the street toughs there. “They’re all the same,” said Victor. “Talk to them on the street, they’re all macho. Get them alone, they talk about their mamas and the fathers they never knew. It’s all peer pressure. They don’t come to Christ because they’re afraid of what the other guys will say. They don’t want to be thought of as wimps.”
You don’t have to be a street tough to think this way. We don’t want to stand out in a crowd. We don’t want to look like a fool. And the one way that will do it every time is to be labeled a religious fanatic. For many, a Christian is somebody who’s lost their mind. On one college campus, students were asked what they thought of when they heard the word “Christian.” Among the more interesting answers were “losers,” “insecure people,” and my personal favorite: “pimply-faced geeks.”
In the media, call someone a “Christian fundamentalist” and it’s like code: “This person is a crazy loon with a low IQ. You can ignore him.” Funny, the term “fundamentalist” originally meant someone who held to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, is now the longest four-letter word in American history.
Talk about appearing tough and not wanting to look like a fool, and you’re talking about the disciple Peter. This man, sometimes called the “prince of the apostles” sometimes talks and acts like, as the Brits say, a blooming idiot. So many times in the gospels we see him do and say the dumbest things. Actually, what we see him say and do are often the very same things we would have done in his place!
Let’s zero in on the night before the death of Jesus. It’s Passover Eve, AD 30. Jesus and His followers have gathered to eat the Passover. During the meal, Judas slips out to betray Jesus. When they were done there, they walk out together to the west slope of the Mount of Olives to a Garden called Gethsemane. As they walk along, they talk about many things, one in particular: Jesus says that when the moment of true testing came, they would all abandon Him. We read in Mark 14:27-31:
27"You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written:
" 'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
28But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."
29Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not."
30"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times."
31But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the others said the same.
And I’m sure that Peter and all the others meant it. They over-estimated themselves—something we’re all inclined to do.
Did you catch that odd thing Jesus says—“tonight, before the rooster crows twice, you’ll deny me three times.” These roosters didn’t just crow at dawn. They’re in the habit of crowing at about 12:30 AM, then 1:30 then 2:30. No, I don’t know how they tell time, they just do. The soldiers who kept watch even called this night watch “cock crow.” What Jesus is telling Peter is that before 1:30 AM that night, he would deny Jesus three times. It must have seemed completely unbelievable to Peter.
At lot can happen in a few hours. You can go from secure to fired, from healthy to struggling for life, from married to abandoned, from secure to ripped off. It doesn’t take long. And it didn’t take long this night.
They arrived at Gethsemane. Jesus goes off to pray alone, and the hours drag on. Peter and the others nod off to sleep. Then, a sudden noise and wide awake. Guards, Temple and Roman guards! Peter drew his little scabbard and cut the ear off a man named Malchus! There’s blood everywhere! Disciples run, Jesus is in chains, but Malchus—well, Jesus heals him. Peter and John flee the scene together, down toward the city. Ahead of them they see the flickering lights of the procession taking Jesus to the home of the High Priest, Caiaphas.
In John 18:15-16, John tells us that he actually knew the high priest. A good guess is that his father Zebedee had done business with Caiaphas. John was able to use that acquaintance to get entry to the room where Jesus was being questioned, and to allow Peter to stay in the courtyard.
Let’s not be too rough on Peter. At least he’s there. That’s more than could be said of the nine disciples who ran off like rabbits. Peter is tough, a strong man, but that strength works against him that night. Look at Mark 15:66-68:
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. "You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus," she said. 68 But he denied it. "I don't know or understand what you're talking about," he said, and went out into the entryway.
She recognizes him, and says as much: “You were with that Nazarene.” Peter was obviously thrown, and gives her what was the formal wording for a legal denial: “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about.” If that’s so, why does he slink back to the shadows of the entryway? Let’s count: that’s denial number one.
Now look at Mark 15:69-70a:
69When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, "This fellow is one of them." 70Again he denied it.
The shadows don’t work; the servant girl gets chatty and tells the others, and he denies it again. Denial two.
On to vs. 70b-72:
After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, "Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean." 71He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, "I don't know this man you're talking about." 72Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times." And he broke down and wept.
The little group of servants and guards must have been talking about this odd stranger. Then it hits them: he must be one of Jesus’ men because of his Galilean accent. Cornered, Peter either can fight or run. He couldn’t physically run, so his soul went AWOL. So he swore and cursed and said, “I don’t even know this Jesus guy!” Denial three.
Here’s how I imagine it. After his little rant, there’s a moment of quiet. The only sound you hear is the crackle of the wood on the fire. In the glow of the fire, you can see Peter’s breath. Then the quiet is disturbed by the sound of a rooster’s crowing. And Peter remembers.
Luke 22:61 adds an interesting detail. At that very moment, perhaps from a window above, Jesus turned at look right at Peter. Put yourself in Peter’s place. It was an awful moment. It was the worst moment of Peter’s life.
One of the great evidences of the accuracy of the Christian faith is the way all the defects of its characters are put on display. From Abraham to Moses to David and now with Peter, you get the whole truth, even the ugly half of it. Peter’s no hero. That night he was just an ordinary guy trying to save his skin.
One lesson you can draw from this is that anybody, repeat anybody, can fall. Here he is the numero uno apostle and at the first sign of enemy shelling, he bugs out. The lesson for all of us is, “Take heed unless you also fall.”
Jeff H_____. You don’t know him, but I can’t forget him. He was the youth pastor at the church I interned at when I was in seminary. You know the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond? Well, they could have made a show called “Everybody Loves Jeff.” He was Mr. Popularity. Wherever he went, fun followed. After seminary he went from Massachusetts down to eastern Pennsylvania to pastor a small church. Something went wrong, really wrong with Jeff. One day, all on one day, Jeff resigned his church, left his wife and moved in with another woman, all on the same day. Last I heard he was working as a social working, and working on a drinking problem as well. I hope he’s turned back to the Lord, but don’t know. He cut off all his ties to his old friends. What a fall.
So there’s a warning to us all here in Peter’s story. But there’s more. Fortunately for us, we know how the story ends.
We know that Jesus was one of the first at the empty tomb of Jesus. We know that before that day was over, he would see the risen Lord.
We know that a few weeks later, Jesus sought Peter out for a special time of restoration on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Even as Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus gave him three times to affirm his love for the Lord.
We know that Peter was acknowledged as the leader of the apostles, and of the new church in Jerusalem. It was Peter who was the great preacher of the day of Pentecost. It was Peter who opened the door for Gentiles to become part of the Kingdom of God, and then went on to a lengthy ministry of preaching and teaching to message about Jesus in Asia Minor and finally in Rome.
And we are told in tradition that Peter at the end laid down his life as a martyr, crucified in Rome around 65 AD.
What a turnaround. Many people doing what Peter did that night would have given up and stayed away. Some would have even killed themselves like Judas did.
Maybe you’re out in the courtyard as far as God goes. You feel far from God. And you feel like you put yourself there. Maybe you did. Maybe you denied Jesus too. Maybe not so much in words but in deeds.
And you think your life is beyond repair. It’s like a car. A lot of things you can fix. But then there’s other things you can’t. Your frame is twisted and your engine is busted and your axel is twisted. You’re totaled.
I usually stay away from illustrations too long ago in history, but I’m going to break that rule and tell you a true story from American history. Many years ago in Tennessee there was a soldier. He was known for being a tough guy, the kind of guy who’d start a fight in a saloon just for the fun of it. In the army, he raided what was then Spanish territory in Florida chasing Seminole Indians. He came across some British subjects there in Florida, who he hanged just for the thrill of it.
Later, people told him that politics was almost as fun as Indian fighting, so he ran for a seat in the statehouse. Pretty soon he was the undisputed leader of his party in Tennessee, which in those days meant that you’d get a seat in the US Senate, which is what he did. And in the Senate he was a rising, star, thanks in no small part to his willingness to use the same bare-knuckled talents he’d used in war in politics.
One day he was back home in Tennessee. There was a famous evangelist back in those days by the name of Peter Cartwright. Cartwright was a rough and tumble frontier preacher who personally baptized over 12,000 converts over his long ministry. He came to a church near this Indian-fighter turned Senator’s home. Curious, the Senator decided to slip in after the singing had begun and see if this man was as good a speaker as people said.
But there was one little problem. As he came in, the pastor recognized who he was and whispered to Cartwright. Now what he whispered was a mistake. He said that in view of their honored guest, he ought to be careful that he didn’t say anything to offend him. Big mistake. That was like saying, “Sic ‘em!” to a dog.
Cartwright got up to speak, and was preaching the message about Jesus and how we need to turn our lives over to him. Everybody, he said, needs Jesus. And about halfway through his message he said,
I understand that there is a US Senator among those present today. And if he does not repent of his sins and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord, he will just as lost and anyone else who has never asked God for forgiveness.
A hush fell over the congregation. Some expected him to storm out in anger. Instead, he admired Cartwright’s boldness and conviction. A burning was set afire in his heart. He thought of all the mean and violent things he’d done over the years, and he felt drawn to Jesus as never before. A few days later, he invited Peter Cartwright to his home, where he and his wife gave their lives to Jesus Christ. And he and Cartwright became fast friends. So much so, that Peter Cartwright was invited to the inaugural of that man, Andrew Jackson, when he was elected president of the United States.
Andrew Jackson knew that day what Peter learned from Jesus first hand when the Lord rose from the dead. There is no valley too wide for God’s love to cross—no life too wicked, no deed so terrible that God can’t reach across and make it right through the death of His Son on the cross.
So there’s no need to stay in the shadows. Let His light do its work. Come home to the love of God. That’s God’s invitation to you today.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
For Holy Week, I will post four messages I shared over the last few weeks. We start with a message about Pilate.
March 4, 2007
Over the next four weeks, as we come up to Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, I want to take you to the day Jesus died. We’re going to be looking at four people who played roles in that day. Those four are Pontius Pilate, who judged Jesus worthy of death and sent Him off to be crucified; then we’ll look at Peter, who denied Jesus despite being a follower for the three years leading up to the crucifixion. Then we’ll examine an interesting minor character in the story: Simon of Cyrene, the man who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross the last part of the walk to Golgotha. And we’ll finish with the disciple John, the only disciple actually present with Jesus when He was dying on the cross.
Now, the reason to look at these people isn’t just to learn about them. There’s value in just that, learning about people in the Bible, but we want to do more than that. The real value is when you get a lesson from someone’s life. And these life lessons bring us closer and closer to Jesus. When you look at Pilate, we have a total spiritual failure. Then with Peter, a believer who falls flat on his face but recovers. With Simon of Cyrene, we get a lesson about walking with Jesus and bearing our own cross. And then finally with John, we get a lesson in faithfulness to the end.
I want to start today with Pontius Pilate. Pilate was a spiritual disaster. And at the heart of Pilate’s disaster is that he was a coward. There’s no sin in being afraid, but it is a sin to be a spiritual coward. And that’s what Pilate was, a spiritual coward.
Let’s look at his life. Pilate hated his assignment as Roman governor of Judea. He never understood the Jews and certainly that he never understood Jesus.
It’s ironic that his name is remembered in the Apostles’ Creed, an ancient creed that millions of Christians around the world recite as an affirmation of their faith. Part of that creed reads:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That’s the legacy of Pilate: He made Jesus suffer on the cross. Who is this man Pilate? And why do I call him a coward?
We can piece together a lot from sources outside the Bible. He came from a prominent Roman family, one that had many men who had military careers and had served in public office. We know he was posted to Judea in 26 AD. We also know he was an awful governor.
The Jews were unusual people as far as the Romans were concerned. They were fanatic about their God—a God no one could see. There were no statues of the God of Israel, and that seemed very odd to the Romans. Instead, the Temple at Jerusalem was the focus of their faith. Festivals of sacrifice—especially Passover—were at the center of Jewish religion.
To people like Pilate, the Jews were unreasonably exclusive. Here he was, the governor of Judea, but even he could not approach the Temple. Instead, well outside the temple there was a fence with a sigh warning any Gentile that if they got closer, they would be put to death. Few ever dared to test this.
Pilate showed complete insensitivity to Jewish scruples. Previous Roman governors declined to set up Roman standards in Jerusalem because of the Roman gods depicted on the standards. Pilate did, to the protest of all, especially the Jewish Council of Elders, the Sanhedrin. Reluctantly, he backed down. But he retaliated by setting up golden shields at the fortress in Jerusalem and minting coins with the same symbols. Again, there was protests and after a time, he backed down again.
So he set his mind to a practical problem: water for Jerusalem. An aqueduct was needed, and the temple treasury was running a huge surplus. He appropriated the money needed, then, you guessed it, the people protested that “holy money” was being used for secular purposes—and by a Roman! But this time, Pilate didn’t back down. An angry mob of protesters, mostly from Galilee, gathered in the outer courtyard of the Temple. Pilate ordered his soldiers to crush what he saw as a rebellion. Many died that day. And many influential members of the Sanhedrin wrote Caesar asking that Pilate be fired.
That was the situation Pilate was in when Jesus came before him. He felt his governorship was hanging by a thread and he saw the case of Jesus as nothing but trouble. Compared to some other matters that had come before Him, Jesus was a minor nuisance. But he was determined not to bungle this case.
What did he know about Jesus before that day? He must have known some things. He must have known that He was a popular traveling teacher from Galilee. He must have known that He was an opponent of the hypocrites who ran the Temple and who dominated the Sanhedrin. He must have known that some considered Him the Messiah.
The messiah thing was the most troubling part about Jesus. For the Jews of Judea and Galilee, the Messiah was expected to be a warrior king who would reestablish the throne of David. Pilate’s predecessors had dealt with two so-called Messiahs, and his successors would deal with two more.
But Jesus was different from all the others: no one had ever seen Him even hold a sword. Instead, all reports spoke of Him teaching the crowds and of miraculous healings. This Jesus was impressive, but He seemed to be only interested in religious things—things Pilate didn’t understand or even care to learn about.
But everything changed on Thursday night, the night before Passover. Sometime that evening, a message came from the Sanhedrin: we intend to arrest Jesus and bring Him before you tomorrow morning for capital crimes. Do we have your support? Pilate saw this as an opportunity to get on the good side of the Sanhedrin. Pilate told them to proceed.
How do we know that Pilate was informed at this point? There are two clues found in the gospels. First, Jesus delayed a long, long time in the Garden of Gethsemane. That can best be explained by the fact that it took time for Judas to go the leaders of the Sanhedrin, for them to decide to act, for a messenger to get the message to Pilate and wait for his answer, and them to send out the “temple police”, a Jewish contingent of soldiers. Also, John 18:3 implies that there were Roman soldiers involved in the arrest party as well. All this would have take a few hours to put together.
The second clue that Pilate had been informed on Thursday night is found in Matthew 27:19. We’re told of a message that came to Pilate from his wife in the midst of Jesus’ trial:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
By the way, we know her name: Claudia Procula. Again, this makes the most sense if Pilate had decided to go along with the Sanhedrin, ordered a detachment of soldiers to go with the messenger, and then went back to his living quarters and mentioned what was going on to Claudia.
Now, Friday morning comes. Jesus has been found guilty of blasphemy by a hastily called meeting of the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night. Now He’s transferred over to Pilate on charges that the Romans cared about: rebellion and claiming to be king. Look in Mark 15:1-5:
1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
2"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate.
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
3The chief priests accused him of many things. 4So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of."
5But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
“Pilate was amazed.” Actually meeting Jesus surprised Pilate. Jesus said so little in His defense—it was if He was stupid or crazy—or if He wanted to die.
The one time He answers Pilate in this passage is when Pilate asked Him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
And Jesus’ answer is literally, “You say.” Just two words in Greek: Su legeis. The NIV translates His words as “Yes, it is as you say,” which is a little different. Actually, Jesus was being a little guarded about His answer. Here’s why: Pilate saw being “King of the Jews” as being a political rebel against Rome. Jesus saw being “King of the Jews” as being God’s Messiah. So His answer kind of splits the difference, as if He were saying, “Well, yes, but what I mean by ‘King of the Jews’ and what you mean isn’t the same.”
Other than that, Jesus is pretty much silent, something foretold hundreds of years before in Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
Pilate does all the talking; Jesus is silent. He is silent because of His confidence in the plan of His Heavenly Father. He knows there is no way forward that does not include the cross.
The cross lies at the center of the plan of God. He must die on the cross. He must pay the price for forgiveness there. Only the God-Man, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man can pay the price. Only God is pure enough to pay that price; only a man can die for the sins of mankind. The cross is a necessity. You can’t get around it.
Of course, Pilate couldn’t even imagine anything like this. He must have seemed to Pilate to be the strangest rabbi in Israel. But the issue for Pilate wasn’t one of truth or justice: it was, “How do I take care of the Jesus case in a way that doesn’t hurt my standing with Rome?” He didn’t need another embarrassment.
That’s when a possible solution presented itself. You can read about it in Mark 15:6-14:
6Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
9"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, 10knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
12"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.
13"Crucify him!" they shouted.
14"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
Here’s a possible solution: a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. Pilate didn’t want to acquit Jesus and throw the Sanhedrin into a rage; on the other hand, he really didn’t want to find Him guilty, because He really seemed harmless. Plus, there was that dream his wife had. Remember? I mentioned that earlier. It’s recorded in Matthew 27:19. She sent this message:
"Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
Romans were very, very superstitious. There looked at dreams, weather, cloud formations, even the spatter from a wine glass as omens and signs. But dreams were taken very seriously. Pilate must have been sweating when he finished reading that note from Claudia.
So Pilate tries to get out of the jam by offering the people a choice between a thug named Barabbas and the Rabbi from Galilee, Jesus. He thought it would be an easy way out. They call out for Barabbas. And more than that. We read in John 19:12, someone called out, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
That was Pilate’s “tipping point.” His whole career—even his whole life—depended on being a “friend of Caesar.” Being a “friend of Caesar” meant being part of the circle of advisors and administrators around Emperor Caesar Tiberius. The very idea of losing that status was too much. You can almost hear Pilate thinking: “Let the Galilean die! My career is more important than this Jesus.”
Look at vs. 15:
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Pilate was a coward. It was fear that made him put Jesus to death. Yes, he made a big show of washing his hands, putting all the blame on the crowd, but there’s no getting around the fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross at the hands of Roman soldiers and under the direction of him, the Roman governor.
I want us to think about fear for a minute. Fear is the thing that unites us to Pilate. We all have our fears. Pilate had Jesus crucified because of his fear of losing his status.
There’s a passage over in Revelation 21:8 that I didn’t understand for many years. It says that the cowardly will end up in the lake of fire—what the Book of Revelation calls hell. The reason I didn’t understand it is that while I always knew that being a coward wasn’t a good thing, it never seemed bad enough to get a special mention on a person’s ticket to hell!
It took getting really involved in evangelism for me to understand what the big deal about cowardice was. The reality is that it’s fear that keeps a lot of people away from Jesus. Not fear of Jesus. Fear about what people will think, or fear of what they think that they might be losing.
And there’s a difference between having fear and being a coward. In battle, everybody’s afraid. The only people who aren’t afraid are crazy. You change from being afraid to being a coward when you surrender to your fears and let them take over. Pilate changed from being afraid to being a coward when he sent Jesus to die.
Today, you may have fears about being a follower of Christ. You’re afraid of being labeled a religious freak. You’re afraid of the cost, and there is a cost. You’re afraid of the lifestyle changes that will demand. And you’re right; following Him involves a new way of life. You’re afraid of the weird people you’d be identifying with. I understand that fear. I remember back in 1971 when I was on the verge of following Him. My intellectual objections held me back, but they were being answered one by one. But as I thought of what that would mean—remember I was a teenager at the time—all I could think of was the fact that whenever I went by a church it seemed to be full of old wrinkly people who smelled funny. (Sorry, that’s what I thought!) I was afraid of being identified with them. I wanted to be with, you know, cool people.
But it was Jesus Himself that drew me in, and then, guess what? I found that the coolest people in the world were the ones following Him!
Today is a good day to say no to your fears and to say yes to your faith, to say yes to Jesus. Pilate collapsed and gave into fear and is remembered for that for all time. The Bible says, “The perfect love of God drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). You don’t have to do be fearful. Put your trust in Jesus today. He will never ever disappoint you. You can have confidence in Him. Today’s the day!