What the Gospels Say: Chapter 7

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About Jesus Christ: Chapter 7

 

 CONVICTS SEEKING FREEDOM

On the day we call Good Friday, three men were crucified just outside Jerusalem. Death by crucifixion was not uncommon during this time of Roman occupation in Palestine. Hundreds had been put to the wood in that land. Each crucifixion had its audience. Reflect for a moment on who might have come that day to observe the deaths of these three men. Many of the curious stood watching, waiting for anything dramatic to take place. There were rumors, of course, and wild speculation that one of these three was the great teacher from Galilee. Wasn’t he the one who just days ago raised a man from the dead—one who had been in a tomb four days?

On that day, we also know that the religious rulers, the Scribes and priests, paraded around as if on display at some passion play. In their disdain for the central figure, they sneered: “If he is God’s Chosen One, why is this happening?” The soldiers, who had crucified the three and were of a different creed and nation, mocked with others asking: “If he is the King of the Jews, why doesn’t he save himself?” Still others, no doubt, picked their own words of ridicule and derision.

The Sign of the King

Just one of the three had a sign to show to the world who was being crucified. Usually, it was the anonymity of crucifixion that added to the humiliation: This is a nobody! Or, Who really cares about this person? But on this day, the Roman Governor wanted the world to know. Above the central figure for the entire world to see was a sign: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. In the end Pilate had gotten revenge on the Jewish religious leaders who had forced upon him the trial and condemnation of an innocent man. Meanwhile, the Emperor sat safely in Rome while pretenders and rivals, religious or not, guilty or innocent, were disposed of like common criminals.

Despite the jeering and the mocking from those milling around the cross, there was no response to their words from the Christ being crucified. For their rebellion, sin and acts of savagery he offered his own prayers of forgiveness. But the three who shared the common fate that day did have conversation that would speak incredibly to millions as centuries came along.

Two Other Men, Both Criminals

From the record we read, “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him (Jesus) to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified Jesus, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” (Luke 23:32-34).

I have never understood why Jesus was crucified with two others. There’s room for lots of speculation. My best conjecture is that Pilate wanted to degrade this Jew–the King of the Jews–as much as possible. There they were, naked, bloodied, gasping for air and being ridiculed verbally during their drawn out execution by crucifixion. “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’”(23:35).

The Requests from the Crucified

One of the crucified men opened the conversation with Jesus with a question. On reflection, it was a reasonable question. Above that central figure he could read the sign—THE KING OF THE JEWS. This Jewish man perhaps knew that a promised Messiah was to come to rescue the nation. Surely, such a person could not be crucified and remain in such a degrading situation on that hill. He also heard the ridicule from the religious rulers and Roman soldiers below. Perhaps there was some truth to it all. So he called out to Jesus, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” And we read he hurled other insults at Jesus (23:39).

It was like saying: “Don’t just think about yourself in this spot, Jesus. Remember there are three of us. Here’s your chance to show everyone who you really are!” There was no response to this from Jesus. But the other companion in death does answer, and does so with magnificent perception: “Don’t you fear God,” he asked the other condemned man? We’re here because we deserve death for what we have done. This man is innocent. And then turning his head he asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Think about that request for a moment: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” When you consider the circumstances, you might ask, Was this man crazy? Has the throbbing agony of crucifixion destroyed his ability to deal with the reality? You’re talking about this man’s “kingdom?” Isn’t he here as a common criminal, condemned by both religious and political leaders? Are you out of your mind?

The Reply from the Cross: Yes!

As we noted, Jesus made no reply to the condemned man who hurled insults at him. But to the crucified companion who wanted to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom, he responded: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”(23:43). This promise came from the one who just hours earlier declared before Pilate the Roman Governor, “I have come into the world to testify to the truth.” Yes, Jesus tells this man and his companion, and the mixture of curious and grieving and mocking people who encircled the three crosses that Good Friday. Yes, this man has it right! He sees beyond this day of death into the glorious future.

Yes, it’s Friday, but he sees that resurrection Sunday is coming. Jesus is saying: I tell you today, those who hear my voice and those down the centuries who will read my words, “I’m on my way into Paradise and this crucified man will be coming with me. Don’t despair your life; don’t fear your death; I’m here to take you across to where you’ll be with me forever.”

We don’t know who else beside the crucified man heard Jesus’ words and believed. But three days later when Sunday arrived, the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive with resurrection power to redeem us and carry us into paradise. And ever since that day, his invitation to join him has been open. There are two destinies and Jesus opened the door to paradise to all who will accept him. (John 1:10-13).

From the Old Testament: Two Men Jailed by Pharaoh

We will now turn to the Old Testament story of two men who were arrested and thrown into prison by the king. To get to them, we must pass through the account of one of the great Old Testament figures, Joseph son of Jacob and Rachel. Joseph is in many ways an Old Testament photograph of Jesus. As we talk about the two men jailed by Pharaoh we will also see similarities between Joseph and Jesus. We have much to unpack from their story.

Joseph the Favored Son

To set the stage for the comparison with Jesus, let’s look at the early part of Joseph’s life that makes him such a key figure in God’s redemptive story. Prior to Joseph’s birth, Jacob already had other children with Leah and with the handmaids of Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 29). Joseph was Jacob’s first son born to Rachel, who was the true love of his life.

Because of the special relationship between his mother and Jacob, Joseph received favored treatment. You will see this when you read Genesis chapter 37. Joseph was set apart from his brothers by a beautiful coat that has been popularized in recent time through Broadway productions. Although this coat was a sign of great affection by the parents, it became a source of great hatred to his brothers.

In addition to Joseph’s special status over his brothers, he also revealed some of his dreams to them depicting himself as their superior and master. Joseph’s brothers referred to him as “the dreamer,” which was not a complement. These dreams sharpened the edge of their antagonism toward him into burning anger. They wanted him dead! Then one day, an opening came for his brothers to rid themselves of Joseph.

The Plot to Kill Joseph

The brothers’ opportunity to let loose their anger against Joseph came when Jacob their father sent him to find out how the brothers were doing. The family’s large herds required more grazing land than was available right around home. So Jacob said to Joseph, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” So Joseph leaves from the Valley of Hebron to look for his brothers. He found them near Dothan. But his brothers saw him in the distance and before he reached them, they devised a plot to kill him.

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this (dry) cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben, the oldest brother, said this to later rescue him from them and take him back to his father. (Genesis 37:14-22).

Stripped and Sold

The brothers had recognized Joseph because of the special coat he was wearing—there wasn’t another one like it anywhere. His brothers then used the coat to help cover up their wicked scheme. The coat, dipped in goat’s blood, would be taken back to their father as undeniable proof that some wild animal had killed Joseph. The brothers’ agreement to dispose of their brother in this manner didn’t last long. As they were eating their mid-day meal, what should appear on the horizon but a caravan of Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt with spices, balm and myrrh?

Judah, the second in line to Reuben, had a better idea than leaving Joseph to die in a pit. Judah asked his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. When the caravan reached them, they pulled Joseph out of the dry cistern and sold him for 20 pieces of silver. Joseph was now out of their way and on his way to complete obscurity. He would never be seen or heard from—ever!

The Ishmaelite merchants arrived in Egypt with their load of spices and a Hebrew teenager to be sold as a slave. The record tells us that they sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s officials, the captain of the guard. Things were going from bad to worse for Joseph and his dreams. The favored son was now a slave in an Egyptian household. How would he respond to his worsening circumstances?

Accused and Jailed

In a short period of time in Potiphar’s house, Joseph became a trusted servant, given the responsibility of the care of the household. If you look into Genesis chapter 39, you will read what happened. As his reliability and value to Potiphar grew, his desirability to Potiphar’s wife increased. She was sexually attracted to him and wanted him, a subordinate, to comply with her wishes. He refused. To get even, she reported him to Potiphar and framed him with his coat. Here is how it went.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house. (Genesis 39:7-12).

As you read the rest of chapter 39, you find out what happened. Mrs. Potiphar is embarrassed and angry. Revenge will be sweet indeed. When her husband returned home, she confronted him with the accusation that the Hebrew slave he bought into their household tried to rape her. It was only after she screamed, she said, that he ran away, leaving his cloak in her hands. What a story! But the desired consequence was achieved. When Potiphar heard her story, he angrily put Joseph into the prison where the king’s prisoners were confined.

We can only imagine what was now going through Joseph’s mind. Although true to his God and to his master, he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This seemed like the end of the line for Joseph. Only his master could have him released, but as long as Mrs. Potiphar was around, that wasn’t going to happen. He is now repeating his life experience: going from favored son to slave; from trusted servant to accused criminal in prison. This no doubt left marks on Joseph’s spirit, but would his experiences turn him bitter or would it make him better?

Down But Not Out

As bad as things appeared, one circumstance remained key for Joseph:

“But while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” (Genesis 39:20-23).

At this point, let’s refresh our memories a little. Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites. Being sold as a slave, he was no longer a person, but was considered a piece of property with no rights. In Egypt, a scheming woman crushed his hopes of success in Potipher’s house. Prison was clearly a dead-end street, years away from his dreams and the favored son of a wealthy father.

Several years passed during Joseph’s prison stay. His was a daily routine of taking care of what prison life was like. Perhaps that kept his sanity and gave him confidence that something good would come from it. It appears from the record that offenders from the royal court of Egypt came and went from this prison. On one occasion, two men were brought in—Pharoah’s chief baker and chief butler. We aren’t told what offences they had committed, but they now came into Joseph’s circle of influence. As far as possible, Joseph took care of their prison needs.

As Joseph was making his rounds of the prison one day, he noticed both of Pharoah’s servants looked more dejected than usual. It turned out that each one had had a dream they couldn’t figure out. In a land and at a time when dreams were considered omens of future events, not understanding a dream was of serious concern. As prisoners waiting for good news, Joseph was in a position to help unravel their dreams so they could get the meaning. We recall that as a teenager, Joseph had several dreams that hadn’t been realized. In those dreams, he had seen a great future ahead for himself, but he had not yet found the road that would take him there.

Interpretation and Fulfillment

Although the two prisoners couldn’t decipher their dreams, they were sure there was some ominous meaning to them. So when Joseph told them that interpreting dreams was something he was skilled at, the chief butler immediately shared his dream. After listening carefully, Joseph exclaimed, “There is good news. In three days, you will be restored to service in the king’s palace.” On hearing that, the chief baker also shared his dream. Joseph said, “Very bad news! In three days, you will be executed. Here is what the record says.

“Now the third day was Pharoah’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharoah’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said in his interpretation.” (Genesis 40:30-32).

 As Pharoah’s cupbearer was leaving the prison to return to his former position, Joseph reminded him of his kindness to him and pleaded with him to tell Pharoah of his (Joseph’s) predicament. That was important to Joseph. He realized that now only Pharoah could overrule Potiphar’s action of placing him in prison. Happily, the chief cupbearer was restored to the king’s service, but he forgot to say anything about Joseph. Two years later, however, Pharoah had a dream that no one could interpret. Not having the dream’s meaning had everyone in the palace depressed.

At this point, the forgetful servant remembered Joseph and his kindness. The chief cupbearer told Pharoah about the young Hebrew in the royal prison and how he had predicted his restoration to the king’s service. With that, Pharoah sent for Joseph. You may know the end of this story as Joseph, in interpreting the dream, predicts seven years of plenty in Egypt, and seven years of famine. He also presented a master plan to save the kingdom from disaster by storing up food during the years of plenty. On the spot, Joseph is given the position of managing the near-term food supplies and provide for the seven years of famine that would follow.

Guilt and Forgiveness

Meanwhile, Joseph’s family back in Canaan was also suffering the effects of the region-wide famine. So he summons his father and family to leave their homeland for the umbrella of his protection in Egypt. They all follow Joseph’s instructions, but the brothers remain skeptical of Joseph’s true intentions towards them. Their aging father Jacob finally dies and is buried in his homeland.

Now that their father is gone, the brothers’ anxiety level reaches new highs. They believe Joseph is holding a grudge against them for how they treated him when he was a teenager, and now, he will retaliate. To deflect what they thought was going to happen, they sent a contrite message to him:

“Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me; but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And Joseph reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:17-22).

Discussion Questions and Lessons for Life

  1. When Jesus said to the crucified thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” what conditions did he impose with that promise?

 

  1. When that criminal said, “Remember me in your kingdom,” how did he show faith?

 

  1. If Jesus had removed himself from the cross as the other criminal requested, what would have been the result?

 

  1. The two criminals with Jesus suffered the same sentence as Jesus, carried their own crosses and were crucified on the same hill. Why can Jesus take us to Paradise, but the other two men can’t?

 

  1. Comparisons between Jesus and Joseph:

 

  1. What qualities of Jesus do we see in Joseph?

 

  1. What parallels with Joseph’s experience in Egypt can you see in Jesus?

 

  1. What other similarities do you see? (i.e., “favored son”; dreams & prophesies, etc.)

 

  1. Jesus’ crucifixion and the story of Joseph are two of Scripture’s best-known stories. As you noted the similarities between the two men, what impact do you think this might have had on a first-century Jew who was truly looking for the truth?

 

Chapter 8