a monthly devotional journal
Issue No. 53
In this issue:
Perspective 1 - Forgiveness
Perspective 2 - Secret Faith
Perspective 3 - "I Have Seen the Lord!"
Listen to the sound of anger.
I was there, you see, and I heard it all too well. I heard the shouting, the vile curses thrown at Him so innocent yet reviled. I felt the heat of a city wishing only to kill something--anything that could stand in for the enemy it truly hated: Rome. Yet it was partly our impotence toward guilty Rome that drove us to vent our anger toward the blameless Son of God.
It was over. There was no turning back. Caesar himself could not have stopped the momentum that was driving Jesus to the cross.
Secretly Peter and I followed Him to Caiaphas, where He was questioned at length before the Council. There we waited, down in the courtyard, calling the shadows friend and waiting for the Lord to emerge bearing a verdict.
Poor Peter. Caught in the offense of which we were all guilty. Always ready to speak, no matter the consequence, Peter foolishly laid himself open to charges of conspiracy. There were those of us who hated him for denying he knew Jesus, but the hate they expended on Peter could just as well have been spent on themselves, for we all knew we would have said and done the same, had we been challenged.
At the time I would gladly have exchanged the rest of my life for one more day with Him. But now I realize that in His leaving, Jesus actually exchanged one terrible day of His for the remainder of mine.
When at last the theatrics of the Council and the Roman leaders were at an end, we made our way out the western gate of the city. The procession was large and boisterous. Parts of it bore an almost festive air, as if the people were celebrating some great and happy occasion. Other parts of the procession were just the opposite, carried along by the mournful dirge, heads bowed, women weeping, men glassy-eyed.
I had seen it so many times before and had passed by it almost unaware, but on this morning Golgotha seemed the most depressingly imposing site on earth. There was nothing grand about the execution field. It was little more than a sad, trampled expanse of rock and thin soil just outside the city wall, upon which people died in hideous torment--and with alarming regularity.
The place called "The Skull" was littered with the fragmented sticks and poles of past deaths. The used and re-used wood was coated with old blood reduced to many shades of ochre by the burning Judean sun. Below the old upright poles were heavy stones jammed into the soil for support; they, too, were splattered the same ugly shades. We hung back, Peter and I, still fearful for our sorry lives, but we saw everything. We saw too much. We saw things that are now burned permanently into our brains--images and memories that will be our companions until we die.
The soldiers pushed Jesus down and laid Him out over the ground. While several held Him there, one brute with practiced strokes drove thick rusted spikes through each of His wrists and into the crosspiece timber. Jesus was silent throughout. I would have cried out, pleading for mercy, saying anything that might help me avoid such an awful death. But Jesus, though experiencing every bit of the pain, accepted it silently. He would not revile those who reviled Him.
Several picked Him up, pinned now to the beam, and attached the crosspiece to the top of the upright pole. It dropped into place with a sickening thump. While two soldiers braced against the backside of the cross, a third shoved Jesus' lower legs up until both knees were bent and pushed out to one side. Then the executioner drove one last spike that passed through both his ankles.
I cannot describe my anguish. I cannot describe the hollow ring of my guilt. No, I had not renounced Jesus, as Peter, but I have no doubt that my words would have been similar to his, had anyone inquired. Not having the courage to speak them out loud only compounded my shame.
The sight of His tortured body hanging before us stabbed into my heart like a slowly twisting knife. I wanted to be anywhere else but there--but I felt compelled to remain, as if this silent vigil--this tortured communion--would somehow relieve me of my complicity in His death.
Into the Word
Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. "You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter.He replied, "I am not." It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?"He denied it, saying, "I am not." One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow. John 18:15-18,25-27
There were happy days, long ago, when my brother and I would put out into the Sea of Galilee, visiting one of our "sweet spots" just off the shore of our town, Capernaum. The weight of the net, as we hauled it back into the boat, would be almost too much to bear. We'd throw everything we had into the ropes, straining, bending our backs to it. Sweat would pour off us, spill into our eyes till we couldn't see, leave the rope slippery in our hands.
What pleasant pain we felt once the catch was on board! Our arms would throb, our backs feel as if they would never again straighten, the palms of our hands burned from the tough rope--but soon we'd be back at it, tossing the empty net out over the waves, then hauling its new catch back in.
Ah, those were the days!
How I long for them, those days of happy ignorance. I wonder now if I'll ever again know such peace. For the last three years I've lived with God--and now I've had a hand in killing Him.
Last night, after they had buried Jesus, I went out into the city. The streets were so silent and black, and I wrapped the blackness about me and tried to forget what I had done. Even then I was so afraid--I was so afraid someone would see me and identify me with Him. I was so ashamed, but I couldn't stop being afraid for myself. In my heart I remembered what Jesus had said--that there was a reason for His dying. But in my mind I saw only a coward who had denied even knowing Him. He had trusted me, and I had thought only of myself.
The street was empty--that twisted street that had been filled with people laughing and mocking and spitting their hatred. It was empty, and I embraced the emptiness like an old friend who understands your pain when no one else can. Now, for the first time since that day Jesus had found me, I could no longer feel Him beside me. I was alone. So very much alone.
The guard was asleep, and soon I was outside the city. Golgotha was nearby; from the city gate you could already smell the lingering death. I didn't really want to see it, but something outside of myself had brought me back. The path was still muddy from the storm; I tripped on the wet stones in the dark; I was praying that a bolt of lightning would strike me down and end my wretched misery. But soon I was there--and that ugly stand of wood was still there. Try as I might, I couldn't keep my eyes from traveling up that post, to the crossbeam that was still in place.
God in heaven save me! My heart was ripped in two by what I saw--the spikes still there, still embedded in the wood and still painted with His blood. I couldn't look on that cross without seeing the dying body of Jesus. I knew the cross was empty--I knew He was no longer there--but He was! He was. And I put Him there. My cowardice put Him there.
But if I alone am responsible for His death, then that would mean that He died only for me. And that's not what He said.
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
No, we all put Him there. The soldiers drove the spikes, but we all held Him down so they could. And we were all pulling on that rope that lifted Him into place. We all left Him to die alone--stripped of His friends, stripped of His dignity.
Jesus died for all of us--not just me. We're all guilty of the sins for which He died.
It was an ugly way to die, but then, He died for ugly things, didn't He. There is no pleasant way to die for the sins of all humanity. If Jesus loved me enough to die in my place, then I must find a way to love myself again. Perhaps in His forgiveness of me I will discover the secret of forgiving myself.
Digging Deeper--Moving Higher
"[Somehow] we never see God in failure, but only in success--a strange attitude for people who have the cross as the center of their faith."
Making it Personal
"John's account of Peter's denials rises to a climax of peril and of keenness of suspicion. The unnamed persons who put the second question must have had their suspicions roused by something in his manner as he stood by the glinting fire, perhaps by agitation too great to be concealed. The third question was put by a more dangerous person still, who not only recognized Peter's features as the firelight fitfully showed them, but had a personal ground of hostility in his relationship to Malchus.
"John lovingly spares telling of the oaths and curses accompanying the denials, but dares not spare the narration of the fact. It has too precious lessons of humility, of self-distrust, of the possibility of genuine love being overborne by sudden and strong temptation, to be omitted. And the sequel of the denials has yet more precious teaching, which has brought balm to many a contrite heart, conscious of having been untrue to its deepest love. For the sound of the cock-crow, and the look from the Lord as He was led away bound past the place where Peter stood, brought him back to himself, and brought tears to his eyes, which were sweet as well as bitter. On the resurrection morning the risen Lord sent the message of forgiveness and special love to the broken-hearted Apostle, when He said, 'Go, tell My disciples and Peter,' and on that day there was an interview of which Paul knew, but the details of which were apparently communicated by the Apostle to none of his brethren.
"The denier who weeps is taken to Christ's heart, and in sacred secrecy has His forgiveness freely given, though, before he can be restored to his public office, he must, by his threefold public avowal of love, efface his threefold denial. We may say, 'Thou knowest that I love Thee,' even if we have said, 'I know Him not,' and come nearer to Jesus, by reason of the experience of His pardoning love, than we were before we fell."
Into the Word
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?""Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!" John 21:15-19
Into the Word
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Luke 23:50-51
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:38-42
"Joseph," my friend Nicodemus had said, "He's dying, and will need a tomb. Your family has one nearby, haven't they?"
"There's one available," I replied flatly.
My friend knew me well enough to accurately interpret my tone. Taking me firmly by the shoulders, he looked directly into my eyes and said, "It's time, Joseph. It's time to go public with what I know is in your heart."
I couldn't look at him. He was right, I knew it. This was a moment I had anticipated with dread.
"It isn't me," I argued, "but my family. I have no thought for my own position, my standing with the Council. But this will be hard on the family." My objection sounded as feeble as it truly was.
But Nicodemus was kind. Our relationship had been built on many years of living and working together, and would not be jeopardized by my unsightly display of cowardice. He chose his words carefully.
"I know what you're feeling," he finally said. "Remember that time I went to Him in the dead of night. I had no desire at the time to reveal even my interest in what Jesus had to say. It's only a further example of His grace that He didn't call me on it." He turned toward me. "Joseph, He's dying. I'm afraid of what will happen to the body if we don't step in. You have contacts with Pilate."
"Don't remind me."
"Get permission for us to remove the body. I'll see to the burial arrangements."
"Let us use agents," I blurted out. "There's no need for personal involvement." I was instantly embarrassed by my sad, last-ditch effort to keep private my beliefs. And again, Nicodemus, in his gentle grace, demonstrated that he had learned more from Jesus than I.
"Joseph, we've moved beyond politics now. This is no longer about taking sides, but about paying a debt. Jesus is doing this for us--you and me and everyone else. We owe Him everything. You owe Him everything."
The twisted, lifeless body of Jesus was a sight almost too hideous to bear. The tender, compassionate--even beautiful--face we had come to love was a battered mask of pain that hung limp upon His chest. Ribbons of dried blood caked His forehead below the ridiculous crown the soldiers had fashioned out of thorns. The weight of His body pulling on His arms had enlarged the already gaping wounds in His wrists. The pasty white flesh of His side revealed a deep gash, through which still oozed a clear liquid. Jesus looked like nothing more than a lifeless rag doll pinned to the side of a tree. And my heart broke over the torture He had received into that body ... for me.
It was odd, and more than a little frightening, to be handling the body of Jesus. But as quickly and efficiently as we could, we brought Him down from the cross. His weight had enlarged the holes in His wrists so that we were able to remove His arms from the spikes, leaving them in the wood. The spike that held His feet was finally, with great effort, extricated from the wood and His flesh.
With the help of some onlookers, and even a few of the remaining soldiers, Nicodemus and I succeeded in wrapping the body for carrying to the empty tomb. We did not see any of Jesus' disciples.
We stood in the tomb, gazing down on Jesus, now wrapped for final burial. In a few moments we would roll the heavy stone into place and permanently seal His body inside the limestone cave.
"How could we ever have imagined this would be how it would end?" Nicodemus said quietly.
"He warned us."
"Frankly, I was not always able to separate parable from fact. The temple still stands, but He is here, dead."
"I don't know how it will all play out," I said to my friend. "Already His words are fading in my memory."
"I remember some of His words," Nicodemus said. "That night long ago, when I visited Jesus in secret, He spoke of this night--I know it now."
"What did He say?"
"Jesus told me three things that night. He told me from where He had come, where He would be going, and how we could follow. He said that He had descended from heaven, and would be returning. Then--I understand it now--Jesus described what has just taken place. He said, 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.'"
Digging Deeper--Moving Higher
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress; 'Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed, with joy shall I lift up my head.
Bold shall I stand in Thy great day, for who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am, from sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
Lord, I believe Thy precious blood, which, at the mercy seat of God, Forever doth for sinners plead, for me, e'en for my soul, was shed.
Lord, I believe were sinners more than sands upon the ocean shore, Thou hast for all a ransom paid, for all a full atonement paid.
"Every believer is a witness whether he wants to be or not."
"Jesus, and shall it ever be,
A mortal man ashamed of thee,
Ashamed of thee, whom angels praise,
Whose glories shine through endless days?"
Making it Personal
"How much these two men lost--all those three years of communion with the Master; all His teaching, all the stimulus of His example, all the joy of fellowship with Him! They might have had a treasure in their memories that would have enriched them for all their days, and they had flung it all away because they were afraid of the curled lip of a long-bearded Pharisee or two.
"And so it always is; the secret disciple diminishes his communion with his Master. It is the valleys which lay their bosoms open to the sun that rejoice in the light and warmth; the narrow clefts in the rocks that shut themselves grudgingly up against the light, are all dank and dark and dismal. And it is the men that come and avow their discipleship that will have the truest communion with their Lord. Any neglected duty puts a film between a man and his Saviour; any conscious neglect of duty piles up a wall between you and Christ. Be sure of this, that if from cowardly or from selfish regard to position and advantages, or any other motive, we stand apart from Him, and have our lips locked when we ought to speak, there will steal over our hearts a coldness, His face will be averted from us, and our eyes will not dare to seek, with the same confidence and joy, the light of His countenance.
"Blessed be His name! The assurance is firm that if a man be a disciple he shall be saved; but the warning is sure that if he be an unfaithful and a secret disciple there will be a life-long unfaithfulness to a beloved Master to be purged away 'so as by fire.'"
Into the Word
Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Then the high priest asked him, "Are these charges true?" To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! ... you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 6:8,11-12,15-7:2a,53-60
Into the Word
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. But Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:1,11-18
They always said I was crazy--and for most of my life I was. I guess I never was in my right mind until I met Jesus.
There is no love stronger than the love that accepts you for who you are--and that is how Jesus loved me. When we first met I was a mess. He found me as I had been since my earliest days: mad as a wet hen.
Everywhere I went I became the center of attention, because no one could ignore the foul-mouthed demons that lived in my mind and body.
He was teaching and healing in our small town by the Sea of Galilee, and I was there because I was everywhere in those days--like a nagging headache that never lets you know peace. The people tried to ignore me, but I wouldn't let them. If I could have no peace, then neither could they; if I had to live with the constant torment, then I would be a constant torment to them. Don't ask me why--it's just how I was.
But Jesus didn't ignore me. Even in my state of incoherent babbling and screaming I still could understand that here was a man who cared for me as I was. No one had ever loved me like that. No one had ever reached down into my torment to lift me out; everyone else had always expected me to reach up to them.
Oh, what a cold and miserable morning it was. I don't think any of us had slept the night before. Ever since I had helped Nicodemus and Joseph place Him in the tomb I had been obsessed with the notion that we hadn't done enough for Him. Even with the extravagant amounts of burial spices Nicodemus had supplied, it didn't seem enough. Jesus had done so much for me--I simply had to do more, even if it was only to attend to His burial.
I was not one to frequent cemeteries. After the sleepless night I was bleary-eyed and disoriented--like walking the dark streets of a strange city and foolishly imagining that the lights represent familiar landmarks. The tomb looked strange, different from the last time I had been there, only a short while before.
At first it was all just a blur: the open tomb, the angels, running back for the disciples, returning with them, then being left alone there and hating the cloak of confusion that I was unable to throw off.
I thought he was the gardener. Doesn't every garden have a gardener, someone to tend and tidy and keep the riff-raff away? I only wanted to go home and sleep and forget that my Master was now gone forever. But he persisted: "Whom are you seeking?" And I still didn't recognize Him. Then He spoke once more, and it was as if that heavy cloak of confusion was suddenly lifted away--as if the voice of an old friend had just entered the conversation.
Jesus had always said my name in that warm, gentle way--like a brook gently tumbling over rounded pebbles, like song birds just waking to the dawn. In an instant I knew it was Him, and all doubt and confusion left me.
There is a tender little song we would sing in the neighborhood when I was a girl. I've forgotten most of it--except for one phrase:
My precious Lord was alive! But Jesus was more than my Master, He was my friend. He knew my name, and in His speaking that one simple word I remembered the true depth of His love for me--His love for everyone who knew His.
Digging Deeper--Moving Higher
Making it Personal
"Who can say anything about that transcendent recognition, in which all the stooping love of the risen Lord is smelted into one word, and the burst of rapture, awe, astonishment and devotion pours itself through the narrow channel of another? If this narrative is the work of some anonymous author late in the second century, he is indeed a 'Great Unknown,' and has managed to imagine one of the two or three most pathetic 'situations' in literature. Surely it is more reasonable to suppose him no obscure genius, but a well-known recorder of what he had seen, and knew for fact. Christ's calling by name ever reveals His loving presence. We may be sure that He knows us by name, and we should reply by the same swift cry of absolute submission as sprung to Mary's lips. 'Rabboni! Master!' is the fit answer to His call.
"But Mary's exclamation was imperfect in that it expressed the resumption of no more than the old bond, and her gladness needed enlightenment. Things were not to be as they had been. Christ's 'Mary!' had indeed assured her of His faithful remembrance and of her present place in His love; but when she clung to His feet she was seeking to keep what she had to learn to give up. Therefore Jesus, who invited the touch which was to establish faith and banish doubt, bids her unclasp her hands, and gently instils the ending of the blessed past by opening to her the superior joys of the begun future. His words contain for us all the very heart of our possible relation to Him, and teach us that we need envy none who companied with Him here. His ascension to the Father is the condition of our truest approach to Him.
"The ascended Christ is still our Brother. Neither the mystery of death nor the impending mystery of dominion broke the tie."
Into the Word
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!"
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"
The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped. Rev. 5:11-14
Issue No. 53
[1.] Mark 10:45. (return to footnote 1)
[2.] Julia H. Johnston (1849-1919). (return to footnote 2)
[3.] Cheryl Forbes in "The Religion of Power", cited in Christianity Today, March 1995. (return to footnote 3)
[4.] Daniel W. Whittle (1840-1901). (return to footnote 4)
[5.] 1 Corinthians 15:5. (return to footnote 5)
[6.] Alexander Maclaren, in his Expositions of Holy Scripture (Baker, 1984), Vol 11, p.235f. (return to footnote 6)
[7.] John 3:13. (return to footnote 7)
[8.] John 3:14-15 NASB. (return to footnote 8)
[9.] Isaac Watts (1674-1748). (return to footnote 9)
[10.] Nicolaus L. Zinzendorf (1700-1760); translated by John Wesley (1703-1791). (return to footnote 10)
[11.] Donald Grey Barnhouse. (return to footnote 11)
[12.] Joseph Grigg. (return to footnote 12)
[13.] Alexander Maclaren, in his Expositions of Holy Scripture (Baker, 1984), Vol 11, p.293f. His final quote from 1 Corinthians 3:15. (return to footnote 13)
[14.] John 20:15 NASB. (return to footnote 14)
[15.] James G. Small (1817-1888). (return to footnote 15)
[16.] Thomas Kelly (1769-1854). (return to footnote 16)
[17.] Luke 24:39; John 20:27. (return to footnote 17)
[18.] Alexander Maclaren, in his Expositions of Holy Scripture (Baker, 1984), Vol 11, p.306f. (return to footnote 18)
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