The Saving Work Done on the Cross (Luke 23:35)
Friday, March 29, 2013
A Good Friday Meditation
Among the themes and actions I find most uncomfortable in the account of Jesus’ death on the cross is the way people seemed to take perverse pleasure in what happened to him. His followers either fled or wept or both. They were distraught beyond measure. However, the general populace almost seemed to enjoy seeing someone debased in the awful way of the Roman cross.
Luke’s telling is less specific than the other gospel writers. His narrative implicates all involved in not only the death of Jesus but also the humiliation. He writes, “They cast lots to divide his clothing” (end of v.34). Jesus is bloodied and stripped bare and nailed to a post. And a group of soldiers, as reported by the other gospel writers, are there at the foot of the cross, callously tossing dice to see who gets to keep Jesus’ last possession, his only article of clothing. Luke, unlike Mark, is less clear about who it is that is casting the lots, gambling as a game right at the execution site.
The indictment is subtle but unnerving. Are you and I guilty of playing games of chance right there where Jesus hangs dying on our behalf?
Luke tells us people are watching as the leaders “scoffed at him. ‘… He saved others. Let him save himself, if he is the Messiah.’” Who are these leaders? We might presume they are the Jewish religious leaders who hold a measure of power. We would suppose they are those who persuaded the Roman governor Pilate to crucify Jesus in the first place. These thoughts are not off base. But Luke is, I think, intentionally open in his depiction, simply calling them the leaders.
Their premise that the Messiah could successfully get himself off the cross is completely disingenuous. They moved for his crucifixion precisely because they were certain he was not the Messiah. They would never except that the real Messiah would be crucified in the first place. Their statements were made for no reason other than to rub salt in Jesus’ wounds.
Luke then does specifically name the soldiers. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Israel had had many kings in history who were defeated by invading forces. Once in the hands of the Egyptian or the Assyrian or Babylonian or Roman, no salvation came. The notion that if Jesus was truly king, he could save himself similarly was a mocking notion. These Roman centurions believed in power – the power they possessed as Romans. A Jewish king was nothing more than an ant to be crushed.
To the gamblers, the scoffers, and taunting soldiers is the voice of the criminal on one of the crosses alongside Jesus’ cross. “One of the criminals who were hanging there kept deriding [Jesus]. ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (v.39). Of course, this convict had no thoughts that Jesus was actually the messiah because again, it was inconceivable to think the Messiah would ever be captured or crucified. The criminal was dying and his last word in this world, the tragic end of his failed life, would be to hurl cheap insults on the pile already heaped upon Jesus who in fact was innocent.
Over and over, one by one, the players in the story repeat the mantra.
Let him save himself, if he is the Messiah.
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.
Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.
A double irony marks the story. First, all these challenging Jesus to prove himself by supernaturally removing himself from the cross don’t for a moment believer he can. They throw out the challenge as a means of injuring his spirit. They are completely certain he will die on that cross, be buried, and be forgotten. They were half right. And half wrong. He was not forgotten. Atheists, scoffers, and skeptics have taken this same stance for 2000 years. Surely this humble, peaceful, nonviolent Messiah will go away – eventually.
The second irony is that if Jesus met their petty barbs by pulling himself off the cross and calling on angels to wipe out the Romans and establish the rule of God by force and by might, then he would not have accomplished salvation. Each would die in sin and remain dead. I won’t enter the debate of eternal suffering verses ontological annihilation this evening. I will simply say that the wage of sin is death (Romans 6:23a). And without Jesus taking the place of sinners, then death is permanent. If Jesus had honored his mockers’ request and gotten down off the cross then they would be permanently cut off from God in their sins and they would die in their sins, cut off from God forever. The same would happen to us.
To understand why Jesus remained on his cross and died in place of sinners – in place of you and me – we turn to John 3:16-17. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
For the sake of love of those who were and are incapable of returning that love and this includes each of us, Jesus not only died. He endured mounds of indignity along the way. He, the perfect example of love and grace, took it all for us, so we could know life free from sin. We can live without worrying about our own sins and without suffering the consequences of others’ sins.
He knew even as he went through it why he was doing it and why it was happening. At the worst of it, his vision was clear. Flogged and pierced physically and verbally, he looked to Heaven and said, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). He had a full understanding of the ignorance and irony that enveloped the world that day. His response to the stinging hatred was to give love that in the moment could not even be received.
Well, one person did receive it. One person of all present did understand, just a bit. The other criminal, not the one who joined the chorus of cruelty, but the one on the other side spoke up. Defending Jesus, he said to his fellow, the one who jeered at Jesus, “Do you not fear God? … We have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our [crimes]” (Lk. 23:40-41). “But this man has done nothing wrong.” We don’t know anything about that criminal on the cross, the one who confessed his guilt rather than join in the evil piled onto Jesus. All we know is amidst the noise, he heard Jesus call for forgiveness. He saw Jesus’ righteousness. And somehow, he could see that Jesus’ end would not be this cross. He could see that Jesus’ story would go beyond death.
Because he could see Jesus, he, a dying, condemned criminal, gained clarity that all around him lacked. The mockers couldn’t see it for their sin. The grievers couldn’t see it for their sorrow. But he saw the only thing he could do was pray. Who do we pray to? We pray to the one who gained salvation by dying our place. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”
That’s the final word for Good Friday. That we can pray that prayer, that is why this day of death is ultimately good. It is a day of salvation; not the temporal salvation the mockers held out to taunt Jesus. It is a day of eternal salvation for all who look to Him and see the Son of God, God in the flesh, and who in seeing him give their lives to Him in faith. When we end up where that criminal is and we know we are dying and knowing it we turn in desperation to Jesus, then and only then, do we understand that this day is Good because it is the day of salvation.