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"And the people stood beholding" (Luke 23: 35).
What varied thoughts and feelings moved the hearts of those who stood that day beholding the cross of Calvary! We can perceive the cruel heartlessness with which the Roman soldiers drove the nails and reared the cross, interested only in getting their share of the petty spoil for which they cast lots. We can conceive of the fiendish ferocity with which the rulers and chief priests gloated over the agony of their victim and felt themselves at last avenged. We can comprehend the heartbreak with which those loving women looked upon the helpless anguish of the One in whom they had so much believed. We can realize something of that mother's grief as she recalled the words of Simeon thirty years before, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also." We can imagine that Peter, gazing from afar upon the tragedy, would have given worlds to have taken back that last dart with which he had pierced his Master's heart, but realized that now he should see Him no more. And we know something from the narrative of the awe and veneration with which the Roman centurion gazed upon the preternatural signs which accompanied His death and exclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God."
And so they stood beholding. And all through the ages generations after generations have turned their eyes to that central cross as it has loomed larger and loftier above all other spectacles in the vision of the human race. Once more Christ is set forth before us, crucified among us, and faith and love once more stand beholding. As we gaze upon that scene so old and yet so ever new, it seems as if that cross appears like some vision in a kaleidoscope. With every turn that holy Scriptures as they present to us some of these varied phases of the cross of Jesus.
A Death Scene
Death is always an impressive spectacle, but this was no ordinary death. Here was a man who did not need to die, but One who chose to die, One who came to die, One whose supreme mission was to die, One over whose cross each of us can write, "He died for me."
This is more than an ordinary death scene for He "became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Crucifixion was adopted by the Romans as the severest form of capital punishment. It was the most agonizing and it was the most shameful of all deaths. What agony was endured as every muscle was strained to its utmost tension, as the helpless body hung by its own weight from lacerated flesh and bones, slowly dying from sheer anguish with no vital organ wounded, and as the crucible of pain burned up by slow degrees life's last powers of endurance. How pitiful was the cry of the crucified Savior as it was foreshadowed in the prophetic Psalm: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death" (Psalm 22:14,15).
And what shame was suffered as He hung there, crucified between two thieves. He was treated not only as one of them, but worse than either. His very name was blotted out of the family records at Bethlehem, and He was looked upon by men and even treated by His own Father as if He were the worst and vilest criminal that ever lived or died.
"Him ... ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain." "Whom ye have delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go" (Acts 2:23; 3:13). It was a judicial assassination. He was God's martyred Lamb, and our martyred Master.
A Voluntary Sacrifice
Jesus said of His own death, "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." "I lay down my life for the sheep .... I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." He gave Himself for us. "No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself" (John 10:14,15,18). As He hung upon that cross, even death could not come till He said, "It is finished," and bowed His head, as if beckoning death to come, and "gave up the ghost." Was there ever a death like this? Human nature flees from death as the worst of all evils. But here was a Man who from the beginning to the end of His life had one supreme object - to lay down His own life for the sake of others.
"I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished" (Luke 12:50). It was ever present to His thoughts. It was ever calling Him to the cross. It was ever coloring every act and object of His life. It was ever casting its shadow over His consciousness so that He died a thousand deaths before He even approached the cross.
"He showed himself alive after his passion" (Acts 1:3). Literally, the word passion means suffering. But it conveys the idea of intense suffering, suffering that involved His inner as well as His outer being, His soul and spirit as well as His rent body. It is true that "He poured out his soul unto death."
Travail is considered the severest form of human agony, and thus represents in the most emphatic light the excruciating anguish of the Savior's death. But it speaks of more than agony. It has in it the silver lining of hope and life and promise. It is the birth pang of a new creation. "She remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world." And so there was a joy even in the Savior's agony, and already the promise came to Him, "He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hands. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied" (Isaiah 53:10,11)
They "spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). Decease is more than death. It means an outgoing, a departure, and carries with it the idea of a future life and a continued activity. So He changed the sphere of His existence and passed through the gates of death to a higher and more glorious ministry.
"If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Romans 6:5). This figure has an added charm in the beautiful conjunction of the Easter season and the Spring when all nature is alive with illustrations and types of the new creation. The figure of planting is very different from that of burying. It is not a grave plot, but a garden. You do not drop the lifeless remains of some loved one into the gloomy grave; you simply put away a living seed with the confidence that it will bloom forth in beauty in shoot and bud and blossom and fruit. And so the death of Christ was just a glorious planting, and every time we die with Him, we are just making a great investment, from which we are going to reap some day a hundred fold. Let us not be afraid to let the "corn of wheat fall into the ground and die," for "if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."
A Lifting Up
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up" (John 3:14). "When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he" (John 8:28). "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). The cross of Christ is intended for the eyes of the whole world. Let us lift Him up by our testimony, by our love, and in our adoring praise and worship until all the world shall stand beholding.
The idea of an offering is something that pleases God. In Christ He beheld for the first time with perfect satisfaction the consecration of a human life. Even if no sinner had ever been saved it still would have been an offering well pleasing to God, "for a sweet smelling savor."
A sacrifice is different from an offering. It carries with it the idea of sin to be expiated, of substitution for the guilty, of atonement for the transgressions of men. So Christ died for sinners that they might not die, and suffered "the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).
A Great Victory
On the cross He met Satan and overthrew him. "Having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (the cross) (Col. 2:15). And so we are said to overcome by the blood of the Lamb.
"Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps... who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness" (1 Peter 2:21,23,24). The crucifixion was a great object lesson of submission, gentleness, meekness and self surrender. "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth" (Isa. 53:7). Christ's death is much more than this; but let us not forget this also amid the suffering and trial through which we follow Him.
Christ's death was the meeting of the conditions of that great covenant which the Father had made with His Son ages before, promising eternal life to all for whom He should pay this costly price. And now the price has been paid, the redemption accomplished, and the heirs of the covenant may come and claim as much as that blood is worth.
At Christ's cross God and the sinner can meet while Christ stands between reaching out one pierced hand to the Father and pleading, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," and the other to sinners and beseeching, "Be ye reconciled to God."
"God commendeth his love toward us" not by talking about it, but by doing something which proves it and commends it as no words could ever have done, "in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
A Pledge of the New Creation
Christ's cross is the pledge of the new creation, for there old humanity died in the person of the seed of the woman, and new humanity was born in the person of the second Adam. And now, as we identify ourselves with Him we are counted dead with Him to the curse of the law, to the dominion of the carnal nature, to the very center of our physical being and to the extent of the future resurrection itself. The reason I am justified is that the old sinner is dead with Christ, and I am no longer he, or liable for his sins. The reason I have victory over the power of sin is that in Christ I am dead to sin and I need no longer fear it or obey it. The reason I claim my healing in His name is that He has borne the liabilities of my body, and I can lay them over on Him who died for them. And by the same reason I am already anticipating the coming resurrection and triumphing over the fear and power of death. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 5:17,18).
"For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again" (2 Cor. 5:14,15).
I've got a word in my heart like a fire,
That will not let me be;
Jesus the Son of God, who loved
And gave Himself for me.
If He'd loved and died for some one else;
For Peter or blessed Paul;
If He'd loved and died for men like these;
One wouldn't have wondered at all.
But 'twas for me that Jesus died,
For me and a world of men;
Just as sinful, and just as slow
To give back His love again.
Did'st Thou love and die for a man like me?
Then, Master, I will take
More thought for the perishing souls I meet
If it's only for Thy sake.
The cross of Christ demands from each of us identification. It is of no use to us unless we make it our own and enter into His death and resurrection. "Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 6:11).
When Jesus died on Calvary,
I, too, was there
'Twas in my place He stood for me
And now accepted, even as He
His righteousness I share.