Jul 20, 2021
St Paul’s letter to the Christians of Galatia is a closely reasoned argument and it is probably not fair to him to pick out just one verse. However it is characteristic of Paul’s style of writing that every so often he expresses some aspect of the Christian faith so vividly that his words imprint themselves on our minds. One such verse is Galatians 2: 20:
‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.’
Martin Luther’s lectures on Galatians were published in 1535. About this verse he wrote, ‘Mark well the little words, “for me”. The whole weight of Christ’s saving work was on this “for me”, and the way each of us responds to it.’
Charles Wesley, a faithful servant of Christ deeply versed in the Scriptures, received ordination as a priest of the Church of England in 1735. On Pentecost Sunday, 21 May 1738, he lay seriously ill in bed. Some friends read to him the comments of Luther on that verse from Galatians. Wesley felt a deep awakening of the presence of Christ in him and soon wrote the hymn, ‘And can it be . . . ‘. 1
This hymn of Charles Wesley’s is a favourite, not just because of its rousing tune, but because it gives words to the living personal relationship with Christ that Christians experience.
‘And can it be . . .’ is the inspiration for these studies. Wesley’s knowledge of the Scriptures was comprehensive, and each verse breathes the spirit of words of Scripture. As we work through these studies the aim is for each one of us to share Wesley’s ‘deep awakening of the presence of Christ’.
We live in a time which has seen large numbers of new Christian songs written and sung. Many worshippers relate more positively to the contemporary musical idiom than they do to the music of hymns. Many others find that a blend of contemporary and traditional enables them to worship in a way that is modern and immediate and which also shows how relevant the great truths of the gospel are to the life they are called to live day by day.
Hymns are simply Christian poems that have been set to music, and many of them are prayers. Sometimes it is helpful just to read their words and to appreciate them as poetry and devotion. For that reason the concluding prayers for each study are selections from hymns.
The studies have been written to be used either by groups or by individuals. The aim of the process is to support anyone who undertakes the studies to engage directly with the words of Scripture. The questions are designed to help this happen – but if you have other or better questions, try to answer them also.
Opening and closing prayers have been provided for each study, but please think of them as a minimum. Groups may have their own regular practice of shared prayer, and individuals also will have their regular prayers to add in.
At some points you are asked to read a Scripture passage from your own Bible, and at others the passage is printed in the study. I have used a variety of different translations for these.
It has been said that ‘And can it be’ is a superb creed setting out the process of salvation. I pray that it will be so for you as you work through these studies, each of which explores one verse of the hymn.
Study 1: For me, who caused his pain
(Who caused Jesus to be crucified?)
Almighty God, our Father,
as we reflect upon the words of Scripture,
we pray that you will grant us the gift of the Holy Spirit,
so that we may learn the truth that is written there,
and be able to live by that truth day by day,
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain –
for me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Please read the Introduction if you have not already done so!
We begin with a little background information.
Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and it was enthusiastically received by large crowds of people. When news of his successful ministry reached Jerusalem it attracted the attention of at least three groups of people: the scribes, the Pharisees and the chief priests.
The scribes were experts in the Law that had been given to the Jewish people through Moses. The Revised English Bible reflects this by calling them ‘Doctors of the Law’, and the Good News Bible calls them ‘teachers of the Law’. Good teachers tend to be in love with their subject, and the scribes were certainly in love with the Law. Because it was precious to them they studied it carefully.
The Pharisees were devout people who believed that keeping the Law was the way to be in a right relationship with God. So they looked carefully at every commandment. When they found one that was expressed in general terms they worked out in detail how it should be kept, and insisted that the ordinary people should obey their rules.
At the period when Jesus lived there were two ways in which people could take part in corporate worship. The first of these took place in the local synagogues and consisted of readings from the Scriptures, prayers, and an exposition of the particular passages of Scripture that had been read. It is the model upon which our Christian worship is based. The second could happen only in the Temple at Jerusalem. The central acts of Temple worship were offerings of various sorts, many of which were sacrifices of animals. Temple worship also included music and singing. The Temple was the centre for annual festivals such as the Passover and Pentecost, and every faithful Jew wanted to be in Jerusalem for these if they could possibly make the journey.
The Temple precinct was overlooked by the Antonia Fort, manned by a garrison of Roman soldiers who were always on the alert for any sign of insurrection and quick to stamp out any sign of trouble. The chief priests, who had overall responsibility for the Temple worship, were careful to ensure that nothing happened to bring the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem, especially at the festival times when the city was crowded with worshippers.
In fairness we should assume that all three groups were genuine in their dedication to God and the proper practice of their religion.
Who caused Jesus to be crucified?
Was it the scribes and Pharisees?
The following passages tell us about times when scribes or Pharisees observed the way Jesus carried out his ministry.
As you read them, put yourself in the position of a scribe or Pharisee. How do you react to what you see and hear?
Luke 5: 17 – 26
Matthew 15: 1- 9
Was it the chief priests?
Read Mark 11: 15 – 18
How would you explain the vehemence of the scribes’ and chief priests’ reaction?
Read Mark 14: 55 – 64
The holiness of God was foundational in the Jewish religion. God’s holiness was so revered that it was forbidden even to pronounce his name, ‘Yahweh’ [I am].
How reasonable or unreasonable was it of the Jewish Council to find Jesus guilty of blasphemy and therefore deserving of death?
The chief priests feature again in our next reading, together with others.
Read Mark 15: 1 – 15
The chief priests’ focus is still the same: that Jesus should die. What else will they achieve if Pilate convicts him?
Was it Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judaea?
Was it the ordinary people?
The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was maintained throughout the Empire by governors appointed by Rome. They were responsible for ensuring that the power of Rome was maintained. No challenge to Rome’s power could be countenanced.
Look at this reading from Pilate’s point of view. He has the authority to set Jesus free or to order that he be crucified. What factors is he considering before making his decision? Which seems to him to carry the most weight?
The inscription placed upon Jesus’ cross was ‘The King of the Jews’, so Pilate’s final decision was to have Jesus crucified on a charge of sedition.
We who live in a free country have no experience of what it would be like to live under an oppressive regime. The Roman Empire provided security, but it came at the price of brutal oppression. Keep in mind the deep longing of the Jewish people to be free, and their tacit support of any leader who might achieve freedom for them.
Even so, how would you explain the people’s readiness to call for Jesus to be crucified?
Was it people who were faithful in the practice of their religion?
Jesus was crucified during the Passover Festival. Another great Jewish festival, the Day of Pentecost, occurred fifty days later, and again the city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims, many from the Jewish countryside and many from far-flung parts of the Roman Empire.
The words of the sermon that Luke reports Peter as preaching on that momentous day express the message preached by the earliest church. Our focus in this study is on what is said in these selected verses: Acts 2: 22-24, 32 – 33, 36 (Revised English Bible translation)
‘Men of Israel, hear me: I am speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, singled out by God and made known to you through miracles, portents and signs, which God worked among you through him, as you well know. By the deliberate will and plan of God he was given into your power, and you killed him, using heathen men to crucify him. But God raised him to life again, setting him free from the pangs of death, because it could not be that death should keep him in its grip. . . . Now Jesus has been raised by God, and of this we are all witnesses. Exalted at God’s right hand he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and all that you now see and hear flows from him. . . . Let all Israel then accept as certain that God has made this same Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’
When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Friends, what are we to do?’
While there is a small possibility that some of the Pentecost Day crowd had also been among the crowd which shouted for Jesus to be crucified, this would certainly not be true of the majority – and yet they were ‘cut to the heart’ when Peter said that they had crucified God’s Messiah.
Why do you think they responded as they did?
If that question seems too difficult to answer, how helpful do you find any of the following?
Was it every person who has ever lived?
As the members of the early church meditated upon the death of Jesus, it found one of the Songs of God’s Suffering Servant that seemed a perfect fit. We read part of that Song, Isaiah 53: 1(b) – 6 (Good News Bible translation):
Who would have believed what we now report?
Who could have seen the Lord’s hand in this?
It was the will of the Lord that his servant
should grow like a plant taking root in dry ground.
He had no dignity or beauty
to make us take notice of him.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing that would draw us to him.
We despised him and rejected him;
he endured suffering and pain.
No one would even look at him –
we ignored him as if he were nothing.
But he endured the suffering that should have been ours,
the pain that we should have borne.
All the while we thought that his suffering
was punishment sent by God.
But because of our sins he was wounded,
beaten because of the evil we did.
We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
made whole by the blows he received.
All of us were like sheep that were lost,
each of us going his own way.
But the Lord made the punishment fall on him,
the punishment all of us deserved.
This poem places the responsibility for the death of Jesus squarely upon us and upon our sinfulness. Like Peter’s audience on the Day of Pentecost, we are just as sinful as those who were directly responsible for crucifying Jesus.
Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah are all about God’s forgiveness of his people and his restoration of them to a right relationship with himself. But this is not an easy process: it is costly. In the figure of the Suffering Servant we see the cost. Sin and wrongdoing have bad consequences. Those bad consequences ought to fall upon the people who have committed the sins – but instead they fall upon the suffering servant. His voluntary acceptance of that suffering was and is the means by which God reconciles sinners to himself.
Share your responses to the Suffering Servant poem and to the comments upon it.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee;
‘twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation,
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.
Verses 2, 4 and 5 of AHB 254, ‘Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen’
Johann Heerman 1585 – 1647
translated by Robert Seymour Bridges 1844 – 1930