THE CROSS OF CHRIST – Part 1
When our thoughts turn to the cross of Christ what sort of mental picture do we have? Do we see the cross as something ennobling and glorious? Do we have warm sentimental feelings about crucifixion?
In reality it was a stark and hideous spectacle. Crucifixion must surely be one of the most monstrous of all human inventions. Scourging sometimes preceded crucifixion. The condemned man was whipped with thongs of leather to which pieces of bone or metal had been attached There were times when people died as a result of scourging. Next the victim was nailed, through hands and feet to a wooden cross which was then lifted to a vertical position and fixed firmly in the ground. Then he was simply left to die. He was not killed — just impaled in a position from which escape was impossible and left there until death overtook him
By sheer animal instinct the man would struggle to keep alive although life meant torture. Under its own weight his body would slump forward constricting the lungs and restricting breathing. But again and again, despite the intense pain in pierced hands and feet, he would heave his chest upwards to draw breath — and keep alive.
Ultimately death would come as a relief but only after hours and hours-often days-of indescribable agony. The Lord died after six hours on the cross, and Pilate was amazed that he had died so soon (Mark 15:44)
In the days when the Romans ruled, crucifixion was regarded with revulsion and disgust. The offender — usually a dangerous political enemy or an incorrigible criminal — was raised aloft and placarded before the people as a grim warning that disobedience does not pay. Those who witnessed the ghastly spectacle usually took the lesson.
Of the Lord Jesus Christ it is written that he “endured the cross despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2}. It was such a shameful death that some contended that Jesus could not have been the Son of God because God would never have allowed His Son to die such a vile death.
The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ was a combined operation — The Jews made the plans and the Romans carried them out.
When the Jews first became aware of the presence of the Lord Jesus, they were hopeful and excited. The Romans had robbed them of their independence and they resented it. They wanted a king of their own, and Jesus of Nazareth as they called him, seemed a likely candidate for this office. He seemed to have alI the qualifications!
Although the Lord Jesus was –and still is– destined to be a king, other matters had to be dealt with first. Especially important was the need to preach repentance and personal holiness, as the Lord did early in his ministry in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Jewish leaders did not appreciate this emphasis on moral integrity. They felt rebuked not only by his words but also by the awesome holiness of the Lord’s character. Also they were envious of his popularity with the common people.
This popularity was an embarrassment for another reason too. The leaders no longer thought of Jesus as a prospective king, but the common people still seemed attracted to this idea. The excitement of the crowds could make the Romans suspicious, and the Jewish leaders were afraid that they might “take away both our place and nation” (John 11:47,48).
How then could they get rid of him? First they had to persuade themselves and their fellow Jews that there were good reasons for removing this man. The real reasons — envy of Jesus and fear of the Romans — could not be broadcast though attempts to conceal them were not remarkably successful. What then should the “official” reason be? After a deal of bungling because the false witnesses whom they had suborned kept contradicting each other, they found a charge that would make them appear as men of high principle: Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God. Although the claim was true they called it blasphemy, and blasphemy was punishable by death. His fate was determined.
But there was still a problem. The Romans were their overlords, and only those whom the Romans condemned could be put to death — and then only by the Romans themselves. So they had to persuade the Romans to kill him. It would have been no use their complaining to the Romans that Jesus of Nazareth had claimed to be the Son of God. The superstitious Romans might even have honored him for this high claim; certainly they would not have thought of it as a capital charge. So with tongue in cheek the Jewish leaders reported to Pilate the Roman governor, that this man claimed to be the king of the Jews, whereas they acknowledged no king but Caesar. He was therefore, they argued, a threat to the Roman government. If you let this man go, they said to Pilate you are not Caesar’s friend.
(Remember that not so long before this they would have welcomed Jesus as a king because they wanted to be independent of Rome)
Of course Pilate could see through their guile, yet he was forced to give in to their demand lest he himself should be reported to Caesar for disloyalty.
So Jesus was crucified.
Conspiracy against the Son of God
The crucifixion of Christ was no small operation. It is not usually appreciated how many people and how many types of people were involved. Representing the Romans were Herod the king, Pilate the governor, a centurion and some common soldiers Two rival Jewish parties were also involved — Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisees consisted largely of narrow-minded intensely religious scribes; whereas the broad-minded, pleasure-loving priests belonged to the Sadducees’ party. Also there was a treacherous apostle named Judas, a seditious killer name Barabbas. and a little army of Jewish accessories in that bizarre assortment of enemies.
See how opposite types were drawn together. Normally Jews and Romans hated each other, and so did the Pharisees and Sadducees. Indeed Pilate and Herod were enemies until the trial of Jesus. It was a strange mixture of peoples that conspired together to put the son of God to death. Differences were sunk because there was a formidable common enemy.
The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth
The enemy was the only completely righteous man who has ever lived. To each man, to each group of men, he was a person who did not belong. Despite their differences, all these people felt easier in each other’s company than in the company of this man. This motley crowd of sinful people had nothing in common with Jesus, the uniquely righteous man. Jesus was a challenge to the world: his teaching and the quality of his life were a rebuke to all men.
Jesus is still a challenge to the world. All who belong to the world are on the side of the crucifiers. If we belong to the world, we are in the same class as those who crucified Christ. What a shocking commentary on human nature: when the righteous Son of God lived on this earth people decided that they would be better off without him-they plotted to get rid of him! And once they had made up their minds, they would stop at nothing — lies, hypocrisy, illegal trials, bribery, false witnesses, blackmail, torture, murder.
Those who simply blame the Jews are missing the point. The point is that, given the circumstances, any other nation would 0have acted in the same way. Perhaps, in this sophisticated age, the details of the story might have worked out differently. But the motives and the end would have been the same.
Human beings just cannot tolerate a person whose one ambition in life is to obey the laws of God. To express it in another way: human beings reject the standards required by God. They prefer to obey their own human instincts. And what are these instincts? Let the Lord Jesus tell us:
“From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23).
And Paul completes the description of human nature:
“. . . Jews and Gentiles . . . are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God . . . there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:9-18).
A revolting picture — of us!
Man’s Estrangement from God
The sad story of man’s estrangement from God goes right back to Adam and is told in the early chapters of Genesis. The first fact presented in the Bible is that God is the Creator. He created the heaven and the earth, and everything on the earth, including man. The creation of man is summarized thus:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Now consider. Because God is the Creator of heaven and earth and all that they contain, everything belongs to Him. And because He is the Possessor of everything, He is in charge. His word is law. So when God put man into a garden which He had prepared for him, it was altogether reasonable that He should have given him instructions concerning what could be done and what could not be done. (How strange that this should need saying at all!) God’s instructions were:
“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).
The Tragedy of Eden
Genesis 3 continues the narrative. It tells of the disobedience of Adam, and the consequences of this disobedience. God pronounced the death sentence upon Adam:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19).
The effect of this upon the rest of humanity is stated by Paul:
“By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
Like begets like. Adam disobeyed and became a sinner, and all his children follow him in the way of sin. The Scriptures declare, and we know from personal experience, that there is in all human beings a strong tendency to defy the law of God. Adam was condemned to death, and his descendants, the sin-stricken human race-all who are “in Adam”, to use a Scriptural expression-are likewise subject to death: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”
Sin and Death
The Scriptures themselves emphasize the fact that man is subject to death because of sin. Romans 5:1 2, quoted above, is just one of many passages that stress this relationship between sin and death. The oft-quoted Scripture, “The wages of sin is death”, occurs in the next chapter of Romans (6:23), and in the chapter after that it is stated that “the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (7:5). And so on…
Who was right-God or Adam? Obviously God was right. Despite a clear warning, Adam broke God’s law and paid the penalty. Yet the verdict of man is that Adam was right and God was wrong. People do not usually say this in so many words, yet by action and attitude they show that their respect and sympathy are for Adam, not God. They express this attitude in two ways: (1) by condoning sin; (2) by resenting death.
Man’s Just Reward
All human beings demonstrate by their own deeds that they approve of the way of disobedience. Already we have looked at the teaching of Scripture concerning human nature. Many blatantly and deliberately reject God’s laws; others simply do what they want to without ever taking God’s laws into account; others profess to fear God, but find excuses to justify doing what they want to do, instead of what God requires of them. Even the few who really try to serve God feel dissatisfied with their efforts: the gravitational force of sin drags them down.
“All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
All reject death. They resent the death sentence that God pronounced on the human race. To many it seems that, instead of receiving the just reward of their deeds, they are being cheated. Even if he were not a sinner, man could not reasonably claim the right to live forever. Yet sinful human beings seem to regard death as an unjust and cruel imposition.
Indeed, many people deny that death takes place at all. Although all the evidence points the other way, they say that death is only an appearance-not a reality. When a man dies (they claim) life really begins. They regard death as the gateway to a richer and fuller life.
This is utterly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. As we have seen, the Bible teaches that death is a punishment. It was never intended to be something pleasant and attractive. According to the Bible, when a man dies “his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4); and “the dead know not anything” (Eccles. 9:5). To put it simply: death is the cessation of life.
Although man keeps fighting against God throughout his life-by continuing to sin and by rejecting death-God wins decisively in the end, and man returns to his native dust. God did not say in vain, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”.
Why was Jesus Christ Crucified?
Jesus Christ was crucified because the Jews hated him and wanted to get rid of him. This is one obvious reason. But surely God could have stopped them from committing this terrible crime, and at the same time have spared His Son the pain and shame of crucifixion? Obviously God was powerful enough to intervene and prevent the crime. And yet, although the Lord Jesus prayed three times to his Father, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me. . . ” God did not intervene. If God’s principles were to be upheld and His purpose fulfilled, intervention was not possible. God’s plan required that His sinless Son should be crucified.
But how was God to fulfil His good purpose in a world governed by man’s disobedience and wickedness? God’s wisdom found the way. Whilst it would seem that sinners would triumph in putting Jesus to death, in reality God would surely fulfil His purpose despite man’s wickedness, indeed by turning it to good account.
Peter puts it like this:
“(Christ) being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
Saving Man from Sin
At the very time that man was doing his worst for God by murdering His Son, God was doing His best for man by using the death of His Son as a means of bringing wonderful blessings to the human race.
Two quotations here remind us what the first of these blessings was:
“Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). “Now once in the end of the world hath he (Christ) appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).
The death of Christ was therefore God’s way of saving man from sin.
Redeeming Man from Death
We could easily work out for ourselves what the other great blessing is. Because the death of Christ saves men from sin, we should expect it also to save men from death, the consequence of sin. And this is precisely what the apostle John says:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-16).
The first part of this quotation refers back to an incident which we hope to discuss later. But the vital message is easy to understand: the death of Christ presents man with an opportunity to live forever.
The basic facts relating to God’s gift of everlasting life, though wonderful beyond words, are not difficult to understand. Think first of the Lord Jesus himself. He died and his body was put into a tomb-a man-made cave, hewn out of a rock. Then, three days later, the great stone that had closed the mouth of the cave was rolled away by superhuman power; by God’s mighty power Christ was raised and came forth to live forever.
The importance of the Lord’s resurrection is emphasised in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the foundation fact upon which the Christian hope is based:
“Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:20-23).
Like the Lord Jesus himself, his followers will be raised from the dead. Do not miss the fact that the passage quoted also tells us that the resurrection of Christ’s followers will take place when he comes again.
By PETER WATKINS