Chapter 1: The Narrative of the Cross
The story of the cross is related in the Holy Scriptures. They uniformly teach us to look upon Christ’s death in a light totally different from that of any other person. They never mention it without emphasis, nor without admiration. When the great Ruler of the world was pleased to accomplish his purposes of mercy toward sinful man, he saw fit to do it in a way that expressed the mysterious fullness of his own eternal nature. God is one in nature, and in three persons. A fundamental article of the Christian religion is, that one of these three Divine persons became incarnate. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." "Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given – and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."
"When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." His birth was humble, away from home, and in a manger; but it was announced by angelic voices, "Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy,…for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a SAVIOR, who is Christ the Lord!" Behold the wonder!—the immortal Deity clothed with the nature of mortal man—the Everlasting One born in time—the God Omnipotent enveloped in the confines of infancy, and lying in a manger! This was the beginning of the Savior’s sorrows. Had he any sense of loftiness to be subdued, any honest pride of character to be wounded, any inbred sentiments of virtuous exaltation to be mortified, it would be in the prospect of such mysterious humiliation as this. No pomp of earth was there; no show of worldly magnificence; no regal splendor; though there slept on that pallet of straw One who "on his robe and thigh was written this Title—king of Kings and Lord of Lords." Judah’s crown and scepter might have belonged to his honored parents; and he should of right have been born in the palace of David. But this was ill fitting one who came to pour contempt upon the pride of man; whose "kingdom is not of this world," and who, before he assumed this low attire, foresaw that he should put it off only on the cross.
The tears that flowed in Bethlehem often flowed. In his infancy, he was sought as the victim of Herod’s sword; in his youth, he was often obliged to retire from the observation of men, that he might not provoke their rage. But while for thirty years he avoided the scenes of active and public life, his great work of suffering and redemption, in all its parts and consequences, was always present to his thoughts. Wherever he went, and whatever he did and said, he conducted himself like one who felt that he had a great work to perform, and was assiduously hastening it onward to its final catastrophe. He knew what others did not know—that the hand of violence would cut Him off in the midst of his days; and contemplating his coming sorrows, could often say, "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished!"
In this respect, as well, indeed, as in every other, he differed from all other men. Socrates, though he addressed himself to his fate with great calmness, and spoke of it with wonderful tranquility, and drank the hemlock with unshrinking firmness, did not anticipate his destiny from the beginning of his career, nor even many days before its close. Those there have been who have undertaken enterprises of great toil and peril; but the suffering was uncertain, and many a gladdening, though, perhaps, deceptive hope was mingled with their fears. But the Savior fully knew his miserable career of suffering, as well as its close of agony, from the hour he left his Father’s bosom. In the eternal "council of peace," he "gave his life a ransom for many." All his arrangements were directed to this one end; his eye and his course were single; and the farther he went in it, the more steadfastly did he "set his face to go to Jerusalem." Nothing could divert his steps from that melancholy way of tears and blood. To every solicitation his reply was, "The Son of man must go up to Jerusalem, and suffer many things—and be killed."
Judea, the ancient country possessed by the Hebrew race, lay in the center of the then inhabited globe, and was once the glory of all lands. It was the great thoroughfare between the commercial countries of the west and south-west, and Babylon and Persia on the east, and the trading towns skirting the Black and Caspian seas. Scenes of exciting interest in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, were thus a spectacle to all the nations of the earth. Jerusalem was the glory of Judea, as Judea was of the world. At the time the Savior drew near and wept over it, it had lost some of its ancient splendor. It had been the object of contention among surrounding nations, and had long suffered all the vicissitudes common to war and a warlike age. It had been pillaged; its inhabitants had been slain, or led into captivity; and the conquerors had erected statues of their own divinities in its temple. Its walls had been alternately demolished and rebuilt, and now it was the servile tributary to a foreign power, and a mere Roman province. Long since has it fulfilled the prediction of the prophet, and been "trodden down by the Gentiles." The proud Moslem, and the turbaned Turk, encamp in the "stronghold of Zion," and the mosque of Omar towers on the mount where once stood the ark of God. "How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow!—The adversary has spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things.—How has the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto the earth the beauty of Israel, and remembered not his footstool in the day of his anger!"
It added interest to the scenes of the crucifixion, that it took place during the annual feast of the Jewish passover. Not only did this selected period call to mind the striking correspondence between the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, and the offering up of the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world;" but was of special importance, since, by Divine appointment, it called together all the males of the Jewish nation to the national altar at Jerusalem. From all parts of the nation they were here assembled in vast and solemn concourse to this sacred festival, filling "the guest chambers" of the city, and occupying the thousand tents erected on its environed hills and plains. It was the last passover the Savior ate with his disciples. Before another should revolve, what mighty changes were to take place, both in his condition and theirs! He was to be crucified, to rise from the dead, to ascend to his Father and their Father, and enjoy the glory he had with him before the world was—they, baptized with the Holy Spirit, and cheered with the promise of his presence, were to go forth on the benevolent errand of subduing the nations to the faith of His gospel.
Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, and just before the festival, he said to his disciples, "With desire have I desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer." A little before the feast, Judas Iscariot had gone to the chief priests and offered to betray him. This hypocritical traitor had covenanted to sell his Master for "thirty pieces of silver,"—the fixed price of a slave according to the Jewish law. While sitting at the passover, Jesus said to his disciples, "Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me." And not long after this, as though he would hasten the fearful consummation, and saw that events must now succeed one another with increased rapidity, or they could not be accomplished within the prescribed period, turning to his betrayer, he said, "What you do, do quickly." I am ready; delay no longer. "He then having received the sop went immediately out—and it was night." It was a night much to be remembered. The signal was given; and the last scene of our Lord’s sufferings began. "When he had gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him." The great design which he came to accomplish was to be immediately fulfilled.
Near to Jerusalem on the east, and at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where glided the brook Kedron, was the garden of Gethsemane. It was a much loved retreat; and there the Savior was used to resort with his disciples. There are seasons, in the immediate view of trial, when the anticipations of a sensitive mind equal the reality and which, if contemplated with tranquillity, are the surest pledge that the reality, however dreadful, will be encountered with a submissive and determined purpose. For reasons known only to Him who saw near at hand the mighty struggle he was about to endure, such was not the garden of Gethsemane to this great sufferer. He was agitated; cries of bitter suffering escaped his lips, and symptoms of mysterious distress came upon him, too exquisite for the human mind to conceive of. He took with him Peter, James and John, "and he began to be filled with anguish and deep distress." The enraged multitude had not yet scourged him; nor had the nails pierced his hands and feet; nor were the light and love of heaven yet eclipsed. Yet was it an hour of darkness, of temptation, of conflict, of depression too deep to be endured. Agonies of fear were extorted from him, which, even in view of the death by crucifixion, we had not looked for in one so spotless, and whom death in any form could not injure. There was something in this approaching scene which the eye of man did not behold. For even though "the whole strength of Divinity" was put in question for it, yet was he so moved by the apprehension of evils which he foresaw must be encountered, that the sacred historian informs us he "began to be filled with horror and deep distress." It was not the death that he was about to endure, but the concentrated wrath of God which his violated law denounces upon millions. It is no marvel he was afraid.
To all who suffered, and especially to his disciples, he had hitherto been the giver of consolation—now he was the one that needed it. "My soul," said he, "is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." Verily, "he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows." There was a burden upon him which, unaided and alone, it was impossible for him to sustain. Thoughts crowded on his mind that filled him with sadness, with fear; and such was his anguish that he was in an agony, "and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." As though at such an hour he did not desire that his communion with heaven should be heard by mortal ears, he withdrew himself from his disciples about the length of a stone’s throw, and fell face down on the ground, praying, "My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will, not mine." And again he went away the second time and prayed, "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, your will be done!" And "he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words."
Nor were his cries unheeded. We are told by an apostle that he "was heard in that he feared." His fear was probably excited, not only by the invading sufferings, but by the weakness caused by his unequaled trial. In this fear he was relieved by a special messenger from heaven. "And there appeared an angel from heaven unto him, strengthening him." Fitting service for an angelic heart! Wonderful proof of his humiliation and suffering, that, at such an hour, a creature should appear to minister to his Creator! It was not to lighten the burden of sin and sorrow which he bore, nor to remove the cup. Rather was it to reach it to him undiluted—to place it in his hands in all its bitterness. But it was to strengthen him. It would seem as though it were, with heaven’s sweetest, most inspiring smile, to say, "Drink it, Son of God! for a world’s redemption, drink!"
Centuries before this affecting scene took place, the prophet Isaiah had written, "Behold my servant whom I uphold; my elect in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him;—he shall not fail nor be discouraged." Never was there such an dreadful enterprise undertaken—in any other hands it would have failed, and every other being in the universe would have sunk under it in hopeless discouragement and dismay. But he did not fail; nor was he discouraged by these prelibations of the bitter cup. The time of prayer was over.
Instructive lesson! unutterably tender encouragement to those whom bitter experience has taught that, if they would reign with Christ they must also suffer with him. There is many a child of God whose fears, like those of his Divine Master, have been allayed by prayer. The angel of mercy has wiped away his tears, and he has come forth calm and collected, not because the dangers he feared can be averted, but because, in the lone garden, and darker night of his affliction, he has found some unusual confirmation of the promise, "As your days, so shall your strength be."
In Gethsemane, the Savior had vanquished fear, and was furnished for the conflict. Mark the tranquil spirit with which he rose from the earth on which he had lain prostrate, and met the traitor who was now coming with a great multitude, with stones and clubs from the chief priests. "Friend! why have you come?" "Hail master!" was the foul betrayer’s only reply, and he kissed him. And it was sufficiently significant. The Son of man was betrayed into the hands of his murderers. But this betrayed One was no longer agitated. No fear sat upon his brow; but in its place a calm and unwavering confidence had taken up its abode in his bosom. To the ruffian band who came to seize him, he advanced and said, "I AM HE!" There was something in this avowal so expressive of his supreme dignity and power, that it overwhelmed them, ruffians as they were. "They went backward, and fell to the ground." Jesus asked them, "Whom seek you?" In this inquiry there was a deep meaning, and they were speechless—they had no words to reply. They seized and bound him, and led him before his mortal enemies. These were to be judges; these were to decide whether the Son of God were a blasphemer, and to be adjudged to death! And here he stood alone. Peter denied him, and the rest of his disciples "forsook him, and fled." Human attachments retired under this dark cloud; Christian affection itself grew cold, and solemn oaths were disregarded—thus fulfilling the prediction, "I have trodden the wine-press alone; and of the people there was none with me."
The haste with which his trial was conducted was an outrage upon the very forms of justice and humanity. Caiaphas, the high priest, presiding over the sanhedrin, seemed at once to prejudge the question. He instructed the council, and with prophetic instinct, "that it was expedient that one man should die for the people," that the whole nation should not perish. This was their "hour, and the power of darkness." Having the Savior in their hands, they employed the entire night, not in idle and cruel scrutiny alone, but in hewing reproach and injury upon him whom their severest scrutiny found so irreproachable and pure. It was a night of fatigue and anguish to him; to them of chagrin and malignity. Notwithstanding all the false witnesses they could summon, they utterly failed to substantiate a single charge against him. At length, the high priest called upon him under a solemn oath, to tell them if he was the Son of God. His answer was, "You have said it—hereafter shall you see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." This avowal, instead of opening their hearts to truth, or their consciences to apprehension, was just what the rancor of his malignant accusers desired. The angry assembly was now exasperated. It was an inflamed mob making themselves fierce for their desperate purpose, and bore no resemblance to a solemn tribunal to whose hands were committed the sober responsibilities of justice.
The meekness and tranquillity of their prisoner had no effect to abate their fury. When the decisive question was proposed, Is the prisoner guilty? they answered and said, "He is guilty of death!" Then followed a scene of indignity and outrage, in the very sanctuary of justice, that was a fitting prelude to the cross. They "spit upon him;" they "buffeted him;" and others "smote him with their fists," saying, "Prophesy unto us, you Christ, Who is he that smote you!" Yes, the very servants slapped him with the palms of their hands.
The morning had now dawned on that darkest, brightest, most memorable day in the history of time. The power of life and death was not at this time in the hands of the Jews. Early in the morning, therefore, "the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council," the result of which was that Jesus was bound with cords, and carried before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and a heathen judge, as accused of the crime of treason against the state. Early in the reign of Tiberius, Pilate had been appointed the governor of Judea. He was a cruel devious tyrant, and in every view a man of most odious character, and sufficiently familiar with blood. The unwillingness of a man of his impetuous and inexorable spirit to condemn Jesus, would, one would have supposed, have been proof of his innocence even to the relentless Jews. He was thrice brought before Pilate, and on the first trial formally pronounced innocent. Upon a private interview with his prisoner, on a second trial, Pilate asked him if he were the king of the Jews. Christ acknowledged that he was, but told him that his kingdom was not of this world. Pilate, therefore, persisted in his sentence, and informed the Jews that he found no cause of death in him. The Jews were clamorous; and Pilate, desirous to avoid the responsibility of a final decision, directed them to carry him before Herod, who happened, at that time, to be in Jerusalem, and to whose jurisdiction, as tetrarch of Galilee, the Galilean might properly belong. Herod, after scarcely going through the forms of investigation, clothed him with a purple robe, exposed him to the mockery of his guards, and sent him back through the streets of Jerusalem to Pilate. Pilate, at the instigation of the Jews, consented to institute a third trial. The prisoner was now led into the court, and there contemptuously and cruelly tied to a pillar and scourged, thus giving his "back to the smiters," and his "cheeks to those who plucked off the hair." Still this severe Roman judge affirmed Jesus’ innocence. And as a proof that he would have no part in the death of an innocent man, he washed his hands in the presence of the people; until, wearied by their clamors, and impelled by their malice, he gave him up at last to suffer the sentence of the law, while they, in reply, only uttered the fearful imprecation so terribly fulfilled in their subsequent history, "His blood be on us, and on our children!"
The crime of which he was accused before the court of Israel was blasphemy, and the penalty of the Jewish law was death by stoning. But this would not satisfy his blood-thirsty murderers—"Crucify him! crucify him!" was their infuriated cry. "To the cross! to the cross!" Before the sentence was executed, Jesus was forced to endure all the scorn and cruelty which the ingenuity of his tormentors could devise. The soldiers derided him; they put a wreath of thorns upon his head; they stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him; and, having given him a reed for a scepter, they thronged around him, contemptuously bowed their knees, and cried in derision, "Hail, king of the Jews!" Here, too, they spit upon him, and taking the mock scepter from his hand, "smote him on the head."
He was now ready to be offered—such a victim as the sun never beheld—a sacrifice to abolish and swallow up all other sacrifices—the last sin offering. Justice burned with wrathful fury. It was a spectacle to the universe. God beheld it; for God was there. His invisible angels laid by their harps, and were the silent and astonished spectators of the scene. And the dark spirits of hell were there, flitting across and hovering over the scene, and instigating the murderers. They led him a little way out of the city, and there "they crucified him." It was not a sudden and immediate death, but one of agonizing, lingering torment. Nor was it an honorable one, but the most ignominious ever imposed upon the vilest of men. The Jewish law stigmatized it as the foulest and most indelible curse, while the bloody laws of Rome reserved it as the last and bitterest ingredient infused into the cup of misery and shame. They stripped him of his cloak, and then of his coat, and then take off his undergarments, that he may be naked upon the cross. They fasten him by nails driven through his hands and feet, and with him two thieves, Jesus in the midst. "It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief." This was the bitter cup, and the last stage of his woeful passion.
There was something in this scene of woe which I know not that the human mind has ever comprehended. Never was there any sorrow like unto his sorrow. Nor do I know that its full weight and measure can be comprehended; and only know that, sustained as the man Christ Jesus was by his union with the Deity, he was overwhelmed. No, more, though the created and uncreated natures were here combined in one person, it shrank and staggered. The commission was executed, "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, the man who is my partner, says the Lord Almighty. Strike down the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered." And when that sword descended, griefs overwhelmed him, that were equivalent to the claims of avenging justice on sinning men, and griefs, in many particulars, resembling those which overwhelm the reprobate in the world of mourning. Guiltless and adorable as he was, He "holds a cup in His hand; it is full of foaming wine mixed with spices. He pours the wine out in judgment, . . . draining it to the dregs."
The only relief to the gloom of this dark scene is found in the dignity and loveliness of the sufferer. While the infatuated Jews still indulged themselves in their ill-timed and cruel raillery, wagging their heads and saying, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross," the sole rebuke he uttered was expressed in the prayer, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!" To the suppliant malefactor who was suspended by his side he said, "Today shall you be with me in paradise." Here too we find one at least, the best beloved of his disciples, and some faithful women, undismayed by the terrors of the scene, and watching him to the last. Near the cross stood Mary, his mother, weeping; and with her, John, the disciple whom he loved. To her he says, "Woman, behold your son;" to him, "behold your mother!"
It was now the ninth hour of the day. The important moment fixed on from eternity for the Author of life to die was at hand. There had been a supernatural darkness over the land from the sixth hour, when this mournful scene began, to the ninth hour. The Father hitherto was used to smile on his beloved Son; but now the sufferer cried, "My God! My God! why have you forsaken me?" The earth trembled; the rocks cleft asunder; the graves yielded up their dead; the veil of the temple, for so many ages undisturbed, was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and Jesus cried with a loud voice, "IT IS FINISHED!" The scene was over. And when he had said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," he "bowed his head, and gave up the spirit."
The mighty work of man’s redemption was finished. The great event on which Christianity turns was now completed. The eternal Son of God had expired on the cross!
And now among that vast multitude which encircled Calvary, the deepest and the most solemn silence prevail. Not a shout is heard even from the embittered Jews. Perhaps their malice is satiated, by a view of the pale and bleeding body of the Nazarene. Perhaps the words still sound in their ears, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," and a secret misgiving holds them mute and speechless. "All the people," says the sacred historian, "that came together to that sight, beholding the things that were done, smote their breasts, and returned." One voice only was heard, breaking the profound stillness, the voice of the pagan centurion, who stood in the garb of a Roman soldier near the cross. "And when the centurion which stood over against him saw that he so cried out, and gave up the spirit, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God!"
Such is the story of the cross. Has it no attractions? Other events there have been of mighty interest; but this outweighs them all. Distinguished in the counsels of heaven above all other scenes ever beheld by angels or men, this tragical event is destined to awaken the attention of a slumbering world. With eager expectation did men look forward to it before it was accomplished; and now that it is past, will they look back upon it to the end of time. The world is full of proof of the intense interest with which the giddy and thoughtless have contemplated the cross, and the devout gloried in it. No minister of the gospel ever rehearsed the narrative without a listening auditory; no mother ever sang it over the pillow of her babe without tenderness; no child ever read it without a throbbing heart. No living man ever perused it with indifference; no dying man ever listened to it without emotion. The cross will be remembered when everything else is forgotten. It has intrinsic power, and God himself has invested it with attractions peculiarly its own. The Scriptures point to the cross, and say, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" The most emphatic announcement they make is, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" The brightest and most wondrous vision of John, of all he beheld on earth when lightened by the glory of the descending angel, and of all he beheld in heaven, was that of which he says, "I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain!"
Nothing will interest you like the cross. Nothing can do for you what the cross has done.
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