The First Day of the End of the World, or: Jesus Plunders Satan’s Final Stronghold (Luke 23:26-56)

In the beginning, God created a man and gave him the ability to choose obedience or disobedience. God warned Adam that on the very day Adam chose disobedience he would die.

As we know by now, he was deceived by a serpent — actually, Satan — who told him that true freedom comes from disobedience. So Adam chose disobedience, for himself and his wife.

And Genesis tells us that in that moment they felt shame for the first time. They felt naked, exposed. And their first instinct was to cover themselves, to protect themselves, to isolate themselves from each other and from God.

On that day they lost an essential part of their humanity: they lost their freedom to call God “Father”. Their spirits died. And, yes, their bodies did keep going for a while, but eventually — inevitably — Adam breathed his last. His body decayed, returned to dust — but what happened to his spirit, his life-force?

For ancient people the Place of the Dead was a gloomy underground cavern where the spirits of the dead exist in a sort of suspended animation, sticking close to the bodies that once contained them, remembering all the joys and pleasures of life but unable to experience anything, because how can you experience anything without a body? For ancient people death was not a place of rest, but a place of restlessness.

And because they believed that the spirit remains somehow linked to the body, they also believed that how you died and how you were buried also affected your afterlife. If you died violently, or in some shameful way, your spirit would be stuck remembering that for the rest of eternity. And then, if your body was not buried properly, if your bones were eaten by animals or scattered somehow, your spirit would also be confused and spread out, trying to keep track of the different pieces. It would have no place to rest.

That is why the Romans liked to crucify rebels and terrorists and then throw away their bodies. Crucifixion was agonizing. It took a long time to die and it was shameful. So by crucifying criminals, the Romans were ensuring that their victims’ last hours on earth would be hours of agony and shame — and then their eternity would be an eternity of agony and shame.

Now, imagine that, for a moment.

What it would be like to know that your approaching death is not the end of your agony and shame, but merely the beginning…?

What horror!

Roman crucifixion was designed to completely destroy a human being: body and spirit.

That is the death Jesus faced when he was hung on a Roman cross.

And as we have asked every week for the last two weeks, we want to know: why did it have to happen this way? Why didn’t Jesus just save himself?

Luke will answer that question for us today.

So, picking up where we left off last week: in the last moments of the trial, the crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified, and Pilate — the Roman governor — gave in to avoid a riot. He handed Jesus over to be scourged — that means: whipped — and after that they put the crossbeam over Jesus’ shoulders. It was tradition for the condemned to carry their own cross through the city to the place of death, so that everyone could get a good look at this man whose spirit would spend eternity in torment.

But Jesus has been weakened by the abuse, he is having trouble carrying the crossbeam. So as the soldiers lead him through the city gate, they stop a guy named Simon, who comes from a town in Libya, in North Africa. Simon is just coming into the city. He has no idea what is going on or who this condemned man is — but Roman law allows Roman soldiers to grab the nearest guy if they need help carrying something. So they grab Simon, and force him to carry Jesus’ cross.

So Simon follows Jesus, carrying his cross…

And as they go a large crowd follows, and then there are these women who mourned and wailed for him.

Now, this was another tradition that went with crucifixion. There were Jewish women who specialized in mourning and wailing, and they would do this for condemned prisoners. This was partly a religious thing for them; they believed that by crying for criminals they were earning extra points with God. Strange, but true.

But it was also a political statement. The Romans crucified a lot of Jewish freedom fighters (of course, the Romans called them terrorists, but that’s how it works, isn’t it?). So this wailing by these women is sort of a safe way to protest Roman domination.

Anyway, the main thing Luke wants us to realize here is that these women aren’t exactly sincere.

So, in verse 28 Jesus turns and speaks to them with compassion, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. [29] For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ [30] Then “ ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ‘

Jesus is is predicting a time that will be so terrible these women will wish they never had children. He quotes from the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament, who describes how, on that day, people will pray for a quick death, praying for the mountains to crush them.

What terrible event is Jesus talking about?

He goes on to tell them in verse 31:

For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

In this proverb, Jesus is the green tree, a man of peace. The “people” who “do these things” are the Romans.

If the Romans are willing to crucify a green tree — a good man — imagine what they will do to dry trees — rebellious and violent men!

In forty years, Jerusalem will be like a dry tree: the city will rebel against Rome. These women’s children will be grown men forty years from now. These women’s children are the men who will lead the rebellion against Rome. These women’s children are the men who will be crucified by the hundreds when Jerusalem falls.

The historian Josephus confirms that Jesus’ prophecy came true: the Romans crucified so many people during the seige of Jerusalem that they got bored with it, and tried to find creative new positions to hang them in. These women were forced to watch from the walls while their sons and grandsons died in slow agony, their bodies left to be eaten by birds.

Jesus speaks to them with compassion — but the fate of Jerusalem is sealed.

[32] Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. [33] When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.

This hill was called The Skull probably because that is what it looked like — and, probably, because this was the regular place for crucifixions. The Romans would have had a line of vertical posts set up there permanently. They would have marched their prisoners to the place, stripped them of their clothes, nailed their wrists to the crossbeam that they carried, lifted the crossbeam up onto one of the vertical posts, and then nailed the prisoner’s feet to the vertical post.

In this position, hanging from his wrists, a man slowly and painfully suffocates to death over many hours — and even days — while also experiencing all the shame of hanging there naked, and all the horror of knowing that after death his body will be thrown away to be eaten by animals and his spirit thrown away into an endless replay of suffocation, agony, and shame.

And in the face of all this, what does Jesus do? He prays for his enemies.

[34] Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And what are his enemies busy doing at the very moment he prays for them?

They are on the ground at his feet, gambling for his clothes.

After all, this is boring work for a soldier, waiting for the condemned to die. So, to pass the time, they gamble for the prisoners’ belongings — and even as they gamble for Jesus’ stuff right at Jesus’ feet, Jesus prays for their forgiveness.

Meanwhile, [35] the people stood watching

— notice: they are no longer mocking, just watching —

— but the rulers are sneering at him.

The members of parliament have come along to give their official stamp of approval for this death. They want the whole city to know: “This man is a blasphemer, and we are here to make sure he meets God’s judgement.” They think they are obeying God’s law — the same law we read today in worship — that says a blasphemer must be executed outside the city walls, and all the people have to take responsibility for his death.

These parliament members are there because they are proud to take responsibility for Jesus’ death.

And then beginning here in verse 35, Satan’s voice speaks three times through the mouths of his human slaves. First, the parliament members say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

And Luke tells us there was a sign hung on the cross above Jesus’ head, listing his crime. What is his crime? “This is the king of the Jews.” So the soldiers read that, and they think, “that’s funny! That’s ironic!” So they join in: they offer him wine vinegar — very, very cheap wine — but they do with an ironic bow, as if they are servants to a great emperor, and then they speak: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

And then, for a third time, Satan speaks: [39] One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

At the beginning of Luke, Satan met Jesus in the desert and tested him three times. Each time, he said, “If you are the Son of God, prove it.”

Now, at the end of Luke, Satan finds Jesus on the cross and tests him three times in the same way: “If you are the Son of God, save yourself.” But as we noticed last week, this time Satan uses his human slaves to do the dirty work. This is the final insult. This is Satan’s victory dance. The very people Jesus came to save from their slavery to death are now mocking him for his slavery to death.

And we have to notice that there is no difference between religious Jewish parliament members, pagan Roman soldiers, and a terrorist hanging on a cross. All of them are slaves to Satan. And all of them are asking the same question we are asking: “If you really are God, if you really have all the power in the universe, why are you hanging there in agony? Why don’t you save yourself?”

And now, beginning in verse 40, Luke starts to answer that question: But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? [41] We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

This man is saying, “Look, we are hanging here in agony and shame because we deserve it, and we are going to experience agony and shame for the rest of eternity…unless God does something about that. God’s mercy is our only hope now for a decent afterlife — but instead of finally fearing God’s judgment and begging him for mercy, you are going to keep pissing on him, and pissing on what is obviously an innocent servant of God?

“Are you sure that is the best policy for you to follow at this moment?”

[42] Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This criminal is out of options. He is destined for death. His body will be thrown on the garbage heap, where dogs and birds will eat his flesh, where his bones will be casually burned by the garbage disposal workers. His spirit will have no rest. It will hover there over the garbage pits in a half-dreaming half-darkness of agony and shame, shame and agony, for all eternity —

— except for one thing. The Jews believed that one day there would be a resurrection. They believed that when the Messiah came to claim his kingdom, the spirits of all the dead would return to their bodies, and come back to life. The half-dreaming nightmare of death would finally come to an end! — just in time for Judgement Day. Everyone will stand before the Judge. The righteous will be rewarded with all the joys and pleasures of life they have been dreaming about for millenia. The unrighteous will return to that endless shadowy half-life of shame, contempt, agony.

This criminal is a Jew. He knows that the next years of his existence will a torment. He can’t escape that. He has accepted it. But he knows that in the future he will have just one chance to escape the nightmare. That one chance will happen when the Messiah arrives on Judgement Day to claim his kingdom.

Now, is Jesus truly the Messiah? It sure does not look like it. But what other option does this criminal have?

So he calls Jesus by name. He doesn’t say, “Lord Jesus.” He doesn’t say, “Nabi Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him).” He just says, “Jesus — friend, brother — remember me when you return to claim your kingdom. I know my spirit is going to suffer agony and shame for I don’t know how many years. But when you return for Judgement Day, remember me! Have mercy on me. Save me from that death. Don’t leave me behind in the darkness!”

And this is the moment when everything changes: [43] Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is Luke’s answer to our question. Jesus had all the power in the universe. He could have saved himself from death. But he did not come here to save himself from death! — he came to save others. He came to save us.

But the good news is actually even better than that: Jesus did not just come to save us from death on some distant Judgement Day — he saves us from death Today.

And in order to accomplish this — in order to keep his promise to that criminal — Jesus had to enter into death himself. All throughout his life, Jesus has been using his voice to set people free from shame. Now, as he enters into the place of the dead, Jesus will use his voice to set spirits free from death. The souls of Adam and Eve and all their billions of dead children have been waiting for millennia in the semi-darkness, waiting for this day. Jesus is going to rob death of its slaves. He is going to preach to every imprisoned spirit that cries to him for mercy, and he is going to lead them all out of darkness into their Father’s light. And the spirit of this criminal will be among them!

When Jesus submitted to death, he changed everything. Before this point, death was a shadowy semi-existence where the dead wait for the resurrection and the judgement. But from Today — this day of Jesus’ death — we know that everyone who asks Jesus for mercy enters directly into God’s presence at death. We still must wait for the resurrection and the judgement, but now we wait in comfort and joy. We wait in paradise — which is a word the Jews borrowed from ancient Persian. “Paradise” means “walled garden”: Jesus has promised us eternal life in the garden of Eden.

And it all begins Today — the first day of End of the World.

And to make sure we get the point, Luke tells us that the first signs of Judgement Day appear: [44] It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, [45] for the sun stopped shining.

It was not an eclipse. Maybe it was a dust storm — we don’t know. But in scripture, darkness in the heavens always signifies judgement, and war between the forces of good and evil. Later on in the New Testament, one of the writers describes it like this:

“Then war broke out in heaven. Michael (the archangel) and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.”

The dragon falls, defeated.

And in those moments the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

This curtain was the doorway to God’s throne room in the center of the Jewish temple. No one was allowed to enter through that curtain except one priest once a year. This curtain was very tall, very wide, and very thick. But somehow it tears open and the end of this cosmic battle between the prince and the dragon.

What does this mean?

Well, a lot of people have noticed that, with this curtain torn open, now people can potentially enter in to God’s throne room for themselves; they don’t need a priest anymore.

That is true.

But actually, the tearing of this curtain is not really about people entering into God’s presence in the temple. It is about God bursting out of the temple to join with his people wherever they live in the world!

Because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, God’s children can no longer be enslaved by death — and God himself will no longer be contained by the Jewish temple, or by the Jewish religion.

And having completed his work, having defeated the dragon, [46] Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

Roman crucifixion was designed to slowly and painfully rob a man of his breath. This is even more significant when we realize that in the Greek language, the word for “breath” and the word for “spirit” is the same word. Roman crucifixion was designed to slowly and painfully rob a man of his spirit — for all eternity.

But the Romans are not in control here. Jesus is. He gives up his last breath when he is ready to give up his last breath.

And to the very end he calls God his Father. Even with the whole world thinking that he must be under God’s curse, Jesus knows the truth, and he acts on it.

And this makes an impression on the Roman commander. [47] The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

A Roman centurion knows what true power and control looks like. He watches the skies turn black, and stay black for three hours. He is a superstitious pagan. He knows when the spirit world is at war. And he can see it is all centered on this man hanging on a cross, a man who has so much power over death itself that he can choose the moment of his own.

And there are two ironies at work here:

First, Satan’s last act was to parade his human slaves in front of Jesus and say, “See, you thought these would be your people, but here you are dying and they still belong to me!” But here, in the moment of Jesus’ death, in the moment of the dragon’s defeat, what do we find? A slave wakes up, and looks, and recognizes the Saviour of all mankind.

And the second irony is this: the very first Christian, the very first follower of the Jewish Messiah after his death…is not a Jew. He is a pagan, a Roman soldier. And what does that mean? It means that God has truly burst out of the Jewish temple. He is no longer only the God of the Jews. Now he is the God for all people. Jesus is the Messiah for all people.

And [48] when all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.

The wailing women who met Jesus on the way to his death were…insincere a bit. But now everything has changed. The people who condemned Jesus are already beginning to realize that they have made a terrible mistake. Now they are weeping in earnest. Because if Jesus really is the Messiah, and they just crucified him, then the fate of Jerusalem is truly sealed.

[49] But all those who knew him — that means the disciples — including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

They don’t know what to make of these events, not yet.

Do we?

What are we to make of these events?

What practical difference does Jesus’ shameful death on a cross make to our lives?

It’s like this:

Jesus came to rescue us from slavery to Satan, sin, and death.

Two weeks ago we saw how he chose obedience to his Father’s will, and saved us from slavery to Satan’s will.

Last week we saw how he accepted condemnation from the law, and saved us from the sins we commit against others.

This week, we are seeing how Jesus submitted to shame and death — and by doing this, he saves us from the sins others commit against us.

See, the painful truth about shame is that it does not always come from things we do to ourselves. We do shame ourselves, of course. But have you noticed that often very worst kinds of shame come from things that happen to us, things that we are powerless to resist?

It happens in a thousand different ways:

You are sexually abused by an authority figure — but somehow you are the one who carries the shame, always wondering why you didn’t do something to stop it.

Your spouse cheats on you — but somehow you are the one who carries the shame, always wondering why you weren’t enough.

Your child is born with a learning disability — and somehow you end up carrying a kind of shame, always having to explain to the world why your kid is not advancing like others do.

Shame happens when we are robbed of some essential part of our human dignity. That is why shame feels like nakedness, exposure. That is why, when we feel shame, all we want to do is cover up and protect ourselves. But then the more we protect ourselves, the more we isolate ourselves. Shame leads to isolation.

And ancient people were wise to realize that death is the ultimate shame. They were wise to realize that death is not the end of shame, but just the beginning. It is a simple extension of reasoning: if having your self violated produces shame in your spirit during this life, then having your body violated by death and decay will produce shame in your spirit for all eternity! And shame leads to isolation. Therefore death is the ultimate isolation.

Now I know that some among us understand this intuitively. Things have happened to you that have absolutely dehumanized you and filled you with shame. And I know that one of the great fears of a shame-filled person is that this sense of violation and isolation will last forever. And I want you to know that this is a valid fear. Scripture tells us that our fears of eternal shame are valid.

How does Jesus rescue us from slavery to eternal shame and death?

This is how: he enters in with us. He did what no other god has the power to do: he became a human being so he could experience every dehumanizing agony and shame. And, just like us, just like Adam and Eve, his human nature would have wanted to cover himself, protect himself, isolate himself — save himself! But his divine nature could not be deceived by Satan’s lie. Even in the midst of dehumanizing agony and shame, Jesus never forgot that he is the Son of God; has the freedom to call God “Father”. Even as his body was violated and exposed to the scorn of all mankind, Jesus knew his Father loved him, would love him always. This is what gave him the courage to enter into our human existence and endure our dehumanizing shame, cleansing it forever.

Brothers and sisters, our Father’s love was the antidote to Jesus’ shame, and it is the antidote to ours. No matter what has happened to you in this life, no matter what violations you have endured, Jesus has purchased for you the right to call God your Father, and ask him to undo your shame.

And this right to call God “Father” is a gift, free for the asking. If you have not asked for it yet, but you long to be delivered from shame and the fear of death, then ask! Just say the words: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And listen to his answer: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.“ Today, even now, in this life.

And the right to call God “Father” is at the very core of what makes us human. Once you are a child of God, that can never be taken away from you ever again. You can never be truly dehumanized ever again. You no longer have anything to be ashamed of.

Now, if you already call God “Father”; if you have already discovered that Jesus is your brother; but if you still struggle with the shame of what others have done to you, the shame of what you have done to yourself…welcome to the family. We are being healed — we are healed — but the scars often remain in our bodies and in our minds. We are like children suffering from PTSD. During the day we can see our Father clearly, and we know he can see us. But sometimes when the darkness comes we sleep, and then we dream that we are still there in the gloomy caverns of the dead, consumed by shame and fear and isolation, and we wake up screaming and hitting our brothers and sisters in our panic. That is bad! — but it is also okay. Our Father continues to heal us of the hurts we do to one another along the way. He continues to forgive us.

So let us continue to forgive one another. Let us not isolate ourselves, protecting ourselves out of fear and remembered shame. We all have those nightmares. But that is sleep; this is life.

And look! — the darkness is already passing. The Day is already here.

So the twelve disciples are watching from a distance. They are afraid of death, and ashamed of their fear. They do not know yet that very soon they will have nothing to be ashamed of.

But even as this day draws to a close, there are hints that the story is not yet over. First, a rich disciple named Joseph, a parliament member who voted against Jesus’ conviction, keeps God’s law by burying Jesus’ body before sunset. Then, Jesus’ female disciples begin to prepare supplies for a proper funeral — but they keep God’s law by resting on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of worship.

Luke is showing us that Jesus, through his disciples, continues to fulfill God’s law even after death. He is a righteous man. The shame of his death is an unjust shame. And scripture tells us that God hates injustice. It would be against his character to let his Holy One see decay. He is going to do something! That is a promise.

Come back next week to see the promise fulfilled.

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