April 10, 2020
What shall we do with Jesus? Even today, we still wrestle with the question that plagued Pilate when Christ was delivered to him for judgment. In this Good Friday meditation, Alistair Begg traces a line from Isaiah’s prophecy to the crucifixion at Calvary. At the cross, Jesus satisfied God’s justice and gave His life for us—not because we’re deserving, but because He loves us. As we contemplate such unconditional love, we’re challenged to examine our own response to Jesus.
We’re going to read from the Bible tonight in a couple of places. And first of all I want to read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. And once I have read this and we have a moment to think, we will listen to music and ponder the extent of the reading.
So, here it is. Isaiah 53, beginning at verse 1. And the prophet writes,
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces,
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and [he] was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Our reading from the New Testament is from the Gospel of Mark and chapter 15, and we’re going to read from verse 6 to 15 and then from verse 33 to 39:
“Now at the feast he”—that is, the governor, Pilate—“used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why? What evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. …
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”
Well, as we turn to the Bible, as we fix our attention on the events of the first Good Friday, we’re able to say, as it were, by our prayer with David, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my [strength] and my redeemer.”
I’d like us to trace a line by considering it from three perspectives: first of all, by looking at the description that is provided for us here in the passage that we read in Mark; and then looking for a moment or two at the explanation that is given of the events by the apostle Paul; and then, finally, by making one or two points by way of application for each of us.
So first of all, then, Mark’s description. I’m sure you can have your own Bible open in front of you, and you see there that in the early part of the chapter, we’re told that the chief priests and the scribes, the religious leaders, made sure that Jesus was bound and was delivered over to Pilate. Pilate then very quickly is confused and perplexed because of Jesus’ unwillingness to really answer the questions that he puts to him. For example, when Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies enigmatically, “You have said so.” When Pilate says, “Have you no answer to make,” Jesus remains silent—“when you consider the charges that are placed against you?” And when you read that, and when you think about that, I hope you have already put a note in your mind concerning what the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 53: that he was silent, that he did not cry out, and so on.
The biggest question that Pilate actually faced and asked, and to which he got no answer, again, was essentially, “What shall I do with Jesus?” “What shall I do with Jesus?” Which is, of course, the great question that all of us face, not only on Good Friday but every day. And eventually, in order to satisfy the crowd, we’re told that he had Jesus flogged or scourged, which was a horrible thing to do. Whips were used, and they often had pieces of stone or metal or bone built into them, and they were actually a means of not prolonging the agony of the crucifixion that would follow but actually helping to minimize it in some way, some strange way. And when we read, we realize that Jesus was the object of the mockery and the scorn of the soldiers, the people who passed by on that occasion reviled him, and the people who were crucified beside him, at least in the early part of the time, both reviled him equally, although one changing his mind.
And so, when we think about these things—and that’s what we want to do when we meditate—again, I’m always helped by hymns. In the hymn which begins “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be,” it has a line or two in it which goes like this, I think, from memory:
I sometimes think about the cross
And close my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.
And then, suddenly and dramatically, the noonday sun is swallowed up in darkness—a dramatic event by any standards, and none of the Jewish people who were present would have missed the point, because it was in the context of the Passover. And the Jews knew that in the plagues which preceded the death of the firstborn or the death of the perfect lamb, the ninth plague was the plague of darkness, and that preceded all that then followed. And so what we discover is that here, in this event at Calvary, all the darkness of Egypt and now the darkness of Calvary was identifying the fact that there was blood to be shed, that there was a Lamb that was to be slain, and to provide shelter from the judgment of which the darkness itself spoke. When our friend Terry McCutcheon preached this passage for us some time ago at Parkside, he made the helpful observation that in the birth of Jesus, in the darkness of the night, the lights were turned on and the music and the song began, whereas now, in the death of Jesus, the reverse is the case.
And so the point is very straightforward. The darkness is a symbol of God’s judgment. And the darkness points to the desertion that Jesus experiences—not simply the fact that all of his disciples have departed, have left him and fled, but the darkness and the desertion that is represented in his cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now, we could have gone to any of the Gospel passages and found the description along very similar lines. All the Gospels fit in with one another, like various reportings of the same event in a series of news outlets. And the way in which the Bible unfolds for us is such that we need to go, as it were, into the Letters in order for the explanation of what is taking place in the description that is given to us in the Gospels. And that is way I chose just to look to one phrase in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, when in Romans 5:8 he says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So if someone says, “Okay, well, I read Mark 15, and I understand the description of what took place, but I’m not sure I understand why it took place,” well, this statement in the eighth verse of Romans 5 is not ultimately comprehensive. It is certainly not the only statement by way of explanation; it’s just the one I’ve chosen to use, tying together what we read in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Because there the Suffering Servant was promised by God. And then when we come into the Gospel writings, we realize that Jesus knew that he was the one who was promised. He knew that he was the one to bear our sin. And Paul now—who, of course, started his life as someone with no interest in Jesus; in fact, he was opposed to Jesus until he met him and discovered who he was and why he’d come—Paul then describes the situation for us here: he commends his love towards us not when we’ve cleaned ourselves up and tried our best and made our strongest attempt to please him, but he shows his love towards us “in that while we were still sinners…”
In fact, if you do your homework and you read the surrounding passage, you will realize that Paul actually uses four different words to describe our situation: not only that we are “sinners,” but also that we are “weak,” or helpless; we are “ungodly”; and we are actually “enemies.”
Now, you say, “Well, that’s not a very nice picture of humanity.” It’s not nice, but it is distinctly honest. And what it’s pointing out is this: that by nature we have neglected God’s wisdom, we’ve rebelled against his authority, and we’ve doubted his goodness. And yet—and here’s the wonder: that he still loved those who turned their backs on him; that from all of eternity, he had a plan to save us, so that even in our ability to know him or to love him, or certainly to understand him and serve him, in Jesus he has come to redeem and to restore us. That is what Paul is saying in that little verse there: God has shown his love towards us in that while we were in this condition, Christ died for us. It’s as profound and as stretching as our minds can handle, and it is actually as simple and straightforward as children can grasp.
Now, one of our good friends, Carl Laferton in England, has recently written a book for children entitled [The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross]. And I’ve read it to my help. I actually even toyed with the idea of just sitting here and reading that entire book this evening, because to be able to tell the story simply, as to a little child, is a wonderful thing. And in that book, as in the Bible, we discover that in the cross, God is demonstrating both his love and his justice: that he pardons all who believe in Jesus, although we have sinned and only deserve his condemnation—he pardons all those who believe in Christ, even though we have sinned and deserve his condemnation—and at the same time, he satisfies his perfect justice by executing the punishment that our sins deserve on his own dearly beloved Son.
Amongst other things, this immediately gives the lie to the idea—a prevalent idea—that a good God, if he exists, will reward nice people for doing their best. That idea, that story, is not to be found in the prophecy of Isaiah, in the description of Mark’s Gospel, nor in the explanation that is provided by Paul. Jesus does not die, ultimately, as an example, but he dies as a substitute.
And if there was one person on that first Good Friday who understood the substitute, it surely had to be Barabbas. For he knew that he was next up if Pilate called for him. And because of the animosity of the crowd, because of the ambivalence of Pilate, he eventually capitulates to satisfy the crowd, and it is Jesus who goes, carrying his cross. And when, if Barabbas was able to be in proximity to that event, if he even had the opportunity to stand there, surely he would have said, “This man is dying in my place.”
You know, the wonder of it, too, is this: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are engaged in this work together. It’s true that the Father gave the Son. But it’s equally true that the Son, the Lord Jesus, gave himself. In that explanation of the arrest, when one of the supporters of Jesus reaches for his sword and thrashes around a little bit, and Jesus says, “No, please, put your sword away. Do you not realize, do you not understand, that I could have access to ten or twelve legions of angels?” And then he says, “But then how would Scripture be fulfilled?”—that Jesus is operating according to the plan of God from all of eternity; that, if you like, the Trinity enters into a covenant of love, at its most base level deciding who will do what in the wonder of God’s redeeming love. And God declares his love for us. Inscribed upon the cross we see in shining letters, “God is love”—loving us not because we are deserving but loving us because he loves us.
You know, sometimes at Eastertime we buy gifts for one another—perhaps for children, or perhaps for a loved one, especially if an anniversary or something falls on the same line. It’s true, isn’t it, that the more the gift costs the giver and the less the recipient deserves it… That would be—I’m thinking now of my wife buying something for me, so that the more she is prepared to pay and the less that I deserve it, the greater her love is to be seen. And this, of course, is the expression of God’s love: giving everything to those who deserve nothing except the judgment. It would almost make you want to start singing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” We’re almost there.
The explanation, the description, and a word or two by way of application.
Some questions for you to ask yourself, as I ask them of myself. Number one, am I convinced of the extent of God’s love for me as expressed in the wonder of the sacrifice of Jesus? Secondly, am I prepared to take God at his Word, believing that as I believe in his name, that I discover forgiveness and peace and life and joy? Am I aware that a door has opened up in the tearing of the curtain—that there is a way back to God despite the fact that I am a rebel, that I’m disinterested? Then, am I prepared to forsake my pride and look only to the cross? Elsewhere, Paul says that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.
It’s some time now since Billy Graham went to be with Jesus. And those of us who ever attended those great crusades, or have listened to them subsequently, know that it inevitably ended with a hymn—not the hymn with which we are going to end, but a hymn that is familiar to many. It begins, “Just as I am, without one plea…” But here is the verse that I want to quote in conclusion:
Just as I am, your love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be yours, yes, yours alone,
Lord Jesus Christ, I come.
Our God and our Father, into your care and keeping we commend one another. We pray for our loved ones and for our families and our friends. And we pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may rest upon and remain with each one who believes, tonight and forevermore. Amen.
 Psalm 19:14 (ESV).
 Mark 15:2, 4–5 (ESV).
 Mark 15:4 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 15:29–32. See also Luke 23:39–43.
 William W. How, “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” (1872).
 See Exodus 10:21–29.
 See Romans 5:6, 8, 10.
 See Matthew 26:51–54.
 See 1 Corinthians 1:18.
 Charlotte Elliott, “Just as I Am” (1835). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.