The Crucifixion Luke 23:26-49


Luke 23:26-49

Text Comment

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century man of letters, once wrote, “If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him; they would ask him to dinner and hear what he had to say and make fun of it.”  But Carlyle, no Christian himself, did not understand the fury of evil in the presence of perfect goodness. Dorothy Sayers, an English woman of letters from a century later, reminds us that the Lord “was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat” and we have all of those today…in spades! There is nothing to suggest that Jesus wouldn’t be treated today, in our so-called enlightened age, just as he was then.

And, let us remember one thing more.  Only faith grasps and appreciates the significance of what we are about to read.  Tacitus, the Roman historian, in his review of the troubles in Judea leading up to the war with Rome that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 writes [History v. 9], “Under Tiberius [the Emperor when Christ was crucified] nothing happened.”  Nothing happened?  Nothing but the salvation of the world, nothing but the most stupendous events that ever had or ever shall occur in the history of mankind! But the world went on unnoticing. How precious is our faith that we know these things and understand what has happened and what all of it means!

v.26     You are aware, of course, that the criminal was often required to carry the crosspiece of the cross on which he would be crucified. Of Simon of Cyrene one preacher has written, “A soul’s great hour sometimes leaps upon it, and destiny stands waiting all unexpected at the corner of some common road; so it was with Simon of Cyrene.”  [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 166] That his name was known to Luke strongly suggests that Simon, influenced by what he saw and heard became a follower of Jesus himself and so became known to the Christian church.

v.31     This is reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. If you have never read that history, you can read it in Josephus, of course, but you might want to try a modern account, perhaps something like Desmond Seward’s recent book on Josephus, Jerusalem’s Traitor, and hear his blow by blow account of the siege of Jerusalem, its terrible suffering, and finally its destruction.

v. 39    T. DeWitt Talmage, the famous Presbyterian preacher of Brooklyn , N.Y. in the last third of the 19th century, has a sermon on this taunt of the impenitent criminal in which he says this. Sermons were more flowery in the Victorian era, but listen. “If thou be the Son of God?  If?  Was there any if about it? Tell me, thou star, that in robe of life didst run to point out his birthplace.  Tell me, thou sea, that didst put thy hand over thy lip when He bid thee be still. Tell me, ye dead, who got up to see him die. Tell me, thou sun in mid-heaven, who for Him didst pull down over thy face the veil of darkness. Tell me, ye lepers, who were cleansed, ye dead, who were raised. Is he the Son of God?  Aye, aye! Responds the universe. The flowers breathe it – the stars chime it – the redeemed celebrate it – the angels rise up on their thrones to announce it. And yet on that miserable malefactor’s ‘if’ millions shall be wrecked for all eternity.”  [Cited in Stewart, Heralds of God, 151]

v.43     As Alexander Whyte put it, “The [criminal] took heaven, so to speak, at a leap that day.”  “Between the stirrup and the ground, mercy I sought and mercy found.” This is the Bible’s great example of a death-bed conversion, of a man finding life as he was dying. It is never too late to believe in Jesus Christ and be saved.

I do not have to explain the crucifixion to you. You understand very well what was happening here. God was laying our sins upon his Son and punishing him in our place. The Bible says this countless times. He died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. “

“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Their sins, their moral failures, their omissions and commissions may mean very little to many people. But what difference does that make? People are extraordinarily poor judges of their lives. Every human being thinks far better of himself than he ought to think. The fact is, those sins, omissions and commissions mean a great deal to God, the judge of all men. That is what matters and that is why the crucifixion is so indescribably important.

We received in the church office this past week an email from a PCA pastor encouraging us to read an account that he included with his email. He had recently received the story from someone else and was so enthused about it that he was sending it on to many of his friends in the ministry. He felt it was a story that should be widely known and could be put to great use in preaching the gospel to others. Here it is.

Brian Moore was a 17 year old Ohio high school senior, an athlete who needed to write something for his Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. It was his turn to lead the discussion so he sat down and wrote a short presentation that he entitled “The Room.” He showed it to his mother before heading out the door to his meeting. He later told his father that it was the best thing he ever wrote. It was also nearly the last thing he ever wrote.

Two months later, in May of 1997, Brian somehow lost control of his car while driving home from a friend’s house and struck a utility pole. He emerged from the wreck unharmed but stepped on a downed power line and was electrocuted. The paper he had written for his FCA chapter was later found in his high school locker and given to his parents. Brian was, as we say nowadays, a good kid. He was an honor student. He was a star athlete. He loved his parents. He had even taken it upon himself to learn how to help a fellow student who used a wheelchair at school. During one homecoming ceremony, Brian walked on tiptoes so that the girl he was escorting wouldn’t feel so self-conscious about being taller than he. He loved his kid brother, he escorted his grandmother to church. What more could you want of a son, of a Christian young man?

When, shortly after his son’s death, the parents read the short piece Brian had written for presentation to his Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter they took great comfort from it as any Christian parent would. It went like this:

“In that place between wakefulness and dreams, I found myself in the room. There were no distinguishing features except for the one wall covered with small index card files. They were like the ones in libraries that list titles by author or subject in alphabetical order. But these files, which stretched from floor to ceiling and seemingly endless in either direction, had very different headings.

As I drew near the wall of files, the first to catch my attention was the one that read ‘Brian Moore.’ I opened it and began flipping through the cards. I quickly shut it, shocked to realize that I recognized the names written on each one. And then without being told, I knew exactly where I was. This lifeless room with its small files was a crude catalog system for my life. Here were written the actions of my every moment, big and small, in a detail my memory couldn’t match. A sense of wonder and curiosity, coupled with horror, stirred within me as I began randomly opening files and exploring their content. Some brought joy and sweet memories; others a sense of shame and regret so intense that I would look over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching.

A file name ‘Friends’ was next to one marked ‘Friends I have betrayed.’ The titles ranged from the mundane to the outright weird. ‘Books I have read,’ ‘Lies I have told,’ ‘Comfort I have given,’ ‘Jokes I have laughed at.’ Some were almost hilarious in their exactness: ‘Things I’ve yelled at my brothers.’ Others I couldn’t laugh at: ‘Things I have done in my anger,’ ‘Things I have muttered under my breath at my parents.’

I never ceased to be surprised by the contents. Often there were many more cards than I expected. Sometimes fewer than I hoped. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the life I have lived. Could it be possible that I had the time in my years to write each of these thousands or even millions of cards? But each card confirmed this truth. Each was in my own handwriting. Each signed with my signature.

When I pulled out the file marked ‘TV Shows I have Watched,’ I realized the files grew to contain their contents. The cards were packed tightly, and yet after two or three yards, I hadn’t found the end of the file. I shut it, shamed, not so much by the quality of the shows but more by the vast time I knew that file represented.

When I came to a file marked ‘Lustful Thoughts’ I felt a chill run through my body. I pulled the file out only an inch, not willing to test its size, and drew out a card. I shuddered at its detailed content. I felt sick to think that such a moment had been recorded. An almost animal rage broke on me. One thought dominated my mind: ‘No one must ever see these cards! No one must ever see this room! I have to destroy them!’

In insane frenzy I yanked the file out. Its size didn’t matter now. I had to empty it and burn the cards. But as I took it at one end and began pounding it on the floor, I could not dislodge a single card. I became desperate and pulled out a card, only to find it as strong as steel when I tried to tear it. Defeated and utterly helpless, I returned the file to its slot. Leaning my forehead against the wall, I let out a long, self-pitying sigh.

And then I saw it. The title bore ‘People I have Shared the Gospel With.’ The handle was brighter than those around it, newer, almost unused. I pulled on its handle and a small box not more than three inches long fell into my hands. I could count the cards it contained on one hand. And then the tears came. I began to weep.

Sobs so deep that they hurt. They started in my stomach and shook through me. I fell on my knees and cried. I cried out in shame, from the overwhelming shame of it all. The rows of file shelves swirled in my tear-filed eyes. No one must ever, ever know of this room. I must lock it up and hide the key. But then as I pushed away the tears, I saw Him. No, please not him. Not here. Oh, anyone but Jesus. I watched helplessly as He began to open the files and read the cards. I couldn’t bear to watch his response. And in the moments I could bring myself to look at his face, I saw a sorrow deeper than my own. He seemed to intuitively go to the worst boxes. Why did he have to read every one? Finally he turned and looked at me from across the room. He looked at me with pity in his eyes. But this was a pity that didn’t anger me. I dropped my head, covered my face with my hands and began to cry again.

He walked over and put his arm around me. He could have said so many things. But he didn’t say a word. He just cried with me. Then he got up and walked back to the wall of files. Starting at one end of the room, he took out a file and, one by one, began to sign his name over mine on each card. “No!’ I shouted rushing to him. All I could find to say was ‘No, no,’ as I pulled the card from him. His name shouldn’t be on these cards. But there it was written in red so rich, so dark, so alive. The name of Jesus covered mine. It was written with his blood. He gently took the card back. He smiled a sad smile and began to sign the cards.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand how he did it so quickly, but the next instant it seemed I heard him close the last file and walk back to my side. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It is finished.’ I stood up, and he led me out of the room. There was no lock on its door. There were cards still to be written.”

“The Room,” as Brian Moore called his piece, is, as you immediately recognized, a meditation on the Bible’s metaphor of the “books” that record the deeds of every human life, the books, as we read in Revelation 20:12, that will be opened on the day of judgment. The Bible isn’t as sentimental or subjective, it doesn’t spin out a story with the Lord Christ putting his arm around you and weeping with you, but it teaches the same general idea of a full record of one’s life being kept and of Jesus Christ expunging that sinful record by taking responsibility for it himself.  The card file room is a variation on the book illustration of salvation, in which our life is recorded in a book with our name on the cover, and Christ’s life is recorded in a book with his name on the cover, and then the covers are taken off and exchanged. Our name now identifies the record of Christ’s life, and his name is attached to the record of our life. We are rewarded for his life and he is punished for ours. These are all imaginative ways of describing the effect of Christ’s death on the cross: Jesus taking our sins upon himself and we receiving God’s forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness in return.

You can very well imagine what comfort and consolation such a paper, written by their son shortly before his tragic death, would bring to bereaved Christian parents. To have had your 17 year old son write that, to confess his faith in Christ so clearly; what else could assuage their grief so effectively. No wonder they had framed a copy of their son’s essay and hung it among the family portraits in their living room.

But, there is more to the story. And this part of the story, perhaps understandably, has not circulated as far and wide as the part I have read to you. My PCA minister friend obviously did not know it or he would have mentioned it. Like many stories that circulate through the internet, there was no fact-checking done. Brian Moore did die by electrocution as the result of the traffic accident. He did deliver his story “The Room” to his FCA chapter. He did tell his parents that it was the best thing he had ever written. All of that is true. But, as a matter of fact, he hadn’t written it. He plagiarized it. He took it from a magazine article by a Christian writer named Joshua Harris, who also later published it in a book. Moore’s parents had no reason to suspect that the work in question was not their son’s. He had told them it was. Perhaps in retrospect it does not read like something written by a 17 year old, but who would have thought of that in the midst of great grief.

Only after the piece was published in The Columbus Dispatch on the anniversary of Brian Moore’s death was the plagiarism discovered. What an immense disappointment. Just imagine the devastation to his parents. The embarrassment resulting from the exposure of a fraud they had taken such great comfort from and the loss of confidence in their son who couldn’t confess his sin to them or apologize for it or repent of it.

But, don’t you see, in some ways the plagiarism, the lies, the dishonor to his parents makes an even more perfect explanation of what the gospel really amounts to and what makes the Lord’s crucifixion so necessary and so wonderful. “The Room” as it is written is a bit maudlin and overly sentimental, much more so than the Bible itself. As a story of plagiarism and cheating, however, it is realistic: the cold, hard facts. People will say, people have said, “how ironic that the fellow should lie about a story that tells of his sins and Christ’s taking them away.” How ironic that he should lie in telling a story about how Christ takes his lying away. But this isn’t unusual, however ironic it may be. Peter did the very same thing. He lied even as he was confessing his faith in Christ. He promised never to leave the Lord just moments before he left him.

Of course, it is ironic and very sad. But it is precisely what we do, all of us, all the time. I said that Brian Moore was a “good kid.” That’s what we say and so far as the ordinary standards we use he was a good kid. But, good kid or not, he was a sinner and he was, every day, piling up his sins in a shameful way. He was piling them up even as he was explaining how Christ takes them away. He was, I am, you are. And it is only our dishonesty with ourselves that keeps us from feeling the full weight of that shameful fact. We are all like the criminal who mocked the Lord on his cross from his own cross. He was getting what he deserved but rather than reckon with the fact he found time and breath and energy to whine that the miracle worker wasn’t performing a miracle for him. Why in the world should the miracle worker bother with him? The truest measure of human sinfulness is that even those who know that they are sinners before God, even those who know that God has provided forgiveness through the suffering and death of his Son, Jesus Christ, even those who have availed themselves of that salvation by trusting in Jesus, even  those who understand how this salvation comes to us through as substitutionary death on the part of the Son of God, even those,even we, are constantly betraying that divine love and that great redemption, and that wonderful forgiveness. That is how bad we are and that is why nothing but the crucifixion of the Son of God would avail to take our sins away.

Now, as you and I stand before the great deep that is the death of the Son of God for sinners, I want, the Lord helping us, to help us feel how vast is that depth before us and to feel something of the insupportable majesty of this event that lies at the heart of the history of the world and that means the difference between heaven and hell for everyone in this room and everyone in this world. I want this knowledge to live in our hearts.

And we are invited to do this by the Gospel writers themselves.  Have you ever noticed how simple, chaste, unembellished their accounts of the crucifixion are?  The most dramatic event, the most important few hours in the history of the world, the crisis point around which turns the destiny of every human being, and, in all four Gospels, just a few verses suffice to give us the salient facts.  “Feeling that here they were handling a theme too high and deep for human words, the evangelists have given us a narrative marked by a noble reticence and a perfect restraint.”  [Stewart, Life and Teaching, 164]

So little is said, so much is suggested. They intend for us to ponder this, to mull it over. As Calvin so perceptively observed, “These matters call for secret meditation, rather than for the ornament of words.” How much more they might have said!  Like “The Room” they might have gone on and on about what was happening here. Consider this from our text this morning. The entire matter of the Lord’s manner of execution itself is reduced to four simple words, just three in Luke’s Greek, in v. 33:  “…there they crucified him.”  The form of words is now so familiar that we read it with hardly a thought of the world of humiliation and agony that crucifixion was.  The world in all the ages since has not succeeded in inventing a crueler way to die.  No wonder that, later on, the Jews found the message of the cross a scandal and the Gentiles foolishness. Neither could they believe that anyone who suffered that ignominy, who was subjected to such pitiless mistreatment, could possibly be the Son of God.  And, if you had witnessed a crucifixion, you would be more understanding of those prejudices!

Roman writers themselves speak of crucifixion as the most cruel and gruesome of all possible fates [Cicero] and, even more revealing, the more humane among them hardly ever mentioned crucifixion in their writings.  They wanted nothing to do with it.  It was barbarism pure and simple and they found it embarrassing, unworthy of the great civilization of which they felt themselves to be a part. A great people should not do this to other human beings.

It was a punishment in which the victim was first beaten, often terribly, then stripped and exposed before the crowds who would gather to watch.  Intense pain was created by the nailing of spikes through the hands and feet and then, for hours, even days on end, the weight of the body hung on those spikes.  It was a cruel age.  The sadism of executioners was given full rein and the physical and mental agonies were deepened by the jests and the derision of the passers-by.  Death sometimes took days to come; in fact, often bones would have to be broken and the body speared to bring an end to it.  One almost universal agony suffered by those who were crucified was a raging thirst.  Uncommunicative as our Savior was concerning his own pain, at one point, you remember, he could not prevent himself from saying, “I’m thirsty.”

Now, consider then, how amazing a thing it is that over the centuries Christ has cast such a halo around that cruelest instrument of torture.  Churches have been built in the shape of a cross.  The Cross has been emblazoned on the flags of many nations.  Poets and hymn-writers sing of “the wondrous cross” and “the blessed” or “the dear” cross.  We wear a cross in gold or silver around our necks. Imagine a slave crucified on the Appian Way arriving in the modern world via some time machine. Imagine how strange, bizarre and grotesque it would seem to him that we have made the symbol of his execution stand for all that is beautiful and noble in the world.  How is it that such a revolting instrument of inhumanity can have become a symbol for us of all that is pure and holy and good and eternal?  Imagine wearing today a small electric chair, or a little gurney as they may use for lethal injections, or an Auschwitz crematorium in gold miniature around your neck.  Such is the grace of Jesus Christ and such is the meaning of his crucifixion that he should have, by his death on the cross, transformed that terrible and brutal thing into the most sacred symbol in the world.

And yet, as the poets remind us in our hymns, the physical agony of the cross was its least terrible feature in Jesus’ case.

The cross is sharp, but in thy woe, this is the lightest part;
Our sin it is that pierces thee and breaks thy sacred heart.

Or,

Many hands were raised to wound him, none would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that justice gave.

We don’t really know and we cannot plumb the terrible price that Jesus paid on the cross for us; we can’t measure it. The physical pain and the outward humiliation we can understand to some degree, but what it meant for the Son of God, who knew no sin and who hates sin with a perfect hatred, to be judged, as it were, the greatest sinner there has ever been and punished accordingly, that is beyond us and will forever remain beyond us.

There is an ocean here and you and I stand at its shore.  We look out, as far as the eye can see, and realize we see but the surface and the periphery of this great deep.  We begin to realize how completely uncharted are the breadth and depth of the Lord’s suffering during those hours on the cross as he bore the just punishment for the sins of the world. There is so much sin in so many lives that we cannot even declare our love for Christ and our confidence in his saving death without sinning some more, without messing it all up with our own half-heartedness and mixed motives and hypocrisy. That is how much we need the cross of Christ, how hopeless we must be before the judgment of God without it.

No wonder the Apostle Paul could summarize his entire message to the world as “the word of the cross.”  What I want to tell you, world, is about the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or no wonder he should have said one day with such a passion, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of you are older; many are younger.  But, as the old spiritual writers used to say, every one of us has a sandglass with his or her name on it in heaven, another imaginative metaphor like that  of “The Room,” and God himself put exactly that amount of sand in our glass that was in keeping with his perfect will.  And day and night, and month and year that sand is running out before the face of our father in heaven. And everyday, all day long, a record is being kept of your life, the good and the bad. So little real good; so much that is unworthy of a human being made in the image of God upon whose heart God’s law has been written and particularly the life of someone who has confessed faith in the Son of God. And the day will come, sooner than anyone thinks, when the sand in our glass will have run out.  Some like our 17 year old high school senior will die young; some like the criminals hanging next to Jesus, in the middle of life; most will die old and full of years. But what we have done in this world, what we imagine we have accomplished, the good things we think we leave behind for our reputation’s sake, what we have counted important and precious will fall away. Only the true record as it is kept in heaven will remain: the books. They say you will feel the whole world giving way beneath you. And as everything slips away, you will grasp at anything, anyone: the bedclothes, your wife’s hand, your son’s arm, the very air sometimes. What then, who then will you count on?  What will there be then to hold fast to?

“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.”

Not for us fear, despair and concern at the hour of death. The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Jesus paid it all…
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow,”