Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Part 6 - The World's Greatest Hero - Christ Crucified

Preached at Gateway on 24th March 2013
We believe that Jesus died...but what does this mean?

Mark 15.33-47.

Last week was quite an historic week.  On Tuesday we had Pope Francis I presiding over his inaugural Mass in Rome.  Then on Thursday it was Justin Welby’s turn, as he was enthroned as the 106th Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Pope is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics across the world, and the Archbishop is leader of 80 million members of the Anglican Communion.

What these men say and how they represent the Christian faith to their global audiences will either promote the gospel or be an obstacle.  We need to pray for them.

Then sandwiched between the official commencement of these two global ministries was – on the Wednesday – the UK budget delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Ironically this was on the same day as the UN launching ‘International Happiness Day’.  In these days of austerity, there is only one thing that will truly deliver happiness, and that’s the gospel – the good news of Jesus.

There is a verse in 1 Thessalonians (which is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a church in Thessalonica just a few months after he founded it) that says, ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again’ (4.14).  This week we’re looking at the first part of that verse as we lead up to Good Friday when we especially remember the death of Jesus.  Then next Sunday, Easter Sunday, we shall look at the second part, as we celebrate that momentous day in history when Jesus rose again.

So part 1, ‘We believe that Jesus died’.  But what does this mean?  In the first place we are talking about a crucifixion.  The title to this preaching series is, ‘The world’s greatest hero, Christ Crucified’.  In the passage from Mark’s gospel we picked up the account half-way through the 6 hour ordeal that Jesus endured whilst hanging on the cross. 

1) ‘Jesus died’

Here’s what one Roman statesman, Cicero, famously said of Roman crucifixion a few years before Jesus’ death, ‘It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then shall I say of crucifixion?  It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination...let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears’.  In other words, Cicero is saying that crucifixion is so shocking, don’t even think about it.

It is a verifiable, historical fact that Jesus was crucified.  Not only do we have the historical attested accounts of the gospels like Mark 15, but also outside references.  For example Josephus, a famous historian in the 1st century, wrote this,

‘Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man...for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.  He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared unto them alive again the third day...and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (p379 Josephus, Complete Works). 

The gospels inform us that Jesus was betrayed by a close friend, Judas, with the ramifications of being sentenced to crucifixion.  Jesus’ trial took place by a kangaroo court illegally thrown together in the middle of the night, and then, once sentenced was passed, he was flogged with a whip woven with pieces of bone and metal, and so his flesh was torn open.  Jesus was hit, mocked and spat upon.  He then was humiliated through the streets of Jerusalem in the early hours of the following morning, jeered on by – who knows – even people he had healed, carrying his own cross.  Then outside the city wall, he was laid upon a crossbeam, with his clothing stripped from him, and endured Roman spikes hammered into his hands or wrists, exploding his nerve ends with agonising pain and hoisted up onto his cross.

So horrid was crucifixion, that it was forbidden to crucify a Roman citizen, no matter how terrible his crime.  Indeed, a few generations later, another Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, outlawed crucifixion as unsuitable for a civilised society.

So at the one level, as we think about those words, ‘We believe that Jesus died’, yes we believe he endured one of the most torturous ways to die.  It shines light on the truth that God identifies with suffering.  But on another deeper level, we believe this...let’s allow Isaiah the prophet to speak and this was 800 years before the actual death of Jesus.  So not only do we have the contemporary and historical accounts of Jesus confirmed, but also predicted 800 years beforehand.  In Isaiah 53 we have that remarkable prophecy that describes in detail Jesus’ death, which includes that God ‘laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53.6). 

2) Jesus died for your sins

In other words, as the apostle Paul writes elsewhere, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15.3).  So there is a deeper meaning and significance to why Jesus died.  As we look back on this preaching series, at the core of everything is the substitutionary death of Jesus.  That he died in your place, he substituted himself instead of you.  There is no better story line that is so compelling or electrifying than one person giving his life to save another.  Nothing is more attractive than that. 

Consider one of the most popular fictional story themes of all time, the Harry Potter series.  Whilst Christians have varying opinions, one thing is for sure, JK Rowling could not end her series any other way than one person giving his life for his friends.  There is no other ultimate drama, there is nothing more moving.  There is no higher theme to end on, then one person to give his life for another.  We have looked at the death of Jesus from different angles or perspectives during the previous 5 weeks, but at the heart of each focus is the truth that Jesus died for you. 

The image of the battlefield.  Jesus conquered so you can have the victory over evil (Colossians 2.15).

The image of the hospital.  Jesus is wounded so you can be healed (Isaiah 53.5).

The image of the court of law.  Jesus is sentenced in your place (Romans 3.24).

The image of the prison.  Jesus sets you free from the shackles (Hebrews 2.15).

The image of reconciliation.  Jesus offers you the hand of friendship (Ephesians 2.16).

There is no greater appeal to you, or any other person – whatever culture they are from or language they speak – the wonderful attraction of Jesus Christ (the gospel – the good news) is that he died for yours sins, instead of you.

That’s why the death of Jesus is the most famous death in history.  According to Rowling, a major theme in the Harry Potter series is death: "My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price...I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it."

But Jesus’ death gives you hope and an eternal future.  You need not be frightened.  As we’ve seen from just 5 images, and there are more, the Bible is not monochrome. There are many colourful, vivid ways to explain this one message of the death of Jesus and his resurrection.  Here’s one more...

3) Jesus’ death shields you from an eternal death. 

Here’s another image, and it’s derived from just one word.  The apostle Paul wrote, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15.3).  The word ‘for’ may seem insignificant, but it’s a very important word.  A world-class scholar (Murray J. Harris) of the New Testament suggests that the word ‘for’ which is ‘hyper’ in Greek seems to have come from the image of one person standing protectively over another person.  It’s the image of one person shielding another. 

So ‘Christ died for – hyper – our sins presents the picture of Christ, whilst he is hanging on the cross, protecting you from something.  But what?  God sent Jesus to die on a cross to shield you from God’s own wrath towards your sin.  You see God is righteously angry at your sin, that fact that you’ve turned your backs on him, and rightly so.  The consequence is to be banished from his presence for ever.  That is what happens at death to every unbeliever.  If you choose to reject God and his good news, then after you die in the life to come, God will reject you.  God is only honouring your choice.  But there is the hope.  The fact that Christ died for your sins, means that he shields you from God’s righteous anger, because Jesus takes it himself.  Jesus experiences the abandonment of God his heavenly Father upon the cross, Jesus experiences being shut out of God’s presence (hell) instead of you.   Jesus diverts God’s righteous anger away from you and upon himself.  He shields you, he guards you.

Indeed, as we consider Jesus, the Son of God, it is therefore God himself, who gave himself, to save us from himself.  But to stand under the protection of Jesus, you must stand under the protection of the cross – Christ crucified.  In other words, you have to embrace this message, indeed embrace Jesus himself and live for him as a sign that you believe in him and are committed to him.

Remember at the core of everything re. the death of Jesus is his substitutionary sacrifice.  Jesus substitutes himself for you.  He is sacrificed in your place.

Here are 3 examples of people who came to understand why Jesus died, and subsequently changed the course of history:

Martin Luther, ‘Though I lived as a monk, I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience’.  Luther struggled and wrestled with God, trying to make himself good enough for God.  He hated the verse in the Bible, ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 3.21), because he knew he could never match it.  Then, as if light broke into the darkness, after meditating day and night upon the Bible, Luther realised that it was through faith, that he could be clothed or covered with ‘the righteousness of God’ – it was a gift from God.  So Luther’s spiritual struggle was over, as he came to love that verse, ‘the righteousness of God’, which was for him, as he wrote nearly 30 years later in 1545, ‘truly the gate to paradise’.  Martin Luther changed the course of history, triggered by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg on 31st October 1517 protesting against the Catholic Church of the day, starting the Protestant movement.

John Wesley, already a well known Church of England vicar, attended a Christian gathering one evening in London, very relunctantly.  He too had been struggling intensely with his own failings and faults.  He wrote this in his journal of his experience that evening on 24th May 1738 as he listened to a speaker, “About a quarter before nine...I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”.  John Wesley changed the course of history.  He founded the Methodist movement, which, as historians state, saved Britain from a civil revolution that was imminent, unless there was change in society.  Indeed, historians like the atheist Roy Hattersley former MP and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, argues that Methodists with their strong work ethic became the backbone to the great Industrial Revolution that changed the world.

James Hudson Taylor in June 1849, was lazily browsing his father’s books on summer’s day and a defining moment occurred.  He came across some pamphlets.  He picked one up and wandered across to the old warehouse at the back of the family home where he often read in quiet.  In this pamphlet, he was struck by one phrase, ‘The finished work of Christ’.  This was reference to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, who exclaimed moments before he died, ‘It is finished’! (Gospel of John 19.30).  Hudson asked himself, ‘What was finished?’

Hudson said, years later, “I at once replied, ‘A full and perfect atonement and satisfaction for sin. The debt was paid for our sins...If the whole work was finished and the whole debt paid, what is there left for me to do?’

So there in the surroundings of the family home in Barnsley, Hudson, all alone, knelt on his knees and accepted Jesus as his Saviour. He had answered his own question, and described it years later as ‘light flashed into my own soul by the Holy Spirit’.  So at the age of 17 years, James Hudson Taylor experienced the joy of real Christianity.  Without this most significant God-moment, the China Inland Mission would never have been born. Indeed the multitudes of 19th century China would never have been reached with the same Good News message of Jesus Christ, ‘It is finished’.  It was the clear understanding of the atonement of Christ that changed the whole course of Hudson’s life and to some degree changed the course of history in China.

In all 3 examples, it was the understanding of what God had done for them, not what they could do for God.


We believe that Jesus died for our sins.  That’s what we believe as a local church, part of the universal church across the world and down through the ages.  But do you believe that?  Here’s the test.  If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?  Do you have that assurance that you will spend eternity in heaven with the Lord Jesus and all his people – a place where there is no more death, mourning, crying or pain?  Do you know for sure?  If you are thinking, “I hope so, but I’m not sure” means you have not quite yet understood the message of the cross, the core part of the Christian faith. 

There is only one way into heaven, the eternal life to come, and that’s by faith in Jesus.  You are barred, but Jesus can get you in...if you are in him.  If you allow him to conquer the evil in your life, if you allow him to heal you, if you allow him to take the sentence, if you allow him to set you free, if you take his hand of friendship being offered to you.

We believe Jesus died and rose again – so come back next Sunday for part 2.  ‘We believe Jesus rose again’.  The cross changes things in a big way!  That’s why Jesus is the world greatest hero – not Christ superstar - but Christ crucified.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Part 5 - The World's Greatest Hero - Christ Crucified.

Preached at Gateway 17 March 2013
Ephesians 2.11-18

Jesus offers the hand of friendship

‘and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility’ v16

So far we’ve covered the images of the battlefield, and the hospital, the lawcourts and the prison.  Today, the image is this...let’s paint a picture to give you a are now in your own home with family and friends.  Imagine, as does happen, a quarrel breaks out between you and family member or a friend.  It might be more serious than a little argument, it might be real hostility.  To be reconciled is to have that friendship restored, renewed.  So we’re thinking about the image of friendship or reconciliation. 

To go further, it might be that you feel alienated.  It might be alienation at work, or at school, or even at home, or just generally in society – as if you’ve been isolated, with no-one to relate to.

This theme of reconciliation is perhaps one of the most popular today re. the different images of the cross.  In our contemporary world where people are searching for authentic relationships and having to work out and work through the breakdown relationships, the theme of friendship or reconciliation is very relevant.  It’s also very personal.

The apostle Paul speaks about a ‘dividing wall of hostility’ in his letter to the Ephesians, v14.  There are many barriers that separate people, that divide people.  The Berlin Wall is a very tangible example until it was destroyed in 1989, separating east from west.  Last Saturday there was a strong line of stewards and police separating football supporters...  It was a dividing wall of hostility.  But there are many more examples that divide people, it may be racial or religious divisions.  It may be jealousy, pride, or bitterness.  Just consider the Huhne family re. the speeding points saga...

Former cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce have each been jailed for eight months for perverting the course of justice.

Huhne had admitted asking Pryce to take his speeding points to avoid losing his licence in 2003, and Pryce was convicted of having agreed to do so.

Pryce, 60, went to a newspaper with the story after their marriage broke up.
The judge said Huhne, 58, had fallen from a "great height" but any tragedy was their "own fault".
Huhne, who resigned as an MP after pleading guilty, told Channel 4 News ahead of sentencing that his actions in 2003 had spun into a "massive, devastating set of consequences for family, for career and for everything".
It might be a Conifer Trees that are a cause of hostility between neighbours...!

‘The dividing wall of hostility’...
What dividing wall is the apostle Paul referring to?

A bit of background...if you look back over the Old Testament you’ll find how God chose Israel out of all the people of the earth to be his holy people.  It started with a guy called Abraham and how through his descendents the nation Israel would be formed to be a blessing to the families of the earth, to be a light to the nations.  But what happened over the centuries, and by this time we come to the 1st century, the time of Jesus and the apostles, and the writing of the NT - the people of Israel, the Jews hated the Gentiles (those who were not Jews).  They forgot or neglected their calling from God re. their purpose to be a light to the nations, they twisted the privileges they had, as God’s people, into favouritism.  They regarded the Gentiles as ‘dogs’, which as you can imagine is a term of contempt!  When the apostle Paul writes this letter to the church at Ephesus, there was real animosity between Jews and Gentiles.

When the magnificent Jewish temple was built in Jerusalem, there was this wall that separated the Jews from the Gentiles.  It was eventually finished in 64AD, a structure of cream stone and gold.  You not only had the whole structure built upon a platform, so it was elevated, and you not only had different courts, working outwards, first a court for the priests, then one for the Jewish men, then another one for the women, but you had this huge wall further below that separated the Jews from the Gentiles.  So if you were a Gentile, you would look up at this great resplendent building, and furthermore you were cut off it by this wall, which was essentially was a very intimidating stone barrier.  There were notices displayed at various points, that read, not ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’, but ‘Trespassers will be executed’!  In fact some of these notices in the common language of the day, Greek and Latin have been unearthed, and have been displayed at a museum in Istanbul.

1) Be reconciled to God.
This literal, physical wall speaks volume about humanity.  On the one side were the Jews, so near yet so far from God with their distorted religion, looking down on the other side upon their fellow human beings, the Gentiles, who also were’ far away’, see v11-13.  They were without Christ, they were outside all that real Judaism offered (not this distorted version), therefore they were without hope.  The Greek and Roman gods failed them, such idols could not satisfy the hunger of their souls.  So they had no hope to sustain them.  They were without God, they had no fellowship with their Creator, because they did not know him.  They were far away!  The imposing wall outside the temple, in a away, symbolised their position, their status.

Is that you today?  You know very little about the one, true living God, with the gods of your life – whatever you look to for hope – not delivering.  It may be the so-called church you’ve somehow looked to, have, like the Jews of Paul’s day, become smug and superior, constructing barriers.  Churches that start well, that even develop into denominations can start pulling up the drawbridges as if they are the special lot, the chosen lot, and look down upon everyone else and distort what God has called them to be.  Gateway, lets always seek to have open doors!  Above all, have you met Jesus who offers the hand of friendship?  Is that you today?

The good news, is through the cross of Jesus, Christ crucified, you can be brought near into something very special.  Jesus offers the hand of friendship.  Verse 18 promises you can have access through Jesus to the Father, by the one Spirit.  Jesus is the gateway, it’s why we are called ‘Gateway’. 

Why is it through Jesus?  Go back to v13.  It’s through the blood of Jesus – which is reference to the historical event.  It’s his sacrifice upon the cross, an event in history.  But also v13 says ‘But now in Christ Jesus...’  That is reference to your personal faith in Christ.  It’s your conversion.  The moment you put your trust in Christ, that he died for your sins, the benefits of the historical event are applied to you – you are reconciled to God.  It’s like at the cross God in Jesus offers the hand of friendship to all, but you have to accept and receive his outstretched hand.  ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who were once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ’ v13.  Be reconciled to God.

2) Be reconciled to others
Broken relationships is real for everyone, all of us have been affected by broken relationships.  It may be between parents and children or between husband and wife or between brothers/sisters or between good friends or between neighbours or colleagues.

It’s amazing how in Ephesians we see this working out between these two very hostile groups Jews and Gentiles (religious and pagan).  See Acts 19.8-10.  It is through the cross that they are brought together, see v14 & 15, and both groups have access to God through Jesus the Son, v18.  In God’s kingdom, there is no room for any kind of superiority or inferiority based on ethnic background or any other dividing line, e.g. the Caste system in India.  Before God, because of his reconciling love demonstrated at the cross, everyone in Christ stands on a level playing field before God.  ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.26-28). 

Of course there are actual differences between male and female, between Jew and Gentile.  Men are men, women are women, Jews are Jews, and Gentiles are Gentiles, but the point is in the church, in Jesus, the differences shouln’t cause division. 

Jesus died to create a community, built on love and forgiveness.  Jesus didn’t die to form a committee, but a community – church.  The cross results in, yes, the salvation of individuals, but also the founding of a new community called the church.  The church is made up of ordinary people, indeed those on the margins of society are found at the centre of the community called church.

Vinay Samuel, an Indian Christian leader and author says, ‘One sign and wonder, biblically speaking, that alone can prove the power of the gospel of reconciliation...Hindus can produce as many miracles as any Christian miracle worker.  Islamic saints in India can produce and duplicate every miracle that has been produced by Christians.  But they cannot duplicate the miracle of black and white together, of racial injustice being swept away by the power of the gospel’.  That is a miracle – which no other religion can produce. 

As one Pastor tweeted, ‘A business has customers, consumers, critics, complainers.  A family has dads, mums, sisters, brothers. Church is a family’.

3) What does it mean to be reconciled?  How does it really work?
It’s about bringing enemies into a place of genuine friendship.  I don’t mean a kind of romantic or sentimental ‘making up’ but a real look at the cause of the hostility, rather than a papering over the cracks.

Sin is the problem in the breakdown of relationships.  The most serious case of a broken relationship, as we’ve already considered, is between you and God.  The Bible declares that we are enemies of God.  It’s not a neutral position, rather your default position is hostility towards God.  That must be overcome and reconciliation and forgiveness to take place.

To be reconciled, with God, and with others, there must be an honest facing up to facts.  In other words you cannot have true reconciliation with honestly considering the cause.  The issues have to be confronted which can be painful, with a cost involved.  Good counselling or mediation helps the two sides look at the causes and the issues.  

It starts with God.  In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul is emphatic in that whilst we are helpless in sorting out this problem, God takes the initiative.  ‘All this is from God’ v18, God was reconciling ‘the world to himself’ v19, and ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might the righteousness of God’ v21.  Let’s be careful, don’t think that Christ became a sinner, rather he was made to be sin.

So reconciliation is something done primarily by God the offended party.  He takes steps to forgive and set aside the offence.  For a broken friendship to be restored – there must be forgiveness.  The cross of Jesus, the death of Jesus, Jesus Christ crucified, reveals the full measure of God’s love for us.  All that Jesus endured at Calvary was for you.  That is how much you matter to God, indeed how much you and I have sinned against God.  The offer for real forgiveness for real sins, is only possible because Jesus bears the punishment.  He mediates between us and God.  He is the mediator, the go-between.  Your relationship with God is transformed through human repentance and divine forgiveness with Jesus mediating.  ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’, (2 Corinthians 5.19). 

The cross of the crucified Christ deals with the problem.  The life of Christ was not sufficient, it needed the death of Christ.  Romans 5.10, ‘We were reconciled to him through the death of his Son’. 

It starts with God, and continues in the church.  As Gateway church we’re to be a community of reconciliation.  In the first place you and I are not to share Christ from a position of superiority.  As a community of reconciliation we urge people to sort out their lives with God, but from a position of humility and gentleness, pleading with people to look to Christ.

Furthermore as Gateway we’re not only to proclaim this message of reconciliation but we are to model it too.  An authentic reconciliation with God does affects the vertical dimension but also the horizontal, that there should be genuine reconciliation with one another.  We’re to model it in our relationships. 

It’s useful to examine ourselves, Gateway church, re. the differences between and women, young and old, different backgrounds and education...there are differences in our preferences...personal desires re. worship songs (the music is too loud or it’s not loud enough), dress code...  but the big question is do these differences – major and minor – cause division?  Or is there a sense of unity within the diversity.  Do you welcome people who are very different form might be class or culture or is it only like-minded people you embrace?

At the cross, Jesus not only makes us one with God, but one with another.  To how much does Gateway reflect the reconciliation?  Are we as united as possible, amidst the diversity, as devoted followers of Jesus?  This is God’s desire, but are you and I displaying it?

So reconciliation tells us something is wrong, otherwise why did Christ die?  But also reconciliations tells us that forgiveness is available.  Forgiveness is so important if a relationship is to be restored and this only comes about when the offended explain to the offender about the full hurt caused and the pain that has been inflicted. 

The cross tells us that our relationship with God falls far short of what it is intended to be.  We are alienated from God, and a sign of that is division between people.  We are not born into the fullness of a relationship with God, it has to be established.

‘and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility’ v16.  Jesus was slayed upon the cross.  He was nailed, he was crucified.  Above all who took the punishment of hell that we deserve from God upon himself.  He was slayed, Jesus, the Son of God.  But in doing so, by paying the price, he slayed the hostility in both directions.  Christ crucified slayed the hostility between you and God, so you can be at peace with him.  A settlement has been agreed, Christ is that mediator.  But also, Christ crucified has slayed the hostility between people, nations, tribes, communities, friends, colleagues, families, within families, marriages.  That hostility has been decisively dealt with.    So in Christ crucified, we have a new humanity, individuals reconciled with God, individuals reconciled with one another.  You have no excuse – but Christ has slayed any hostility between you and God and between you and another.  You just have to pick up the ‘peace terms’.

V17 surely is a reference to the risen Jesus.  John 20.19 & 21, ‘Peace be with you’.  The first words he spoke to the disciples after his death were ‘peace’.  In others words , Jesus is saying, “I’ve settled it, you can experience the full blessing of all that you ever need”.  It’s a peace to those far away and to those near.  Together, different people from different backgrounds, temperaments, even religions...together as God’s new community, the church, we approach God our Farther by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. 

Question for Q & A – Ask yourself, have you accepted the hand of friendship offered by Jesus, the mediator, who is able to reconcile you to God?  If you have, have you done all you can to reconcile yourself to others where there is a broken relationship?

Prayer of commitment & faith:
Lord Jesus, I have done a lot of things wrong in my life.  I am sorry for going my own way instead of your way, and living without you.  Thank you for dying on the cross to forgive my sin, so that I might be reconciled to you.  I believe that by your death you destroyed all hostility on my part towards God and towards other people.  Please come and take first place in my life, that I might have a real friendship with you living God, filling my life with your reconciling love.  Amen.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Part 4 - The World's Greatest Hero - Christ Crucified

Preached at Gateway on 10/03/2013

Prison/Freedom - Hebrews 2.14-18

Focus verse – ’and free those who all their lives were held in slavery

by their fear of death’, v15

Main theme: Jesus sets you free from the shackles.


You may have seen the film, The Truman Show.  It’s been shown many times on TV, so I think it’s ok to give part of the story away.  It’s about a guy who from birth has his life filmed ‘live’ as a kind of live soap drama.  But he doesn’t know this, because all the cameras are hidden.  At the same time everyone else in his life are just actors, but he thinks it’s for real.  It’s all filmed in a gigantic studio, but to Truman he thinks this is life.  But as he grows older, he senses something is not right.  He always wants to travel to the Fiji islands, but somehow obstacles are put in his way, so he remains in this massive studio which has dimensions of several miles in radius.  He senses, although he can never quite understand until the end, he wants to be free, but free from what?  In essence he is being held captive against his will, but Truman doesn’t know it, until the end of the film.

I think the film is an insight into human nature, that you go through life, sensing deep down that something is not right, that there must be more to life.  What is ironic is that even in our Western society, which is based on freedom, people long to be truly free.  In previous generations, the emphasis of society was on being a ‘good person’ e.g. in the Victorian age.  Morality was a strong theme.  Today, the emphasis is on being a ‘free person’.  We absorb through the media and peer pressure so many messages and vibes in our lives that suggests we are not truly free until we have purchased this or experienced that, or visited this place, or seen the latest...whatever it is...only to find, that whatever the experience is, it is never truly fulfilling or satisfying in the long-term. 

Until you recognise that unless God is at the centre of your worship, and therefore whatever you are pinning your hopes on is ultimately idolatry, then you will always feel enslaved and unhappy, and what makes it worse, is that for many people they don’t know why they feel that way.  The truth is that, to be free to do whatever you want, in the end makes you a slave to your freedom.  True happiness is elusive.

1) Held Captive By The Cords Of Death

In our Bible passage today, we read how you are held in slavery by your fear of death (Hebrews 2.15).  So for example, some people feel they need to exploit their freedom, knowing that it will not last, because one day they will die.  As I suggested earlier, people in previous generations sought to live a good life, to be moral, as if religion could get them through death and into heaven.  Whilst religion cannot bring people into heaven, at least there was a general view that there was an afterlife and some kind of accountability.  Today, there is an increasing view that this life is all there is.  So people live as if this life is all there is, hence freedom is exploited.  The motto is, let’s ‘take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’, for tomorrow we die.  People live out their freedom as if there is no tomorrow, and it can be a freedom that is very hedonistic (belief that pleasure is the most important thing in life).  It is the attitude of why is life worth living if in the end you die?  So I may as well just live my life how I want, because in the end I die? 

So either way, whether it’s the religious life or the narcissistic life (excessive interest in yourself), death is a very powerful influence.  If you are trying to live a moral life to please God, with a view of trying to get into heaven, it’s because death is that determining factor.  Of course it’s a lie, you never be good enough for God.  It’s the lie of religion.  If you are just living your life with no reference to morality, and to God, that’s the lie of atheism.  But again death is the determining factor.  

With this week’s theme in mind, what you need is true freedom.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live your life free of the shackles?  To be free of the fear of death, however it drives you in this life, either towards morality or immorality, towards religion or paganism?

So the passage in Hebrews teaches us that, above all, you and I are held in slavery by our fear of death.  Most people are scared to death of the thought of death.  Its finality hangs over you and I. 

So there is a sense of a stranglehold upon lives because of sin, the domination of sin, of the finality of death and the devil.  To compound this reality many people experience all sorts of shackles.  It’s manifested in many ways.  It might be on a global scale.  We only have to consider Syria today, where many thousands have had their freedom to live life in peace and harmony taken away, because of their terrible civil war.  It might be on a national scale.  We think of the financial crisis, which is causing major issues in our society, and many people are at the mercy of the austerity measures, and feel captive and hemmed in.  We have high levels of addictions, a type of captivity, e.g. drugs, gambling, and pornography which impacts our society in very negative ways.

Then on a personal level, we have broken marriages and family life, and people feel captive to the guilt and the trauma that broken relationships bring.  Then we have health issues, disease and sickness, which people feel captive to.  We can go on... and give further examples whilst acknowledging some of these issues are very complex.  It might be that you feel under great pressure to prove yourself to others, it might even be on this mothering Sunday, that you’ve always felt under relentless pressure to be that perfect mother or son or daughter, in order to gain approval.  So in that sense you are captive.

2) Set Free By Christ Crucified

But here’s some good news...and can you tell me of a better, more credible alternative?  It is this, God sends His Son, Jesus Christ from heaven into our world, on a rescue mission.  Jesus becomes fully human (v14), ‘so that he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’.  Furthermore, Jesus even helps you with all the temptations you face every day that can send you spiralling back into slavery of sin, and its demonic influences.  Don’t forget that.  You may be a new Christian, and in the past you’ve struggled with addictions or debt or anger or sexual immorality or violence...whatever, remember God can enable you by his Holy Spirit to give you the power to resist these new temptations when they rise up again, with the support of other Christians.  God sent Jesus Christ to set you free and destroys the stranglehold of the devil.  How does it work?  The rest of the Bible explains further about this freedom.  Let the Bible interpret the Bible.

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’.  The word ransom brings to mind this sense of being held captive and released only when a ransom is paid.  Jesus’ death was a ransom, to decisively end your captivity and set you free, free from being held in the hold of sin and free from the fear of death.  This idea of ransom is an analogy, there is no suggestion that Jesus had to pay a ransom to the devil, but simply he has delivered us from the grip of sin, death and the devil himself.

Another similar image to ransom that underpins this image of freedom is redemption.  What does ‘Redemption’ actually mean?  You have to go back to the first century, the time of Jesus and the apostles.  If you were slave, and the Roman Empire was built upon slavery, although perhaps a little different from what you might envisage slavery to be, nevertheless you were a commodity.  Perhaps you very well-treated with privileges and responsibilities, but nevertheless you were regarded by your owner as property.  To be granted freedom, and the dignity of personhood, you had to buy your freedom, or perhaps someone else bought it for you.  It was unusual, but it happened, a slave could be redeemed but at a cost, at a price.  Indeed, the better the slave, the higher the cost.

To be a Christian is to be redeemed from the slavery of sin, death and the devil, and all the examples we’ve considered about how this is manifested in daily life.  But this redemption comes at a tremendous cost.  Thankfully, wonderfully, you don’t have to pay a penny.  The Son of God foots the bill.  Jesus dies that you might be redeemed.  ‘For it is not with perishable things such  as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’, 1 Peter 1.18-19.

Again the Bible is silent about whom the price is paid, that is where the analogy ends.  It’s an image.  What we know, what the Bible reveals, is that you are held in slavery, especially the fear of death, under the hold of the devil, not excusing your own sinful ways, and Jesus gave his life as a ransom for you, that Jesus pays the price to redeem you.

What the Bible promises, indeed what the God of the Bible promises, is that you can be set free.  You can experience freedom.  We believe Jesus died to set you free, to set you free from the shackles.

Jesus went to the cross.  Even though he had committed no sin, never mind no crime, Jesus was a prisoner.  He had the statement of his crime, the written charge, nailed to the cross above him - ’Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’...’The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews’, but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews”.  Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19.19-22).  Indeed what took place on the cross, is what Martin Luther called the ‘great transaction’.  Another way to look at it is that God as King has pardoned you and set you free of the shackles of sin, and now he invites you into the palace.  You are delivered from the chains of sin and delivered into fellowship with God.

John 8.31-32 Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” ‘.

John 8.36 ‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’.

Romans 8.1-2 ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death’.

Galatians 5.1 ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’.


The gospel, the good news of Jesus throws open the prison door of your life and you are invited to walk free.  The light of day shines in, and you can go free.  It begins now, at least freedom in your heart, and one day complete freedom in the life to come.  Jesus has come, lived, died, rose and returned to heaven, to prepare this place for you.  It what Jesus promised, as recorded in John 14.  He will come back – not so much to take us there, it doesn’t say that – it says to take us to himself.  ‘Take you’ has a sense in the original Greek of welcoming someone, so it speaks of welcome, Jesus embracing all his followers.  Jesus will be at the centre of this new world, a place of true freedom, freedom from death, mourning, crying and pain - see Revelation 21.4

Jesus Christ will come back for us to liberate us completely and totally from the sin, death and the evil one.  Isn’t that wonderful, Jesus is your escort and your destination.

No wonder the black African slaves in America in centuries gone by, would shuffle along in their shackled chains singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home’ – adopted now as a Rugby anthem.  But we don't often hear the rest of the words to that spiritual song. They go like this:

'I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
If you get there before I do,
Tell all my friends I'm coming, too.
Coming for to carry me home.
I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound,
Coming for to carry me home.
The brightest day that I can say,
When Jesus washed my sins away,
Coming for to carry me home.'

It's a song of hope in the midst of trouble; and a song of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners - to rescue you and me by dying in our place on the cross and rising from the dead, and of the sure and certain hope of the heavenly life for those who believe and trust in him.  Jesus died as a prisoner instead of you...and as our focus verse says to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’, v15

You are held captive by the cords of death,

but you can be set free by the crucified Christ

Question for Q & A – Ask yourself, do you believe and experience in your own heart and life that freedom which Christ brings?

Prayer of commitment & faith:

Lord Jesus, I have done a lot of things wrong in my life.  I am sorry for going my own way instead of your way, and living without you.  Thank you for dying on the cross to forgive my sin, so that I might be truly free.  I believe that you destroyed the evil one who holds the power over death.  Please come and take first place in my life, that I might truly live and be free of the shackles of sin and death, filling my life with your redeeming love.  Amen.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Buying tickets for Man City v Barnsley in FACup Quarter-finals

Personal news:
I popped into Barnsley Football Club ticket office today & asked for 2 tickets for Manchester City v Barnsley FC in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup.  Of course I knew full well that the Man City stadium is sold out, including Barnsley’s allocation of 6000 tickets.  However, on the way down, I prayed, “Lord, if it pleases you, I’d love to have 2 seats together” (so I can take our 12 yr old).

I walked into an empty ticket office and the woman said, “Two tickets have just been returned”, so I bought them, amazed at answered prayer.  God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no, or not yet!  It’s good to pray about all manner of things, including football tickets, and trusting God with the outcome!

I began to think a bit more...why does such a game, which, as my mother-in-law says, is just a bag of wind being kicked around cause such interest?  It does galvanise a town like Barnsley to be playing in the Q/F of the FA Cup, against such high quality opponents (last season’s Premier League champions).  Football draws a community together.  But also there is something about the ‘underdog’ trying to topple the ‘favourites’, indeed the odds are stacked against BFC progressing to the semi-finals of the world’s old football competition.  But we all love to see the ‘weak shame the strong’. 
This reminds me of the good news of Jesus, who from a position of total weakness ‘disarmed the powers and authorities...triumphing over them by the cross” (Bible).  At Gateway Church we’re half-way through a preaching series looking at why Jesus died?  The series is called ‘The world’s greatest hero – Christ crucified’.

Whatever happens at the big game tomorrow, we’ll enjoy the experience, even though it’s a dent in some birthday money I was given in order to buy the tickets!  I’m not used to buying a ticket, because I usually get paid to watch Barnsley FC!  Well not quite, I’m actually a match day steward at BFC’s home games at Oakwell, the home of where Gateway church was launched on Easter Sunday 2011.  Easter Sunday reminds me that surprises do take place – when the church celebrates and declares that the ‘underdog’ did overcome the odds and emerged victorious.