PART SIX: Death, Resurrection & Ascension
Focus on Christ Meditations: 45. Death Forewarned
Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
And so we must move on and leave the activities of Jesus during his three years of ministry, to go to the closing days and hours of his life and then what followed. Throughout this series, and I know I have emphasised it more than once, I have sought to counter the familiarity with which many of us live. In this day of, not only regular Sunday services but so much TV preaching being available, I believe this can almost make us over-familiar with God’s word and so we take it for granted and lose the sense of wonder and awe that a new believer so often has when approaching it for the first time. For this reason I am going to take time over the death, resurrection and ascension of the Christ and ask you to read the accounts afresh as if reading for the first time.
Accepting that Jesus did die on the Cross, the fact of which we will consider in another study, the question I want to ask us is, contrary to our familiarity, what evidence is there, if any, that the death of the Messiah or Christ was expected?
If I may start on the easy part, what did Jesus himself say about his death? We have seen it before but it does bear repeating. Three times Matthew records Jesus warning his disciples that it was going to happen: first, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) Note two thing about this. First with the explicit detail given, there can be no mistake whatsoever about the clarity of Jesus’ understanding of what was going to happen – go to Jerusalem, suffering, killed and then raised on the third day. It’s all there. Second, note Jesus uses the word ‘killed’ and not ‘executed’. This is not going to be a legitimate or even legal execution, we will go on to see.
Then a second time: “When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” (Mt 17:22,23) The previous account had been Matthew’s record but this one now includes Jesus’ own words and within these is the idea that he is going to be ‘betrayed’, which is a word with strong emotional undertones and speaks of disloyalty and even deception. These are the ingredients that will lead up to Jesus death at the hands of the religious and then civil authorities.
Finally, a third time: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:17-19) This again is in Jesus’ own words and, combining the previous two, adds even more detail: Jerusalem, betrayal, in the hands of the religious authorities who will condemn him to the Gentile overlords, the Romans, who will first mock and flog him and then crucify him. When we come to observe the resurrection we will note in these same verses the clear claim that he will rise from the dead, but that is for later on.
Mark and Luke have only one of these instances and John, presumably because he feels Matthew had covered it well, does not give any direct references such as these but we do see Jesus giving indication that his time with his disciples was almost up. In Jn 13:1 it is John who states that he knew what Jesus was thinking: “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” The washing the disciples feet is also put in that context (see 13:2,3,11,18,21,27) then specifically he declares, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.” (13:33, also 14:2,3, 28-31, 16:5,7,10,16,19,20,28) Thus many times in that last discourse he alludes to the fact of his leaving them, though not the how or why.
Now these have all been warnings during the time of Jesus’ ministry and it is fair to ask, what about in the prophecies in the Old Testament, were there the same indications there, should the Jews (and thus, disciples) have been expecting this?
Perhaps, as a starting point, there is the reference, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” (Psa 118:22) which Jesus himself referred to (e.g. Mt 21:42) and which Peter referred to both when he was preaching (Acts 4:11) and in his first letter (1 Pet 2:7), though I wonder how many of the scribes associated that reference with the Coming One, the Messiah?
But then that might be true of other verses from the psalms, for example the cries of Psa 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v.1) Many of the verses that follow can, after the event, be directly linked to the Cross and all Jesus went through, but when it was first written I wonder how many dared link it to the Messiah?
Then in Isaiah in the Servant Song of Ch.52,53 we find those mysterious words, “Just as there were many who were appalled at him– his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (Isa 52:14) followed a bit later by, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5), words that we so easily attribute to what happened to Jesus but which, at the time, I suggest were utterly mysterious to the listeners to Isaiah.
A while later Zechariah uttered one or two things in this direction, which must have left his hearers somewhat mystified: “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” (Zech 12;10) and the even more mysterious words, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,” (Zech 13:7) which was quoted by Jesus on the night of his arrest (Mt 26:31)
Although there are many prophecies we today call descriptions of the Coming Messiah, many of them just hung there as stars in the sky but leaving the listeners wondering and without much understanding. This, I suggest, takes us right back to our earliest studies in this series where we referred to ‘the mystery of Christ’. The curse in the Garden of Eden is usually taken to refer to Jesus versus Satan: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen 3:15) Satan will be crushed while he injures, but not fatally, the seed of the woman – the Coming Messiah. Hints but no more. That is really all the Lord gave them. Little wonder they struggled when Jesus sought to tell them what was coming.