On the Cross
On the Cross
A.D. abbreviates the Latin words "Anno Domini," which means "Year of Our Lord." Our calendars are all dated by the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every time we sign a check, send an email, write a letter, or tell what year we were born we are counting up from the birth of Jesus. While I fully understand and celebrate this calendar system, there is a sense in which our calendars should have started 33 years later.
As important and central as the birth of Jesus Christ was and is, the events of Holy Week were and are greater. Easter week is a Holy Week, a different kind of week. This is the anniversary of the events that determine our eternity. One week before Easter Sunday we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day Jesus led a triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The following Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper when Jesus instituted Communion. Next comes Good Friday—"good" because of what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross. Then comes Easter Sunday, the day death was defeated and Jesus rose to life.
Good Friday was an awful day for Jesus. He was tried, declared innocent, but condemned anyway. He was whipped almost to death and then led to his crucifixion.
Jesus didn't sleep the night before his crucifixion. On Thursday night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he almost died from the spiritual and psychological depression of bearing human sin. Early Friday morning he was whipped raw and bloody. It wasn't yet 9 a.m. and the soldiers were prodding him to his crucifixion.
Typically, the condemned prisoner was taken on the longest possible route through the city so many people could see him. His crimes were written on a board and hung around his neck or carried ahead by a soldier. When they arrived at the cross the sign was nailed over the victim's head for passersby to read.
Jesus collapsed under the weight of the cross he was forced to carry. The soldiers knew there was no point in beating him to get up and go on, so they drafted a pedestrian along the road. The Romans occupied the land of Israel and compelled civilians into service whenever they pleased. A soldier simply touched his spear to the shoulder of whomever he wanted, and that person became a temporary slave. The choice-of-the-moment turned out to be a tourist from North Africa. His name was Simon, and he was probably in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to see the holy city; he never imagined he would be humiliated into carrying a cross.
The death march reached a place called Golgotha outside the city wall, where the local crucifixions were held. Apparently, the topography was such that the hill looked like a human skull, and that's how the place got its name.
I shudder to think about what they did next. Jesus was laid on the cross on the ground. They bent his arms and drove spikes through the base of his hands. They bent his legs and nailed his feet to the vertical wood. Then the soldiers raised the cross and dropped it into a hole in the ground so it would stand up straight.
Imagine the pain. Hanging by nails. Writhing to alleviate the agony. Rubbing his raw back against the cross. Fighting to get a breath. Bleeding.
There was a group of Jerusalem women who regularly brought spiked wine to give to the victims of crucifixion so some of the pain could be dulled by drugs. Jesus declined. He chose to take the agony of crucifixion full force.
Those nearby mocked and insulted him. The soldiers divided up his personal clothes, figuring the crucified man wouldn't need them. Getting the clothes was one of the perks of an executioner's job. Then they sat down to get comfortable and wait until death. Imagine being so used to watching and waiting as men died horrible and humiliating deaths.
Golgatha was along a busy road with many passersby. The cross was low so people could see and talk to Jesus. They laughed and mocked him, saying that if he was really the Son of God, he should be able to free himself from the nails and come off that cross. The religious leaders who were behind Jesus' crucifixion came to see for themselves. They taunted him, asking why God wouldn't help him. Even the criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus joined in the verbal attacks. Tortured and dying, they mustered the strength to add to Jesus' insult and humiliation.
Jesus did not defend himself. God did not speak on behalf of his son. It looked like the critics were right. Cynics today have the same posture towards God: Why doesn't God perform a miracle when he could? How can a good God let innocent people suffer and die?
The first nail was driven into Jesus at 9 a.m. He did not die until 3 p.m. Those had to be the six loneliest hours of his life.
Like you, I have sometimes wondered how and when I will die. I know I will. We all have a day to be born and a day to die. I've wondered if I will die from a disease or an accident, if it will be sudden or prolonged, if it will be painful or easy. I realize that the choice will not be mine, but there is one thing I have always hoped for regarding my own death—I don't want to die alone. I want those who love me most to be by my side.
The most awful moment of Jesus' crucifixion came when he cried out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" Those words are in Jesus' native tongue of Aramaic and mean, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Did God forsake Jesus at this most awful moment? I don't think he did. Second 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." On the cross Jesus was stained with our human sin. He had never personally experienced sin before in his life, and now he was overwhelmed with sin in his death. God dumped on him the concentrated sum total of every murder, every lust, every envy, every rape, every theft, every profanity, every act of racism, every injustice against the poor, every sin of every person from every generation.
Jesus, who had never sinned, was made sin for us. God the Father loved his son but could barely look at him out of disdain for sin. Something happened between the Father and Son in those awful hours on the cross that we will never know or understand. It was so deep, so awful, that Jesus felt totally forsaken and alone. He cried out in desperation: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
In the smallest comparison, we have sometimes tasted a little bit of Jesus' horror. We have felt abandoned by God. We've felt overwhelmed by sin and circumstances, desperately alone and completely hopeless. We, too, have asked God why he has abandoned us—but he hasn't. God never gave up on Jesus, and God never gives up on us.
When Matthew reported Jesus' death, he did not emotionalize or sensationalize. He simply explained "when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit."
John was there, and he tells us exactly what Jesus cried out loud: "It is finished." Then, John writes, Jesus "bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (John 19:30).
In the end it was Jesus who chose his moment to die. He voluntarily gave up his life as a sacrifice for human sin. When Jesus cried out that he felt forsaken, I sense that there was desperation in his voice. When he cried out "It is finished," there was victory in his voice. Jesus was like a marathon runner breaking through the tape at the finish line. Exhausted, weak, and totally drained he said: I made it. I did it. It's over. The race is won. It is finished!
The Bible says that Jesus was born to save his people from their sins, that he came to seek and to save the lost. He was the suffering Savior, the sacrificial Lamb, the only way to God, to salvation, and to eternal life. He left heaven to do this. He became human to do this. He was born in Bethlehem to do this. He suffered and died to save sinners like us. He gave everything. At that final moment, all heaven watched in awe as the Son of God himself died. He did it. He completed what he came to do: "It is finished!"
At that moment everything changed forever. The earth quaked. The temple curtain that kept everyone away from the holiest place where God's special presence abided was ripped apart—from top to bottom. Tombs burst open. Dead people came back to life again. The veteran Roman centurion knew that something amazing had happened, was terrified, and blurted out, "Surely he was the Son of God."
It was over—or so they thought. Unable to imagine that something bigger, better, and more amazing was less than three days away, the family and friends of Jesus scrambled to bury his body.
Jesus died at 3 p.m. The law required burial before sunset. His family was too poor and too far from home to make the necessary burial arrangements, so a rich stranger offered his grave. Ironically, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the group of Jerusalem leaders who called for Jesus' crucifixion in the first place. His name was Joseph. He had believed in Jesus and did not conspire with others to kill him. Joseph approached Pilate, secured Jesus' body, and had him buried in a rock-hewn tomb he had recently bought for himself.
That's what happened the day Christ died—for you and for me.
Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.