The In-Between Years - Part 27
Series: The In-Between Years
February 21, 2021
In English that doesn’t do much for us, but those titles in Greek would have rung a bell in the minds of the non-Greeks and maybe even the Jews of that day (remember the NT is written in Greek, the language of the civilized world at that time).
Lord and Savior in Greek are archegos and soter. Get this: those are the exact same titles used for Hercules in Greek/Roman mythology. I love this already ya’ll!
Hercules was called those things for his heroic acts of bravery, for completing impossible tasks and at times saving people from harm. This is no accident. Luke and the NT writers were about engaging the culture in which the gospel was active. Man do we miss this. Wait until we get to Acts 17.
Why is this important? Greek and Roman culture was hero-oriented. And the way they taught virtue and values was through the hero myths. Luke and the apostles wanted, and I’m quoting someone here, to connect “Jesus to a longing, an aspiration, in [the Roman] culture.” In other words, in a very subtle and yet bold way, they wanted folks to see Jesus as a hero like Hercules. And he was/is for sure, in every sense of the word. Jesus is actually the hero of all heroes, one greater than Hercules, who bravely faced the cross and delivered people from their sins.
But at the same time, Jesus was radically different than the the Greek and Roman heroes. Which brings us to the other thing hiding between the lines (the peeker) in the apostles’ message before the Sanhedrin.
A nod at the OT was tucked into this message when they proclaimed, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” 31
You see, this goes back to the law given to the Israelites as recorded by Moses in Deuteronomy…
22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (ESV)
One form of capital punishment for the Jews of the OT was hanging. If you died from being hung on a tree for committing a heinous crime, you were by implication cursed. By the time of Jesus and the early church, the Romans ruled the civilized world. Their go-to method of capital punishment for the worst offenders was crucifixion on a wooden cross. The wood for that cross came from a tree. So the Jews of Jesus’ day — who were under Roman rule — came to equate the two, referring to crucifixions as hanging on a tree. They also carried over the idea of someone hanging on a tree (crucified a cross) being cursed. The apostles and NT writers made a big connection here.
From the perspective of the religious rulers, the hanging on the tree was the means by which they enacted justice on Jesus the heretic. But from the perspective of the apostles…
24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)
So Jesus took our place as he hung on that tree. Bearing in himself our sins, taking the punishment for our sins in our place. And he was cursed alright. Paul wrote the Christians at Galatia…
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— Galatians 3:13 (ESV)
Get this: Jesus allowed himself to suffer and be humiliated, even though he was the King of Creation. He emptied himself of all his kingly and heavenly glory so that he could become a curse for us.
Now. Put this together. Jesus was a hero like Hercules and yet unlike him at the same time. The heroes of the myths would never have hung on a tree or been cursed for the sake of others. They would have never let themselves be humiliated. They would have never given up the glory of being triumphant over their enemies. Greek and Roman heroes are victors as well as saviors, certainly not victims. They bask in the glory that goes with winning; they don’t give it up.
Dr. Tim Keller, really brings this out in a sermon he preached. This is slightly long because of the illustration he uses, but listen closely and hang in there and you will be blessed. Here’s what he says…
[Jesus’] heroism lay in the fact that he laid his glory by. He gave it up. He gave up his power. He gave up his glory. He gave up his invulnerability. He became vulnerable, and he came down and became mortal and went to the cross. That kind of heroism is occasionally depicted in story and cinema. I can think of a few. Yet even the depictions show you it’s just not a heroism of this world.
My favorite depiction of it is the 1938 movie Angels with Dirty Faces. In Angels with Dirty Faces, Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien were the main actors. Jimmy Cagney played Rocky. Pat O’Brien played Jerry. They were two kids who grew up in a tough urban neighborhood, but Rocky grew up to be a criminal, a crime boss, a murderer, and Jerry grew up to be an urban priest in a parish in the city.
Rocky becomes a kind of celebrity criminal and he kills people. They capture him, and at the end of the whole movie, he’s on death row. In fact, you can skip the whole movie. If you even find it, just go to the end, because the night before he’s about to go to the chair and be electrocuted, Jerry comes in to see Rocky. He says, “I have a big favor to ask.” Rocky says, “What?”
He says, “There are a bunch of kids in my parish. They’re juvenile delinquents. They’re in trouble with the law, and they’re on their way to a terrible life. They all worship you. You are their hero. Do you know why? Because you spit in the eye of ‘the man,’ because you laugh in the face of danger, because you’re brave. They expect that tomorrow you’re going to go to the chair sneering and laughing and joking in the face of the executioner. They admire that, and they’re on their way to the same place. They’re lost.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?” says Rocky. Jerry says, “What I want you to do tomorrow is I want you to die a coward. I want you to start sniveling and whining and screaming and begging for your life like a little baby. I want you to die a coward so that all of the newspapers say, ‘In the end, Rocky died a coward.’ ”
Rocky looks at him and says, “You’re kidding! You’re asking me to give up the last thing I have. If I would die like that, everyone, high and low, would despise my very memory. I’d be giving up everything.” Jerry says, “That’s the only way.” What Jerry is saying is, “Only if you relinquish your glory, only if you give up everything, can you save these kids.”
As some of you know, at the very end, they don’t actually show it. This is a 1930s black and white movie. You see the shadow on the wall, and you see them leading him to the chair. As you see the shadow of him getting in the chair, suddenly he starts to blubber and scream. Jimmy Cagney starts to cry out and beg for mercy, and then they electrocute him. The next day the paper says he died a coward, and all of the kids see that and turn away and they’re saved.
Whenever I see that, it always gives me chills and makes me want to live a better life, but I also realize nobody would have done that. I don’t know any human being who would have done that. What he was being asked to do is the great reversal, substitutionary sacrifice. “Give up all your glory. Give up all your strength.”
It’s the opposite of the way the world sees heroism. “Take up power and go smash people. Crack skulls.” Jesus Christ came not to take up power, but to lose power; not to crack skulls, but to have thorns put in his skull. He went to the cross to take our punishment so we could be saved. He gave up all of his glory. He gave up everything.
Conclusion: Like I’ve said, when you look for these odd and obscure things that seem to peek out in the text, things that are found when you project yourself into the mind of the original audiences, you discover gold. This blesses me. This teaches me something. What a message the apostles preached before the council.
We’ve got to close (and trust me, I left out so much more), but look at how those religious leaders responded.
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. Acts 5:33 (ESV)
That’s where we’ll begin next week.
For now though, I want you to think about Jesus, Leader and Savior. The one true hero of all time. The one who gave up his glory and power so we could know forgiveness and freedom and the love of God. The one who was victorious over sin and death by letting himself be humiliated, killed even.
Jesus, our hero, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, and he offers all that to us as a gift. When we come to God through him, he makes us victorious. We win in this life and the next through him.
Jesus our savior promises to save us if we call on him…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
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