(April 12, 2019) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, reflects on Easter – the church’s most important celebration …
The death of Jesus is set in the context of the unique relationship between Jesus and his Father and that relationship formed the background theme of John’s gospel.
At the heart of the Christian faith lies a very unusual fact – the One who repeatedly offered eternal life to people suffered at the hands of evil men and was put to death on a cross!
If we are going to remain faithful to the Christian message, we cannot soften this fact or ‘candy coat’ it in any way. The account of Jesus’ death by crucifixion is scandalous – but it is true! The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23, ‘We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ The Greek word for ‘stumbling block’ is skandalon.
Certainly the Jews were looking forward to a powerful and victorious Messiah before whom his enemies would quake – not one who would be disgracefully executed!
Was Jesus’ death a tragic mistake?
Were things supposed to end differently? In his gospel John explained that everything happened to Jesus exactly as it was supposed to.
- Jesus’ death on the cross was, in fact, the outworking of the divine design that God had planned before he created the world.
- In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost he referred to this breathtaking truth: ‘This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2:23).
- Jesus’ sacrifice was wholly voluntary and it was the means by which evil forces were conquered and mankind could be restored to intimacy with him.
John made a number of points such as the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross was foreknown and was a fulfilment of God’s purpose.
(i) Jesus was closely identified with Old Testament events and teaching
John wanted his readers to realise that Jesus was quite unlike anyone else who had ever lived and that the Old Testament contained many references about him, such as:
- Jacob’s ladder (1:51)
- The snake in desert (3:14)
- The manna in the wilderness (6:49-51)
- The Feast of Tabernacles (7:37-39)
- The ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah (19:27).
(ii) Jesus’ death had been foretold in the Old Testament scriptures
John emphasised that Jesus’ death and the manner in which he died were foretold in the scriptures. This truth is stunning! Nothing took place concerning the death of Jesus that had not been previously planned. His death was no terrible accident but it perfectly fulfilled God’s plan and hints of this had been revealed in the scriptures.
John wrote about things that the other gospel writers did not include. For example, he emphasised how many the Old Testament scriptures foretold Jesus coming and his death. He introduced this fact in the first chapter of his gospel where he wrote, ‘Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”’ (1:42).
John wanted his readers to grasp the fact that many of the Old Testament rituals and practices found their fulfilment and true meaning in the person of Jesus and his death. Even John’s mention of the Lamb of God and his quotation from 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’ – signifies that, through his suffering and death, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the role of the passover lamb and, as such, the ultimate meaning of the passover.
(iii) Jesus chose the time of his death
During his ministry Jesus stirred up different responses. There were those who were so impressed by his miracles, especially those who had witnessed the feeding of the thousands with five loaves and two fish, that they wanted to make him king. However, as John 6:15 tells us, ‘Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’
On the other hand he also stirred up the anger and hatred of a number of people particularly the Pharisees who saw him as a major threat. He often questioned their religious practices, challenged their religious traditions and condemned their self-righteousness. They, and the Sadducees, also saw Jesus as an economic and political threat and so were worried that Jesus might threaten their fragile peace with the Romans. The Jewish leaders considered that the best solution would be for Jesus to die. Consequently they started to scheme against him and hatched a plot that would get rid of him for good! John commented in 10:39, ‘… they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.’
- The truth was that his enemies were not the ones in control of where, when or how Jesus would die. Jesus was directing the scene.
- Others, who were conspiring to bring about his death, were not controlling the murder plot against him, although they thought they were in the driving seat.
- Not even Satan was directing it!
There was a precisely right time and place when Jesus would die and he himself was in total control. After three years of ministry, just before the Feast of Passover, Jesus said to Andrew and Philip, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John12:23). In praying to the Father he said, ‘… shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour’ (v27).
Other important points
Then in verses 31-32 Jesus said, ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ In these two verses Jesus was making four very important points:
- The time of judgment on the world had begun
The word that is used here for ‘judgment’ in Greek is krisis from which we get our word ‘crisis.’ The ‘Day of Judgment’ still lies ahead, but by Christ’s death on the cross, the judgment had begun. God had sent his Son to save the world, but by his rejection and crucifixion the world is judged.
- The ‘prince of this world’ would be driven out
This is a reference to Satan and the same phrase is used in John 14:30 and 16:11. The cross may have been interpreted by many at that time as the defeat of Jesus; however, in reality it signified the defeat of Satan!
- Jesus would be lifted up from earth
John likely quoted those words of Jesus as a reminder of what Jesus had said to Nicodemus at the beginning of his ministry (3:14), ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.’ The true meaning of that event was now going to be revealed in the crucifixion. In the lifting up of Jesus on the cross the time had arrived for dealing with the spiritual sickness that leads to eternal death.
- Jesus would draw all (men) to himself
The word ‘men’ does not appear in the Greek text. Jesus said that he would draw all to himself but this does not mean universal salvation, for that would not be in harmony with the teaching of the rest of the Bible. The ‘all’ refers to people of all nations, races, colours and classes who place their faith in him.
John really wanted his readers to understand this – at all times Jesus was in total command of the events. Even when he was arrested and was standing before Pilate he was asked, ‘Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ (19:10-11).
Although Jesus’ death was a historical event, John wants us to comprehend the breathtaking truth that it had been part of God’s eternal plan to bring us back to himself. And what a plan that was!
For those who had been convinced that he was the promised king, it now appeared that his kingdom would end before it had begun! But that was not the end of the story…
Three days later, before the day had dawned, Mary Magdalene made her way to Jesus’ tomb. John wrote that it was dark. Again John introduced the theme of darkness that is one of the themes in his Gospel. Apart from the fact that the sun had not risen, it was ‘dark’ because Mary was still in deep sorrow because of the death of her beloved friend. As yet she was unaware that the darkness was going to be expelled because the true light was about to be revealed to her in all his resurrection glory.
Mary saw the open, empty tomb and jumped to the wrong conclusion – she thought that somebody had removed Jesus’ body. She may have thought either grave robbers or the Jewish authorities had taken the body; she did not even consider the possibility that Jesus could be alive!
When the Risen Lord spoke to her, she cried out in joy. She now knew that he as alive! She found the disciples and told them, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ (18). The resurrection of Jesus had really happened. Jesus was alive. The grave could not hold him!
The Easter story is not just ‘a story’! The death and resurrection of Jesus actually took place at points in history but its significance and relevance reaches us today. Jesus has done all he came to do to save us and reconcile us to God the Father, our Creator. Our part in the ‘divine drama’ is very easy – we simply have to confess our need of him and to place our faith in him.
Then we share in his glorious resurrection! Hallelujah!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Recommended are his enlightening Grace Revisited and Looking for Answers in a Confusing World; also Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org