Thursday, March 15, 2012

Seven Words from the Cross

The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is the corner stone of our faith. It is the chosen symbol of the Christian faith. Thank God, we see it now as an empty cross because the seeming tragedy for good and apparent victory for evil was overturned by the power and purposes of God into the triumph of the resurrection of Jesus. But what does it mean to us? Is the Cross in our experience more meaningful than a nicely sculpted piece of wood or an elegantly-shaped piece of gold hung around the neck? The Cross of Christ is God’s final word as to the character and consequence of human sin, and of the wonder and sacrifice of divine love.

Jesus went to the Cross so that we, through his death and resurrection might have a personal relationship with God and that we might know its power in every area of our lives. When we speak of "the Cross", we’re not thinking of it in the purely physical sense of two rough pieces of wood, bolted together and suspended by its vertical section before being dropped into a hole in the ground. To the Christian, it is much more than that - "the Cross" is a "shorthand" expression meaning the death of Jesus. It’s Jesus stretched out between heaven and earth, suffering more than anyone has ever suffered, for you and me. The Cross is Jesus as our Saviour. There is no holier place that we can ever hope to come to - the Cross is the place "to where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet".

The Gospels contain a most wonderful commentary on the Cross in the words of Jesus himself, spoken from the Cross itself. Seven sayings are recorded: if there were more we don’t know but surely it’s significant that seven is God’s perfect number. It represents completeness and wholeness. As Jesus hung upon that Cross almost two thousand years ago, he made seven great statements, treasured by believers as the Seven Words from the Cross. They cover the basic needs of mankind. Let’s meditate on them together as our Lord’s testament to a world wrecked by sin, bowed down by needs of healing in body, mind and spirit. The Words from the Cross reveal God’s answer to our basic needs.

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
"Forgive them" said Jesus. Who, I wonder, was Jesus referring to? There were many groups of people around the Cross. Closest to him would have been the execution party, soldiers of the Roman garrison, coarsened by discipline and cruelty. They had the unspeakable task of nailing a human being to a cross, but perhaps they were the least guilty of all parties who were responsible for putting to death an innocent man - after all, they were under the strict instructions of the Roman Governor, and to fail to co-operate in the execution would have meant instant death for themselves. Yet they were involved - they crucified the Lord of glory.

As Jesus prayed his utterly unselfish prayer "Father, forgive them" his eyes would have taken in other groups: they were the teachers who hated him, the priests who bought him with silver, the traitor who sold him to them, the crowd who had cried "crucify him" at the farce of his trial, and in the distance was Pilate in his palace trying to salve his conscience by blaming somebody else for what was happening. But I like to think that Jesus was encompassing a wider body of people than those I have mentioned: therewas the band of disciples who had been his constant companions for nearly three years. Had they lifted a finger to prevent this act of barbarism? They were there, at a discreet distance, perhaps standing next to the secret disciples of Jesus, those kindly men Nicodemus and Joseph who were to minister to the dead body of Jesus. But as Jesus endured the torture of crucifixion, they failed to make even a token protest against the terrible atrocity being committed.

What does this tell us? All these groups either actively or passively helped to crucify Jesus - they were all guilty, but in a very real sense they are only representatives of a wider number of those responsible for crucifying Jesus, because the message of the Bible is that it was the sin of the world which crucified Jesus. The gospel writers simply wrote "They crucified Jesus". Who crucified him? I’ll tell you who crucified him. I did - and you did, and they did, those groups around the cross. The old Negro spiritual asked the question, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" “They” crucified the Lord? It would be truer to say "We crucified the Lord". Every one of us is equally guilty, "They do not know what they do" said Jesus. What a perceptive word this is. Mankind had become so blinded by evil, so corrupted by sin that it reacted violently to the purity and holiness of God as shown in the Lord Jesus Christ. These poor representatives of mankind were swept along by the power of Satan in seeking to destroy the Lord of glory - "they do not know what they do" - but they did it all the same.

The wonder of this Word from the Cross is that there is forgiveness. Forgiveness for the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled in the night. Forgiveness for the evil ones who drove Him to the Cross. Forgiveness for the soldiers who nailed him to the tree. Forgiveness for the bitter hearts of his religious enemies, the priests and teachers. Forgiveness for every person who has ever sinned or made a mistake. Forgiveness for you and for me. Thank God, there is forgiveness but it is a forgiveness that requires to be taken individually, to be drawn upon in the way that God has planned.
Years later, one of the disciples, John, restated this truth when he wrote, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).

Forgiveness has always been the hallmark of Christianity, following the great example of its founder. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, showed this spirit when he was being stoned to death, "Lord," he prayed, "do not hold this sin against them." Non-Christians may have in their hearts the unforgiving spirit, but Christians know better; we are Christ’s men and women, and we must forgive as He forgave.

One of the great preachers of the early part of this century, Dr. F B Meyer, says that "in uttering this first cry from the Cross, our Lord entered that work of intercession which he ever lives to continue on our behalf. He thinks, not of himself, but of others; he is occupied, not with his own pain, but with their sins. He makes no threat but instead offers a tender prayer of pleading intercession." When was that prayer answered? Seven weeks after this, on the day of Pentecost, three thousand of these people, whomPeter described as the murderers of Christ repented and believed; and, in the days that followed, thousands more, including a great number of the priests. That was the answer to this intercession, and it has continued down the centuries for we too, are the fruits of his prayer, "Father, forgive them."

"Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
If the First Word embraced all mankind within the scope of the dreadful act of crucifying Jesus and the potential of forgiveness through his prayer, then the Second Word narrows its focus to one single needy sinner. God not only sees the whole world but he sees it made up of individuals. On that fateful day in the history of the world, it happened that there were two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus. This fact isn’t just recorded to give a bit of colour to the dark scene. It’s not just to round up the story, but as a piece of evidence that what was happening was part of God’s plan of salvation. It was conceived before the world existed and revealed through God’s messengers, centuries before. The particular prophecy that was being fulfilled is recorded in Isaiah 53 where, among many other predictions, the prophet declared that the coming Suffering Servant of the Lord was he who "was numbered with the transgressors" (53:12).

This ancient prophecy was fulfilled quite literally when Jesus was crucified in the company of two thieves, obviously known to each other. Something of the way that Jesus conducted himself must have convicted one thief of his own vileness when contrasted with the righteousness of Jesus, visible to all who had eyes to see it. It soon dawned on his understanding that he was witnessing something not of this earth. Instead of curses from the lips of Jesus as the soldiers hammered in the nails, it was a prayer of forgiveness for his torturers. It seems likely that he had known of the life of Jesus for when the other thief was casting abuse at Jesus, this fellow tried to restrain him and told him that, although they were receiving the just reward of their misdeeds Jesus had done nothing amiss. Evil man though he was, he feared God and that was the beginning of his repentance.

No man is beyond hope of redemption in whose soul still lingers some fear of God. And as he spoke, faith rose in his soul and he blurted out his appeal, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." It was a plea that did not fall on deaf ears. The response was immediate, "Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The word "Paradise" is a Persian word meaning "a walled garden". When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honour he made him a “companion of the garden” and he was chosen to walk in the royal garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised the honoured place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven. "You will be with me" said Jesus.

This word from the cross teaches some wonderful truths. It illustrates that the way of salvation is wondrously simple. The devil has blinded the eyes of men and women to thinking that it is hard to be saved, difficult to come to Christ and to become a Christian. But this clearly isn’t true. The man was saved simply by asking the Lord to save him. In the words of his request, there’s theimplication that he felt and confessed his need of salvation; he believed the Lord could and would save him and he committed himself to the Lord and trusted him to save him (Romans 10:13).

This Word from the Cross reminds us that the worst sinner may be saved. There can be no doubt that the man was a criminal. He had broken the laws of the land and he was crucified for that reason, but the measure of his sin didn’t alter his chance of being saved one little bit. Let no one despair in thinking they are too bad to be saved, as the hymn writer put it, "the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives."

Another important lesson to learn from the personal encounter of the dying thief with Jesus is that salvation doesn’t depend on religious ceremonies, good deeds or any contribution from man. There was no time for any of these things to take place. I once read that "salvation is free yet costly; the entrance fee into the kingdom of heaven is nothing at all, but once you are in, the annual subscription is all you have got."

There is one further point to mention before we leave this Word. It’s a solemn one. You see, there were two thieves crucified with Jesus - one repented but the other didn’t. The time of decision came for both. When it came to the choice of rebellion or repentance for the dying thieves it was irrevocable. It was now or never. There is a dual tug - the eternal pull of evil, and the eternal pull of God’s Spirit. As James Russell Lowell put it: "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that darkness and that light."

We may think that time is on our side before we commit ourselves, but beware, the next moment is promised to no-one. We never know amid the flow of life’s choices, which will be final and irreversible. Someone once said that the story of the dying thieves was recorded so that no one need despair, and also as a dire warning to presume on God’s mercy by delaying trusting in Christ.

Thank God for conscience - that voice within that tells us that we have done wrong, that nags us to a point of hurting for the mistakes that we’ve made; when we’ve missed the mark and fallen short of God’s best for our lives. It’s then we too can look up to God and say, "Lord, remember me". There’s salvation in the Cross.

"Jesus said to his mother, ’Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple ’Here is your mother’" (John 19:26,27).
The Second Word from the Cross ministered salvation to the penitent sinner, but the Third Word introduces us to the wider implications of this great salvation. It illuminates relationships as seen through the cross of Jesus, especially that of love. A psychologist once said, "there are two things that men want: power and love." At the very heart of all our wanting is the love that Jesus gave us on the cross. The disciple that Jesus refers to in his word is John, and his gospel contains several of the most important statements that Jesus made on love. "Greater love has no one than this that one lays down his life for his friends" (15:13). "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (3:16).

The gospels provide only the briefest glimpses of the relationship between Jesus and Mary. I wonder what tortured thoughts were passing through Mary’s mind as she saw her son in such extremity. Very likely she would recall the words uttered in a prophecy when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple,
"This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." This was that moment - the sword was being cruelly thrust into her. It was suffering for Jesus to see his mother among those who stood near the Cross. He suffered because of her suffering. He always entered into the needs of his people. He wept over the rebellious people of Jerusalem.

Here he is touched with his mother’s suffering, but he doesn’t refer to her as "Mother" rather as "Woman". Have you ever wondered why? On the face of it, it would have seemed to be more tender and loving to have done so, and Jesus lacked nothing in consideration and compassion. The reason is that Mary must no longer think of him as being her son. The more she thinks of him as her son, the more she will suffer when he suffers. Mary must begin to look upon Jesus as her "Lord". Even then she will suffer, but this suffering will be of a different nature. She will then know that however terrible his agony is, it is glorious because of its purpose. She will then begin to concentrate on its redemptive meaning. Mary’s merely emotional suffering must be replaced by something higher, that is, by adoration. This was the way that Jesus ministered love unto the broken hearted. It shows that in the Cross all barriers have been broken. Mary represents the women of the world, all too often treated as inferior. She represents those getting on in years. But at the Cross there’s no age barrier, no sex barrier, for all who come to Jesus are part of his household.

This Third Word from the Cross also reveals the relationship of Jesus with his disciple John, the one who had been closest to him. It didn’t require a long explanation for John to know what was meant. We read that from that hour John took Mary into his own home. The question might be raised, "But why was not Mary committed into the care of one of her other children?" The answer is probably because they as yet hadn’t received him by a living faith. John was ready and acted without hesitation. It has been said that this Word from the Cross is the least theological, but practical application of the gospel must never be separated from its message. It is only as theory is translated into practice that relationship with Christ becomes a living reality. This Word tells us that there’s love for you in the cross, and it’s a love which having been received, is to be shared with others.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:46).
There is a depth of feeling in this cry from the heart, made with an intensity matched only by the darkness which had draped itself over the terrible spectacle. It’s surely symbolic that the sun couldn’t shine upon such a scene as the crucifixion of its Creator. The darkness lasted three hours and wasan outward sign of the darkness that now wrapped itself around the soul of Jesus. Wave after wave of evil swept over his consciousness. All the sin of the world, the awful legacy of the fall of mankind was laid upon Jesus. "He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21).

Only the night before, Jesus had told his disciples that in his hour of trial they would all desert him but he said, "Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me" (John 16:33). But now at the climax of his passion, at the moment of making atonement for our sin it was necessary that even his Father should stand aside. Just as a scapegoat of the Old Testament had to be banished into the wilderness, so Jesus had to bear the sin of the world alone - literally. God forsaken. He who was made sin for us was feeling the punishment of the sinner, being separated from God. His humiliation was complete. It has been said that "Christ’s self-emptying was not a single act or bereavement, but a growing poorer and poorer, until at last nothing was left to Him but a piece of ground where He could weep and a Cross where He could die." (Abraham Kuyper)

How Jesus felt as his loud cry broke the dreadful silence of that moment of destiny we cannot know. Never before had he stood alone, forsaken by God his Father. Yet, although he was forsaken he never ceased to be his Father’s well-beloved Son, for he was carrying out his Father’s will and purpose in becoming our atonement for sin. This Word from the Cross points us to the cost of the atonement made. Thank God, there’s atonement for sin at the Cross by the Lord Jesus. It’s something we must never lose sight of.

"I thirst" (John 19:28).
The hours of torture on the Cross took a tremendous toll on the body of Jesus. Execution by crucifixion was not a sudden death like being shot by a firing squad. It was a long drawn out, lingering death carried out under the Eastern sun. His wounded hands and feet would be quickly inflamed, resulting in a fever of thirst and His body would soon be dehydrated.

The prophetic 22nd Psalm which anticipated our Lord’s passion speaks graphically of his condition, "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth" (14,15). Yes, our Saviour’s sufferings were real. Although Jesus was divine he was also uniquely man and felt all the emotions and pain as we feel them.

Jesus had earlier refused to drink a drugged wine designed to alleviate to some extent the intensity of the coming suffering, but now his mission almost complete his cry of thirst could be met from a sponge dipped in wine vinegar. In fact it was necessary that his lips should be moistened because he had yet two momentous Words to utter which the world must hear clearly. The second reason was that there was a Scripture still to be fulfilled. Psalm 69:21 had predicted that the Suffering Servant of Israel would say "They ... gave me vinegar for my thirst." Jesus knew that for him to do his Father’s will required him to fulfil all that had been prophesied of the Messiah down the ages. This Fifth Word from the Cross serves to tell us that there is suffering in the Cross.

"It is finished" (John 19:30). consists of one single word in the Greek - "Finished, accomplished." It was a loud cry that rang out over the ghastly scene. What did Jesus mean? What was finished? Was he referring to his sufferings or his life’s work? Certainly it was those things, but even more. It was the end of an era. The Old Testament contains a long list of prophetic utterances, beginning with the first family of mankind, when God told the serpent in the Garden of Eden that he would "put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel" (Gen 3:15). It was this great conquest that was being enacted. Jesus’ cry was proclaiming his victory over the evil one. In the gigantic struggle between good and evil the Son of Man had suffered grievously but he had finished the work of redemption that his Father had committed to him. He didn’t say "I am finished" but rather "It is finished." It was a shout of victory over sin, death and hell.

The word from the Cross said "finished" to the rituals of the Jewish religion. There was nothing wrong with them because they had been given by God, but now they had served their purpose as a holding operation until the appointed time of the coming of the Messiah.

The sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament order were but types pointing to the Christ, but now he had come, shadow had given way to substance; that which had been promised centuries before had at last been realised. The work of man’s redemption was finished, accomplished. Jesus had offered himself without spot or blemish to God, and by that one sacrifice for sin, once and for all he had done all that was required to reconcile the world unto God.

"It is finished." The Word tells us there is nothing left for man to do but to enter into the results of Christ’s finished work. The Greek word for “finished” was used in business life of the time to indicate that a debt had been paid. It’s like the message of a rubber stamp bearing the words ’Payment received’ when stamped across a bill. That’s what Jesus was proclaiming from the Cross - "it is paid, man’s account with God has been settled, the debt is wiped out." That is the very essence of the Gospel. The Redeemer has paid the price for our redemption. Salvation has been obtained for all who accept and rely upon the finished work of Calvary. "A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." Yes, there is victory over sin in the Cross.

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
The First Word from the Cross begins with Jesus addressing His Father - "Father forgive" and now it begins the last. God, the Father, had accepted the sin offering made by Jesus, as would soon be demonstrated by his resurrection from the dead. Jesus had come from his Father and to his Father he would return, but first he had to die physically. These words tell us that his life didn’t just ebb away - in fact Jesus had previously said that no one could take his life "but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:18). And so it was that Jesus consciously gave his life. He laid it upon the altar, just as the burnt offering of the Old Testament which had spoken