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Lesson 99: The Cross and Our Commitment (John 19:31-42)

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August 9, 2015

A hen and a pig saw a church sign announcing the sermon: “What Can We Do to Help the Poor?” The hen suggested that they feed them bacon and eggs. The pig thought about it and replied, “There’s one thing wrong with your idea: for you it requires only a contribution, but for me it requires total commitment!”

When I saw the photos a few months ago of the 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded on the beach in Libya or when I read stories about our brothers and sisters who are asked by Muslim extremists on threat of death, “Are you a Christian?” I wonder, “What would I do?” Perhaps we can never know for sure in advance how we would respond if we were faced with martyrdom. God would have to give special grace at that moment. But we all should be concerned about how we can deepen our commitment to Christ now so that we can be faithful to Him in this increasingly hostile world. Two minor characters in John’s Gospel, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, offer a lesson on how to deepen our commitment to Christ.

When I was in college, there was an ad for Clairol hair-coloring that had the tag line, “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” You couldn’t tell by looking whether she dyed her hair or not. So we used to refer to certain Christians, who were quiet about their faith, as “Clairol Christians,” because only God knew for sure that they were believers.

Up to this point, both Joseph and Nicodemus had been “Clairol Christians.” Nobody except God knew that they were followers of Jesus. John (19:38) says that Joseph was “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews.” From the other gospels, we learn that he was a prominent member of the Council (the Sanhedrin) who was waiting for the kingdom of God and that he had to gather up courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body (Mark 15:42). Luke (23:50-51) adds that he was a good and righteous man who had not consented to their plan and action to crucify Jesus.

We have encountered Nicodemus twice before in John’s gospel. In John 3, he visited Jesus by night, acknowledging that He was a teacher who had come from God as evidenced by His many miracles. Jesus startled Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10), by saying (John 3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” All of Nicodemus’ religious activities and scrupulous obedience to the Law of Moses would not qualify him for God’s kingdom. Rather, he must be born of the Spirit.

We don’t know how Nicodemus responded to that meeting with Jesus. But in John 7, after the Pharisees were frustrated because their officers had not arrested Jesus, they scornfully ask (John 7:48), “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?” Nicodemus weakly defended Jesus by stating (John 7:51), “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” His colleagues put him down by replying (John 7:52), “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.” Both Joseph and Nicodemus may have been among those whom John 12:42-43 negatively refers to: “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.”

But now, after Jesus has been crucified, Nicodemus joins Joseph in giving Jesus a proper burial. Joseph went to Pilate to ask for the body, while Nicodemus provided about 65-70 pounds of myrrh and aloes to fold in with the linen wrappings to offset the stench of the decomposing corpse. The two men took Jesus’ body from the cross, prepared Him for burial, and laid Him in Joseph’s personal new tomb, a cave near Golgotha hewn out of the rock, where no other bodies had yet been placed (Matt. 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41).

So you have this odd situation where the disciples, who had followed Jesus when He was alive, and had expressed their willingness to die with Him (John 11:16; 13:37), all fled when He was arrested and crucified. It seems that only John dared to come back to the scene at the cross. But Joseph and Nicodemus, who had hesitated to confess Christ publicly when He was alive, now risk their positions on the Sanhedrin and take this bold, open stand for Christ after He has died. Although a few commentators question whether these two men came to saving faith on the grounds that John never directly states this, it seems to me that the fruit of their bold actions here testifies to their underlying faith.

So you have to ask, “Why the change?” Why did these men now come out boldly for Christ when they easily could have reasoned, “He must not have been the Messiah or He would not have been crucified”? Why risk the wrath of Pilate and rejection from their fellow members on the Council now to join what seemed to be a lost cause? Why didn’t they just shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, I hope that His disciples give Him a decent burial”?

I believe that the answer lies in the way that John juxtaposes the final scene at the cross (John 19:31-37) with the actions of these two men (John 19:38-42). These men had watched Jesus die and it deeply affected them. Seeing Christ crucified solidified their commitment to Him. Thanks to them, Jesus’ body was not thrown on the ash heap where they burned the bodies of other crucified men. Of course, God could have raised Jesus from the dead even if He had been burned to ashes. But then we wouldn’t have the evidence of the empty tomb, which had been secured by the Roman guard. So God used these two men’s late, but costly, commitment. The application for us is:

Looking on the crucified Christ deepens our commitment to Him.

First, let’s look at the crucified Christ; then we’ll look on the commitment that results from looking to Him.

1. A look at the crucified Christ: He died to provide a full salvation in fulfillment of prophecy.

Note three things:

A. Jesus died.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, duh! Of course He died!” But that seemingly obvious fact has been denied down through the centuries. Late in the first century, Docetists denied that Jesus was truly a man. They asserted that He only seemed to be a man. Thus it only seemed that He died. Mohammed, whose knowledge of Christianity came through Docetist sources, wrote in the Quran (Sura 4.156), “They did not kill him, neither did they crucify him; it only seemed to be so.” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 623-624, footnote 3) Note the devastating impact of false teaching, with over a billion Muslims today believing that fatal error! More recently there have been attempts, such as Hugh Schonfield’s, The Passover Plot, to revive the theory that Jesus didn’t die on the cross; He just swooned and was placed in the tomb, where the cool air revived Him.

But if Jesus didn’t die, then He didn’t atone for our sins. If He didn’t die, then He was not raised from the dead, which means that our faith is worthless and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t die, you have to throw out the entire gospel record, which is the only eyewitness testimony that we have about Jesus.

John establishes the fact of Jesus’ death in three ways. First, in John 19:31 he reports: “Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.” It was a “high Sabbath” because it immediately followed the Passover. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states that if a man was condemned to death and hung upon a tree, his corpse should not hang on the tree overnight so as not to defile the land. So the Jews wanted these crucified men’s bodies removed from the cross so that they would not defile their land at the same time that they had crucified an innocent man who was, in fact, their Messiah!

So, Pilate gave the order to break the crucified men’s legs, which would result in quick death. If you’ve ever hit your shin hard on something, you know how painful it is. Well, after these men had already suffered for hours on the cross, the soldiers would come and shatter their shins with a heavy mallet, disabling them from using their legs to push up for another gasp of air. The shock and pain of the broken legs along with the lack of air would quickly result in death. So the soldiers smashed the legs of the two thieves, who were on either side of Jesus, but when they came to Jesus they saw that He was already dead and so they did not break His legs (John 19:33). They would not have ignored Pilate’s orders unless they were absolutely certain that Jesus was, in fact, dead.

The second way that John shows that Jesus was dead is that he reports how one of the soldiers, presumably to make sure that Jesus was dead, pierced His side with a spear, resulting in blood and water gushing out (John 19:34). Medical experts disagree on exactly what happened (Carson, p. 623, cites the two most common theories), but it’s obvious from the flow of blood and water that Jesus was dead before the spear thrust. But even if He hadn’t already died, this spear thrust would have finished the job. It wasn’t a minor puncture wound—it left a scar large enough to put your hand into (John 20:27)! John (19:35) underscores his eyewitness testimony of the truth of the piercing of Jesus’ side: “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”

The third way that John proves that Jesus was dead is that Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Him for burial by wrapping His body with linen and spices (John 19:40). If there had been the slightest evidence of breath or of a pulse, they would not have continued with the process. So we can be certain that Jesus died and was buried, which are essential to the gospel we believe in and proclaim (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

B. Jesus’ death provided a full salvation.

Jesus’ death was unique among all human deaths that have ever occurred because Jesus was unique. As fully God, His death satisfied God’s righteous requirement. As fully man, His death atoned for human sins. He paid in full the debt for the sins of His people (Matt. 1:21). As He proclaimed just before He expired (John 19:30), “It is finished!” The Greek word means, “Paid in full.”

But also, John wants us to think about the significance of the flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side as it relates to our salvation. Through his eyewitness testimony to the truth of this event he wants us to believe (John 19:35). Beyond the fact that the flow of blood and water certify Jesus’ death, John, who loves symbolism, most likely wants us to think about the symbolic meaning of this. But the problem is, commentators differ on what it means. The most common suggestion from Chrysostom on has been that the water represents baptism and the blood represents the Lord’s table, but most modern commentators view that as reading something foreign into the text (Carson, p. 624).

It is more likely that the blood and water point to the eternal life and cleansing that flow from Jesus’ death (ibid.). J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], p. 331) believed that John had in mind Zechariah 13:1, “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.” That verse occurs just five verses after Zechariah 12:10, which John (19:37) quotes with reference to the piercing of Jesus’ side. So the blood refers to the fact that Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). The water also pictures cleansing, as well as eternal life and the Holy Spirit (John 4:14; 7:37-39; Carson, p. 624). Several beloved old hymns express this. William Cowper wrote,

“There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.”

Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” put it:

“Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”

Fanny Crosby sings,

“Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.”

The important thing is that you don’t just say, “That’s interesting,” and move on without being moved. Jesus’ death on the cross should be real and personal for you! John testifies that he saw the blood and water flow from Jesus’ side, and he reports it “so that you also may believe.” Through the blood of Jesus there is a full pardon for all the sins of everyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Before we move on, there is one more thing to note in looking at the crucified Christ:

C. Jesus’ death and burial uniquely fulfilled prophecy.

Although Jesus’ crucifixion must have been a horrifying sight, especially for those who knew Him and loved Him, John wants us to know that God sovereignly ordained it. He uses even the wicked to fulfill His purposes (Acts 4:27-28). John has already shown this in his narration of Jesus’ crucifixion (see my previous message), but he continues to drive home this point.

First, he writes (John 19:36), “For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, ‘Not a bone of Him shall be broken.’” John is probably combining three Old Testament Scriptures: Exodus 12:46 & Numbers 9:12, which prohibit breaking the bones of the Passover lamb; and, Psalm 34:20, which refers to God protecting the righteous man from his enemies breaking his bones (Andreas Kostenberger, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Baker Academic], ed. by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, p. 503). It’s significant that these soldiers who were under orders to break the legs of the crucified men would skip Jesus, who was in the middle! Even when they saw that He was dead, it would have been normal for them to break His legs, too, so that they didn’t get in trouble. But God sovereignly prevented the soldiers from obeying their orders so that Jesus would fulfill Messianic prophecy!

Also, a soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’ side, probably to make sure that He was dead. He wasn’t under orders to do this; it was just something that he did on a whim. But John (19:37) points out that this fulfilled Zechariah 12:10, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” That prophecy will have its final fulfillment when Jesus returns (Rev. 1:7), but it had its initial fulfillment here. It also fulfills Isaiah 53:5, which says that the Suffering Servant “was pierced through for our transgressions.”

The third prophecy that Jesus’ burial fulfilled was Isaiah 53:9, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, …” Normally, a crucified man’s body would be left on the cross until the vultures had eaten it and then taken down and thrown on the ash heap called Gehenna. But because God always accomplishes His purpose (Isa. 46:8-11), Jesus was buried in this rich man’s tomb. One writer (cited by J. C. Ryle, p. 344) observes that Jesus was rich twice: once at His birth, when the wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and again, at His death, when He was buried in the rich man’s tomb.

So looking at the crucified Christ should lead us to commitment because He died for our sins to provide a full salvation and He is the fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises. God planned every detail of His death and resurrection for our salvation. Let’s look briefly at …

2. The commitment which results: It costs you rejection, your religion, and your riches.

Salvation in Christ is free, but costly!

A. Commitment to Christ costs you rejection.

By burying Jesus, Joseph and Nicodemus would have incurred the wrath and rejection of the other Council members, who would have viewed them as traitors. Their reputation with the influential men of Jerusalem was ruined because they now identified with this despised, crucified Galilean.

Commitment to the crucified Christ will also cost you rejection. People don’t mind if you say that you admire Jesus as a great moral teacher. They’re okay if you say that He is a way to God. But when you say that Jesus was crucified for sinners and that He is the only way to God, you will feel their rejection: “Are you saying that I’m a sinner who needs a Savior?” That’s offensive! Prepare to be rejected.

B. Commitment to Christ costs your religion.

The Jewish leaders wouldn’t set foot in Pilate’s dwelling so as not to incur defilement for the Passover. They wouldn’t dare touch a dead body, especially during the Feast of Unleavened Bread! But Joseph walks into Pilate’s presence to ask for Jesus’ body and then he and Nicodemus defile themselves by preparing that body for burial. In so doing, they lost their religion, but they gained Christ!

By “religion,” I’m referring to those who are scrupulous about outward appearances, but don’t deal with God on the heart level (see Mark 7:1-23). Religious people are fastidious about cleaning the outside of the cup, while inwardly they are full of sinful self-indulgence (Matt. 23:25). Religious people do things to look good before people, but they don’t come to Christ as needy sinners to receive mercy and to live in holiness on the thought level. To be committed to Jesus Christ, you’ve got to give up religion and replace it with reality with God.

C. Commitment to Christ costs your riches.

Both Joseph and Nicodemus were fairly well off. To bury Jesus, Joseph had to give up his personal tomb (remember, he wasn’t expecting the resurrection!). Nicodemus supplied a lot of costly spices for Jesus’ burial. If both men later joined the early church in Jerusalem, they may have been among those who sold their properties to provide for the needy saints (Acts 4:34-35). Jesus made the radical claim (Luke 14:33), “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” God doesn’t just own a tenth of your income; He owns it all!

So commitment to Christ is costly. But, do you gain anything?

3. The gains of commitment to Christ: What you lose temporally you gain eternally.

Joseph and Nicodemus were rejected by the Jewish leaders, but by confessing Christ on earth they gained eternal acceptance in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33). They lost their rules-keeping religion, but they gained an eternal relationship with the risen Savior. They lost their earthly riches, but they gained treasures in heaven. Remember Jesus’ words (Matt. 16:25-26): “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Conclusion

Of course, there are also temporal benefits that accompany commitment to Christ. Peter said Jesus (Mark 10:28), “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus replied (Mark 10:29), “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.” There may be persecutions, but the Lord always takes care of His children!

So to deepen your commitment to Christ, meditate often on His death for you. Isaac Watts captured it well:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Application Questions

  1. What is your biggest hindrance in seeking to be fully committed to Jesus Christ? How can you remove it?
  2. Consider the words of missionary C. T. Studd, who gave away a fortune to follow Christ: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.” What does the Lord want you to sacrifice for Him?
  3. Missionary martyr Jim Elliot wrote: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” If you haven’t done so, read Elisabeth Elliot’s, Shadow of the Almighty.
  4. Some Christians are needlessly abrasive and insensitive towards unbelievers. Where is the balance between tactfulness and boldness in our witness (see Col. 4:2-6)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship

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