27. Catastrophe – Friday

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 27. Catastrophe – Friday

Jn 19:6   Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Approach: It’s early Friday morning. The historian Max Hastings wrote a book entitled ‘Catastrophe’, detailing the First World War and then a subsequent one detailing the Second World War, entitled, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’. They are sobering reading and the folly of mankind is laid bare, but the description, ‘Catastrophe’ and the following one, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ are apt descriptions of what took place on this most shameful day in history. If we may, let’s just itemize the things that happen in the next eighteen hours. It’s very easy to forget all that happened so let’s remind ourselves what Good Friday is about:

The Events:

– night, Jesus is taken first to the house of Annas (Jn 18:13) where interrogated.

– he is then sent to Caiaphas’s palace being interrogated by scribes and elders (Mt 26:57, Jn 18:24))

“chief priests and elders and all the council” (i.e. the Sanhedrin) seek false witnesses (Mt 26:59-62)

– the chief priest demands him under oath to declare if he is the Son of God (v.63)

– Jesus affirms this is so (v.64) The high priest declares this is blasphemy (v.65)

– collectively they agree this is worthy of death (v.66)

– he is abused by some there (Mk 14:65, Lk 22:63)

– the ‘trial’ continues to the morning (probably daybreak) (Mt 27:1, Lk 22:66)

– they then take him to Pilate (Mt 27:2)

– Pilate interrogates him, finds no fault, offers to free him, the crowd calls for Barabbas (Mt 27:11-23)

– Pilate sends him to Herod who returns him (Lk 23:6-12)

– Pilate washes his hands of the situation and gives him over to be crucified (Mt 27:24-26)

– Jesus is beaten and mocked by the soldiers (Mt 27:27-31)

– Jesus is crucified (Mt 27:35, Lk 23:33) It is midday (Jn 19:14)

– At three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus dies (Mt 27:45-50)

– As evening approaches Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and entombs him (Mt 27:57-60)

– On Saturday, a guard is placed over the still closed tomb (Mt 27:62-66)

Detail? I am aware that a list like this skims over the events but the truth is that there is so much that it would be impossible to cover it all in all four Gospels, so I leave it to you to read the accounts. The end result is that by late afternoon on this Passover day, Jesus is dead, the Lamb of God has been sacrificed for the sin of the world. Wonderful and terrible. The wonder will come with later understanding but for the moment, on this day, it is simply terrible, a catastrophe! All hell has broken lose. How else can we explain what has taken place?

Uncertainty? How does our overall theme fit here? Well, when we look at the appalling acts of the combined Jewish authorities – and they are all implicated – their only uncertainty, their only question mark, is whether they will be able to get Pilate to agree to their demands and have Jesus executed. When Jesus is before Pilate, the procurator’s initial uncertainty is Jesus’ guilt, and he is fairly sure he is guilty of nothing demanding death. His secondary uncertainty is how he can let Jesus off without displeasing the Jewish authorities and possibly causing a riot.  He tries suggesting releasing Jesus – or the rebel leader Barabbas – but when that offer is rejected he tries to offload his responsibility by sending him to Herod but Herod gets no further with Jesus and so sends him back.   When the crowd shout that he is no friend of Caesar (Jn 19:12,15) he capitulates and gives him up to be killed. He stands in history as a moral coward and thus Jew and Gentile share in the responsibility for the death of the Son of God.

But the peak of uncertainty must be seen in the disciples. Mostly they have simply fled and hidden. Their future is questionable. Peter has denied Jesus and is now in total despair. He, the one so often seen as the leader of the twelve, is now enveloped in guilt and shame. He has no future. The apostle John and a number of the women have witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross and they are in no doubt that the one they love is dead. There is a massive question mark over the future. What were these three years all about? The anguish of what they had just witnessed overshadows everything else. There appears to be no thought given to Jesus words, reiterated so many times about his coming death AND resurrection. It has all been swallowed up in the awfulness of what has just happened.

I think it is probably impossible, this side of heaven, to see and understand the absolute awfulness of this day. We can catch a glimpse of it, how wrong it was, but let’s try to stretch further, remembering all the time of the wonder of who it is we have been considering – the glorious Son of God who put his glory aside and left heaven to experience life in a human body, who waited patiently thirty years until he was able to bring about the most incredible three years the world has ever witnessed, with miracles, healings, deliverances, people being raised from the dead – the love of God being poured through him on a daily basis to bless humanity.

But see:

– the disciples – who betray Jesus, abandon Jesus, deny Jesus in his time of need,

– the Jewish authorities – who take this man full of utter goodness, and scheme to have him killed because he showed up the bankruptcy of their faith and their lives and put their nation under threat (at least as they saw it), and the Jewish people who allowed themselves to be used by the authorities to raise the threat level against Pilate, and thus enable the will of the authorities to proceed,

– the Roman Procurator, Pilate, who failed to stand up to the evil confronting him and abrogated his authority and that of Rome to let his men bring about the will of Judaism.

Questions for Us? As we read the accounts of Jesus on the Cross there is a measure of uncertainty that most of us never dare go near, questions arise over the Scriptures. It is the event plus what is said about it in the rest of the Bible. Let’s consider two examples:

First, how about the prophetic Psalm 22 that starts with those terrible words that Jesus uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v.1) revealing a psalm that saw behind the scenes if we may put it like that. “All who see me mock me.” (v.7 fulfilled in, for example Mk 15:31). “all my bones are out of joint.” (v.14) the experience of hanging, nailed, on a cross. But then what about, “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions that tear their prey,” (v.12,13) and “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.” (v.16) This is not merely people, this is the demonic hoard egged on by Satan, deriding him and seeking to provoke him to curse God so that he became less than the perfect sacrifice that the prophecies and Law required. I have referred to C.S.Lewis’s Narnia book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” before, and if you read it you will remember the mob around Aslan as he is being sacrificed. I think Lewis got it right. On the cross on this day, there is a battle going on for the fate of the world that depends on a perfect lamb remaining perfect (Ex 12:5 etc. 1 Pet 1:19, Heb 9:14) and he never gave way (Heb 4:15). Hallelujah!


Second, bearing our sins? He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness,” (1 Pet 2:24 quoting Isa 53) How many times have we perhaps heard that in Easter sermons and yet we’re still not sure what it means. Bore – carried, took on himself. In other words, in some way they defies our understanding he took every sin that has ever been committed and will be committed, wrapped them round himself on the cross as he died, taking the punishment for every one of them (That is not to mean every person is cleared – we still have to believe it, appropriate it for our own lives).

And So? We collectively as humanity were guilty of this awful result. It is too easy, in the light of retrospective study with the whole of the New Testament in our hands, to say we wouldn’t have been part of all of this. But whether we would have remained silent and let evil have its way, or allowed ourselves get swept along with popular opinion (stoked from behind, maybe), or whether we might have been like a later Saul of Tarsus and thought that although he was a great teacher and healer, this man needed to be stopped for the sake of our country and our belief system, whatever… we would almost certainly have been in that mix somewhere. It leaves us (well, it does me at least) praying with Jesus, “Father, forgive us, we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t understand the dynamics of what was happening. Please have mercy on us. Amen”  Silence.

37. Joseph of Arimathea

People who met Jesus : 37 :  Joseph of Arimathea

Jn 19:38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.

It is not easy to stand out from the crowd. In fact when you are in the minority it is often very difficult and you can face ridicule and rejection. Standing up for the truth, when everyone else is going in the opposite direction can be both difficult and even dangerous, yet that is what we are faced with when we come across the references to Joseph of Arimathea – and he only appears in a few verses.

Joseph of Arimathea, although appearing in few verses, appears in all four Gospels. Jesus has just died in the middle of the afternoon, and Matthew tells us when this occurred: As evening approached.” (v.57a). Each of them in slightly different words, tell us what John tells us in our verse above, that he “asked Pilate for the body of Jesus,” and that Pilate gave permission for him to take it. It is Mark who tells us that, “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.” (Mk 15:44,45) i.e. the handover had not be straight forward, for Pilate had had to check with the centurion who was overseeing the crucifixions that Jesus had actually died. It must have taken some courage for Joseph to have gone to Pilate which is why Mark records, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.” (Mk 15:43). Now our reason for saying that comes from all else we find out about Joseph.

Let’s consider what the accounts tell us about Joseph. Matthew tells us that he was “a rich man from Arimathea ….. who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” (Mt 27:57) Luke simply adds that Arimathea was a town in Judea. It is thought that it was a small town about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. So he’s not a Galilean; he’s a southerner. Mark tells us that Joseph was, “a prominent member of the Council.” (Mk 15:43). Luke confirms he was a member of the council, the Sanhedrin.

We have already noted that Matthew identifies him as a man who had “become a disciple of Jesus,” (Mt 27:57) as we see above John does. Both Luke and Mark describe him as a man who was “waiting for the kingdom of God (Mk 15:43, Lk 23:51). Luke also describes him as a “good and upright man,” (Lk 23:50) and Luke also adds, in respect of the council’s decision to act against Jesus, that he “had not consented to their decision and action.” (Lk 23:51)

Thus we see that Joseph was a highly respected member of the Sanhedrin who had obviously encountered Jesus, had become a follower, and was looking for the rule of God to come, and wasn’t afraid to stand out in disagreement with the rest of the Council, and now came to perform a simple service for Jesus after he was dead.

What was that service? Matthew tells us that, Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.”(Mt 27:58-60). Mark confirms this as does Luke. Instead of allowing the body to simply be put in a criminal’s grave, Joseph wants to give Jesus a proper burial and so uses his own new tomb that had never been used before. It is interesting that Joseph’s original home was some twenty miles away from Jerusalem but he clearly now lives in or near Jerusalem and already has a tomb carved out for his own future use, in the surrounding area.

So what have we found out about Joseph? He is wealthy, a follower of Jesus, a prominent public figure, a member of the Council, but not afraid to go against the flow and disagree with them when they determine to do something he considers wrong, and not afraid to go to Pilate for the body of one considered a criminal. What stands out in all this? He is not afraid to stand out for Jesus (even when he considers Jesus dead). He is willing to risk reputation and, perhaps, even his position on the Council. What a challenge! How many of us keep quiet when we are in the minority and someone with a large mouth is denigrating Jesus or Christians generally? I always quake at God’s words to the old priest, Eli, “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (1 Sam 2:30) We have been warned!

3. Is he dead?

Mk 24:44.45   Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.Cynics looking for reasons not to believe in God, looking for reasons not to believe the Bible, come up with a variety of evasive tactics. At foundation level they say you can’t trust the documents, and then at a content level they say Jesus didn’t die.
The ‘documents query’ is quickly dealt with by a challenge to investigate what scholars have found over the last fifty years as they have studied the problem. The numbers of ancient manuscripts making up the New Testament outweigh any other ancient historical documents a hundred-fold. F.F.Bruce, an acknowledged leading world expert said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” He also stated, “…the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the NT may be regarded as finally established.” F.J.A.Hort, one of the greatest textual critics ever, wrote: “In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the NT stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.”  Oh no, only the utterly ignorant declare, “You can’t trust the documents!”
But before we come to examine the actual content of the text, there is another shallow evasive criticism that is often posed: “Well the documents might stand up to scrutiny, but the writers were just making it up. It didn’t actually happen” or even, “The writers were conned by Jesus Christ.” The evasive tactics come thick and fast by those who are more interested in avoiding the truth by shutting down their minds with clichés.
The ‘making it up’ approach is, again, quickly disposed of by considering two simple but quite different facts. The first is the difficulty of writing and the effort therefore required to produce this wealth of documentation, both biblical and extra-biblical, which survives from the first century AD. What was the point if it was all a myth, a made up story?  The second is the variety of the writings from obviously a number of writers, but all coming up with essentially the same story. Yet it is obvious that they wrote from their own standpoint, expressing their own personalities as (we believe) they were inspired by God. A detailed investigation of these two points completely demolishes these particular tactics, and so all you are left with is to examine the content, which is what we do in these ‘meditations’.
(If you are a Christian reading these notes and you feel frustrated by the additional background detail and want to get on to the content, may I suggest that there is a need to understand the areas of discussion at least if we are to be able to say to those who come seeking, but with big questions, “There ARE legitimate and good foundations to belief. You CAN believe with intellectual integrity. Your faith can be built on historical fact.”)
So here we have (eventually!) Matthew recording for us this little incident involving Pilate. Joseph of Arimathea has come asking for the body and Pilate, who knows about executions, is surprised that it is all over so quickly. The reason for the haste, we are told, is to clear away the bodies before the Jewish feast started so that there would be nothing unseemly hanging around to spoil the holiness of the event. John’s Gospel explains it as follows: “Now 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.” (Jn 19:31). So first of all Pilate’s permission is requested to speed up the execution, but once it has all happened he is surprised at the efficiency of his men having achieved it so quickly. The main point here is to note that there was concern to make sure that the bodies were dead. The centurion would never have confirmed death to his leader unless he had been absolutely sure. 
The Jewish authorities were already concerned to make sure that Jesus was dead as is witnessed by their actions the next day: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”(Mt 27:62-64). Admitted that this happened on the Saturday but they didn’t just suddenly feel that; they had been aware of it the whole time and would have been watching carefully at the Cross to ensure it had actually happened. They were convinced of it by what they had seen, which was why they now didn’t want the dead body snatched away to create rumours of a resurrection!
So what had convinced them of Jesus’ actual death? It had been watching the executioners’ activity concluding the executions: “The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The 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.” (Jn 19:32-35). These were seasoned Roman executioners and they did not make mistakes. The Romans and the Jewish leaders had a lot going on Jesus’ death. They made sure it happened! Any reasonable person has to conclude from the evidence that Jesus was well and truly dead. There is no way he could have survived in these circumstances.
So as we get nearer to considering the resurrection appearances, be quite clear in your mind: we are talking about resurrection from the dead. Of that there is no doubt (at least for those who take the time to investigate the evidence!).