Sunday, 4 November 2018

Witnesses (Matthew 27:51-56)

Matthew highlights four consequences in connection to the cross after the Saviour had died. Each of them was unexpected.

The curtain is destroyed (Matthew 27:51) 
The first detail that Matthew mentions is that the curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place in the temple was torn in two. One assumes that priests would have been serving at that time in the temple and this would have startled them. We cannot know if they saw into the most holy place, but if they did, they would have seen its furniture and other features.

The obvious deduction from the way that the curtain was torn is that it was a supernatural act. If it had been a human act, it would have been torn from the bottom up. Yet since it was torn from the top down, we can assume correctly that the Lord did the rending. He wanted people to know that sinners could now come into his heavenly presence because of the stoning work of Jesus.

Of course, the earthly most holy place could not depict everything that occurs in heaven. So we can ask what was happening in the heavenly court at that moment. I would mention two details. First, the human spirit of Jesus was there. He had committed his spirit into the hands of the Father, and the journey from the cross to heaven only took a moment. No doubt, his arrival was accompanied by songs of worship.

Second, heaven was waiting for the arrival of the soul of the penitent criminal who had been assured by Jesus of being with him in Paradise. We don’t know how long this took place after the arrival of Jesus, yet we can confidently say that he was given a great welcome.

One more detail can be mentioned about the tearing of the veil. What activity would those in the temple have seen taking place within the space that had been hidden by the curtain? They would have seen nothing taking place and nobody there to do anything. It was only on the annual Day of Atonement that the High Priest could enter within the Most Holy Place. Atonement had been made on the cross and now there was no need for any of the activities connected to the temple ritual. 

The coming to life of some saints (Matthew 27:51-53)
An earthquake caused some tombs to open, probably in the sense that stones across their entrances rolled away. This resurrection is only mentioned by Matthew. Obviously, it is a sign of the importance of what had happened at Calvary. 

The first detail that we can consider is that although the tombs were opened when Jesus died, the dead bodies were not raised until after his resurrection. This points to the centrality of Jesus as far as the experience of resurrection is concerned. They were not raised when he died, but their resurrection shows that he was the firstfruits from the dead, as Paul describes him in 1 Corinthians 15. 

The second detail is that those raised became special witnesses in the city of Jerusalem, where many saw them and could bear witness to that fact. We are not told who they were, so we cannot say that they were those who had been dead for a long time or those who had been dead for a short time. The point that is stressed by Matthew is that they acted as witnesses to the reality of the resurrection power of Jesus. We cannot say whether they only appeared to believers.

A third detail is one that is not mentioned, which is what happened to those persons after their brief time of witness to Jesus in Jerusalem. Did they return to their tombs, even as Lazarus would have done, or were they taken to heaven? Matthew does not tell us, so we cannot say what happened to them as far as their bodies are concerned. Even if they did die again, their spirits are safe in heaven with Jesus.

There is a fourth detail to observe, which is that only some of the dead saints were raised. Moreover, the choice of which saints to raise is connected to the proximity of their tombs to the city of Jerusalem. Matthew does say that there were many of them. Still, all those who had died as believers before this time were not raised, which means that those who were raised were specifically chosen by God for this role. That was a great privilege for them.

Conversion of the soldiers (Matthew 27:54)
Perhaps we now approach the greatest of the signs of conquests made by Jesus at Calvary. An earthquake had shaken the ground, but here we see that an earthquake had taken place in the hearts of these hardened soldiers. Sepulchres of the dead had opened in order for them to become the locations of life, and we can also see that this was the case too with regard to hearts of the soldiers.

Luke gives us information that explains why these soldiers were converted. They had been responsible for bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus and had also gambled over his clothes. Luke tells us what the response of Jesus had been to their actions, which was that he prayed for them to be forgiven. And here we see the wonderful answer that was made to his prayer. Those soldiers realised who he was and freely confessed it.

Surely, we see in this incident a wonderful example of the effect of the prayer of Jesus. What was involved in his intercession on this occasion? There was love to enemies, there was desire for their spiritual good, there was specific focus on them as persons, and there was willingness to forgive them all their sins, even their greatest sins. What an example he is concerning prayer!

What about the response of the soldiers? They picture what our response should be. First, they looked at and considered what had occurred at the cross. As they put all the details together, beginning with his prayer for their forgiveness, followed by what occurred during the hours of darkness, and then the manner of his death and the signs that accompanied it, they were astonished. This is what happens to all who consider the significance of Calvary and what happened there.

They did not stop with a sense of inner awe. In addition, they seem to have spoken simultaneously about their estimation of the Sufferer. They spoke about him at a moment when others did not say anything about him. What a time for their confession – the first humans on earth to praise him after his death!

The best place to see the identity of Jesus is the cross. That is the testimony of the soldiers. As they observed what happened to Jesus they freely confessed his divine identity. There was nothing at the cross that suggested to their enlightened eyes that Jesus could be anything but divine. And that is the confession of all who discover the significance of the cross.

The constancy of the women (Matthew 27:55-56)
So far we have seen the witness of the torn veil, the earthquake and the confession of the soldiers. Now Matthew brings to our attention several women who had remained within the vicinity of the cross. Why had they done so? They were constrained by love despite the disappointments they had experienced with the arrest and death of the One they loved and served. Even although it now looked as if their cause was defeated, they still showed their love. And that is a challenge for us today when we are told on every side that the relevance of Jesus is coming to an end. We are called in our weakness and confusion to stand by the message of the cross, no matter how often others choose to say that it is no longer relevant.

Matthew identifies three of them, perhaps because he had known the degree of their devotion to Jesus. We are not surprised that Mary Magdalene loved Jesus – he had delivered her from the grip of seven demons (Luke 8:1-3). Salome was the wife of Zebedee and the mother of the apostles James and John. Did she think as she stood there of the question she had asked Jesus about her boys having a prominent place in his kingdom? The mother of James and Joseph could be a reference to the wife of Alphaeus, since there was a James among the apostles who was his son.

Why are they said to be looking on from a distance? I suspect they were as close as they could get. After all, Jesus was crucified beside the main road into the city and there would be a constant stream of people entering and leaving the city, especially on Passover day. Also, they would not have wanted to stand beside those who were mocking the Saviour. They watched what happened to him, and while they did not understand what was taking place they would have done so later. The point of their location is that they were still identified with Jesus.

I would make one application from each of the four areas of witness that we have considered. The first one concerns rituals that are now meaningless. Of course, I do not have in mind rituals required by God’s Word. Yet surely the fact that God revealed that there was no longer a need to go along with divinely appointed temple rituals that now were no longer needed should cause us to consider how we react to the rituals we practice. The question we must ask ourselves is, ‘Do they have any meaning today?’ After all, God is going to ask us why we did them.

What application can we take from the experience of those who were raised from the dead? They were witnesses for a short time to the power of the risen Christ. They also witness to us that he possesses the power to raise his people from the dead. We are to think about what is revealed concerning them and not focus on the aspects that we cannot give a definitive answer. They tell us that Jesus after his resurrection raised people from the dead.

The conversions of the soldiers tell us that it is normal for believers to expect great sinners to be converted through what happened on the cross. These men were hard individuals when they first met Jesus, indifferent to physical sufferings that they caused and observed. Yet when they were enabled to see beyond the physical sufferings and discern who the Sufferer was, they confessed him as the Son of God. The lesson for us is to speak to others about the meaning of the cross, about the deeper sufferings that Jesus went through as the sinbearer. 

They need to know that this was not just another crucifixion, but instead it was a divine transaction taking place between the Father and the Son. Talking about the physical sufferings may generate sympathy, but our witness should point to the making of atonement for sin that took place there by the Son of God. 

What can be said about the women at the cross? Love for Jesus made them want to be close to him even when everyone else was reviling him. Since he was able to speak to his mother (John 19:25-26), the women were close enough for him to do so. We know that often it is women who do things for Jesus, that often they will go where some men have never been. That is a challenge for us to ask ourselves: are we, like these women, ready to identify always with Jesus? 

Power and Suffering (Phil. 3:10-11)

Paul reveals his spiritual priorities in these verses, and in so doing reveals to us what it means to be Christ-centred. All of us have ambitions or goals and if we want to attain them we have to work out how to do so. Paul’s ambition is to know Christ and he says that it will involve two strategies: one is the power of Christ’s resurrection and the other is the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Again, with regard to our goals, we usually have a reason for them; Paul’s reason for knowing Christ is so that he ‘may attain to the resurrection of the dead’.

Often if we were to ask an onlooker for his opinion of Christianity, he will reply that it seems to be a series of regulations and may refer to the Ten Commandments or to the Sermon on the Mount. Or he may say that it seems to be a set of rituals and he may mention prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and so on. Obviously, in a sense his observations are accurate, yet they still omit the most crucial aspect of true Christianity which is that it is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Without a relationship, the regulations and the rituals are pointless; with the relationship, they become meaningful expressions of the bond that a Christian has with Jesus Christ.

Paul had enjoyed a relationship with Jesus Christ for about thirty years when he wrote this letter. So whatever else we can say about the relationship, it was one that lasted. Indeed, we know that Paul was yet to live for several years, and in the last letter that he wrote before his execution (2 Timothy), he was still continuing with this relationship. For example, he says in 2 Timothy 4:17-18: ‘But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.’

We know that the relationship began when Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became his follower a few days later when he was baptised by Ananias. Since Paul had until then been an enemy of Jesus’ cause, we can describe this new relationship between Jesus and Paul as a gracious one as far as Jesus was concerned and a grateful one as far as Paul was concerned. It was a gracious relationship because Paul had been forgiven his sins by Jesus and given a role in spreading his new Master’s kingdom, and it was a grateful relationship for Paul because of the same reasons.

Since that auspicious day three decades previously, Paul had discovered that the relationship was also a growing one. Over that period, Jesus had functioned as his prophet teaching him about the contents of salvation and what insights Paul was thus able to give to the church regarding the relationship believers have to the heavenly Father, regarding the work of the indwelling Spirit, regarding the future when Jesus returns, and much more. In fact, everything that Paul taught was linked to what he was taught by Jesus. Further Jesus had functioned as his priest, who interceded for him, who sympathised with him, who strengthened him for each day, who was his friend. And Jesus also functioned as his king, both overpowering the sins in Paul’s life and protecting him from many powerful foes. The fact is, every thing that Paul learned from and about Jesus Christ caused him to want to know more. 

Every believer meets Jesus in a different way. Paul’s experience was unique to him and has not been duplicated in any other person. The same can be said for every person who has become a follower of Jesus. This is why it is pointless expecting another’s conversion to follow the same steps as our own. There will be similarities: for example, people usually have a degree of conviction of sin that causes them to flee to Christ (yet even these periods of conviction vary in length and intensity). We should value the diversity in our own conversion because it is a reflection of the way that Jesus, our heavenly Lover, sought us and found us.

Some believers can put legitimate things in place of knowing Christ. For example, some Christians focus on Christian doctrine. They can tell you in detail the particular tenets of a denomination (even of one that went out of existence two hundred years ago). Other Christians focus on practical matters. They like to be active, engaged in all kinds of activities that are beneficial and charitable. Yet there seems to be something missing. They give the impression that the activities are the goal rather than a means to knowing Jesus better.  These two features of orthodoxy and practice marked the church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7), yet they were rebuked severely by Jesus because they had left their first love, their devotion to him.

Shared power and sufferings
Paul mentions two ways by which he will be enabled to know Jesus better: through the power of his resurrection and through the fellowship of his sufferings. It is important to note that Paul is not separating these two ways as if it was possible for us to know Jesus by using only one of them. Neither is he putting them in a sequence, as if we experience one before the other. Instead he is saying that the way to know Christ is to experience these blessings from Christ simultaneously. Nevertheless, in order to understand what Paul means, we need to consider them separately.

It is obvious from Paul’s words that in himself, even as a Christian, he needed power. The reason for this is because his spiritual enemies were still stronger than him. Without Christ, he could not obtain a single victory over them. Who were these enemies? Paul mentions them in his letters: the world, indwelling sin and the devil. He had to fight against them daily. Yet he knew that the answer to them was the resurrection power of Christ. Yet the remedy indicates the degree of the problem that Paul, and every believer, faces.

In Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul prays that his readers would know three blessings. First, he wants them to know the hope of their calling; second, he wants them to know the riches of God’s inheritance; and third, he wants them to know ‘what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.’ It is not difficult to imagine that his prayer for them was linked to what he prayed for himself.

What is the resurrection power of Christ? Paul gives the answer in Romans 8:11: ‘But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.’ The Holy Spirit, who permanently indwells each of his people, is the power that each of them needs and has.

In what ways does this power show itself? Paul mentions two ways in Ephesians 3:16-19, where he prays that believers will be ‘strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man’. This strengthening is necessary first so ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’, which points to intimate fellowship; it is necessary also so ‘that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ Divine strengthening is necessary for the enjoyment of Christ’s love, in other words, for knowing him better.

A third way in which this resurrection power shows itself is mentioned by Paul in Romans 8:4: ‘that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ In other words, the Holy Spirit enables believers to keep God’s commandments (not perfectly, but increasingly).

Shared sufferings
A fourth way in which believers experience this enabling power is mentioned by Paul in our text from Philippians – they experience it when they are enabled to have fellowship in Christ’s sufferings. This is not a reference to the atoning sufferings of Jesus. It is impossible for any to share them with Jesus. But they are not the only kind of sufferings that Jesus experienced or experiences.

Because these sufferings are stimulated or enabled by the Spirit, they can be classified as fellowship or partnership with Jesus. What kind of sufferings come into this category?

To begin with, we can think of persecution. It was in this way that Jesus introduced himself to Paul on the Damascus Road when he said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ Paul never forgot these words, they made a great impression on him. He realised that the sufferings of the church were also the sufferings of Christ because of his union with them. Although in heaven, he felt their pain. For many of us, persecution is an alien concept. Yet Paul assures us that those who live godly lives will suffer persecution.

Another way of sharing the sufferings of Christ is the pain our souls experience when we see the damage caused in people’s lives by sin. I don’t have in mind the way that alcohol is abused by drunkards or similar problems. Instead, I am thinking of how Jesus saw people as sheep without a shepherd; in other words, he saw them as lost. On that occasion, their problem was the lack of available food. Yet he saw beyond their temporary need to the great problem of their lives. They were without God, and it caused Jesus pain. As we see the crowds in our cities and towns, wandering to a lost eternity, do we share in the sufferings of Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem?

A third way of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus is connected to what he has not yet experienced as far as glory is concerned. The Old Testament depicts the days of the Messiah to be ones in which all problems will be gone, perfect health will be enjoyed, sin will be removed. The fulfilment of these Messianic prophecies will not occur until the new heaven and new earth is brought into existence by Jesus. In the meantime, creation groans (Rom. 8) and we groan because we have the first fruits of the Spirit (the power of Christ’s resurrection). The Spirit who groans within us is the Spirit of Jesus.

Paul writes that sharing in the sufferings of Christ will conform us to his death. It is not entirely clear what he meant by this conformity. One suggestion is that since his death was the culmination of his obedience, so our sharing of his sufferings evidences our obedience. Another suggestion is that Paul is referring to the sense of shame that often accompanies crucifixion (the form of death that Jesus had), but instead of seeing their sufferings as shameful, they see them as a privilege to go the same way through life as the Saviour did. A third suggestion is that as the death of Jesus led to his resurrection, so our denials of self and willingness to die to our own prospects will lead to increased spiritual life. Paul had experienced this even in Philippi: he was being persecuted for the faith, yet even the location where he was chained had become the place where many of the guard had heard the gospel. As Albert Barnes put it, ‘They who are most like him in the scenes of humiliation here, will be most like him in the realms of glory.’

Eye on the Resurrection (v. 11)
Paul tells his readers why he wanted to experience resurrection power and to share in Christ’s sufferings. Doing so would keep him on the path that would culminate in the resurrection of the righteous (Paul uses a word that stresses they will have a different resurrection from the unrighteous). He is not suggesting that he would not reach there; instead he is saying that since he possesses Christ’s power, nothing can stop him getting there. Even if his sufferings would become a lot worse, he would still get there.

His knowledge of Christ gave him a challenge to live for Jesus; it also gave him confidence as he lived for Jesus. Do we know Jesus in such a way?