Earlier this year, I preached on the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Remember the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil just after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. And he heard the voice of his Father tell him, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” This was not a coincidence because the temptations that followed were meant to test exactly what it meant that Jesus was God’s Son. Recall the first two temptations: Satan prefaced his words to Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God, then do these things.” For example the first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.” In other words, “If you’re the Son of God, save yourself, Jesus! Surely no Son of God would be out here starving for 40 days in the wilderness! This is no way to live!”
As I said back in January, Jesus proved to the devil that because he was the Son of God, he was unwilling to save himself—not if it meant disobeying his Father. Jesus intended to do his Father’s will. Jesus only ever did his Father’s will. It was not his Father’s will to turn a stone into bread, so he refused to do it.
The main point of that first temptation is that Jesus would rather die than disobey his Father in order to save himself.
In the gospel of Luke, Luke includes one small detail that the other gospels don’t include when they report the temptations. It’s found in Luke 4:13:
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It’s easy to see, I hope, how this opportune time is right now, on Good Friday.Because it’s as if that temptation is being replayed for Jesus! Listen to what the rulers say, in verse 35:
“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
Or how about the soldiers in verse 37:
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
Or how about the first criminal on the cross in verse 39:
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
In so many words, each of these people is saying, “If you are who you say you are—and if you are who your Father says you are, prove it! Save yourself!” And make no mistake… Jesus could have saved himself. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Twelve legions is 72,000 angels, and they would have come and wiped out every single person who was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross! And these angels would have taken Jesus down off the cross, if he wanted them to. But Jesus refused: As he said before his arrest,“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” By all means, the cross of Christ is the worst example of human injustice in the history of the world, but Jesus is no mere victim. He’s choosing to die on the cross. As he says elsewhere, “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”
And that’s why there’s great irony in the words of the rulers, the soldiers, and the first criminal. “It’s not if I am God’s Son I should save myself… it’s because I am God’s Son I won’t save myself. It’s because I am the Christ, the messiah, the Chosen One, the world’s one and only true King, that I refuse to save myself.”
Why can’t Jesus save himself? Well, let’s remember exactly what his death is accomplishing: We see it right here in today’s scripture… with Barabbas. Originally, Pilate planned on crucifying Barabbas, alongside these other two criminals. As Luke explains in verse 19, Barabbas was in prison for insurrection and murder. He was nothing less than what we would call today a terrorist. His cause was to drive the Romans out of Israel, and he used violent, murderous means to do so.
Unlike Jesus, Barabbas deserves death; he has done great harm to others, and he has sinned against God in the worst possible ways. Yet because Jesus takes his place on the cross—because Jesus dies in his place—Barabbas goes free. He gets off scot-free. As far as the law is concerned, because of what Jesus does for him, Barabbas is now an innocent man. This is only possible because Jesus literally takes his place, literally substitutes for him, literally suffers the penalty under the law that Barabbas deserves. Jesus literally receives the guilty sentence that Barabbas deserves.
Brothers and sisters, do you see how this is perfect symbol of what Christ does for us sinners on the cross? This is a perfect illustration of substitutionary atonement!
Except what Jesus does for us on the cross is so much greater… Barabbas is only saved temporarily, after all…
Let’s say that Barabbas went on to live another 30 or 40 years, tops. Big deal! He’s going to die again! Jesus does infinitely more for us!
Because Jesus substitutes for us on the cross, we’re not saved merely for a matter of years on this side of death—we’re saved eternally.
Remember, after all, what humanity’s biggest problem is: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. And here’s the consequence: “For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23. And that’s not merely physical death in this world, but eternal death… separation from God, hell… But here’s the solution: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.
The first criminal on the cross just doesn’t get it: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” I like that: It’s as if he were saying, “You may as well save us while you’re saving yourself!” This criminal knew who Jesus was. He had likely even seen or at least heard about Jesus’ working miracles. So his question is sincere: he likely believed that Jesus had the power to rescue him, and he was asking Jesus to use his power to do so. But just because you believe Jesus can work miracles doesn’t mean you believe in Jesus for salvation. Plenty of people saw and believed that Jesus worked miracles, but that kind of faith didn’t save them!
So the first criminal doesn’t understand that in order for Jesus to save him, Jesus can’t save himself. Jesus must die this death, in his place, in order to make salvation for that criminal possible.
But notice what the first criminal is doing: He’s using Jesus as a means to an end. He’s saying, “I’ll have you as Lord of my life if you’ll save me from this trouble.”
Do you think that there are a lot of people praying those kinds of prayers right now in the wake of this pandemic with COVID-19? Of course… Look we all do it at times… But one difficult truth of being a follower of Jesus is that he does not promise that he’ll save us from trouble. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus may save us from trouble, and he often does. And we should pray constantly that he will rescue us from trouble. Because God is often glorified when we see him rescue us from trouble.
But… Jesus tells us throughout the gospels—and his Holy Spirit inspired the other writers of scripture to tell us—over and over—that God uses our trouble—he transforms our trouble—into something that is good for us. In fact, he does this all the time for those of us who’ve been born again through faith in his Son!
And you may object: “I don’t understand how God is using this trouble for my good. I don’t understand how this present crisis, this pandemic, this shelter-in-place order, this inability to worship together on Easter Sunday, this constant threat that we could get sick and even die… I don’t understand how any of this could possibly be for my good!” And if we say that, we’re a lot like this first criminal: “I can’t understand, Jesus, how dying on this cross could ever be better than walking around as a free man on the ground below. I don’t see any good that’s going to come out of this!”
Look at it like this: This comes from pastor Tim Keller, and I like it a lot: “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering, then you also have a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering that you can’t understand.” I should repeat that:
If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering, then that means that this God is great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering that you can’t understand.
As Keller says, you can’t have it both ways. If God is great and transcendent—and he is—then he’s going to have good reasons for doing or allowing things that we can’t understand. It stands to reason. My dogs, who hate taking baths, can’t understand why I insist on bathing them—even though doing so saves them suffering from fleas and ticks in the future. Young children can’t understand why they have to go to the doctor and get shots. It hurts, after all. Yet we know far better than dogs or children what’s good for them—even when it hurts!
To say the least, God knows infinitely more than we do! Besides, surely one important lesson of Good Friday—which I hope is relevant to our current crisis—is this: If God can take the worst evil and suffering the world has ever seen—which is the death of his Son Jesus on the cross—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever seen—which is, the gift of eternal life for all who believe. If God can do that… then to say the least it is not difficult for God to take all lesser forms of suffering and evil and transform them for our good! Amen?
So we can trust him! Can’t we? In my own life over the past few weeks, I have enjoyed some very sweet, very precious time with Jesus. I have learned to depend on him more! To trust in him more! To love him more! Thank you, Jesus. I have, it’s true! Many of you have, too! You’ve told me!
So one question we have to ask ourselves is this: Is getting more of Jesus, trusting in him more, depending on him more, loving him more, becoming better friends with him, falling in love with him more, treasuring him more—is he worth this? Is Jesus worth anything and everything?
Friends, my mission in life as a pastor is to convince you that he is… Otherwise I’m wasting my breath. Enough with this “if-then,” conditional kind of faith! “If you do these things for me, Jesus, then I’ll have you as my Lord.” I don’t want it anymore! All I want is Jesus! And Jesus is testing me in this crisis, and he’s testing you, asking us, “Am I enough for you?”
Let’s be like the second criminal on the cross… Because you know what he’s saying to Jesus? He’s saying, in so many words, “All I want is you, Lord.” While I’m sure he would love to be rescued from this immediate crisis—which for him is dying on the cross—when he turns to Jesus in faith, he doesn’t expect that. He only wants to be with Jesus. Verse 42: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The first criminal says, “I’ll be with you, Lord, if you save me from this trouble.” But the second criminal says, “Lord, I’ll take this trouble, if it means I can be with you.”
Lord, I’ll take this trouble, if it means I can be with you.
Are we willing to say that? Are we willing to believe that? O dear Lord, make it so. Melt our hearts so that we can gladly endure trouble if it means we can have more and more of you!