We return in our reading today to the cross where Jesus has been unjustly condemned to die. I have been trying to stay with Matthew’s account as we are reading through Matthew, but there are elements that I truly believe need to be told in this story that Matthew didn’t mention. It is not that Matthew disagrees with other writers through his omissions, but that he had a different focus and audience in mind when he was penning his narrative. The Holy Spirit was directing Matthew’s words and crafting them to reach a specific segment of the people. The Holy Spirit did the same with Mark, Luke and John. Giving them the words to reach their intended audiences. Since we have the complete works of all four, I want to include events, especially Jesus’ words while on the cross, from the other authors. I hope this meets with your approval. If not, I’m sorry and you don’t have to read on. But I’m the author today and I feel led to include Jesus’ words.
This is, in my mind, the saddest day in history. As horrible as that day was, it also marked the moment of THE greatest gift ever given. God has been preparing to give this “gift” since the beginning of time. Now He seals the box with a cross shaped ribbon and waits.
Jesus was sentenced to die at about 6:00 in the morning, after being tried by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin about midnight and appearing before Pilate at dawn. It is interesting that the chief priests and the scribes could round up enough people at that hour to make a crowd large enough to threaten Pilate with a riot. Maybe people got up very early that day, as it was the day of preparation for the Passover. There were a LOT of extra people in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration so that certainly contributed to the available numbers for the crowd. Is it possible too that this was the time scheduled each year for Pilate to appear to do his annual prisoner release?
The Via Dolorosa would have been packed with visitors to Jerusalem by the time Jesus was brought that way. It was past time for shops to be open for business. Shoppers were out and about getting their supplies for their Passover dinner.
By 9:00 in the morning the Roman soldiers have Jesus hanging on the cross. Shortly after all the prisoners are secured in place, the guards sit down to wait. As we observed yesterday, crucifixion is a slow and often lengthy process. It can sometimes take days for a person to die by crucifixion, but that can’t happen this time. Tomorrow is the most holy day in Jewish tradition so all this has to be concluded before sundown. The religious leaders don’t want to spoil their holiday after all. They had planned to wait until after the holiday to deal with Jesus, but when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of Judas’ bargain, they jumped at it. Now they just need to make it fit with propriety. We couldn’t have a man dying during the Passover meal! That just wouldn’t be kosher!
Let’s rejoin the scene where we left off in our reading yesterday. I want to back up just a little though and recall Jesus’ first words since being sentenced by Pilate.
From the moment the crowd cried out “Crucify Him!” the mocking and jeers have not stopped. They have come from every angle. First the crowd, next the Roman soldiers as they beat Him, next from the people on the road to Golgotha, and finally by anyone in attendance at the Place of the Skull.
The soldiers have finished raising the crossbeam, securing it, and affixing Jesus’ feet to the cross with the final nail. The centurion in charge of Jesus’ detachment of soldiers has nailed the charges, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews” above His head. On the way down the ladder Jesus had made eye contact with the centurion. The centurion was shocked to see only sorrow in Jesus’ eyes, where he expected to find hate and anger. The guards have gambled for Jesus robe and divided His clothing. Finally the soldiers sit down nearby, to keep watch on the proceedings. They are there to make sure the sentence is carried out and to keep the peace with the spectators. Caiaphas, Annas and several members of the Sanhedrin are also present. They intend to make sure Jesus’ sentence is carried out too. As soon as Caiaphas read the charges posted above Jesus head he went to Pilate and tried to have the wording changed. Pilate refused outright. Caiaphas returned, frustrated but resolute to see this through.
Jesus looks around at the crowd. He raises Himself on the nail securing His feet and takes a deep breath. With tears in His eyes He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He slumps down after this to rest, hanging instead by the nails in His hands.
John is initially stunned at Jesus’ words. How could He ask God to forgive such cruelty? But then he sifts back through his memories of his Lord and Jesus’ words fit perfectly with His character. Jesus freely gave forgiveness to any who would ask. He taught His disciples to forgive, even up to 70 x 70. Caiaphas is indignant at Jesus’ words. He thinks to himself, “We have no need of Your forgiveness. We have done nothing wrong. Pray for Your own forgiveness!” Caiaphas, full of anger at Jesus’ words and Pilate’s inscription shouts, “He saved others, let Him save Himself! If He is truly the King of Israel, let Him come down now from the cross and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if He wants to.” Annas nods his head in agreement.
Quiet returns to the scene as those present settle in for a long wait. The silence is broken by cries of pain and jeers from those passing by on their way to the city. “You who would destroy and rebuild the temple in three days, save Yourself!”
During the second hour, the thief on Jesus’ left decides to join the jeers he has been hearing. “So, this is the great Jesus; the Christ sent to save us all. You are no better than we are. Where is Your God now?”
The thief on the right jerks his head up at the words coming from his fellow prisoner. “How can you say such things? We deserve our punishment, but He has done nothing; He is innocent. Jesus, please remember me when You come into Your Kingdom. Forgive me also.”
Jesus turns His head and makes eye contact with His defender. Jesus is touched by the man’s words in His defense. Love radiates from Jesus eyes and voice as He speaks directly to His fellow prisoner, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” A smile claims the man’s face as fresh tears fall from his eyes. Not tears of pain but of joy. Of all the places to meet Jesus. If only he had met Him sooner, his life might have turned out different. The thief on the left rolls his eyes but he felt chastised by his fellow prisoner enough to remain silent, for now.
The soldiers have decided to ignore those hurling insults at Jesus, as they seem to be confining their interactions to verbal abuse only. The small group of Jesus’ followers have not interacted with or responded to those hurling insults, so order seems to be being maintained.
Around 11:00 a storm begins brewing. The sky is darkening and the wind is picking up. Heavy, threatening clouds are gathering over the city and especially over Golgotha. By noon the sun is completely obscured by clouds so thick it reduces day to night. As far as the eye can see, light has been removed. The wind ceases and the air is deathly still. All the insects and birds are silent, as if the scene being played out before them is too oppressive to even move.
Fear grips the hearts of those watching. Even the jeers have decreased as the darkness rolled in. Never before have they experienced this depth of darkness. When will it end? What is causing it? Surely there must be some rational explanation. The Roman soldiers standing guard are anxious too. What could this mean?
The three men suspended on their crosses continue their torturous march towards death. They take shallow breaths until their bodies demand more oxygen, at which time they straighten their legs, rising on the nail securing their feet and take a deep breath to satisfy their body’s need for air again. Once they have dealt with their body’s need for air, they drop back down and hang suspended by their arms, satisfying their body’s other need, to decrease the pain in their legs. Cries of pain pierce the air with each repetition of this life sustaining movement. The wine mixed with myrrh from hours ago has worn off by the time the sky darkens. The two men beside Jesus have called out for more, but it is slow in coming.
Jesus and His fellow prisoners have been on their respective crosses for five and a half hours now. Complete darkness has remained since noon. Jesus knows His time is drawing to a close. Jesus’ mother, Mary, and John, with the rest of the small group of Jesus’ followers, continue to watch over Him. The darkness fits their mood perfectly. Jesus has been watching this group. He is thankful for their presence but is also acutely aware of their pain. Jesus raises Himself up and takes a deep breath. He needs to speak to His mother. He wants to let her know that she will be taken care of. It is His responsibility to care for her. Jesus looks into His mother’s eyes and says, “Woman, this is your son” and He inclines His head towards John. Jesus then looks into John’s eyes and says, “This is your mother” and again inclines His head, this time towards His mother. Mary and John immediately recognize what Jesus is doing. Both of their eyes fill with tears as they realize that Jesus is still taking care of them, even in the midst of His own agony. John nods his assent to Jesus and puts his arm around Mary’s shoulders. He speaks a promise with his eyes to Jesus; that he will protect her to his dying breath too.
A few minutes go by. Suddenly Jesus face fills with abject sorrow! He rises up, grabs a breath, and cries out so loudly that no one misses it, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? (My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?!)” As soon as the words leave His mouth He falls back onto the nails holding His hands, as if crushed by an unseen weight.
Jesus words stir one group of onlookers. As they are not native to this area but have come for the festival. The words that Jesus spoke were foreign to them. They believed Jesus was calling out to Elijah for help. “Let’s see if Elijah helps Him.”
Jesus, head bowed, in a nearly breathless voice says, “I’m thirsty.” Before any of Jesus’ followers could react, a member of the group of foreigners grabs a sponge and dips it in some sour wine, puts it on a reed and raises it to Jesus’ lips. Jesus sips from the sponge for a moment.
The hour is now 3:00 in the afternoon. It has been six hours since Jesus and His fellow prisoners were placed on their crosses. Darkness has covered the earth for the last three hours. Jesus has had enough. He rises one last time on the nail in His feet, takes a deep breath, and cries out loud enough for all to hear, “It is finished!”
Jesus surrenders His spirit. His body immediately falls back into the position of hanging by His hands. His struggle is over.
At that exact moment the earth shakes and the ground splits near the base of the hill. Nearby graves burst open. The bodies of those who were prophets or men of God are raised from the dead. The heavy curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom.
When the centurion who was in charge of Jesus’ detachment saw how He died he was overcome with sorrow and remorse. He looks from the tools of crucifixion, the hammer and ropes, then back to Jesus. “Truly this was the Son of God!” The group of Jesus’ followers weep bitterly. They had been holding onto a little hope while Jesus still breathed. He had helped so many, why didn’t He help Himself. The clouds begin to break up and the wind returns to drive them away.
As soon as Jesus breathes His last breath, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus leave. They have work to do.
Caiaphas and Annas left Golgotha shortly after it became dark. They cited the people’s need for them in preparing the Passover lamb for sacrifice. Caiaphas sends word to Pilate that the time of the festival is upon them and that those dying on the crosses need to do so now, so as not to intrude on this holy day.
Pilate sends word for the soldiers to break the legs of the prisoners. This will prevent them from being able to take those life sustaining deep breaths. The centurion from each detachment assigns one of his soldiers to the task. The soldier takes the hammer, which was used to drive the nail, and in one swing strikes with such force as to shatter both legs of his assigned prisoner. Screams can be heard as the soldiers tending to the two thieves complete their task. The centurion over Jesus’ detachment was watching the moment the life went out of Jesus. He knows no such ministration will be necessary on Jesus’ part. Just to be certain though, he thrusts his spear into Jesus side. As he removes his spear, blood and water flow down the side of Jesus’ body; a certain sign of death.
The only sounds heard now are the sounds of sobbing, coming from the group of Jesus’ followers and the sounds of strangulation coming from the two thieves, then nothing. John wraps his cloak around Mary, Jesus’ mother. The group turns to leave the scene. Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleopas stay behind. They are determined to see what becomes of Jesus’ body.
Father God, I don’t have the words to say how deeply I regret what my sins caused Jesus to have to suffer. If only there was another way. I know it hurt You too. I want to end by offering You again the poem You gave me concerning this day. Between Triumph and Tears.