It matters little as regards their guilt, whether, pressing the language of St. John, we are to understand that Pilate delivered Jesus to the Jews to be crucified, or, as we rather infer, to his own soldiers. This was the common practice, and it accords both with the Governor’s former taunt to the Jews, and with the after-notice of the Synoptists. They, to whom He was ‘delivered,’ ‘led Him away to be crucified:’ and they who so led Him forth ‘compelled’ the Cyrenian Simon to bear the Cross. We can scarcely imagine, that the Jews, still less the Sanhedrists, would have done this. But whether formally or not, the terrible crime of slaying, with wicked hands, their Messiah-King rests, alas, on Israel.
Once more was He unrobed and robed. The purple robe was torn from His Wounded Body, the crown of thorns from His Bleeding Brow. Arrayed again in His own, now blood-stained, garments, He was led forth to execution. Only about two hours and a half had passed since the time that He had first stood before Pilate (about half-past six), when the melancholy procession reached Golgotha (at nine o’clock a.m.). In Rome an interval, ordinarily of two days, intervened between a sentence and its execution; but the rule does not seem to have applied to the provinces, if, indeed, in this case the formal rules of Roman procedure were at all observed.
The terrible preparations were soon made: the hammer, the nails, the Cross, the very food for the soldiers who were to watch under each Cross. Four soldiers would be detailed for each Cross, the whole being under the command of a centurion. As always, the Cross was borne to the execution by Him Who was to suffer on it – perhaps His Arms bound to it with cords. But there is happily no evidence – rather, every indication to the contrary – that, according to ancient custom, the neck of the Sufferer was fastened within the patibulum, two horizontal pieces of wood, fastened at the end, to which the hands were bound. Ordinarily, the procession was headed by the centurion, or rather, preceded by one who proclaimed the nature of the crime, and carried a white, wooden board, on which it was written. Commonly, also, it took the longest road to the place of execution, and through the most crowded streets, so as to attract most public attention. But we would suggest, that alike this long circuit and the proclamation of the herald were, in the present instance, dispensed with. They are not hinted at in the text, and seem incongruous to the festive season, and the other circumstances of the history.
Discarding all later legendary embellishments, as only disturbing, we shall try to realise the scene as described in the Gospels. Under the leadership of the centurion, whether or not attended by one who bore the board with the inscription, or only surrounded by the four soldiers, of whom one might carry this tablet, Jesus came forth bearing His Cross. He was followed by two malefactors – ‘robbers’ – probably of the class then so numerous, that covered its crimes by pretensions of political motives. These two, also, would bear each his cross, and probably be attended each by four soldiers. Crucifixion was not a Jewish mode of punishment, although the Maccabee King Jannæus had so far forgotten the claims of both humanity and religion as on one occasion to crucify not less than 800 persons in Jerusalem itself. But even Herod, with all cruelty, did not resort to this mode of execution. Nor was it employed by the Romans till after the time of Cæsar, when, with the fast increasing cruelty of punishments, it became fearfully common in the provinces. Especially does it seem to characterise the domination of Rome in Judæa under every Governor. During the last siege of Jerusalem hundreds of crosses daily arose, till there seemed not sufficient room nor wood for them, and the soldiery diversified their horrible amusement by new modes of crucifixion. So did the Jewish appeal to Rome for the Crucifixion of Israel’s King come back in hundredfold echoes. But, better than such retribution, the Cross of the God-Man hath put an end to the punishment of the cross, and instead, made the Cross the symbol of humanity, civilisation, progress, peace, and love.
As mostly all abominations of the ancient world, whether in religion or life, crucifixion was of Phoenician origin, although Rome adopted, and improved on it. The modes of execution among the Jews were: strangulation, beheading, burning, and stoning. In all ordinary circumstances the Rabbis were most reluctant to pronounce sentence of death. This appears even from the injunction that the Judges were to fast on the day of such a sentence. Indeed, two of the leading Rabbis record it, that no such sentence would ever have been pronounced in a Sanhedrin of which they had been members. The indignity of hanging – and this only after the criminal had been otherwise executed – was reserved for the crimes of idolatry and blasphemy. The place where criminals were stoned was on an elevation about eleven feet high, from whence the criminal was thrown down by the first witness. If he had not died by the fall, the second witness would throw a large stone on his heart as he lay. If not yet lifeless, the whole people would stone him. At a distance of six feet from the place of execution the criminal was undressed, only the covering absolutely necessary for decency being left. In the case of Jesus we have reason to think that, while the mode of punishment to which He was subjected was un-Jewish, every concession would be made to Jewish custom, and hence we thankfully believe that on the Cross He was spared the indignity of exposure. Such would have been truly un-Jewish.
Three kinds of Cross were in use: the so-called St. Andrew’s Cross (x, the Crux decussata), the Cross in the form of a T (Crux Commissa), and the ordinary Latin Cross (+, Crux immissa). We believe that Jesus bore the last of these. This would also most readily admit of affixing the board with the threefold inscription, which we know His Cross bore. Besides, the universal testimony of those who lived nearest the time (Justin Martyr, Irenæus, and others), and who, alas! had only too much occasion to learn what crucifixion meant, is in favour of this view. This Cross, as St. John expressly states, Jesus Himself bore at the outset. And so the procession moved on towards Golgotha. Not only the location, but even the name of that which appeals so strongly to every Christian heart, is matter of controversy. The name cannot have been derived from the skulls which lay about, since such exposure would have been unlawful, and hence must have been due to the skull-like shape and appearance of the place. Accordingly, the name is commonly explained as the Greek form of the Aramæan Gulgalta, or the Hebrew Gulgoleth, which means a skull.
Such a description would fully correspond, not only to the requirements of the narrative, but to the appearance of the place which, so far as we can judge, represents Golgotha. We cannot here explain the various reasons for which the traditional site must be abandoned. Certain it is, that Golgotha was ‘outside the gate,’ and ‘near the City.’ In all likelihood it was the usual place of execution. Lastly, we know that it was situated near gardens, where there were tombs, and close to the highway. The three last conditions point to the north of Jerusalem. It must be remembered that the third wall, which afterwards surrounded Jerusalem, was not built till several years after the Crucifixion. The new suburb of Bezetha extended at that time outside the second wall. Here the great highway passed northwards; close by, were villas and gardens; and here also rockhewn sepulchres have been discovered, which date from that period. But this is not all. The present Damascus Gate in the north of the city seems, in most ancient tradition, to have borne the name of St. Stephen’s Gate, because the Proto-Martyr was believed to have passed through it to his stoning. Close by, then, must have been the place of execution. And at least one Jewish tradition fixes upon this very spot, close by what is known as the Grotto of Jeremiah, as the ancient ‘place of stoning’. And the description of the locality answers all requirements. It is a weird, dreary place, two or three minutes aside from the high road, with a high, rounded, skull-like rocky plateau, and a sudden depression or hollow beneath, as if the jaws of the skull had opened. Whether or not the ‘tomb of the Herodian period in the rocky knoll to the west of Jeremiah’s Grotto’ was the most sacred spot upon earth – the ‘Sepulchre in the Garden,’ we dare not positively assert, though every probability attaches to it.
Thither, then, did that melancholy procession wind, between eight and nine o’clock on that Friday in Passover week. From the ancient Palace of Herod it descended, and probably passed through the gate in the first wall, and so into the busy quarter of Acra. As it proceeded, the numbers who followed from the Temple, from the dense business-quarter through which it moved, increased. Shops, bazaars, and markets were, indeed, closed on the holy feast-day. But quite a crowd of people would come out to line the streets and to follow; and, especially, women, leaving their festive preparations, raised loud laments, not in spiritual recognition of Christ’s claims, but in pity and sympathy. And who could have looked unmoved on such a spectacle, unless fanatical hatred had burnt out of his bosom all that was human? Since the Paschal Supper Jesus had not tasted either food or drink. After the deep emotion of that Feast, with all of holiest institution which it included; after the anticipated betrayal of Judas, and after the farewell to His disciples, He had passed into Gethsemane. There for hours, alone – since His nearest disciples could not watch with Him even one hour – the deep waters had rolled up to His soul. He had drunk of them, immersed, almost perished in them. There had he agonised in mortal conflict, till the great drops of blood forced themselves on His Brow. There had He been delivered up, while they all had fled. To Annas, to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and again to Pilate; from indignity to indignity, from torture to torture, had He been hurried all that livelong night, all that morning. All throughout He had borne Himself with a Divine Majesty, which had awakened alike the deeper feelings of Pilate and the infuriated hatred of the Jews. But if His Divinity gave its true meaning to His Humanity, that Humanity gave its true meaning to His voluntary Sacrifice. So, far, then, from seeking to hide its manifestations, the Evangelists, not indeed needlessly but unhesitatingly, put them forward. Unrefreshed by food or sleep, after the terrible events of that night and morning, while His pallid Face bore the blood-marks from the crown of thorns, His mangled Body was unable to bear the weight of the Cross. No wonder the pity of the women of Jerusalem was stirred. But ours is not pity, it is worship at the sight. For, underlying His Human Weakness was the Divine Strength which led Him to this voluntary self-surrender and self-examination. It was the Divine strength of His pity and love which issued in His Human weakness.
Up to that last Gate which led from the ‘Suburb’ towards the place of execution did Jesus bear His Cross. Then, as we infer, His strength gave way under it. A man was coming from the opposite direction, one from that large colony of Jews which, as we know, had settled in Cyrene. He would be specially noticed; for, few would at that hour, on the festive day, come ‘out of the country,’ although such was not contrary to the Law. So much has been made of this, that it ought to be distinctly known that travelling, which was forbidden on Sabbaths, was not prohibited on feast-days. Besides, the place whence he came – perhaps his home – might have been within the ecclesiastical boundary of Jerusalem. At any rate, he seems to have been well known, at least afterwards, in the Church – and his sons Alexander and Rufus even better than he. Thus much only can we say with certainty; to identify them with persons of the same name mentioned in other parts of the New Testament can only be matter of speculation. But we can scarcely repress the thought that Simon the Cyrenian had not before that day been a disciple; had only learned to follow Christ, when, on that day, as he came in by the Gate, the soldiery laid hold on him, and against his will forced him to bear the Cross after Christ. Yet another indication of the need of such help comes to us from St. Mark, who uses an expression which conveys, though not necessarily that the Saviour had to be borne, yet that He had to be supported to Golgotha from the place where they met Simon.
Here, where, if the Saviour did not actually sink under His burden, it yet required to be transferred to the Cyrenian, while Himself henceforth needed bodily support, we place the next incident in this history. While the Cross was laid on the unwilling Simon, the women who had followed with the populace closed around the Sufferer, raising their lamentations. At His Entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus had wept over the daughters of Jerusalem; as He left it for the last time, they wept over Him. But far different were the reasons for His tears from theirs of mere pity. And, if proof were required of His Divine strength, even in the utmost depth of His Human weakness – how, conquered, He was Conqueror – it would surely be found in the words in which He bade them turn their thoughts of pity where pity would be called for, even to themselves and their children in the near judgment upon Jerusalem. The time would come, when the Old Testament curse of barrenness would be coveted as a blessing. To show the fulfilment of this prophetic lament of Jesus, it is not necessary to recall the harrowing details recorded by Josephus, when a frenzied mother roasted her own child, and in the mockery of desperateness reserved the half of the horrible meal for those murderers who daily broke in upon her to rob her of what scanty food had been left her; nor yet other of those incidents, too revolting for needless repetition, which the historian of the last siege of Jerusalem chronicles. But how often, these many centuries, must Israel’s women have felt that terrible longing for childlessness, and how often must the prayer of despair for the quick death of falling mountains and burying hills rather than prolonged torture have risen to the lips of Israel’s sufferers! And yet, even so, these words were also prophetic of a still more terrible future! For, if Israel had put such flame to its ‘green tree’ how terribly would the Divine judgment burn among the dry wood of an apostate and rebellious people, that had so delivered up its Divine King, and pronounced sentence upon itself by pronouncing it upon Him!
And yet natural, and, in some respects, genuine, as were the tears of ‘the daughters of Jerusalem,’ mere sympathy with Christ almost involves guilt, since it implies a view of Him which is essentially the opposite of that which His claims demand. These tears were the emblem of that modern sentiment about the Christ which, in its effusiveness, offers insult rather than homage, and implies rejection rather than acknowledgment of Him. We shrink with horror from the assumption of a higher standpoint, implied in so much of the modern so-called criticism about the Christ. But even beyond this, all mere sentimentalism is here the outcome of unconsciousness of our real condition. When a sense of sin has been awakened in us, we shall mourn, not for what Christ has suffered, but for what He suffered for us. The effusiveness of mere sentiment is impertinence or folly: impertinence, if He was the Son of God; folly, if He was merely Man. And, even from quite another point of view, there is here a lesson to learn. It is the peculiarity of Romanism ever to present the Christ in His Human weakness. It is that of an extreme section on the opposite side, to view Him only in His Divinity. Be it ours ever to keep before us, and to worship as we remember it, that the Christ is the Saviour God-Man.
It was nine of the clock when the melancholy procession reached Golgotha, and the yet more melancholy preparations for the Crucifixion commenced. Avowedly, the punishment was invented to make death as painful and as lingering as the power of human endurance. First, the upright wood was planted in the ground. It was not high, and probably the Feet of the Sufferer were not above one or two feet from the ground. Thus could the communication described in the Gospels take place between Him and others; thus, also, might His Sacred Lips be moistened with the sponge attached to a short stalk of hyssop. Next, the transverse wood (antenna) was placed on the ground, and the Sufferer laid on it, when His Arms were extended, drawn up, and bound to it. Then (this not in Egypt, but in Carthage and in Rome) a strong, sharp nail was driven, first into the Right, then into the Left Hand. Next, the Sufferer was drawn up by means of ropes, perhaps ladders; the transverse either bound or nailed to the upright, and a rest or support for the Body fastened on it. Lastly, the Feet were extended, and either one nail hammered into each, or a larger piece of iron through the two. We have already expressed our belief that the indignity of exposure was not offered at such a Jewish execution. And so might the crucified hang for hours, even days, in the unutterable anguish of suffering, till consciousness at last failed.
It was a merciful Jewish practice to give to those led to execution a draught of strong wine mixed with myrrh so as to deaden consciousness. This charitable office was performed at the cost of, if not by, an association of women in Jerusalem. That draught was offered to Jesus when He reached Golgatha. But having tasted it, and ascertained its character and object, He would not drink it. It was like His former refusal of the pity of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem.’ No man could take His Life from Him; He had power to lay it down, and to take it up again. Nor would He here yield to the ordinary weakness of our human nature; nor suffer and die as if it had been a necessity, not a voluntary self-surrender. He would meet Death, even in his sternest and fiercest mood, and conquer by submitting to the full. A lesson this also, though one difficult, to the Christian sufferer.
And so was He nailed to His Cross, which was placed between, probably somewhat higher than, those of the two malefactors crucified with Him. One thing only still remained: to affix to His Cross the so-called ‘title’ (titulus), on which was inscribed the charge on which He had been condemned. As already stated, it was customary to carry this board before the prisoner, and there is no reason for supposing any exception in this respect. Indeed, it seems implied in the circumstance, that the ‘title’ had evidently been drawn up under the direction of Pilate. It was – as might have been expected, and yet most significantly – trilingual: in Latin, Greek, and Aramæan. We imagine, that it was written in that order, and that the words were those recorded by the Evangelists (excepting St. Luke, who seems to give a modification of the original, or Aramæan, text). The inscription given by St. Matthew exactly corresponds with that which Eusebius records as the Latin titulus on the cross of one of the early martyrs. We therefore conclude, that it represents the Latin words. Again, it seems only natural, that the fullest, and to the Jews most offensive, description should have been in Aramæan, which all could read. Very significantly this is given by St. John. It follows, that the inscription given by St. Mark must represent that in Greek. Although much less comprehensive, it had the same number of words, and precisely the same number of letters, as that in Aramæan, given by St. John.
It seems probable, that the Sanhedrists had heard from some one, who had watched the procession on its way to Golgotha, of the inscription which Pilate had written on the ‘titulus’ – partly to avenge himself on, and partly to deride, the Jews. It is not likely that they would have asked Pilate to take it down after it had been affixed to the Cross; and it seems scarcely credible, that they would have waited outside the Prætorium till the melancholy procession commenced its march. We suppose that, after the condemnation of Jesus, the Sanhedrists had gone from the Prætorium into the Temple, to take part in its services. When informed of the offensive tablet, they hastened once more to the Prætorium, to induce Pilate not to allow it to be put up. This explains the inversion in the order of the account in the Gospel of St. John, or rather, its location in that narrative in immediate connection with the notice, that the Sanhedrists were afraid the Jews who passed by might be influenced by the inscription. We imagine, that the Sanhedrists had originally no intention of doing anything so un-Jewish as not only to gaze at the sufferings of the Crucified, but to even deride Him in His Agony – that, in fact, they had not intended going to Golgotha at all. But when they found that Pilate would not yield to their remonstrances, some of them hastened to the place of Crucifixion, and, mingling with the crowd, sought to incite their jeers, so as to prevent any deeper impression 48 which the significant words of the inscription might have produced.
Before nailing Him to the Cross, the soldiers parted among them the poor worldly inheritance of His raiment. On this point there are slight seeming differences 51 between the notices of the Synoptists and the more detailed account of the Fourth Gospel. Such differences, if real, would afford only fresh evidence of the general trustworthiness of the narrative. For, we bear in mind that, of all the disciples, only St. John witnessed the last scenes, and that therefore the other accounts of it circulating in the early Church must have been derived, so to speak, from second sources. This explains, why perhaps the largest number of seeming discrepancies in the Gospels occurs in the narrative of the closing hours in the Life of Christ, and how, contrary to what otherwise we might have expected, the most detailed as well as precise account of them comes to us from St. John. In the present instance these slight seeming differences may be explained in the following manner. There was, as St. John states, first a division into four parts – one to each of the soldiers – of such garments of the Lord as were of nearly the same value. The head-gear, the outer cloak-like garment, the girdle, and the sandals, would differ little in cost. But the question, which of them was to belong to each of the soldiers, would naturally be decided, as the Synoptists inform us, by lot.
But, besides these four articles of dress, there was the seamless woven inner garment, by far the most valuable of all, and for which, as it could not be partitioned without being destroyed, they would specially cast lots (as St. John reports). Nothing in this world can be accidental, since God is not far from any of us. But in the History of the Christ the Divine purpose, which forms the subject of all prophecy, must have been constantly realised; nay, this must have forced itself on the mind of the observer, and the more irresistibly when, as in the present instance, the outward circumstances were in such sharp contrast to the higher reality. To St. John, the loving and loved disciple, greater contrast could scarcely exist than between this rough partition by lot among the soldiery, and the character and claims of Him Whose garments they were thus apportioning, as if He had been a helpless Victim in their hands. Only one explanation could here suggest itself: that there was a special Divine meaning in the permission of such an event – that it was in fulfilment of ancient prophecy. As he gazed on the terrible scene, the words of the Psalm which portrayed the desertion, the sufferings, and the contempt even unto death of the Servant of the Lord, stood out in the red light of the Sun setting in Blood. They flashed upon his mind – for the first time he understood them; and the flames which played around the Sufferer were seen to be the sacrificial fire that consumed the Sacrifice which He offered. That this quotation is made in the Fourth Gospel alone, proves that its writer was an eyewitness; that it was made in the Fourth Gospel at all, that he was a Jew, deeply imbued with Jewish modes of religious thinking. And the evidence of both is the stronger, as we recall the comparative rareness, and the peculiarly Judaic character of the Old Testament quotations in the Fourth Gospel.
It was when they thus nailed Him to the Cross, and parted His raiment, that He spake the first of the so-called ‘Seven Words:’ ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Even the reference in this prayer to ‘what they do’ (not in the past, nor future) points to the soldiers as the primary, though certainly not the sole object of the Saviour’s prayer. 59 60 But higher thoughts also come to us. In the moment of the deepest abasement of Christ’s Human Nature, the Divine bursts forth most brightly. It is, as if the Saviour would discard all that is merely human in His Sufferings, just as before He had discarded the Cup of stupefying wine. These soldiers were but the unconscious instruments: the form was nothing; the contest was between the Kingdom of God and that of darkness, between the Christ and Satan, and these sufferings were but the necessary path of obedience, and to victory and glory. When He is most human (in the moment of His being nailed to the Cross), then is He most Divine, in the utter discarding of the human elements of human instrumentality and of human suffering. Then also in the utter self-forgetfulness of the God-Man – which is one of the aspects of the Incarnation – does He only remember Divine mercy, and pray for them who crucify Him; and thus also does the Conquered truly conquer His conquerors by asking for them what their deed had forfeited. And lastly, in this, that alike the first and the last of His Utterances begin with ‘Father,’ does He show by the unbrokenness of His faith and fellowship the real spiritual victory which He has won. And He has won it, not only for the martyrs, who have learned from Him to pray as He did, but for everyone who, in the midst of all that seems most opposed to it, can rise, beyond mere forgetfulness of what is around, to realising faith and fellowship with God as ‘the Father,’ – who through the dark curtain of cloud can discern the bright sky, and can feel the unshaken confidence, if not the unbroken joy, of absolute trust.
This was His first Utterance on the Cross – as regarded them; as regarded Himself; and as regarded God. So, surely, suffered not Man. Has this prayer of Christ been answered? We dare not doubt it; nay, we perceive it in some measure in those drops of blessing which have fallen upon heathen men, and have left to Israel also, even in its ignorance, a remnant according to the election of grace.
And now began the real agonies of the Cross – physical, mental, and spiritual. It was the weary, unrelieved waiting, as thickening darkness gradually gathered around. Before sitting down to their melancholy watch over the Crucified, 62 the soldiers would refresh themselves, after their exertion in nailing Jesus to the Cross, lifting it up, and fixing it, by draughts of the cheap wine of the country. As they quaffed it, they drank to Him in their coarse brutality, and mockingly came to Him, asking Him to pledge them in response. Their jests were, indeed, chiefly directed not against Jesus personally, but in His Representative capacity, and so against the hated, despised Jews, whose King they now derisively challenged to save Himself. Yet even so, it seems to us of deepest significance, that He was so treated and derided in His Representative Capacity and as the King of the Jews. It is the undesigned testimony of history, alike as regarded the character of Jesus and the future of Israel. But what from almost any point of view we find so difficult to understand is, the unutterable abasement of the Leaders of Israel – their moral suicide as regarded Israel’s hope and spiritual existence. There, on that Cross, hung He, Who at least embodied that grand hope of the nation; Who, even on their own showing, suffered to the extreme for that idea, and yet renounced it not, but clung fast to it in unshaken confidence; One, to Whose Life or even Teaching no objection could be offered, save that of this grand idea. And yet, when it came to them in the ribald mockery of this heathen soldiery, it evoked no other or higher thoughts in them; and they had the indescribable baseness of joining in the jeer at Israel’s great hope, and of leading the popular chorus in it!
For, we cannot doubt, that – perhaps also by way of turning aside the point of the jeer from Israel – they took it up, and tried to direct it against Jesus; and that they led the ignorant mob in the piteous attempts at derision. And did none of those who so reviled Him in all the chief aspects of His Work feel, that, as Judas had sold the Master for nought and committed suicide, so they were doing in regard to their Messianic hope? For, their jeers cast contempt on the four great facts in the Life and Work of Jesus, which were also the underlying ideas of the Messianic Kingdom: the new relationship to Israel’s religion and the Temple (‘Thou that destroyest the Temple, and buildest it in three days’); the new relationship to the Father through the Messiah, the Son of God (‘if Thou be the Son of God’); the new all-sufficient help brought to body and soul in salvation (‘He saved others’); and, finally, the new relationship to Israel in the fulfilment and perfecting of its Mission through its King (‘if He be the King of Israel’). On all these, the taunting challenge of the Sanhedrists, to come down from the Cross, and save Himself, if he would claim the allegiance of their faith, cast what St. Matthew and St. Mark characterise as the ‘blaspheming’ of doubt. We compare with theirs the account of St. Luke and St. John. That of St. Luke reads like the report of what had passed, given by one who throughout had been quite close by, perhaps taken part in the Crucifixion – one might almost venture to suggest, that it had been furnished by the Centurion. The narrative of St. John reads markedly like that of an eyewitness, and he a Judæan. And as we compare both the general Judæan cast and Old Testament quotations in this with the other parts of the Fourth Gospel, we feel as if (as so often), under the influence of the strongest emotions, the later development and peculiar thinking of so many years afterwards had for the time been effaced from the mind of St. John, or rather given place to the Jewish modes of conception and speech, familiar to him in earlier days. Lastly, the account of St. Matthew seems as if written from the priestly point of view, as if it had been furnished by one of the Priests or Sanhedrist party, present at the time.
Yet other inferences come to us. First, there is a remarkable relationship between what St. Luke quotes as spoken by the soldiers: ‘If Thou art the King of the Jews, save Thyself,’ and the report of the words in St. Matthew: ‘He saved others – Himself He cannot save. He 69 is the King of Israel! Let Him now come down from the Cross, and we will believe on Him!’ These are the words of the Sanhedrists, and they seem to respond to those of the soldiers, as reported by St. Luke, and to carry them further. The ‘if’ of the soldiers: ‘If Thou art the King of the Jews,’ now becomes a direct blasphemous challenge. As we think of it, they seem to re-echo, and now with the laughter of hellish triumph, the former Jewish challenge for an outward, infallible sign to demonstrate His Messiahship. But they also take up, and re-echo, what Satan had set before Jesus in the Temptation of the wilderness. At the beginning of His Work, the Tempter had suggested that the Christ should achieve absolute victory by an act of presumptuous self-assertion, utterly opposed to the spirit of the Christ, but which Satan represented as an act of trust in God, such as He would assuredly own. And now, at the close of His Messianic Work, the Tempter suggested, in the challenge of the Sanhedrists, that Jesus had suffered absolute defeat, and that God had publicly disowned the trust which the Christ had put in Him. ‘He trusteth in God: let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him.’ Here, as in the Temptation of the Wilderness, the words misapplied were those of Holy Scripture – in the present instance those of Psalm 22 v 8. And the quotation, as made by the Sanhedrists, is the more remarkable, that, contrary to what is generally asserted by writers, this Psalm 71 was Messianically applied by the ancient Synagogue. More especially was this verse, which precedes the mocking quotation of the Sanhedrists, expressly applied to the sufferings and the derision which Messiah was to undergo from His enemies: ‘All they that see Me laugh Me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head.’
The derision of the Sanhedrists under the Cross was, as previously stated, not entirely spontaneous, but had a special motive. The place of Crucifixion was close to the great road which led from the North to Jerusalem. On that Feast-day, when, as there was no law to limit, as on the weekly day of rest, locomotion to a ‘Sabbath day’s journey,’ many would pass in and out of the City, and the crowd would naturally be arrested by the spectacle of the three Crosses. Equally naturally would they have been impressed by the titulus over the Cross of Christ. The words, describing the Sufferer as ‘the King of the Jews,’ might, when taken in connection with what was known of Jesus, have raised most dangerous questions. And this the presence of the Sanhedrists was intended to prevent, by turning the popular mind in a totally different direction. It was just such a taunt and argumentation as would appeal to that coarse realism of the common people, which is too often misnamed ‘common sense.’ St. Luke significantly ascribes the derision of Jesus only to the Rulers, and we repeat, that that of the passers by, recorded by St. Matthew and St. Mark, was excited by them. Thus here also the main guilt rested on the leaders of the people.
One other trait comes to us from St. Luke, confirming our impression that his account was derived from one who had stood quite close to the Cross, probably taken official part in the Crucifixion. St. Matthew and St. Mark merely remark in general, that the derision of the Sanhedrists and people was joined in by the thieves on the Cross. A trait this, which we feel to be not only psychologically true, but the more likely of occurrence, that any sympathy or possible alleviation of their sufferings might best be secured by joining in the scorn of the leaders, and concentrating popular indignation upon Jesus. But St. Luke also records a vital difference between the two ‘robbers’ on the Cross. The impenitent thief takes up the jeer of the Sanhedrists: ‘Art Thou not the Christ? Save Thyself and us!’ The words are the more significant, alike in their bearing on the majestic calm and pitying love of the Saviour on the Cross, and on the utterance of the ‘penitent thief,’ that – strange as it may sound – it seems to have been a terrible phenomenon, noted by historians, 81 that those on the cross were wont to utter insults and imprecations on the onlookers, goaded nature perhaps seeking relief in such outbursts. Not so when the heart was touched in true repentance.
If a more close study of the words of the ‘penitent thief’ may seem to diminish the fullness of meaning which the traditional view attaches to them, they gain all the more as we perceive their historic reality. His first words were of reproof to his comrade. In that terrible hour, amidst the tortures of a slow death, did not the fear of God creep over him – at least so far as to prevent his joining in the vile jeers of those who insulted the dying agonies of the Sufferer? 82 And this all the more, in the peculiar circumstances. They were all three sufferers; but they two justly, while He Whom he insulted had done nothing amiss. From this basis of fact, the penitent rapidly rose to the height of faith. This is not uncommon, when a mind is learning the lessons of truth in the school of grace. Only, it stands out here the more sharply, because of the dark background against which it is traced in such broad and brightly shining outlines. The hour of the deepest abasement of the Christ was, as all the moments of His greatest Humiliation, to be marked by a manifestation of His Glory and Divine Character – as it were, by God’s testimony to Him in history, if not by the Voice of God from heaven. And, as regarded the ‘penitent’ himself, we notice the progression in his soul. No one could have been ignorant – least of all those who were led forth with Him to crucifixion, that Jesus did not suffer for any crime, nor for any political movement, but because He professed to embody the great hope of Israel, and was rejected by its leaders. And, if any had been ignorant, the ‘title’ over the Cross and the bitter enmity of the Sanhedrists, which followed Him with jeers and jibes, where even ordinary humanity, and still more Jewish feeling, would have enjoined silence, if not pity, must have shown what had been the motives of ‘the condemnation’ of Jesus. But, once the mind was opened to perceive all these facts, the progress would be rapid. In hours of extremity a man may deceive himself and fatally mistake fear for the fear of God, and the remembrance of certain external knowledge for spiritual experience. But, if a man really learns in such seasons, the teaching of years may be compressed into moments, and the dying thief on the Cross might outdistance the knowledge gained by Apostles in their years of following Christ.
One thing stood out before the mind of the ‘penitent thief,’ who in that hour did fear God. Jesus had done nothing amiss. And this surrounded with a halo of moral glory the inscription on the Cross, long before its words acquired a new meaning. But how did this Innocent One bear Himself in suffering? Right royally – not in an earthly sense, but in that in which alone He claimed the Kingdom. He had so spoken to the women who had lamented Him, as His faint form could no longer bear the burden of the Cross; and He had so refused the draught that would have deadened consciousness and sensibility. Then, as they three were stretched on the transverse beam, and, in the first and sharpest agony of pain, the nails were driven with cruel stroke of hammer through the quivering flesh, and, in the nameless agony that followed the first moments of the Crucifixion, only a prayer for those who in ignorance, were the instruments of His torture, had passed His lips. And yet He was innocent, Who so cruelly suffered. All that followed must have only deepened the impression. With what calm of endurance and majesty of silence He had borne the insult and jeers of those who, even to the spiritually unenlightened eye, must have seemed so infinitely far beneath Him! This man did feel the ‘fear’ of God, who now learned the new lesson in which the fear of God was truly the beginning of wisdom. And, once he gave place to the moral element, when under the fear of God he reproved his comrade, this new moral decision became to him, as so often, the beginning of spiritual life. Rapidly he now passed into the light, and onwards and upwards: ‘Lord, remember me, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom!’
The familiar words of our Authorised Version – ‘When Thou comest into Thy Kingdom’ – convey the idea of what we might call a more spiritual meaning of the petition. But we can scarcely believe, that at that moment it implied either that Christ was then going into His Kingdom, or that the ‘penitent thief’ looked to Christ for admission into the Heavenly Kingdom. The words are true to the Jewish point of vision of the man. He recognised and owned Jesus as the Messiah, and he did so, by a wonderful forth-going of faith, even in the utmost Humiliation of Christ. And this immediately passed beyond the Jewish standpoint, for he expected Jesus soon to come back in His Kingly might and power, when he asked to be remembered by Him in mercy. And here we have again to bear in mind that, during the Life of Christ upon earth, and, indeed, before the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, men always first learned to believe in the Person of the Christ, and then to know His teaching and His Mission in the forgiveness of sins. It was so in this case also. If the ‘penitent thief’ had learned to know the Christ, and to ask for gracious recognition in His coming Kingdom, the answering assurance of the Lord conveyed not only the comfort that his prayer was answered, but the teaching of spiritual things which he knew not yet, and so much needed to know. The ‘penitent’ had spoken of the future, Christ spoke of ‘to-day’; the penitent had prayed about that Messianic Kingdom which was to come, Christ assured him in regard to the state of the disembodied spirits, and conveyed to him the promise that he would be there in the abode of the blessed – ‘Paradise’ – and that through means of Himself as the Messiah: ‘Amen, I say unto thee – To-day with Me shalt thou be in the Paradise.’ Thus did Christ give him that spiritual knowledge which he did not yet possess – the teaching concerning the ‘to-day,’ the need of gracious admission into Paradise, and that with and through Himself – in other words, concerning the forgiveness of sins and the opening of the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. This, as the first and foundation-creed of the soul, was the first and foundation-fact concerning the Messiah.
This was the Second Utterance from the Cross. The first had been of utter self-forgetfullness; the second of deepest, wisest, most gracious spiritual teaching. And, had He spoken none other than these, He would have been proved to be the Son of God.
Nothing more would require to be said to the ‘penitent’ on the Cross. The events which followed, and the words which Jesus would still speak, would teach him more fully than could otherwise have been done. Some hours – probably two – had passed since Jesus had been nailed to the Cross. We wonder how it came that St. John, who tells us some of the incidents with such exceeding particularity, and relates all with the vivid realisation of a most deeply interested eyewitness, should have been silent as to others – especially as to those hours of derision, as well as to the conversion of the penitent thief. His silence seems to us to have been due to absence from the scene. We part company with him after his detailed account of the last scene before Pilate. 84 The final sentence pronounced, we suppose him to have hurried into the City, and to have acquainted such of the disciples as he might find – but especially those faithful women and the Virgin-Mother – with the terrible scenes that had passed since the previous evening. Thence he returned to Golgotha, just in time to witness the Crucifixion, which he again describes with peculiar fullness of details. 85 When the Saviour was nailed to the Cross, St. John seems once more to have returned to the City – this time, to bring back with him those-women, in company of whom we now find him standing close to the Cross. A more delicate, tender, loving service could not have been rendered than this. Alone, of all the disciples, he is there – not afraid to be near Christ, in the Palace of the High-Priest, before Pilate, and now under the Cross. And alone he renders to Christ this tender service of bringing the women and Mary to the Cross, and to them the protection of his guidance and company. He loved Jesus best; and it was fitting that to his manliness and affection should be entrusted the unspeakable privilege of Christ’s dangerous inheritance.
The narrative leaves the impression that with the beloved disciple these four women were standing close to the Cross: the Mother of Jesus, the Sister of His Mother, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. A comparison with what is relat