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THE MULTICULTURES AT THE CROSS

Good Friday 2005

John 19:1-22
25th March 2005

Jn 19:17 “Carrying His own cross, He went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified Him, and with Him two others-one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

The placard on the cross was the announcement of the offense the victim had committed. “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.” The languages were intended to make the inscription plain to all: Aramaic, for the local inhabitants; Latin, for the officials; Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean world. Aramaic is a Semitic language close to Hebrew. Aramaic was the primary international language of communication for the thousand years throughout the Middle East from 600 BC and was the major spoken language of Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Jesus and his disciples, according to the stories in the Gospels, spoke Aramaic. After the Moslem conquest, Arabic gradually displaced Aramaic but in remote areas Aramaic is spoken to this day. Christian words from Aramaic Hebrew are Amen, Hallelujah, and hosanna.

Latin was originally the language of Latium, the region of Italy in which Rome is situated. It became the dominant language of the Mediterranean with the expansion of Roman power. Latin was spoken in various provinces of the Roman Empire. It was the language of the Roman armies wherever they were stationed; but Greek was never displaced from its position as the language of ordinary communication that it had held since Alexander the Great’s conquests. Latin plays only a marginal role in the New Testament. It was one of the three languages of the “titulus” fastened above Jesus’ head on the cross. There is a sprinkling of loanwords from Latin in the New Testament: “penny” census, “taxes” “centurion” “colony” “guard” “denarius”, “scourge”; “forum”, “legion” “meat market” “parchment”, “mile,” “cloak,” “praetorium”, “palace,” “tavern” and “titulus”. Paul may have been able to claim his citizenship rights in Latin, “civis Romanus sum” “I am a Roman citizen.”

He heard Latin spoken in Roman colonies such as Philippi and Corinth (although his chief associations were with Greek-speaking residents) and in his contacts with the Roman army. When he planned to evangelize Spain Romans 15:24, 29 he must have been prepared to use Latin as his regular means of communication. Paul visited the Latin-speaking province of Illyricum. Romans 15:19 In Rome, however, the city was completely bilingual, and the Roman church was Greek-speaking until the end of the second century. In Protestant churches the local languages displaced Latin. But Luther, Calvin and John Milton all wrote in Latin. Only in the second half of the 20th century, under Pope John XX111 has Latin ceased to be the liturgical language in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the fourth-century before Christ, Alexander the Great conquered the known world. He left behind small communities of Greeks to spread Greek culture and language. This was called Hellenisation. A number of Jewish kings were greatly influenced by this Greek culture and language. Over the next four hundred years Jewish Palestine was heavily influenced by Greek culture and language. Galilee was a cosmopolitan community. At the time of Jesus a number of Jewish historians and poets, wrote in Greek, including Josephus. Greek was used on inscriptions and in public announcements. We have papyri written in Greek including letters, marriage contracts, legal documents and literary texts. Acts 6:1 Jewish Christians of Jerusalem were spoken of as “Hebrews” and “Hellenists”. The Hebrews spoke Aramaic/Hebrew and the Hellenists spoke only Greek. The Greek term “synagogue” for a Jewish congregation shows the influence of Hellenisation. The titulus on the Cross bearing the charge against Jesus was in Latin, Aramaic and Greek for all to read. The majority of the ossuaries (bone containers) found in Jerusalem tombs are mostly inscribed in Greek, the rest are inscribed in Hebrew-Aramaic.

At the Cross, the crowd came from many different lands and cultures. Some, like the Roman soldiers, did not want to be there at all. Others, like Simon from Cyrene came as Pilgrims. Shortly afterwards on the Day of Pentecost, we read of people from fifteen different lands hearing the Gospel preached by the disciples, who were uneducated men, in such a way that everyone understood. This diverse group of people from every language and culture, witnessed the death of Jesus on the Cross.

1. THE TITLE WAS AN INSULT TO THE JEWS.

The Jews had blackmailed Pilate into giving the death penalty on Jesus by threatening to report his non-compliance to the Emperor with whom Pilate was already in trouble for not keeping the Roman peace. In the title on the Cross, we have Pilate’s revenge on the Jewish hierarchy for forcing his decision. It proclaimed loudly to all passers-by that Rome had crucified the king of the Jews as a common criminal. Stung by the insult, the priests remonstrated, asking that Pilate make clear that it was Jesus’ claim to be King of the Jews, not that it was in fact true. Having succeeded by his unjust compromise in removing any possible ground of accusation that he was derelict in his duty to the Roman state, Pilate resumed his haughty attitude and refused to change the wording. “What I have written, I have written” means essentially, “Take it, what you wanted is what you get!”

2. THE TITLE WAS REAL TRUTH TO CHRISTIANS.

Jesus was King. At the time of Jesus, two ideas were predominant. The first was that the Messiah would come from the house of David and establish the Kingdom of God as a political nation. His opponents used this political misinterpretation to destroy him as a Jewish rebel against Roman sovereignty. The second awaited a heavenly messiah. Pious groups like the Essenes and the Qumran community on the Dead Sea yearned, not for an earthly Messiah but a heavenly One, who would bring not an earthly but a heavenly kingdom. They believed the power of God alone could create the new era. There would first be intense woes and a frightful judgment upon the godless, the pagans, and Satan.

Then the Messiah would come, not as an earthly king, but as a heavenly figure, as the Son of God. He would take dominion over the world and, after overcoming all earthly and supernatural powers, lay the entire cosmos at the feet of God. Then the Messiah, Son of man, would rule over the resurrected faithful. He proclaimed the glad news that the long promised Kingdom was already dawning, bringing believers together into a new community, the church. Jesus, through the Cross and Resurrection, was the Messiah of all cultures and lands. He will one day return to establish God’s Kingdom and reign on earth as in heaven.

3. THE TITLE IS THE PARADOX OF THE CROSS.

It was the most terrible Friday ever witnessed, but we call it “Good Friday”. Not because the injustice, the scourging an death are good, but because God brings good out of men’s evil. Jesus hung quietly before us, with arms outstretched. The crown of thorns, the bleeding heart, the nail-prints in the hands are all evidence that He also was despised and rejected of men. There is no justice in this life, but the suffering Messiah ensures that in the timing of God, God’s justice will prevail. This Good news is that Christ has died to take away your sin. God raised Him from the dead so that you may share His new life that lasts into eternity. There is no justice here on earth, but in heaven, all is well. All you need do to enter God’s kingdom is to repent of your sin and believe the Good News! It is as simple and as difficult as that. Repent and believe the Good News! The Cross is the fundamental paradox at the heart of the Christian faith.

A paradox, as G. K. Chesterton famously put it, is “Truth standing on her head to get attention.” Our aversion and resistance to the truth is so strong that God often finds it necessary to employ extreme measures to get us to see past the lies we’ve embraced. Never was this truer than on what Christians call “Good Friday.” Father John Neuhaus writes, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” That “everything” starts with telling the truth about the human condition. How? By paradoxically punishing the offended party, instead of the guilty. As Neuhaus tells us, we are all aware that “something has gone terribly wrong with the world, and with us in the world.” It is not just history’s best-known list of horribles. It’s also “the habits of compromise … loves betrayed … lies excused … “ Yet, instead of acknowledging our complicity in the world’s evil, we minimize our own faults and regard our sins as “small.” Good Friday puts the lie to that claim.

If the Son of God had to suffer such a horrible death, then our sins cannot have been “small.” The Cross reminds us that our lives are measured, not by us or by our peers, but “by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by God Who creates and calls.” Instead of glossing over our sin with an understanding nod, the Cross renders “the verdict on the gravity of our sin.” Our unwillingness to see our sins as they really are, as God sees them, leads us to embrace another falsehood: that is, that we can make things right. On Good Friday, God made it clear “that we are incapable of setting things right.” He made it clear by taking our place. On the Cross, “the Judge of the guilty is Himself judged guilty.”

In the Apostle Paul’s word, this is the great scandal. For it paradoxically points to the truth at the heart of Good Friday: we cannot save ourselves! We are powerless to set things right, and only God, the offended party, could undo the mess we created. Our sin has been judged, and God Himself bore the punishment. And that is the truth about everything.

How do you respond to this great truth about everything? How do you respond to the Good News? By repenting of your sin in deep sorrow of heart. By believing what God has done in Christ for you upon the Cross. By living your life henceforth by the grace of God. By committing yourself to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. By knowing confidently, that this death is not the end, but that on Easter morning, Jesus Christ will be raised from the dead and we can share in His gift of eternal life.

What was meant to be a description of a crime, an insult to the Jews, is real truth: Jesus of Nazareth is King — of the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans — and of everyone who believes!

REFERENCES

  • Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday) 1997, 1992.
  • Charles Colson. Breakthrough. The Truth about Everything March 24, 2005
  • “Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus” Richard John Neuhaus.

Gordon Moyes

 

Wesley Mission, Sydney.