The Disciples: Distressed By the Cross
There is an impressive prison in Brazil (Humaita Prison) where the inmates are being dramatically transformed by the cross. Prison Fellowship reported that nearly 40 years ago in the city of San Jose Das Campos a prison was turned over to two Christian layman who planned to run it on Christian principles. So every prisoner is assigned another inmate to whom he is accountable. Every prisoner joins a chapel program or else takes a course in character development. Everyone is required to learn a trade and to make restitution to his victim. In addition, every prisoner is assigned a volunteer family from the outside that work with him during his term, as well as after his release.
After visiting this prison a number of years ago, the late Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, wrote: “I found the inmates smiling, particularly the murderer who opened the gates and let me in. Wherever I walked I saw men at peace. I saw clean living areas. I saw people working industriously. The walls are decorated with Bible verses. And here’s an amazing statistic. Over the past 20 years only 4% of the former inmates have re-offended and returned. Our national recidivism is nearly 75%. How is that possible?” Colson wrote: “I saw the answer when my inmate guide escorted me to the notorious punishment cell once used for torture. Today, he told me, that block houses only a single inmate. As we reached the end of a long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, ‘Are you sure you want to go in?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied impatiently, ‘I have been in isolation cells all over the world!’ Slowly he swung open the massive door and I saw the prisoner in that punishment cell—a crucifix, beautifully carved by the inmates, and the prisoner, Jesus, hanging on the cross. ‘He’s doing time for all the rest of us,’ my guide said softly.”
Now if that system is so effective in that prison in Brazil, why don’t we duplicate it here in the United States where we have so many complications with the penal system? I think it’s probably because human pride and spiritual ignorance often reject the obvious.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, the first chapter, verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The cross has an awesome power, not just to forgive our sin, but to transform our lives. And that’s good news, not just for the inmate in a prison in Brazil or the thief dying on the cross, but for all of us. Our sins cannot only be forgiven through the cross, but through the power of that cross our sinful habits can be overcome, negative attitudes can be reversed, strained relationships can be mended, latent talents can be sharpened, objectionable personality traits can be refined, and dangerous temptations can be resisted. The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Well today I want us to look at the cross from the perspective of some bystanders whose lives were completely transformed by their experience that day. Now these people did not know when they got up that morning that anything different was going to happen to them. But they were about to be completely changed by the cross of Jesus Christ. Their lives would literally never be the same.
And that same transforming power is available to us today. Perhaps you will look back on this date as the day that Christ began a transforming work in you.
I. SIMON: TRANSFORMED FROM CASUAL OBSERVER TO ACTIVE PARTICIPANT. (Mark 15:21)
One of those unsuspecting bystanders was a man named Simon. Look at Mark 15, verse 21, and notice that he was transformed from a casual observer to an active participant.
Mark 15:21 reads: “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
Now Cyrene was a fairly large city in Libya North Africa that had a significant Jewish population. Evidently Simon had traveled all this way to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover Feast. Maybe he had saved for years, maybe he had a dream of one day eating at least one Passover Feast in the holy city. But on Friday morning when he was there, he got caught up in the pedestrian traffic. People had lined the streets to watch a march to execution. And Simon stopped to watch the parade. And evidently Jesus of Nazareth, carrying His cross to Golgotha, was so exhausted from the scourging that He had received that He stumbled and fell right in front of Simon. Now the Roman soldiers had the authority to conscript any citizen into temporary service. And they looked in the crowd, and at random they picked out Simon. They said, “You! You carry the cross!”
Now I’m sure Simon didn’t want any part of that humiliating gruesome experience, but he didn’t have an option. He couldn’t refuse. There’s a popular Christian song, sung from the perspective of Simon, which is often used at Easter time. It contains these words: “So I knelt and took the cross from the Lord, placed it on my shoulders, and started down the street. The blood that He was shedding was now running down my cheeks.” And this close encounter with Jesus transformed Simon forever. He saw His expression. He felt His blood on His body. Maybe he heard Jesus whisper a thank you when they reached Golgotha.
And as he watched that day, his life was changed from a casual observer to an active participant, evidently. Because when Mark writes about him he says, “Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21). If I were to say to you, “This man is the father of Greg Pelc,” that wouldn’t be enough. You don’t know Greg Pelc, so you need some more information. But if I were to say, “This man is the father of Brian Nelson,” for most of you that’s all I would need to say. Now when Mark wrote, “Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus,” evidently everybody in the church knew who he was talking about. In fact, Romans 16, verse 13, reads: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.”
Warren Wiersbe wrote in his commentary: “It seems likely that this humiliating experience resulted in Simon’s conversion, as well as in the conversion of his family. Simon came to Jerusalem to sacrifice his Passover lamb, and he met the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for him.”
You know, some people today are drafted into service kind of like Simon—they don’t have much of a choice. There are some people who don’t have much choice in the matter. Those convicts in that prison in Brazil have to go to chapel, they have to have an accountability partner. But somewhere along the line they find out that this is for real and that it’s the best for them.
Many of you here really didn’t make a choice to take up your cross and follow Jesus, but your parents made it for you. You had to go to church when you were little. Tony Evans said that he had a drug problem as a teenager. He was drug to church on Sunday morning and drug to church on Sunday night! Sometimes you don’t have a choice. Maybe you were invited to play on a church ball team, and one of the requirements was that you had to go to church. Or a friend forced you to take a ride with him and he put on a sermon tape in the car. Or maybe you were flat on your back in a hospital room and a Christian came to talk to you about the Lord. And like Simon, you feel like you were drafted into the Lord’s service.
Doug Cobb, a Christian businessman and popular speaker, says that when he was dating his wife, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter, saying that while she was attracted to him, she had made a vow that she wouldn’t marry anybody but a Christian. And since Doug was not one at the time, she was cutting off the relationship. Doug Cobb said he got interested in Christianity real fast! But as he studied, he became convinced, and today he is a dynamic force in the kingdom of God.
Jesus told His disciples in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”
Maybe you’re here today because you’re pressured to be here. But maybe that’s the best thing in the world for you. Maybe you’ll be like Simon, who took up that cross because He was forced to—but he volunteered to never put it down.
II. THE ROMAN CENTURION: TRANSFORMED FROM A HOSTILE SKEPTIC TO A HUMBlE BELIEVER. (Mark 15:39)
There’s another bystander at the cross who was transformed, and that’s a Roman Centurion.
Look at Mark 15:39: “When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
Here’s a man who was transformed from a hostile skeptic to a humble believer.
This centurion was the commander of the Roman execution squad. Now the Gospels tell us that the Roman soldiers brutalized Jesus. They struck Him with their fists in the face. They spit on Him. They scourged Him. They mocked Him. And this centurion had done nothing to prevent that. He had let his men have their sport with this Jewish insurrectionist, it was just common horseplay.
But watching Jesus through this hazing experience impressed him. Here was a man of composure. Here was a man of dignity, even in suffering. He had heard Pilate say, “I find no fault in him!” And he had heard people being executed curse, but he had never heard a man pray for the forgiveness of his executioners like Jesus did. And he had never witnessed the sky getting so black in the middle of the day. It was an eerie sight. And when the ground trembled beneath his feet, he became a trembling soul. Calvin Miller described it best when he wrote: “The earth shuddered in her awful crime.” And as he looked at Jesus dying, he could never remember hearing a man say with such conviction, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Never had he heard a dying man in his last breath cry out for triumph, “It is finished!” And the manner in which Jesus suffered and died was so impressive to this hardened soldier that he concluded His claims must be true. “Surely,” he said, “this man is the Son of God!”
You know, the cross has transformed a lot of people from hostile skeptics to humble believers. Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christians. He considered Jesus an imposter. But Saul was confronted by the risen Christ outside of Damascus and he was transformed from an ardent enemy into the zealous apostle Paul, who later wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Over the years Sir William Ramsey, archeologist; C.S. Lewis, brilliant professor and author; Bill Murray, son of Madelyn Murray O’Hare; Josh McDowell, who wrote the book Evidence That Demands A Verdict; and hundreds of others, started out as skeptical of the faith. But as they studied, they became devoted believers.
Dr. Phillip Johnson, a Harvard graduate who for years was a Professor of Law at the University of California in Berkley, termed himself in early years as “a nominal agnostic.” But in 1987 he picked up a book in London on Darwinism, and as he read it he found it full of flaws. He began to study and became fascinated with creation. He became a believer in Christ, and a believer in the integrity of the Scripture, and he wrote a best-selling book entitled Darwin on Trial. He then spent the rest of his life legitimizing creation. He said it was his goal to raise a peaceful army of Christians who are prepared intellectually to challenge Darwinism. A man transformed from a hostile skeptic to a firm believer.
If you are skeptical, I challenge you to have enough integrity to examine the evidence of the cross up close, and the evidence of the resurrection, and allow it to transform your thinking and your behavior. There’s an old Turkish proverb that says, “No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back!”
III. JOSEPH & NICODEMUS: FROM SECRET DISCIPLES TO BOLD DEFENDERS. (John 19:38-39)
Look what happened to two other bystanders at the cross. Joseph and Nicodemus were transformed from secret disciples to bold defenders.
John 19, verses 38 and 39: “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.”
Now both of these men were members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, their highest court composed of about 70 men. So they were respected, they were well-off, they were influential. Both of them, however, had been impressed with Jesus’ ministry – but at a distance, because their peers all had a condescending attitude toward Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to their schools. Jesus appealed to the blue-collar crowd. Jesus came from Galilee—the wrong section of the country. So Joseph and Nicodemus kept their relationship with Jesus in the shadows.
John, the 3rd chapter, relates that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, probably because he didn’t want to risk being seen with Him in the daytime. But John 7:51 relates that the Sanhedrin, this court, met to plot against Jesus, and Nicodemus timidly spoke up: “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”
Now Nicodemus didn’t say to the Sanhedrin, “Wait a minute! I believe in this man. I think He is the Messiah.” He just kind of timidly said, “Let’s look at both sides of the coin.”
And the next verse says, “They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee’” (John 7:52). Nicodemus kind of straddled the fence.
Senator Everett Dirksen, former senator of Illinois, was a powerful politician who knew how to avoid confrontation. When repeal of prohibition was an issue for Dirksen when he was a young candidate, this is what Dirksen said when the opposition tried to corner him on that issue. He said, “Well only last night, when my wife was finishing a needlepoint of the American flag, we had a long talk about this very subject. And I said to her, and I say to you now without hesitation or qualification, some of my friends are for prohibition, and some of my friends are for repeal. And I say let the chips fall where they may, I stand with my friends!”
You know, you get the impression that Nicodemus was like that. “Well let’s just look at both sides of the picture.” But then he saw the courage of Jesus dying publicly on the cross, and that cross brought out a boldness in both of these men. They realized that they had waited too long. They had been cowards and it was time to make their loyalty apparent. And it was time to save their souls and not their skin.
I wonder if, when Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up on that cross, he remembered the conversation that he had with Jesus that is recorded in John 3. Do you remember what Jesus said? Jesus said to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (vv. 14-16). I wonder if Nicodemus remembered those words as he saw Jesus lifted up?
Mark’s gospel says that Joseph “went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (15:43). And the two of them, taking Jesus’ body off the cross, wrapped it up in spices and strips of linen. And in accordance with the Jewish burial customs, they buried Him in a tomb where no man had laid.
Now this was an unpleasant task. These were sophisticated men. To take a gory, bloody body off the cross was not the work of rich men. But they decided that Jesus was more important than their dignity.
This was a sacrificial task. The Mosaic law said if you touched a dead body you were considered unclean, not eligible to eat the Passover. And they couldn’t even associate with their loved ones the next day. But they decided that taking care of the needs of Jesus was more important than their family.
This was a costly task. Graves cost money. So do linen and spices. But they decided that Jesus was more important than their money.
And this was a risky task. Everybody would know who took the body off the cross. Everybody would know where it was buried. In fact, they placed Roman soldiers at the tomb to make sure that nobody would come and steal the body. Can’t you hear the members of the Sanhedrin whispering among themselves, “Can you believe Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus?! I’m so disappointed. Why, they’ve been secret followers all along. What traitors!”
But the cross transformed them from secret disciples to bold witnesses. And the cross will do the same thing for you. Second Corinthians 3:12 says, “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.”
When you see the courage of Jesus dying publicly unashamedly for you, it creates a new boldness. Peter and John were told by the officials in Jerusalem to not speak about Jesus publicly anymore. But they said, “We can’t help but speak about what we’ve seen and heard!” And they went out in the streets and spoke boldly about Jesus again. And the Bible says, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and realized that they were unschooled and ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The closer you get to Jesus, the more you’ve got to be bold in your testimony for Him. In the words of Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation…” (Romans 1:16).
Your bold witness may be in a school classroom, where as a teacher you speak up for biblical values, or as a student you speak up for creationism. It may be in a relationship, where you speak up for Christian virtues. Or in a political arena, where you speak up for truth. Jesus said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).
Christ transforms us from secret disciples to bold witnesses the closer we get to the cross. It takes courage to be a bold witness for Christ. But do you know what courage is? Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is action in spite of fear. “And seeing that we have such a hope,” the Bible says, “we are very bold” (2 Corinthians 3:12).
I have witnessed that kind of bold testimony even in death over the years. I told you a couple of weeks ago about a woman named Margaret, a member of the church we served in Tennessee, who received notice a number of years ago she was dying of cancer. She decided to forego chemotherapy and just try to live every day to the fullest. She was not bitter. She said, “I’m just so thankful for the life God has given me. I have wonderful children who know the Lord, and they’re raising their children to know the Lord.” She did really well for a couple of months, until finally she began to make a quick downward spiral. She chose to stay at home instead of going to the hospital for her final days. And one day I was there visiting, with all her family gathered round her. And naturally there were tears, but there was also a spirit of joy in the Lord. One of the elders who was also there sat down on the edge of her bed and quoted some Scripture from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, and he came to the verse, which she quoted with him, that said, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (5:6).
She said to her daughter later, “I’m really tired and I want to go home.”
And her daughter, thinking she was confused, said, “Mother, you are at home.”
She said, “No, I don’t mean that home. I mean my real home.”
And later she said, “What day is today?” And they gave her the date. And she said, “Well what kind of day is it?”
And they said, “Mother, you would love today. The sun is shining brightly and it’s going to be 80 degrees.”
And she said, “I think I may just scoot out of here today!” And she did just a few hours later.
Now how can you die with that kind of bold testimony? It’s because she had been to the cross, received the forgiveness of her sins, been transformed into an active participant, a humble believer, and a bold witness for Jesus Christ.
In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever
‘Til my raptured soul shall find,
Rest beyond the river.
To those of us who are being saved, the cross has an awesome power to transform us. But for those outside of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, maybe this is the day that you come to the cross and receive that same forgiveness, hope and transforming power. Christ’s arms are still outstretched inviting you to come.