One of my favorite pastimes is reading the obituary page in the newspaper. I know it seems macabre to admit that I actually “enjoy” reading the obituaries, but I do; I always have. I love to read about the spectacular triumphs of average, everyday people. Their determination to conquer the challenges we all face is often hidden in life by their humility. Once they have passed from this life, however, their sterling character and true accomplishments break out with abandon onto the obituary page for all to see.
Like the day I stumbled across the obituary of an elderly widow from Eastern Europe. This dear woman somehow managed to transplant her family of seven children to the United States during the 1970’s in hope of beginning a new life in Portland, Oregon. She had little money, knew only one person, and spoke no English. Neither did any of her children. Her obituary explained that she only brought a few family photographs, the meager money that remained after her trip fare, and her unrelenting faith that God would take care of her. Written by her children decades after her journey to the States, her obituary gave tangible tribute that God did, indeed, care for her.
An obituary contains the text of history in real time. Someone has said that each time a person dies, one volume of history dies too. It’s true. We lose an entire segment of our corporate record when just one person dies. That’s why I love talking with military veterans. They have within their memories a living chronicle of America’s history that I find much more compelling than the dry textbooks I’ve read over the years.
Another of my favorite pastimes is wandering through graveyards and reading the epitaphs on headstones.
Sometimes it’s not the sterling character that inspires me in an epitaph, but the brutal honesty. Here are some surprising epitaphs:
“Here lies a man named Zeke. Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.” Does that not tell you all you need to know about Zeke?
“He got a fish-bone in his throat and then he sang an angel note.” That one must have been written long before we all learned the Heimlich Maneuver.
I love the honesty of this one: “During his life he excelled at mediocrity.”
This one’s a little scary, though: “He bought the farm Thursday, having lived more than twice as long as he had expected and probably 3 or 4 times as long as he deserved.”
An epitaph recorded about a man who had written one screenplay and then spent 30 years trying to sell it to Hollywood, was forever memorialized by just four words: “He tried. He died.” Having written a few of my own screenplays over the years, I’ve never forgotten it. In fact, I quickly migrated back to inspirational writing shortly after reading that man’s epitaph!
My absolute favorite headstone is very simple and tells the viewer everything they need to know about the one buried there. It is actually the headstone of a man that used to attend our church. His daughter took me to see it several years ago. The headstone records his full name and is then followed by:
Born: (with the date of his birth),
Born Again: (with the date of his commitment to Christ)
Risen: (with the date of his death).
The Bible is full of epitaphs for those who have walked across the stage of God’s drama during the ages:
Abraham – “Friend of God”
Moses – “The servant of the Lord”
Joseph – “Distinguished among his brothers”
David – “A man after God’s own heart”
Enoch – “Walked with God”
Barnabas – “Son of Encouragement”
And the not so encouraging:
Judas – The Betrayer
Thomas – The Doubter
As Easter approaches this year, I have been thinking about the epitaphs written for Jesus. There are a lot of names recorded for Jesus in the Bible, so there are plenty from which I can choose, but I can’t narrow it down to just one. It is a similar conundrum to what family members face after the loss of a loved one. They can’t just put “loving father” on a headstone when their loved one may have been a son, father, friend, musician, and songwriter. They want to include it all.
Well, for me “King of the Jews” covers most of Jesus’ epitaph, but not quite all of it.
In Jeremiah 23:5, the prophet declares that a king will come and reign over Israel. This king will bring wisdom, justice, righteousness, and security to the land. That promise is repeated again in Jeremiah 30:21 when Israel is told to be watchful for a ruler who will come from among them and yet be qualified to directly approach God.
A king was promised, and the nation waited. The Babylonians came, but there was no designated king for them. The Assyrians and Persians each took their turn, and still Israel stood by hoping for the king God had commissioned. Alexander invaded, and once again; Israel endured. Finally, Pompey seized control of the nation in 63 BC and folded Israel into the Roman Empire. All the while, Israel still waited for her promised king who had yet to make his entrance.
Kings come and go all the time, so it shouldn’t have been a big deal for a king to come and rule such a tiny nation, as was Israel. Well, not unless there was somebody else already ruling Israel who would have been displaced because of him. King Herod already possessed the title, “King of the Jews.” It was bestowed on him by the Roman Senate when they gave him the appointment to Judea. The Senate also gave Herod an army to ensure his success. By the time there were rumblings of a new king’s arrival, Herod was in no mood to share power with anyone.
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem in Matthew, chapter 2, and began to ask for the one born King of the Jews. Obviously, that wasn’t Herod. Herod was “appointed” King of the Jews, not “born” King of the Jews. When King Herod got wind of their search, he knew they weren’t asking for him, and he grew angry. He would allow no competition for his throne! Eventually, Herod slaughtered all of the male children under age two just to make his point and eliminate any potential threat to his own authority. The “slaughter of innocents” is a tragic reminder that Jesus’ coming as the King of the Jews had dire consequences for the world around him.
Being dubbed, “King of the Jews” also had dire consequences for Jesus as well. It was the use of this very title that landed him in front of Pontius Pilate in John 18:36-37. After the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus’ spiritual claim as the Son of God declaring it to be blasphemy, they also rejected his civic claim as King of the Jews. Once Jesus was tried and convicted by the leadership, they turned him over to Roman authorities to do what they could not do – take his life.
The King of the Jews was a title of civic distinction. It designated an earthly assignment. Who knew such a simple epitaph could cause so much anger and resentment? Well, the anger of that title paled in comparison to the roiling water generated by Jesus’ second epitaph.
Jesus was often referred to as the “Son of God” throughout the Gospels to designate Jesus’ spiritual authority to represent mankind before the Father. It is used during Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, at Jesus’ baptism when God speaks from heaven declaring Jesus to be his son, during the transfiguration, during Peter’s declaration to Jesus, by Satan when tempting Jesus in the desert, by people mocking Jesus at his crucifixion, and finally by John when he describes the purpose of his Gospel. John said he wrote it so that people would believe Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.
One of the most moving uses of Jesus’ epitaph, “Son of God,” occurs at the foot of the cross. Jesus has just given up his spirit, breathed his last, and died. Hours of darkness have hovered over Jerusalem, an earthquake rocked the area, and the temple veil was rent from top to bottom and dead people have returned from their graves and are now walking among the crucifixion onlookers.
Pandemonium is everywhere. This is no ordinary crucifixion.
In the midst of all this chaos, one Roman centurion gets a glimpse of God’s bigger picture for Jesus’ crucifixion. The centurion, a military leader of men, has just fulfilled his orders to kill the King of the Jews. With all the supernatural events surrounding him, one could easily assume that the centurion was declaring Jesus cleared of the charge against him, when he said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” The charge that condemned Jesus to death and brought him under the jurisdiction of the centurion was his claim to be the King of the Jews.
Jesus was the King of the Jews, and he claimed to be the King of the Jews. He wasn’t innocent of that charge.
So what was the centurion declaring Jesus innocent of?
Blasphemy – the original charge of the Jewish leadership.
The Jewish leaders had condemned Jesus and brought him to Roman justice because Jesus claimed to be God’s son. In a moment of life-altering revelation, the centurion reached beyond his current events and proclaimed a much larger truth. This non-Jewish, unbelieving, Roman soldier knowingly or unknowingly recognized Jesus’ spiritual authority over all mankind when he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
The centurion was an eyewitness to God’s presence in the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. The only conclusion he could draw was that Jesus was, indeed, God’s son and so the centurion proclaimed Christ’s innocence of the charge of blasphemy in Luke 23:47.
Immediately, the centurion’s heart erupted in praise. The centurion knew something he didn’t know he knew – the Son of God’s crucifixion was not the end of Jesus’ story. There would be more to come, and the praise of the centurion was only the beginning.
There was, however, one more epitaph God needed to write.
It was Satan’s.
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.