By Harris Franklin Rall
It is hard for us, as we study this lesson, to grasp the swift and terrible changes which a few days, and even a few hours, have brought. The triumphal way has changed to the via dolorosa, way of sorrow. The applauding multitude has given way to this crowd with its cry of "Crucify." The priests and scribes, baffled and helpless then, are now exulting in their triumph. And He upon whose words the people hung, who held these powerful leaders at bay, is prisoner now and condemned. It is hard for us to realize the scenes of that Friday morning, that all this befell Him whom we venerate as highest and holiest. Harder still is it for us to think that all this indignity and cruelty and shame fell upon One whose life had no spring but love, and no task but to minister to others. We can but say with him, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness" (Luke 23. 53).
The Mocking and Scourging
At the House of the High Priest. —The records speak of three mockings of Jesus that took place on that morning. The first came from his Jewish enemies. We sometimes say of a good man, "He never made an enemy." Happy is the man of whom this can be said; but many of the world's best men have had to make foes. Such was the lot of Jesus. He had drawn no sword, but he had been a mighty fighter. His flaming wrath had flashed out against all oppression of the poor, against blind leaders that turned men astray, against cruelty and corruption and hypocrisy. He had made enemies, bitter and ruthless; and this was their hour. They mocked him there at the high priest's house, in the early hours before dawn had come. They spat upon his face in scorn and beat him. Then they blindfolded this "prophet," while one and another stepped up and struck him with the hand. And each time they called out in mockery, "Prophesy: who is he that struck thee?" (Mark 14. 65; Luke 33. 63, 64.)
With Herod Antipas. —Luke gives a second mocking at the hands of Herod Antipas and his soldiers. Possibly this was the same event that Matthew and Mark report in connection with Pilate's soldiery. Terrible as the latter was, in its spirit it was not so bad as that which Jesus had suffered at the high priest's palace. With the priests it was malice and anger, with the soldiers it was rather brutality and ignorance. Their calling was one that helped to make brutal men more brutal still.
The Scourging. —First of all Jesus was scourged. The cruelty of this punishment belonged in part to the age, in part to the Roman character. The victim was tied to a post. The pieces of sharp metal and bone, with which the thongs were weighted, pierced the skin at every blow. And the will of the officer was the only limit to the number of blows. It was very different from the Jewish scourging with the rod to which Paul refers. Sometimes it was used to draw forth confessions or unwilling testimony. Commonly, with the unmeaning cruelty of the time, it was applied to those who were about to be executed. Under it the victim commonly fainted; sometimes he died before the still more terrible penalty of the cross could be imposed. It was not to be so with Jesus.
Mocked by Pilate's Soldiers. —By the time the scourging was over, the soldiers of the band were all assembled. They received the weak and bleeding victim with jeers. This man had called himself a king, this poor peasant, this broken creature waiting for the cross! So they mocked. It was too good an opportunity for idle buffoonery. They would have a crowning for this king! So they found a robe, or rag, of scarlet and flung it about him. Some thorny branches were twisted together to make a crown, and a reed was given to him as scepter. Then in mock obeisance they knelt before him and cried, "Hail, King of the Jews!" Tiring of this, they spat upon him and struck him, until the time came to lead him forth.
The Way of the Cross
The Procession. —The place of crucifixion was without the city, just where we do not know. We know it was a skull-shaped mound called Golgotha, or Calvary, and the more common opinion to-day holds that it lay just outside the Damascus gate. Toward this gate, 'then, the procession moved. Despite the haste of the priests and the still early hour, the report of what was happening had spread through the city. The crowd that had been in front of Pilate's palace was reinforced by many others as they followed the little company of soldiers that led the way to the place of execution. Hanging from the prisoner's neck, or carried before him, was a sign which bore the charge upon which he was condemned. The accusation against Jesus was brief: "The King of the Jews"; and this sign was placed above his cross at the crucifixion. In John 19. 19-22 we read that this was done by Pilate's special order, and was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. It spoke Pilate's contempt for the Jews, and was a piece of petty revenge against these men whose fierce determination had compelled him to act against his knowledge of the right.
Simon Carries the Cross. — It was customary to make the prisoner carry his own cross to the place of execution, that is, "to take up his cross." This Jesus was physically unable to do. When we think of the strain of that terrible week, under whose fatigue the disciples were utterly unable to keep awake though they knew of their danger and the Master's desire; when we think of how he added the night watches of prayer to the days of severest toil that had gone before, and how this was followed by trials and hearings and mockings and scourging, we marvel that he had endured to this hour. Jesus must have been a man of exceptional physical power. But now the limit had been reached; bear the cross he could not. The soldiers seized a passer-by and compelled him to carry it. It was one Simon from Cyreue, a place in northern Africa which had a considerable Jewish colony. From the gospel reference it would seem that he became with his family a disciple of the Master.
Bewailing Women. —In the crowd that went along not all were hostile. There were women who bewailed his fate, Luke tells us (23. 26-31), not merely the women who had come down with him from the north, but women from Jerusalem. And still, as before, even in his weakness and suffering, the thought of Jesus was for others, not for himself. They were bewailing his fate, he was thinking of the lot that awaited the city. The glory of a Jewish woman was her children, and to be childless was the greatest calamity. Remembering this, we can understand Jesus' words to these women. Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children, he said. For the days were coming when men should say. Blessed are those women who never bore children; when men should call upon the mountains to bury them. "If they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" History answers Jesus' question by telling us of the endless crosses reared by the soldiers of Titus, upon which the women of Jerusalem could see their sons and husbands hung. So it happened when the flourishing green of Jerusalem had become withered and dry.
It is neither needful nor profitable for us to picture the details of the physical suffering that followed. Men have discussed what form of cross was used, and whether the feet were bound to the cross or nailed like the hands. It is enough for us to read the simple story of the evangelists, and to feel its moving power. The cross had not been known among the Jews until Rome brought it in. Cruelty could not devise a more terrible form of execution. There was no injury of such character as to bring about death directly or speedily, and the victims sometimes endured the agonies for a space of two days. There were merciful souls who sometimes went to the place of crucifixion and offered to the condemned a drink of wine and myrrh before they were affixed to the cross. The drink was stupefying and lessened the pain. Such a drink was offered to Jesus, but he refused; he wanted all his faculties of soul for that which lay before him.
What Jesus Saw from the Cross
In thinking of the crucifixion we have naturally turned first to the cross and to him who hung upon it. We need now to turn to those who stood about it. What did Jesus see that day as he looked down from the cross? The seat of execution was usually placed by the Romans near a highway or public place, that the terrible sight might serve to deter other men from crime. Thus there were many that passed by where Jesus hung, besides the throng that had come out with him. In this company there are four classes which the Gospel stories point out.
Jewish Foes. —First of all there were those who mocked, Jews passing by, but especially the priests and scribes. With jeers and taunts they derided him, reminding him of the claims that he had made. ''Ha! thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross.'' "'He saved others; himself he cannot save. He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross and we will believe on him. He trusteth on God; let him deliver him now, if he desireth him: for he said, I am the Son of God" (Mark 15. 29, 30; Matt. 27. 42, 43). They little realized how much both of truth and error lay in their words. It was just because he trusted in God that Jesus went to the cross; it was because he was saving others that he could not save himself.
The Soldiers. —The soldiers on guard formed a second group. It was a small detachment whose task it was to fix the condemned on the cross and then to wait until they were dead. It was their business, and they took it with accustomed indifference. The garments of the prisoners were their poor .spoils, and they divided them by casting lots. If this seems terrible to us in its brutality, what shall we say to the fact that millions of men in the year of our Lord 1917 are making it their business to kill as many as possible of their fellow men? Hardened though they were, the soldiers were not heartless, for one of them, hearing Jesus cry out, took from their own store of sour wine, or vinegar, and gave it to Jesus to drink. "And of the centurion in charge it is said that when he saw how Jesus died, he declared, "Truly this was the Son of God."
Bystanders and Friends. —The third class was composed of the idle, indifferent throng. Of these Luke simply says, "The people stood beholding." The fourth class was composed of the friends of Jesus. The twelve had scattered, though the fourth Gospel states that John was present. But there were other disciples or friends of Jesus there. There is definite mention of the women; these, who had followed him from Galilee, did not desert him at the cross. Neither the shame of his death nor possible danger to themselves served to keep them away. The fourth Gospel states that several of these stood near the cross, and John with them. The other Gospels speak of them as looking on from afar; it is possible that they drew nearer toward the close. Some faces that Jesus saw, looking out from his cross, were full of sympathy and love, though they stood helpless in their sorrow.
What Jesus Said from the Cross
Seven Words. —Full of deepest interest to the Christian is the study of the words of Jesus spoken from the cross. Seven such words are reported in the Gospels: two that were spoken to others, two as if to himself, and three in prayer to his Father. As we study them we see that here, in this hour of awful trial, Jesus remained true to that spirit which had ruled him all his life: there is the same loving thought of others, there is the same steadfast and obedient trust in his Father.
Love and Trust on the Cross. —Of the two words spoken to others, one was to the penitent thief: "Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23. 43). The second is given in John 19. 36, 27: "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his mother. Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold, thy mother! And from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home." John also reports the two words that seem to have been spoken by Jesus to himself (19. 28, 30). One lays hold of our hearts by its simple expression of human suffering: "I thirst.'' The other is equally moving as it reveals how Jesus to the last moment was concerned to finish the work that his Father had given him to do. This may have been his last word: "It is finished." And finally we have the words spoken in prayer to his Father. The first is a word that only infinite love could have spoken out of such anguish: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23. 34). Then there is a word of perfect trust, the same trust that all his life had sustained him: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23. 46).
The Word from the Psalm. —But there is one word spoken to his Father that seems to contradict what has been said of the spirit of trust which did not forsake him even in this hour. The word is a prayer, and a quotation from the Twenty-second Psalm. It is the only one of the seven words reported by more than one Gospel: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15. 34). If we believe in that Father-God whom Jesus revealed, then we cannot think that he deserted Jesus in the hour of his deepest need and his divinest obedience. Was there, then, a moment of darkness in which, under awful strain, Jesus for a time lost that sure faith? The question is answered if we look more closely. We have seer how Jesus turned to the words of the Scriptures in the great crises. (At the temptation it was the book of Deuteronomy especially. When the prospect of suffering and death faced him, he turned, as we have seen, to the second part of Isaiah. In this last hour he sustained his spirit with the words of the psalmist. '', But we may rightly assume that it was the psalm as a whole that was in Jesus' thought, and not simply the first words here reported which perhaps alone were heard. If we read the whole psalm we shall find, indeed, a cry of distress, spoken by a saint beset by his foes; but there is also a song of trust. It expressed in that hour the deep sorrow of Jesus, but it set forth also his victorious faith.
The most terrible feature of the crucifixion was the length of time before death relieved the sufferer of his agony. Sometimes it lasted several days. With Jesus it was a matter of hours. In mid-afternoon, with a loud cry that betokened strength still left, there came the end.
Directions for Study
The Scripture passage: Mark 15. 15-41. Note also Luke 22. 63, 64; 23. 11, 26-31; John 19. 17-30.
Recall again the swift succession of events, beginning with the quiet supper in the upper room the night before.
Read the simple story as given by Mark. Read it slowly and thoughtfully, letting the picture rise before you.
Read next the narrative, keeping the Scripture passages before you. Here, as elsewhere, the most valuable help is Huck's Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, or the Harmony of the Gospels, by Stevens and Burton, which print the various Gospel stories side by side. The heart of this lesson is its revelation of the Spirit of our Master. His words on the way to the cross and from the cross may well be our chief study.
Set forth in turn your answer to these questions: What did Jesus suffer on the cross? What did he see from the cross? What did he say?
Consider what the cross of Christ has meant in the Christian faith: (1) as a revelation of God, (2) as an inspiration for life, (3) as a power reconciling men to God.