Fifty years ago, this past November, one of the most highly acclaimed films of all times was released by MGM. It was an extravaganza that received eleven Academy awards, including best picture.
Following the magnificently beautiful overture, but before the credits began to run, there appeared on the screen a map of Judea and the words, Anno Domini (the year of the Lord).
Next we see streets teeming with people in the clothing of the day, as the narrator begins telling the story of the world at that time under Caesar Augustus. He tells us that the Empire of Rome had been ruling the land of Judea for almost one hundred years, and that all of Judah had been summoned to their ancestral cities to participate in a census.
For the next five to ten minutes hardly a word is spoken, and most of the sound we hear is the beautiful music scored for the film, as we watch three men searching the darkened heavens and carefully observing a prophesied star move across the sky and settle over a village. These regally dressed men, accompanied by their servants, and bearing beautiful chests of treasure, then make their way to the place where the star has stopped and, while the curious are looking on, these royal visitors bow their faces to the ground, and place their treasure chests before a baby being watched over by His young mother and her husband.
Finally, one of the men outside the stable lifts a shofar to the heavens and blows the horn. Suddenly the music rises to a crescendo and the words BEN-HUR appear on the screen, followed by the next frame which reads, "A Tale of the Christ."
This is not a detailed look at the physical ministry of Jesus Christ, (as a matter of fact, Jesus is only seen preaching once in the entire film, and that from a long distance off). The other few times we see Him, it is only from the back or a part of his anatomy such as His hands or arms. The film probably grasps the essence of what He did, and what we must do better, than most any other film that has been produced in this world through the story that it tells.
Just as great novelists, like Leon Uris and James Michener, weave a fictional story through the events of the time and place to give us a sense of the real history that had taken place at a particular time, so too Ben-Hur gives us the essence of Christ's mission, and what our response to it must be!
Ben-Hur is a beautiful, although lengthy film, probably best remembered, by most, for the exciting eleven minutes of the Chariot race in the Great Arena at Jerusalem. But to those who continue to learn to appreciate the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it is a very pointed tale from beginning to end.
Judah Ben-Hur was a prince of the Jews, and was one of the richest and most powerful men in Israel. He was a devoted Jew, following both the traditions and religion of his people. He was roughly the same age as Jesus, but as a boy his closest friend was the son of the Roman governor.
The film actually begins in the year 26 AD, with the arrival of the new Roman Tribune who was second in authority only to the Roman Governor and in charge of all the legions garrisoned in Judea.
During the Roman Legion's pompous march through Judea, accompanying the new Tribune to take office in Jerusalem, they pass by the very home of Jesus, Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, and the scene quietly establishes for us the reason for Jesus' life, as a man, to be about His Father's business.
It turns out that the new Tribune is Judah Ben-Hur's best boyhood friend Messala, who has purposely requested the post that he had always dreamed of commanding as a boy.
Judah is ecstatic over the return of his friend, but that sours quickly as Messala tries to coerce Judah into supporting the Roman occupation, and share with him the glory of great stature within the world that is Rome.
After Judah's refusal to betray his people, Messala maliciously uses an unfortunate accidental injury to the new Roman Governor of Judea, as he passed the home of Hur, on his way to take office in Jerusalem. He decided to spitefully use the whole family of Judah Ben-Hur as an example of swift Roman justice and punishment to all who would resist the power of Rome, even to his closest friend, the wealthiest, most powerful, and peaceful man among the Jews. He falsely accused the whole family of being part of a plot to kill the Emperor's new governor.
Judah was condemned into slavery as an oarsman aboard the Roman galleys, and his mother and sister were thrown into the vile Roman dungeon. Judah becomes filled with a hateful desire to avenge the malicious harm perpetrated on him and especially his family, and he vows to Messala that he would be back.
As Judah is being herded across the wilderness chained to other condemned men, the group stops before the house we had seen before as the place where Jesus' family lived and worked. As all these men were literally dying of thirst, the chief Roman Guard commanded that water be brought for the soldiers first, then the horses and then the prisoners who were on foot; everyone, that is, except Judah.
It is at this point that we see Judah crumble to the ground as every part of his body is in pain from dehydration, and he himself cries out to God as he is dying. A man who had been sawing wood in the house of Joseph comes out, and in defiance of the soldiers gives Judah water, and gently washes the dirt from his face and neck while the soldiers look on; for some reason afraid to approach him.
Judah spends the next three years as a condemned slave, barely surviving in the bowels of Roman war ships, but driven by the hate and the thought of revenge, that keeps him going.
As fate would have it, or, as Judah makes clear to the Roman Consul, Quintus Arius, who takes over the fleet. As the one true God would have it; Judah ends up saving Quintus Arius' life. During the midst of a sea battle with the Macedonians that seemed to be a total loss at the time, Judah pulled the Consul from the sea onto a piece of flotsam. In fact the battle turned out to be a complete and total victory for the Consul's command.
As an aside from the focus of this sermon, when they were rescued and informed that the victory was decisive, and the honors of victory belonged to him, Quintus Arius made a curious statement to Judah Ben-Hur, saying in jest, "in His eagerness to save you, your God has saved the whole Roman Fleet." This may have produced a chuckle to the film goer, but to us it should have a ring of truth to it. Keeping in mind what God tells us in Isaiah 55:8 and 9, sometimes we just do not see things as God does, and sometimes things just do not seem right to us.
Anyway, because of his victory, and because of his gratitude to Judah, Quintus Arius, on his return to Rome, requests the Emperor to give him Judah Ben-Hur as his own personal servant, which the Emperor gladly did.
Arius, as Consul, was one of the two most important men, in all of Rome, under the authority of the Roman Empire. He owned many properties, including people like gladiators and charioteers, who raced chariots, each drawn by four charging horses in the arena at Rome, called the Great Circus. Chariot races were as big a sport in the Roman Empire as football would be in the United States, and to drive in the Great Circus was like the Super Bowl of chariot racing.
Judah Ben-Hur became the most celebrated charioteer over the next six to twelve months. But more importantly, he gained so much favor in the eyes of Arius that he not only freed Judah, but he adopted him as his very son to replace his son that had died.
This now meant that, under Roman law, Judah Ben-Hur was now legally Quintus Arius, the younger, heir to everything that his adoptive father had. With the ring of his Roman father's seal upon his hand, he was now one of the most privileged men in the Empire, entitled to all the rights and privileges of a true son. He was the number two man in the whole Roman Empire!
Although Arius, the elder wanted his son to stay in Rome, he knew, thinking as a Roman would, that after all these years and the hate that kept Judah going, he needed to go back to his native land to free his family and exact his revenge, as any man in the Roman world should!
In the caravan on the way back to Jerusalem, he meets an old man by the name of Balthazar, who we find was one of the three bearing gifts at the start of the film, and was now searching for the man who was sent to bring light into the world. Judah also befriends an Arab sheik, who has his own prized horses that he would like Judah to race for him in the Arena at Jerusalem. The sheik, knowing the hate and desire to avenge his family that is eating away at Judah, tells him that the Tribune Messala is the champion in the races at Jerusalem, doing whatever he has to do to win. Many deaths occur in such races, therefore, it would be an excellent opportunity for Judah to exact his avenge on Messala. Not only that but what sweet revenge it would be for a Jew to beat a Roman!
Judah declines and said he would take care of Messala in his own way. Balthazar warns him that the hate and desire for revenge was eating him up, and only God had the right to judge, and God would take care of Messala in His own time.
Upon his return to Jerusalem, he finds old friends that tell him that no one has seen his family since that dreadful day almost five years before. He then confronts Messala himself, and demands under the authority of Quintus Arius, that he produce his mother and sister, and that he would forget what he was going to do to him. He wanted them produced within the next twenty-four hours.
Upon returning to his house, Esther, who was the love of his life, tells him that his mother and sister were dead. She begs him not to continue to let the hate of vengeance eat him up, but to leave Judea and go back to Rome.
Instead, Judah goes back to the Arabian sheik and takes him up on his offer to drive against Messala in the Great Arena.
In the course of the race, as Messala does everything he can to destroy the other dozen racers as they wield their four horse teams around the track. He himself becomes the victim of his own foul play and gets trampled by a number of stampeding chariots and horses.
Judah wins the race, and immediately becomes the Jews' symbol of hope against the Romans, and therefore a threat.
At the same time, we see the mutilated and dying Messala lying on the surgeon's table, but refusing to let him do anything before Judah comes, as he knew he would. It is here that Judah finds out from a dying Messala, who has grasped Judah's cloak with his bloodied fist to pull him nearer, that the race is not over. He snarls with his dying breath, that Judah's mother and sister were found in the bowels of the prison when Judah requested it, and that he can find them in the Valley of the Lepers.
Judah makes his way to the Valley of the Lepers, only to run into Esther, who is bringing food and supplies to his mother and sister. As he demands to see them, and asks why Esther betrayed him, not telling of their fate, they begin to appear from inside a cave in the side of the valley, covered with rags to cover the horrible disfigurement of leprosy. Esther pleads with Judah to hide himself, because they made her promise that she would never tell him they were alive in such a state. It would kill them if they knew Judah knew the truth. So Judah unwillingly forced himself behind a rock so that they could not see him.
The experience drove him further into the depths of the hateful desire for revenge.
As he and Esther are going back to Jerusalem from the leper colony, they come across people streaming to the side of a hill. Among them was his old friend Balthazar, who tells him he has found the One who is the light of the world. Esther, upon hearing this, joins the crowd going to the place where Jesus is teaching. As Judah looks on momentarily from the distance, he reaches down and cups some water in his hand to drink from a stream. He tells Balthazar, once when he was near death, a man had given him water to preserve his life, and yet he said now he thought it would have been better if that water had been dumped into the dirt.
His hate had become so consuming, that Esther told him later that he had actually become Messala. She tries to convince him to listen to the young Rabbi about forgiveness, but he refuses. Instead he vows to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, a close friend of his adoptive father Arius, to make the streets run red with Roman blood. Pilate warns him that he has had his revenge; Messala had been destroyed. Pursuing it further would make him the sworn enemy of Rome, that he was too dangerous as the Jewish hero to do nothing about it, and there was nothing that Pontius Pilate could do, even as a friend of Arius to stop it.
Judah replied that he knew Messala from the time that they were boys, and what Messala became was not what he was, but what the world of Rome made him, and it would not be over until every Roman was driven from the streets of Judea.
The thing that he could not see though is that he himself, was also being shaped by human nature of that very world he hated, by his thirst for vengeance.
It is here that he goes back to the Valley of the Lepers only to find that his sister was dying and there was no hope. But Esther, having seen the miraculous healings of Jesus of Nazareth, convinces him that her only hope is to take her to Jerusalem; to the young Rabbi, who preached forgiveness, and has performed so many miracles.
Esther helps Judah's mother, and Judah carries his sister from the Valley of the Lepers, all the way to Jerusalem, only to find the streets abandoned because all had gone to the trial of Jesus of Nazareth.
They find a spot along the way to Calvary and see the broken and beaten body of Christ, fall under the weight of the stake he was carrying. Suddenly, Judah says, "I know this man! He gave me water and gave me the strength to live! What could He have done?"
It is here that Judah tells Esther to take care of his mother and sister while he followed the procession and tried to give water to the man who had given him water and life.
When Judah reaches the site of the crucifixion he finds his old friend Balthazar, and as they watch Jesus being nailed to the stake and hoisted into position, Judah again asks what He could have possibly done to deserve this. To which Balthazar replies that He had done nothing, but He had taken our sins, and the sins of the world, on Himself.
As the film ends, Judah is walking back into the courtyard of his home and is greeted by Esther. He tells her that one of the very last things Jesus of Nazareth said was, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do". The last words of the film are then spoken as Judah Ben-Hur turns to walk up the stairs from the courtyard, telling Esther, "Suddenly His voice took the sword out of my hand!"
As he looks up the stairs, he sees his mother and sister who were no longer lepers, but had been miraculously healed at the moment Christ had died, as His blood mixed at the bottom of the stake with the water from the storm.
I apologize to any of you that may consider taking almost half the sermon time to tell you the story of a movie but I think, as we approach the Passover, four weeks from tomorrow night, it may help us see something very important as we carefully examine our Passover lamb, and our response to Him.
Please turn with me to Hebrews 3, and as we are reading this I want you to please consider whose voice is really being heard in verses 8 through 11 in quoting Psalm 95. It is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.
Hebrews 3:1, 6-19 Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.' So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'" Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
Remember what the very last line of "Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ" was? "Suddenly His voice took the sword out of my hand." We should be hearing that voice.
Brethren, we need to ask ourselves as we approach the Passover, and renew our covenant agreement to live as He lives. Do we really hear His voice, and believe what His voice says? Or, are we allowing our hearts to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, as we read about in verse 13?
Hebrews 4:14-16, tells us of our Passover Lamb.
Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Brethren, do we really believe that we have a High Priest who understands what we are going through? In some way, shape or form, as the Word who became fully man, He experienced it Himself, and will intercede on our behalf, no matter what.
Have we examined our Passover Lamb closely enough, both in our prayerful studies, and in living as He lives, so that we can boldly "...hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end," as we read in Hebrews 3:6, of those who are "in the house"?
I said at the beginning of this message that I thought "Ben-Hur, A Tale of The Christ" grasped the essence of what Jesus does for us, and what our response needs to be. Through the progression of the story, we see that we are merely men tossed to and fro by the vain thinking of this world. But, this leads to death, and until we truly believe God and change our response, within our own circumstances, to the holiness of the way of God, then we too remain on a path to destruction.
The story in the film does not deal with the broad range of choices that we will continually need to make through our lifetime to remain on the path to holiness. But, through this one story of dealing with the choices made in the area of vengeance, we see the essence of Christ's work and what our response to it must be, if we really listen to the one who speaks, and if we really want to share His peace.
Luke 6:27-28, 33-38 But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.
Verse 27 says that to those who hear the Voice and believe the One who speaks.
This also was the parabolic lesson of the film, "Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ".
In verse 28, the voice of the Lamb of God tells us to pray for those that despitefully use us. Are we really doing this, and more importantly do we really believe that this can be done?
"Despitefully use" is translated from the word epereazo (ep-ay-reh-ad'-zo) and its meaning, as taken from a number of different lexicons, can be: despitefully use; falsely accuse; abuse; mistreat with the implication of threats and abuse; to treat abusively.
How many of us are still carrying some kind of sword of vengeance in our hand? How many of us down deep do not really believe that our Passover Lamb totally understands what we are going through, and can remove this sword if only we choose the path to holiness that He has opened to us?
Look at what the Lamb of God offers us IF we believe Him, and follow His lead.
John 14:21-24, 27 He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, "Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?" Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
The destructive sword of revenge is replaced by peace if we follow His lead.
Hebrews 12:1-4, 12-14 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord:
Christ our Passover has resisted unto blood so that following in His way of peace can heal us!
I would like to read to you what Adam Clarke's commentary has to say about Matthew 5:44, which is part of the companion scripture to what we read in Luke 6.
[Love your enemies]
This is the most sublime piece of morality ever given to man. Has it appeared unreasonable and absurd to some? It has. And why? Because it is natural to man to avenge himself, and plague those who plague him; and he will ever find abundant excuse for his conduct, in the repeated evils he receives from others; for men are naturally hostile to each other...
But who can obey it? None but he who has the mind of Christ...
Every false religion flatters man, and accommodates itself to his pride and his passions. None but God could have imposed a yoke so contrary to self-love; and nothing but the supreme eternal love can enable men to practice a precept so insupportable to corrupt nature. Sentiments like this are found among Asiatic writers, and in select cases were strongly applied; but as a general command this was never given by them, or any other people.
Brethren, I would like you to notice how Adam Clarke referred to this command from God. He calls it a yoke.
What does Jesus say about this type of "yoke"?
Matthew 11:25-30 At that time Jesus answered and said, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
Those who are called by the Father share this yoke with Jesus Christ.
A yoke is a bar or frame of wood by which two animals are joined at the head or neck in order to work together effectively in pulling a plow, harrow, or wagon.
If we believe Hebrews 4:14-16, then we can be yoked with the One who has truly suffered as we have suffered, and is able to guide us in the way which will give us the lightest load even now. But we must believe and choose now to do as He has done.
I actually started preparing this sermon the day after we returned home from the Feast of Tabernacles. On that day I got the same flu that so many of you did during the Feast this year. But this time for me, anyway, it was different than any time I had ever been sick before.
As I was getting dressed in the morning, I became so thirsty and the dehydration became so bad that, without exaggeration, most every bone, muscle, and organ in my body was in excruciating pain. I could not believe how agonizing it was, but it only lasted until I was able to get a few glasses of water into my system.
However, all the time it was happening, all I could think of was Jesus' words, "I thirst". After it passed I started to think, do we really believe that Jesus Christ, who lived and died as a man for our sins, was in that much horrible distress over a much longer period of time for us, or do we just see it as recorded in John 19:28, "that the scriptures might be fulfilled, He said, I thirst"? Perhaps giving us the impression that Jesus did not really suffer as we suffer, like some people would like to have you believe.
Brethren, our Passover Lamb's pain and suffering was torture, because that is what sin does and He took all of our sins upon Him!
I did not intend for "Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ" to become the running example for this message, but I remembered the scene where Judah Ben-Hur was dying from lack of water, and Jesus came to his aid, so I decided to watch the film again.
I intended to use my own experience with the short-term pain of dehydration to start looking at all of the different real physical torments Christ endured so that we all might more carefully prepare for the Passover.
But as I watched that film and was so moved by it from beginning to end, I realized that we can look into every excruciating detail of that sacrifice, but we can only appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ when we submit ourselves to the voice that we have been given the privilege to hear, and learn to do as He has done.
It is that time of year for us to take account of ourselves and of our lives. How much of the peace of God reigns in our lives because we are making the right choices to holiness? This is a life-long process, and it will not end at this Feast of Passover, and it will not end until God says that it is over, and we have become more like Him.
We do not have to continue to hold the sword in our hand, or in our heart, and we need to examine how carefully we are listening to the voice, and continue adjusting our walk in this life to be like His, and we will have the peace of God reigning in us.
Hebrews 10:19-25 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.