It is an important part of the game for us. The guys who are sitting out want in… and the guys who are not in as good of shape want out!
I mention this because the words before us here resonate with this theme of substitution. Jesus here does a little switch-er-oo in his family.
To begin with, Jesus looks at Mary and says, “Behold your son.” And in these words I want you to see that Jesus isolates himself.
I. He isolates himself
What you see going on here is something akin to an athletic event where one athlete is substituted for another. When you have a substitution on the basketball court, one player steps in for another. But the one who was substituted must now leave the game. He must take his seat on the bench. In a sense he is isolated from the rest of the players.
What we see here at the cross is that sort of thing taking place. Christ is removing himself from the union he has with his mother. He isolates himself by formally breaking the familial tie he has with her
As he does this we see him willingly taking upon himself the wrath and curse of God.
Isolation is a curse. When God created us, he designed us to have communion with one another. I know that this may be hard to understand for you. We live in such a fragmented and broken society. But that is not the way it is supposed to be. We were created to have communion with one another. True happiness is found being in the presence of other people with complete peace and unity. There is no quarreling in heaven. No factions. Those are characteristics of hell because hell is a place of isolation.
The story of Cain and Able is so telling on this. Do you remember what happened to Cain after he killed his brother? The passage in Gen. 4 tells us that God punished Cain by making him a “fugitive and a wanderer on earth.” His punishment was isolation. His lot in life was to bear the curse of loneliness. And he recognized how miserable that would be because his reaction was one of complete despair! He cried out, “O my punishment is too much for me.” “It is greater than I can bear!”
You’ve no doubt experienced the misery of isolation. How many of you have been in a church that has been ruptured for some ungodly reason? (there are godly separations. But rarely do they happen for godly reasons.) When that church split, you suffered, didn’t you? You were cut off from other godly people. You lost the opportunity to share in their gifts and graces. It was as if there had been a real amputation in the body of Christ. That isolation is a curse. And that is why it is a foul thing to have the peace, purity and the unity of the church rent asunder.
Our society is a miserable place today, isn’t it? You know why? It is because there is so much isolation. Studies say that 36% of children today are born without fathers in the home. That’s not counting those fathers who leave soon-there-after. Kids are isolated.
Even those places that we would not call broken homes are most often places that are fractured. Whole families live in isolation from one another. Mom and dad go opposite directions in the morning. Kids are shipped off to day care or school or to who knows where afterwards. That’s not the way it was meant to be. The two are to become one. The family unit was to be one of the strongest bonds on earth. Home is to be where communion and happiness is found.
And here at the cross you have a severing of the most intimate of earthly relationships. The tie to the home is cut. Christ isolates himself from his own mother.
We know that Jesus is the Son of God. But he was also the son of Mary, according to the flesh. He was nursed at her breast. He was nurtured by her daily affection. He was cared for just as any other human son.
Jesus was not a stoic. He was very man of very man. And to formally have to cut his ties with his mother would have been mentally excruciating. To have to watch her weep over him at the foot of the cross and then see her walk away under some other man’s arm would have been a hell in itself.
Yet, this isolation was the work of the obedient lamb. He willingly broke up his own family so that he might descend into hell for YOU and bear the awful curse of isolation in your place.
You will notice too that as he steps away from the family, he forces another person to stand in his place. That’s the flip side of a substitution. One is not just removed, he is replaced.
II. He replaces himself with his beloved.
Let’s go back to our basket ball illustration. When a sub comes in, what does he do? He replaces one of the players on the court, doesn’t he? He takes his place and stands in his stead. He now has all of the responsibilities and he gets to enjoy all the privileges of the one he took the place of.
Perhaps a better example may be found in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The event was fencing. Italy and China were competing for the bronze medal. Late in the match Matteo Tagliariol, the Italian star, pulled a muscle and had to bow out of the event. His replacement, Stefano Caozzo stepped in and, with only two touches, sealed the medal. What is amazing is that Caozzo got to go home with the medal while the only thing guy who did all the work got to go home with was a terrible limp!
That is a great illustration of how a substitute gets all the blessings that are due to another. And that is a beautiful illustration of what happened right there at the cross.
When Jesus looks at John and says, “Behold, your mother,” he says you now have my spot! You are my replacement. You are going to stand in where I am supposed to be, and you get to enjoy what I am supposed to have.” What was he supposed to have? It was life, of course!
I don’t think it is by coincidence that John is at the foot of the cross at this moment. I don’t think that it happened by chance that Jesus appointed him as the one to stand in Jesus’ place. He is chosen to be because he is the beloved disciple. And as the beloved disciple, he represents every disciple that is beloved by Christ.
Therefore we see in this replacement what kind of death Jesus is dying. It is a vicarious death. It is the fulfillment of all the bulls and goats the priests had sacrificed up to this point. Everyday a family would enter the temple and they would bring their animal. They would lay their hands on it and then give it to the priest who would then slay it. In doing so the family was saying, this animal is dying as my substitute. It will stand in my place as the one who deserves death, and I will be the beneficiary. I will stand in its place as the one who shall live.
Jesus here says, you beloved disciples are the beneficiaries of my life. You get to stand in his place. Just like the Italian guy who got the bronze medal, you get to go home with the prize—You get to go home with everything.
Though you did nothing to deserve it, Christ has thrust you into his place. He has given you access to the Father. He has given you an inheritance that will never perish, spoil or fade. Though you were a not-so-innocent bystander, he has given you the chance to live forevermore in Paradise.
It is no wonder why we are made to listen in here. The words were no doubt uttered with the utmost pain and with almost inaudible volume due to the agony of crucifixion. Yet they reverberate through history with seismic thunders. They point us to the fact that Christ has become our Great Redeemer. Christ isolated himself in the pit of hell, so that we may walk through the gates of heaven.
And rightfully so. These words, though simply spoken by the mouth, compose some of the most intriguing words of all of Scripture. I don’t think that there are any can compare to them.
One thing that makes this passage so difficult is the mystery we see in it.
I. A cry of mystery
A story is told about a man who for a long time sat and thought about these words. Then finally he arose and said, “God forsaken by God; who can say anything about that?”
Yes, there is some mystery here. But it is not an unsolvable mystery. I would even suggest that the greater mystery is contained in the phrase, “My God, my God, why have you accepted me?” That is a profundity that I will never grasp.
But these words of Christ need to be addressed. For when we first hear these words we might be tempted to think that this is impossible: Christ, who we confess to be very God of very God, is said to be forsaken by God.
I admit that I cannot explain the whole of the mystery. No one can fully wrap their minds around this. But I can present some clarification on the matter. When Christ says that he is forsaken by God, we must understand that he was not forsaken as to his deity. He is forsaken as to his humanity.
Don’t think for a moment that we have a split in the Trinity. God cannot forsake God. It is impossible for God to deny (or more aptly put, sever) himself. The Son of God cannot be separated from the Father for they are one God.
You must remember that Christ had two natures. He was not only fully God, he was also fully man. And when he lifted up his voice Christ was speaking with regard to his human nature. It was man who sinned against God, it is man who deserves to be punished by God. And for this purpose Christ became man; that he might suffer this miserable curse.
And what suffering it is! While we might easily address the mystery of these words, we should not tread so lightly over the agony expressed in these words.
II. A cry of agony
I remember a time when my mother had left my friend and I at church. She had gone to a Bible study and I had to go along. Fortunately, I was also allowed to bring my friend with me. While she mingled with the grown ups, my friend and I went to the back room to play. There we enjoyed a jolly good time. I remember that we stacked the pillows and mattresses from the couch. And, after a running start, we would hurl ourselves headlong into the fluffy mix. It was one of those experiences you only get when you are not supervised properly.
I remember that it was so much fun. We had so much fun that we lost track of time. But we eventually realized that we had been there for quite a while. And we went out to see if my mother was finished with her study. The only thing was that she wasn’t around. As a matter of fact, no one was around. And as old churches can be, it was pitch black. We couldn’t see a thing. For the first time in my life I understood what they meant when they said, “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.”
My friend and I groped around in the darkness trying to make our way to the door. We thought we might be able to catch up to her in the parking lot. But when we got to the door we found that the parking lot was empty.
Upon witnessing this, my friend fell into a fit of hysteria. He immediately cried out, “Oh, she left us here! We’re Going TO DIE!”
My friend was in agony. But that was nothing compared to what Christ experienced. When he was forsaken, it was infinitely more painful.
The One Christ loved most; the One He most depended upon and trusted in had turned his benevolent face from Him.
We often speak of the physical torments that Christ endured. And what pains they were! He faced beatings, scourges, whips, not to mention all the horrors of crucifixion. But let’s not forget that none of those physical pains could compare to the terror he experienced in his soul. He was forsaken by the one with whom he enjoyed the sweetest communion.
Do recognize that whatever happens to your physic, is nothing compared to the loss of fellowship with God and to be denied his favorable presence. That is what makes hell so hellish.
And here on the cross, Christ expresses the pain of that hell he experienced in this lamentation.
But, you know what? The mystery and the agony expressed in this text are not the most difficult features of this text. They are not even the most poignant features of this text. You might be boggled by the mystery. You might weep at the agony. But, if anything affects you, it should be the affinity that is expressed in this text.
III. A cry of affinity
This is a prayer. It is a prayer to God; the one who has just cast him away. But though the Father has forsaken the Son, the Son has not forsaken the Father. Christ is just cast away as a reprobate. Though thrown into the outer darkness of hell away from the presence of the Father, Christ still clings to Him.
Do you hear the affinity with which he speaks? He calls him “My, God.” The word affinity denotes affection that one has for another. And that is what you have here. He cleaves to his Tormentor.
And you see in this that Christ, as the second Adam, corrects what happened in the Garden of Eden. After Adam had sinned, what did he do when he heard God coming? He ran from God. He hid himself so that he could not be found. So when God came looking for him He had to call out, “Adam, where are you?”
But not so with Christ. Christ would not run away. He would only run toward God in his darkest hour. Even though God would not listen to Him, He threw himself upon God. Even though he is forsaken by God, he would not let himself be separated from God.
In Psalm 73 Asaph cries out, “Whom have I in heaven but you, and there is nothing on earth that I desires besides you.” He expresses his yearning for God—that God is his sole desire. But Christ goes one step further than the psalmist. He cries, “Whom in hell have I but you and there is none that I desire even in the midst of your torments but you.” To put it simply, Christ demonstrates an affinity for God, even though God has none for him.
This is what lead one theologian to say that Christ was the perfect stranger. We know that He is not accepted in heaven. God will not welcome him because He has just been forsaken. But neither does he find a home in hell. When you think of hell, you must think of a place filled with people who absolutely hate God. They are like prisoners who, while being tormented, still find the tormenter utterly despicable.
But not so with Christ. On the cross—while experiencing the pains of hell, he cleaves to God. Though he cast into the deepest pit of hell, he knocks at the gate of heaven.
And this is why He is the Redeemer, not just because he endured the agony of hell, but also because He maintains this affinity for God in the midst of hell.
Yes, that is why He is our Redeemer. Though we have turned our backs on God, Christ, the perfect lamb, never turned his back on Him. He stayed true to God, even through the flames. And in doing this he became the perfect sacrifice. This is why the doors of heaven are open to us today. This is why we might be able to freely enter into Glory through Christ. Because Christ clung to his tormentor.
The Tower of Babel story may be likened to an ant farm. What you have here are a bunch of little creatures working hard to build their little kingdom. But without any sort of effort God sends the workers scurrying in all directions. It is almost as if he just reaches down and taps the glass and causes everything to collapse.
Sometimes we need these reminders. We need to be reminded of this because sometimes it seems that the forces of man and the powers of evil are so monumental—so colossal, that they are unstoppable. Every generation has its Nero or its Herod. There are men who defy the kingdom of God and wish to have it exterminated.
The tower of Babel is presented to us as the ultimate anti-kingdom. This is not just any building project. It represents the man doing everything he can to establish a kingdom in defiance to God. You may remember from what we said last week in Genesis 10 that Babel was founded by Nimrod. You remember what we said about Nimrod. He was a tyrant—a warrior and a hunter of men. So the very foundation of Babel is that of open defiance and wickedness.
It was a colossal undertaking that expressed something of their pride. You can just here it with the pronouns that are used in the opening lines, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly…Let us build ourselves a city…let us make a name for ourselves.” There is absolutely no acknowledgment of God.
The whole purpose of it was specifically so that they wouldn’t be dispersed through the earth. That is an direct defiance to God’s command to fill the earth.
So this city represents Man in all his wickedness, with all his ingenuity, with all his pomp and pride. But with one little tap of the glass, it comes crashing down.
And this incident serves to remind us that we can have hope. We can have hope that no matter how powerful the kingdoms of man may be—no matter how commanding the rule of sin and Satan may appear, they cannot stand. The kingdom of God will prevail!
The passage goes out of its way to point this out. The whole scene is actually like a comedy routine. When you read it you are supposed to chuckle.
I. Lord defies and destroys the kingdom of man
The one that I love is that these people start off by saying, “Let’s make a name for ourselves. Let’s build a tower with its top in the heavens.” They are going to go out of their way to make the very first sky scrapper, a monument to their awesome ingenuity! And it may have very well been a quite the sight. Think of it, as you are walking out on this plain of Shinar, it would be like walking through Indiana. Everything is completely flat.
When I lived in Indiana I always laughed because the poor kids had to go sled riding on the exit ramps next to the highway. It was the closest thing they had to an incline because they just don’t have any hills out there.
Well, here you have a plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. But from a distance you can see this massive monument rising out of ground. It had to have looked like a man made mountain and quite an imposing structure.
But you can’t help but snicker when, in verse 5, it says, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that they had built.” It might seem imposing from our perspective, but from God’s prospective it’s nothing but a little ant hill. He’s so great, he’s so highly exalted, that he has to stoop down to get a good look at it. It’s kind of like how we would look at a model train track and a little city that was put together on it.
Some even say that there is a bit of a gag at what they say in verse 3. They say, “Come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” Commentators say that this would have caused a chuckle because stone—which the Israelites used, was much more superior to bricks. It would be like us saying, “Let’s build a house out of Lego’s!” That would be silly, being that we have steel and other such things for building our buildings. On top of this, they want to take some stuff called bitumen or tar or some kind of stuff to use for mortar. I like what the King James Version says. It says “they had slime for mortar.” So some commentators say that it could have been a faulty structure that they were trying to construct.
I don’t know if that one is true or not. But the scene does close with a funny picture. The Lord confuses their speech. They are trying to defy God’s command to fill the earth, and so God changes their speech and makes it impossible for them to stay together. Thinking how that would have played out would have been pretty funny. Joe and Bob clock out one night and say, “Good-night, Joe!” “Good-night, Bob!” The next morning they come to work and say, “Morning, Joe!”, “Cobabaway, Bobbla!”
You have to picture them trying to work together to get things done. “Can you get me the hammer? A ham-mer! A ham-mer!” And the other guys is yelling back, “Abawaba! A-baw-a-ba! A!-baw!-a!-ba!
Why is it that we think adding volume will bridge the language barrier? Like that is going to help the translation process.
Like I said, the tower of Babel incident is supposed to be a funny. It is Bible humor.
And that is the way it should be. For that is the best way for us to think about the kingdoms of man whenever they set themselves up. This incident that is recorded here is simply characteristic of every one of man’s attempts to centralize power and deify man and his greatness. Throughout history we see that man makes every effort to centralize power and form a tyrannical governments. They bring all the power they can under one name, under one man, and he makes the citizens of his kingdom worshiping slaves. And this passage uses this humor to remind us that no kingdom on earth, not matter how big and powerful, can ever compare to the rule and reign of our God.
You can think of how this would have meant much to the people to whom Moses was writing. They were getting ready to go into the Promised Land. And you remember that the spies had originally said, “There are giants in the land, and we are like grasshoppers next to them.” And it didn’t help that the first city state that they came up against was Jericho.
But here you have the Lord’s encouragement to them, reminding them that the Kingdom of God cannot be opposed or thwarted by the forces of man. Moses is reminding the people of his day that the kingdom of God will prevail over the forces of man.
And that is a lesson that should be meaningful to us as well. Especially as we see our nation becoming Bable-esc in its tyrannical centralization of power and blooming emperor worship. The message to us is the same as it was to those in Moses’ day. God will not be mocked. He sits in the heavens and laughs.
I think of our own pledge of allegiance. Our pledge of allegiance ends by touting that we are, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Indivisible? Really? That is kind of ironic, don’t you think? To say that we are under God, but yet indivisible? To be indivisible means that even God cannot break it. Indestructibility is actually a divine attribute. And personally, I think it would be just like God to say, “Oh yeah? Indivisible, huh? Let’s just see about that. ”
You are probably familiar with the Shema. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” I’ve been told that the Jews used to recite that, like we do our creeds during the confession of faith. When they did it though, they would recite it with their pinkie finger raised. That’s because they believed that the Lord had brought them out of Egypt with just his pinkie finger. Egypt was the epitome of power. They had their chariots. They had their manpower and weapons to suit out all their soldiers. Yet God barely had to lift a finger to bring them down and bring his people to a state of salvation.
The nations are as a drop in the bucket in comparison to our God. And they cannot stand before King Jesus. And it will only be a matter of time when we will hear what the angel in the book of Revelation proclaimed, “Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great.”
But it is not just that the Lord crushes the pompous kingdoms of man. If his kingdom is going to prevail, then he must establish his own kingdom!
II. We see that the Lord establishes his kingdom
At the end of our passage we see all the peoples being dispersed all over the face of the earth. They are scattered far and wide. It is almost like God knocked over the tower of Babel and all the pieces went sprawling all over the floor like a bunch of Lincoln Logs.
I want you to think about that picture now. He has just executed his judgment. He has just thrown the whole world into confusion. Would you say that there is a sense in which things are formless and void?
Do you remember that phrase? We saw it at the very beginning. “The earth was formless and void, and the Spirit was hovering over the waters.” We said that everything was kind of messy, but the Spirit was going to give form and shape to the creation; God’s kingdom.
You might also remember that we talked about this when we were on the boat with Noah. When the flood was at its highest things were formless and void again, weren’t they? And the Lord began to establish his kingdom again with Noah.
I think it is possible that we are seeing the cycle repeat itself here. People are scattering every which direction. It’s got a formless feel to it.
It sounds like the Lord is ready to act again to establish his kingdom. And that is exactly what he does in chapter 12. In chapter 12 we read how God calls a guy by the name Abram. And he says, “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great.”
Hopefully, you don’t miss the turn around. In Babel people were trying to “make a name for themselves.” Then the Lord says to Abram, “I will make your name great.” Essentially he is saying, “I won’t let the kingdoms of men over run what I want to do. I am going to establish my kingdom!”
A little while later he would reiterate the same thing to David. In 2 Samuel 7 God tells David that he is going to make his name great. And then a little later still comes Jesus. And the Scripture says that he rose again from the dead, and because God so highly exalted him he is given the name that is above all names.
It is through Jesus that the kingdom comes into the world. As a matter of fact, in speaking of the Tower of Babel, you have to contrast it with what happened on the day of Pentecost. You remember what happened there, don’t you? On the Day of Pentecost the Spirit came down it lighted upon the Apostles. Then they began to speak in other languages. What’s interesting is that Luke records for us that there in the city of Jerusalem were “people from every nation under heaven.” And if you examine the countries that Luke lists there, you find that they parallel the regions listed in Genesis 10.
And Luke’s message to us is that the Pentecost event was the undoing of the curse that fell on Babel. There at Babel the nations were dispersed by the confusion of tongues. In Jerusalem the tongues of men were altered again, but this time it was so that they might be rounded up. Now is the gospel age where the kingdoms of man are being plundered and nations are being gathered into God’s kingdom.
To be sure, the kingdom is not fully realized. We understand that we live in an age where the threats of man’s kingdom still loom large over us.
Yet we recognize that the kingdom of God is advancing and the gates of hell will not prevail. And we know that one day all the nations will be gathered before Christ, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
The book of Revelation gives us a reminder. In chapter 21 we are told about a new Jerusalem that descends from heaven. It is a picture of the fully consummated kingdom. And this city is described as receiving "the glory of the nations." And we are told that nothing unclean or detestable or false will ever enter it. Instead, there will only be those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.