Introduction: Welcome to Calvary Albuquerque. We pursue the God who is passionately pursuing a lost world; we do this with one another, through worship, by the Word, to the world.
Skip Heitzig: I want to share a portion of Scripture with you today from the book of Matthew, chapter 27; Matthew, chapter 27. If you go into a jewelry store, you can find a cross. In fact, just curious, how many of you gals are wearing crosses right now? Just raise your hands. Yeah, it's very, very common piece of jewelry and especially for believers. You go to a jewelry store, you can find gold crosses, silver crosses, diamond covered crosses, big crosses, small crosses, very ornate crosses, very plain crosses. But if you were to ask the jeweler, "What is the meaning of that cross?" I don't know if you really would get a profound answer other than, "Well, it's a piece of jewelry that sells really, really well."
What is the meaning of the cross? What is that about? If you were to take a poll and ask people, "What is the meaning of the cross?" well, you'd get a lot of different answers. Some people would simply say, "The cross is a symbol of Western Christianity or of Christianity in general." The Islamic State, ISIS, calls Christians the "nation of the cross," and believers "those who live under the cross," and have sworn to annihilate all those who are living under the cross. If you were to ask a historian, "What is the meaning of the cross?" he would probably give you an answer something like this: "It's-it's um---it was a method of Roman justice. It's the way the Romans dealt with the worst possible criminals.
"It was, in effect, state-sponsored terrorism. It was meant to be a show of force by the Roman government to anyone who would decide to disobey or cross paths with that government." The Romans knew that crucifixion was the worst possible kind of death. It was the most painful kind of death. In fact, the word "excruciating," you've heard that word, it means literally "from the cross," because the cross was so intense a suffering. But more than being a piece of jewelry, more than being a symbol of Christianity, more than being an implement of torture and death, we know the cross to be infinitely more than that. It is a demonstration. It's a demonstration of God's great love for humanity.
As Paul wrote in Romans 5, "God demonstrated his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." The cross was a bridge to get people from here to heaven; from their sinfulness to God's perfection was a bridge. All of us can think of famous bridges in the world. The Golden Gate Bridge comes to my mind. For those on the East Coast, the George Washington Bridge that spans the Hudson River might come to others' minds. The London Bridge or Tower Bridge, if you've traveled that far. But the greatest bridge of all was the cross of Jesus Christ, because it bridged a chasm between man's sin and God's perfection.
Now, I'm going to show you some pictures today of some people who were at the cross. How many of you like to get your picture taken? Be honest, you really like getting it taken? Okay, I see like three hands. [laughter] You know, most people don't like their picture being taken. This I know from personal experience. I am a photographer. I'm the photographer in the family. Whenever I pull out the camera, my wife has learned over the years, just acquiesce, just put up with it, 'cause it's not going away. And so she's been very good. And she's very photogenic, by the way. But I have noticed both with family members and other people, when you point a lens at them, they want to go the other direction.
Most people don't like their picture being taken. Even when you travel and you point your camera lens at people, they want to go away like---it's sort of like a cat when you turn on the faucet. They're outta there. Couple weeks ago I wanted to take a picture of a hat that I saw. I saw a lady wearing a very interesting hat and I said---I took my little phone out and I said, "Do you mind if I take a picture of your hat?" And she put her hands over her face and goes, "Don't take my picture!" I said, "I promise I won't take your picture, just want to get a picture of the hat." She wouldn't let me. One of the reasons we don't like pictures is because they tell us a few things.
Photographs tell us of our failed commitments. Yeah, we made that promise January 1, that we're going to lose a few pounds, but then you see the picture, and you go, "Oh, man, should have stuck with that January 1 commitment." Sometimes pictures will reveal to us bad choices that we have made. You look at that hairdo in that picture from the eighties, right? You know what I'm talking about? You go, "Man, bad choice." Or that shirt that you thought was cool. Nobody else did, but you swore that's the coolest shirt. Now it's in all the pictures and the world can tell you, "Not a good choice." Pictures reveal who we really are. Pictures show bulging waistlines and receding hairlines and appearing face lines.
It tells all the truth about who we are, so we don't like pictures. But here's what's interesting: if I were to take a group picture of all of you here and put it up in the foyer, guess who the first person you would look for in that photograph would be? [laughter] It'd be you. And you'd look at it and go, "Not a good picture." I want to introduce you to a photographer in the New Testament named Matthew. He gives us photographs, pictures of people who stood around the cross of Jesus Christ, people who were there when it happened, people whose lives interacted with Jesus. And so we're going to look through the lens of Matthew as he shows us these pictures.
Now, here's the thing about these pictures. They are not pictures of you at all, but you're going to look at some of these people and you're going to see a certain resemblance of yourself in their faces and in their actions. The first is Simon of Cyrene in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 27. We're told in verse 31 that "Jesus was led away to be crucified." Then in verse 32, "As they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. And they compelled---him they compelled to bear [or to carry] the cross." Simon of Cyrene was a Jew. He was a religious man. He had traveled from North Africa, the country of Libya---that's where Cyrene was in antiquity---and he had traveled to Jerusalem to keep the Passover.
He was there celebrating the Passover lamb that was slain in their history. And just being a bystander, he was there, the Romans forced him to carry a part of the cross of Jesus. Now I know you have a picture in your mind that shows you a big, burly man carrying the entire cross, but criminals carried only a portion of the cross. They carried the horizontal beam, a seventy-five-pound piece of wood called the patibulum. And Simon of Cyrene, the soldier said, "Hey, you. Come here. Pick up that piece of wood and you carry it for this criminal." And so he did. Listen, Simon of Cyrene did not want to be at the cross. He was forced to be at the cross. They made him come to the cross. They made him perform this duty.
Now let me ask you a question: Can you see a resemblance in Simon of Cyrene with so many churchgoers? They really don't want to be there. They just sort of feel forced to be there. The teenage boy or girl whose parents make him or her come to church---I was that kid. I didn't want to go church. My parents forced me. If I wanted any liberty or freedom to do anything besides breathe, I had to come to church. And my parents told me, "You don't come to church---you go to hell. You will go straight to hell if you don't go to church every Sunday." So the fear of God was put into me. I was sort of forced to go to church. Some husbands feel like they're forced to go to church by their wives.
Their wife will tell them, "Sweetheart, I love you, but if you want anything else from me at all, you go to church. You want good home-cooked meals? You go to church." Or a boyfriend might feel compelled by a girlfriend who says, "If you want this relationship to go anywhere, I need to see your commitment. You need to come to church." And so a lot of people feel compelled to do so. Simon of Cyrene was so close to Jesus Christ. He was right there with him. But did he change his life because he met Jesus? He was forced to be there. Did his life change? There's no record that it did. There is no record in the New Testament that says that Simon of Cyrene ever was converted.
There's no record that he went home and told his wife, "I met the most incredible man today named Jesus Christ." There is no record that Simon of Cyrene did anything more than what he was forced to do. No evidence of change whatsoever. Simon of Cyrene walks onto the page of history just for a moment, and just as quickly, he walks off the page of history. You know, it shows you that you can be close to the cross and yet far from the Christ of the cross. You can be close to Golgotha and far from God. And though Simon of Cyrene is not who you are, some of you can see the resemblance. You go to church just 'cause they make you come.
Well, let's turn the camera lens of Matthew to somebody else who was at the cross, and those were the soldiers in the story. They are mentioned by the word "they" that is used so often by Matthew in this narrative. He introduces the soldiers as soldiers early in this story. But then in verse 33 it says, "And when they had come to a place called Golgotha; that is to say, the Place of the Skull, they gave to him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when he tasted it, he wouldn't drink. Then they crucified him. They crucified him, and divided his garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: 'They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.'
"Sitting down, they kept watch over him there. And they put up over his head the accusation written against him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS." "They" is the word that refers to the soldiers. These are the battle-hardened warriors of Rome. When a person was sentenced to death by crucifixion, he was delivered to four Roman soldiers. It was known as a quaternion of soldiers, four soldiers in charge of escorting the criminal to the place of execution and making sure that it gets done. Now, you can picture in your mind's eye what a Roman soldier looks like. They've been in every Jesus movie you've ever seen, right? They have metal on their chest, a breastplate. They're carrying a shield.
They have a metal helmet on their head and a red plume on top of that. And they have a little sword on their side, the Roman short sword. The Roman soldiers, they crucified Jesus. Now, they weren't there because they were forced to be there, like Simon of Cyrene, they were there out of duty. Roman duty compelled them to come. They were Roman soldiers, and whatever the emperor says to do, you do it out of pure duty and allegiance to Rome. You may not like it, you may not want to be there, but you do it out of duty. Now, these Roman soldiers, doing their duty, they were used to it. They had seen many a crucifixion. You know, you and I, we recoil and rightfully so.
When we see movies like The Passion of the Christ with all of that blood and that horrible intensity of pain, we just---oh, we can't even watch it. It's so graphic. But the Roman soldiers, they had seen thousands of these things, and many of them loved it. They liked it. They liked the duty of the cross. Now at first, the first time they saw one, they hated it. They probably had nightmares about it. But over time the groans of the person who was crucified, the groans of the victims after hours, the blood that was spilled all over the ground, it didn't bother them anymore. They're doing their duty and they got used to what they had heard and what they had seen.
In fact, they are so bored at the cross, even though it's Jesus dying in horrible pain, they're playing games around the cross. They're casting lots. They're throwing dice for Jesus' garments. Before this they played a game when Jesus was being whipped with the flagellum. That's how hardened they were. They soldier up, they do their duty, but they're bored doing it and they could even play games during it. Do you see a resemblance in some churchgoers? They come because it's their duty to come. It's their duty. They've heard the story of the cross. They've heard it since they were a kid. They've heard it so many times, it doesn't even make an impact anymore when they hear it.
Once they had an expectation and a longing to meet with God, and they wanted to grow in their faith, and it was such a passionate thing to be a part of God's people and God's family and a movement where God was working. But over time they got over it. They just lost all of that. And they didn't drop out. They didn't stop coming. They just came now out of duty. They soldier up and they show up for church. It's their duty to do so. In fact, some of them, like these soldiers, they play games in church. They're on their phones and they're texting and checking emails and even playing the games they downloaded just till the sermon's done.
People who work on church staffs who are paid to do their duty, pastors who do their duty for the same reason or pastors' wives or committed laypeople can sometimes be in that category. They don't do it out of passion. They don't do it out of love. They do it out of duty. Now, Matthew turns the camera lens to another group in the story. These are the scribes. We've seen Simon. We've seen the soldiers. Now we have the scribes. These are the ultrareligious people, as you know. Verse 41, "Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and the elders, said, 'He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he is the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.
"'He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he will have him; for he said, "I am the son of God." 'Even the robbers who were crucified with him reviled him with the same thing." Now these scribes, these chief priests that we're focusing in on now, these are the religious people who arranged this whole crucifixion. They were the ones that perpetrated this whole crime of getting Jesus to the cross. And basically they forced the hand of Pontius Pilate. They knew that Pilate had lost favor with Tiberius Caesar in Rome that he was walking on thin ice. And so basically they knew that they had him in the palm of their hand. They could make him do basically just about whatever they wanted to.
Interesting they're at the cross. They don't have to be at the cross. They weren't forced to be at the cross. It wasn't their duty to be at the cross. Why are they there? The answer will astonish you. They're at the cross of Jesus Christ for one reason---hatred. They actually hate Jesus. They hate him so much, they love seeing him die. They love seeing the end of his life. Hatred brought them to the cross. Why did they hate Jesus? I'll give you the short answer---because so many people loved Jesus. And because so many people loved Jesus, the people loved the scribes and the chief priests less and less. They didn't get the same kind of respect they once got, because Jesus would often challenge them.
They felt the grip of authority leaving the palm of their own hands as people were siding with Jesus, and going over to hear Jesus, and falling in love with Jesus. They had sheer, pure hatred and they were at the cross for that reason. You know, it's interesting, over the years I have known what it's like to be the target of certain people's hatred. And some of the worse kind of hatred I've ever experienced hasn't been from unbelievers; it's been from those who say they are believers. I have letters---I still keep them, by the way---that would curl your hair, letters of hatred. Now, or if you have curly hair, they would straighten your hair. How's that? Or if you don't have any hair, it might make you grow some hair. Who knows?
But letters of resentment, letters of hatred. We've gotten some letters here over the past few weeks, letters saying, "I hate the worship team. I hate the songs they sing. I hate the messages that Skip preaches." Now, when I read them, I always laugh a little bit, because I wonder, "Why do they come?" [laughter] But I've discovered something---hatred is a very powerful, motivating force. It's very powerful. And some people will be motivated by hatred far more easily than by anything else. Tragically, I've seen church leaders, pastors, senior pastors as the worst offenders. They get so angry and vitriolic toward anyone who would leave their church. And they'll say so much vitriol when somebody leaves their church.
Or they will speak against another church in town, and the real reason is they're jealous it's growing, more people are going to hear that person or go to that assembly. And there were people at the cross that were like that. You should also know before we get to the final and the best one, Jesus Christ reserved his harshest criticism for such people, religious leaders who pretended to be holy and righteous and love God, but they hated everybody else. "Hypocrites," he called them. So we've seen the picture of Simon, and we've seen the picture of the soldiers, and we've seen the picture of the scribes. There's one final photograph.
By the way, I have seen the resemblance in my own life in all of those first few photographs. But the last one is the best. These are the saved ones at the foot of the cross. These are the ones who are changed by the experience of Golgotha. These are the ones, in fact, who are the least likely to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we had a high school annual, and at the end we would have "Most Likely to Go to Hell," we would find the thieves on the cross next to Jesus, and the centurions and soldiers who put him on the cross. And, yet, did you know that one of those criminals is in heaven right now? And one of those centurions, probably the chief centurion, by his confession it would seem that he is also in heaven.
These are the least likely. In verse 38 it says, "The two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and the other on the left." In verse 44 it says that these two robbers joined the crowd in slamming Jesus, in leveling harsh accusations and mocking him. But the other Gospels tell us that one of them said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." That's found in the gospel of Luke. "Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom." That was his statement of faith. He somehow knew that this Jesus was the Lord. He knew that this Jesus had a kingdom. And he knew that he was going there. That's about all he knew, but he knew it. It was a statement of faith.
"And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you're going to be with me in paradise.' "He's a saved man. Then there was a soldier, a centurion. Verse 54, "So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, 'Truly this was the Son of God!' "And John's gospel affirms that comment. And one of these centurions said, "Surely this man was the son of God." Folks, don't be fooled by the pictures. If you look at the picture and you see Simon over there, he's smiling. And you see the soldiers, they're sort of smiling in their own soldier way, kind of grimacing.
And if you look at the scribes, oh, they look so holy and they're smiling with their religious collars and religious garb. Don't be fooled by the pictures, because when you look at these two guys, the scoundrel and the centurion, they're the guys we would say, "Get them out of the picture. They've got the tats on and they're scowling at everybody. They look so dirty." Don't be fooled by the pictures. Sometimes we look at certain people and we go, "Oh yeah, now there's patriotic, flag-carrying American." All you have to do is say you believe in God and I'll call you a born-again believer, because you look good in the pictures.
But, listen, the most unlikely ones in these pictures were the ones who walk away saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. Let me tell you why we're so uncomfortable with this idea, one reason---pride. Pride, pride keeps us out of the last picture, and pride keeps us in one of those first three pictures. It's pride. We're uncomfortable. We don't like to admit that we are so bad that God would have to shed the blood of his Son to cover our sin and get us to heaven. We're just not that bad. "Maybe other people are that bad, but I'm not that bad that he would have to shed his blood. All I have to do is do a few good things and I'll go to heaven." Pride keeps us out of heaven. Pride keeps us out of that picture.
But listen, listen carefully, there is a thief in heaven who knows more about grace than a thousand theologians. [applause] There is a centurion in heaven who knows more about God's mercy than many, many seminaries and seminarians around the world. Simple statement of faith recognizing their own wretchedness, trusting in Jesus Christ and his blood saves them. The Bible says, "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." I draw your attention to the cross. You and I, we put our sins on this last week, did we not? We said, "These are the things that I want forgiveness for. These are the things I want deliverance from. These are the things I want covered."
All of us have done things that we regret. All of us have stains that we are ashamed of in our past. All of us have failures that we cannot change. But the Bible says "The blood of Jesus Christ God's Son cleanses a man from all sin." [applause] The blood of Jesus Christ God's Son cleanses a man, a woman from all sin.
Closing: What binds us together is devotion to worshiping our heavenly Father, dedication to studying his Word, and determination to proclaim our eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
For more teachings from Calvary Albuquerque and Skip Heitzig visit calvaryabq.org.