The Crucifixion

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:33-50

The story of the crucifixion has the most sacred and tender interest for everyone who loves Jesus Christ. It is not merely an account of the tragic death of a good man — He who was crucified was the world’s Redeemer, our Redeemer, suffering for us. Some of the old preachers used to say that our sins drove the nails in the hands and feet of Jesus. He died for us. Paul speaks also of being crucified with Christ (see Gal. 2:20). He means that Christ’s death was instead of his death. No other death in all history means to the world what the dying of Jesus means.

They led Jesus out of Golgotha. There He was met by those who offered Him “vinegar to drink mingled with gall.” It is supposed that the act was one of kindness, that the mixture was intended to stupefy Him so as to deaden in some measure the awful suffering of crucifixion. But Jesus refused the drink. He would not have His senses dulled as He entered upon His great work of death for the world, nor would He have His sufferings as Redeemer lessened in any degree.

The garments of men who were crucified were by custom the perquisites of the soldiers in charge of the crucifixion. They “parted His garments, casting lost.” We love to think of the garments which Jesus had worn. Perhaps they had been made by His mother’s hands or else by the hands of some of the other women who followed Him and ministered unto Him of their substance. They were the garments the sick woman and other sufferers had touched with reverent faith, receiving instant healing. What desecration it seems when these heartless Roman soldiers take these garments and divide them among themselves! Then what sacrilege it is when the soldiers throw dice and gamble for His seamless robe under the very cross where the Savior is dying!

“They sat and watched Him there.” Roman soldiers kept guard, but they were not the only watchers. There was the careless, heartless watch of the soldiers. They knew nothing about Jesus. They saw three poor Jews on three crosses, and had no conception of the character of Him who hung on the middle cross. It is possible yet and always to look at Christ on the cross and see nothing more than these soldiers saw. We all need to pray to have our eyes opened when we look at Christ crucified, that we may see in the lowly sufferer the Son of God, bearing the sin of the world.

There were also jealous watchers, the enemies of Jesus, so full of hatred that they even hurled scoffs at Him who hung in silences upon that central cross. Then there were loving watchers — the women and John, Christ’s friends, with hearts broken as they looked at their Lord dying in shame and anguish. Then there were wondering watchers — angels, who hovered unseen above the cross and looked in amazement upon the suffering Son of God, eagerly desiring to know what this mystery meant.

All the words that Jesus spoke on the cross were full of meaning. One, the very first, was a prayer for His murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The words seem to have come from His lips just as the nails were being driven through His hands and feet. The torture was excruciating, but there was no cry of pain, no execration of those who were causing Him such bitter anguish; only an intercession. Dora Greenwell in one of her poems illustrates the story in a striking way. There was a youth who had blotted from his soul every grace of goodness, who one day, in defiance of God, flung up into the air a dagger meant for God’s own heart. Out of the sky came a hand that caught the dagger’s hilt, and presently there fell from the wound five drops of Christ’s dear blood, freely spilt for human guilt. Then a little leaf came floating through the air and fell at the youth’s feet. On the leaf was written a prayer for mercy. Overwhelmed by this Divine answer to his terrible defiance, the youth sank upon his knees, looked up to heaven and cried:

Have mercy, mercy, Lord, on me
For His dear sake, who on a tree
Shed forth those drops and died.

This legend is a beautiful parable of the meaning of the death of Christ. The answer to the world’s daring defiance of God was the hands of Christ stretched out to be pierced with nails for the world’s redemption.

It was the custom to fasten on the cross a board bearing the name and crimes of the sufferer. “They set up over His head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” It was only in mockery that Pilate wrote this superscription. He did it to vex the Jews. Yet never were truer words written. Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews. They had looked forward to the coming of their Messiah with expectations of great blessings from Him. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). This was the way they were treating their King. But He is our King, too. The crown He wore that day was a crown of thorns. Thorns were part of the curse of sin, and the crown of Jesus was woven of sin’s curse. We have the promise of crowns of glory in heaven, because on Christ’s brow rested that day the crown of shame.

“He saved others; Himself He cannot save.” Unwittingly in their mockery they spoke a deep truth. Jesus had saved others, and even now He was saving others in the most wonderful way of all — by dying for them. He could have saved Himself, however, from the cross if He had desired. His offering was voluntary. He said, “I lay down my life… No man taketh away from Me” (John 10:15-18). He said He could have summoned twelve legions of angels to deliver Him. He could have saved Himself, but then He would not have saved others. The soldier cannot save himself and save his country. Jesus could not save Himself and redeem the world. So He gave His own life a willing sacrifice to redeem lost men.

It was a strange scene that came on at noonday. “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.” A yet deeper darkness hung around the Redeemer’s soul those hours. It was so dark that He even thought Himself forsaken of God. We never can understand the mystery of it, and we can know only that He wrapped the gloom of death about Himself that we might be clothed in garments of light. He died in darkness that when we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, the light of glory may shine about us. His head wore a matted crown of thorns that under our heads may be the pillow of peace. He drank the cup of woe that we may drink the cup of blessing.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in one of her poems, has pictured with rare beauty the effects of Christ’s death upon two seraphim who lingered a little behind the hosts of heaven who had gathered that day around the cross. One of them, as he thinks of the meaning of the wonderful sacrifice, is troubled by the thought that men will now have more reason to love God than even the angels have. The other remonstrates, saying, “Do we love not?” “Yes, but not as man shall,” he answered:

Oh! Not with this blood on us—and this face,
Still, haply, pale with sorrow that it bore
In our behalf, and tender evermore
With nature all our own, upon us gazing—
Nor yet with these forgiving hands upraising
Their reproachful wounds, alone to bless!
Alas, Creator! Shall we love Thee less
Than mortals shall?

“Jesus when he had cried again with a loud voice yielded up the ghost.” His loud cry, “It is finished,” which John records (19:30), was a shout of victory. His work was completed. The atonement was made. Then followed the word, given by Luke, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” (23:46). The shadows were lifted. There was no longer any feeling of forsakenness. Again we hear the sweet name, “Father,” showing that the joy had been restored. We see also in this word that death was to Jesus — only the breathing out of His spirit into His Father’s hands. We cannot see into the life beyond, but revelation assures us of the Divine presence close beside us. Dying is but fleeing from the body into the arms of the Father. All this is ours because Jesus tasted death for us. Because He had the darkness, we have the light.