Luke 23In this chapter we have a relation of the blackest and saddest tragedy that ever was acted upon the stage of the world, namely, the barbarous and bloody murder of the holy and innocent Jesus, by the Jews his own countrymen, the best of kings put to death by his own subjects. And the first step towards it, is his arraignment before Pilate and Herod; they post him from one to another; Pilate sends him to Herod; and Herod having made sufficient sport with him remands him to Pilate; neither of them find any fault in him worthy of death, yet neither of them would release him.
Here observe, that our Saviour, being before Pilate, answers him readily and cautiously; Art thou the King of the Jews? says Pilate. Thou sayest it, says our Saviour. Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? He replied, I am. Hence says the apostle, That Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession. 1Tim 6:13
Teaching us, that though we may, and sometimes ought, to hold our peace, when our reputation is concerned, yet we must never be silent, when the honor of God and his truth may be effectually promoted by a free and full confession.
Yet it is farther observable, that our Saviour being before Herod, would neither answer him to any question, nor work any miracle before him. This was an instance and evidence of our Lord's great humility, in refusing to work miracles before Herod, who desired it only to gratify his curiousity. Thus do vile men abuse the power of God, desiring to see it exerted for admiration and pastime; not to be convinced or converted by it, but only to please thier foolish fancy. And as admirable was the patience and humility of Christ, and his present silence, who neither at Herod's request, nor at the Jews importunity and false accusations, could be moved to answer anything.
Observe farther, that though Herod had murdered Christ's forerunner, John the Baptist, and our Saviour's own life was in danger by Herod heretofore, yet now he has him in his hands, he lets him go; only he first abuses him, and mocks him, and arrays him in a gorgeous robe, like a mock-king. Thus were all the marks of scorn imaginable put upon our dear Redeemer; yet all this jeering and sportful shame did our Lord undergo, to show what was due unto us for our sins; and also to give us an example to bear all the shame and reproach imaginable for his sake; who, for the joy that was set before him, despised the shame, Heb 12:2
Observe lastly, the wicked accusation brought in against our blessed Redeemer; We found (say they) this fellow perverting the nation, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar. Oh hellish untruth! How directly contrary to the whole curse and tenor of Christ's life was this accusation! By his doctrine he preached up subjection to governors and government; saying, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. And by his practice he confirmed his own doctrine, working a miracle to pay tribute to Caesar. Satan could help them to draw up an indictment as black as hell, against the innocent Jesus, but all the powers of hell and darkness could not prove a tittle of it.
Observe here, 1. How unwilling, how very unwilling, Pilate was to be an instrument of our Saviour's death; one while he expostulates with the chief priests, saying, What evil hath he done? No, St. Luke here declares, Pilate came forth three several times, professing that he found no fault in him.
Where note, how much more justice and equity Christ me with from Pilate, an heathen, than from the chief priests and people of the Jews, professing the true religion! Oh how desperate is the hatred that grows upon the root of religion!
Learn hence, that hypocrites within the church, may be guilty of such tremendous acts of wickedness, as the consciences of infidels and pagans without the church may boggle at, and protest against. Pilate, a pagan, absolves Christ, while the hupocritical Jews, that heard his doctrine, and saw his miracles, do condemn him.
Observe, 2. How Pilate at last suffers himself to be overcome with the importunity of the Jews, and delivers the holy and innocent Jesus, contrary to his judgment and conscience, to the will of his murderers. It is a vain apology for sin when persons pretend, that they are not committed with their own consent, but at the instigation and importunity of others; for such is the frame and constitution of man's soul, that none can make a person wicked without his own consent: it was no extenuation of Pilates's sin, no alleviation of his punishment, that to please the people he delivered our Saviour, contrary to the directions of his own conscience, to be crucified.
Observe, 3. The person whose life the wicked Jews preferred before the life of the holy Jesus, Barabbas: We will that thou release Barabbas, and deliver Jesus. Mark these hypocritical high priests, who pretended such zeal for God and religion; they prefer the life of a person guilty of the highest immoralities and debaucheries, even murder and sedition, before the best man that ever lived in the world.
But whence sprang the malice and hatred of the high priests and of the Jews, against our Saviour?
Why plainly from hence, Christ interpreted the law of God more strictly than their lusts can bear; and he lived a more holy, useful, and excellent life, than they could endure.
Now nothing enrages the men of the world more against the professors, but especially the preachers of the gospel, than holiness of doctrine, and strictness of life and conversation. Such as preach and live well, let them expect such enmity and opposition, such malice and persecution, such sufferings and trials, as will shock an ordinary patience and constancy of mind. Our Master met with it, let his zealous ministers prepare for it.
The sentence of death being passed by Pilate, who can with dry eyes behold the sad pomp of our Saviour's execution? Forth comes the blessed Jesus out of Pilates's gates, bearing that cross, which soon after was to bear him. With his cross on his shoulder, he marches towards's Golgotha; and when they see he can go no faster, they compel Simon of Cyrenia, not out of compassion but indignation, to bear his cross: this Cyrenian being a Gentile who bore Christ's cross, some think thereby was signified, that the Gentiles should have a part in Christ, as well as the Jews, and be sharers with them in the benefits of the cross.
There were four sorts of persons which attended our Saviour at his crucifixion; the executioners that tormented him, the Jews that mocked him, the spectators and lookers on, that marked him, and sympathizing friends which lamented him: these last Christ bespoke, Weep not for me, but for yourselves; that is, "Weep rather upon your own account than mine: reserve your sorrows for the calamities coming upon yourselves and your children." It is very probable, that the tears and lamentations of many of these mourners were but the fruits of tender nature, not the effects of faith, and flowing from a principle of grace.
Learn thence, that melting affections and sorrows, even from the sense of Christ's sufferings, are not infalible marks of grace. The history of Christ's sufferings are very tragical and pathetical, and may melt ingenuous nature, where there is no renewed principle of grace. These motions of the affections may rather be a fit and mood, than the very frame and temper of the soul.
There are times and seasons when the roughest and most obdurate heart may be pensive and tender; but that is not is temper and frame, but only a fit, a pang, a transient passion. There is no inferring or concluding then a work of grace upon the heart, simply and barely from the movings or meltings of the affections. Nature will have its good moods, but grace is steady: Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, says Christ.
Here we see the infamous company that our holy Lord suffered with; two thieves. It had been a sufficient disparagement to our blessed Saviour, to be sorted with the best of men; but to be numbered with the scum of mankind, is such an indignity as confounds our thoughts: this was designed by the Jews to dishonor and disgrace our Saviour the more; and to persueade the world, that he was the greatest of offenders: but God overruled this, of rfulfilling an ancient prophecy concerning the Messiah, And he was numbered with the transgressors. Isa 53:12
Christ had often preached the doctrine of forgiving enemies, and praying for them; he practises it here himself in a most exemplary manner.
1. The mercy desired and prayed for; and that is, forgiveness.
2. The person desiring that mercy, Christ, the dying Jesus.
3. The persons for whom it is desired, his bloody murderers; Father, forgive them.
4. The argument used, or motive urged, to procure this mercy: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
1. That ignorance is the usual cause of enmity against Christ.
2. That there is forgiveness with God, for such as oppose, yea, persecute Christ out of ignorance.
That to forgive enemies, and to beg forgiveness for them, is an evidence of a Christ-like frame of Spirit; Father, forgive them: not that the gospel requires of us an insensibility of wrongs and injuries; that allows us a sense of offered evils though it forbids us to revenge them; yet the more tender our resentments are, the more excellent our forgiveness is: so that a forgiving spirit does not exclude a sense of injuries; but the sense of injuries graces the forgiveness of them: neither does the gospel require us, under the notion of forgiving injuries, to deliver up our rights and properties to the lusts of everyone that will invade them, but meekly to receive evil, and readily to return good.
Observe here, 1. A mighty aggravation of our Lord's sufferings upon the cross; namely, the mocking derision which he met with in his dying moments. As he endured the pain so he despised the shame; cruel mockings was our Lord tried with, both from the common people and from the chief priests; yet the common people's reviling him, and wagging their heads at him, was not so much to be taken notice of, as the chief priests, who were men of age and gravity, and the ministers of religion: for them barbarously to mock him in his misery; and, what was worse, atheistically to jeer and scoff at his faith and affiance in God, saying, He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he will have him; this was such an indignity as confounds our thoughts.
But from hence we learn,
1. That persecutors are generally atheistical scoffers: the chief priests and elders, who persecuted Christ, do blaspheme God; they mock at his power, and deride his providence, which was as wicked as to deny his being.
2. We learn from this example, that such as minister to God in holy things by way of office, if they be not the best, they are generally the worst of men; no such bitter enemies to the power of godliness, as such preachers who were never experimentally acquainted with the efficacy and power of it upon their own hearts and lives.
Observe, 2. The inscription wrote by Pilate over our suffering Saviour, this is Jesus, the king of the Jews. It was the custom of the Romans, when they crucified a malefactor, to publish the cause of his death in capital letters, placed over the head of the person.
Now it is observable how wonderfully the wisdom of God overruled the heart and pen of Pilate, to draw this title, which was truly honorable, and fix it to his cross. Pilate is Christ's herald, and proclaims him King of the Jews.
Learn hence, that the kingship and regal dignity of Christ was proclaimed by an enemy, and that in time of his greatest sufferings and reproaches. Pilate without his knowledge did our Saviour an eminent piece of service: verily, he did that for Christ which none of his own disciples durst do; not that he did it designedly, and with any intent to put honor upon Christ, but from the special overruling providence of God. No thanks to Pilate for all this; because the highest services performed for Christ undesignedly, shall never be accepted nor rewarded by him.
Here we have a further aggravation of our Lord's sufferings upon the cross, from the company he suffered with, the two thieves who reviled him with the rest. St. Matthew and St. Marks say, they both reviled him; St. Luke says one of them reviled; possibly both of them might do it at first, and one of them repents; which, if so, increases the wonder of the penitent thief's conversion.
From the impenitent thief's reviling of Christ, when he was at the very point of death, and even in the suburbs of hell, we learn that neither shame nor pain will change the mind of a resolute sinner; but even then, when he is in the suburbs of hell, will he blaspheme.
From the penitent thief's confessing of Christ, and praying to him, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom; we learn, both the efficacy and freeness of divine grace.
1. The efficacious power of it: oh how powerful must that grace be, which wrought such a change in an instant, which supplied that heart in a moment, which had been hardening in sin for so many years.
2. The freeness of it; which takes hold of his heart, when he was at the height of sin, and was not only void of grace, but seemed past grace. Oh the powerful efficacy and adorable freeness of the heart changing grace of God in this vile person; it disposed him to own his sin; to confess the justness of his punishment, to justify Christ's innocency, to reprove his fellow companion, to pray to a crucified Christ, and to intercede with him, not for present deliverance from death, but for a place in Christ's kingdom.
Where we learn,
1. That true conversion is never too late for obtaining mercy and salvation.
2. That true conversion, how late soever, will have its fruits: the fore-mentioned fruits of faith and repentance were found with this penitent thief; yet must not this extraordinary case be drawn into example. This extraordinary and miraculous grace of God is not to be expected ordinarily: we have no warrant to expect an overpowering degree of God's grace to turn our heart in an instant at the hour of death, when we have lived in forgetfulness of God, and in a supine neglect of our soul's concerns all the days of our life; for it is evident as to this case of the penitent thief's conversion at the last hour.
1. It is an example without a promise.
2. It is but a single example.
3. It is an example recorded but by one evangelist: the Spirit of God, foreseeing what an ill use some would make of this instance, leaves one example upon record, that none might despair; and but one, that none might presume.
4. This thief probably had never any knowledge of Christ before.
5. This thief improved his time at last, as never did any before or after; for he believed Christ to be the Saviour of the world; when one disciple had betrayed, another denied, and all had forsaken him; he owned him to be the Son of God, the Lord of life, when he was suffering the pains of death, and seemingly deserted by his Father: he proclaims him Lord of paradise, and disposer of the kingdom of heaven, when the Jews had condemned him, and the Gentiles crucified him as the vilest of impostors. He feared God, owned the justice of his punishment; was solicitous, not for the preservation of his body, but for the salvation of his soul; yea, not for his own only, but of his brother's that suffered with him; so that he glorified Christ more at the moment of his death, than some do in the whole course of their lives.
6. This was a miracle, with the glory whereof Christ would honor the ignominy of his cross: so that we have no more ground to expect such another conversion, than we have to expect a second crucifixion. This converted person was the first fruits of the blood of the cross.
From whence we learn, that God can, and sometimes does, though very seldom, prepare men for glory, immediately before their dissolution by death. His grace is his own, he may dispense it how, and when, where, and to whom he pleases; yet this is no more warrant to neglect the ordinary, because God does sometimes manifest his grace in an extraordinary way. True, in this conversion, we have a pattern of what free grace can do; but it is a pattern without a promise: where we have not a promise to encourage our hope, our hope is nothing but presumption.
These words are our Saviour's gracious answer to the penitent thief's humble prayer, Lord, remember me in thy kingdom, says the thief; Today shalt thou be with me in my kingdom, says our Saviour.
1. The immortality of the souls of men is without all doubt: our desires after, and hopes for, immortality, do prove our souls immortal, and capable of that state. The souls of men die not with their bodies, but remain in a state of sensibility.
2. That there is a future and eternal state, into which souls pass at death. Death is our passage out of the swift river of time, into the boundless and bottomless ocean of eternity.
3. That the souls of all the righteous at death are immediately received into a state of happiness and glory; This day shalt thou be with me; not after the resurrection, but immediately after thy dissolution. That man's soul is asleep, or worse, that dreams of the soul's sleeping till the resurrection: for why should the believers' happiness be deferred, when they are immediately capable of enjoying it? Why should their salvation slumber, when the wicked's damnation slumbers not? How do such delays consist with Christ's ardent desires, and his people's vehement longing to be together?
Observe here, 1. What prodigies in nature happened and fell out at the crucifixion of our Saviour; the sun was darkened at the setting of the Sun of Righteousness; and the veil of the temple was rent; signifying that God was now about to forsake his temple; that the ceremonial law was now abolishing, and the partition wall between Jew and Gentile being now pulling down, all may have access to God through the blood of a Mediator.
Observe, 2. The last prayer of our Saviour before his death, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit; they are words full of faith, and comfort, fit to be the last breathings of every gracious soul in the world.
Learn hence, that dying believers are both warranted and encouraged by Christ's example, believingly to commend their precious souls into the hands of God as a gracious father, Father, into thy hands.
Observe, 3. What influence our Saviour's death had upon the centurion: He glorified God, saying, Verily, this was a righteous man.
Here note, that Christ had a testimony of his innocency and righteousness given unto him from all sorts of persons whatsoever: Pilate and Herod pronounced him innocent; Pilate's wife proclaimed him a righteous person; Judas, the traitor, declared it was innocent blood; the thief on the cross affirmed he had done nothing amiss; and the centurion owned him to be a righteous man; yea, the Son of God. Mk 15:39. Only the Pharisees and chief priests, which were teachers of others; not ignorance, but obstinacy and malice, blinded and hardened them to their ruin and destruction; instead of owning and receiving him for their Saviour, they ignominiously put him to death as the vilest impostor.
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