The cross changed everything. And “everything” in this context is universal in scope. What happened on Golgotha almost 2,000 years ago was unprecedented in God’s creation. Thus Calvary is the holiest spot in existence – as evidenced by the way the Gospel writers described what occurred there. No doubt they felt words alone couldn’t do it justice so their narratives are noticeably restrained and bereft of sensational adjectives. That’s not to imply reading them isn’t breathtaking and heart-wrenching. On the contrary, they always bring me tears. What I’m saying is they saw no need for exploitation as they presented the tragic tale of the cruel murder of our precious Savior, keeping it dignified and reverent via simplicity. It certainly hasn’t diminished the inimitable shudder Christians the world over experience when they visualize the horrible scene that took place outside Jerusalem on Good Friday. For instance, John 19:25 begins with “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother…” Embellishment isn’t necessary because there’s no person alive who isn’t touched on a very deep level by the image of a mother watching her beloved son being tortured to death before her very eyes. What the Bible does is respect our intelligence and ability to comprehend the ghastliness of the cross without having to go overboard.
In my previous essay I explained Christ was executed by a combination of religious, government and tribal entities. The blinded-by-pride Pharisees, egged on by a bunch of self-aggrandizing egomaniacs (who dared call themselves “priests”), were the ringleaders of the whole fiasco. The insecure Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire, succumbed to political blackmail and cowardly turned his back on justice. And the Israelites, disappointed that their Messiah had no intention of becoming a vengeful superhero, jumped right into the mad fray to loudly demand the imposter be crucified ASAP. However, to assert the sum of those three elements was the main culprit would be erroneous. Understand the cross wouldn’t have happened unless Jesus allowed it to happen. He went there by His own volition. He wasn’t forced to die. He was no helpless victim of gross unfairness. He could’ve nipped it in the bud but He didn’t. He told His arresters in Gethsemane, “…Do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now?” (Matthew 26:53). Christ knew exactly what He was doing. He’d announced, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Of His life He said, “No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will” (John 10:18). He also explained why: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). He didn’t go through it primarily for the sake of duty but for the sake of displaying God’s amazing love for us.
You see, His death, wrongful as it was, had a divine purpose; a purpose Jesus was aware of from the beginning. That purpose being the redemption of mankind. He knew the incredibly steep price that had to be paid and He was ready to pay it in full. This explains the uncanny calmness and self-possession Christ exhibited to the very end. Those who believed they were His judge thought they were in total control of the situation. They never were. Nothing befell Jesus He didn’t let occur. What may’ve appeared to some to be meek acquiescence on His part was, in actuality, His omnipotent power being held in check. Paul expressed it well when he wrote, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
It’s impossible to conjure up a worse way to die than by crucifixion. The grisly reality of it has been glossed over somewhat by our own religion that has, over the centuries, draped it in a glow of beauty. We adorn our church buildings with it, decorate flags with it, carve it into headstones, glorify it in hymns and sport it as chic jewelry. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently sinful about any of that but we must never lose sight of the fact that in Jesus’ era crucifixion was unspeakably shameful, degrading and grotesquely offensive. Deuteronomy 21:23 implies anyone hung on a tree is “cursed by God.” Heck, even the Roman pagans considered it vile. Cicero called it the “…cruelest, most hideous of punishments” and added, “Never may it come near the bodies of Roman citizens, never near their thoughts or eyes or ears!” But rather than abolish it they ironically deemed it appropriate when dealing with disobedient slaves, particularly loathsome foreigners or enemies of the state. Go figure. Truth is, because of its demeaning stigma Jesus’s execution on the cross turned out to be the “stumbling block” for Jews and Gentiles Paul mentioned in his letters. Nonetheless, he proudly adopted it as his core message. “…I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Christ’s inhumane execution only points out the extreme measures required to overcome the worldwide scourge of sin and to defeat its advocate, Satan.
As if the method of capital punishment wasn’t awful enough, the Romans made the condemned lug their cross up a hill! Jesus was no exception. But because the severe flogging they’d gleefully inflicted caused Him to lose massive amounts of blood, draining Him of stamina, they realized His completing that ghoulish task was out of the question. Assigning the job to one of his soldiers was unthinkable so the centurion in charge of the procession picked out, at random, a bystander to finish the dubious chore. Simon of Cyrene, likely bummed over being conscripted to tote the heavy lumber for a lowly trouble-maker he’d only heard wild rumors about, had no choice. It wound up being his life-changing epiphany. We can surmise this because we’re told in Scripture Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, two Christians who played a prominent role in establishing the early apostolic church. Therefore it’s logical to conclude Simon became a dedicated believer that day because, obviously, he converted his immediate family to the faith after coming into such close proximity to our Savior.
What went down once the entourage reached the top of Calvary Hill is repulsive to even the most hardened of hearts. Alexander Metherell, M.D., PH.D. put it this way: “The pain was absolutely unbearable. In fact, it was literally beyond words to describe; they had to invent a new word: excruciating. Literally, excruciating means ‘out of the cross.’ Think of that; they needed to create a new word, because there was nothing in the language that could describe the intense anguish caused during the crucifixion.” Alas, for the jaded soldiers this was just another day at the office. We’re told, “…They sat down and kept guard over him there” (Matthew 27:36). They then gambled for His clothes. Picture that, if you will. The execution squad was witnessing the Son of God taking on the past and future sins of humanity, redeeming the world and providing every man, woman and child a pathway to eternal paradise – and they saw nothing out of the ordinary. How come? James S. Stewart succinctly wrote, “For always there is a moral and spiritual qualification for recognizing God.”
It’s intriguing Pilate would have the soldiers affix a plaque over Jesus’ head bearing the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.” Since all four of the Gospel writers mention it it’s indisputable. Affixing a sign wasn’t unusual. The crime a criminal had committed was intentionally posted so anyone strolling by would be encouraged to regard it a stern warning. Yet it’s doubtful anybody else got labeled with being killed for the crime of claiming a kingship. While it wasn’t beneath Pilate to add insult to injury by adding a facetious jab of wry sarcasm, he probably did it to further humiliate the Sanhedrin honchos who’d played dirty pool with him hours earlier. This really got Caiaphas and his robed yes-men’s collective goat because they lodged a formal protest against Pilate, demanding it be removed or at least altered to their liking. Pilate flatly refused, saying “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22). Or, in modern lingo, “It is what it is. Get over it.” But the fact he had the inscription printed in Greek, Latin and Hebrew causes one to think there was something more profound involved. Perhaps Pilate’s one-on-one conference with the actual Son of God stirred something within his soul; something he was reticent to admit, even to himself. Jesus’ maintenance of a dignified and regal mien in the face of looming disaster probably had an effect on the Roman prefect he couldn’t rationalize away. Thus he decided to let Christ’s bold claim “go viral.” Greek was the language of culture and knowledge; Latin of law and government; Hebrew of revealed religion. Doesn’t sound like an accident. I think Pilate knew precisely what he was doing. And maybe it’s because he didn’t know what else to do.
While all this was going on it’s a sure bet the devil was in a panic. I have a feeling he instigated the taunting Jesus had to endure. “Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:39-40). Even though Christ had proven Himself immune from temptation Satan hoped it’d work this time considering the pitiful shape his adversary was in. Healing His own wounds, miraculously freeing his wrists and ankles from the iron nails holding His body in place and then drifting to terra firma whole again would settle the issue of whether or not He was the Messiah once and for all! He’d have more followers than He could shake a stick at. His mockers confirmed it saying, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him!” (Matthew 27:42) But Jesus turned that option down same as He’d done in the wilderness right after His baptism years earlier. Stewart wrote, “It was indeed the central fact of the gospel, that in His passion to save the world by giving the final revelation of love, Jesus would not and could not save Himself. Not by the Roman nails through His hands, but by the perfect love in His own heart, He was bound to the cross, bound fast to it until the work was done; and His refusal to save Himself has become the saving of the world.”
While Jesus’ enemies probably thought it’d be kinda funny to place Him between two no good thieves on Calvary Hill they didn’t realize just how appropriate that configuration was. Christ had spent His life in the company of sinners and society’s outcasts so it was only fitting He’d die with them, too. Their names remain unrevealed but their actions tell us all about what kind of men they were. Despite writhing in their own agonies, they somehow summoned the gumption to ridicule Jesus. After a while, though, one of them stopped. He’d noticed Christ wasn’t jawing trash back at them. Rather, he overheard Jesus praying for His tormentors! He clearly heard Him plead, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). “Who is this guy?” he must’ve wondered, “He’s either insane or He’s God but, to His credit, He’s certainly not acting like a loon.” The thief’s spiritual eyes had opened. He saw he was in the presence of deity. He told his counterpart to shut up, then asked the innocent man next to him, “’Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43). In that moment our Lord confirmed nobody is too far gone to gain salvation; that God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy truly has no condition other than sincere belief in the precious One who died to save our souls.
“At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46). This verse has puzzled many, including myself at times. Some speculate Christ was merely reciting the opening verse of Psalm 22 but the Scripture says He shouted it so it had to be intentionally broadcast. Perhaps it was our Lord’s soul crying out due to being crushed by the immense weight of the totality of all our sins. I don’t know. All I can do is humbly admit there were things transpiring in the spiritual realm that afternoon I’ll never be privy to. Maybe, like Job, it’s what Christ didn’t say that’s most significant. He never railed against His Heavenly Father. He trusted God explicitly to the bitter end. Jesus’ last words said it all. He cried out, “…It is finished!” (John 19:30). That’s when Satan knew he’d lost and that love had triumphed. Christ’s words were not a statement of surrender but an exclamation of unequivocal victory! Stewart wrote, “With that glad cry the soul of Jesus burst home into His Father’s presence. He’d glorified God on the earth; He’d finished the work which God had given Him to do.”
So what was the reason for the cross? Christ’s message taught that, by His death and resurrection, a saving, cleansing power previously unknown on this planet would henceforth be available to every human being. The repulsiveness of the crucifixion revealed sin’s ugly, destructive nature for all to see. We’re the guilty ones, not Jesus. He bore my sins up there. He bore yours, too. All of them. And each of them stinks to high heaven yet He willingly piled them onto His own lacerated shoulders and suffered the consequence. At the same time the cross symbolizes God’s unfathomable love for us. Christ’s didn’t die to appease an angry Father or to make Him change His opinion about people. God doesn’t have to be goaded into loving you and me because He never ceases to love us for a nanosecond. Yes, it’s all about love. It always will be. Brennan Manning wrote, “Christianity consists primarily not in what we do for God but in what God does for us – the great, wondrous things God dreamed up and achieved for us in Christ Jesus. When God comes streaming into our lives in the power of His Word, all He asks is that we be stunned and surprised, let our mouths hang open, and begin to breathe deeply.”