On May 23, 1986, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a letter to the editor, which expressed outrage that our nation’s most prestigious medical journal would “presume to roam beyond the borders of its own expertise…” The authors of the letter, Albert Vorspan and Rabbi Philip Hiat, were upset about an article entitled, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” They charged its authors with delving into theology instead of sticking to their medical backgrounds, and by way of analogy suggested it would be the same as if their own Reform Judaism magazine were used to “instruct our readers in the techniques of open heart surgery.” This letter is just one of what journal editor George Lumberg described as a “deluge of letters” about the article on Jesus’ death. What caused so many people to respond, often critically, to an article about one man’s torture and death 2,000 years ago? The event of Jesus’ death continues to send shock waves when it is discussed, especially when that discussion takes place in a secular, medical journal. If Jesus’ truly was crucified, then we must come to terms with the significance of his death.
But can we trust that Jesus truly did die there on the cross? The Journal of the American Medical Association article details the factors leading up to Jesus’ final moments. These include the flogging that likely put Jesus in critical condition, the blood loss from it that is evidenced by his inability to carry the cross beam. They include the nerves pierced by the spikes in his hands and feet, the asphyxiation that comes from the positioning on the cross, and ultimately the spear thrust into the body of a man already dead. And yet, you might like to know that the article acknowledges that there is some debate about Jesus’ death. Would you like to know what it is? The debate is about the cause of death, whether it was the inability to breathe, brought on by exhaustion and trauma, or whether it was a cardiac rupture. The authors write, “The important feature may not be how he died but whether he died.” Then they conclude emphatically that the historical evidence points in only one reasonable direction – that Jesus did, in fact, die – and that any argument to the contrary is at odds with modern medical knowledge. We can take this a step further, using some of the authors’ own wording. The important feature may not be whether he died but why he died. What was the result – the impact – of Jesus’ death for us?
Tonight, as we remember Jesus’ death, we also remember some of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples in the Upper Room during the Last Supper. To be specific, we will look at three of Jesus’ statements and the changes brought by them. Each one introduced a new reality. Jesus knew he was headed to his death, but he looked to the impact it would have on you and on me. The horror of the cross resulted in the hope of humanity. So tonight, we look not only at Jesus’ death but also at both its significance to us and its impact on how we live.
“This is my body” – a New Sacrifice
Luke 22:19 contains Jesus’ first statement.
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
Jesus promised a new sacrifice. Himself. To fully appreciate this, we must understand the Jewish sacrificial system and the necessity to regularly offer animal sacrifices to God for the forgiveness of sin. It was an acknowledgment that we really do miss the mark of God’s standard, that we really do fall short of the glory of God. You’ll remember that the Jewish people could not simply choose an animal to offer. God was very specific about the animal that was to be used, depending on a person’s position or wealth, but it was often a bull, goat, lamb, or pair of turtledoves. Yet, Jesus said that his body would be a new sacrifice, the new sacrifice.
1 Peter 2:24 says,
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Jesus carried our sins in his body, and he healed us by his wounds.
Our family is part of a small group of Americans who have an account with a company called Amazon.com. Perhaps you have heard of it. One of the services Amazon provides is a subscription for products you regularly purchase. So for a little while when we had the subscription, laundry detergent and dog food kept coming to us regularly. Apparently the dog is predictably hungry on a daily basis, and we have our own consistent pattern dirtying our clothes. Well if you have one of these subscription services through Amazon or another company, you know the convenience of it.
Sometimes we look at Jesus’ sacrifice as a convenience. Jesus’ sacrifice was once-and-for-all – How convenient when compared with the regular Israelite sacrificial system. Isn’t it convenient that we don’t have to go through the trouble of selecting a lamb and waiting in the temple queue for our turn to slay it at the altar. How sad that we sometimes think this way! Jesus did not come to earth and offer himself as sacrifice for us so that we could avoid the hassle and mess of temple sacrifices. He died to fundamentally change who we are and how we relate to God. This is not about having a more efficient system; it’s about having an all-sufficient Savior. The worshipers of the Old Testament year after year offered an animal that could not fix the true problem in their lives. We get this from Hebrews 10:1, which tells us these sacrifices had no ability to “make perfect those who draw near to worship.” In verses 3-4 we read that those
“sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sins.”
They didn’t actually work. The Bible talks of a continuous flow of blood that came from the altar, and it revealed one glaring, wearying truth: That blood would never be enough. The sin inside us is too bloodthirsty, and it will never be quenched. Never, that is, until Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice. His was the one that didn’t simply cover over our sins but instead eradicated them. This same chapter in Hebrews continues.
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties, again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
Think of Jesus on the cross, crying out, “It is finished,” shortly before taking his last gasp of breath. No other priest could say that. The sacrifices would never be finished. They could clock out for the day, but they could never truly stop, never sit down like Jesus but instead always had to belly up to the altar and keep performing the duty. This was never about convenience. It was about completion, about transformation.
The words never and again seem to come up often in home improvement advertisements. With the right siding, you’re promised that you’ll never have to paint again. With the right deck, you’ll never have to pressure wash again. The right gutters? Never clean them again. I even came across a cleaning service called Never Clean Again, and I thought reading that a different way makes it a so-so name for a company, depending on how you read it! I am not sure how the promises of these ads compare, but I do know this: Jesus also tells us never again. Never be guilty before God again. Aren’t you glad that’s true through Jesus’ sacrifice?
“This is my blood” – a New Covenant
Jesus’ second statement comes in Luke 22:20.
“This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Here Jesus began a new covenant. The disciples with Jesus were plenty familiar with the old covenant. It came after God rescued Israel from Egypt and shared what it took to follow him. But knowing God’s commands wasn’t enough, because following them was the challenge. Over and over the people proved that they weren’t up to truly following him. This is why Paul calls the law of that Old Covenant our tutor to bring us to Jesus. The old covenant revealed the need for a new one. God even spoke about this need through Jeremiah, saying,
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
The new covenant was one that would be internalized in us. If the old cleaned the outside of the cup, the new cleaned the inside. If the old placed a bandage on the wound, the new healed the wound itself. The old had been treating the symptoms of sin, but the new targeted the disease itself. That is the essence of the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood. Hebrews 9 tells us,
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
In 2012, 19-year-old Hollywood actor Angus T. Jones shared in a video interview about his role on the TV sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” During the interview, Jones shared that he had become a Christian, and because of his faith he could not recommend the show. He even told his viewers not to watch it, saying, “I’m on Two and a Half Men; I don’t want to be on it. Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth.” From a Hollywood career standpoint, Jones had been in a pretty good position. He had grown up as a memorable character on a hit show with well-known actors, like Charlie Sheen. Yet after his conversion, God’s law had been written on his heart. Angus T. Jones’ words echo the Apostle Paul’s in Philippians 3. The things that were gain to him he now considered loss for the cause of Christ. This is a hallmark of the New Covenant that Jesus started that night in the Upper Room. God’s law went from being an external rule to an internal conviction. When we take communion, we show that we, too, are part of this New Covenant through Jesus’ blood.
“Love One Another” – a New Command
Jesus made one more statement that we will look at tonight. It is found in John 13:34-35.
“’A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’”
Jesus gave a new command. The disciples were used to Jesus giving them commands regularly. They willingly followed him as their master. So why would it be important for Jesus to announce that he was giving them a new command? This one was on the same level as the Ten Commandments themselves. The New Covenant came with a new command, a defining characteristic of what it would mean to follow Jesus. Not only that, it would be the main way that others would recognize Christians as followers of Christ. That is partly what makes our unity so important.
Last Saturday many of us filled the theater to watch the Case for Christ movie. We came with guests who watched the movie with us. That isn’t all they watched, though. They watched as we interacted with each other before the movie. They watched people turn around in their seats to talk to the people behind them. They noticed greetings to people as they walked past to find their seats. They saw the waves across the room and realized that we were more of an organism than a group of people. They saw us turn the theater into a fellowship hall, into a sanctuary. Those guests might not all believe, but they know that we do. They know that we truly do follow Jesus because we love each other. Can you imagine what would happen if all they noticed was a cold indifference? Christians showing love for each other is a catalyst for the spread of the gospel. We find it in the book of Acts, when the church multiplies simply because people noticed a community of believers that truly cared for each other. We find it in the movement of hospitals founded by Christians who know that following Jesus involves love, compassion, and healing. In Christ there is a passion for compassion that cannot be contained.
Last week Karen was in Florida at an Operation Christmas Child conference, and they had a mobile hospital tent there, complete with tours and a team of doctors who had served in the mobile hospitals overseas. When there is a hot spot of disease or conflict, you can expect to find one of these hospitals setting up shop. This includes the Middle East, where continued war and attacks from ISIS have resulted in a surge of medical needs. In these hospitals, all of the wounded are treated, and this includes villagers laying side by side with the very ISIS soldiers responsible for the bloodshed. For many, this is their first real contact with Christians. They know what they have been taught by their Imams, but what they find is a different picture. Some of them have been so moved by this that they have converted to the Christian faith. All of them have been forced to somehow categorize the extreme love shown by the very people they are told are the enemy. In this culture, the highest honor that can be paid from a man to a woman is for that man to kiss the woman’s forehead, and that act is reserved only for the man’s mother. Yet this honor is exactly what one of these Isis soldiers decided to show to the female doctor who treated him, so moved he was by this love.
That is the love we are to show to each other as followers of Jesus. And that is the love he showed us. When we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim Jesus’ death. We also express our desire to follow in his footsteps. This time of Communion is different from others here at Redland. You get to spend some time in prayer and contemplation, and when you are ready, you may come up to receive communion at one of these kneeling benches. The other pastors, Mark and Bill, and myself will be here to serve you. You can come up as an individual or a family, or come together with a friend if you wish. This is reserved for followers of Jesus who have placed their faith in him for the forgiveness of sins. So even if you aren’t a member of Redland Baptist Church, if you are his, this is yours.