For three years, Jesus had preached the good news of the kingdom to the poor of spirit. He had healed the sick, touched the lepers, and cast demons out of the possessed. Hundreds of thousands had heard his teaching and preaching. Thousands were personally touched by his ministry and healing hand. Dozens followed him as disciples. But at the end of his life, as he hangs on a cross, only a small handful of followers are with him. In John’s gospel we’re told,
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister [from Mark’s gospel we learn that this is most likely Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee–which make the apostle James & John Jesus’ 1st cousins], Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”(John 19:25–27, NIV84)
The reference to the disciple whom he loved is a reference to the Apostle John—probably the youngest of the disciples.
It took great courage for these few disciples to stand at the foot of our Lord’s cross. The other disciples had fled. They are in hiding from Jewish and Roman authorities. If the authorities were willing to crucify Jesus, they would have little compunction in doing the same to his disciples. In 1945 Ira and Zelma Stanphill wrote a hymn that came to be a favorite revival invitation hymn. The title? There’s Room at the Cross for You. Which is exactly what the disciple are so anxious over and why they are in hiding!
Only five followers are willing to openly identify with Jesus at his death. And so it is today. Many are willing to call themselves Christians and follow Jesus as long as there is no real danger, or personal cost in doing so.
Jesus has many lovers of the heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He has many who desire his consolation, but few who are willing to share in his tribulation. He finds many companions of his table, but few who will follow him into the garden. All desire to rejoice with him, few are willing to endure hardship for him. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup. Many reverence his miracles, few glory in the abasement of his cross. Many love Jesus so long as no adversities befall them, many praise and bless him so long as they receive blessings from him; but when he asks us to pick up our cross and follow him, we suddenly find a myriad of excesses not to. Billy Graham once said; Following Christ is a hard, rugged life. There is nothing easy or sissy about it.
The handful who remain with Jesus until the very end teach us a couple of important lessons about faith and courage to identify with a crucified Savior.
I. FAITH DRAWS US TO FOLLOW JESUS IN SPITE OF OUR FEAR
- Jesus was very clear about the necessity of cross-bearing for those who wished to be his disciples
- “Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, NIV84)
- “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26–27, NIV84)
- these were not easy words for the disciples to hear
- to them the cross was not a piece of jewelry to hang around their neck or a symbol of faith and victory hung in the baptistry or erected on a steeple
- for them, the cross was a cruel instrument of torture and death and something to be feared and avoided at all costs
- Death to self, and dying to self is not any easier today than it was for those few who stood at the foot of our Lord’s cross
- ILLUS. Dietrich Bonnhoffer was a German clergyman who lived under the Nazi regime. He wrote a book called, The Cost of Discipleship. In it he writes these words: “When Christ bids us to come [to him], He bids us to come and die. He summons us to give everything we have. That is the cost of our discipleship to Jesus Christ.”
- it can cause us to flee in terror from that which we are afraid of ... or
- it can make us confront that which we fear the most
- ILLUS. One of the truly great military geniuses our country has produced was General George Patton. Shortly after the conquest of Sicily during World War II, the military governor of the island met with General George Patton. He praised Patton highly for his courage and bravery. The general's reply took him by surprise, "Sir, I am not a brave man. The truth is, I am an utter craven coward. I have never been within the sound of gunshot or in sight of battle in my whole life that I wasn't so scared that I had sweat in the palms of my hands." Years later, when Patton's autobiography was published, it contained this significant statement by the general: "I learned very early in my life never to take counsel of my fears."
- on the side of unbelief were the Jewish religious leaders and chief priests, Pilate and the soldiers of the execution squad
- on the side of belief were four courageous women, including Jesus' mother, the beloved disciple—John, and perhaps Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea
A. THE UNBELIEF OF THE PHARISEES WAS DUE TO ANIMOSITY AND RESENTMENT
- they wouldn't have missed this crucifixion for the world
- our Lord's death—by whatever means—was what they had planned for and sought after
- “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18, NIV84)
- “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.” (Luke 22:1–2, NIV84)
- that the Romans were doing their dirty work for them was just so much the better
- this is the person who's faith is in the rules and regulations of a religious system and not the Son of God
- they are often motivated by jealousy, prejudice, self-aggrandizement, and self-interest
- their religion has lost its spontaneity and often becomes a ritual which must be defended rather than a faith that is lived
- this person is usually the one who says, "I'm a Christian, but not one of those 'born-again' radical ones."
- the problem is—if you ain’t born again, you ain’t a Christian
- born again is not a term Evangelicals invented in the 70's but an illustration Jesus used in the third chapter of John’s Gospel to describe the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the sinner’s life bringing them to salvation
- it’s like being born again!
B. THE UNBELIEF OF PILATE WAS DUE TO SELFISHNESS
- Pilate embodies the unbelief of political expediency
- in other words, if there’s not anything in it for Pilate, he doesn’t want any part of following Jesus
- if there is no wealth to gain—why put your life on the line?
- if there is no power to win—why lay down all to follow Jesus?
- if there is no social status to harvest—why stand at the foot of the cross?
- Pilate might have listened to Jesus more carefully had not his standing with Caesar been at stake
- he might even have released Jesus if it had been expedient for his own interests
- but Pilate was unwilling to openly oppose the priests and scribes who dominated Jerusalem's politics
- Pilate was the type of man who will believe, provided he does not have to sacrifice his reputation or personal convenience or social ties
C. THE UNBELIEF OF THE SOLDIERS WAS DUE TO INDIFFERENCE
- lastly, there is the Roman execution squad, rolling dice in a helmet at the foot of the cross to decide which of them should possess the meager belongings of their victims
- they are a picture of callousness and indifference to the claims of Christ on their life
- I have a feeling this is where most in our society would fall
- to the soldiers, Jesus was only an incident in a day's work, and a rather unimportant one at that
- his sufferings and death evoked no interest from them
- the soldiers represent those in our society who notice Jesus only when forced to
- ILLUS. All heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, and all hell terribly afraid of it. Men are the only beings who more or less ignore its meaning.
D. THE FAITH OF A FEW DREW THEM TO THE CROSS DESPITE THEIR FEAR
- Patton wrote in his autobiography "I learned very early in my life never to take counsel of my fears."
- five followers of our Lord—only five—filled with fear, yet they confronted that fear and responded in love and faith
- it took courage to stand before the cross and openly declare their loyalty to the Savior
- after all, Jesus had told his disciples, All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22)
- these five disciples—four of them women—took their stand nearby the cross as a declaration of loyalty and faithfulness to their Lord
- it took courage for them
- it takes courage for us to stand before the cross of Calvary and openly proclaim our faith in and commitment to Jesus
- while our nation may have a veneer of Christianity, those who truly live out their faith are often the butt of jokes and objects of ridicule
- ILLUS. Forty years ago during the height of the Cold War Premier Kruschev gave a thundering speech before the Supreme Soviet. He was severely critical of the late Premier Stalin under whose reign tens of millions of Russians were executed, tortured and starved to death. While he was speaking someone from the audience sent up a note: "What were you doing when Stalin committed all these atrocities?" Kruschev shouted, "Who sent up this note?" Not a person stirred. "I'll give him one minute to stand up!" The seconds ticked off. Still no one moved. "All right," he said, "I'll tell you what I was doing. I was doing exactly what the writer of this note is doing—exactly nothing! I was afraid to be counted!"
- “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NIV84)
II. FAITH SEES YOUR LIFE AS AN ASSIGNMENT FROM GOD
- when she was a teenager, God gave Mary a sacred assignment, and what a blessed assignment it was
- Mary would be the human instrumentality by which the incarnation would take place
- in her womb, God would become flesh
- Mary was a woman of singular virtue, or she would never have been chosen to be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ
- for that role she deserves respect and honor
- but, we must always remember that, like us, she was a sinner who exalted God her Savior
- to elevate her to a role as co-redemptrix with Christ is to go beyond the bounds of Scripture and her own confession
- after the days of Jesus’ infancy and childhood, we see and hear so little of Mary
- her life was lived in the background, among the shadows
- but now, when the supreme hour strikes she stands by Jesus who is not only her son, but also her Messiah
- we can only imagine the feelings and emotions that Mary is experiencing as she watches her son die a criminal's death on a Roman cross
- surely her mind raced back to a scene in the Temple thirty-three years earlier
- Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the Law's command that every first-born male be consecrated unto the Lord
- while they are there, they encounter Simeon, a devout and righteous man, filled with the Holy Spirit to whom God had revealed that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah
- upon their entrance, Simeon breaks into praise
- but he ended his worship with an ominous bit of prophecy,
- “Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34–35, NIV84)
- her son is dying
- Jesus knows that she must see him as more than her son
- from this moment on, she must call him Lord
A. JESUS GIVES JOHN THE ASSIGNMENT OF HIS MOTHER
- even as He was dying, bearing man’s sin and God’s wrath, Jesus selflessly cared for those whom He loved
- under Jewish law, a dying man—even one dying on a cross—had the legal right to utter a dying declaration
- what we would refer to as a last will and testament
- Jesus now makes use of that right and with words similar to those spoken during an adoption service, he places his mother under the protection of the Apostle John
- in verse 26 Jesus says, "Woman, behold your son! Son, behold your mother!’"
- this Third Saying of Jesus from the Cross is referred to as The Word of Affection, and that’s an appropriate title
- Jesus, as the Son of Man reveals his tender compassion for His aging mother
- the passage tells us From that time on, this disciple took her into his home
- ILLUS. I love what the great Scottish pastor and theologian, William Barclay writes about this moment: “There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the cross, when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days ahead. He never forgot the duties that lay to hand. He was Mary’s eldest son, and even in the moment of his cosmic battle he did not forget the simple things that lay near home. To the end of the day, even on the cross, Jesus was thinking more of the sorrows of others than of his own.”
- as a side note, that passage also tells us that the brothers of Jesus are now part of The Way
- they have come to believe that their earthly brother (actually step-brother) was also the Messiah and their Lord, and two of them (James and Jude) would later author letters that bear their names that appear in our New Testament
- what happens to Mary after this point is simply conjecture
- two of the early historians of the church Irenaeus and Eusebius both wrote that the Apostle John cared for her until her death and then he moved to Ephesus were he had a long and successful ministry
B. JESUS GIVES ALL BELIEVERS AN ASSIGNMENT
- that assignment is found in Luke 9:23-24: “Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23–24, NIV84)
- all of the Christian life hinges on that command
- the Christian life is not about an easy-believism, but a whole-hearted following of Christ where we become disciples and not merely believers
- ILLUS. Charles H. Spurgeon, the 19th century ‘prince of preachers’ wrote: “There are no crown-wearers in Heaven that were not cross-bearers here below.”
- it is the process by which the old nature gives way to the new
- it is a process that starts with the new birth and ends at the close of our earthly journey, by which time we are, we hope, more mature in the likeness of Christ
- I’m reminded of the oft-quoted prayer: “Lord, I’m not what I ought to be and I’m not what I’m going to be, but thank you, Lord, I’m not what I used to be.”
- we serve and worship a Living Savior who is Christ the Lord!
- ILLUS. When Michelangelo visited several great art galleries in European cities, he was deeply impressed, but also puzzled by the preponderance of paintings depicting Christ hanging on the cross. He asked, “Why are art galleries filled with so many pictures of Christ upon the cross—Christ dying? Why do artists concentrate upon that passing episode, as if that were the last word and the final scene? Christ’s dying on the cross lasted for only a few hours. But to the end of unending eternity, Christ is alive! Christ rules and reigns and triumphs!”
Con. The cross is central to our lives and it is central to the message of the church. ILLUS. Billy Graham writes in his autobiography Just as I Am, “I remember preaching in Dallas, Texas, early in our ministry. It was 1953. About forty thousand people attended each night, but one evening only a few people responded to the appeal to receive Jesus Christ. Discouraged, I left the platform. A German businessman was there, a devout man of God. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Billy, do you know what was wrong tonight? You didn’t preach the cross.’
The next night I preached on the blood of Christ, and a great host of people responded to receive Christ as Savior. When we proclaim the Gospel of Christ, when we preach Christ crucified and risen, there is a built-in power to it."