At first glance, the cross is confusing. It’s true. We both know it. The cross comes at the end of the story like a terrible punch line. Wait? What’s the story of Jesus? A really great guy came to earth, taught about loving your enemies, restoration, world peace. He held children, cared for the forgotten, ate with outcasts. He raised the dead, healed the sick, and fed thousands of people… and right at the end…. the people killed him as a criminal.
It makes no sense. It’s the kind of thing that makes you look at the joke teller and ask, “are you sure you’re telling it right?” The bible even knows that the cross makes no sense:
Paul writes, 1 Corinthians 1:18
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed.
So why was Jesus killed? It’s the question that begs answering today. And so in order to answer that question, we need to do a little history lesson.
Caesar Augustus died on August 19th in the year 14, which is why we call the month August. He was later succeeded by a man named Tiberius. Tiberius was emperor from 14 all the way to 37, so this was the Roman Caesar who reigned during the life of Jesus.
Now, if you were the new Caesar, one of the things you would need to do is get your name out there, you’d have to create a reputation for yourself. You want the masses to learn your name – plus – you probably were not going on a world tour anytime soon so how do you get people to recognize your face? Well, you could commission a couple of statues of yourself to be made and throw those around, but the faster way to spread your fame was to mint coins.
If you want to spread the news about your new position – you would mint a coin with your image; and so coins would begin to be circulated with “the image” of Caesar Tiberius on it.
So here comes the rub. The bible is telling the story of two people groups who are living together. The larger group is the Jews. These are the residents of Jerusalem, these are the common people, the masses. They have a huge historical heritage that is centered around a single deity, and who instructs his followers to not worship other Gods and to not worship the images of other Gods.
The second people group of this time is the Romans – this is the smaller group. Smaller only because the Romans in this region would merely be there as a police nation along with their families. Many of these people would be in this area for an assignment or a tour of duty and then would later return to their home in Rome. The Romans live with the Hebrews, but not as friends or allies, but as their governors. And the Romans worship an entire armada of Gods including… the ruling Caesar.
While Julius was still alive he commissioned a statue with the inscription, “The unvanquished god,” and he declared himself dictator for life; since that time the Caesar’s have all accepted praise and worship from their constituents. And so one of the ways that you would honor the Caesar was through the Roman tax.
And so a big debate of that time was do you pay the Roman tax or not? What do you do if you are a Hebrew? Do you pay the tax? Because Caesar says he is a God. But if we don’t pay the tax, we could be incited for rebellion.
Tax and coin were a huge issue. So the religious leaders bring this question to Jesus
Mark 12: 13 They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap Jesus in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”
There is the question, “Should we pay tribute to Caesar?” The bible says that they wanted to trap him in his words, how? Well if Jesus says pay the tax, then he is a traitor to his own people, he is condoning emperor worship and consequently his followers would leave him. However, if they could catch him speaking out against the tax, they could incite him as a rebel and an insurrectionist as a threat to the throne.
v15 Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” 16And they brought one.
So when Jesus is asked “Hey, Jesus – What do you think?” Jesus says “show me a coin” Which means what? Jesus doesn’t even have one. Jesus doesn’t have one and yet THEY do! They try to trap Jesus – but Jesus has already turned it against them.
Jesus said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder.
You see aside from the collision of the Jews and the Romans who are living together, there are two other circles colliding. Amidst the Hebrews, there is another division. There are the masses, the laity, the everyday people. And then there are the religious ruling class, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Rabbi’s, the teachers of the law. Much like the relationship with the Romans, the average Jew takes their instruction and teaching from this smaller circle. 80-90% of the people are poor, simple good people living off of the land.
So in effect, if you are neither a Roman or a Religious teacher, you actually have two authorities in your life both biding for your devotion. The state wants your loyalty and your tax, and the temple wants your devotion and your tithe…
What do you do?
A good question that we could ask is; why was this nice Jewish Rabbi being tested like this? Well, the most wealthy and powerful lived in the upper city of Jerusalem – this is the 1% (ha ha) The reason why this North is so significant is because right next to it, is the Roman Pratoreum. This where the Roman Governor lived.
Remember, most people are barely making it in the world, but in the upper city is a group of Jews who are living off the extra from the tithes given to God; and they are living in absolute luxury. Sometime back archeologists unearthed a bottle of wine from this region that would have had an estimated value of five thousand dollars. What kind of wealth would you have to be living in – in order to afford a bottle like that?
And so with great wealth, there comes this need to retain that lifestyle. Once you taste the lap of luxury, you are not so inclined to let it go. Well what kinds of things might you see as a threat if you were a religious ruler?
Perhaps a rival? Someone who was gaining popularity? Someone whom all the masses loved? You see the smaller circles need the larger circles to maintain their way of life. And if something (or someone) comes along that appears to be tipping that scale – well, then…. they have to go. Look at this story….
Mark 3: 1 Jesus returned to the synagogue. A man with a withered hand was there. 2 Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they were watching Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 3 He said to the man with the withered hand, “Step up where people can see you.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they said nothing. 5 Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did, and his hand was made healthy. 6 At that, the Pharisees got together with the supporters of Herod to plan how to destroy Jesus.
Already we begin to see the story unfold. You have the one plot line of this great guy named Jesus who loved and heals people, he is merciful and gracious… but… not everyone sees him that way. At the same time that Jesus is a Savior… he is also becoming a threat.
Jesus continues his ministry and he continues to gain popularity and followers; and all of this comes to a head the week that his good friend Lazarus dies. The bible says that Jesus waited for the opportune moment to go and visit Lazarus at his tomb and with everyone standing around mourning the passing, Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead. The bible says in John 11:45-53
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
47 Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council and said, “What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs! 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.”
So the religious leaders are afraid of what? Losing control.
49 One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything! 50 You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” 51 He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation— 52 and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one. (and the bible says that) 53 From that day on they plotted to kill him.
This is the plot beginning to thicken, this is the train pulling out of the station, there are whisperings, shady deals taking place, money exchanging hands, secret meetings, someone says, “I know a guy…”
One chapter later Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and he makes an entrance! It’s a spectacle! Throngs of people are waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, Save us!” At one point one of the religious leaders turns to Jesus and says, “Tell these people to quiet down…” John writes…
17 The crowd who had been with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead were testifying about him. 18 That’s why the crowd came to meet him, because they had heard about this miraculous sign that he had done. 19 Therefore, the Pharisees said to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look! The whole world is following him!”
Their plans to trick him, stump him, get him into a corner had all failed. Day by day this new Rabbi gained more notoriety and the religious leaders were losing their influence. They were jealous. Jesus was taking their audience, and taking their audience, meant taking away the life that they had been used to.
So if you’re a Pharisee… do you just throw in the towel and say, “well, I guess Jesus wins?” No, you do whatever it takes to shut him up. But they didn’t have to wait long, Jesus did one more thing that pushed them over the edge.
After Jesus came into Jerusalem, the bible says that Jesus and his disciples went up to the temple.
Mark 11:15 After entering the temple, Jesus threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.
There are a couple of things going on here. First, thousands of people are in town for Passover, so the tables and the money exchangers this isn’t a common thing. These people are here because everyone who is coming for the festival needs salt, wine and oil. They might also need smaller animal sacrifices like birds.. so these vendors set up shop. And you can imagine it’s just like buying food or souvenirs at the rodeo, because you didn’t bring your own, they hike up the price for out of towners – so they are ripping the people off.
Second, this story becomes tied to the test the Pharisees gave Jesus about the Roman coins. In order to pay the temple tax, the temple isn’t going to allow you to pay it with a Roman coin. You can’t have the graven image of a Roman ruler used inside God’s house. No way. So what do you do? Well, you have to have your everyday money converted to a Jewish shekel. Well, the only problem there is, nobody mints these coins anymore, and so nobody carries them. So if you want to pay the temple tax, you have to have your money converted.
And if I have Jewish shekles and you want them…. I’m going to rob you on the exchange rate.
Jesus steps in and he says, Mark 11:17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.
So obviously Jesus is mad that people are using the temple for gain and for profit, but he also says, My house will be called a house of prayer. Do you know why he says that?
Well because these racketeerers were not allowed INSIDE the temple, so they are forced to set up shop right at the entrance as people were walking in. But these shop owners were setting up their tables right where some people would worship and pray.
In fact if you read this story in Matthew it says, Matthew 21:14
People who were blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them.
You see, this entrance courtyard was as close as the blind and the lame could get to the temple. They were not allowed inside because of their infirmity. And so Jesus walks up and this is what he sees: the blind and the lame standing off to the side confused and with no place to worship.
And in the place where prayer was usually taking place, retailer and small business owners had set up shop and were taking advantage of people who had come to worship.
Oh yea, and earlier did you see that our text said that He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple? What’s going on there? Well, because the temple was such a large structure, most people were to lazy to walk around it, so many people, Roman or otherwise, they used the temple as a short cut. They would just walk through it, carrying anything they liked, disrupting worship….
So this is why Jesus gets so angry. It’s not because he was prone to anger or violence, but because of the disrespect that was being shown to the worshipers and to the house of God.
And here is something to think about. Jesus does this… because nobody else was doing it. And if nobody else was doing it, that meant that the temple “authority” didn’t care, in fact, they liked it this way. But seeing Jesus come in and begin to change the way things were done in the temple, well that’s like spanking someone else’s kid, and the bible says,
The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching.
And this is just days before Jesus’ arrest. That was the last straw, he’s been messing with their congregation and now he has the audacity to come in and mess with their temple? Their bread and butter? Oh no.
Albert Schweitzer was a German theologian and missionary and he had a rather confused opinion of Jesus and the cross. In one of his writings he said this about Jesus.
“Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him”
Schweitzer felt that things did not go the way Jesus had planned. That Jesus had tried to be a good teacher, tried to make a difference in the world, and in the end, the world ended up crushing him totally by surprise.
What do you think, do you think this plot by the religious order, did it catch Jesus off guard? Was he unaware?
During this Passover week, Jesus had a few moments to teach in Jerusalem and one chapter after Palm Sunday we have this parable.
Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.
Jesus is telling a parable right now as a response to the table flipping incident. Remember, it just happened. In the story, God is the man who “plants a garden” and the watchtower becomes the temple the place that is to be a light for all nations and the “farmers” are the priests.
v2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
Before Christ there had been several prophets who had come preaching a word against the kings, the temple or the religious rulers and those voices were rarely listened to. Even at the time of this story, John the Baptist had been the most recent voice that had been silenced.
v 6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.
That is some parable, but it is very telling…. in the story, there is no mistaking that God is the vineyard owner, a man who sends his only son to the vineyard to hold the local authorities responsible for the way the garden has been running and these hired servants kill the son.
But more telling than that- the chief priests now look for a way to arrest Jesus because the text says, what? – They knew – they knew – the parable was about them.
What does that mean? Jesus is on to them. He knows their plans.
The wheel did not crush Jesus unexpectedly. He knew it was coming. In fact, Jesus says that the entire reason he came was for that fact. Jesus said,
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
One the night he was arrested, Jesus broke bread in an upper room with those closest to him. He took the elements of bread and wine and he gave them new meaning, He knew that in just hours he would be betrayed, and in another twenty-four hours he would be dead.
But even though the religious leaders arrested Jesus and the Romans had him killed, they are not responsible or to blame for his death. Jesus says quite plainly that all of this was the design from the very beginning.
I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again.
What would compel someone to deliberately choose this course of action? God could have made it so that in his great mercy, forgiveness just rolled out like a blanket. Or, God could have made salvation a series of obstacles and hurdles for each follower to achieve. He could have placed all the work on himself, or he could have placed all the work on us… so why did he place all the work on his son?
Because he loved us. Jesus tells us in John 15:13
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
You know, I sometimes wonder if the religious leaders were not so naive.
When Jesus tells the story of the vineyard, the hired servants say, This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ In other words, the farmers knew who it was that they were killing and they didn’t care. And the bible says the Pharisees knew that the parable was about them. I sometimes wonder if the religious leaders knew who it was that they were killing. I mean after all, he healed a man’s withered hand, brought a dead man back to life and stormed through the temple as if it were his own house.
So while Jesus hung there, bleeding out and breathing his last, the hired hands made fun of God’s son, “He saved others; (they said) let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
But see Jesus didn’t come to save himself… so he hung there and died because he came to save you.
Jesus says, Mark 10:45
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A ransom is an exchange, it’s the price to redeem slaves. Jesus gave his life, so that you and I could be free.
At first glance, the cross is confusing. It’s true. We both know it.
The cross comes at the end of the story like a terrible punch line. Wait? What’s the story of Jesus?
The world had gotten lost in darkness so the vineyard owner sent his only son. God in the form of a man, came to earth to set things right. He loved the world like a shepherd, taught his disciples like a rabbi, he healed sick flesh and restored broken lives. He called God the Father and he called us his friends…. and right at the end….. he committed the ultimate act of love.
Jesus wasn’t killed… Jesus was not tricked, trapped, coerced, or surprised. His plans weren’t foiled, he wasn’t cut down in his prime and he didn’t fail.
Jesus’ last word were “it is finished.” and his last thoughts were of you
Our lives were ransomed, because Jesus calls us friend.
Lord, may we dare not call the cross foolishness, for it is our salvation. We can not comprehend the love that drove you to those boards and nails, all we can do is thank you – thank you – thank you. As we head towards the empty tomb this Sunday, let us bear the weight of your sacrifice. Jesus, we love you Amen