ENEMIES AND AN EMPTY TOMB
(March 27, 2005, Sermon Notes)
Jesus’ resurrection was good news for His disciples. But Matthew doesn’t tell us about Jesus appearing to them. Instead, he tells us about Jesus’ appearance to the women and about what happened when the report of His resurrection reached the Jewish leaders. He wants us to see what happened when God confronted them with Jesus’ empty tomb.
BELIEVING THE ROMAN GUARDS (28:11)
The Jewish leaders remembered that Jesus had talked about rising after three days. They feared that His disciples would steal His body and so they sealed the stone on the tomb and posted a Roman guard outside.
But their efforts couldn’t keep Jesus from rising. When He had risen, an angel rolled away the stone and the guards fell like dead men (Matt. 28:1-3). Later, some of those guards came to the Jewish leaders and reported everything that had happened. The angel’s actions made the guards into witnesses who would testify to Jesus’ enemies about His empty tomb.
The Jewish leaders don’t question what the Roman guards say. They believe their report â€” which means that they believe that an angel from God rolled away the stone. They condemned Jesus to die, but God vindicated Him by raising Him and sending an angel to confirm it.
Jesus’ empty tomb demands a choice. The Jewish leaders recognize what had happened. They understand what it means. But they refuse to humble themselves, repent, and follow Jesus.
DECEIVING THE JEWISH PEOPLE (28:12-15)
The chief priests summon the elders for another council. They can’t deny the empty tomb, but if they work quickly enough they can stop the report of the resurrection from spreading and being believed.
They concoct another story and use money from God’s temple to bribe the guards to spread it. Anyone who pays for lies is afraid of the truth. They know Jesus wasn’t a deceiver, but they become deceivers to keep people from believing that God raised Jesus from the dead.
They tell the Roman guards to say that they fell asleep and, while they were asleep, Jesus’ disicples stole His body. They assure the guards that Pilate won’t punish them for sleeping.
But if they had really been sleeping, wouldn’t they be punished? And if they were sleeping, how did they know it was Jesus’ disciples who stole the body? And why didn’t anyone arrest the disciples and find the body? They claim too much and they do too little.
The story is convincing only to those who don’t want to believe the truth. The lie catches on, but the lie still confirms the truth. Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t deny that His tomb was empty on the third day.
That truth demands a choice: you can join Jesus’ enemies in believing a lie, which leads to your own destruction, or you can join Jesus’ disciples in rejoicing in the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, which is your salvation.
(March 25, 2005, Sermon Notes)
For several Sundays, we’ve been looking at Isaiah’s songs about the Servant. Israel was to be God’s Servant but Israel was blind and deaf. But God didn’t abandon His plan to bring blessing to the world through Israel, His Servant. He sent one man to be His Servant, to represent Israel, and to carry out His task faithfully.
In Isaiah 50, we learned that the Servant’s task would involve suffering followed by vindication. Now, in Isaiah 52-53, we discover that the task involves suffering and triumphing as a representative and as a substitute.
THE MYSTERY OF THE SERVANT’S EXALTATION (52:13-15)
The song starts with Yahweh’s announcement that His Servant will act wisely, taking the best path to the right goal. That path will end up with a triple exaltation (“exalted, lifted up, made high”: see Paul’s invented word “superexalted” in Phil. 2:9).
But the surprise is that the path to that exaltation is the path of humiliation. The Servant will be exalted above all men because he will be humiliated more than all men.
Through that humiliation, the Servant will triumph. He will “sprinkle many nations,” which alludes to the Old Covenant washings (which Heb. 9 calls “baptisms”). Israel was sprinkled when God established His covenant with her at Sinai and God promised to sprinkle her when He restored her after her exile (Ezek. 36:25). Israelites who were afflicted with “leprosy” also had to be sprinkled to be restored to the community (Lev. 14:7).
The Servant, however, will not merely sprinkle Israel; he will sprinkle “many nations.” Gentiles, too, will be brought into covenant and will draw close to God through him. When the church carries out the Great Commission, discipling the nations by baptizing them and teaching them to obey Jesus, the Servant is “sprinkling many nations.”
The Servant is triumphant and even the kings of earth, who may have spoken against him or against his people, will shut their mouths in awe when they hear the news of him. His path might look like failure, but it mysteriously turns out to be the route to exaltation over all the rulers of the earth.
THE MEANING OF THE SERVANT’S SUFFERING (53:1-9)
But who could believe this report? Who recognized that the suffering Servant was the “arm of Yahweh” that had rescued Israel from Egypt in the past, Yahweh’s own personal power and presence? Not the people to whom his followers preached and not those followers themselves, at first. Human wisdom can’t recognize the meaning of this Servant’s suffering.
The Servant grew up before Yahweh as a tender plant, but he grew out of dry ground. The nation of Israel and the house of David weren’t fertile territory for the coming of this Servant.
Nor was the Servant attractive in the way that David was. Even his own people rejected him. His whole ministry was characterized by suffering and by the end people didn’t even want to look at him. It appeared as if everything about him added up to nothing because it all ended in apparent failure and in death.
But now the Servant’s followers recognize that he was suffering as a substitute, carrying away our griefs and sorrows. That was what Jesus was doing when He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matt. 8:16-17) and that was what He was doing on the cross. At first, his followers thought he was stricken by God for his own sins, but later they saw that he was wounded and crushed for ours. He suffered to bring about the peace and healing we needed.
We had wandered away from our shepherd like sheep â€” all of us, but also each one of us â€” but our iniquity was laid on the Servant instead of on us. Like a sheep who doesn’t fight back when he goes to be sheared or like a lamb who doesn’t retaliate when he is slaughtered, Jesus did not lash out or defend himself.
But no one of His generation understood what was happening. Verse 8 is often translated as if it were saying, “Who will report that he had any children?” but “generation” isn’t usually used in the sense of offspring. More likely, it refers to His contemporaries: “Who of His generation will report that He was cut off from the land of the living, and that it was for the transgressions of my people that He was stricken?”
No one recognized it, even when they saw His burial. He would normally have been buried with the other criminals, but instead He lay in a rich man’s tomb. That tomb was a foretaste of glory, a sign of God’s favour because He was faithful in His speech and actions. But no one recognized it until later. Only then did they understand the meaning of His suffering and death. Only then did they acknowledge Him as our substitute.
THE REWARD FOR THE SERVANT’S FAITHFULNESS (53:10-12)
The Servant was innocent, and yet “it pleased Yahweh to crush him.” It is not that Yahweh took pleasure in the crushing of the Servant in itself. Rather, it pleased Yahweh to crush His Servant because of what that crushing was and what it would accomplish.
The Servant died as “a trespass offering,” as the kind of offering you would bring, not for inadvertent sins or sins of human weakness, but for sins of outright rebellion and for direct violations of God’s holiness. God made Jesus the final trespass offering so that we who were rebels might live as God’s people.
The amazing thing is that this death wasn’t the end of the Servant’s life. After being offered as a trespass offering, the Servant would see his seed, the offspring God promised to Abraham and to Israel and to the Servant, seed like the sand on the seashore. He would “prolong his days,” living forever to carry out Yahweh’s pleasure. He would look back at his work and what it accomplished and be satisfied.
The Servant was faithful and God declared him righteous. But the Servant was not faithful for himself only. He knew how to bring others to share in his own righteousness, to share in his status but then also to be transformed into people to begin to live in righteousness. He did it by bearing their iniquities.
Because the Servant chose this path, Yahweh promises to reward him: “I will allocate to him the many and he will allocate the strong as spoil” (a better translation than the NKJV’s “I will divide him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong,” which makes it sound as if Jesus were just one “great one” among many and which obscures the fact that the word translated “the great” here is the word translated “the many” elsewhere in this passage).
Yahweh gives the Servant “the many,” the ones for whom he died, the people who were once horrified (52:14) but who are now justified (53:11) because he bore their iniquities. They are allotted to the Servant as his reward. More than that, he will conquer the earth so that all “the strong ones” (= the “kings” of 52:15) are the spoils of war for him to do with as he pleases.
He receives this reward because he poured out his soul unto death (to which Paul alludes when he says that Jesus “emptied himself”: Phil. 2:7), was counted as a transgressor, bore the sin of “the many,” and interceded for the transgressors.
That is the solution to the mystery of His exaltation: His humiliation wasn’t punishment for his own sins but was the punishment for the sins of others and therefore the path to glory. Jesus died as a substitute, as the faithful one who bore the sins of “the many” He came to save, so that we could be declared righteous and become His seed who will inherit the world with him.
One of the things I’ve appreciated most in R. T. France’s commentary on Mark is his inclusion, usually in footnotes, of odd and interesting views with which he disagrees. Often what strikes France as fanciful strikes me as helpful.
Take this for instance: In a footnote on page 188, France interacts with a comment by Mary Ann Tolbert.
Tolbert notes that in the first parable in Mark 4, the emphasis is on the four types of soil (ge). Jesus, she points out, is not on the “soil” (ge: land) but is sitting “on the sea,” while the crowd is “toward the sea on the land” (ge: the same word translated “soil”).
Thus Jesus is distancing himself from the crowd: they are on the land physically while he is on the sea, but in terms of the parable, they are soil while he is the sower. He isn’t just another person responding (or not) to the word which is sown; he is distinct from all the people who are on land, the people who are themselves soils.
France dismisses this comment, saying that Tolbert is interpreting “imaginatively,” but that this is “a lot to read out of” the sea/land language. I don’t know about that: I rather like it!
And that, as I said at the beginning, is the great thing about France’s commentary. His own explanations are often a bit bland, but he has these thought-provoking gems in his footnotes.
In Isaiah 50:7, the Servant says that he set his face like flint. The word “flint” appears rarely in the Bible and in all but one case (besides this one) it is used to refer to the rock which Moses struck (Deut. 8:15; 32:13; Ps. 114:8; the exception is Job 28:9).
Does the reference to “flint” here, taken together with the Servant’s earlier statement about giving his back to the strikers (Isa. 50:6), hint that the Servant will be that rock which Moses struck, that, as a result of his being the flint which is struck, water will flow from Him to Israel and the world?
Certainly Paul tells us that the rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), and Isaiah 50 implies that it is by enduring this suffering faithfully and then being vindicated by God that the Servant will accomplish his mission. I wonder if both of those things aren’t implied here by a subtle allusion to the flint being struck in the wilderness to give water to Israel.
THE SERVANT’S PATTERN
(March 20, 2005 Sermon Notes)
In Isaiah 42, Yahweh presents His Servant as the one who will bring justice to the world. But Israel, the Servant, is blind and deaf. And so Yahweh promises another Servant who will be a true Israel and who will restore Israel and bring salvation to the world.
But how would that happen? Through the Servant’s faithfulness in suffering and his vindication by God. That will bring comfort to the weary (50:4) and light to those who walk in darkness (50:10), but it will also mean torment for those who don’t listen to the Servant’s voice (50:11).
THE SERVANT’S FAITHFULNESS (50:4-6)
In 50:1-3, Yahweh complains that no one listens to Him. Now there is one who does. The Master gave His Servant a disciple’s tongue to comfort the weary. That disciples’ tongue depends on a disciple’s ear. Every morning, Yahweh opened His Servant’s ear to hear Him and obey.
Israel’s ear was plugged (Isa. 48:8), but Yahweh opened the Servant’s ear. Unlike Israel, the Servant didn’t rebel or shrink back. Instead, he even voluntarily gave himself to people who would oppress him and shame him.
Jesus willingly entered shame and suffering. He was faithful even to death. And His pattern is our pattern. If we are united to Jesus, we should expect to share in His sufferings (e.g., Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10). We can’t do that on our own, but God opens our ears so that we hear His voice and He gives us Jesus’ Spirit, the Spirit of a faithful Servant, so that we obey Him.
THE SERVANT’S CONFIDENCE (50:7-9)
The Servant didn’t hide his face from shame because he knew that “Master Yahweh” would help him and therefore he would not ultimately be put to shame and so he set his face like flint to do what God sent him to do.
His confidence is found in the nearness of his Justifier. People will condemn him, but the Judge is on his side and He will vindicate him in the end. That vindication will include the overthrow of the Servant’s opponents, who will become like old moth-eaten clothes, slowly but surely deteriorating.
When men condemned Jesus, God vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead. And we can know that God will vindicate us, too. God is the justifier and no one else’s charges against us will stand (Rom. 8:31-39).
THE LORD’S SUMMONS (50:10-11)
If you fear Yahweh and obey His Servant’s voice, you may still be walking in the darkness. If you are, follow the Servant’s pattern of faith. Trust in Yahweh’s name and rely on Him to vindicate you.
Those who don’t trust Him walk in their own light and gird themselves for war with their own flaming arrows. But that fire will destroy them. Our Master Yahweh will make them “lie down in torment.” But to us He will say what He says to Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful Servant.”
Recently, an ad hoc study committee of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the PCA produced a report on a number of concerns the committee has with regard to the teaching of some in Reformed circles. That report has been sent to the PCA’s General Assembly as a “communication” from the presbytery.
Unfortunately, the report includes some misrepresentation of the teachings of a number of men, including ministers in good standing in the PCA, and could well do serious damage to their reputations.
Those who are interested in studying these matters (and I do not believe that every Christian ought to be troubling himself about these debates!), would do well to look over the responses that have been written by Mark Horne, Joel Garver, and Peter Leithart.
I trust that these documents will help to sharpen and improve the discussion surrounding this report and will help to protect, uphold, and vindicate the reputation of men who have been attacked and condemned unjustly.
THE SERVANT’S MISSION
(March 13, 2005 Sermon Notes)
In Isaiah 41, God calls Israel His Servant. In Isaiah 42, He promises His Servant success in his worldwide mission. But He adds that no one is as deaf and blind as His Servant.
Israel was to bring blessing to the Gentiles, but Israel couldn’t. But God promises a Servant who will both restore Israel and bring salvation to the world. In Isaiah 49, that Servant proclaims his mission to the world.
The Servant calls the distant Gentile regions to listen to him. In Isaiah, only Yahweh says, “Listen to me” (46:3, 12; 48:12; 51:1, 7; 55:2). The Servant speaks with Yahweh’s own authority and everyone must listen up.
Jesus could do that because He is God Himself and we need to “Hear Him” (Mk. 9:7). But now, in Christ, we are God’s Servant. When we proclaim God’s Word, it comes with God’s authority and people must listen.
God has prepared the Servant from the womb, already calling him by name. In everything he experienced, God was sharpening him and preparing him for service. That was true of Jesus and it is true of us also.
God made the Servant’s mouth like a sharp sword. God’s Word is a sword (Judges 3; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16; 19:15) and by that Word the servant wins the victory. He is also a sharp arrow, able to conquer from afar. But God didn’t use the Servant right away. He prepared Jesus (and He prepares us), keeping us safe for the right time.
Who is the Servant? He is Israel (v. 3)! The nation couldn’t accomplish this task, but the Servant will be a man who bears Israel’s identity and carries out Israel’s calling faithfully. He is Jesus and he is us in Christ. Through Christ â€” the head and the body â€” God will be glorified in the world.
But the Servant’s work looks like a failure. Jesus’ people rejected Him. His disciples abandoned Him. His labour led to the cross and grave. At times, we too serve â€” some even die â€” without seeing fruit from our work.
We share the Servant’s weariness. We must also share his hope. His work looks like a failure, but God will justify and reward him. With that joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross and God did indeed vindicate Him and exalt Him and reward Him (Heb. 12:2) and He will do so for too. Those who trust in the LORD will not labour in vain (Isa. 65:23).
Yahweh formed the Servant to restore Israel, and the Servant could be sure he would succeed by God’s strength and be glorified in God’s eyes. But now Yahweh promised more. He promised to make him the light to draw the nations out of darkness and the salvation the whole world needs.
THE SERVANT’S SUCCESS
(March 6, 2005 Sermon Notes)
During Lent, people often fast. Fasting may sometimes be appropriate as we think about our sin and Christ’s suffering. But we may not act as if we don’t know that Good Friday was followed by Easter. Jesus’ suffering was not defeat. It was victory. Isaiah 42 shapes our preparation for Good Friday this year by pointing forward to that victory.
GOD’S JUSTICE IN THE WORLD (42:1-4)
God sends His servant to bring salvation to the world. In Isaiah, God’s chosen servant is Israel (41:8-9), through whom all the nations would be blessed. But Israel herself needs salvation. Here, God’s servant is a faithful man who will carry out Israel’s calling. That Servant is Jesus Christ, our head, but it includes us as His body.
Jesus is God’s chosen one in whom He delights, and in Christ we are too. Jesus received God’s Spirit, and in Christ we have too. Jesus will bring forth justice to the nations, and in Christ that’s our calling too.
“Justice” here involves God’s condemnation and overthrow of the idols and their servants as well as the establishment of righteousness in the world. God is going to make things right, and all who trust in Him will enjoy His justice as it comes to expression in forgiveness and peace.
The Servant will accomplish this goal by meekness and humility. He won’t quarrel or out-shout his opponents. His people will be “broken reeds” that snap and pierce his hand (Isa. 36:6). They will be smoldering wicks in a lamp, giving little light. But he won’t destroy them (Matt. 12:14-21). He lets them pierce his hand and leave him in darkness.
Is that failure? No. It’s victory. Literally, verse 4 says that he won’t be splintered (like the reed) nor will he smolder (like the wick). Even death won’t stop him from establishing God’s justice in the world to save all the Gentiles who hope in his law (= in his name, Matt. 12:21).
EXTENDING GOD’S COVENANT TO THE WORLD (42:5-9)
The Servant’s mission is backed by the God who called him, who is the creator, not just of Israel, but of the world (v. 5). He called the Servant in His faithfulness to His covenant and He won’t abandon him (or us!).
He will make him a covenant for “the people” (Israel). The covenant is a person. Only in Jesus would Israel enjoy God’s covenant promises. But so would Gentiles because He is a light to the Gentiles, to rescue them from the blindness and slavery of sin and draw them to Himself (Isa. 60:1-3). He drew us from darkness to light (1 Pet. 2:9) and now we also are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14-16).
God won’t share His glory with idols. In the end, through the servant’s work, the world will turn from idols and glorify Him alone. Just as He brought about the former things (return from exile), He will bring about this victory, too. The Servant will be successful. The Creator guarantees it!
First, I saw Peter Leithart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Then, I saw the same book reviewed in Books and Culture. It’s almost enough to make me drop what I’m reading now and rush out to get a copy!
By the way, for all you Shroud of Turin buffs (are there such people?), the current issue of Books and Culture also contains Nathan Wilson‘s “Father Brown Fakes the Shroud,” which describes how he managed to create something very much like the Shroud. Very interesting.
THE LORD OF THE SABBATH
(January 30, 2005 Sermon Notes)
Our text shows Jesus involved in controversy on the Sabbath. But the Sabbath isn’t the main focus of the text. Rather, the focus is on who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who does something new. He is the bridegroom feasting from place to place. And He is the Lord who gives Sabbath rest.
THE SON OF DAVID (2:23-26)
Mark says (literally) that Jesus’ disciples were “making a way” through the grainfields (2:23). That reminds us of the “way” theme in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is on the “way of the LORD” (1:2-3) and His disciples are following Him on that way.
As they went, they picked grain and ate it (Deut. 23:25). The Pharisees saw this as a violation of the Law forbidding harvesting on the Sabbath (Ex. 34:21). The Sabbath was a symbol of Jewish identity. True Jews kept the Sabbath; false Jews didn’t. But Jesus’ disciples aren’t.
Jesus responds by pointing to David (1 Sam. 21). Like Jesus, David was anointed as king but wasn’t on the throne yet. He asked Ahimelech the high priest for bread. In the Law, soldiers in camp are similar to priests (e.g., Deut. 23:9-14), and so Ahimelech gave him the showbread which only priests could eat (Lev. 24).
Jesus is identifying Himself as the new David, the king of Israel. As such, He is permitted to do what others aren’t permitted to do. He is the holy warrior who is authorized to feed His followers, even by allowing them to harvest and eat grain on the Sabbath.
The disciples aren’t renegades following a lax leader. They are Jesus’ army, and their action is a sign that the king has come. But if Jesus is a new David, those who oppose Him are new Sauls and will be overthrown.
In 1 Samuel 21, the high priest is Ahimelech, but Jesus speaks about Abiathar as high priest. Jesus is giving the Pharisees a riddle to think about. Abiathar was Ahimelech’s only surviving son and he obviously approved of David’s actions because he fled to David (1 Sam. 22). Later, however, he turned against him and Solomon replaced him. By using his name, Jesus is hinting that those who serve God ought to support David’s son. If they turn against Him, they will be replaced.
THE SON OF MAN (2:27-28)
Jesus then points back to creation. God made the Sabbath to benefit man, not the other way around. The Pharisees saw the Sabbath laws as ultimate, but their application of the laws robbed men of rest, especially because they didn’t honour the Lord who gives rest.
Jesus is the son of Adam who has been exalted as Lord over the Sabbath (Dan. 7). He didn’t come to call people back to the Old Covenant. He died and rose to bring New Covenant rest. He is greater than the Law, and He determines what may or may not be done all week long.