By Marvin A. McMickle
Scripture: Luke 23: 32-45
There is a part of language use called the subjunctive mood that allows us to talk about things that have not yet been achieved, but which might become true or factual at some point in the future when certain conditions have been met. The usual indicator of this subjunctive mood is the presence of the word If at the beginning of the sentence or phrase in question. The best biblical example of the subjunctive mood is found in Psalm 90 where it says, "The days of our lives are three score years and ten. Yet if by reason of strength they be four score years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away." Notice that living four score years is not a certainty. It is a condition that might happen if one has the strength. It is subjunctive. It is marked by the word If.
There is a popular poem by Rudyard Kipling that is entitled, If. Perhaps you have heard a few lines of this poem before.
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs
And blaming it on you ...
If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim ...
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch ...
If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds
Worth of distance run --
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!
Notice that while the promise or hope offered by this poem is everything that Earth can afford, it is all still conditional. It is in the subjunctive mood. It only happens if you can do all the things suggested. Nothing is guaranteed. Certain conditions must first be met. Whenever someone uses the word If, you know there is something more that must be said or done before the matter can be resolved.
That is what is at stake in the Conversation on Calvary that involved the three men who are hanging on crosses next to each other. Jesus is on the center cross. On one side of Jesus is a man who has somehow come to recognize that he is dying in the presence of the Son of God, and this man asks Jesus to remember him when the Lord comes into His kingdom. This man has no doubt, no uncertainty, and no reluctance. He turns to Jesus and calls Him Lord! Notice, however, that this is not the case for the man hanging on the other side of Jesus. He makes no confession of faith. He asks nothing with the conviction that Jesus was able to meet his request. He approaches Jesus in the subjunctive mood, "If you be the Christ, save yourself and us."
This scene on Calvary points to the fundamental challenge that faces everyone as they make up their minds about a relationship with Jesus. Some people are persuaded already. They believe it is possible to "take their burdens to the Lord and leave them there." They accept what Jesus says in John 15:17, "Ask whatever you will and it shall be done unto you." But not everybody is in this group. Some people are still unconvinced. They do not have enough faith even to raise a prayer, much less to believe that prayers can be answered. At worst they are cynical about God, not even believing that God exists. At best, they are subjunctive, giving conditions within which they are challenging God to operate. Perhaps they can be persuaded, If .... Perhaps they will believe, If .... Perhaps God is real, If ....
That is where this text leads us, to a man who could not pray in the affirmative. He could not simply ask for what he wanted. He was not yet convinced that the man dying by His side was able to do what he wanted to have done. So he casts his request in the weakened condition of the subjunctive mood. "If You be the Son of God, save Yourself and us." What a weak and timid way to come before God. How can you pray with power when you are stuck behind the word If? How can you find a sweet relief at the altar of prayer when you can go no further than If?
Why bother to pray at all? Prayer has no wings to soar and no power to dig deep, because it is stifled by the uncertainty and indecisiveness of If.
There may be no more tragic scene in all of the Bible than this scene on Calvary. There, in the middle, is the Son of God. On one side is a man whose bold appeal to Jesus has just won him a place in paradise. And on the other side is a man who can only curse his own condition and challenge Jesus to prove to him that Jesus is who others have claimed Him to be. If ....
I find it interesting that Jesus never bothered to answer that dying man. When the penitent man on the other cross turned to Jesus and called Him Lord, that man was heard and he was blessed beyond measure. But this man received absolutely no response from Jesus. The old song has told us that Jesus "Never said a mumbling word." Well, we know that He did say several things during the time of His trial and crucifixion. The song actually wants to suggest that Jesus never complained about His treatment, and He never looked to blame anybody else for what was happening to Him. But He did speak on several occasions. We know that He spoke seven words from the cross. We know that He spoke to a group of women as He carried His cross through the streets of the city, and fell beneath that heavy weight. However, while Jesus spoke to some people during His hours of suffering and pain, there were others to whom Jesus did not speak a word. This man was one of those people.
Why do you suppose Jesus did not answer that man? I think, first of all, that Jesus did not have to say or do anything more to prove to that man, or anybody else, that He was the Son of God. For three years, while traveling throughout Palestine, Jesus had repeatedly proven who He was. If? Let the use of that word strike you with all of the shock and dismay that it must have had for Jesus. What does a man have to do to prove that He is the Son of God?
When Jesus performed His first miracle and turned water into wine, His mother may have requested it because there was no more wine. Jesus did that miracle, because for the first time He was revealing who He was. When He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the cripples to walk and even raised the dead back to life, He was proving who He was. When He commanded a howling wind to cease its terrible roar simply by saying, "Peace, be still," He was demonstrating beyond doubt that He was the Son of God. When He spoke in parables and preached with power, so much so that the people had to declare, "Never a man spoke like this man," Jesus was revealing who He was. I suspect that Jesus concluded that He had already done enough to show the world who He actually was.
Are you convinced today that Jesus is the Son of God? Do you reach out to Him like the malefactor who went home with Jesus to paradise, or are you still hounded by doubts and uncertainties? Are you still waiting for Jesus to prove Himself to you? What have you said to Jesus in the subjunctive mood? Perhaps you said, "If you are real then heal my body? Is that your condition for believing in God? Some people talk to God like one of my seminary classmates, who told us that He promised God that he would go anywhere God sent him. We were all so impressed by his loyalty and devotion that we almost failed to hear everything that my friend said to the Lord. What he said, in total, was that he would go anywhere the Lord sent him, beginning in New York City where we were living, if it was no farther South than Baltimore and no farther West than Pittsburgh. He was not volunteering to serve, he was establishing the conditions under which he would serve. His was a subjunctive service deemed by that same word If!
There needs to come a time in our lives when we stop asking God to prove Himself to us, and stop giving instructions on how we want God to behave as a precondition for our service and belief. That is how Satan came before Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4. "If you be the Sort of God, turn these stones into bread." Jesus does not need to prove Himself to us. The marks of His majesty and divinity are all around us. What person who once was sick and knows for a certainty that God heard your prayers and raised you from that sick bed, will stand here today and declare that Jesus Christ is Lord? What foul sinner who was snatched from sinking sand and established on a solid rock of faith so that your life today is vastly different than it used to be, will share your conviction that Jesus is the Son of God? Who is able to listen to the words of this song and declare that it speaks the sentiments of your own heart?
O how well do I remember, how I doubted day by day;
For I did not know for certain that my sins were Washed away;
When the Spirit tried to tell me, I would not the truth receive
I endeavored to be happy, and to make myself believe.
But it's real, it's real,
O I know it's real;
Praise God, the doubts are settled,
For I know, I know it's real.
Jesus did not answer that dying man, because He had already said and done enough that should have settled that man's doubts. What about you and me? Do you know in your heart that Jesus is real, or are you still waiting, throwing up ifs, and standing in the subjunctive mood until Jesus proves Himself to you?
The second reason why I think Jesus gave that man no answer, is because unlike the other dying man who did confess his own sins and acknowledge his wrongdoing, this man wanted to be saved from his suffering without acknowledging his sins. That is not the kind of thing that sends Jesus into action. With Christ things work in the exact opposite order. It is not a matter of Him living up to our standards and expectations, but us responding in the way that He expects. I love that verse in I John 1:9 that says, "If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse from all unrighteousness." Notice, however, that in this verse the first step belongs to us. If we confess our sins then God will act. We are not establishing the conditions for a future relationship, it is God who is setting the terms.
This is the way God worked with Israel in the Old Testament as well. Where in the Book of Exodus does Israel say to God, "If you get us out of Egypt, then we will serve you and be your people?" No. It worked the other way around. God called all the people together at the foot of Mt. Sinai and said, "If you will hear my voice and keep my commandments then I will be your God and you will be my people. It is not we who must test God to see if God is faithful to His word. It is always God who tests us to see if we can and will be faithful to our word.
The faithfulness and power of God should never be our concern. God is faithful enough to wake us up each morning to see another day, but it is entirely up to us whether or not we wake up singing: "I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus. Hallelujah!" God is faithful enough to give us the continued activity of our limbs and our mind. It is entirely up to us, however, whether or not we are willing to sing,
"Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.
Take my moments and my days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise ..."
It is not God, but us, who must stand beneath the scrutiny of the word If. It is not God, but us, who must be proven to be faithful.
Do not test Jesus, just trust Him. Let us not ask Jesus to prove Himself faithful to us. Instead, let us seek with all of our hearts to prove ourselves faithful to Him. See how these two men represent the right and wrong way to pray to the Lord. One man turned to Jesus out of an attitude of trust, and his reward for that was a home in paradise that he would inherit that same day. The other man sought to put Jesus to the test, to make Jesus prove to that man's satisfaction that Jesus really was the Son of God. That man received nothing at all.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this man with his subjunctive relationship to Christ was asking for something that was impossible to accomplish. He said to Jesus, "Save yourself and us." He obviously did not understand the theology of the cross. He did not comprehend the issue of substitutionary atonement or vicarious suffering. This man did not know anything about Isaiah 53, where it says that "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquity, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." Do we all understand that Jesus could not do both of the things this man was requesting? Jesus could not save Himself and us. In fact, Jesus could only save us by not saving Himself. By staying on that cross, Jesus was paying the penalty for all sinners for all time. He was dying the death that we deserved as the consequence for our disobedience toward God. By staying on that cross, He was wiping away the stain of our sins from before the eyes of God.
Understand that Jesus could have come down. The story has no power if there was no possibility of His coming down. But He had more than enough power to come down. If He could raise Lazarus up from the grave, He had enough power to come down from the cross. If He could feed five thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread, He had enough power to come down from the cross. And God who was watching in heaven also had the power to intervene at any moment and rescue His Son from that instrument of torture and death. He could have sent ten thousand angels to wing their way down from the positions in heaven and set Him free from that cross. He could have shaken the earth, as He would later do for Paul and Silas when their prison doors shook open and their chains shook off. The point is that Jesus could have come down from that cross. The Gospel is that He would not come down, because He was willingly sacrificing His own life so that He could save your life and mine from the penalty of sin.
And by the way, this is why I claim Jesus as my savior and Lord. I am glad that He fed five thousand souls one day on a mountainside in Galilee, but that did not feed my stomach. I am glad He turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana, but my thirst was not quenched. I am glad that He was able to calm an angry storm that swept over the Sea of Galilee, but I was not threatened by those howling winds and crashing waves. But when He died out there on Calvary, He was dying there for me. When He shed His blood on that cross, He was washing away my sins. When He sacrificed His life, it was so I would be able to enjoy abundant life and inherit eternal life when I die.
There are no Ifs in my relationship with Christ, Here are only affirmations. He is my Rock in a weary land. He is my shelter in the time of storm. He is my deliverer from the strong hand of Satan. He is my key to the gates of glory. He is "My help in ages past and my hope for years to come, my shelter from the stormy blast and my eternal home.
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