So, I’m currently away at the moment in Latvia, but I still wanted to do a blog post to finish (for the present moment) this series on Portraits of God. And with all of the tension currently building up in the world, I thought this might be a good time to share an extract from my book Love: Expressed… so I hope that this would speak to you.
It’s a known fact, but maybe one we don’t consider often, that the most violent individuals who have ever lived were extremely passionate. Whether that’s dictators of the past, modern nationalistic leaders, terrorists, extremists, religious fanatics… all of them have been zealous people.
Doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals.
The frightening thing is that when you strip away all their apparent differences, they all share the same ideology – they all believe that the cause they are fighting for, the regime that they’re passionate about, is one that will ultimately make the world a better place to live in!
It may shock you to think of it that way. But few people are willing to die for something they truly believe will lead to a future that is worse than the present they currently possess. These ‘zealots’ believe that the kingdom they are trying to bring in through their violence and aggression is The Kingdom, The World Order that will bring about peace. Whether you agree with them or not, they’re all trying to save the world.
The Roman Empire, for example, was passionate about world peace. They called it the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome. They were fanatical about this peace, spreading it everywhere through their military campaigns, and if you threatened to disturb it, they would kill you. Their kingdom had a symbol for this world peace, a logo that they would plaster along roadsides and hillsides to demonstrate just how serious they were about it – a cross – a weapon, a method of execution. This may sound hypocritical, but has anything really changed since then? Even today, when we talk about world peace, and ‘keeping it’, although we hide behind the picture of a dove, the real symbols at street level are still those of guns, and bombs, and tanks.
It’s also worth noting that some nations, both past and present, even invoke God into their passionate pursuit of a better world order, whether that’s the Roman Empire, Christendom, the British Empire, Nazi Germany or even IS – saying that God supports them and their means of achieving of their goal. ‘After all,’ they may say, ‘it’s his vision we’re passionate about…’
I do believe God is passionate about world peace, about saving the world, but I think His passion looks a whole lot different.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
In the fifteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we’re given the scene of Jesus standing before the crowds prior to His crucifixion, as the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, gives them an ultimatum of who should be set free – Jesus or Barabbas[i].
This scene is full of passion. The crowd that gathers is a fanatical group of people. Many in the crowd are obsessed with the idea of liberty from Rome. They long for revolution. And this doesn’t just stem from religious tensions, it is also sociological and political – in the ancient world these ideas were seldom separate from each other – it’s a hotchpotch of emotions, history and legacy. This crowd longs for freedom. They long for a better world order. They long for peace, but not the peace that Rome has forced upon them. However, they’re still willing to use the same methods as Rome to get it – they’re willing to fight to achieve it.
All of this is crucial for understanding the choice they are about to make. And to help them in this important decision, some of the religious leaders are circulating within the crowd (or the mob, as the NLT text translates this impassioned gathering), stirring them up, helping them to make their choice a more unanimous one.
They might have picked Jesus. Only a week prior to these events, some of this same crowd were following Him into Jerusalem, passionately waving palm branches, laying down their robes for Him to ride over and shouting out things like, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’.
To some of us, the word Hosanna sounds like the nice word we use in praise and worship services, another way of saying, ‘We love you’. But it literally means, ‘Save now’. When the crowd are shouting this they’re not thinking about 21st century worship meetings – they’re thinking ‘Here is the rightful ruler, the true King’. But He can’t be King until He’s dealt with the foreign, ruling parties. Remember that Messiah that some hoped for, the one who would be a warrior like King David? Their Hosanna is laden with the expectation that a revolution is just about to begin. They’re thinking war – even though Jesus is giving them an opposite picture by riding a donkey into Jerusalem and not a horse. ‘Hosanna!’ they cry. ‘Save us’, they shout. ‘Let the war begin’, is what they really mean.
But since entering Jerusalem, Jesus hasn’t done much in the way of a Holy Crusade. He’s spent most of His time in the Temple, and most of His protest doesn’t appear to be against the Roman enemy – He seems more concerned with the religious leaders, the Temple worship, and trying to tell people that they have the wrong idea of Kingdom. This ‘Son of David’ hasn’t done much towards getting an army together, or even stirring up hatred about the oppressors – He actually teaches crazy things about loving them, and blessing them, and ‘carrying their equipment for an extra mile’.
From the mob’s perspective, there’s no fight in this Jesus. He’s no commando, He’s a compromiser. He’s even allowed himself to be captured, telling His closest followers not to raise swords –they’ve abandoned Him, too. And now He stands there, next to Pontius Pilate, silent, dormant almost. There’s no passion to this Jesus, they feel, just weakness.
So the crowd rejects Him.
But Barabbas… now here’s a different character altogether. Excuse my artistic licence here, but I imagine Barabbas not silently standing by. I can picture him pulling on his chains, protesting energetically about his imprisonment, spitting at his captors and cursing them in his own language (probably calling them something cruder than scum).
Barabbas is a man who possesses qualities that the crowd admire. Some may wonder why they would choose a crook over Jesus, but Barabbas isn’t a common crook or a petty thief – Barabbas is a freedom fighter. He’s already been part of an insurrection, an attempted uprising, he’s a zealous man whose proof of passion is displayed on his already bloodstained hands. The scary thing is, if you asked Barabbas why he did it, why he murdered someone, his answer would probably be something along the lines of, ‘For God and His Kingdom’.
The crowd chooses Barabbas. He meets their definition of what it means to be passionate about world peace.
As a bit of trivia here, though an important piece – some translations tell us that this insurrectionist’s full name was ‘Jesus Barabbas’. If we remember the story of Jesus’ nativity, we’ll remember that Jesus means ‘The LORD saves’. Barabbas, incidentally, means ‘Son of the Father’.
Can you see the contrast that the writer is putting together in this scene?
It’s a contrast highlighting the different ideas about how God will bring about this desired world order, a Kingdom that will bring in peace and salvation. Through the passion of Jesus, we’re given an alternative to the passionate violence of Barabbas.
And believe me, Jesus is passionate.
Throughout this whole scene, Jesus’ actions clearly portray how passionate He is. Not in a typical way, through being extrovert, shouting, jumping and stirring up the crowd. He stands there silent, refusing to be a part of the circus of violence that is going on around Him. In all the versions of this scene that the Gospel writers give us, it’s poignant how few of the words spoken actually belong to God.
God loves the world. God is passionate about the future of every nation, passionate about world peace. God longs, as discussed in the previous chapter, to see His dream for this world live and bear fruit. But unlike the fanatics, He refuses to fight for it. God could come, in all His power and enforce His rule, but that would mean His peace would be an illusion just like the Pax Romana – a forced peace isn’t peace.
God so loves the world that He gives instead of conquers. He serves, instead of slaying. He heals, instead of inflicting hurt and humiliation. God allows himself to become a victim of our violence in order to show us how ridiculous the idea of saving the world through violence really is.
Some might want to proclaim that God is behind them and in support of their passionate, violent pursuit of peace – but here is God, in flesh, showing us that this simply isn’t true. He’s not sponsoring the state violence, but suffering under it. Here’s God, having a crown of thorns pushed on to His head and being mocked. Here’s God being scourged and nailed to a ‘symbol of peace’. Here’s God, crucified, dying from asphyxiation, looking on as people laugh at Him and gamble for His clothes.
Here’s God, being spat out and spat at by humanity. God being treated like scum.
And in the midst of this brutality – brutality done in passion – God doesn’t cry out for vengeance, or seek to close the doors of His Kingdom to His murderers, He cries out, ‘Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing’[ii].
Jesus is so passionate, so humble, that He gives His life to the cause, and not someone else’s.
[i] Mark 15:1-20
[ii] Luke 23:34 (NLT)
Extract is taken from Love: Expressed (Available now in Print & Ebook);