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Last Words for the First of the Year

Sermon by Guy Waters on Jan 5, 2014

John 19:16-30

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Now please turn in your Scripture to the Gospel according to John.    If you’re using the pew Bibles that are in the racks for you, you may find our Scripture printed beginning on page 905, in the middle of the nineteenth chapter.  I do count it a privilege to open the Word of God, to worship with you this morning, this, of course, the first Lord’s Day of 2014.  It is an accustom among American Presbyterians to choose a special text on the first Sunday of the year.  And in the 18th century, many of our colonial ancestors opted to preach the text, Jeremiah 28:16.  In case you don’t have that Scripture on your fingertips, that text in the Authorized Version is, “The word of Jeremiah the prophet to Hananiah the false prophet:  ‘This year thou shalt die.’”  Aaron Burr Senior, not to be confused with his son, preached that text on New Year’s Day 1757.  He died that fall.  Samuel Davis preached that text on January 1, 1761.  He died that February. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that that tradition was not continued among 19th century Presbyterians and though I don’t reckon myself superstitious, I don’t plan to resurrect it this morning!  

But certainly our fathers had a point, didn’t they?  At the hinge of the New Year, this is a time that we look back and we look forward.  It’s a time to take stock.  It’s a time to put before us the big issues in life.  And as Christians who have before us the Word of God this morning, there are few issues bigger than the cross of Jesus Christ.  So it’s there we turn this morning.  And I want us as we study this passage together to be asking the question, “What is it that’s going on, on Calvary?”  And if you’re going to get what God is doing in Jesus Christ at the cross you need to listen for words that explain God’s deeds.  Turn with me in the Scripture, and before we read join with me in prayer as we seek the Lord’s blessing on His Word.

Our great God and heavenly Father, how glad we are for Your Word - a sure guide as we face the uncertainties of the year.  We praise You that it is Your Word, every jot and tittle of it.  So help us to bow low before it, to listen with understanding, to receive all that You have spoken in faith, and to respond with that obedience that is the fruit of faith and is to the glory of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ in who’s name we pray.  Amen.

Hear now the Word of God beginning in John chapter 19 verse 16:

“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.  There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.  Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’  Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.  So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’’  Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took their garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic.  But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.’ This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, 

‘They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.’

So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother ‘Woman, behold, your son!’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’  And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’  A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Thus far God’s holy, inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.  May He be pleased to add His blessing to it.

How did Jesus Christ get to this place?  He has been tried by the Jews.  The real charge was a charge of blasphemy, but knowing that that charge was not going to go anywhere in the Roman courts, they trump up charges, as the charge of blasphemy had been trumped up, of sedition and treason, and Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate.  Pilate examines Him, pronounces Him guiltless - not once, not twice, but three times.  Pilate is a weak man.  Pilate is a man of political calculation.  He’s not going to cast his career on the sword of this obscure Jewish man.  And so he gives the Jews their way and Jesus will be sent off condemned, as a common criminal, to die the hard death of the cross.  We come here in John chapter 19 to this very familiar but solemn scene of the crucifixion. And John, like the other gospel writers, does not want you to revel in gory and brutal detail, even though this was a scene of horrific violence.  John lays a veil over those details; he wants you to understand what it is that Jesus has done and what it means.  

The Words of King Caesar

And that’s why this Scripture is full of words.  And did you notice these words are spoken by kings.  We have first the word of Pontius Pilate, the emissary of King Caesar.  In verse 19, “He wrote an inscription and put it on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’”  Now this reflects a common practice in Roman justice.  Jesus had been accused, tried, convicted of sedition, and so he writes out, Pilate writes out the charge on a wooden placard.  And that placard will hang around the neck of our Savior as He is marched, escorted by the soldiers, from the praetorium, the governor’s palace, outside the city to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, a place of death.  And flanked on either side there will be onlookers.  This is, so far as Pilate is concerned, a deterrent - “See what happens to the man who would rise up against Rome!”  But you see, Pilate spoke more than he knew because Pilate was proclaiming publically that Jesus Christ was not only a King, but He was going to go to the cross as a King.  And He gets to the cross, Jesus does, and He’s nailed to the cross, and He’s hoisted up, and that placard around His neck is removed and it’s nailed above His head for all the world to see.  

The Words of King David

And then we come in verse 24 to words of another king.  These are the words of King David, the Twenty-Second Psalm.  “They divided my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.”  Now how did these words of David, spoken a thousand years before, come to fulfillment in this scene?  Well in two ways.  You see, they first divide Jesus’ garments.  Scholars surmise that if He were like a typical person of the day, a typical man of the day, He had with Him four garments.  There was a belt, sandals, hat, and a cloak.  And so as Jesus Christ hangs in agony, bloody and bruised and beaten, gasping for breath, these soldiers are callously going through His possessions.  “And here’s one, Portonotous, why don’t you take the belt?  Tersius, why don’t you take the cloak?  Rufus, why don’t you take the hat?”  But then they come to this fifth garment and it’s a cloak and they were expensive.  This cloak was woven top to bottom; there was not a seam in it.  “Oh it would be a shame to tear this one up.  I know, let’s cast lots for it.  Let’s do a roll of the dice to see who gets it.”  And that’s how Jesus lost the very last of His earthly possessions.  

The Words of King Jesus

But then we come in the end to the words of King Jesus and they’re three of them.  In verse 26, looking at Mary He says, “Woman, behold your son.”  And then looking at John, the apostle John, the disciple who Jesus loved, He said, “Behold, your mother.”  And then in verse 28 He speaks to fulfill the Scripture, probably Psalm 69, another word of David, “For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”  Jesus says, “I thirst.”  And then the last words that John gives us in this gospel from the lips of Jesus on the cross, “It is finished” - three words in English; one word in Greek.  And with that He bowed His head and He gave up His spirit.  This passage is full of words - words of kings to tell you about the King of Kings.  Why did this King go to the cross?  What was it He was going to do on the cross?  And what does that mean for the likes of you and me on another continent, two thousand years removed?  Well let’s look at the kind of King Jesus Christ is.  

I. King Jesus: A Humble King

And I want you to see first that He is a humble and a compassionate king.  Jesus Christ is a humble and a compassionate king.  He’s a humble king - verse 24 again - “They divided my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.”  Here’s Jesus stripped of all His earthly possessions with nothing left on or perhaps a scrap of clothing.  Why is it that Jesus was subjected to this humiliation, this shame, publically?  You know there’s one other place in John’s gospel where Jesus lays down His garments.  It was just a few days before in John 13.  There they were, the disciples and Jesus, in the Upper Room.  They had a good meal behind them and then Jesus does the unexpected.  He rises from table and He lays down His garments and He begins to wash their filthy feet, the way a menial servant would.  As He goes on to explain to them a picture, a glimpse of the love that He was going to display at the cross of Christ.  It was a display of shame and humiliation.  Now how is it that Jesus Christ, whose meat was to do the will of the Father, how was it that Jesus Christ, who delighted to do all that the Father asked Him to do and did it, how was it that Jesus Christ who could look at His enemies in His earthly ministry and say, “You have nothing to accuse Me of,” how is it that Jesus could hang in shame and humiliation on the cross?  And the answer is, it wasn’t for anything that He had done; He was doing it for sinners.  He was bearing the scorn and the shame and the humiliation and the curse because Jesus Christ is dying as a Savior for the sins of sinners.  And to do that, you understand, He had to subject Himself not just to this physical torment and the agony of soul that would follow, but the shame that crowned and surrounded the whole affair.  

II. King Jesus: A Compassionate King

But you see, He’s a compassionate king as well.  And that’s there in verses 26 and 27.  Yes, He’s a humble king and there’s been none like Him before or since, but that humble king is a compassionate king and you see that compassion, streams of compassion, running to Mary and to John.  Here’s Mary; how awful it must have been to be Mary at the foot of the cross - her son hoisted on a Roman gibbet.  This child whom she had carried in her womb, she had raised Him from boyhood to an adult, and now here He was, a bleeding, heaving mass, dying.  And absolutely powerless, all she can do is to look on at the horrific spectacle.  That must have cut Mary’s heart in two.  And Jesus looks on her and He says, “Woman.”  I wonder if that doesn’t strike you a bit strange.  What men here would speak to their mothers and address them, “Woman”?  None of you would.  But understand that when Jesus addresses His mother as, “Woman,” there is not a hint of disrespect.  Why then does He call her, “Woman?”  

Compassion for Mary

There’s one other place in this gospel where Jesus Christ addresses Mary as “Woman.”  It was at the wedding of Cana in John chapter 2.  You remember the scene.  It was a crisis; it was an emergency - they had run out of wine.  And Mary comes to Jesus, her firstborn, and she says, “Jesus, you’ve got to fix this.  You’ve got to make it right.”  And Jesus says to her, “Mary, there’s something you have got to understand.  What you have got to understand is that My timetable and My work will not be set by My earthly mother.  It is set by My Heavenly Father.”  And Mary was getting a glimpse that Jesus Christ was a Savior and a Redeemer and He had come into this world to save sinners.  So as Jesus Christ speaks to Mary from the cross, yes He speaks with all the compassion of a Son to His mother, but there is so much more.  This is Jesus her High Priest, this is Jesus her Redeemer, providing for a sheep that is broken in two.  

Compassion for John

Then you have John.  When did Jesus last see John?  Last time we know it was when He saw his back, running away from Jesus with all the other disciples when they had abandoned Him in His hour of need.  “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.”  And now John, he’s back.  John is surely grieving for what he has done to his Master and Lord.  And you see there’s not a hint of scorn or bitterness in Jesus’ words.  What does He do?  “John, here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to take My mother and care for her as if she was your own mother to the end of your days.”  Here is Jesus compassionately restoring this fallen servant by giving him a task to do and saying, “John, I love you; I trust you.  Care for Mary.” 

What Happens at the Cross?

What does this tell us this morning?  It tells us surely something about the cross.  What was going on at the cross of Calvary?  What God asserting His prerogatives as the moral governor of the universe showing that justice must be punished?  Yes, He was.  Was this a display of love, unparalleled love, love like the world has never seen to stir the hearts of men to imitate that love, to model that love in service of others?  Yes, it was.  But you have not yet got to the bottom of the cross because the cross, you see, is a place of shame.  It’s a place of curse; it’s a place of death.  And Jesus went there to save sinners.  I wonder if you understand that this is what it took for sinners to be saved.  Do you think the Father would send His own Son into this world and give His Son up to this kind of death if it were not necessary for sinners to be saved, were it not necessary when God says, “I want sinners to be drawn back into fellowship and communion with Me”?  And He did it.  And He hung on that cross accursed for sinners like you and me.  

There’s a very famous painting by the Dutch master, Rembrandt.  He painted it in 1633 - “The Raising of the Cross.”  It is a portrait of the lifting of the cross of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s mount.  If you look at the base of that painting you will see a man in a blue turban and that man is Rembrandt.  He painted himself into that scene.  And you see what Rembrandt is saying?  “Dear viewer, come close.  Why is it that Jesus Christ was hoisted on that tree?  I’ll tell you, it was my sins that put Him up there.” I wonder if at the start of this new year you can say the same as well, that you understand the desperate condition you are in because of your sin, that you understand the greatest provision of God in sending His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ into this world to live and die for sinners, and that you have gripped Him by faith?  

A Compassionate Savior who bids us, “Come”

But understand as well that there is compassion here in the heart of Jesus Christ.  As Jesus is bearing the penalty for sinners, as He bears the curse for the ungrateful, for the unlovely, for the wicked, is He resentful?  Is He having regrets?  What John does is to give you a window into the heart of Christ.  That heart beats with compassion, friends.  You see His love to Mary.  Here’s Jesus in the agony of that hour, in the anguish of soul, in the torment of His body as He prepares to bear the curse for the sins of sinners, He looks beyond that moment, as it were, into Mary’s life and He provides for Mary because He cares for her.  And here is this wandering sheep who’s come back into the fold and Jesus Christ gives thought to him to restore him and to bring him back into full fellowship with Him.  Friends, Jesus Christ is now seated on the throne of glory but His heart, on that cross of shame, has not changed.  He is the same yesterday and today and forever.  And I know there’s some of you, you are glad to have finished 2013 and you leave it bruised and battered.  You don’t understand when people say, “Happy New Year.”  You have so little to look forward to.  There’s some of you who carry the burden of your own sin and you wonder, “Will God ever accept me?  Will He ever take someone into His service like I?”  And this Scripture says to you there is no need that you have that Jesus Christ is not able to meet and He is not willing to meet.  His heart is a compassionate heart.  That was true then; it is true now.  The question is, “Will you bring your need to Jesus Christ and come to Him as your High Priest?”  So He is a humble and a compassionate King.

III. King Jesus: An All-Sufficient King

But there’s one other thing we see as well.  He is an all sufficient King.  One of Bach’s great cantatas has the line, and it’s made it into the title of a tune in our Trinity Hymnal - “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”.  “What God does that is well done.”  God doesn’t work by halves or in measure and Jesus Christ says in verse 30, “It is finished.”  Now He’s not saying, “Well I’m done for.  I’m finished.”  He’s saying, “I’ve done it.  All that the Father has given Me to do, I’ve done it.”  What is it that Jesus did?  The Scripture points us to at least two things.  There is first that all the prophecies of Scripture have now come to fulfillment, glorious fulfillment in the person and work of Christ.  You see the word that is translated, “It is finished,” in verse 30, that is the same word that is used twice in verse 28.   “It is fulfilled.”  From the very first promise when God said to our first parents in the garden that, “I will raise up from you, Eve, a Son who will crush the head of the serpent,” and all the way through the ages these promises have come to fulfillment in Christ.  Then Jesus has done all that the Father has given Him to do.  He has been obedience down to the last letter.  Nothing omitted; nothing transgressed.  And the very crown that that life of obedience for His people is, is here in His death and soon His resurrection.  And you see that in verse 28 when Jesus says, “I thirst.” 

What does that mean?  While at one level it means, doesn’t it, that Jesus who would experience this excruciating ordeal, that His mouth and His throat were searing with thirst, He meant it; it was true.  But then in Deuteronomy 28 at verse 48 God had said to Israel, “When I cast you out of this land and you leave with My curse, you will thirst.”  And when Jesus declares, “I thirst,” He is bearing the weight of our sins.  He hangs on that tree as an accursed one and He finished it.  He bowed His head; He gave up His spirit.  Death did not break in and steal but He gave His life over as a sovereign High Priest.  He conquered death; death is dead.  Justice is satisfied.  The wrath of God is placated.  Blessing and life are one.  Then, did you notice in verse 24 again how Pilate spoke more than he knew.  He not only broadcast the news that Jesus Christ is King but he broadcast it in Aramaic, the very language of Palestine, and he broadcast it in Greek, the language of the Eastern Empire, and he broadcast it in Latin, the language of the Western Empire.  The good news, my friends, that Jesus Christ is King is for the whole world.  It’s not just for the Jew; it is for the Greek as well.  And that means that all that Christ has done here is for the likes of you and me. 

Application

Now what does this tell us this morning as we close?  Now two or three things.  

I. A Complete Forgiveness and Reconciliation

What does it mean when Jesus Christ says, “It is finished”?  He doesn’t say, “Well I did what I could and now it’s up to them.”  He doesn’t say, “Well I did My part.” But He says, “It is finished.”  And if you’re a Christian, if you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, you could not stand on a surer foundation than the finished work of Jesus Christ.  And on that foundation you stand reconciled before a Heavenly Father who, in love, sent His Son into this world to save sinners.  Do you believe that?  A lot of Christians struggle to believe this. 

You remember the novel, Les Miserables?  You’ve seen the film, some of you.  You remember Jean Valjean?  He’s released from prison, nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, and he’s given papers.  And everywhere he goes they open up the papers and those papers say to all who would read that this man is a dangerous convict.  And they shut the papers and they send him away.  

I wonder if some of you think that, “This is exactly how God thinks of me?  Yes, He may have forgiven me, but I stand with a mark, I stand under a cloud.”  Let the cross, my friend, dispel every thought, every thought of that kind.  If God the Father has done this in Jesus Christ, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?  Could there be a greater proof that the love of God the Father for you, Christian, than in Jesus Christ, His only Son, going to the cross and dying this death?  Now you say, “I don’t feel love.”  You may not, but whoever said that feelings were what really count?  You look to the cross and you see what God did and you believe and then you live in light of it.  

II. A Complete Removal of Guilt

One of the signs that the Father’s love is at work in my heart, in your heart - you know we are so skilled at covering our sin.  Our first parents did that.  One of the first things they did was to grab fig leaves to sew them as though they could cover themselves.  And we have all sorts of subtle ways to try and cover and extenuate and hide our sins:  “Well if you knew who I was married to you would think differently about what I just said.  You know, I may not be the best, but I work with the guy two pews behind me and I’ve seen him in action and I tell you I’m better than he is.  Look, you’re making such a big deal of it.  This is such a small sin and no one sees it; it’s not hurting anybody.”  

And what happens when the light of the cross shines into the darkness of a person’s heart?  The excuses stop and because Jesus Christ fully bore in shame our sin we don’t cover up our sins.  Martin Luther used to gather friends and students around the table and people would write down things he would say.  On one occasion he said around the table, “When I awoke last night the devil came and wanted to debate me.  He rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner.  To this I replied, ‘Tell me something new! I already knew that perfectly well.  I have committed many a solid and real sin.  Indeed there must be good, honest sins not fabricated and invented ones for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ.  This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny but want to acknowledge and confess.’”  And Christian, bring your sins to Christ to cover the guilt.  Won’t you bring your sins to Christ as well to remove their very presence and power from your life because you want them gone?

III. The God of salvation in Christ is the God who directs all according to His eternal plan 

And that brings us to one last thing.  Did you see how this whole Scripture is the minute outworking in history of God’s sovereign, unchangeable, and eternal plan?  Look at the actors - Jewish leaders, Pilate, Roman soldiers - acting from greed, malice, indifference.  God bends and steers and directs their wills and actions to accomplish His purposes in history and all for His glory and for the salvation of sinners.  Now here’s a word for the New Year - what’s 2014 going to bring you and me?  Oh, there are plenty of opinions - read the papers, look on the Internet.  Lots of predictions but you and I know nobody knows, not here on earth.  Here’s what we do know.  Our God reigns.  We have a Savior in Jesus Christ who delivers the accursed from their curse if they trust in Him and there is a new and living way to the Father through His flesh.  Christian, you need to live in the certainty that the Gospel brings so that you can live in the uncertainties of the world in which we live.  But here’s the good news.  The very God who gives you the certainty of salvation in Jesus Christ is one in the same God who reigns in heaven above and directs all things according to that eternal plan of His and that’s the God you worship in Jesus Christ.  There’s a thought for the New Year.  Come to think of it, there’s a thought for every day of the year.  There is a humble and a compassionate and an all sufficient King.  Have you turn from the accursed state you’re in because of sin?  Have you fled to Jesus Christ as your refuge?  Do you know His compassion and His humility and His all sufficiency?  If you do, by faith, lift your head high and walk in that faith to the glory of this King, this year, until He returns.  Let’s pray.

Our God and Father, we praise You for Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.  What love He showed.  What love You displayed to us in sending Him into the world to die for sinners.  And that has not changed.  Father, let us, by faith, believe these things and grow in them and live to the glory of Him who lived and died for us.  For we ask this in His name, amen.

Now please rise and respond with me using the words of hymn 260, “Where You There?”

Now remain standing and receive the Lord’s blessing.  “Grace be unto you and peace from Him who is and was and is to come and from the seven spirits who are before His throne and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen.”

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