From Harry’s Desk…2019
This month we are continuing our series of meditations on Our Lord’s first cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
JESUS PLEADED THEIR IGNORANCE
In asking for God’s mercy upon these people Jesus pleads their ignorance, “They do not know what they are doing.”
Is it not true that thousands around us spurn the love of God in Jesus Christ through ignorance? Probably these SOLDIERS had no interest in the identity of the men they were crucifying. It was just part of their job. They had the misfortune to be posted to this remote country of desert, heat, flies and rebels. No doubt they just wanted to get the unpleasant business over with, collect their pay, and get home to their families. They were entitled to divide between them, as a small bonus, the meagre possessions of those they crucified. This man had the most beautiful, seamless robe they had ever seen. So rather than tear it they gambled for it. Why not try and have a little fun? Life was hard enough. They had previously enjoyed some “sport” with this strange “King of the Jews,” when they mocked him in the guard-house.
Similarly, all that many of our neighbours want in life is a reasonable job with decent pay and benefits, a good family and a little fun. They are really not interested in the identity of Jesus. What is he to them?
Only last summer, 2018, a taxi driver said to us, “People in England are not interested in religion today.”
Many crucify afresh the Lord of glory by blaspheming his name, breaking his laws and spurning his love. But they do it in ignorance. No-one has ever taught them differently. They know not what they do. Should we condemn them if Jesus did not? Maybe, but for the grace of God, we should be exactly like them.
We must remember, most of the people of Jesus’ day thought only of political deliverance and economic prosperity. That is what all down-trodden, poor, and oppressed people think about, isn’t it? And in the synagogues and in the Temple their rabbis taught them that the Messiah would come one day and he would bring the freedom, health, prosperity and the power they longed for.
They were not taught of a Christ who would come to die to be their Saviour from sin. Consequently, they were disillusioned with Jesus hanging on a cross. Why, even the Scriptures say, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” They were convinced he was cursed by God, and they were right. But, oh, would no-one tell them why? It was for them (and for us) he was thus cursed.
Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood
Hallelujah! What a Saviour! (Philipp Bliss)
Speaking of the Scriptures, it was not that their teachers had portrayed a Christ with no Scriptural basis whatsoever, rather they had selected only those aspects of Messianic prophecy which were exciting and appealing, totally omitting those Scriptures which spoke of a Messiah who would suffer and die. They wanted to portray a Christ who seemed practically relevant to the awful times in which they were living and who would meet the (immediate and perceived) needs and aspirations of the people. Thus, they distorted the Word.
We can see how they put the victorious reign of the Second Coming into the First and portrayed the Messianic blessings of the New World to come as all for the here and now. There was no place for the cross. Such great chapters as Isaiah 53 were either ignored or applied to someone else. They cannot refer to the Messiah, they taught, because that is not the kind of Messiah we need!
Oh, how careful we too must be not to portray a false Christ. It seems to me, there are teachers today who make the same mistake as those teachers of old. They say, “Come to Christ, and he will give you, health, wealth, and power.” They portray him as standing ready to “meet your needs” like some kind of celestial butler. “What do you need (which sounds like, ‘want’)? Just name it and claim it.” These preachers and teachers hardly mention the cross. They speak nothing of repentance and salvation from sin.
Their listeners are not taught that the true Christ calls his disciples in self-denial to follow in his footsteps and bear a cross. No, it is come to Christ and have Heaven now. Understandably the audience, like all people seeking instant happiness, eagerly takes it in. They never hear that poverty of spirit and hunger for righteousness is the road to happiness the Jesus way. Little wonder folk are still disillusioned. Some curse him in their hearts because he didn’t deliver on the promises they were given. Others just turn away hardened, perhaps forever, from receiving the true Christ. Yet Jesus prays for them. Like the people of his time who jeered in anger and disappointment these disillusioned folk “know not what they do.” Their false teachers bear the greater sin.
May I address pastors, teachers and church leaders? In our desire to attract the irreligious to our services, to be acceptable to the world, and to grow our churches, how careful we must be not to proclaim a mindless, cross-less, cost-less – even Christ-less Christianity. I say “Christ-less” because the Christ portrayed is a gross distortion. We have an awesome responsibility how we handle the Truth entrusted to us to deliver.
If, then, we are to make sure we preach the true Gospel of God, what must be in the centre?
Let the Apostle Paul answer:
“But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
Hear these solemn words, “But if even we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8)
Pastors and teachers, our first responsibility is not to please the world but the Lord; not to be successful but faithful. We may register fewer “decisions,” but we shall make more disciples. We may have smaller numbers, but we shall be true ambassadors of our King.
QUESTION AND IMPLICATION
Someone may ask: does this not imply all lost sinners will be forgiven and go to Heaven if they “know not what they do” in rejecting or ignoring Christ? Is this implied in our Lord’s cry from the cross? Does not God require repentance of sin and faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? (Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:38, 20:21; John 3:16, 14:6)
This is the subject for our next meditation.
The article which follows was written by Ceri Brown, a young 24-year-old woman, who has recently been given a devastating medical diagnosis. We reproduce it here, with her permission, as the message of joy and hope it contains is especially appropriate for Easter.
Guest Article: ‘Choose Joy’
When given news as shocking and devastating as I found mine, it’s difficult to know where to turn.
But I knew that the only source of stability and certainty in the middle of that storm would be found in looking to God. So I decided to approach the horrendous news I’d been given with a phrase I’ve been trying to embrace over the past months:
The past 15 months have been one long, continuous journey of refinement. For myself as a person and also in understanding my faith.
Life has been a lot of things recently, but consistently, it’s been tough. In the unknown and uncertainty, I’ve repeatedly returned to the phrase: Choose Joy.
For the best part of a year, I had been having treatment for cancer that was found in my face in December 2017.
I had nine gruelling courses of chemotherapy, was flown out to Florida to have specialist Proton Beam Therapy in the spring of 2018 and ended the year with major surgery to remove the remaining tumour.
At the start of February, I was told my scans were clear and my life could finally commence again.
Three weeks later, I was told that the cancer had regrown in my lungs. There are now two tumours in my left lung that are treatable but no longer curable.
After riding the incredible high of being told I was free of cancer, I was then told I had decisions to make regarding the quality of my remaining life.
I have 6-12 months left to live if I choose to have the treatment offered.
Through this time, I’ve found that happiness and joy are very different.
Happiness is circumstantial; an emotional reaction to situations you find yourself in and a response to what you enjoy.
Joy is something your soul experiences and something your body responds to through knowing an inner fulfilment and being satisfied in that knowledge.
Joy is certainty of the future and contentment in my ultimate destination. It’s the understanding that above all else, God is consistently faithful and abundantly loving. It’s the fundamental knowledge that Jesus has gone before me and defeated death through His resurrection. He knows my darkest fears and gives me the hope of eternal life in His new Kingdom.
I am certain I’ll meet Jesus face to face in heaven; not an ethereal place made from wispy clouds, but a real, physical place, as real as planet Earth, where God resides and where we will eternally live in peace.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
— Revelation 21:4
Because it was never meant to be about this life; we’re all simply passing through, and my circumstances are just a ‘blip’ on the road to eternity.
Our lives are but a vapour, a thin mist that appears momentarily and then vanishes away.
“How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.”
— James 4:14
Whilst life throws uncertainty in front of me each day, by choosing joy, I’m choosing to acknowledge that when I’m weak in my mind and body, God is strong in my spirit.
The Joy of the Lord is the knowledge that we’ve been accepted by God, that we live in total assurance of an eternal, intimate relationship with Him.
The same joy was carried by Jesus on the cross, and the same knowledge that He was going to return to His Father in heaven can be embodied by us too.
The Holy Spirit enables us to recognise all that feeds our soul; pointing us to God. He shows us that God isn’t the author of the brokenness in this world, but the One who gives us the strength and guidance to navigate through it.
So when we choose joy, we can’t help but worship God, in an overwhelming outpouring of praise.
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.”
— Psalm 39:4-5
It is a freedom which will transform your life.
It is Ceri’s prayer, which her parents, and we echo, that there may be those who read her testimony who will seek the Saviour to whom she points; or, who themselves may be passing through great trial and be strengthened by it,
Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
When the Lord Jesus Christ was hanging on the cross, he uttered seven cries. They are sometimes called the “Seven Last Words.” They are the last things he said before he died, and are therefore very precious to us. In the next weeks I hope to publish some meditations on the first of the seven cries. In this meditation, I am focusing on the words, “Father, forgive them… ”
You will immediately observe it is a prayer. Three of the seven cries are prayers. They are very short prayers. I have discovered that most of the effective prayers in the Bible are very short. It is a comfort for us to know that God is pleased to hear short prayers, so long as they are earnest and meaningful. As Jesus taught us, our Father in Heaven does not hear us because we multiply words. He has quite different criteria – see Matthew 6:9-14.
Secondly, note that:
JESUS PRAYED FOR HIS ENEMIES
Crucifixion was one of the cruelest deaths ever devised by the depraved mind of man. It resulted, of course, in anything but a swift death. It was a slow death. That was its design. The prolonged agony was caused, not only by the initial tearing of tender flesh as nails were driven through hands and feet, but also because that pain was renewed over and over again as the condemned man sought to draw breath by levering his body upward and outward from the cross. It is not necessary to describe further the physical aspects of crucifixion save to say that the victim usually screamed in pain and cursed his executioners.
This man Jesus of Nazareth, however, actually prayed for their forgiveness.
You may remember that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, had taught his disciples to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:43-48). Here we find that he practiced what he had preached. I suspect many of us are inconsistent to some extent, for the Christian should always aspire higher than he attains. Jesus, however, was the one totally consistent man. His practice matched his preaching perfectly – as did his praying. What he had taught others to be and to do as the will of God he was and did himself, consequently he prayed for his enemies.
The question is, can we follow his example and pray for our enemies?
It isn’t easy, is it? What about your enemies? Do you have any? Do you love them and pray for them? Perhaps you remember those who have been your enemies in the past, and did wrong to you? Or you think they did. In fact, you are sure they did. They hurt you, didn’t they? They caused you great pain. Was there somebody, and you would even say, “He crucified me?”
Do you still have a grudge after all these years for that wrong committed against you? Do you have a root of bitterness? Maybe you would even yet like to see some restitution. Is that “something” that happened in the past spoiling your life in the present?
It is understandable. I am not blaming you. It is almost – may I say it – human nature. But oh, my friends, we can deny ourselves all peace and victory and joy because we cannot bring ourselves to pray goodwill for our enemies.
Do you know, bearing a grudge is one of the main causes of depression? Bitterness is the cancer of the soul?
THE ANTIDOTE TO BITTERNESS
This is such a common problem for many of us that we must consider it a little more. Romans 12:14-21 is a very important passage. The Apostle Paul prescribes an antidote to this poison:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, not even in your heart. Leave room for God’s wrath.“
What does he mean, “Leave room for God’s wrath?”
He is being very realistic. He is saying, “If you think they deserve to be punished, let God do it. You cannot do it anyway. You are not hurting them. You are just hurting yourself. Hand them – and your problem – over to God.”
Paul continues, “For it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge. I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
God is their judge. He is the judge of all men. Furthermore, God sees what your enemies are doing or what some have done in the past. He sees everything. Are you anxious they are going to get off scot-free? They won’t get away with anything! Unless, of course, you have somehow misjudged them. I know you think that unlikely but God alone is the only infallible assessor of their guilt or, for that matter, yours and mine. He will judge fairly. If they have truly repented, God will of course forgive them, just as he has forgiven you and me.
We should also bear in mind our Lord’s teaching, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) That should cause us to hesitate and think carefully before we judge anyone.
Or what about, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 7:1-2 and 6:12)
As someone said, “It is very disturbing how unforgiving ‘forgiven’ people can be!”
Yes, it is.
But in any event, don’t let the pains of the past rob you of the peace of the present. That is sheer foolishness.
What does Paul mean by “burning coals” (v20)?
“On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Some people think that by “burning coals” Paul means that your kindness will make your enemy feel worse! It probably will. If you are so mad at him that you would like to anoint him with a bucketful of burning coals (very painful!), then just be kind to him. Perhaps that will trouble him more.
However, I think the spirit of the passage makes it more likely Paul is using a figure of speech for repentance.
You are much more likely to bring your adversary to sorrow and repentance by your undeserved kindness than by hatred. Consider for a moment; if you strike back in vengeance, won’t your guilty adversary feel more justified? Which do you think those soldiers crucifying Jesus would remember most vividly, a man who cursed them like everybody else, or the one who, contrary to anything they had ever experienced before, prayed for his tormentors? (I hope to have more to suggest about these crucifiers in a further study.)
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good“(v21). Our emotional memory does not operate according to chronological time, so that when we are reminded of a hurt, we may experience the pain all over again. Someone touches a “sore spot” and hurts of many years ago tear us apart once more.
May I sum it up in this way; we must not allow an evil done to us to overcome us and we must not respond with an evil of our own. Rather let us, like Jesus, overcome evil with good by praying for our enemies and accompanying our prayers, where possible, by appropriate actions towards those who have wronged us.
In short, follow Paul’s prescription and Our Lord’s example. Ask your Heavenly Father, Judge of all, to deal with those you feel have wronged you. As did our Lord Jesus Christ, who also addressed his Father.
Then look forward, and move on “…forgetting what is behind…I press on…” (Philippians 3:13-14).