From one perspective, there was a routine about the events of the crucifixion that was normal. The soldiers fulfilled their function with the kind of objectivity which marks the seasoned grave digger. Finding the grave digger singing at his task, Horatio explains to the perturbed Hamlet, “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”
As the soldiers went about their business with callused indifference, they failed to recognize that this scene was far different from any other crucifixion in which they had been involved. The pivotal event of human history was being worked out here in the everyday events of Roman jurisdiction. As men and women wandered through their empty way of life, God was intervening in the act of redemption.
Jesus dies not as the helpless victim of evil forces, but because He freely submitted to the Father’s plan as revealed in Scripture.
At the very outset of the Gospel, John had recorded the words of John the Baptist, who upon seeing Christ had exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Now in a moment in time, this Lamb without blemish or defect, who was chosen before the foundation of the world and revealed in these last times for our sake, was bearing sin in His own body on the tree. It is here that the relevance of the scene is to be found. The One who stumbles under the weight of the cross, who is nailed between two thieves, who cries, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is none other than God incarnate. It is interesting and doubtless of some significance that despite the recurring emphasis of popular piety upon the physical sufferings of Jesus, the Gospel writers choose to record the fact and let it go at that.
There is a place for pondering the nature of such suffering. But it is also true to note that such an approach may induce an emotional response on the heart strings of man, without creating a spiritual transformation in the center of his soul. In a similar vein, we will never truly grasp the significance of Christ’s teaching and example, the relevance of His works of compassion and power, until we grasp and are grasped by the nature of His death. John Stott said, “What dominated Christ’s mind was not the living, but the giving of His life.”
As the birth of Christ was heralded by light at midnight, so we find His death is marked by darkness at midday. There in that scene of cruel anguish, we see that Scripture is being fulfilled and the work of redemption is being accomplished. Here we find ourselves at the very nerve-center of sin bearing. Just as in the old covenant, the sacrificial animal died in the place of the guilty presenter. So when Christ shed His blood upon the cross, it was for us, that we might escape the death our sin had brought on us. Any attempt to come to terms with the atonement, while at the same time circumventing the vital biblical emphasis on propitiation and substitution, is false in its premise, and therefore futile in its application. Jesus dies not as the helpless victim of evil forces, nor as a result of some inflexible decree, but because He freely submitted to the Father’s plan as revealed in Scripture.
What a study in contrasts this event provides – not least of all between the indifference of the soldiers and the loyalty of the women around the cross. For Mary, His mother who had given birth to Him, worried over Him, watched Him, loved Him, and cared for Him, there must have been the sudden dawning realization that this was what Simeon had meant when he spoke of the sword piercing her own soul.
Should we not pause in wonder as we see the compassion of Christ in looking upon His mother as He commits her, not to the care of unbelieving family, but to the disciple whom He loved? Did He not refer to her as “woman” in part to lessen the pain of calling her “mother?” Was it not an act of compassion on His part to use such a designation? He knew that she must learn that while He was her son, so He is now her Lord before whom she bows in adoration and her Savior to whom she owes her eternal destiny. But while we cannot but be moved by the pathos of this scene, the real lesson is clearly not emotional – the love of a son for His mother, but theological – the love of a Savior for one of His own.
When these truths begin to dawn upon our souls and we bow before the wonder of their implications, we can surely embrace again the truth conveyed in the words of the hymn writer, “I take O cross, thy shadow, for my abiding place. I ask no other sunshine, than the sunshine of His face. Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss. My sinful self, my only shame, my glory all the cross.”