15 And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.
It is doubtful that many, if any of us, understand the true meaning of the cross. To us it is a piece of costume jewelry, an ornament on top of the steeple of a church, or the theme of our mother’s favorite song. All of this has little in common with the sacrifice and cruel agony of the old rugged cross.
The experience of the cross is graphically described for us in the gospels. The scriptures say that after Pilate had condemned Jesus to death, he “scourged him” (v.15). Scourging was a barbarous and inhumane punishment. The victim was stripped to his waist, his hands were tied to a pole, and he was beaten with a whip. The whip had a handle with leather straps weighted on the end with sharp pieces of lead and bits of bone. These straps literally tore a man’s back to ribbons. Sometimes it tore a man’s eyes out and knocked his teeth out. Some died under the punishment of it. Some emerged from the ordeal raving mad. Few remained conscious through it. Peter reminds us that “by his stripes we are healed.”
After Jesus was whipped, the soldiers led him away to the praetorium (the residence of the governor) where they made sport of him. They clothed him in a purple robe, put a crown of thorns on his head, and began to salute him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Then they smote him on the head with a reed, spit upon him, and bent their knees to worship him. All of this was cruel, sinister, and utterly humiliating humor.
Christians have been liable to such ridicule since that time. Scribbled on the walls of Pompeii there is a picture of a man—a Christian kneeling before a crucified donkey-headed figure, and below it, there are scribbled the words, “Alexamenos worships his god.” If ever people make mockery of our Christianity, it will help us to remember that they did it to Jesus in a way that is worse than anything that is likely to happen to us.
Then they took Jesus to be crucified. The routine of crucifixion did not alter. The cross was prepared and the criminal himself had to carry it to the place of execution. He was surrounded by four soldiers. The two in front carried a board on which the crime that the prisoner was guilty of was inscribed. Later the board was fixed to the cross. They took the longest route possible so that as many as possible should see and take warning. It became evident that Jesus would never make it carrying the heavy crossbar. He was too badly beaten for that. He was struggling to put one foot in front of the other as he made his way through the narrow streets, the crowd pressing in upon him—some jeering, others laughing.
With his entire back one raw mass of bleeding and quivering flesh, the weight of the cross probably caused Jesus to stumble, so the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross.
Palestine was an occupied country and any man might be impressed into the Roman service for any task. The sign of impressment was a tap on the soldier with a flat of a Roman spear. Simon was from Cyrene in Africa. There was no doubt that he had come from that far-off land for the Passover. There was no doubt that he had scraped and saved for half of a lifetime in order to come. Surely he was gratifying the ambition of a lifetime to heed one Passover in Jerusalem, and then this happened to him. At the moment Simon must have bitterly resented it. He must have hated the Romans and hated this criminal whose cross he was forced to carry.
He is identified as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” The fact that his two sons are named suggests that they had become a part of the Christian community. Their names would not have been mentioned if they were not well known. Other references suggest this same thing (Rom. 16:13, Acts 13:1).
Then they come to Golgotha. That is an Aramaic word that means “the place of the skull.” Today a bus depot stands beneath it. It is almost ironic that the smell of carbon monoxide, the sound of honking horns, and the sight of short tempers should surround the place where Jesus died. It was for people like this and things like this that he died in the first place.
When Jesus arrived at Golgotha, they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink. There was a company of pious and merciful women in Jerusalem who came to every crucifixion to give the criminals a drink of drugged wine to ease the terrible pain. They offered it to Jesus and he refused it.
When Dr. Samuel Johnson was ill with his last illness, he asked if doctors would tell him honestly if he could recover. The doctor said that he could not recover without a miracle. “Then,” said Johnson, “I will take no more [medicine], not even opiates, for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.”
Jesus was resolved to taste death at its bitterest and to go to God with open eyes. He refused to meet death with his mental faculties clouded. Even then the Roman soldiers were gambling for his clothing. The detail of soldiers took what they wanted. Then Mark states very simply, “And it was the third hour [9:00 A.M.], and they crucified him.” The stark simplicity of those words is appalling. The details are absent. Note those four words, “and they crucified him.” No explanation is given because it was a common form of execution among the Romans and among some other nations.
Crucifixion was one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised. When they reached the place of crucifixion, the cross was laid flat on the ground. The prisoners were stretched upon it, and their hands were nailed to it. The feet were not always nailed. They were often loosely bound. Between the prisoner’s legs was a projected ledge of wood called the saddle. This wood was there to take his weight when the cross was raised upright, for the nail would have torn through the flesh of his hands. The cross was then lifted upright and set in its socket, and the criminal was left to die. The cross was not tall. It was shaped like the letter “T” and had no top piece at all. Sometimes prisoners hung for as long as a week—dying of hunger and thirst, suffering until they went mad.
On the cross was placed the superscription, “The King of the Jews.” Mark relates that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. It was a symbol of his whole life that to the end, he companioned with sinners. Even as he died, those who watched mocked him. They passed by and shook their heads in an open expression of contempt saying, “You said you could destroy the Temple and built it back in three days! Now save yourself and come down from the cross!” The chief priest joined in the mockery, saying, “He saved others, himself he cannot save.”
Three hours of suffering passed. At noon, darkness settled over the land for a period of three hours. Then at three o’clock in the afternoon, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (The word forsaken means to abandon or to desert.)
In that moment Jesus became sin for us. The one who knew no sin became the very epitome of sin itself. The Holy God who cannot look upon sin turned his back upon the Lord in those moments. The Jewish leaders flung one last challenge at Jesus. “Come down from the cross,” they said, “and we will believe in you.” It was precisely the wrong challenge. As General Booth said long ago, “It is because Jesus did not come down from the cross that we believe in him.” The death of Jesus was absolutely necessary.
As he cried out, some thought that he was calling for Elijah. There was an ancient legend that Elijah would come help people in times of distress. They wondered if it would really happen. They wanted to see.
Then Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost. The cry of Jesus was, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He died not cry out with a whimper of despair but with a shout of victory after six hours on the cross. Ordinarily it took much longer to die. That’s why Pilate and the centurion marveled that Jesus was dead so soon. Usually the torment on the cross would be more prolonged than six hours. Intense spiritual suffering must have led to an embolism, which was the immediate cause of death.
Two things need to be said about the terrible cry of Jesus, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Up until this moment, Jesus had gone through every experience of life except one; he had never known the consequences of sin. Now if there is one thing sin does, it separates us from God. It puts up between us and God a barrier like an unscalable wall. That was the one human experience through which Jesus had never passed because he was without sin. It was in this moment that that experience came upon him. It was a terrible, grim moment as he identified himself as the man of sin.
What does all of this mean to us?
First, it means that Jesus died in our place. He suffered for our sins. Isaiah 53:4, 1 Peter 2:24, and 2 Cor. 5:21 are now personal to us. He became sin for us. God abandoned him because our holy God cannot look with favor on sin (Habakkuk 1:5-7). The cross is a judgment on sin. In the cross we see the nature and result of greed, pride, spiritual blindness, and indifference. There we see the effects of the same evil forces that still are expressed around us and in us every day.
Second, not only are our sins forgiven but also we are now reconciled with God. The crucifixion is a revelation of God. On Calvary there was more than the martyrdom of a good man. There was more than the inspiration of a great example. The cross is the window through which we can see that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Third, the cross is not only a fact of history, it is a principle of life. Because we are forgiven, we are to forgive. We are to take up our cross and to follow him. The young minister fresh from college said to W. L. Watkinson, the master of satire, “You know, Dr. Watkinson, preaching does not take anything out of me.” “No?” said Dr. Watkinson. “Therefore it puts nothing into anyone else!” It is from giving ourselves that causes blessings to spring forth to humanity.
This is not just gospel—it is law. The principle of the cross must characterize us. Every Christian worker must realize that to save others, he cannot save himself. We meet God in Christ and are reconciled to him. Have you met God in a life-changing way? Are you walking with him?
The cross is also a place of forgiveness. We can live free from guilt. We do not have to go around with the weight of yesterday on our shoulders. The cross is a way of life. Jesus said that if we were to be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him. The cross is a life of love, sacrifice, and dedication. He told us that if we would save our life we would lose it, but if we would lose our life for his sake we would find it. So the cross is a place of reconciliation, a place of forgiveness, and a place of life. We find all three and more in what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Now, may I ask you a question? Would it have made any difference in the life you are now living if Christ had not died on the cross? Christ went to the cross as God’s sacrifice for the sins of the world. He was the Lamb of God. Now we can put Jesus’ name in the pronouns of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
Throughout his gospel, Mark has been telling us what Paul articulated: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” That is what we need to understand with undeniable clarity. Jesus was God with us, loving, forgiving, atoning for our sins.
We need to realize the implications for us personally. We need to begin to live in its power. We need to realize that he died for me! I am forgiven! I am loved! Now that is the way I want to live with and for others! The cross is the way of life. We are told, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The love of Christ, supremely revealed, constrained us to a life of love and sacrificial dedication to the will of God. The crucifixion is not only a fact. It has become the central, pivotal fact of history.
Jesus died between two thieves. From the first to the last, he was at home with those who needed the good news of the kingdom. He was “at home” nowhere else.