I’d like to tell you the story of this picture. One year the youth group held an Easter Sunrise service. They did it on the edge of the Pembina Valley on the property of one of the youth members, near the site of the Oak Valley Passion Play. The youth sponsor went there a few days before and striped the branches off this tree and cut off the top of the tree and put it across to make it look like a cross. They held their service at the foot of the cross and didn’t think any more about the cross they had made.
Later that summer, one of the other youth parents was walking in the area and saw a most amazing thing. From a tree that looked like it was dead and had been destroyed, branches had begun to grow and leaves had come out. The tree was not dead, but alive. A picture was taken because it was such a wonderful symbol of the life that comes from the death of Jesus.
Often we think that with a death comes the end of a story, the end of hope. Certainly when a loved one dies, we understand that as the end of our relationship with them. Often, however, death is not the end of hope. When Martin Luther King Jr. died, the vision of freedom for black people did not die with him.
How much more it is true that the death of Jesus was not the end, but in fact the beginning of hope!
I. Death Means No Hope.
When Jesus was arrested, tried and hung on a cross, it appeared that hope died. If we could enter into the lives of those who watched these things happen, we could perhaps gain some sense of the ending that was being enacted. There were the religious leaders who could hardly wait for him to die and knew that this would be the end of a trouble maker. There were the soldiers who had no particular interest either way, they were just doing a job. They had seen crucifixion before and knew that it was the end for anyone hanging there. There were the disciples and the women who sorrowed deeply because against all expectations, Jesus was about to die and with him their hope died. All of them knew one thing, when he died, as he surely would die, that would be the end - the end of his life, the end of his message and the end of hope.
A. The Disciples
For 3 years the disciples had put their hope in Jesus. At first it might have been a tentative hope, but as they saw the miracles he did and heard his teaching, they slowly gained an appreciation for who he was and what he was about. At one point in the ministry, Jesus asked them if they too wanted to desert him as so many had. Peter answered (John 6:68,69), ““Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
But now at his arrest and crucifixion, everything suddenly changed. In Matthew 26:31, Jesus had announced that they would all fall away on account of what was about to happen. They all vowed to remain faithful. I wonder if this vow was based on a confidence which they held after seeing all the things that Jesus had done, that he would now do some great thing and everything would be OK?
Yet when Jesus was arrested, we read in 26;56, “…all the disciples deserted him and fled.” When he was arrested, suddenly they gave up. This was not going as they had hoped. Suddenly all hope was gone.
Peter who was the most vocal about remaining faithful was singled out. Matthew tells us the story about his denial of Jesus. Three times, when given the opportunity to speak for Jesus, he denied knowing Him. Although he followed at a distance, he was filled with great fear. For him as for all the disciples, hope was gone.
Judas not only denied Jesus, but betrayed him. He came to Jesus and handed him over to them by his kiss. Why did he do so? Earlier than the other disciples, he had given up hope. Somehow he had decided that Jesus was not who he seemed to be. One interpretation suggests that Judas betrayed Jesus in order to force Jesus to show his power. He was looking for a power Messiah and by precipitating his arrest, he may have been trying to get Jesus to show his power. When he didn’t, but was about to die, Judas was sorry that he had betrayed him to death and hanged himself because now there was no hope. Before the arrest and death of Jesus and certainly in it, he totally gave up hope.
C. Clothes Distributed
One of the difficult thing that a person has to do after a loved one has died is to clean up the things that belonged to that person. I can’t imagine the pain involved in cleaning up the clothes of someone you have loved. As you do this, the realization is fully in your face that this person will not need these things anymore. They will not wear them any more and so they must be cleaned up and given away.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and for those who were standing around the cross when they saw the soldiers dividing up the clothes of Jesus? Every Jewish man wore five articles of clothing: shoes, a turban, a belt, an inner garment and an outer cloak. According to John 19:23,24, there were four soldiers there and they divided the clothes into four piles, but the fifth piece, the inner garment was not divided because it was a seamless piece and so they cast lots for it. The implication of that is so powerful - Jesus would not be needing his clothes any more!
The death of hope is also demonstrated in the mockery which took place. Matthew records different people who mocked Jesus. In verse 39, it was those who were standing by who “hurled insults at him.” The content of their mockery was that they used Jesus own words against him. “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross.”
Verse 41-43 tells us that the chief priests mocked him in a similar fashion. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself…Let God rescue him now if he wants.”
Even the robbers, who were in the same situation as Jesus, heaped their insults on him according to verse 44. Their words suggest that he like they will die and be no more.
Their mockery suggests the hopelessness of Jesus’ situation. They mock that he said that he could overcome, but hanging on the cross he certainly did not look like it. He was about to die and there was no hope.
As the end approaches, we read in 27:46 that Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The implication is that even God had forsaken him. How much more hopeless does it get than that?!
Those standing by misinterpreted his comment. There are OT prophecies of Elijah coming down to prepare the way for Messiah. Malachi 4:5 says, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” In this comment, their mockery was to grasp at one more straw. He couldn’t save himself, God was obviously not going to save him, perhaps Elijah would come and save him and so they called out, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” Just before he died, this statement is one last grasp at hope. But…Elijah did not come and the very next verse says, “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.”
From a human perspective, from the perspective of the life experience of the people standing around the cross and from the perspective of all of our life experience, death is the end, it is the loss of hope. When my father got cancer, I remember having the hope that God could yet heal him, but when he died, that hope was gone. Death is the end - the end of life, the end of hope.
II. Death Brings Hope
But was the death of Jesus really the end of hope? Jesus could have prevented the arrest, walked away from the trial, jumped off the cross or had Elijah come down and rescue him. But Jesus died because only in death was he able to bring the beginning of hope.
A. Signs Of Hope
Embedded within this story are several signs that indicate that his death was not the death of hope but that something much greater was going on.
1. Jesus Knew He Would Die
Twelve times in Matthew Jesus had predicted that he would die. It was not a normal prediction. I can also say that I am going to die and no one will be surprised some day when I do. But when Jesus was announcing his death, he was announcing more than a fact true of every man. He was announcing a meaning.
The first time Jesus announced his death was in 9:15 when he said to his disciples, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them…” Numerous more times, he made this announcement. Five of those times occur in the passage we are studying today. One of those times was in 26:12 in the story of the woman who poured ointment on his body, which he said was as a preparation for his burial. What is curious about that act is that Jesus announced that what she did would be told the world over. That does not seem like the statement of a man for whom death was the end of hope. Once again the announcement was made to them in the institution of the Lord’s supper in 26:26-29. Again, something more was happening. He spoke about his blood being poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins and drinking again in “my Father’s kingdom.” Even in the prayer in the garden in Matthew 26:36-46, the mention of his coming death indicates something more happening. There is content and meaning in his anticipated death.
Jesus was fully aware of his coming death. In fact, he was not killed, but gave himself to death. When he prayed to the Father in the garden, he offered his life as a sacrifice. When he was being arrested, he did not resist arrest, but allowed himself to be taken. Even at the point of his death it says in Matthew 27:50 that, "...he gave up his spirit." It was not taken from him by the religious leaders, by the soldiers or by the cross. He gave it up.
Jesus died knowing he would die. He died not because his life was taken from him but because he gave it up. All of this was so because it was the plan of God. At the point of his arrest, when the disciples were ready to fight and Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away, He indicates that his death had to happen. He says, in Matthew 26:53-54, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"
All of this awareness suggests that the death of Jesus was not the death of hope, but rather that there was meaning in his death which would bring hope.
2. The Irony of the Accusations
After his arrest, Jesus was taken to the Jewish council where it says in Matthew 26:59, "The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death."
They questioned him, but he did not answer their questions.
They brought in false witnesses but their testimony did not agree.
Finally, the chief priest got tired of the way the proceedings were going and demanded that Jesus answer by using an oath formula which it was illegal for him as judge to use, but which when used had to be answered. He said in Matthew 26:63, "...I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."
Jesus did not hide his identity, but answered in Matthew 26:64, "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Two terms are used in this interchange. Jesus identified himself as "Son of Man." This term emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. The high priest used the term "Son of God" to which Jesus also agreed. Together they tell us something important about the identity of Jesus. He was the one who became man and who was God and who would sit at the right hand of God himself. The term Son of God emphasizes Jesus' divinity. It is as close as one can get to saying that God himself came to earth and died for us. That is who Jesus was, God himself coming to earth, dying for us. When we realize who died, then we understand why this death was not the end of hope.
The trial moved to Pilate’s hall and the accusation changed to a charge of insurrection against the Roman state. Now the Jewish leaders accused him of claiming to be the King of the Jews.
Pilate did not trust their accusation and so asked Jesus in verse 11, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Once again, we recognize that this is a question of identification... "who are you?"
Jesus replied "Yes, it is as you say." He accepted this identification, but what does it mean that Jesus is King of the Jews?
The concept of "King of the Jews." has a long history. Jacob identified his son Judah as the royal line and indicated a coming eternal king from that line. God promised David that his line would reign on the throne of Israel forever. Jeremiah promised a king who would come and deliver the people of God and reign with justice and peace over all the people. All of these ideas were in the expectations of the people. When Jesus accepted the title “King of the Jews,” he was accepting that He was God's promised one who would deliver his people and establish the eternal kingdom of God on earth.
When Jesus was hanged on the cross, Pilate enacted kind of a sick joke. He had a sign put over the cross which said, “This is Jesus the king of the Jews.” It was what some might call “gallows humor.” It was a joke on the Jews who could manage no more than a dying man as a king. It was even more a joke on Jesus. “Get it? This pathetic, beaten, bruised human creature hanging on the cross is, of all things, a king. Isn’t that wild?”
But in the end the joke was on Pilate because Jesus was the king of the Jews. The ironic thing is that the accusations for which he was put to death were true and were the very reason why His death was not the end of hope but the beginning of it.
3. Physical Manifestations
There are some other things which point to meaning in his death. When Jesus died, some unusual things happened that would suggest that his death was filled with power, not weakness or ending. Matthew records the following events which took place when he died. We read about them in 27:51-53. We read that the curtain of the temple was torn in two, the earth shook, the rocks split open, various tombs were opened and holy people who had died were raised and appeared to many people.
The last indication of hope is found in 26:32 where Jesus told his disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. Can hope be dead when a person is making plans for the future?
Could such a death really be the end of hope?
B. The Hope His Death Brings
All of these things tell us that although to everyone standing at the foot of the cross it looked like the end, it was not. Something much greater was going on here. Something of power was happening.
I saw a movie some years ago which told the story of a man who threw himself in front of the wheels of a run away train in order to save a whole train full of people. It was powerful to me that his death had the purpose of saving many people.
Ultimately Jesus did not die because of what Pilate, Judas or the Jewish priests did to him. He offered himself to death because of our sins. Jesus threw himself to his death for all of humanity, not just one person or a single train load of people, but for all of us.
At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke to his disciples about the purpose of his death when he said in Matthew 26:28, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Jesus death is remarkable and the beginning of hope because of the reason for it. He died so that he could give us forgiveness of sins. It was a sacrificial purpose which makes the message of this death not the end of hope, but for all of us the beginning of hope. Because Jesus died, we are free from our sins - free from the guilt of our sins and free from the consequences of our sins. The Bible makes it clear that sin deserves punishment. Because sin is serious, it deserves the punishment of death. Because all of us have sinned, we all deserve this punishment and so we are all subject to death - both physical and eternal death.
The grace of God in giving Jesus to death has become even more precious to me lately as I have come to understand just how helpless I am. I cannot save myself. I am filled with sin and brokenness and I need help. The death of Jesus is that help. In it my life has hope.
When Jesus died, a most interesting statement is made about a seemingly unrelated occurrence. It says in 27:51, "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."
Why did the curtain of the temple tear in two pieces? This was a highly symbolic action which communicates a most wonderful truth. It happened at the moment of his death and so is the direct consequence of his death - a further indication of the hope that begins with his death. The curtain referred to was in the temple to hide the way to the most holy place. The most holy place was the place where God was represented to live. The tearing of the curtain meant that now the way was open to God.
Jesus death was not the end of hope, but the beginning of the possibility of entering into the temple. Jesus died so that people could enter into the presence of God directly. No more was the way hidden and veiled. No more was the way blocked by requirements of sacrifices and priests. Because of Jesus’ death, the way was opened for a direct and open and intimate relationship with God. This is surely not the end of hope, but the beginning of hope and the beginning of life.
As the disciples stood at the foot of the cross I suspect that they hoped that Jesus would come down from the cross and show those religious leaders and Roman soldiers. What power! What a great visible demonstration that would have been!
But Jesus did a much greater thing. He actually died and in his death removed hopelessness and gave us life.
How wonderful! I rejoice at the hope that is ours because Jesus died. May we all realize the power of the cross and place our hope in the one who through death brought forgiveness and access to God.