Remember Jesus Christ

By Charles R Erdman

Chapter 11 - At the Cross


Good Friday brings the season of Lent to its climax, although the observance is understood to continue until noon of the following day. The term “Good Friday” is variously explained, but it never seems quite fitting for the day which calls to mind the darkest deed in the history of the world.

It was very early in the morning that our Lord was declared, by the chief court of the Jews, to be deserving of death. He was then dragged before the Roman governor, who alone had the power of pronouncing the sentence of capital punishment. Because of the craven cowardice of Pontius Pilate, He was given over to the barbarous torture of scourging and then to crucifixion.

The writers of the Gospels, with marked delicacy and reserve, spare the readers the gruesome details of the scene, and yet they tell the story with sufficient vividness and fidelity to touch the heart. One feature of the account is the definite mention of the witnesses and the actors in this tragedy which centers at the cross.

There was Simon of Cyrene, described as one ”˜coming out of the country”; him the soldiers seized and compelled to carry the cross of Christ to the place of execution. He might be regarded as the first in that great multitude who have followed Christ, each bearing a cross. On the other hand, the role of Simon was absolutely unique. None other can share the weight of that redeeming, atoning cross, and no one is compelled to follow Christ. Burdens are laid upon us, but only in free will can one “take up his cross”

The soldiers were there — coarse, brutal agents of Rome. They were performing their assigned duty, and they even were allowed by the law to gamble for the garments of their victim; but there is no excuse for their heartless “derision”; there was no suggestion of pity as they completed their cruel task. Today, in all lands controlled by dictators, similar barbarities are being practiced upon innocent sufferers. Today more forms of fiendish and intolerable tortures are being employed than in any previous age, and on a wider scale than ever has been known. Let us remember that those soldiers are true types of the agents now serving the tyrants of the world.

A crowd was there, drawn to the scene by morbid curiosity. They were passing from cross to cross, or pausing on their way into the city, to vent their spleen upon the central and chief Sufferer. They quote the very words of the charge which had led to His condemnation by the Jewish tribunal: “Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself . . . come down from the cross.” Little did they dream that in three days the temple of His body would be rebuilt and He would triumph over death. There are those who find no meaning in the death of Christ, and have no belief in His resurrection, to whom the words of the prophet well might be addressed: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by”?

The chief priests and scribes were there. They were regarded as the “religious” leaders of the people; yet they had sinned against light, they were mad with envy and hate, and they were the ones who were chiefly responsible for this cruelty and crime. They degraded themselves by uniting with the heartless crowd in their mockery and insults. They were heard to cry: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.” How true this cry! Had He saved Himself He could not have saved others; but because He did not save Himself He is able to save all who put their trust in Him.

Two “thieves” were there, robbers, suffering for their crimes, and Jesus was crucified between them. To thus associate Him with criminals in His death was the last touch of indignity and disgrace. These robbers, however, furnish one of the most instructive and pathetic incidents in the entire Gospel story. In a single paragraph the way of salvation is made perfectly plain: “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

At first, both robbers railed upon Christ; but one repented and pleaded with Christ for mercy. That his repentance was sincere appears (1) in that he regarded his crimes not merely as offences against men, but as defiance of God: he cries to the other robber, “Dost not thou fear God?” (2) He admits that his punishment is deserved, “We indeed [are condemned] justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” (3) Repentance involves a change of conduct, and the penitent robber is heard rebuking his former comrade in crime.

The faith of the robber is even more remarkable. He regards Christ as a Savior, and as a coming King: “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” Such an expression of submission and trust is of the very essence of faith.

Another witness of the crucifixion is to be remembered, namely, the Roman centurion who was in command of the soldiers. When he saw the nature of the Savior's death with the attendant circumstance of the trembling earth and the darkened skies, “he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” He was a fit representative of the several centurions who appear in the pages of the New Testament. They were all men of high character, and seemed to be prophetic of that great army of Gentiles who, some day, were to be enrolled as soldiers of the cross.

The most pathetic group who were witnesses of the crucifixion was composed of those who had been closely associated with Christ. Among them was John the beloved disciple, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and others who had followed Him from Galilee. These at first approached the cross near enough to hear the words which fell from the lips of the Sufferer, but later they withdrew to a distance, with agony of heart, to watch the end.

Other words were spoken which they could not hear, but which were reported to them, and which became a priceless heritage to the Christian church. Indeed, meditations upon these Seven Words from the Cross form the essential feature in the observance of Good Friday. These messages usually are delivered at a public service conducted between twelve and three, the hours when, at the crucifixion, the skies were darkened and the anguish of Christ was supreme.

(1) Christ spoke the first of these words as a prayer for His tormentors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His petition, however, need not be limited to the soldiers. The Sufferer, in His divine compassion, must have included the priests and the people and all who were guilty of His death. Such sympathy is a summons to all who may be rejecting Him. He is an Intercessor, ready to plead for all who may turn to Him in trust and obedience.

(2) The second word gives assurance of salvation to all who repent and believe: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Salvation is not won by good works, although good works are certain to follow and to become the evidences of sincere repentance and faith. Here was a man who never had been free from crime, who in his last hour was assured that he would accompany to Paradise the Savior in whom he had put his trust. Nor does salvation depend upon sacraments. It is true, of course, that sacraments are memorials of salvation and that they ought to be observed in obedience to the Master's command; but here is a man who without observing any Christian rites is ushered into Paradise.

Nor is there any intimation of Purgatory here. Surely here was a man who, if any, needed to be purified through suffering, but the day on which he cries out for mercy is the same day on which he enters upon eternal blessedness. One is thus encouraged to believe that “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory.”

Salvation is not universal. There were two robbers; one was saved, and therefore no person need despair; yet only one, and therefore no person should presume. The very essence of salvation and of future blessedness is fellowship with Christ: “Thou shalt be with me in paradise/*

(3) The third word was a matchless example of filial piety. The one earthly care in the hour of the Savior's death was concern for His mother. As she stands beside John, at the foot of the cross, Jesus, as though unmindful of His own distress, is heard to say to His mother, as He looks toward John: “Woman, behold thy son,” and to John, “Behold thy mother.” Gladly did John accept the legacy of love, as we read, “and from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home/*

(4) Yet, at the cross the endless intolerable moments drag by until a cry pierces the darkness: “Eli Eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) We hardly dare to seek an interpretation of all that these words meant. Surely they expressed a sense of absolute abandonment, of desertion, of loneliness. It seemed to the Master that the Father had hidden His face. This was the extremity of mental and spiritual agony.

(5) Then came the cry of supreme physical suffering: “I thirst/* It is well known that the pangs of thirst are the most terrible known by the human body, and this cry marks the climax of the anguish endured upon the cross. “And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.” This was the second draught offered to Christ. Hours before, He had refused a stupefying drug. He was determined that He would endure the agony of the cross with a clear mind; but now His suffering was to end, and He accepts the relief offered just before He utters His last words.

(6) “It is finished.” This was a cry of triumph. All His sufferings were ended. All the prophecies concerning a Savior were fulfilled. All the tasks assigned Him by the Father were completed. The work of redemption was accomplished. Of no other life could it be stated so truly as of His: “It is finished.”

(7) Now the Savior breathes out as His last words the line of a Psalm: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This ancient hymn is an expression of fellowship. For a time communion seemed to have been broken: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Now there is again communion, companionship, and love. This is a Psalm of faith. Surrounded by enemies David trusted in God. With hostile crowds about the cross, Christ has perfect peace as He commits Himself to the hands of His Father. This word from the Psalm is an expression of hope. The spirit is being entrusted to His Father; surely then all that is precious and dear is to be restored in a larger and more perfect life.

Nothing need detain us longer at the foot of the cross. We know the story of Joseph's tomb, and we are eager to catch a glimpse of the Easter glory. Yet as we turn away we ask ourselves. What is the real meaning of all we have seen and heard? There is no answer except we turn to the Holy Scriptures. The mystery is solved in large measure by lines as familiar as they are full of meaning:

He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.

He hath made him to be sin for us . . . that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.

There is another question which thrusts itself upon each one of us: “What is for me the message of the cross?” The answer we already know:

He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my life, my soul, my all.