Forum Class for July 23
Perspective, Personal Ambition, and Prophecy (Luke 22:24-38)
…Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth, that the mourners will rejoice, that one gains his life by losing it, and that one acquires wealth by giving it away. Jesus’ way of doing things is very often the opposite of the way we would think things should be done. For this reason Donald Kraybill entitled his book on this subject, The Upside-Down Kingdom. 92
Our text consists of three major sections. In verses 24-30, Luke gives an account of a dispute between the disciples as to who was regarded as the greatest, and Jesus’ words of correction and instruction. In verses 31-34, Jesus informed Peter of his three-fold denial, which was soon to occur; but He did so in such a way as to give Peter encouragement and hope after he failed. In the last paragraph, verses 35-38, we come to one of the most difficult texts in the gospels, one which has caused Bible students to scratch their heads.
Remember as we approach these three paragraphs that these are the last words of instruction Jesus gave to His disciples, at least as Luke’s account in concerned. These are very important words, indeed, words that had great meaning for the disciples, and words which contain important lessons for us as well. It is not just the disciples of days gone by who have a problem of sinful personal ambition and who reflect an ungodly and destructive spirit of competition. When we look at the Corinthian church, we find this problem of self-assertion and status-seeking was still one of the major hindrances to the unity and ministry of the New Testament church. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul wrote that of all those whom he might have sent, those who were both saints and ministers (of a kind), he had only one man who was not self-seeking, and that man was Timothy. All the rest “seek after their own interests” (Philippians 2:21), Paul said. If we but look about the church today, we see that power struggles, ambition, and self-seeking are everywhere—everywhere. Jesus has the answer to this problem, and Luke has recorded the answer in our text. Let us listen well to our Lord, for His words are desperately needed today.
Long before, Jesus had set His face toward Jerusalem, where He was to be rejected by the religious leaders and the nation, and where He would be crucified by Roman hands. Jesus has come to Jerusalem, where He made His entrance, to be received by many, but not by the leaders of the nation, and not really by most Jerusalemites. Jesus cleansed the temple, driving out the money-changers, arriving there early in the morning, and then leaving in the evening, to camp out (it would seem) on the Mount of Olives. The Jews sought to publicly challenge and embarrass Jesus, to challenge His authority, and to entrap Him in His words, but this plan failed miserably. They also sought to infiltrate His ranks, in order to obtain inside information which would enable them to arrest Him privately and to put Him to death out of the sight of the crowds, who still favored Him.
But it was through none of these efforts that their plans to destroy Jesus were realized. It was one of Jesus’ own followers who volunteered to turn Jesus over to them conveniently when the opportunity arose, for a price. The actual betrayal is coming quickly count, but not yet. Jesus has gathered with His disciples to observe the Passover meal. At the meal table, Jesus has much to teach the disciples, for this is His last opportunity to speak to them before He is separated from them by His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It seems to be sometime during the meal that the dispute broke out among the disciples, a dispute which provides the occasion for further instruction and admonition by our Lord. This is the setting for our entire section of Scripture.
The Dispute (9:24)
It is impossible to determine from Luke’s account whether the dispute arose before the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13) or after. It would seem most likely that it arose before, perhaps in connection with the disciples’ eager rush to find the best seats at the table. Where one sat at a meal table in that part of the world indicated how important he was (cf. Luke 14:7-11; Matthew 23:6). It would seem that as the disciples entered the upper room where they were to partake of the Passover Lamb, they rushed past the basin where a slave would normally have washed the feet of the guests (and where no slave was present), in order to gain the best seats. Perhaps the disciples argued because those who thought themselves to be the greatest lost out in the race for the chief seats. Peter, who may have been the oldest, and thus a likely candidate for “first chair,” seems to have been more removed from Jesus than John who was reclining on Jesus’ breast and who also may have been the youngest (cf. John 13:23-25). If this were the case, then Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was indeed a timely lesson. This act would certainly exemplify our Lord’s claim to be among them as “one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
But why the great concern about where one sat at the dinner table, about who was regarded as the greatest? I think the answer is quite simple: the disciples seemed to think that whoever was the greatest at the time the kingdom was inaugurated would also be the greatest in the kingdom. It is much like those who want to purchase tickets for the finest seats at the Super Bowl, tickets which are in very limited quantities and in great demand. They will go through great efforts and sacrifices to wait in line for hours to be at the head of the line when the ticket office opens…
Ironically, but not accidentally I think, Luke places his account of this dispute among the disciples concerning who was regarded as the greatest immediately after the verse in which we are told the disciples were discussing who it was among them who might be the betrayer of whom Jesus had just spoken. It is as though the disciples were more interested in their own greatness than in identifying who among them was the traitor. There is little time to look for traitors when one is disputing about his greatness.
I do not know just how “civil” or “subtle” this debate was. Among many, the struggle for position and power can be very polite, very orderly, and very underhanded. Here, I am inclined to see the disciples as more frank and not so subtle. Remember that James and John were known as the “sons of thunder.” These fellows were the kind who could have come to blows over such matters, at least before they met the Master.
We should not move on without also pointing out that this dispute over who was perceived to be the greatest did not erupt here for the first time. It seems to have been the cause for debate frequently among the 12. In Luke chapter 9 (verse 46), after the transfiguration of our Lord and the successful sending out of the 12, the disciples argued about who might be the greatest. Often, it would seem, the disciples’ discussion about their greatness came in the context of Jesus’ disclosure of His rejection, suffering, and death (cf. Mark 9:31-34).
Jesus’ Correction of the Disciples’ Competitiveness (22:25-30)
Jesus began by contrasting what we might call “Christian greatness” with “Gentile greatness.” In verses 25 and 26, Jesus contrasted the conduct of “great Gentiles” with that of “great disciples. ” 93 The Gentile kings “use” their greatness; they let others know they have it; they flaunt it. Gentile kings do not simply lead; they dictate and dominate; they “lord it over” others. This dictatorial rule seems to be justified, in their minds at least, by their claim to be “Benefactors.” They had themselves called by the title, “a doer of good,” and thus their being a “public servant,” a doer of good for the people seems to have justified their abuse of power. We hear of men who justify the abuse of power by labor union leaders on the same premise. “I don’t care if there is corruption and graft in the leadership. They have done a lot of good for me.”
How different the disciple of Jesus must be. Jesus does not here argue against greatness. He accepts the fact that some men are great, greater than others. All are not equal. The issue here is not whether some saints should be greater than others, but rather how they use their greatness. Jesus said the first characteristic which should mark the great Christian is that they don’t use their position. While they may be the greatest, they are not to act like it, or to demand they be treated like it. They are to be like the youngest; they are to regard themselves and act like the one who has the least power. (Many of us know how “bossy” older brothers or sisters can get, and how they think they can tell younger siblings what to do.) They would thus speak gently, when they could get away with being harsh and severe. They will not seek to force others to serve them. Instead, they will be characterized by servanthood. They will use their position and their power as a platform of service. The benefits which they could claim for themselves they will pass along to others. In short, Jesus taught His disciples that they should manifest greatness in exactly the opposite way the Gentiles do. They should live in an “upside-down” kingdom.
…The disciples were not to pattern their lives after the heathen, but rather after their Master. The greatest, Jesus pointed out, was the one who sat at the table—who was served—while the one who stood, the servant, was the lowest. There was no argument that Jesus was the greatest, and yet He told them He was the one who serves (verse 27). When Jesus told His disciples above that the greatest must be the servant of all, He was simply reminding them that they must be like Him. He was not asking them to do anything which He was not doing Himself. How can it be that the greatest—Jesus Christ—is the servant? That answer will be found in the last paragraph of our text.
It would appear Jesus is saying that His disciples are never to possess a position of greatness, power, or leadership, but this is not the case. Jesus says in verses 28-30 that His disciples are giving up position and power in this life because they are to obtain it in the next, in the kingdom of God. Jesus never commands men to give up life, money, family, and power for nothing. He calls upon His disciples to give up the temporary and imperfect riches of this life in order to lay them up for the next. These riches are temporary; they are subject to decay and theft. The true riches of heaven will never perish. So too with position and power. We are to give up “first place” and its prerogatives in order to be given a place of honor in His kingdom. In His kingdom, the disciples are promised that they will sit at the table—His table, and that they will be given thrones on which they will be seated, and from which they will rule.
The disciples’ preoccupation and debate over their own position, prestige, and power was inappropriate for several reasons. Those Jesus has mentioned thus far are: (1) this is the way the heathen behave; (2) it is the opposite of the way Jesus has manifested Himself, even though He is the greatest of all; and, (3) the preoccupation with greatness is untimely, for that which the disciples were seeking will not come in this life, but in the next.
It is neither the disciples’ accomplishments nor their own greatness which gain them a place of power in the kingdom, but it is the Lord who wins this for them. Their blessings and privileges in the kingdom are those which Christ Himself achieves, and then shares with His followers. The Messiah does not “ride on the shoulders of His disciples,” as they seemed to have thought, propelled by their greatness; rather they are carried to their blessings by Him.
Jesus’ Words of Prophecy to Peter (22:31-34)
It seems to me that Peter was one of the main characters in this debate over the disciple’s perception of greatness. (I suspect James and John were also very much a part of this argument.) Jesus’ words to Peter then would be very directly related to His role in the debate over greatness. Jesus’ words must have smarted as the elder statesman of the group, who thought he was the greatest, heard from Jesus that he would not even survive the next few hours without denying His Lord, three times no less! If Peter felt he was considered the greatest, surely he must also have looked at himself as one of the most loyal, committed members of our Lord’s band. It must have been inconceivable for him to think of himself as such a weakling that he would deny his Lord when the going got tough.
The two-fold reference to Peter (the nickname Jesus gave him, meaning “the rock”) as Simon must have hurt, too. This was Peter’s “natural” name, the one which characterized him, to which he always answered, before he met the Master. It seems to suggest that Peter would be acting like his old self, and not as a disciple of the Lord when he denied Him. He would be acting in his own strength, and not that which the Lord gives.
It was not just that the “old Simon” was going to prevail in the next few hours and thus fail. Jesus informed Peter that Satan himself was involved in what was to take place. 94 It amazes me that Satan had the audacity, the arrogance, to demand anything from the Lord. It further amazes me that Jesus did not forbid Satan to “sift” Peter (and the rest—the “you” here is plural = “to sift you all”). Why didn’t Jesus simply forbid Satan from attacking Peter and the others? The answer must be that Jesus intended to use Satan’s dirty tricks to serve His own purposes for the disciples’ good.
Peter’s failure was for his own benefit and for the benefit of all the disciples. While the Master would not prevent Satan’s attack, He would pray for Peter’s faith not to fail. Thus, while Peter was destined to fail, his faith would not. Jesus therefore predicted not only Peter’s failure but also his restoration. And when he had turned back, Jesus instructed, Peter was then to strengthen his brethren. Peter could not be used when he was too “great,” too self-confident, too self-seeking. But after he failed, after he experienced the grace of God, then Peter could lead men. It was not greatness Peter needed to experience, but grace, and this was soon to come.
Peter protested, insisting that Jesus’ words would never come true, and that he would remain faithful, even unto prison and death. There is a sense in which this was true, for it was Peter who drew his sword, seeking to prevent Jesus’ arrest, and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But in the final analysis, Peter was calling our Lord a liar. Peter, as someone has pointed out, was willing to trust his own feelings of love and of self-confidence rather than to trust in these words of prophecy, words from none other than the Lord. Jesus therefore must once again reiterate the fact that Peter would deny Him, and not only once, but three times.
Jesus’ Puzzling Words About Satchels and Swords (22:35-38) -- The Meaning of This Mysterious Text
…If we are to understand the meaning of our Lord’s words, we must first consider the context. The setting was described by Luke in verse 24. The disciples were debating among one another which of them was considered to be the greatest. This debate is far from new. It has been going on for a great while. We find the disciples arguing over this matter in chapter 9 (v. 46), immediately after Jesus told them of His coming betrayal (9:43-45). I think the power which had been bestowed on them in their first missionary journey (9:1-6) had already begun to go to their heads. Not only do they argue about who was the greatest, but they wanted to destroy a Samaritan village by calling down fire from heaven (9:51-55).
In chapter 10, the 72 were sent out (10:1-16), and it is obvious from the response of the disciples on their return that they were greatly impressed with the power they had at their disposal (10:17). Jesus did not debate the authority they had been given, and even went on to describe it in terms beyond their own awareness (10:18-19). Nevertheless, the disciples had lost the proper perspective, and so Jesus gently admonished them with these words: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20, NASB).
Not only were the disciples wrong in seeking greatness and in competing with one another to do so, but they were also wrong in seeking greatness as men perceive it. The text does not state this directly, but it likely implies it. The disciples, Luke informs us, were debating “as to which one of them was considered to be greatest” (Luke 22:24, emphasis mine). The question is, “Considered the greatest, by whom?” Surely not by the Lord, but rather by men. In judging their standing in terms of human approval, they became guilty of the same sin as that which characterized the Pharisees: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15, NASB).
Even if one of the disciples was right, as was “number one” of Jesus’ followers, as his ratings went with the crowds this would still be worthy of a rebuke from the Lord, for they were playing to the wrong audience. Their hearts were not seeking God’s approval, but men’s.
The preoccupation with position and power was a long-standing problem with the disciples, and Jesus was addressing it here for the last time before His death. This, it seems to me, is the cause of Jesus’ enigmatic words to His disciples. Jesus pointed out that the Gentiles love to be perceived as the greatest, and they accomplish this by “lording it over” those under them, and they seek to become known as benefactors. The disciples’ behavior is to be the opposite. Even if they are great, they are to be behave as the youngest, and they are to use their power to serve others, rather than to demand that men serve them.
Peter must have perceived his greatness not only as a result of his age but also as a consequence of his faithfulness and commitment. Jesus graciously “let the air out of Peter’s tires” of self-confidence by informing him that in spite of his bold pronouncements of fidelity and loyalty, he would fail three times over, and in a very short time. The final paragraph in this section, verses 35-38, addresses this same evil—the disciples’ preoccupation with position, power, and prestige.
The key to the correct interpretation of Jesus’ words is to be found in the text to which He referred—Isaiah 53:12. Jesus explained His puzzling words to His disciples with this statement: “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37, NIV).
Interestingly, the NASB uses the term “criminals” instead of “transgressors” here. This may very well be influenced by these words, contained in Mark’s gospel: And they crucified two robbers with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was reckoned with transgressors” (Mark 15:27-28, NASB). 95
One can easily understand how the term “criminal” could be chosen here. After all, did those who came to arrest Jesus and His followers not come out, armed to the teeth, something like a SWAT team? And did not Jesus point out that in so doing they were dealing with Him as a robber, a criminal (cf. Luke 22:52)?
The word in the original text which is found here is not the normal word we would have expected to be used of a criminal, although this meaning may be acceptable. The original (Hebrew) term employed in Isaiah 53:12 is one which refers to a “rebel,” one who defiantly sins against God. This may very well result in criminal acts, but the term “transgressor” is, I think, a better translation. Mark is, of course, correct. The fact that Jesus was crucified between two criminals did fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12, but it did so in a kind of symbolic way, so that it also left room for a broader, more sweeping fulfillment. Jesus was numbered (perhaps, as has been suggested, “allowed Himself to be numbered”) among transgressors, and the two thieves were surely that. But it could also be said that since Jesus was now dealt with as a criminal, His disciples were regarded in the same way. Jesus and His disciples were considered transgressors.
Jesus had, to some degree, set Himself up for this accusation. From the very beginning, the “higher class” religious leaders objected to the fact that Jesus associated Himself with very unsavory characters. Technically speaking, men like Matthew probably were criminals before they met the Master. Jesus said, after all, that He did come to seek and to save sinners. Surely criminals too are sinners.
Jesus here said that His instructions to His disciples were to assure that the prophecy of Isaiah 53 was fulfilled. What did this prophecy predict, and why was Jesus making such a point of drawing the disciples’ attention to it? I believe Isaiah 53:12 is the key to unlocking the meaning of Jesus’ words. Let us briefly consider the passage in which it is found. This passage, as you will recognize, is one of the greatest (and most beautiful) messianic texts in the Old Testament. The apostles and the epistles will point to it as one of the key messianic texts. And yet only here, in the gospels, do we find this prophecy identified as Messianic, and as being fulfilled by our Lord. It is a magnificent text.
If you were to ask one of the disciples upon what they had based their messianic hopes and aspirations, they would surely respond that their expectations were based upon the Old Testament prophecies concerning the kingdom of God and the Messiah. In reality though their expectations were based on only some of the prophecies, namely those which conformed to their own desires. They would have undoubtedly turned to those passages which spoke of Messiah’s coming in order to judge the wicked and to liberate Israel. The one text to which they would not have referred is the text above in Isaiah 52 and 53. There would be at least two reasons for this. First, this text was not recognized or viewed as messianic until after Christ’s coming. Second (and, to a large degree, the explanation for the first observation), this text did not speak of a triumphant King, but rather of a suffering Savior. It did not fit their expectations. This is precisely the text to which our Lord calls the disciples’ attention, a text which He speaks of as having to be fulfilled through Him and through His disciples as well. What was it about this text that did not appeal to the disciples (or anyone else), yet which Jesus saw as coming to fulfillment?
There is one thing about this prophecy which characterizes it as a whole, yet which I have never before noticed. The entire prophecy utilizes a kind of literary contrast. The Messiah will be the King of Israel, who will mete out judgment to sinners, and yet He will also be the Suffering Savior who dies for the sins of His people. He is innocent, yet He will bear the guilt of men. He is greatly esteemed by God and is elevated to the pinnacle of position and power, and yet He is regarded by men as a sinner (a criminal, if you would), whose rejection, suffering, and death is viewed as just. He who is God is viewed as justly condemned by God. He who bears the sins of men is viewed by men as bearing the guilt of His own sins. The Messiah is perceived by men in a way precisely opposite that of God. Men look down upon Him as worthy of God’s wrath, yet it is He who alone is worthy (righteous), but who bears the sins of men.
The application of this prophecy to the circumstances of our text in Luke’s gospel is incredible. Jesus was not only speaking of the necessity of His fulfillment of this prophecy (as Mark’s gospel informs us—of His being crucified between two criminals), but of the broader implications of the prophecy. Men would reject the Messiah because He would not conform to their expectations of Him and of His kingdom. While God would look upon Messiah as the sinless Son of God, men would view Him as a sinner, condemned by God. Men wanted a kingdom in which they would have riches, freedom, power, and pleasure. Messiah would bring, at least initially, rejection and suffering. And so men would reject Him.
The disciples were debating among themselves who was perceived to be the greatest. They were thinking in terms of a “scepter,” but Jesus spoke to them of a “sword.” The disciples were thinking in terms of a crown, but Jesus was headed for a cross. Jesus, in so doing, was fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Messiah and His kingdom, but the disciples were wholly missing the point of His coming. What the disciples did not understand was precisely what this messianic prophecy was saying, that the glorious kingdom of righteousness was to be brought about by a “king” who was rejected as a sinner. The crown, as it were, was to be preceded by a cross. Indeed, the cross was God’s means of gaining the crown. All of this was revealed through this prophecy of Isaiah. Yet the disciples failed to grasp it, because they were looking at matters through the eyes of their own ambition.
If God’s Messiah was to be regarded and even rejected as a criminal, this also meant that His disciples would be regarded as such. Were the disciples debating who would have the highest position, the most power, the greatest prestige? Then the disciples were wrong. They, by association with Christ, were to be regarded as criminals, not kings. They would thus need to think in terms of swords (not literal ones, however), not scepters. They must be ready to endure men’s rejection and persecution, not men’s honor and praise. In so identifying with Christ and suffering with Him, the disciples would eventually enter into the victories and joys of His future kingdom, as He had just told them (Luke 22:28-30).
In the broader context of Isaiah’s prophecy and of our Lord’s rejection, suffering, and death, I believe we can now better understand Jesus’ words to His disciples in our text. When Jesus contrasted the disciples’ future experience with that in the past (“But now,” verse 36), He is not overturning every principle and instruction given to the disciples earlier. By and large, the principles and instructions laid down in the sending of the 12 (chapter 9) and the 72 (chapter 10) were those given to govern the missionary outreach of the church as practiced after Pentecost and as described by Luke in his second volume, the Book of Acts.
The “But now” of our Lord in verse 36 is intended to focus the disciples’ attention on the change which was occurring in the minds of the people of Israel toward the Messiah. Jesus asked His disciples if they had lacked anything when they went out before. They responded that they had not lacked anything at all. But why didn’t they lack anything? Because they were popular, as was their message, and the “Messiah.” But now a more complete picture of Messiah is available, and the people do not like what they see, even as Isaiah predicted.
Incidentally, we have a foreshadowing of this sudden change of popularity in the gospel of Luke. At the very outset of our Lord’s public ministry, He went to the synagogue in Nazareth, and He introduced Himself as the fulfillment of a very popular messianic prophecy. At that moment, these people were very open to the possibility that this one might be the Messiah (Luke 4:16-22). But when Jesus went on to speak of His messianic ministry as including the blessing of the Gentiles, the people could not tolerate Him any longer, and they were intent on putting Him to death (Luke 5:23-30). How prophetic this early incident in the ministry of our Lord was, and how much in keeping with the prophecy of Isaiah to which our Lord referred.
No, the disciples need not occupy themselves with thoughts of the kingdom which included popularity and position and power. They must prepare for the rejection and persecution which Messiah was prophesied to experience, in order to eventually enter into the blessed kingdom in time to come. The crown (12 thrones even, verse 30) would come, but not until the cross was borne. What a cause for sober reflection these words of Jesus should have brought to the disciples.
Were Jesus’ words intended to be taken literally? Certainly not. Jesus rebuked His disciples for seeking to use the sword to prevent His arrest. Nowhere in the Book of Acts or the epistles do we ever see the use of force advocated in proclaiming or defending our faith. The sword rightly belongs to the state (Romans 13:4). If we are to bear a sword in our fight, it is a spiritual sword, for it is a spiritual war (Ephesians 6:10-20). Jesus’ words in Luke 22 did draw attention to the contrast in the “climate” of this hour, with that atmosphere which prevailed at the time He sent out His disciples earlier, but even at that time Jesus had much to say about opposition and rejection. It was not that Jesus had not said anything about rejection, but just that the disciples had not experienced it, and neither were they disposed to think about it—until now. Jesus’ words here in Luke 22 then should not be viewed only in terms of contrast, but also for clarification—clarification of what had already been said but which had been overlooked because of the aspirations and ambitions of His disciples, fueled by their power and popularity, thus far, with the masses.
92 Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1978).
93 The question arises, in my mind at least, as to why Jesus did not speak to His disciples about the misuse of power by the Jewish leaders, in a way similar to what we find in Matthew 23. Gentile conduct, however, was readily recognized and accepted as heathen behavior, and that which was ungodly and unseemly. This was the “worst possible case” in the minds of a Jew, even though they may behave similarly.
94 How well Satan should know this matter of seeking position and power. This was the occasion for his fall, and He seeks to make it the basis for the fall of others. The temptation of our Lord, therefore, should come as no surprise, when we find Satan in two of the three temptations offering Jesus power and position. When men enter into the realm of power-seeking, they have set foot on Satan’s turf, and they are thus an easy prey for him. It is also interesting to note here that Jesus did not “bind” Satan, as some pray for, but rather that He prayed for Peter. It is not intervention, but intercession which Jesus employed.
95 The NASB also omits verse 28, supplying it in the margin, based on the fact that some of the earliest manuscripts omit it.
The Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46)
See also Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42
The six verses of our text underscore for us that the significance of a text cannot always be determined by its length. Sometimes, as we see here, we must discern the significance of the text by its weight or its density. Several indicators point to the crucial importance of our passage. First, the prominent activity of our passage is prayer. From a combined view of Gethsemane gained by a comparison of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find that our Lord instructed the disciples to pray three times. They were to pray that they would not fall into temptation. Jesus prayed and persevered. The disciples did not, and they failed. Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer. From what we have already seen in Luke, prayer often accompanied (or, better yet, preceded) very important events. Thus, Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him at the outset of His public ministry (Luke 3:21). Jesus was in prayer when He was transfigured before the three disciples (Luke 9:29). Jesus is likewise in prayer here in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thus, past experience has taught us to look for something very important to take place in the very near future.
Second, this is our Lord’s final act, before He is arrested, tried, and put to death. So too these are His last words spoken to the disciples, His final instructions to them. A person’s last words are very often of great import, as these words of our Lord are to the disciples, and to us.
Third, there is an emotional intensity to what is described here. The disciples, Luke tells us, are overcome by sorrow, which is manifested by their drowsiness and slumber. Jesus is, according to Matthew and Mark, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer. Something terrible was going to happen. Jesus knew it, and the disciples were beginning to comprehend it as well.
The Passover supper has been eaten. Jesus has concluded His “upper room discourse,” as recorded in John’s gospel, including the high priestly prayer of Jesus for His disciples, in John chapter 17. Jesus and the disciples have sung a hymn, they have left the upper room, and they have crossed the Kidron to the Mount of Olives, and specifically to the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke mentions only that the party went to the Mount of Olives, for his Gentile readers would not have known the precise location that some of the Jewish readers (of other gospels) would have recognized.
The cross now looms large on the horizon. Jesus will pray in the Garden, returning twice to His disciples, only to find them sleeping. He will urge them to pray that they enter not into temptation, and then He will return to His own agonizing prayer. 96 In Luke’s account, Jesus was still speaking the words of verses 45 and 46 when Judas and the arresting party arrived (verse 47). The arrest of Jesus would lead to His trials, and then to His crucifixion. The cross was not only near in time, it was also heavy on the mind of the Savior.
One can quickly see that Luke’s account of the agony of our Lord in Gethsemane is considerably shorter than those of Matthew and Mark. Luke, for example, does not set the three disciples (Peter, James, and John) apart from the other eight, even though these three were taken by our Lord, to “watch” with Him at a closer distance. Neither does Luke focus on Peter, although in the other accounts, Jesus specifically urged Peter to watch and pray. While Matthew and Mark indicate three different times of prayer, with our Lord returning twice to awaken His disciples and urge them to pray, Luke refers to only two.
The unique contribution of Luke to the account of the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane is to be found in verses 43 and 44. These verses have been omitted by a very few manuscripts, which has caused some to question their originality. It is my opinion that these verses are not only original, but that they are the unique contribution of Luke to the gospel narratives of the event. It is much easier to see how a copyist could have left them out than to comprehend how they could have been added. We will look carefully at these two verses and consider their unique contribution.
The Superhuman Suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane
Jesus was pressing on to His own cross, even while in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke tells us that Jesus “went out as usual to the Mount of Olives” (verse 39). Furthermore, we are told that the Savior and the disciples “reached the place” (verse 40). This was all a part of the plan. While Jesus had deliberately been secretive about the location of the place where the Passover meal was to be celebrated, He was completely open and predictable about the place where He would be on that fateful night. He followed His custom, He acted according to a very predictable pattern. Judas would know exactly where to lead the arresting officers, at “the place,” the place where they had stayed every night. There is no elusiveness here, for it was Jesus’ time to be betrayed. He will be taken, but it is not by surprise. Everything is proceeding according to the plan, and according to our Lord’s predictions.
On reaching “the place” Jesus instructed His disciples to pray. There was a specific purpose, a particular object in mind, “that you will not fall into temptation” (verse 40). They were to pray that they would not succumb to temptation. Notice that Jesus did not conduct a prayer meeting, as we sometimes have. He left the disciples in one place, while He went off, by Himself, to another. Neither does Luke or any of the other writers tell us that Jesus prayed for His disciples, as He did in John 17. Furthermore, Jesus did not ask His disciples to pray for Him, as though He might succumb to temptation. It was the disciples who were in danger of failing, not Jesus. Nowhere in this text (or its parallels) do I see any reference to Jesus being in danger of forsaking His path to the cross. Neither the Lord Jesus nor the plan of salvation were in danger here. That had been settled in eternity past. Throughout the account of our Lord’s life in the gospel of Luke we have seen only a resolute purpose to do the Father’s will, to go to Jerusalem, to be rejected by men, and to die. That resolute spirit continues here.
Three times Jesus urged His disciples to “pray that they would not fall into temptation,” that is, that they would not succumb to it. To what temptation was our Lord referring? I believe that the temptation is specific, not general, and that it can be known from the context of our Lord’s words. What was it, in the context, that the disciples were in danger of doing, that would be considered succumbing to temptation? The temptation, as I see it, was based upon the disciples’ predisposition to view their circumstances in the light of their own ambition and desires, and their own distorted view of how and when the kingdom would come. Early on, Peter had attempted to rebuke the Lord for speaking of His own death (Matthew 16:21-23). This, however, is not recorded in Luke’s gospel. In the immediate context of Luke’s gospel we find the disciples debating among themselves as to who was perceived to be the greatest. We also find Peter boldly assuring Jesus of his faithfulness, even though Jesus has already told him he would fall. The danger is that the disciples would attempt to resist our Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, even as was the case when Peter drew the sword in an attempt to resist His arrest (Luke 22:49-51). In addition to this, there was to be the scattering of the disillusioned disciples when their Lord was arrested, and when their hopes of an immediate kingdom were dashed on the rocks of His rejection by the nation Israel. To put the matter briefly, the disciples were going to be tempted to resist the will of God for the Savior and for themselves, rather than to submit to it.
Having charged His disciples with their duty to pray for themselves, Jesus went off from them a ways—about a stone’s throw, Luke tells us—and began to pray Himself. Our Lord’s prayer, while it had three sessions, and it took up a fair amount of time, could be summed up in these words, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
For what is our Lord praying? What is He asking from the Father? Is Jesus, at the last moment, trying to escape from His commitment to go the cross? Is He seeking to change the Father’s mind? Does the fate of all mankind hang in the balance here? Was there a very real danger that Jesus might change His mind?
Let me point out first of all that it was not Jesus who was in danger of changing His mind. Jesus was seeking to learn from the Father what His will was. Jesus was, all along, committed to do the Father’s will. From a purely hypothetical viewpoint, Jesus could have told the Father He had changed His mind, and that He was not going to the cross. Jesus has not changed His mind about obeying the Father; He is asking the Father if He has changed His mind, as it were. Our Lord’s submission to the Father’s will is never a matter that is in question. If there is any question, it is what the Father’s will is. In one way, Jesus is simply seeking one last “reading” as it were as to what the Father’s will was. And even at this, there was never really any doubt.
Second, Jesus was probing the matter of the cross with His Father to see if there was any other way to achieve the salvation of men. Jesus is asking the Father whether or not there is any other way for the sins of men to be forgiven. The answer is obvious, for the purpose and plan of God stands, and is faithfully pursued by the Lord Jesus.
Let me pause for a moment to underscore this very important point: THERE WAS NOT OTHER WAY FOR MEN TO BE SAVED THAN THROUGH THE INNOCENT AND SUBSTITUTIONARY SUFFERING OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Jesus had said it before. He was the way, the truth, and the life. No man could come to the Father, except through Him, except through faith in His death on Calvary, in the sinner’s place. How often we hear men speak of the cross of Calvary as a way, one option among many as to how men can attain eternal life. Let me say that if there were any other way Jesus would not have gone to the cross, and the Father would not have sent Him. The prayer of our Lord in the garden underscores the truth of the New Testament that there is but one way, and that way is the shed blood of the sinless Savior, shed for sinners.
Third, we should note from our Lord’s prayer in the garden that He greatly dreaded “the cup” and that it was this “cup” that Jesus was asking be removed, if possible. Why is “the cup” such a dreaded thing? What is “the cup” to which Jesus the Lord Jesus is referring? The answer is crystal clear in the Bible. Let us consider just a few of the passages that speak of this “cup” which our Lord dreaded so greatly, and we shall see that His dread was fully justified.
The “Cup” of God’s Wrath
For not from the east, nor from the west, Nor from the desert comes exaltation; But God is the Judge; He puts down one, and exalts another. For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams; It is well mixed, and He pours out of this; Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs. But as for me, I will declare it forever, I will sing praised to the God of Jacob. And all the horns of the wicked He will cut off, But the horns of the righteous will be lifted up (Psalm 75:6-10, NASB).
Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, You who have drunk from the LORD’s hand the cup of His anger; The chalice of reeling you have drained to the dregs (Isaiah 51:17, NASB).
Then I took the cup from the LORD’s hand, and made all the nations drink, to whom the LORD sent me: Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, and its kings and its princes, to make them a ruin, a horror, a hissing, and a curse, as it is this day; Pharaoh king of Egypt, his servants, his princes, and all his people; and all the foreign people… (Jeremiah 25:15-20a).
And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If any one worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name” (Revelation 14:9-11).
What, then, is the “cup” which our Lord dreaded? It is the cup of God’s wrath, poured out on sinners. It is the cup which will be poured out in those who are unrighteous, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. It is the “cup” which was foretold in the Old Testament, and which is still prophesied in the Book of Revelation. It is the cup of the wrath of God, beginning with the Great Tribulation, and enduring throughout all eternity. The cup 97 which our Lord dreaded drinking was the wrath of God, manifested in eternal torment.
No wonder our Lord was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), and His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus’ agony was due to the cross which loomed before Him. He was not in agony because He would be forsaken by men, but that He would be forsaken and smitten by God. Jesus was dreading, suffering in the anticipation of His bearing of the sins of the world and the wrath of God which they deserved.
This text tells us that because Jesus bore the wrath of God (the “cup,” as it were) in the sinner’s place, it is not necessary for men to drink this cup as well. Salvation comes when a person comes to faith in Christ as the One who was innocent, and yet died in their place, bearing the wrath of God which their sins deserved. Those who reject Christ and His atoning sacrifice must bear the wrath of God, which will be poured out on unbelievers in the future. It is this wrath to which the Book of Revelation refers (see text above)…
An Explanation and a Rebuke (22:45-46)
The last two verses conclude the section on the Garden of Gethsemane and lead us right to the point of our Lord’s arrest. In verse 47, Luke will go on to tell us that it was as Jesus was saying these words (of verses 45-46) that Judas and the arresting party arrived on the scene. In a general description of the disciples as a whole, Luke informs us that when Jesus returned to the place where His disciples were to be “watching and praying” He found them asleep. Luke alone tells us that their sleep was induced by sorrow. This was not merely physical fatigue, or the lateness of the hour, nor apathy. The disciples, I believe (cf. “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” Mark 14:38) wanted desperately to stay awake and to “keep watch” with Him, but could not. Their sorrow, perhaps somewhat vaguely understood or recognized by them, was too much for them.
The human weakness of the disciples did not totally excuse the disciples, however, and thus the final rebuke of the Savior in verse 46. They were urged, one final time, to awaken, to arise, and to pray, so that they would not fall into temptation. There was no more time, however, for Judas had now arrived, along with a group that was heavily armed, coming on Jesus as though He were a dangerous criminal, a robber, perhaps.
…First, the suffering of Jesus was not only his humanity struggling with the physical agonies of the cross, but Jesus’ deity and humanity inseparably coming to grips with the awesome agony of Calvary. It is not Jesus’ humanity which dominates this text, but the disciples’ humanity. It is His deity and humanity, dying for man, that is in focus. It is supernatural suffering that is in view here.
Second, the measure of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is the measure of man’s sinfulness and of its disastrous and painful consequences. We read the words, “the wages of sin is death,” but these words take on a vastly deeper and more personal meaning in the light of Gethsemane.
Third, the measure of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is the measure of the suffering which Christ endured in bearing the wrath of God toward sinners at Calvary. 98 The immensity of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is in direct proportion to the agony which unsaved men and women will face in hell, when they drink of the “cup” of God’s wrath. The doctrine of propitiation focuses on this area, stressing the fact that Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross, satisfying His righteous anger, so that men might have peace with God.
Fourth, the measure of Christ’s agony at Gethsemane is the measure of the love of God for sinners, which caused Him to die that we might live. The songwriter put it well when he wrote, “What wondrous love is this … ?” It is, indeed, amazing love which caused the Son of God to voluntarily pursue the path of pain which led to the cross. If you are troubled by the thought of an angry God and of hell, do not forget that this same God bore His own wrath for sinners. Those who will suffer the torment of hell will do so only because they have chosen to reject the love of God which brought about salvation on the cross for all who would receive it.
Fifth, this text makes it clear that what Jesus did for the salvation of men, He did alone. The disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing. They tried to resist it when it began to take place, by drawing the sword. They did not watch and pray with the Savior. They did not bear Him up in His hour of grief. Jesus suffered and died alone, unaided by men, even the closest of His followers. What Christ did, He did in spite of men, not because of them.
Sixth, the suffering of our Lord is the test, the standard, for all suffering. Let those who think they have suffered for God place their suffering alongside His, as described here. The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that they had not yet suffered to the shedding of blood (Hebrews 12:4). But whose suffering will ever begin to approximate His? The best that we can do in our suffering is to gain some sense of fellowship with Christ and His suffering, some minutely small sense of what He underwent for us (cf. Philippians 3:10). His suffering should surely silence our complaints of giving up much for Him.
Finally, we are reminded of the tremendous power of prayer. Prayer, in this text, did not deliver our Lord from suffering, but it did deliver Him through it. So often we pray that God might get us out of adversity, rather than through it. Prayer is one of God’s primary provisions for our endurance and perseverance. His words to His disciples apply to us as well: “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”
96 It would seem from Matthew’s account that there was some progress in the prayer(s) of our Lord in the Garden. In His first prayer, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (26:39). In the second prayer Jesus said, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done” (26:42). The prayer of our Lord thus changed from “If it is possible… ” to “If it is not possible…”
97 Much less frequently, the Bible speaks of another cup—the cup of salvation or of rejoicing (cf. Psalm 16:5; 23:5; 116:13; cf. Jeremiah 16:7). I think that the disciples had the two “cups” confused. Thus, when James and John sought permission to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in the kingdom, and Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the “cup” that He would drink (Matthew 20:20-23), they were thinking of the “cup” of salvation, of rejoicing, not of His suffering on the cross, when they quickly responded, “We are able.”
98 It is my understanding that our Lord endured suffering all of His earthly life. He endured suffering in His identification with sinful men, and in having to “put up with” us (cf. Luke 9:41). He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, and perhaps other times as well, in anticipation of the wrath of God which He would bear (cf. Hebrews 5:7-10). And finally He suffered the ultimate agony of the cross of Calvary.
The Rejection of Israel's Messiah - Part I (Luke 22:47-71)
The Arrest, Peter’s Denial, Jesus Mocked and Abused, Jesus Condemned by the Sanhedrin
The arresting party made its way to the place where Judas had assured them Jesus could be found. I have to wonder if some of those who made up this party had “butterflies” in their stomachs. This time, could they pull it off? Could they actually succeed in arresting Jesus? You see, it was the first time something like this had been attempted. One such abortive attempt, which occurred in Jerusalem, was recorded by John in his gospel. It was the during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2), and Jesus went up to Jerusalem somewhat secretly (v. 10). There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the person of Jesus as the time, but people were fearful to talk about Him because of the Jews (vv. 10-13). Jesus then went to the Temple and began to teach. The subject of Jesus’ death—that is, of those who wanted to put Him to death—was on the lips of many, including our Lord (v. 19). The Jews were seeking to arrest Jesus, and then to put Him to death. This brings us to the events surrounding the failed arrest attempt of the Jews: see John 7:30, 32, 37-53.
It is, in some respects, a humorous account. The Jewish religious leaders are angry that Jesus has come to Jerusalem and to the Temple and almost taken over. His teaching and presence has created a sense of expectation, and even a certain amount of tension. They purpose to do away with Jesus, and yet, as John tells us, it was not His time (v. 30). An arresting party was sent out by the Jewish leadership to bring Jesus in. They planed to arrest Him, accuse Him and to put Him to death.
The arresting officers—the temple guards—that had been dispatched to arrest Jesus came back, empty handed. They must have shuffled their feet a great deal when the religious leaders began to fume at their “failure.” Jesus had not eluded them, by some clever escape route or method. They simply could not find it in themselves to arrest Him. To put the matter briefly, they were so impressed with the person of Christ, they could not find it in themselves to do as they had been commanded. Jesus had more authority than the religious leaders. Wow! Were the leaders ever angry when they heard this explanation from the soldiers. The haughty snobbery of these leaders didn’t convince the soldiers either. Did the masses believe in Jesus, though their leaders did not? Maybe the leaders needed to go and hear Jesus for themselves.
The religious leaders were not able to press the matter any further, because it quickly became apparent that they did not hold a unanimous view among themselves. When they met as a council, Nicodemus called his fellow-leaders to account by reminding them that they were condemning Jesus without having heard Him. They brushed aside his rebuke by reminding him that no prophet comes from Galilee (v. 52). 99
And so I say, the arresting party which came to lead Jesus away from the Garden of Gethsemane was not the first? Would they succeed? And if so, why? Was it because they were right, because they had truth on their side, because they had so ordered and arranged things that it couldn’t be avoided? Or was it because it was Jesus’ time now and He allowed them to get away with it, in spite of their own blindness and blundering.
Obviously, my view is that it is the latter of these two options. I see the account of the arrest and trials of our Lord as a pathetic, almost humorous, bungling effort, which succeeded only because God purposed for it to succeed, in spite of the failings and wicked motives of men, because it was through these events that the salvation of men would be accomplished by the Savior…
Luke’s Account and the Rest of the Gospels
Descriptions of the events surrounding the arrest, trials, and crucifixion of the Savior are found in each of the four Gospels. Luke’s account of the betrayal, arrest, denial, and condemnation of Jesus is the most concise. I believe that this is because Luke is aware that other accounts of these events exist, some with much more detail (as John contains, for example). The things which Luke does report are those which he has selected because they contribute to the theme or message which he is trying to convey here. As we look at Luke’s text, I will, from time to time, fill in some details supplied by other Gospel writers.
It should be understood that we cannot piece together all of the details supplied by all of the Gospels and come up with one “complete” story. There are some aspects of the Lord’s arrest, trials, and execution which none of the Gospel accounts chose to record. On the other hand, those details which are supplied may, at times seem to contradict. This is due to our limitations, however, and not to the “failings” of any of the inspired writers, whose words have been divinely directed by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). 100
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus (22:47-53)
At the meal table that evening, while they were celebrating Passover, Jesus had once again told His disciples that He was to be betrayed (22:21-22). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told His disciples that the betrayer was at hand. Rather than Judas and the arresting party coming upon Jesus and His disciples, still at prayer, Jesus aroused His disciples and went forth to meet them (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42). Jesus was not “caught off guard” by their appearance, for He knew all that was going to happen to Him (John 18:4), but they were “shaken” by His response. They obviously expected something very different.
They came in large numbers, with a large number of Roman soldiers (John 18:3), who were heavily armed. They even came with torches, as though they would have to search for Him in hiding. They expected a fight. Jesus did not resist, and He rebuke His disciples for trying to resist. Jesus did not hide from them; indeed, He went to them (cf. John 18:4-8). They found Jesus totally unshaken, totally in control. It was these arresting officers who were shaken up. John’s account informs us that they actually drew back and tripped over themselves when Jesus identified Himself to them (John 18:6). 101
Luke does not go into detail concerning the arrest of Jesus, as do some of the other Gospels. Instead, he sticks to a very basic account of the approach of Judas, of the arresting party, and of the attempted resistance of Jesus’ disciples, one of whom (John tells us it was Peter, John 18:10) struck the servant of the high priest (John, again, tells us his name was Malchus, 18:10), severing his right (thanks to Luke’s report) ear.
The focus of Luke’s account is not on what was done to Jesus, but on what was said and done by Jesus. In the final analysis, Jesus rebuked three times and He healed once. In response to Judas’ approach to kiss the Savior, Jesus rebuked him with the words, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” These were serious words to ponder. Words that would haunt him until his death. Words which will likely haunt him throughout all eternity. In response to His disciples’ attempt to resist His arrest, Jesus rebuked His disciples, healing the severed ear of the high priest’s servant at the same time.
Before we can fully grasp the significance of what Jesus said and did here, I think we must pause to reflect a moment on the explosive atmosphere of the moment, and the very real dangers that existed. This incident, which ended up being amazingly peaceful, was not expected to go down that way. The arresting party that came was a large one, a crowd, in fact. They were heavily armed, and they even had torches. If this were to have happened in our day and time, this would have been a swat team, accompanied by the national guard. There would have been helicopters hovering overhead, with searchlights fanning the area, seeking to illuminate the “criminal band,” which they feared might be in hiding in the trees. The soldiers would be armed with automatic weapons. You would have been able to hear the safety latches clicking off on each of them as they approached the place where Jesus was praying.
Now let’s suppose that Peter was not carrying a sword, but a 357 magnum automatic pistol. What do you think would happen if one of those whom you were seeking to arrest began to open fire? I can tell you, with a reasonable measure of confidence. Guns would have been blazing. The casualties would have been great. Peter’s drawing of his sword was the most volatile thing he could have done, which, apart from our Lord’s intervention, would have been devastating to the cause of our Lord. Granted, Peter thought he was helping, but he greatly endangered the eternal plan (from a human point of view).
Apart from the quick action of our Lord, I believe that a blood bath would have occurred. Jesus first took charge of the situation with the words, “No more of this!” This expression has been taken in a number of ways, but I think that Jesus is calling a truce. Both the disciples and the arresting officials heeded the Master’s command. He surely was in charge here, and fortunately so. Jesus healed the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. In the other accounts, Jesus told His disciples that to resist His arrest would have been to resist the eternal purpose of God, which was for the Messiah to die as a sin-bearer. He also reminded them that if He wished to defend Himself, He could have called 12 legions of angels to His side (Matthew 26:53). But the Scriptures must be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54).
Had Peter swung his sword on a Roman soldier, things could have been different, at least for him, for this would have been assaulting an officer (at least in our terminology). Why wasn’t Peter arrested for assault? Well, it surely would have proven somewhat embarrassing for this servant to attempt to prove to a judge that he was, indeed, assaulted by Peter? If his ear were perfectly restored, who would ever believe someone cut it off, and another put it back on him?
I think, however, that there is something even greater here. I believe that the diffusing of this explosive situation, even after Peter had swung his sword, was the direct result of the power and authority which Jesus possessed here. Jesus id portrayed by the Gospels here not only as a person of great composure and dignity, but also as a man of great personal power. When Jesus spoke, men did listen. Just as the power of our Lord caused the soldiers to draw back from Him and to fall on the ground (John 18:6), so His dignity and power here caused the soldiers to “cease fire” at the command of our Lord. Jesus was in charge here, so that when He said, “Enough of this!” everyone stopped dead in their tracks. Jesus’ power was so great that no one even thought about taking Peter into custody, even though he had just assaulted a man with a deadly weapon. Its really amazing when you think of it, isn’t it?
In the first place, then, Jesus rebuked His betrayer, Judas, for betraying Him with a kiss. In the second place, Jesus ordered a “cease fire” and was obeyed, by both His own disciples and by the crowd of armed men who had come to arrest Him. Third, Jesus healed the servant’s ear, so that all damages were corrected.
Finally, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for the way in which they dealt with Him. In verses 52-54, Jesus spoke to the chief priests, the temple guard, and the elders of the Jews, rebuking them for dealing with Him underhandedly and inappropriately, as though He were a criminal, rather than a peaceful, law-abiding citizen. Every day He had been in the Temple. His teaching was in the open and subject to public scrutiny. He had not hidden out, but had taught publicly. Yet they chose not to deal with Him openly, but to secretly capture Him late at night, in the cloak of darkness and deceitfulness (the kiss of Judas, for example). They should be admonished for the way they were dealing with Jesus. The reason that they are able to carry out their plans, wicked though they may be, is that this is, in God’s eternal purpose and plan, “their hour.” It is also the hour when “darkness reigns.” This does not mean, however, that they are somehow frustrating the purposes of God. They are fulfilling them, for God is able to use those things men mean for evil to achieve His good purposes (cf. Genesis 50:20).In Jesus’ rebuke we see that He is, even now, in charge.
Peter’s Denial (22:54-62)
Before we attempt to show what Luke wants us to learn from this account of Peter’s denial of the Lord, let me make a few comments about what we are not told here. I admit, this is one of my “hot” buttons, and I need to let off a little steam before we proceed.
Nowhere in this account do I see either fear or cowardice as being the reason for Peter’s denials, at least so far as the Gospel writers’ words would indicate. We project the response we would have had into the account and thus conclude that Peter was acting as we would. I hear preachers speak of Peter, “warming his hands at the enemy’s fire,” using this as an illustration of the danger of worldliness or wrong associations. I think we have missed the point. If Peter was denying His Lord out of fear, then how do we explain the following facts?
Peter is not portrayed as a fearful man. Peter was certainly willing to stick his neck out when other disciples held back. It was Peter who walked on the water (so he sank), while the rest watched from the safety of the boat. It was Peter who not only promised to stay with His Lord, even unto death, but was the first and only one to draw his sword and use it. In the Garden, Peter was willing to die for His Master. And think of the odds—one man, one sword (two, at best, if someone else had the guts to use it, cf. Luke 22:38), against an entire crowd, armed to the teeth. That doesn’t look like fear to me. From Mark’s account, I believe that the soldiers had every intention of arresting Jesus and all of His followers. The young man in Mark’s account got away only by leaving his clothing behind (Mark 14:50-52). According to John’s account, if the soldiers had not been so overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus, the disciples would not have been dismissed, but this miracle occurred in order to fulfill prophecy (John 18:4-9). 102 If the soldiers intended to arrest all of the disciples, then surely they would have wanted Peter the most, for he was the only one, to have drawn his sword and used it.
There was no more dangerous place for Peter to have been than in that courtyard, where the soldiers must have stood by, and where Peter could not only be identified as a disciple of Jesus, but also could be detained. And if Peter were lying, out of fear for his life, all he had to do to “save his own skin” was to leave. The amazing thing is that Peter stayed there in that courtyard, even after he had been spotted, and even after he knew that this young servant girl was not going to give up in getting him arrested. One more thing. The text seems to make it clear that Peter did not realize that he was denying his Master, as Jesus had said he would, until after the third denial. If Peter were acting out of fear, you would have thought that he would have realized what he was doing, and that he would have felt guilty each time he denied the Savior, rather than only after the third time. Had he been aware of what he was doing, I think he would have fled, weeping bitterly, after his first denial.
…Luke’s account of Peter’s denial gives us no explanation for Peter’s presence there in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Neither does he give us the reason why Peter denied his Lord, when confronted with the fact that he was one of His disciples. Luke simply gives us a straightforward account of Peter’s three denials. Luke’s conclusion to this account is, I believe, the key to why it is included. In verses 60-62, Luke tells us that immediately after Peter’s last denial, Jesus was somehow able to look Peter straight in the eye, at the very time that the cock crowed. It was only then that it struck him, full force, that he had done exactly as Jesus had said earlier that night (cf. Luke 22:31-34). It was then that he went out and wept bitterly.
Jesus is under arrest. He is being interrogated, and even abused. It would seem, at this point, that things are out of His hands. But they are not. Even at this point in time, Jesus is fully in control. After Peter has denied his Lord three times, Jesus is able to “give Peter the eye,” right at the time the cock crowed. Jesus was able to communicate to Peter that those things He had foretold earlier in the evening had taken place, even though this was the “hour when darkness reigned.” Prophecy will be fulfilled. Jesus’ words were prophecy, and they were fulfilled precisely at the time and in the way Jesus said they would be. Once again, we see that Jesus Christ is in control, even when life seems to be unraveling at the seems, at least for Peter. 103
Mocked and Abused (22:63-65)
Both Matthew and Mark record mockings and abuses of our Lord after the Lord’s “trail” before the Sanhedrin. Luke tells us of mockings which occurred before this trail. It is my opinion that the abuse of the Savior by His “guards” occurred all through His trials, up to the time of His death.
But why this very brief account? For the same reason, I believe. Luke is once again informing us that it is Jesus who is “in control.” Think about it for a moment. Law enforcement officials are trained to keep their emotions under control. The ideal policeman remains calm in the execution of his duties. He is not supposed to be goaded by the prisoner, or by the crowd. But look at these men! They have utterly lost control of themselves. And notice that they are not abusing Jesus as though He were a hardened criminal, a violent man who has caused others to suffer, and so He deserves to suffer as well. They are mocking Jesus as a prophet. They want Him to give them some kind of magical display of His powers. In the process, they are fulfilling Jesus’ own words, that a prophet is persecuted, not praised, for his work. Thus, Jesus is here identified with the prophets who have gone before Him to Jerusalem, to be rejected and to die.
Condemned by the Sanhedrin (22:66-71)
The other Gospels give a much fuller account of the “mock trials” of the Sanhedrin. 104 We know that there were two “pretrial hearings” late that night, the first in the home of Annas, 105 a kind of high priest emeritus, and the second in the home of Caiaphas, 106 the high priest and son-in-law of Annas. The scholars also have much to say to us about all of the ways in which these religious leaders, with all of their meticulous rules and demands on others, violate the legal protections and processes assured by their laws. Luke brushes past all of this. He does not record the chaos and ad hoc kind of spirit which dominated these trials. Luke chose rather to focus on the Savior.
The Sanhedrin had come to its wits end. It looked as if this meeting once again (remember John 7) would end up not only with their failing to rid themselves of Jesus, but also in internal discord. They had to resort to another illegal ploy. Could they somehow trick Jesus into bearing witness against Himself? While the law of that day had its own fifth amendment, which prevented the accusers from forcing a man to testify against himself, could they somehow get Him to acknowledge that He was Messiah, and even better, that He was the Son of God? If so, then they could find Him guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.
Jesus answered their question, not because they had the right to ask it, and not because it would bring about pleasant results, but because His time had come. But first shows us Jesus, the accused, rebuking His accusers. The Savior pointed out that the trial was a sham, and that “justice” was not being administered in this court. If He told them He was the Messiah, they would not believe Him. And if He did give testimony against Himself, they would not allow Him to question (cross examine) them. Thus, He informed them that His answer was not one that was elicited by their trickery.
Yes, Jesus affirmed, He was the Messiah, in spite of their response toward Him. You can almost see the Sanhedrin hush with silence and with anticipation. Did He refer to Himself as the “Son of Man”? This expression, found in Daniel’s prophecy, implied not only humanity, but deity. Could they now press Jesus just a bit further, to admit that He was the Son of God? If so, they had Him. The room must have become absolutely quiet. They all asked with anticipation, “You are the Son of God, then?”
Jesus’ response was not evasive, nor was it indirect, as some tend to take it. Jesus spoke directly, in the idiom of that day. It was a firm “yes,” precisely what they had been looking for. No matter that their trials were a sham. No matter that this man’s rights had been violated. No matter that no witnesses could agree on the charges against Him. No matter that the accused had been beaten beforehand and that a testimony had been drawn from Him. They had the evidence they needed. Now, all they needed was the cooperation of the state, to kill Him.
I want to end with one simple, but overwhelming, point: Jesus was still in charge, even at the time of His arrest, His trials, His abuse, and His denials. Men consistently fail in our text. Not one man is faithful. Not one man understands fully what is going on. No one man stands by the Lord. Virtually everyone has or will soon abandon Him. But He is faithful to His calling. And even in this “hour of darkness” His is in control. His prophecies are coming to pass, even if by sinful men. Jesus is not overtaken by His enemies. Jesus went out to them, and He was taken captive and condemned because He purposed to do so. Men did not even take His life from Him. He gave it up Himself. Jesus was in charge, even in the worst hour of history.
As I have studied this passage, it occurred to me that virtually every section of Luke’s account is the fulfillment of something which Jesus told His disciples earlier in the book. Compare with me, if you would, the history of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denials, mocking, and condemnation with the prophecies of our Lord, as Luke has recorded them. Note with me how perfectly prophecy is fulfilled.
…There are implications to this. Jesus not only spoke of His own rejection and suffering, but also of that of His disciples, which would include those who believe in Christ today (cf. Luke 21). There are going to be dark times ahead, Jesus warned, times when it would appear that it is the “hour” of the powers of darkness (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:13-16; 2 Timothy 3:12). And so it will be, during the time of the Great Tribulation as well (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8; Revelation 12:7ff.; 20). Even at such dark hours as this, He is in control, and His purposes and prophecies are being fulfilled. Let us not lose heart.
99 Isn’t is interesting to see that when the chips were down, the religious leaders twice found they had to resort to social stratifications and snobbery, rather than to facts, in order to prove their points. In the first case, the leaders rebuked the soldiers for taking the same position the ignorant masses held, rather than the more informed view of their leaders. In the second case, the leaders again revealed their snobbery by reminding Nicodemus that nobody of any importance (certainly not a prophet) comes from Galilee.
100 Some would see the differences in the accounts of the Gospels as to who accused Peter of being a disciple of Jesus as proof of error or sloppiness in recording, but there is a much easier explanation. Morris, for example, poses a very satisfactory explanation for these differences:
“In Matthew the second denial appears to be elicited by a question from a slave girl different from the first one, in Mark by the same slave girl, in Luke by a man and in John by a number of people. A little reflection shows that in such a situation a question once posed is likely to have been taken up by others round the fire.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 315.
101 It is a rather humorous scene, and one that is easy to believe, once you grant the divinity and the dignity of the Savior, whose poise and confidence (a dimension of His deity, I suspect) disarmed them. There was a large crowd present. When Jesus and His disciples came up to the arresting party, the rest of the crowd pressed in behind. When those in the first row backed away from Jesus, they tripped over those behind them, and thus a mass of bodies and confusion. How hard it must have been to regain their compose and get on with the arrest. It was a little like the Keystone Cops.
102 Incidentally, it is interesting to note that in John’s account, Peter is not said to have drawn his sword until after the release of the disciples had been secured. Had all the other disciples already begun to escape for their lives?
103 It might be worthwhile to ask, at this point, “What could or should Peter have done, other than what he did do?” One of my friends suggested that Peter should have been praying for the Savior, that He would be obedient to the Father’s will, and that the purposes of God for Him would have been realized. Peter could have been praying for himself, that he would not succumb to temptation. This is possible, although I am inclined to say that now, at this point, there was nothing for Peter to do but fail. Peter had not prayed, when Jesus had told him to do so. The time for taking the right course of action was earlier. Peter (and the others as well) had not done so, and thus they had set themselves up to fail. Jesus had told them this would be the case, so it was also in accordance with God’s purposes and prophecies. My point here is simply to illustrate that there is a kind of “point of no return,” spiritually speaking. There is a time when we can act, so as to prevent our failure under fire. But when that time to take evasive action has passed and we have neglected it, we are destined to fail, and nothing (save divine intervention) at that point in time can save us from ourselves. Some Christians pray and plead for deliverance after it is too late. How grateful we can be for a Savior who prays for us that even when we fail, our faith will not fail.
104 “The Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council at Jerusalem, consisted of seventy members plus the chairman (the high priest), and exercised the supreme authority over the ordinary as well as the religious life of the Jewish people (though at that time in subordination to the Roman authorities).” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [Photolithoprinted], 1975), p. 589., fn 3.
Concerning the trials of Jesus, Morris comments: “The details of Jesus’ trial are not easy to piece together, for none of the Gospels gives a full account. But it seems clear that there were two main stages. First, there was a Jewish trial in which the chief priests had Jesus condemned according to Jewish law and then tried to work out how best to get the Romans to execute Him. Then a Roman trial followed in which the Jewish leaders prevailed on Pilate to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. The Jewish trial was itself in two or three stages. During the night there were informal examinations before Annas (as John tells us) and Caiaphas (who had some of the Sanhedrin with him). After daybreak came a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin. This was probably an attempt to legitimate the decisions reached during the night. It was not lawful to conduct a trial on a capital charge at night. It was not even lawful to give the verdict at night after a trial had been held during the day. But the Jewish hierarchy was in a hurry, so they rushed Jesus into an examination immediately after His arrest, night-time though it was. To give this an air of legitimacy they proceeded to hold a daytime meeting in which the essentials of the night meeting were repeated and confirmed. Even so they came short of what was required, for a verdict of condemnation could not be given until the day after the trial (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:1).” Morris, p. 317.
Shepard adds, “The regular place for the meeting of the Sanhedrin was in the Temple, but they led Jesus away to the house of the high-priest Caiaphas, situated in a place just outside the present wall of the city, where all the chief priests and elders and scribes had been summoned to meet. Nor was the legal hour of meeting for trials in the night. Other features in the illegality practiced in the trials of Jesus were: undue haste, seeking or bribing witnesses, neglecting to warn the witnesses solemnly before they should give evidence, forcing the accused to testify against Himself, judicial use of the prisoner’s confession, and failure to release the prisoner when there was failure of agreement between witnesses.” Shepard, p. 575.
105 “They seized Jesus and tied His hands behind Him. He was led away, first to Annas, who had served as high-priest from 6 to 15 A.D., and, through astute politics, had succeeded in securing from the Romans the succession of this office to his five sons, and how his son-in-law Caiaphas, who was the present occupant of the high-priesthood. Annas owned the famous Bazaars of Annas, which ran a monopoly on the sale of animals for the sacrifices and the stalls of the money-changers. It was the vested interests of this monopoly that Jesus had assailed in the first and second cleansing of the Temple.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [Photolithoprinted, 1971]), p. 573.
106 “Caiaphas, the high priest (18-36 A.D.) and his son-in-law, was thoroughly lined up with Annas in all that he might perpetrate against the hated Nazarene. Weeks ago, he had suggested in a secret session of the Sanhedrin, when plotting the ruin of the ‘pretender-Messiah,’ that it was very convenient that one man die for the people rather than that the whole nation perish.” Shepard, p. 573.
The Rejection of Israel's Messiah - Part II (Luke 23:1-25)
Jesus Before Pilate, Jesus Before Herod, Jesus Again Before Pilate
…We all make offers we really don’t expect others to accept, don’t we? I believe Pilate made the leaders of Israel—the chief priests and rulers of the people—an offer they would never accept—but they did. The religious leaders of Israel brought Jesus to Pilate, accusing Him of being a criminal worthy of death. But Pilate did not see it this way at all. Eventually, he made these leaders an offer I think he was sure they would not accept. His offer was to release to them Barabbas, a thief, a revolutionary, and a murderer. Which would they choose—to turn Barabbas loose on their city—or Jesus? Jesus was a man of peace, a seemingly harmless fellow. Barabbas was a dangerous criminal. Surely they would leave Barabbas in prison, where he belonged, and be content to have Jesus found guilty of a crime and then pardoned.
If Pilate thought the Jews would accept this offer, he was wrong. They demanded the release of Barabbas, and the execution of Jesus. Now this was something this Gentile ruler could not comprehend. He had made them an offer which they accepted. What an amazing thing!
When we read the account of the trial of our Lord before the political rulers of that day, it is like watching a table tennis match. On the one hand, Jesus is passed back and forth between Pilate and Herod. On the other, the dialogue between Pilate and the religious leaders bounces back, from one to the other. Pilate repeatedly pronounces Jesus innocent of any crime, but the Jewish religious leaders respond by even more vigorously affirming His guilt, demanding nothing less than the death penalty. One would think that Pilate, with the power of Rome behind him, would have little difficulty enforcing his will on the people, but such is not the case. We see that indeed the people prevail, and the story ends with Pilate giving them their way, even though this means the death of an innocent man…
Characteristics of Luke’s Account
Each of the gospels has a unique emphasis which causes each writer to include or exclude certain material, as well as to arrange his material uniquely. Luke’s account of the secular trial of Jesus is quite distinct from the other accounts. Before beginning to study the text in Luke, let us first consider some of those distinctive characteristics.
(1) Luke’s account is a very short, concise version of the trial of our Lord before Pilate. It is not the shortest, for Mark’s account is only 15 verses, while the text of Luke is 25 verses. Matthew covers the trial in 26 verses (with verses 3-10 dealing with the remorse and suicide of Judas), and John’s account is the most detailed, with 27 verses.
(2) Luke is the only gospel to include the trial of our Lord before Herod. The significance and contribution of this will be pointed out later.
(3) Luke’s account describes Pilate more in terms of his intentions and desires, than in terms of his actions. Luke tells us that Pilate proposed that he would punish Jesus, and then release Him. We are never told by Luke that Jesus was actually severely beaten, as seen in the parallel accounts in the other gospels. The fact is that most of what Pilate intended to do—such as releasing Jesus—he was not able to do. That is significant in light of the fact that this man was a dictator, with great power and with armed forces at his disposal to back up any action he decided to take.
(4) Luke does not emphasize the external pressures brought to bear on Pilate, as the other gospels do. As I view Luke’s account, we see two major forces at work: Pilate’s decided purpose to release Jesus, whom he judged to be innocent, and the religious leaders, who were determined that Jesus must die, and at the hand of Rome. Matthew tells us Pilate’s wife warned him not to condemn this “innocent man,” due to her tormenting dream that night. John’s account depicts an increasing sense of Pilate’s wonder and fear at the person of Jesus.
(5) Luke has a strong emphasis on the innocence of Jesus, as repeatedly stated by Pilate, and as at least implied by Herod.
(6) Also impressive in Luke (though apparent in the other accounts) is the silence of Jesus. Herod pressed Jesus with many questions, but with no answer. Pilate received more answers, as recorded in the other accounts, but in Luke’s version of these events, Jesus said only these words, “Yes, it is as you say” (verse 3). Nothing more is recorded in these 25 verses as to anything Jesus said. This is not surprising in light of the Old Testament prophecies which foretold the silence of the sinless Messiah (cf. Isaiah 53:7).
(7) The account has a kind of “ping-pong” structure, with a back and forth dialogue between Pilate, who maintains Jesus’ innocence, and the Jews, who insist He is guilty. Notice this characteristic when we indent the verses in a way that demonstrates the back and forth nature of the debate between Pilate and the religious leaders of Israel
Jesus Before Pilate (23:1-7)
It would seem that it was very early in the morning when a very persistent pounding commenced on the front door of Pilate’s 107 house. 108 Pilate, probably begrudgingly, slipped out of bed, angry at the interruption of his sleep but nonetheless trying not to awaken his wife who was probably still asleep. As Pilate’s day begins, his wife’s sleep will be disturbed by a very unpleasant dream, the essence of which is that Jesus is an innocent man who should not be put to death (cf. Matthew 27:19). The Jewish religious leaders are bold and aggressive in their attack against Jesus, and in expressing their expectation that Pilate will give them what they want. Not only do the Jews seem “pushy” in demanding Pilate’s attention at this hour, they also refused to enter into the palace, forcing him to come out to them (cf. John 18:28-29).
Luke informs us in verse 2 that the Sanhedrin (who apparently all came along to bring charges, cf. 23:1) pressed three charged against Jesus, all of which were political (that is, against the state), and none of which were religious. 109 The charges against Jesus were: (1) stirring up unrest and rebellion: “subverting our nation” 110 , (2) opposing taxation by Rome, (3) claiming to be a king.
These, of course, were very serious crimes against the state, crimes which could not be brushed aside, and crimes which would have brought the death penalty. 111
Pilate seems to know the Jews better than they may have thought. Roman rulers had no interest in being “used” by one Jewish faction against another. 112 It did not take very long for Pilate to see that this was, indeed, a power struggle (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10). He saw Jesus standing before him, already beaten and bloody from the abuse the temple guards had hurled on Him during the night (Luke 22:63-65). He did not look very awesome or dangerous to this political power broker.
Notice that Pilate passed right over the first two charges. If Jesus were a revolutionary, would not the Romans have known about Him much sooner? Indeed, did not the Romans know of Jesus? Surely they had long ago determined that He was no threat. Revolutionaries there were, but Jesus was not among them. And neither did the Roman IRS have any evidence that Jesus had ever so much as implied that the Jews should not pay their Roman taxes. And, as Jesus had emphasized to His arrests, had He not taught publicly, day after day, so that His teaching was a matter of public record (cf. Luke 22:52-53)?
No, if any of these three charges had any substance at all, it was the last. At least this was the real issue with these Jewish religious leaders. And so Pilate passed over the first two charges, asking Jesus only to respond as to whether or not He was “the king of the Jews.” I understand Pilate not simply to be asking whether or not Jesus is a king of the Jews, but the king of the Jews. Would this man not be aware that the Jews looked for a Messiah. After all, were not some of those who were guilty of insurrection those who claimed to be the Messiah (cf. Acts 5:33-39)? I believe, therefore, that while Pilate may have been cruel and ungodly, he was at least shrewd and well-informed about the Jews. 113
One would think our Lord’s acknowledgment that He was the Messiah, the King of Israel, would have caused Pilate considerable distress. Pilate, however, does not seem surprised at all. Did he not already know this was, indeed, Jesus’ claim from the beginning of His public ministry? And did not John the Baptist and the disciples go about introducing Jesus as Israel’s king? Contrary to our expectations, Pilate is not at all distressed by Jesus’ admission of His “claimed” identity—claimed, that is, so far as Pilate was concerned. At this point, I believe Pilate probably looked upon Jesus as one would respond to a “hippie” who claimed to be Albert Einstein. “How pathetic,” Pilate could have reasoned, “but certainly Jesus is no political threat to Rome or to me, and not even to these Jewish leaders.” Pilate’s appraisal of Jesus will change considerably over the course of his interrogation, to the point where he will actually begin to fear Jesus, or at least fear putting Him to death (cf. Matthew 27:19; John 19:7, 12).
Pilate announced his verdict, but it was not well-received. He said, “I find no basis for a charge against this man”114 (Luke 23:4). In effect, Pilate had just functioned as a one-man grand jury. He had listened to the charges and to the evidence, and he “no-billed” Jesus. There was insufficient evidence to prove that Jesus was a criminal, worthy of the death penalty, which these leaders wanted.
The chief priests and the crowd would not be so easily denied what they had determined to have—Jesus’ blood. They protested, insisting that Jesus “stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching, starting in Galilee, and now reaching all the way to Jerusalem.” The Jewish leaders had sought to reinforce their indictment, but they had gone too far. They had disclosed that Jerusalem was simply the last place where Jesus had created some measure of unrest. He was not a Judean, a man of Jerusalem, but a Galilean. This was where His ministry began. Most of Jesus’ ministry had been in Galilee, and thus Pilate delighted in ruling that this case was really not in his jurisdiction. The case must go to Herod the Tetrarch, for he was the one who ruled over Galilee. And so Jesus, along with the religious leaders and the rest of the crowd, were sent, still early in the morning, to bother Herod.
I can see Pilate smiling to himself, congratulating himself for getting rid of this thorny problem. In fact, he had succeeded in passing the buck to a man he really didn’t get along with anyway. “It serves him right,” I can hear Pilate thinking to himself. Perhaps Pilate leaned back in his chair and ordered breakfast. What a leisurely and enjoyable meal it must have been. What a great day it would be. No more worries about Jesus, or so it seemed. How fortunate it was that Herod was also in Jerusalem at this season (cf. Luke 23:7).
Jesus Before Herod (23:8-12)
While Pilate seemingly had little interest in Jesus and virtually no previous contact with Him, Herod at least had a fair amount of indirect contact. Remember that one of the women who followed Jesus and helped to support Him was Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward (Luke 8:2; cf. 24:10). And then, of course, there was Herod’s relationship with John the Baptist. Let’s briefly review what Luke has had to say about Herod 115 thus far in his gospel.
Herod Antipas (see Luke 3:1, 3:19, 9:7, 13:31, Mark’s gospel records a very interesting incident related to Herod the Tetrarch, which Luke’s gospel does not include: Mark 8:11-21).
In Mark’s account, Jesus warned His disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” (v. 15). The disciples could only think in literal terms of “yeast” and of “bread.” The moment Jesus mentioned “yeast,” they had the word association with “bread.” That brought to mind that they had not remembered to bring “lunch” with them. And so in the midst of a very important word of warning, the disciples’ thoughts are diverted to food. Jesus’ words which follow are not an interpretation of “yeast” but are rather a rebuke for being concerned about “bread,” the very lesson which the two miraculous feedings was intended to teach them.
Jesus therefore reminded them that in both instances where many people lacked food, when all was said and done there was an excess, so that the leftovers had to be collected in several baskets. The point is that Jesus’ disciples need not be concerned about “food,” for the Lord will meet their material and physical needs, a principle frequently found in the gospels (cf. Luke 12:22ff.). And so, when Jesus speaks of “yeast” His disciples should not be distracted by thoughts of their next meal, but they should be free to consider the spiritual implications of His words.
And what was the spiritual lesson Jesus had in mind when He warned them of the “yeast” of the Pharisees and of Herod? The preceding context of Mark chapter 8 tells us (Mark 8:11-12). The Pharisees and Herod both wanted Jesus to perform some great sign, to prove that He was, indeed, the Messiah. Both were looking for external evidences, rather than looking at the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah, to see if Jesus had indeed fulfilled them. In this sense, the disciples of our Lord suffered from the same preoccupation that blinded Herod and the Pharisees—a preoccupation on the external and the physical, that which can be seen, as opposed to the “unseen” things which faith “sees” (cf. John 20:29; Hebrews 11:1).
We should not at all be surprised, then, when Luke informs us that Herod was more than happy to see Jesus, unlike his Roman counterpart, Pilate (Luke 23:8). Herod was very eager to see Jesus. Indeed, he had been hoping to see Him for a long time (Luke 9:9). But, as Jesus had warned His disciples earlier (in Mark chapter 8), his motives were wrong. He wanted to see Jesus work some wonder. If He did so, he would show Himself greater than John who performed no such signs. And if Herod could be so fortunate as to make an alliance with a miracle-working Messiah, what would this do for his own position and power?
So far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus never came in direct contact with Herod. There were various “links” between the two men, as we have shown above. And there was, as well, the “threat” which the Pharisees conveyed to Jesus, warning Him not to flee because Herod wanted to kill Him (Luke 12:31). If this were a true report, something which one cannot be certain about, then Jesus ignored it, giving the Pharisees a message to take back to Herod, a message which conveyed His determination to carry out His mission, without any deviations or compromises.
The chief priests and scribes were standing nearby, constantly reiterating their charges against Jesus, pushing Herod to find Jesus guilty. It seems as though Herod was completely ignoring them. And, likewise, Jesus was not responding to Herod. How disappointed Herod must have been after eagerly bombarding Jesus with questions which were intended to induce a barrage of miraculous signs, or at least some compelling evidence of His power. Luke informs us that Jesus did not speak so much as one word to Herod. All he received in response from Jesus was silence. This must have been a severe blow to the pride of this man, who was used to having things his way, and to having people submit to his power. Jesus had no words for him, not one.
Herod was in a very awkward position here. It was obvious that the religious leaders wanted Jesus put to death. All the time he was trying to interrogate Jesus, they kept pressing their charges. But the fact was they had no real evidence to back up these charges. And because Jesus would not testify, they were at a stalemate. It would seem like a no-win situation for Herod. It is it this point that he makes a very shrewd move. He conceals his own frustration, at being unable to persuade Jesus to produce some miraculous sign, and at the same time pleases his own soldiers and at least sides with the religious leaders by mocking Jesus. And yet in all of this he has avoided taking a clear stand on Jesus. Although Pilate will infer that Herod found Jesus innocent, Herod has avoided the wrath of the chief priests and scribes by not pronouncing any verdict. He seems to be “firmly standing” on both sides of the issue at the same time. What a politician! In the final analysis, Herod forced Pilate to make the decision which he did not want to make himself. And he did so in a way that actually won the friendship of a former enemy. 116 Now that is quite a feat.
Why does Luke include this incident with Herod while no other gospel writer does? I believe it is important to see that everyone rejected Jesus as the Messiah, including Herod. But it was absolutely necessary for Rome and the Gentiles to share in the rejection and the crucifixion of Christ so that all men, not just the Jews, might be guilty of His innocent blood. Thus, Herod does play a part, but this is the time for the Gentiles to show their own disdain for the Savior.
Jesus Again Before Pilate (23:13-25)
If Pilate thought his problems were over with Jesus, he was wrong. Perhaps it was during the time Jesus was standing trial before Herod the message came from Pilate’s wife that she had a frightening dream, warning her husband not to have anything to do with “that innocent man” (Matthew 27:19). He may thus have thought to himself, “Not to worry. I sent Jesus on to Herod. He’s his problem now.” As the noise of the unruly crowd began to draw nearer and became noisier, Pilate knew that his desire to duck the issue of Jesus’ guilt or innocence was not to be realized.
It would seem, not only from verse 13 but also from the parallel accounts, that Pilate took Jesus aside after He was brought back from His “trial” before Herod, and that He attempted to satisfy himself concerning Jesus’ guilt or innocence. When he came out, Pilate called the chief priests and rulers of the people (for it was they who were pressing him for a guilty verdict) and reiterated that he was unconvinced of any criminal charges which the case presented against Jesus merited, reminding them that by his actions, Herod had also acknowledged the innocence of Jesus.
Having just repeated, for the second time in Luke’s account, the innocence of Jesus, Pilate makes a very perplexing statement to these Jewish religious leaders. He tells them that he is going to punish Jesus, and then release Him (Luke 23:16). I am assuming the punishment referred to is that which is described in the parallel accounts when Jesus was beaten severely (cf. John 19:1-3). Now why, if Jesus has been convicted of no crime, would He be punished? Because Pilate is trying to appease his own conscience, while attempting to appease the hostile crowds at the same time. Pilate hoped, it seems, to satisfy this bloodthirsty crowd by beating Jesus so badly that He would present them with such a horrible sight they would have mercy on Him. Pilate had not judged the animosity of the chief priests and religious leaders correctly.
It is interesting that in Luke’s account only the intentions of Pilate are recorded. That is, Pilate announced it was his intention to “punish” Jesus, but Luke does not go on to report that Jesus was beaten. It is not what happened to Jesus that Luke focuses on so much here as that which Pilate (and Herod too) wanted to do with Him.
It is at this point the name of Barabbas appears. The editors of the NIV and the NASB have chosen to omit verse 17 because of its omission in a few of the older manuscripts (although not necessarily “better”—here is a subject of hot debate). I believe that it should not only be accepted as a part of our text, but that we should accept it because of its clear mention in the parallel accounts. Somehow the custom had come about that Pilate would release one prisoner to the Jews, seemingly as a kind of “goodwill” gesture.
From the record in the parallel accounts, I believe Pilate raised Barabbas as a second proposal to these Jewish leaders in the hope that he would appease them and also secure Jesus’ release. Every year at this time, we are told, Pilate would release one prisoner. Why not convict Jesus as being guilty of the crime of treason—giving government approval to the condemnation of Jesus by the religious community—and then release Him, as a gesture of goodwill? There was, of course, another “criminal” whom Pilate could release—Barabbas—but he was a violent and dangerous man. (Is it possible that he was scheduled to be executed that very day, and that Jesus, indeed, took his place? Surely they would not want him back on the streets.
Here was the shocker, which I don’t think Pilate expected at all. How could these people possibly prefer the release of Barabbas to that of Jesus? Barabbas was a thief, a revolutionary, a terrorist (it seems) and a murderer. Jesus, while He may have had some misguided delusions of grandeur (or so Pilate may have thought at the time), was not a dangerous or violent man. He was a man of peace, a man who had done many kind and wonderful things to help His fellow-countrymen. The offer of Barabbas was, it appears, an offer no sensible Israelite could accept; the offer of Jesus’ (release), was one no sensible Israelite could turn down. If Pilate thought thus, he was very mistaken indeed.
The crowds, incited by the chief priests and scribes, called for Jesus’ death and for the releasing of Barabbas. I suspect Pilate could hardly believe his ears. Why did they hate this man so much? Pilate wanted very much to release Jesus (23:20). While it is not said plainly, surely Pilate did not want to release Barabbas. That man was nothing but trouble. His kind deserved to stay in confinement. And so Pilate pled, once again, for the release of Jesus. Again the innocence of Jesus was reiterated, and Pilate’s intention of beating Him unmercifully and then releasing him was repeated.
The Jews who were present would not hear of it. With loud shouts they demanded the crucifixion of Christ and the release of the revolutionary. And Pilate caved in, giving them their way. The final verses tell it all. Pilate released to them the man who was a danger to society, Barabbas, while He kept Jesus in custody, so that He could be hung on a Roman cross, crucified for crimes Pilate knew He did not commit.
The first thing our text establishes is that Jesus died, not because He was guilty of any offense, or of breaking any law, but simply because He was the sinless Son of God, and because He acknowledged that He was the “King of Israel.” Pilate, who was no “friend” of the Jews nor of Jesus, repeatedly reiterated the fact that Jesus was not guilty of any crime, and most certainly not of any crime worthy of death, even though this is precisely what the religious leaders demanded.
The second thing I believe the Holy Spirit intended for us to learn from Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate and Herod is this: the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus was not just that of the Jews, nor of the Gentiles, but it was a rejection by both. I believe this is why Luke alone includes the account of Jesus before Herod. Note the apostles’ commentary on this matter as recorded in the Book of Acts by none other than Dr. Luke, see Acts 4:24-28.
Luke thus informs us that his gospel account was intended to historically establish and document the collaboration between Herod and Pilate, and in a broader sense between the Jews and the Gentiles, to put Jesus, the Messiah, to death.
If the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah was a mutual action of both Jews and Gentiles, it was also a unanimous decision, reached by all. No one stood for the Savior. All rejected Him, as this moment in time. The disciples had fled. Judas has now taken his own life. Everyone who is mentioned in these verses in chapter 23 has rejected Jesus as the King.
While the form which their rejection takes is different, the essence is the same in every case. The chief priests and leaders of the Jews took a very hostile and aggressive stance with respect to Jesus. That is very evident in our text, for they, in a very pushy and offensive way demanded nothing less than His execution.
The third thing this text teaches us is the utter sinfulness of men, as evidenced in the rejection of Jesus as the King of the Jews. As I view the individuals described by Luke at this trial of our Lord, I find that the description of the sinfulness of man in Romans 3 is remarkably appropriate for this occasion. As you read these markedly descriptive words, remember that these are a collection of statements from the Old Testament, descriptive of man’s sinful and lost condition, Romans 3:10-18.
This is the one thing which Pilate failed to take into account. He seems to have thought that his audience was a reasonable, rational group, who would objectively hear, consider, and accept his verdict. If he thought thus, he was wrong. He seems to have felt that if Jesus were beaten severely enough, they would take pity on Him and give up their demand that He be crucified. If this was his thinking, again he was wrong. And he seems to have thought that if he found Jesus guilty, and then gave the crowd the choice between pardoning Barabbas, a hardened and violent criminal, and Jesus, they would have to take Jesus. He was again wrong.
It is important crucial to recognize that all of those who were at this trial were wrong, and that indeed they all rejected Jesus, not just the Jews. Clearly, the religious leaders were hostile to Jesus and demanded that he be put to death. In a different way, Herod also rejected Jesus. He was eager to see Him. In some ways, he was a religious man, a man who had listened with keen interest to John the Baptist. But when Herod saw that Jesus was not going to “jump through his hoops,” that He would not perform for him, and that He was not going to further his own personal interests and ambitions, Herod rejected Jesus, making a public mockery of Him. The soldiers, both of Herod and Pilate, were wrong, for they mistreated and mocked Messiah. And then there was Pilate. Granted, he harbored no great hostility toward Jesus, but neither did he accept Him for who He was. Granted, Pilate seems only to wish that Jesus would just go away. His rejection is polite, aloof, disinterested. But, my friend, it was rejection.
I do not know what your response is to Jesus Christ, but if it is anything less than receiving Him as the divine Son of God, the King of Israel, and the Savior of the world, it is not enough, and it is rejection. Your rejection may be polite. Indeed, it may appear that you have not rejected Him at all. Perhaps you have ignored Him. But if you have not received Him as God’s Messiah, you have rejected Him. If you and I had been there that day when Jesus was on trial, I am convinced that we would have sided with one of these rejecting groups, and not with the Savior.
It seems hard to believe, doesn’t it, that men can actually hate God, that they can hate Him as God? Those who rejected Jesus in our text, rejected Him as the promised Messiah, as their King, even though He was innocent. Far more, even though everything about His life and ministry bore witness to the fact that He was righteous, and that He was the Son of God.
In the politeness with which men often reject Christ, we have lost sight of the deep hatred and animosity which unsaved men and women have toward God. As I was preparing this message, I was reminded of a book by R. C. Sproul, entitled, The Holiness of God. 117 Sproul’s concluding chapter is entitled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” In this chapter Sproul reminds us that fallen men are not neutral toward God—they hate Him. He writes,
By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.
… it is not enough to say that natural man views God as an enemy. We must be more precise. God is our mortal enemy. He represents the highest possible threat to our sinful desires. His repugnance to us is absolute, knowing no lesser degrees. No amount of persuasion by men or argumentation from philosophers or theologians can induce us to love God. We despise His very existence and would do anything in our power to rid the universe of His holy presence.
If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him. 118
I not only believe Sproul is biblically correct, I also believe that this description of man and his animosity toward God describes both those who were a part of our Lord’s trial, and describes us, apart from God’s initiative and grace in saving us. Have you experienced this salvation? If so, your love for God is a supernatural thing, the result, not of your reaching toward God, but of His reaching out toward you, through the very One whom men rejected—Jesus Christ.
Just as Pilate could not avoid making a decision about Jesus, so you and I must make a decision as well. And if we should think we can avoid a decision by ignoring Him and ignoring a decision, let me simply remind you that this is a decision—to reject Him. May this not be so for you.
We find in our text that Pilate ultimately feared man more than he feared the Son of God. Pilate was willing to sacrifice Christ, as it were, for his own ambitions, for his own self-interest. I believe he thought he had to “sacrifice” Jesus for his own survival, and yet his decision spelled his own doom. Pilate, like Herod, soon fell from power. Their ends were not pleasant. How tragic.
This text should teach us that human government is, like men, sinful and fallible. The very government which was given by God to protect the innocent and to punish the evil-doer (cf. Romans 13:1-5), is that government, in Jesus’ day, which condemned the innocent and freed the wicked. If there was ever a dramatic demonstration of the need for a new government, a new “kingdom” where righteousness reigned in the person of Jesus Christ, it was at the trial and crucifixion of our Lord.
This text also serves to illustrate, at least to my satisfaction, the limitations and liabilities of the political system and its approach to getting things done. I hear Christians today talking about taking over the political system, as though they can use it to further God’s kingdom. I hear others talking about “beating the humanists at their own game.” In our text, I see the inability of the political process to achieve the righteousness of God. The problem lies not only in the system itself, but in the fallen humanity which operates it. Herod was never finer, as a politician, than in his maneuverings in which he rejected Christ, maintained the support of the chief priests and leaders, and won Pilate as a friend. But righteousness and justice were not served here. Pilate, though he knew Jesus to be innocent, also knew that politics require compromise and keeping the constituency happy. God’s work is not done in man’s way, and nothing is more human than the political process. It may be the best means of getting the business of state done, but it is not the means of doing God’s work. Let us beware of using “politics,” whether it be office politics or church politics, to do God’s work.
One last remark. If men are so utterly angry with God that they will always hate, oppose, and reject Him, how can they ever be convinced, converted, and changed? It will not be through human might or methods, my friend, but only through the Holy Spirit of God. As we read the Book of Acts we learn that men were convinced and converted—miraculously so, such as Saul—but they were convinced and converted through the work of God’s Spirit, as He empowered men and their testimony for Christ. May we go about His work, dependent upon His Word and dependent upon His Spirit.
107 “Pontius Pilate was the Roman Procurator from 26 to 36 A.D.. He resided ordinarily in Caesarea, but during the feasts was accustomed to be present in Jerusalem, so as to quickly suppress any disorder. He was born in Seville, Spain, was twice married, having abandoned his first wife to marry Claudia, the daughter of Julia, the prostitute daughter of the Emperor Augustus. After a checkered political career as procurator, he was banished by Caligula on account of his cruelty and inability to maintain order, to Vienne, Gaul, and at Mount Pilatus he ended his life by suicide. He was a typical Roman—stern and practical. He had a contempt for religious superstitions and traditions, and an imperious desire to rule with a high hand, compelling obedience. He had not tactfully managed his government, and soon became odious to the Jews and Romans. He planted his standards on the citadel on his first entry to the city, regardless of the religious feeling of the people, prohibiting all images. The people were greatly incensed at the standards, bearing the Emperor’s image, and requested their removal. Pilate at first condoned their request, and threatened them later with violence; but, with extreme persistence, the Jews won out and the Governor submitted. Later, when he would have constructed an aqueduct for supplying the city with water, he made the serious blunder of defraying the cost from the Temple treasury. When the people revolted, he suppressed the tumult with great cruelty. Just a short while before the trial of Jesus, he had a company of Galileans in the Temple court and mingling their blood with their sacrifices, a thing which sent a shudder of religious superstition and horror through the whole nation.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [photolithoprinted], 1971), pp. 582-583.
108 According to Mark’s account (15:25), Jesus was put to death at 9:00 a.m. This would mean that the judicial proceedings must have begun quite early that morning. Mark also begins the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate by telling the reader that the Sanhedrin reached their verdict that Jesus was guilty “very early in the morning” (15:1), and then he immediately moves on to say that they bound Jesus and led Him away, taking Him to Pilate. The inference here as well is that Pilate was disturbed early in the morning to pronounce Jesus guilty so as to crucify Him before the day is far along. John’s Gospel tells us clearly that Jesus was led to the palace of the governor in the early morning (John 18:28).
109 John tells us in his gospel that a fair bit more took place before Pilate inquired of our Lord as to whether or not He was “the king of the Jews.” He informs us of the Jews’ hope that Pilate would simply take their word for the fact that Jesus was guilty of whatever crimes they were to indicate (John 18:29-32). Pilate wanted specific charges and evidence that these were true. I think that he had too much experience with these folks to give them too much latitude. He did, however, invite them to proceed on their own, judging Jesus by their own laws. Then, they had to admit that they could not do so because they did not have the authority to utilize capital punishment.
110 The Jerusalem Bible renders this, “inciting our people to revolt.”
111 It is generally agreed that the Jews had lost the freedom to carry out capital punishment some 40 years before this. Nonetheless, they did, as in the case of Stephen (Acts 7), execute people at times, taking their chances with the state by doing so without prior permission. There were times in Jesus’ life when they would have killed Jesus, if they could have done so out of the sight of the crowds (e.g. John 7:19, 25, 30). But now, I think they sought the approval of Rome, not so much out of concern that they would incur its wrath for executing Jesus without permission, but that this was the justification with the crowds for His death. Let Rome take the heat for Christ’s death.
112 Acts 18:12-17 is a parallel text, which shows that Roman officials had no intention in getting involved in the “in fightings” of Judaism.
113 It is my understanding, for example, that Pilate normally resided in Caesarea, but because this was the season of the Passover, he had temporarily stationed himself in Jerusalem, since this was both the most likely time and place for a revolt to occur.
114 The Jerusalem Bible renders it, “I find no case against this man.”
115 There are a number of “Herods” in the New Testament, so that we can easily confuse one with another. Herod the Great was the Herod who sought to kill the baby Jesus, who is the villain of Matthew chapter 2. He died in 4 B.C. He had three sons. Archelaus, the oldest, succeeded his father in ruling over Palestine (cf. Matthew 2:22). It was Herod Antipas, the younger brother of Archelaus, who ruled over Galilee during the lives and ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Herod Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, whose wife Herodias, left him to elope with Herod Antipas. Herod Agrippa I was the “Herod” of Acts chapter 12, who killed James, and who arrested Peter with the intention of putting him to death as well (Acts 12:1ff.).
116 We are not told precisely why the two men, Pilate and Herod, were enemies, nor are we told exactly what it was that healed this wound. We do know from Luke 13:1 that the blood of a number of Galileans had been mingled with their sacrifices in Jerusalem, by none other than Pilate. As Galilee was Herod’s territory and Jerusalem was under Pilate’s control, this was surely one source of tension between the two men. Did Herod go to Jerusalem at this time to insure the safety of other Galileans?
117 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985).
118 Sproul, pp. 229-230.
The Rejection of Israel's Messiah - Part III (Luke 23:26-49)
Via Dolorosa (Luke 23:26-32), The Crucifixion of Christ (23:33-49)
People never cease to amaze me. One area of fascination, to me at least, is the way in which people view themselves and God. There are those (few) who say there is no God, but these are few I think. The majority of folks believe there is a God, and yet find a way to avoid Jesus Christ as either Savior or Lord. If some of these folks were honest, they would say they have rejected the claims of Christ, not because He claimed to be God and not because He was not God. Their reason, I think, would be because they believe that man is not nearly as bad as God’s Word says, nor is God is not nearly as good as His Word says. Put even more crassly, they would say that man is kind, compassionate, and good, while God is cruel and evil.
While few would be so blunt, many really believe this. The goodness of man is a “doctrine” taught in every corner. It is taught in the liberal seminaries and institutions of higher learning. It is popularly (and how popular it is) taught in the media. It is said that man may, from time to time, deviate from his intrinsic goodness, but this may be explained by a bad background, or a bad environment, and certainly by bad institutions. God, on the other hand, has a lot of explaining to do. If God is both good, and powerful, and all-knowing, then why is there so much suffering to be seen, and much of it happening to the innocent? What of the heathen in Africa who are destined to hell, yet have never heard the name of Christ or of Christianity? What of the children who die cruelly at the hand of disease, war, or abuse?
No, many will have nothing to do with a God who fails to “rise” to the level of their expectations and demands. “If that is the kind of God who is there,” they would tell us, “then I don’t want anything to do with Him.” They would rather eternally protest in hell, with other good folks, than to live in heaven with God, and with hypocritical saints.
This kind of thinking is not only popular—whenever men are honest enough to admit to it—but it is also dead wrong. When we come to the crucifixion of our Lord, all would have to admit that this is, without question, the worst moment in the life of our Lord. We all justify our own unacceptable actions by saying that, “it was a bad time for me” or something similar. Surely, if there was ever a “bad time” for Jesus, when acting out of character would have been understandable, it would have been at this point in His life. And yet what we will find is that even at this moment, Jesus continued to act fully “in character.” This incident, on the road to Calvary, and then at the sight of the crucifixion itself, reveals both God and man as they truly are. It exposes man as incredibly cruel, and God as amazingly kind and compassionate. It is man who is evil, and God who is good, not only in this text but everywhere in the Bible, and throughout all of life as well. Let us look at our text with this in focus…
Characteristics of Luke’s Account of the Crucifixion
Before we begin our study of some of the particulars of the passage, let us take a step backward, characterizing the account as a whole, particularly in comparison to the parallel accounts found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.
First, Luke’s account is one that is obtained second-hand, from witnesses who personally saw what took place. From all that we know, Luke was not a personal disciple of Jesus, and not an “apostle” in any sense that the 12 were. Luke was a man who traveled with Paul (cf. the “we” passages in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27:1—28:16), and who was probably greatly impacted by his life and ministry. It would seem that Luke had a fair bit of contact with the personal witnesses to these events in the life of our Lord, and that his account in Luke is the result of research he did over a period of time. He may well have recognized the need for a gospel account that was geared to Gentile saints during his ministry with Paul, and set his hand to the task, inspired by the Holy Spirit as he did so. Having said all this, we should realize that Matthew and John were witnesses (John alone stayed close to the Lord, to provide the great detail of Christ’s trials and crucifixion), and Mark’s account may be largely gained through Peter.
Second, Luke’s account is selective. Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion, and death of Jesus leaves out much that has been reported elsewhere, in the parallel accounts. Luke, unlike the other gospel writers, does not often seek to emphasize the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, 119 simply because, I believe, these were not well-known to the Gentile audience that he was addressing.
Third, Luke’s account is unique, making contributions omitted in the other accounts. In this study and the next, we will be looking at three incidents which are not reported elsewhere in the gospels:
(1) The account of the words of Jesus to the “Women of Jerusalem,” vv. 27-31, (2) The account of the conversion of the thief on the cross, vv. 38-43, (3) The words of our Lord, “Father, forgive them, … in verse 34.
As we study the account of our Lord’s death according to Luke’s gospel, we shall endeavor to be aware of what other gospel writers have written, and yet to focus on that which Luke has recorded, and on the unique message which the Spirit of God intended to communicate through this book.
The Via Dolorosa: On the Way to the Cross (23:26-32)
There are two major incidents described in Luke’s gospel, both of which occurred on the way to Calvary. 120 The first was the commandeering of Simon of Cyrene. The second was Jesus’ response to the wailing “women of Jerusalem,” with regard to the danger which lay ahead for them as a part of the generation which rejected Him. The incidents, at first glance, seem unrelated, but they are not. These two incidents are both prophetic of the unpleasant “things to come” for the nation Israel, and specifically for those who lived in Jerusalem.
A very large crowd followed Jesus out of the city of Jerusalem, as He made His way to “Calvary,” the place of His execution. While we do not know for certain where Calvary was, we would at least be safe in concluding that it was outside the city. Thus, Jesus, followed by a large crowd, a crowd no smaller than that which is described as being in Jerusalem at Pentecost, after our Lord’s death and resurrection, see Acts 2:5, 9-11a. Thus, it is not far from the facts to say that this crowd must have, to a fair degree, represented the whole world.
As Jesus, bearing His cross, and the large crowd which followed, made their way out of the city of Jerusalem, there was at least one man going in the opposite direction. Simon was coming into the city from the country, Luke tells us, and thus he may have passed by Jesus just at the time when He collapsed beneath the burden of His cross. He was greatly weakened by His agonizing hours in the garden at Gethsemane (where he sweat, as it were, great drops of blood), and by His numerous beatings, handed out during the night of His arrest (Luke 22:63-65), at the palace of Herod (23:11), and by Pilate, at least once (Luke 23:16,22; cf. Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20).
We do not know a great deal about Simon. He was from Cyrene, a city in Africa (cf. Acts 2:10; 6:9) founded by the Greeks, but with a fairly large Jewish population. He was, according to Mark’s account, the father of Alexander and Rufus (15:21). By inference, we might conclude that this man, along with his sons, came to faith in Christ, perhaps as a direct result of this incident described by Luke. But this is not the point which Luke wants to get across. Luke’s words tell us very little, but they tell us enough to prove his point. Simon was an “innocent by-stander,” so far as the rejection and crucifixion of Christ was concerned. He was a man from another place, a faraway place, and he was not in Jerusalem; he was heading to it, from the country. He was as removed from the rejection of Jesus as was possible. And yet this man was the one who was made to carry the cross of our Lord the rest of the way to Calvary. Suffice it to say, at this point, that it was the Roman soldiers who commandeered this man, Simon, and who forced him to go in the opposite direction, with his burden being the cross of another man, a man whom he may never have seen before. The primary reason for the inclusion of this story is yet to be seen.
The second incident on the way to the cross involved a large crowd of people who followed Jesus to His place of execution. It is not, however, the large crowd that is in focus. Our Lord looked not at the over-all crowd, but to a small segment of it—those women from Jerusalem (not the Galilean women who had followed Him to Jerusalem, cf. 23:49) who came along, wailing and mourning for Jesus. Had Barabbas been crucified that day, as he should have been, there would have been a very small party of mourners indeed. Most of Jerusalem would have celebrated his death—good riddance. Only his mother, and perhaps a very few other family members would have mourned that man’s death. But with Jesus there were many more mourners. The reason for their mourning seems to be their knowledge that Jesus was to die, but that He was innocent, indeed, righteous.
Jesus turned to these mourning women with words that must have caught them off guard. He told them not to weep for Him, but for themselves and for their children. The tragedy to which Jesus was referring was that which had caused Him to weep as He had entered Jerusalem at His “triumphal entry” (Luke 19:41-44).
The future destruction of Jerusalem, which caused Jesus to weep as He entered that city, was the same destruction over which the women of Jerusalem were now told to weep. These women should not mourn so much over Jesus’ death (after all, it would be the cause of their salvation), but they should mourn over that destruction which would take such a terrible toll on them and on their children. Looking back, we know that the destruction was that brought on the city and its inhabitants by Titus, the commander of the Roman army which sacked the city and executed thousands (or more) of the people.
At the time of the writing of this gospel, Luke himself did not know the particulars because this was, in his day, still prophecy. The gospel of Luke was written approximately ten years before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and his Roman army. In the providence of God, these words were recorded, words which spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem several years ahead of the event. These words of Jesus, pertaining to the downfall of Jerusalem, were prophetic, even from Luke’s point of view, at the time of his writing. Luke had not yet seen these words fulfilled. He did not know exactly how God would bring their fulfillment to pass. But they were a prophecy, given to the Gentiles, pertaining to God’s use of a Gentile army to punish this wicked generation for rejecting the Messiah. The impact of Luke’s gospel may well have been intensified by the fulfillment of Jesus’ words here. The Gentile readers should have been humbled by the realization that the sovereign God of the Bible, the God of Israel, could use a disobedient and wicked Gentile world power to accomplish His purpose, as a divine chastening rod, though not for the first time, mind you (cf. Habakkuk 1).
What then was Jesus telling these women, and why did Luke include this episode when no other gospel writer chose to do so? In order to grasp what Jesus was saying, we must understand the change in the pronouns as the text develops. Look at the text again, giving special attention to the underscored words:
27 A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when [they] 121 will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then “‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ‘ 122 31 For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
The first group Jesus referred to in verses 27-28 is the “you group.” Jesus spoke to the “women of Jerusalem” as “you.” They were not to weep for Him, but for themselves and for their children. The tragedy is not that which Jesus was experiencing, but that which these women and their children were yet to undergo. The next group is the “they group,” referred to in verses 29-30. This is a reference to men more generally, especially those who would be living in Jerusalem at the time of the tragedy. Things will be so bad that child-bearing, normally a blessing to women (with barrenness being a curse), will be considered a curse. Better not to be a mother, than to be a mother at this future time, Jesus said.
The last group, referred to in verse 31, is “another ‘they’ group,” which this translation renders “men.” The reference to this group is the key to understanding this entire section. The “men” to whom Jesus was referring is clearly (in my opinion) the Roman army which is to come to Jerusalem, to sack it, and to bring great suffering to the city, especially to the women and children.
Jesus’ reference to the two trees in verse 31, the “green tree” and the “dry tree” is puzzling to some. I do not see this as a technical reference to the terminology of the Old Testament, such as Ezekiel 17:24. The Gentile audience to whom Luke is writing would not be familiar, I suspect, with such “in house” terminology of the Old Testament saint or the Jew of that day. I believe we will understand Jesus’ words once we have decided on the identity of the “men” to whom He refers, on what these “men” do, and on what the difference is between a green tree and a dry one.
The analogy is a simple one, I believe. The “men” are the Roman soldiers. Jesus is saying, in context, “If the Roman army will deal with me in this way now, what will they do to you, then?” That which the Roman army is doing is unjustly and cruelly killing an innocent (indeed, a righteous) man. If they will crucify a righteous man now, what will they do then? What s the difference between “now” and “then”? It is the difference between “greenness” and “dryness.” A tree is alive and vital when it has life; when that life is absent, the tree is dead. A growing tree (especially in some parts of the world, including Israel) is something of great value, something which is treated tenderly. A dead, lifeless, “dry” tree is not prized, but is used for fuel—it is fit only for the fire. Jerusalem’s “greenness” is the presence of her God. Her “dryness” is the absence of God. Jesus is therefore saying, “If, when the Messiah, the very Son of God, is in your fair city, and the Roman army deals with Me as such, what do you think your destiny will be in My absence, when Jerusalem is abandoned by God, and fit only for the fire of destruction?”
It is now time to go back to verse 26, for here is where the thought of our Lord (and Luke) originates. Who was it that commandeered Simon of Cyrene to stop his journey, to forsake his plans, to take up Jesus’ cross, 123 and to go in the opposite direction. It was the Roman army which compelled Simon to do so. It was an act of cruelty. 124 This was but a small taste of what was to come. While crucifixion was not a Jewish means of executing men, nor was it all that common at the time of our Lord’s death, crucifixion would be the rule of the day when the Romans came to sack the city of Jerusalem. It is said that thousands were crucified, at least, and that there was a shortage of crosses and of wood to build them, due to the demand. What was happening to Jesus was, indeed, the tip of the iceberg.
And then, there were the women of Jerusalem. Would they weep because the Roman army had been persuaded to condemn the Christ and to crucify Him? This was nothing, comparatively speaking (from their point of view), to what the Roman army was going to do in the days to come. This army, fed up with the rebellion of this nation, was going to take out its frustration and vengeance on the people. Those who would be especially victimized would be the women and children—as is always the case in a time of war.
I think the words of Jesus do much to explain what is said to the Jews in Acts pertaining to repentance, believing in Jesus as the Christ, and being baptized as a public testimony to their faith. Peter’s preaching at Pentecost called upon his Jewish audience to be saved “from this perverse generation” (cf. Acts 2:40). That generation of Israelites who lived in Israel at the time of Jesus, and especially those who lived in Jerusalem, had a particular privilege in seeing and hearing Messiah. They also had a greater guilt for having rejected Him. The sacking of Jerusalem was to be a special judgment of God on that generation and on that city for their rejection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. We will never understand the preaching of the apostles to the people of Jerusalem at and after Pentecost until we have understood the peculiar guilt and doom which will come upon this city.
Back, however, to the point which Luke is trying to make here. There is a distinct emphasis here, which I believe the Holy Spirit was conveying through Luke’s words. Luke has been constructing this text in a way that would highlight the contrast between the cruelty of men (specifically the Roman army—in the commandeering of Simon, and, in the future “rape” of the city of Jerusalem) and the compassion of the Lord Jesus, Who thinks not of His own suffering, but of those who follow after Him, mourning. It is unbelieving men who are cruel, and it is God Who is kind, contrary to many popular misconceptions of God and man. This contrast is to be heightened in the next section, for in the events which took place at the crucifixion of our Lord the cruelty of man is emphatic and repeated, and the kindness and compassion of our Lord is so awesome, some think the very text which describes it is not a part of the original text. 125
The Cross, Man’s Cruelty, and God’s Compassion (23:33-43)
It is my intention in the remainder of this exposition to focus on two topics, both underscored (and contrasted) in the verses above. The first is the compassion and kindness of God, and the second is the cruelty of man. Notice that Luke begins with the compassion of Christ: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (verse 34).
There were many things spoken by dying men, hanging from their own cross, but these words were new, unheard of before. The name of God was, perhaps, frequently to be heard, but only in the form of profanity, or, at best, in a cry for help or mercy. But Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who were taking His life.
What was Jesus praying for here, and why was He doing so? First and foremost, I believe we should understand Jesus’ words to have a specific reference. While He had come to die for the sins of the world, so that the sins of men would be forgiven, Jesus is here praying for a specific forgiveness, as I understand it. He is praying that the sin of these people be forgiven. That is, He is praying that those who were participants in His rejection and death be forgiven of this specific sin, the sin of crucifying the very Son of God. The reason, Jesus said, was because of their ignorance. Their ignorance was also specific. It was the ignorance of who He was. They knew that He claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, but they did not believe Him. Had they known that this One was the only begotten Son of God, they would surely not have put Him to death, nor would they have mocked Him. They would have rejected Him, but not ridiculed Him.
I believe that Jesus’ prayer conveyed several things. Among other things, it conveyed the heart of the Son, and of the Father. It revealed the compassion of our Lord, who came to seek and to save sinners, and the Father, who sent Him. But perhaps most of all, the prayer of our Lord may have spared the city of Jerusalem from immediate destruction. We tend to focus on our Lord, and on the taunting of the people that He prove His deity by coming down from the cross. But think of the restraint of the Father. How would you feel toward this city, this people, if they were treating your son in this way? The Holy Father, to whom Jesus was praying, is the One who said to Moses on Mt. Sinai, at the sin of Israel in worshipping the golden calf, (Exodus 32:9-10).
If God the Father wished to destroy the nation Israel for their idolatry while Moses was on Mt. Sinai, what do you think God the Father would liked to have done to these stiff-necked Israelites (and Gentiles) who were mocking His Son and who were putting Him to death? I think Jesus’ prayer spared the lives of these people and delayed the wrath of God until after His resurrection, and after the gospel was preached to them so that they would no longer be ignorant of His identity, and so that they might repent and be saved from the destruction of their own generation. The prayer of our Lord was thus answered in the salvation of many (e.g. Pentecost, Acts 2) and in the delay of God’s wrath for the rest, so that they had ample opportunity to repent and be saved.
If Luke has underscored the compassion of our Lord as evidenced by this, His statement, from the cross, he has also informed us of the incredible cruelty, which is also seen at the cross. First, we find the cruelty of the soldiers: "And they divided up his clothes by casting lots" (verse 34b).
The soldiers, as can happen in such tasks, became hardened to their task and to the suffering it caused. There Jesus was, the innocent, righteous Son of God, hanging from a cross, His blood being shed for our sins. And there they were, on the ground below, rolling the dice to see who got what. They were only interested in the material gain they would receive from Jesus’ death, but they were not interested in His suffering and sorrow. They were aloof, while He was in agony. They were seeking a little gain, while He was giving up His life. How cruel!
And this was not the only cruelty of the soldiers. 126 Later, they would mock Jesus by offering Him wine vinegar: "The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, 'If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself'” (verses 36-37).
Kings were offered wine, but only the finest. That which was offered to Jesus was the “dregs,” the cheapest form possible. It was thus an act of mockery as the text indicates. Jesus, in the process of His mocking by the people, was given a mock scepter (a reed), a mock royal robe, a mock crown (of thorns), and a mock submission and worship. How appropriate (or at least consistent) that He should likewise be given a mock toast.
And then there were the people. Some would suggest that the people were only by-standers, and that it was only their leaders who reviled Jesus. This may be so, technically, but I am convinced the people’s idle curiosity was culpable. The word “even” in verse 35 seems to link, in some way, the sins of the people with those of their leaders. These people, by their presence, were participating in this cruel and evil execution of Christ. They were as cruel in their curiosity as the “rubber-neckers” are as they pass by an accident, looking to see how great the damages or injuries were.
Then there was the exceeding cruelty of the religious leaders (verse 35). How “out of character” they were, railing at Jesus, mocking Him, and daring Him to come down. Nearly always, at executions, the clergy is present, but with a view to ministering to the one being put to death. Not so here. They were adding to His suffering, not seeking to minister to him.
Even Pilate, in absentia, was adding to the cruelty of the moment. He had not only found this innocent man guilty and beaten Him, He had sanctioned His execution. He may not have been present, but none of this could have happened without his permission, and thus, his participation. Pilate’s participation and his cruelty were symbolized by the sign which hung above the head of Jesus, which, in mockery, titled Him, “King of the Jews.”
There were many forms which the rejection of Jesus took, as seen there at the cross of Christ, but all of them were cruel. They all had this in common. And they had other elements in common as well. They all rejected Christ as what He Himself claimed to be, the “King of the Jews,” the “Messiah,” the “Son of God.” They rejected Jesus as what He claimed to be. And this rejection was not based on the fact that Jesus was guilty of any sin, or even of any crime, but rather of failing to meet men’s expectations of how Messiah, should—indeed, how Messiah must—perform in order to be accepted. All of those present at the cross who rejected Jesus insisted that if He were the Messiah, He should first of all save Himself. What they failed to grasp was that the only way He could save others was not by saving Himself, but by giving up His life, as the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of men. He was innocent, but He died in the sinner’s place, so that the sinner might be forgiven. Jesus may not have acted in accordance with men’s expectations or demands, but He did act in the only way possible to save sinners, by His substitutionary death, in the place of the sinner, bearing his, or her, punishment.
Of what then was Christ guilty? He was not guilty of cruelty; the people were guilty of this. Jesus was “guilty” of compassion. He was guilty of being both God and God-like. Cruel men, who regard themselves to be good, must likewise regard kindness to be evil. From the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, one of the first and strongest protests against His practice and preaching was that it was marked by compassion. He came to seek and to save sinners, and the “righteous” did not like it at all. He associated with the unworthy, and the “worthy” did not appreciate it. In the final analysis, men reject Jesus because He is good, because He is kind and compassionate, and because we are evil and cruel. If the cross of Christ revealed anything about man and about God it was this: Men are incredibly cruel; God is unfathomably compassionate.
What then of those who say they reject God and His salvation, because God is really cruel, while man is really kind? They are ignorant. More than this, they are blinded—blinded by Satan, who keeps men from seeing things as they are, and thus justifying their own sin, they pave the way for their own destruction (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4). It is only as the Spirit of God enlightens the minds of lost men, and as He quickens them to repent of their sin and to believe on the sinless Son of God and to accept His compassion, that men can be saved. Have you acknowledged your cruelty, your sin—and His kindness? I urgently must tell you that the kindness of God has limits. It is limited to a period of time in which men are given the opportunity to repent and to believe. And then, it will consummate in the wrath of God, such as that of which Jesus spoke to the women of Jerusalem, such as that which God brought on Jerusalem through the wrath of the sinful Roman army. The final outpouring of God’s wrath is yet to come, and it will be experienced by men for all eternity, if they reject the salvation which Christ made possible on the cross of Calvary. May you receive it today.
119 For example, in Luke 23:34, the NASB renders the following words, all in caps: “AND THEY CAST LOTS, DIVIDING UP HIS GARMENTS AMONG THEMSELVES.” In John 19:24, the same reference is found, but introduced with the words, “that the Scripture might be fulfilled, … ”
John sought to show that what happened was the fulfillment of prophecy. While Luke may intend for those who are aware of the prophecy to be aware of its fulfillment, I believe his principle purpose is to focus on this event as an evidence of the cruelty and lack of compassion on the part of the soldiers.
120 It has been pointed out that the term, “the skull,” in Latin, = calvaria, from which we get the word “Calvary.”
121 Unfortunately, the translators of the NIV departed from the original text, which clearly indicates that the rendering here should not be “you” (NIV), but “they” (NASB, King James Version, Amplified). The Jerusalem Bible perhaps best catches the sense by rendering it “people”:
“For the days will surely come when people will say, ‘Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!”
122 Cf. Hosea 10:8; Revelation 6:16.
123 It is utterly incredible to me that some commentators would refer to Simon of Cyrene as a “model of discipleship.” Jesus urged men to take up their own cross voluntarily, and to follow Him. Simon was no volunteer, and the cross was not Simon’s, but that of our Lord. He may have become a believer, and a disciple, but at the beginning he is a mock-disciple, the opposite of what our Lord advocated.
124 Those who would look on Simon as a “model disciple” have to water down the words which speak of his being forced into labor, which undermines the very point which Luke and our Lord were attempting to emphasize.
125 Liberal scholars are inclined to reject the originality of verse 34 on the basis of the fact that it is not recorded in the parallel accounts, and because some texts omit it. The fact that some texts omit these words, and that some scholars reject them is but a testimony to the fact that God’s thoughts and ways are vastly beyond our own, so that what Jesus does sounds so foreign to man’s ears we are tempted to reject it as non-authentic. What a commentary on both man and on God.
126 I am not certain that the “soldiers” mentioned in verse 34 are the same “soldiers” mentioned in verse 36. There were four soldiers actually carrying out the execution of the Lord Jesus, and these were those dividing the clothing of our Lord. But there would have been many other soldiers present, at least to keep order at such a potentially explosive occasion. Thus, the second group of soldiers, who offered Jesus the vinegar-wine, could have been a different group, but not necessarily so.
The Rejection of Israel's Messiah - Part IV (Luke 23:26-49)
…Things don’t always work out the way we expect. And so it was with the crucifixion of Jesus. This was not the Jewish way of executing people, but the Romans used it with some degree of regularity. It served to make a public example of those who chose to ignore or to actively resist the laws of Rome. The event had become a social event, at which a crowd would gather to watch. With crucifixions, as with other events, there developed a rather predictable routine. A new-comer to a crucifixion could quickly be “brought up to speed” as to what would happen, in what sequence, and at about what time. Allow me to begin our lesson by attempting to describe the event, somewhat in 20th century Western terms, so that we can identify with the event in a general way. We will then attempt to demonstrate that this execution did not at all go as planned, and the impact which this had on many of those present, and, in particular, on the thief, for whom his execution became the time of his conversion, and the commencement of eternal life.
The Crucifixion, Twentieth Century Style
Imagine with me that the crucifixion of our Lord were taking place in our day and time. Given the popularity of Jesus, His execution would probably be given national news coverage. I suppose that the crucifixion would be handled something like the launching of the last space shuttle, Discovery. Television coverage of our Lord’s last week in Jerusalem would have been extensive. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, programming would have been interrupted to announce that Jesus had been taken into custody. Reports from the trials of our Lord would have been given as events progressed and as the location of Jesus shifted. Coverage in the early hours of the morning would have included the trial before Pilate and Herod.
Mobile cameras would have captured the agonizing journey from the palace of Pilate to Calvary, the sight of the crucifixion. I can imagine that there would have been an interview with some Roman official, in charge of executions, telling precisely how and when the crucifixion would take place. The execution, he would have said, was scheduled for 9:00 that morning. In light of the religious holiday, the Passover, there would be a special effort to conclude matters by no later than 3:00 P.M. For humanitarian reasons, those scheduled to die would be given a wine, mixed with a pain-dulling drug, making the ordeal less torturous. A medical expert might then be interviewed, who would describe the actual process of death, ending with the necessity of breaking the legs of the felons, so that their deaths might be expedited. By the time the execution was under way, the viewing public would have a mental picture of the sequence of events about to unfold before them. Some details might change, such as the exact time of death, but by and large everyone knows what is going to happen.
During the grueling 6 hour long process, file footage of coverage of Jesus’ life would be played to fill the gaps in time and to keep the audience interested. Interviews with various individuals would be done, some live, and others taped: individuals who had been healed or helped by Jesus, none of the disciples, as they were “unavailable for comment,” one of the arresting officials, the chief priest, a member of the Sanhedrin, members of the family (if available). A few details would be given about the other two criminals, and perhaps brief coverage on Barabbas, maybe even an interview. The whole thing would seem to be routine, under control.
The Sequence of Events at Calvary
The sequence of events is not always clear, and Luke leaves out a number of unusual and significant phenomena, 127 so that we cannot tell for certain the exact order of events that actually occurred. Generally speaking, however, the events appear to have happened something like this:
0. The victims were nailed to their crosses, which were raised and fixed in position
0. Either prior to this or shortly after drugged wine was given to deaden the pain
0. The clothing of Jesus was divided among the four soldiers, by lot
0. Railing accusations and mocking occurred throughout the ordeal—the crowd somehow seems to file or pass by the cross
0. Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them … ”
0. The criminals joined in reviling Christ
0. The thief on the cross came to faith in Jesus as his Messiah
0. Darkness falls over the scene, from 6th hour (noon) till 9th hour (3:00).
〇. Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew, Mark)
0. Jesus said, “I thirst” (John), drank a sip of vinegar
0. Jesus said, “It is finished” (John)
0. Jesus bowed His head and said, “Father, into your hands, … ” and died
0. Immediately, the curtain of temple torn in two, top to bottom (Luke)
0. Earthquake and the raising of dead saints (Matthew)
0. Legs of other two were broken, but Jesus’ legs not broken, seeing He was already dead (John)
0. Soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear—blood and water gushed out (John)
0. Centurion (and the other soldiers) who witnessed it said, “Surely this was son of God”
The crowds left, beating
their breasts, while the Galilean followers stay on, watching from distance
A Departure from the Normal
The unusual events seem to begin with the statement of Jesus (recorded only by Luke), “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (verse 34). This would have taken many by surprise. God’s name was a very frequent word on the lips of the accused, no doubt. For some, it would have been in the form of profanity. For others, there may even have been a petition for mercy or death. But on the lips of the Savior, it was an expression of His own forgiveness, and a petition for the forgiveness of the Father. Now this was something new.
I can see the television commentators picking up on this, in our twentieth century setting. “What do you suppose he meant by that statement?” the commentator would have queried. “Let’s replay the tape, to make sure we got the words right.” This could have led to a fairly extensive discussion on “forgiveness” in the vocabulary and teaching of Jesus, throughout His public ministry.
The television camera now slides down the cross, zooming in on the soldiers, who are dividing up the garments of the Savior. Did they divide the garments of the other two? Why were Jesus’ garments so desirable? Were they nice enough for a soldier to want them for himself? Were they a souvenir? The incident served to show that prophecy was fulfilled (in the other gospels), but for Luke it was an evidence of the callousness of the soldiers, and their indifference the this man from Galilee. That, too, will change, and soon.
The change is evident in the responses of many of those who observed the death of the Son of God. The soldiers, who had little regard for Jesus (certainly for His suffering) at first, and who later joined in mocking him, had a change of heart (as reported by Matthew 27:54). The centurion, according to Luke, declared the innocence and the righteousness of Jesus (23:47), while in Matthew and Mark His deity is also affirmed (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). These hardened soldiers had a very distinct and unusual change of heart toward Jesus.
The crowd, too, went away different from the way that they came, and even from the way they had been midway through the crucifixion. While they stood by passively at first (Luke 23:35), they later seemed to get into the reviling themselves (Matthew 27:39-40; Mark 15:29-30). But when the whole event was over, the crowd left, silent, sobered, and deeply disturbed—beating their breasts (Luke 23:48).
The Conversion of the Thief on the Cross
No change, however, was more dramatic than that of the thief, who hung beside the Savior, who came to faith in Him while both hung dying on their own crosses. I am convinced that no one left the scene of the cross of Jesus the same that day, but no change was so dramatic or so exciting as that which happened to the thief who hung beside the Savior. I wish to focus, as Luke alone does, on his conversion. It is indeed a remarkable event. 130
Luke’s account of the conversion of the thief on the cross is unique, and it is also very significant. It serves as a crucial turning point in the crucifixion of Jesus. There was a period of time, early in the crucifixion, where opposition to Jesus appears to have built up. In verse 34 of Luke’s account, the soldiers are indifferent to Jesus’ suffering. They care only about His clothing. In Matthew 27:36, this writer tells us that the soldiers sat down, keeping watch over Jesus. Jesus’ lack of aggressiveness, of verbal rebuttal, and of forgiveness, may well have struck them as a sign of weakness. The crowd, too, was miffed by Jesus’ inactivity. Some actually expected to see a miracle, or at least thought it possible (cf. Matthew 27:49; Mark 15:36). As time went on, everyone seemed to get more abusive of Jesus. The crowd seemed to get up its courage (cf. Matthew 27:39-40; Mark 15:29-30). The soldiers also joined in (Luke 23:36). The conversion of the thief is a turning point for Luke. From this point on, all railing and mocking stops. The supernatural phenomena immediately commence in Luke’s account, beginning with the 3 hour period of darkness (Luke 23:44), the tearing of the temple veil (23:45), followed later by an earthquake and the raising of the dead (only indirectly referred to by Luke, cf. 23:47-48).
The conversion of the thief cannot be questioned. It was a genuine conversion, indicated by Jesus’ strong words of assurance and hope: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). It was not, as some might conceive of it, a kind of second-class conversion, allowing for much error or misunderstanding, based upon the shortness of time and the crisis at hand. Notice with me some of the characteristics of this conversion:
Characteristics of the Thief’s Conversion
(1) The thief was thoroughly and genuinely converted. Jesus assured him that on that very day he would be with Him in paradise. The others who witnessed the death of Christ were changed, never the same, but they only came to a point of fear at this point in time, not the faith of this thief.
(2) Initially, the thief joined in with the railing of the others against Jesus.
(3) The thief spoke to Jesus, requesting salvation, before any of the miraculous signs and wonders which were to follow.
(4) The thief believed in Jesus, in the midst of the rejection and railing of others, at a time when no one was showing faith in him. He was moving against the grain of the moment, out of step with the crowd.
(5) It was in response to the scoffing of the other thief that this man’s faith was evidenced. He spoke first to the thief, and then to Jesus.
(6) The second thief rebuked the first for not “fearing God.” This was at least a recognition of Jesus’ innocence, but also appears to be a recognition of the deity of Jesus. He was speaking to God in such an irreverent manner.
(7) To the thief, Jesus was not merely innocent, He was who He claimed to be, the Messiah, and thus the key to entering into the kingdom of God. It is this kingdom into which the thief asked Jesus to enable him to enter into.
(8) The thief recognized, as Jesus had told Pilate, that His kingdom was not of this world. Thus, the thief and Jesus could both die, and yet enter into it.
(9) The thief saw that his own salvation did not require Jesus coming down from the cross, saving Himself, or getting him off of the cross.
(10) This thief recognized his own sin, and that he was deserving of death.
(11) The thief requested Jesus’ mercy on the basis of His grace, offering nothing in return.
(12) This man had some kind of resurrection faith—believed in an afterlife, for he was about to die—a kind of resurrection faith.
The thief seems to have come to a point of seeing what he already believed in a different light, and of acting upon it. I do not think that the thief ever thought of Jesus as a guilty man. Even the reviling of the other thief is expressed in such a way that we are encouraged to think he believed Jesus might be the Messiah. His words, “Aren’t you the Christ?” imply (in the original text) that He was the Messiah. But now, suddenly, the thief looks at what he believed differently.
There are those who have noted and capitalized on the fact that this thief was not baptized, but may I suggest that he fulfilled the essence of even this commandment. The purpose of baptism was to make a public profession of faith, to disassociate with that unbelieving generation (from the standpoint of those Jews living in that generation), and to publicly associate with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. What this man said was surely witnessed by more Jews of his day than of those who would later be baptized as a public profession of faith. Even in this matter, the thief is a model (if there can and should be such a thing) of conversion.
Let us not pass by this conversion without noting several essential ingredients. First, there is the recognition of one’s personal sin, and of his deserving of death, of divine wrath. Second, there is the recognition that Jesus is precisely who He claimed to be, the sinless Son of God, Israel’s Messiah, the only way by which men can enter into the kingdom of God. Third, a belief that Christ’s kingdom lies beyond the grave, and that resurrection will enable us to be enter into it. Fourth, a belief in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which prompted Him to die in our place, to provide a salvation for the worst of sinners, which is not merited or earned, but which is achieved in accordance with grace alone. A simple trust in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life, by virtue of what He has done…
There are a number of lessons to be learned from our text. The first is this: God is sovereign in salvation. It is not men who open their hearts God-ward, it is God who opens the hearts of men. He is the Savior. There is no method, no mechanical system, which can be relied upon to draw men to Christ. All that we can do is to proclaim the gospel and pray that His Spirit will open the hearts of those He has chosen.
Second, while it God who sovereignly opens the hearts of men, to save them, He never turns one who comes to Him in faith away. Some have argued that if it is God who opens men’s hearts, it is futile for any man to seek God. Notice that in our text the Lord Jesus did not “witness” to the thief, and then invite him to come to salvation. The thief turned to Jesus and asked to be saved—and his request was granted. The Scriptures are clear that all who come to Him in faith are received and saved, for He does not turn any away who come in sincere faith (cf. Romans 10:11, 13; John 6:37).
The third lesson is this: God is not selective in the social class of those whom He saves. Of all those gathered around the cross that day, this man would not have been at the top of our list of most likely candidates. But from the very beginning Jesus was drawn to those who were sinners, as they were drawn to Him. Somehow they knew, as this thief knew, that Jesus loved men and that His desire was to save them. No one is too sinful to save. Even this man, who had moments before his conversion, reviled the Son of God, was readily forgiven his sins and assured of eternal life.
May I ask you, very pointedly, my friend. Have you believed in Jesus the way this man did? Have you come to a faith which goes beyond the facts and comes to trust in the Son of God, who died in your place, who was raised from the dead, and who now is in heaven at the side of His Father? May the Holy Spirit of God open your heart, as He did this thief. What a blessed hope! What a Savior! If God can save a sinner, condemned by man, He can and He will save you as well.
There is a final lesson which I would like to underscore from out text. In the paradox of God’s eternal methods and means, life comes to others through the death of those who proclaim it. More than anything else it was the way Christ died that shook those who witnessed this event, and which was instrumental in the conversion of the thief. Christians today often fall into the trap of wanting God to perform according to their expectations, rather than submitting to His sovereign plan and purposes, as clearly laid out in His Word. They want God to convince men of their need to be saved by proving Himself through healings, signs and wonders, and by delivering His saints (and others) from pain and suffering. It was Jesus’ death which men could not grasp. It was Jesus’ death which was God’s means of saving men. One of the most powerful signs of this or any other age is the way in which men and women of faith handle suffering, adversity, and death.
Evangelism is often heavily method-centered, and one of the compromises we have made with the world is to try to sell faith in Christ like Procter and Gamble sells soap, or like Coca Cola sells “coke,” which “adds life.” That is, we want to emphasize the “life” aspect of the gospel, and to avoid the death dimension. This simply does not square with the gospel. As Christ drank His “cup” of death on the cross of Calvary, we have our own “cups” to drink of, and we have our own crosses to take up in order to follow Christ. It is often by the giving up of our lives, figurative or literally, that is instrumental in bringing men and women to faith in Christ, as the Holy Spirit bears witness through us. That is why, I believe, the prisoners in that Philippian jail did not flee, even though their cell doors were all opened (Acts 16). They had witnessed Paul and Silas singing and praising God, just after they had been unjustly and illegally beaten and imprisoned. There is something about watching people die for their faith that carries more weight than prospering as Christians. It is often suffering more than success that God uses as His instrument for bring about His purposes in this world.
…The use of the imperfect tense in verse 39 implies that this malefactor persisted in his railings.
In the words, “Let Him save Himself (and us)” do we not see a parallel to the mentality of men in all ages? Is this not the same view which the world, and too many Christians take toward suffering? They assume that God would not tolerate or allow suffering, and especially not in the life of His beloved Son. They assume that if God is God, He will prove Himself by delivering the sufferer from his suffering, when the suffering itself is the means God has appointed to achieve His purposes. Here is where the “name it and claim it” version of faith healing flies in the face of Scripture.
The similarity between the taunting of the people and the temptation of Satan does not demonstrate that this is a temptation, but rather that the thinking of the people is reflective of Satan’s values and mindset (cf. Luke chapter 4 and Job 1), rather than of God’s, as described in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
127 What Luke Omits in His Crucifixion Account: He omits the beatings of Matthew 27:27-31 and Mark 15:16-20, in preparation for His execution, and also the mocking, scarlet robe, the crown of thorns, the mocking homage paid to him, and the references to His words about destroying the temple (as Stephen was also later to be accused, cf. Acts 6:13-14). The first offering of wine mixed with gall (Matthew 27:34) or myrrh (Mark 15:23), which Jesus refused. Luke records only the offer of “wine vinegar” (23:37), with no indication of whether or not He took it. The chief priests and teachers said if Christ came down from the cross they would see and believe (Matthew 27:42; Mark 15:32). “He saved others … ” (Matthew 27:42; Mark 15:31). The people (passers by) reviled Jesus (Matthew 27:39-40; Mark 15:29-30). Both thieves reviled Jesus (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). “Here is your son … Here is your mother”—John 19:26, 27). “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him/take him down” (Matthew 27:49; Mark 15:36)—they really wondered if something miraculous might happen. The earthquake and splitting of rocks and the tombs opened—Matthew 27:51-54). Matthew indicates that while the raising of these dead saints occurred at the time of the earthquake, and thus at the time of our Lord’s death, the appearance of these saints in the city was not until three days later (27:54). John says Jesus said, “I am thirsty” after He saw that all prophesy had been fulfilled (John 19:28-29), after which He drank and then gave up the spirit (Matthew 27:50; John 19:30) and died. Jesus’ legs not broken, but His side was pierced, which fulfilled prophecy (John 19:31-37)
128 All four gospels mention that Jesus was in the middle, between the two thieves. Is this to indicate that He was placed in the position of prominence, that He was the center of attention? It seems so. Surely the crowds came because of Jesus, and not the other two.
129 The use of the imperfect tense in verse 39 implies that this malefactor persisted in his railings.
In the words, “Let Him save Himself (and us)” do we not see a parallel to the mentality of men in all ages? Is this not the same view which the world, and too many Christians take toward suffering? They assume that God would not tolerate or allow suffering, and especially not in the life of His beloved Son. They assume that if God is God, He will prove Himself by delivering the sufferer from his suffering, when the suffering itself is the means God has appointed to achieve His purposes. Here is where the “name it and claim it” version of faith healing flies in the face of Scripture.
The similarity between the taunting of the people and the temptation of Satan does not demonstrate that this is a temptation, but rather that the thinking of the people is reflective of Satan’s values and mindset (cf. Luke chapter 4 and Job 1), rather than of God’s, as described in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
130 The term “paradise” is found twice elsewhere in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 12:4; and Revelation 2:7. In both cases, the reference is to heaven.