Oh, I tell you, as that message gradually began to sink into my heart I was more and more thrilled by it. This is just what I needed–and I knew it. I had often thought that for all my religious heritage and involvement I was still a sinner. And how to be accepted before the Holy God I thought must be impossible. And as to how to fix that problem I was completely in the dark–until I heard Jesus preach the acceptable year of the Lord. I came to see that God would have me not for what I had done–for that would never be enough. Rather, He would accept me for what Jesus would do for me. And I learned that by simply believing in Him I could be righteous before God–however I may have violated the law at so many points.
But you must understand–what message was music to my ears was heresy to the religious establishment. Their whole boast was in the law–because they had it, they felt they were safe. And so as a result of what they perceived to be Jesus’ repudiation of the law of Moses, they hated Him. So intense was their hatred that they wanted nothing more than to see Him dead. You have to understand–they believed that they were being true to God and to His law. But when Jesus began to show them from their own Scriptures that they had perverted its teaching, and when they could not show that He was wrong–they had only two choices: they could agree with Him and so take Him as their Messiah, or they could silence Him. And human pride being what it always is, the chose the latter.
Often they would carefully prepare a debate, send their chosen spokesman to corner Jesus in a clever argument, to discredit Him before the crowds. Time and again they returned having had their own argument turned back at them and explode in their hands. Jesus’ insight into the law was profound, and it was precise.
Meanwhile there was His growing popularity among the masses–not that they all saw clearly the spiritual nature of His mission, they didn’t–but there was growing excitement about Him all throughout Judea. In fact, only a few days before His death, as Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a young donkey, the crowds were larger than ever, and they were beside themselves with excitement. And they all were shouting as Jesus rode by, “Hail, Son of David! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Glory in the highest!”
Here Jesus was finally being rightfully received as Messiah. For all of us this was the greatest day of our lives–all of us, that is, except for Jesus. He saw through it all as a selfish desire for mere political freedom, and that without any regard for deliverance from sin.
But still this was simply too much for the religious heavy-weights to tolerate. Jesus just had to be stopped before things got any worse. And so in the most awful miscarriage of justice in history, they bought off Judas Iscariot, one of the 12, who agreed to identify Jesus as one guilty of teaching blasphemy. The arrest, the interrogations–from Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate–in it all, His innocence was clear, but because of the great stir created by the religious leaders, Pilate–who admitted publicly that he could find nothing in Jesus worthy of punishment–ordered Him whipped. But that was not enough. They wanted Him dead. And death they demanded. “He claimed to be a king! He is then a rival to Caesar! And if you do not crucify Him we’ll make sure Caesar knows of your complicity with treason!”
So finally, Pilate had Jesus crucified. Crucifixion was one awful way to die and one horrendous thing to witness. Bleeding already from the whipping he had received He was forced to carry His own cross outside the gate and up the hill called Golgotha. Laid across the beams, His hands and feet were fixed in placed with huge spikes nailed into the rough-hewn wood. Then He was lifted up and as the cross was dropped into the socket, Jesus’ body settled with a jolt, and all the weight fell hard on those spikes, and His back–already full of gaping wounds–scraping down along the jagged timber.
Standing close by were John, his cousin and most loved disciple; His mother, Mary; Salome, His mother’s sister / His aunt; Mary Magdalene; and my wife, who also is named Mary (we had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover). I am embarrassed to say that the rest of us were too afraid to be seen there for fear that we might meet a similar fate. We retreated to Zebedee”s house where John eventually returned also with Mary, Jesus’ mother. We all were frantically wondering what we should do. Zebedee and I, however, just had to go back & watch, but we carefully remained on the outskirts of the crowd.
You’ve read the accounts, and I’m sure you are familiar with them. And reading them as one who has also read the following chapters it is difficult for you, I think, to sympathize with us who believed in Jesus then, and who were there to see it all come crashing down. You have to understand that we hadn’t read those next chapters. For us, precisely everything we believed was being made a lie. Never mind that we had given the last several years of our lives to what seemed now, to be a lost cause; all of our hopes and assurances for eternity and fellowship with God we had pinned to Him. We had learned to speak to Him with new confidence–because simply by our association with Jesus we had been assured of Divine favor. But if God would, after all He had done, abandon Him like this, then it was clear that all of our hopes had been displaced. And we were left to that dilemma of sin and guilt which we had faced before He ever came along.
Wile Jesus hung there dead, suddenly a realization came to us that His body would no doubt be taken with that of the two criminals who were crucified with Him and thrown into some Criminal’s common grave–if not perhaps into the Valley of Hinnom, the local dump. Ironically, it was a man, who up till now was but a secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate for the body and placed it in his own newly cut tomb which was nearby. Along with Nicodemus, he took the body of Jesus. My wife and Mary Magdalene followed along also and saw how the body was laid.
Actually, even the things here were not as we would have done. It was late Friday, and with the Sabbath quickly approaching, they had to hurry the body to its burial–there was no time for the usual washing and anointing with various perfumes. They agreed to let some new linens suffice–with which they wrapped His body and packed it with dry spices. The women agreed to return to the tomb at first light following the Sabbath, and complete the burial rites. Friday evening was an evening I will never forget. It was pure misery. We hardly slept a wink for grief. We cried and cried, and for all our attempts, there was no comfort to be found. The Sabbath was no better. All day long we watched one another’s grief continue. Everything was so wrong. All that we believed had been dashed. It seemed that life itself had ended and that hell had come to earth.
Saturday evening, as soon as the Sabbath was ended, I took my wife and Mary Magdalene back to Bethany. We had family to check on, and we were beside ourselves wondering if our son James was still alive. We found him there with eight other of the disciples–frightened and full of grief, but physically unharmed and so far unthreatened.
At first sign of light Sunday morning I returned with my wife and with Mary Magdalene to the Zebedee house. Salome had gone to market to obtain spices, and so the three women went off to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus in burial.
I waited there with Zebedee and John and Peter for some time. All of a sudden, we heard a woman’s frantic voice and footsteps fast approaching. It was Mary Magdalene. She said that when they arrived at the tomb they found that someone had come and stolen Jesus’ body. In an instant, Peter and John ran off to see for themselves, but I remained behind. Then not too much later the other women returned also–my wife and Salome. They said that after Mary Magdalene left the tomb they went on in and saw empty grave-clothes. That’s right–empty grave-clothes. And they said the linens were exactly as they had left them on Friday–only they were empty. There was no thief–the clothes were undisturbed. It was as if the body had vanished! And they said an angel appeared there to them and told them that Jesus had risen, just as He said, and that they should go and tell all the disciples!
But this kind of thing was simply impossible! And I didn’t believe them. I couldn’t. But undaunted, the two went off to fulfill their commission to tell all the disciples.