The Crucifixion of God
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
What are we remembering today? Are we remembering the death of a great moral teacher? Are we remembering the death of a great prophet? No. Jesus claimed to be equal with God. He claimed to be the Son of God.
Since Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh, we cannot rightly say that He was simply a good moral teacher or simply a prophet. If Jesus was not God, but claimed to be God, then we are remembering the death of a great deceiver. If Jesus was not God, but claimed to be God, then we are remembering the death of a man who is on the same level of a man who thinks he is a poached egg (C.S. Lewis).
Yet, if Jesus claimed to be God, and if He is just that--as we believe--then we are remembering today the most profound event in human history: The crucifixion of God.
33When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified (Jesus) and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.
Jesus was taken to the place called The Skull. We refer to this place as 'Calvary', which sounds nicer than "The Skull", but this is precisely what 'Calvary' means. The Son of God is taken to the place called The Skull and is crucified between two criminals.
Death by crucifixion was agonizingly slow, and came about by suffocation. A medical expert on crucifixion describes the physical effects that Jesus would have endured while nailed to a cross,
"As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles . . . With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed . . . Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen." (The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View, Arizona Medicine, vol. 22, no. 3 (March 1965), 183-187).
This process would continue for hours until all strength in the legs is gone, and Jesus is no longer able to push up in order to breathe.
Aside from the physical pain of crucifixion, there was also the stigma of disgrace and humiliation that was attached to it. Victims were beaten, whipped, and taunted even before reaching the cross. They were usually hanged naked, made a spectacle of shame for all to see.
And how did our Lord respond to such treatment? By this time, He had been beaten, whipped, spat on, taunted, and now, stripped naked, Jesus is nailed to a cross between two criminals, and what are the first recorded words of Jesus on the cross? "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (v.34).
As C.H. Spurgeon has said, "neither the weakness of the past (beatings), nor the pain of the present, could prevent (Jesus) from continuing in prayer. The Lamb of God was silent to men, but He was not silent to God. Dumb as sheep before her shearers, He had not a word to say in His own defense to man, but He continues in His heart crying unto his Father, and no pain and no weakness can silence His holy supplications. Beloved, what an example our Lord herein presents to us! Let us continue in prayer so long as our heart beats; let no excess of suffering drive us away from the throne of grace, but rather let it drive us closer to it."
Even more remarkable is the fact that our Lord's prayer to His Father was not for Himself, but to those who were responsible for His execution, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
The phrase, "for they do not know what they are doing" does not suggest that they were unaware that they were sinning, but they were unaware of the enormity of their crime. They were blinded to the reality that they were crucifying God the Son.
Jesus, knowing this, prays that His Heavenly Father would forgive them. Keep in mind now, that when God the Son prays, God the Father answers. How, and when, was Jesus' prayer answered?
It was not answered immediately, because the people continued in their sin. Immediately after praying for their forgiveness, we read that " (the soldiers) cast lots, dividing up the garments (of Jesus) among themselves" (v.34).
The next verse describes how "35even the rulers were sneering at (Jesus), saying, "He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One." 36The soldiers also mocked (Jesus), coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37and saying, "If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!" 38Now there was also an inscription above Him, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS."
Matthew's gospel even includes "those passing by"(Mt. 27:39) among those who hurled abuse at Jesus. Matthew also writes how, at one point, both criminals participated in mocking Jesus (Mt. 27:44).
But then something happens. Jesus' prayer, "Father, forgive them" begins to be answered. Luke records how "39One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" 40But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41"And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" ".
For this one thief, mocking had given way to pleading, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!". And Jesus said to him, "43Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
Let this be a lesson on how salvation is obtained. This man was a criminal. He had done nothing to merit salvation, rather to his demerit, he partook in mocking Jesus as they first hung on the cross. This man was also about to die. He would have no opportunity to do good works. He would have no opportunity to be baptized or to meet together with other Christians. Yet, no sinner was ever given a more explicit assurance of salvation, "43Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
The thief on the cross did not earn salvation, it was granted to him. Jesus prayed that His Father might forgive those mocking Him, that He might forgive those who had beaten Him, that He might forgive those who were crucifying Him. The answer to this prayer begins with the thief on the cross, whose mocking of Jesus eventually gave way to, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!".
Luke goes on to record that "44It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. 46And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit." Having said this, He breathed His last. 47Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, "Certainly this man was innocent."".
It is fitting that Jesus' final passage into death came with the same deliberateness that He exhibited throughout His ministry. Remember that Jesus is not a helpless victim here. As He said at His arrest, Jesus had more than 72,00 angels at His disposal to deliver Him. But deliverance was not a part of the eternal plan. This was a mission of suffering.
The reality is that Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested and crucified by sinful men. As Isaiah prophesied of the Christ hundreds of years earlier, "He poured out Himself to death"(Isa. 53:12). If Jesus had been cornered by a mob and killed, we could not rightly say that He died for us. But because Jesus voluntarily gave Himself up to death as One free from sin, we believe that this death atoned for our sins. We believe that all who trust in His sacrificial death, all who exclaim "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!", will one day enjoy the eternal paradise with our Lord.
The thief on the cross was promised this eternal paradise that very day. It was the first answer to Jesus' prayer, "Father forgive them". The second answer to Jesus' prayer came at the conversion of the centurion. This centurion, most commentators agree, would have been responsible for overseeing the entire crucifixion. He would have been around for Jesus' trial before Pilate; he would have witnessed the beatings and taunting of Jesus leading up to the crucifixion; he would have likely heard Jesus' prayer, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing". But when it was all said and done, it is clear that this centurion was also a part of answered prayer, for Luke writes that "he began praising God, saying, "Certainly this man was innocent"". Similarly, Matthew records the centurion exclaiming, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Mt. 27:54).
First, the thief on the cross; second, the centurion; and in the weeks to come, Jesus' prayer, "Father forgive them", would be answered by the conversion of thousands following Pentecost.
It is no wonder that the apostle Paul stresses the death of Christ in his writings, because it is the death of Christ that saves us. Let us not be in too much of a hurry to get to Easter, because Easter gains its meaning from Good Friday.
How then shall we respond? Do we carry on, 'business as usual', or does the death of Christ demand that we change the way we live? It is only reasonable that if Christ died for you, then you should live for Him.
Perhaps no hymn expresses this idea better than the last verse of our hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded:
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord let me never, never outlive my love to Thee. Amen.