Luke 23:26-31

The travesty of the Lord’s trials now completed, and Pilate having acquiesced to the will of the religious leaders and the crowd that had gathered, Jesus was delivered over to be crucified.

Text Comment

It was customary to make the condemned man carry his cross or, more likely, its crossbeam to the place of crucifixion. This was the beam to which the condemned man was fastened by ropes or nails before being hoisted on to the upright post that was permanently fixed in the ground. The cross-bar would have been placed over the back of the neck and the shoulders as if one were carrying a heavy sack on one’s back. [Bock, ii, 1842] This form of execution had been perfected to ensure the maximum humiliation and physical pain. We read in John (19:17) that Jesus had begun carrying the heavy beam, but weakened by the scourging he had received had been unable to continue. It was then they grabbed a passer-by to carry it for him. No Roman soldier would do it for the shame associated with a cross. [Ibid] The fact that his name was known to Luke, the fact that two of his sons were known to the church (Mark mentions Simon’s sons Rufus and Alexander in 15:21) and that Paul may be referring to the same Rufus in his list of greetings in Romans 16:13) has long been thought to suggest, the happy thought, that it was through this encounter with Jesus that day, utterly unexpected and under the worst sort of circumstances, that Simon became his follower that day. The questions come thick and fast and none of them can be answered: did he remain at the cross and witness the Lord’s crucifixion? How and when did he learn of the Lord’s resurrection? Did he see Jesus again before the Lord’s ascension? Was this, in some gracious way, the Lord’s repayment of Simon for the service he offered him that day?

I have told some of you before the way this brief remark saved one of the most consequential ministries in post-Reformation English Christianity. Charles Simeon’s fifty year ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge was hugely significant to the world-wide expansion of Christianity in the early decades of the 19th century. Many of the young men who sat under him while students eventually became missionaries to Africa, India, and the rest of Asia. But that ministry got off to a very rough start. Simeon was an ungainly young man who was personally insecure when he was foisted on Holy Trinity’s unwilling congregation by his bishop. He was easy to make fun of and the students made him an object of ridicule in that university town. The town’s people locked their pews and refused to attend his services. The few who did attend had to stand against the outside wall of the sanctuary. Hard days for the young minister: rejected by his own congregation, made sport of by the students, and staring failure in the face. But then this happened.

“When I was an object of much contempt and derision in the university, I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to God that he would comfort me with some cordial from his Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text which would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here — what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus — what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honoring with a participation in his sufferings… I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow.” [Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 81] It was the turning point and Simeon and his ministry went on from there from strength to strength.

We are never given the numbers, and no effort is made by the Gospel writers to clarify this point, but while there was a crowd of people who had clamored for the Lord’s crucifixion in the courtyard of the governor’s palace, we don’t know its size. Nor do we know how representative it was of public sentiment at this point. A few days before great crowds of people gathered around Jesus to hear his teaching or in hopes of witnessing a miracle. There may have yet been in Jerusalem a considerable number of people who still admired him and who would not have approved, had they known, of what was being done to him. And among them was a sizeable number of women. They followed the procession to Calvary not out of blood lust or mere curiosity, but out of sympathy. Luke has paid special attention to the support Jesus received from women and his mentioning them here is another example of that interest. I think I have told you that a friend of mine, Mark Ross who teaches at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia, S.C., once delivered a lecture I heard on the Gospel of Luke entitled, “Was Luke a Gynecologist?” It was his cute way of referring to Luke’s special interest in the place of women in the Gospel narrative.
The Lord refers to the women as “the daughters of Jerusalem,” so these are women of the city, not the Galilean women who had supported him throughout much of his ministry. It is a point we will return to in subsequent sermons, but here is an example, of which there will be more, of the Lord keeping the law of God and being perfectly righteous to the very end of his life. Here too, even in the midst of his own agony and understandable distraction, he considered the interests of others more important than his own.
Not a verse we are likely to have memorized, but Jesus had. It is Hosea 10:8.
This appears to have been a proverbial saying comparing green wood that is hard to burn, with dry wood that burns easily. But what does Jesus mean by it? Any number of interpretations have been suggested. Some have thought he meant, “If the Romans do this to a man they have pronounced innocent, what will they do to a people who actually rebel against them?” Perhaps more likely is either “If the innocent Jesus suffered this way, what awaits the guilty?” or “If God did not spare Jesus, how much more will impenitent Israel suffer?” Obviously the sense is some version of the idea that the Jews as a whole would suffer a worse fate than Jesus himself was suffering, at least as a man about to be crucified.

Some sympathetic women began to raise the death wail as Jesus was being led from the city to the place of the skull. Their mourning after the fashion of that time and place lent a touch of the macabre to the whole scene. [Caird, 249] The commentators debate whether they were merely performing the standard rites of mourning customary in that culture or whether they were genuine followers of the Lord and so giving vent to real grief. But the Lord Jesus, always ready to put the best construction on what people said and did, took their sympathy as sincere, appreciated them for it, but interrupted it and told them, in effect, to save their pity for themselves, for they needed it more than he. A remarkable thing to be said by someone who is going to the worst conceivable death. He spoke, in other words, one last time of the coming judgment of the Jews, hanging over the people and the city like a sword of Damocles. God’s wrath was soon to befall them for their unbelief and when it came in A.D. 70 it would be ferocious.

The Lord had spoken at length of this coming judgment just a few days before. We read what is often called his Olivette Discourse in chapter 21. There, in greater detail, he predicted what here he just mentions: a judgment of the people so severe that it would well serve as an anticipation and foreshadowing of the judgment that God would bring upon the entire world at the last day. And, as we noted then, the Lord’s predictions came true to the letter. Judea was laid waste, Jerusalem besieged and the people who had taken refuge there eventually reduced to behavior so bestial that even now it is hard to read about it; finally the city was captured and destroyed — one of the great cities of the world of reduced to rubble — thousands upon thousands were killed and the Jewish state extinguished, not to reappear until nearly two-thousand years later. It was a first century Auschwitz through which the Jews of Judea would pass in the last years of the 7th decade of the first century and it would leave an indelible stamp upon the world as would its counterpart in the 20th century.

A Jewish woman, in those days, considered childlessness the greatest conceivable curse. Nowadays in the western world you will hear an increasing number of women say that children are an impediment to career advancement, that it is better to be single and successful than have children and be limited so much by their need for your time and attention. Such women remain a tiny minority even today. But no one thought that way in the first century. Women longed to be mothers more than they longed to be anything else.

But Jesus, in a startling warning, said to these women that when the judgment of the Lord fell upon the Jews, to be barren, to be childless would be the greatest blessing of all. The childless woman could pray for death to overtake her and release her from her torment. The suffering of a childless woman would not be made more bitter and still more intolerable by having to witness the suffering of her children. She would not have to watch them slowly starve, their stomachs shrink, their skeletons appear through their skin; she would never be tempted actually to kill, to cook, and to eat her children, as people eventually would in those terrible days in Jerusalem some forty years after the Lord’s crucifixion.

Josephus tells the story of one wealthy woman who had fled from her home east of the Jordan River to find safety behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem only to be caught in the siege and begin slowly to starve to death with everyone else. Near the end hunger drove her out of her mind and she killed the baby that was nursing at her breast, roasted the body and devoured half of it. Attracted by the smell of cooking meat others rushed to the house only to run from the house in horror when she told them what she had done. The news of the incident eventually reached the Romans, the news brought either by spies or deserters. Titus swore before the gods that he was not responsible and declared that he would not leave standing on the face of the earth a city whose mothers would do such a thing. [Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 216-217] And he didn’t. Like the eruptions near the Dead Sea that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, so completely that still today we do not know where those cities were, like the Assyrians that destroyed and then depopulated the northern kingdom of Israel, and like the Babylonians that laid waste to Judah and Jerusalem in the early 6th century B.C., Titus was doing the Lord’s work, however little he knew it.

We are used to sin, we accommodate it, we tolerate it, and we are so accustomed to it that if truth be told neither you nor I really has the foggiest idea of what a truly righteous life would look like. From time to time we disapprove of our sins and the sins of others, the particularly noteworthy ones, but “God’s reaction to [human sin] is something no language can convey.” [Abraham Heschel, cited by P. Leithart, Touchstone (Sept/Oct 2013) 6.

Now, this is the sort of text that does not get noticed very often any more. The doctrine of divine wrath and judgment is not a popular topic in our effete, morally decadent, and sentimental age. A great many preachers, even the Bible-believing ones, leave it out altogether. People don’t want to hear this message and so their ministers don’t preach it.

But Jesus preached it and led with his chin in his preaching of it. He predicted the city’s destruction and it happened just as he said it would. He said it would come while many of those who witnessed his ministry were still alive and so it did. He said it would be horrific and it was. He said it was a foretaste of something worse that would happen to all who did not receive the forgiveness of their sins. Right about everything else, he was surely right about that as well. Who else would know better than the one who bore the divine wrath on behalf of his people?

But what ought to make this message, however sinister, however unwelcome, however solemnizing, the more conspicuous, the more emphatic, the more impossible to ignore, is when it was delivered. Surely it should arrest our attention and make us think seriously about what Jesus said, that he said it when he did.

Think of the Lord Jesus at that moment. His body already wracked with pain, his face swollen, perhaps virtually unrecognizable, from the beatings he had received from the Jewish clerics, from their soldiers and then from the Roman soldiers, his head and forehead cut as it had been by the crown of thorns, so exhausted by the beatings, the blood loss, the lack of sleep, and the emotional trauma, that he had been unable to continue to carry the cross-bar upon which he was to be crucified — believe me, no man in the world would have been more determined to carry that heavy beam all the way to Calvary than Jesus had he been able; he was determined to allow nothing to dull his experience of the suffering appointed for him which is why he refused the wine when it was offered to him — and, as he stumbled along his via dolorosa, the rough and cruel treatment of his military escort a constant reminder of his humiliation, he must have been — true man that he was — I say he must have been anticipating what lay ahead: the nailing of his hands and feet to the wood — what would that feel like — his being hung up to die, and the hours of agony that would follow until his death. He must have been wondering what it was going to be like, how terrible it would be. I wonder, in fact, true man that he was if he was wondering if he could manage it.

Would you in such a situation have the wit, much less the concern, to speak of the coming judgment that would befall the inhabitants of Jerusalem? Terrible must be the judgments of the Lord and deeply must they be felt by those who really understand them that the Lord Jesus, staggered as he was by what he had already endured and was about to suffer, could not get the prospect out of his mind and could not look upon those dear women mourning for him without thinking about what lay in store for them.

The reality of divine judgment may be in virtual eclipse in our day — which explains why so few people are taking seriously the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ and why there is such casual disregard even for the moral standards virtually all mankind has long recognized are essential to human life and the trivializing of the moral seriousness of life in the western world — but it was never in eclipse in the mind and heart of the Savior of the world. He bore in himself the terrible judgment of a just and holy God against the sin of the world and so no one knew better what lay in store for those whose sins were not covered by his blood.

We live in a day — and, of course this has always been true but not always so publicly and evidently true — when virtually all our social problems stem from the moral failures of human beings: the petty selfishness, the dishonesty, the visceral hatred of others, the pride, the lust for immediate pleasure and power, and all the rest. Our crumbling political institutions, the dismemberment of the family in our society, the sexual behaviors that are everywhere increasing the misery of young and old alike, the scourges of drug use and of crime — of which we have been treated to an endless and deeply depressing testimony of late (think of the senseless murder of an Australian college student in Oklahoma two weeks ago, the sexual abuse of boys in a Boy Scout troop reported in the newspaper, or the death by overdose that is virtually a nightly event in Hollywood), the mounting personal and national debt which we seem incapable of controlling, I say, name a problem that is not the direct result of the disreputable behavior of human beings; of selfish, ugly, hurtful behavior on the part of ordinary human beings who know to do better and are so obviously capable of better. And the rest of the world is as bad as the part in which we live. But still hardly anyone worries about the last judgment, about the wrath and the justice of God. Bashar al-Assad wasn’t thinking about what the Almighty thought about his decision to gas his political rivals. Miley Cyrus may have worried about a number of things before her MTV awards performance, but not the wrath of God. What God might do to them in return never occurred to those three fellows in Oklahoma the night they murdered the college student from Australia.

The history of the world and of each human life rings with divine judgment, however deaf our world may be to the sound, but to have Jesus draw our attention to it as he trudged to his own terrible judgment on our behalf is perhaps the single greatest testimony to its reality that we can conceive.

You are aware, I’m sure, that through the centuries those who have somehow wished to eradicate the message and prospect of divine judgment from the Christian faith, to have a Christianity without a judgment and without hell, have typically done so by pitting that message against the message of the love of God, which is so clearly and emphatically taught in the Bible. “God is love,” the Scripture teaches us. Christ came to save the world for the sake of his love for us. But surely a God of omnipotent love would not punish the world so severely! God’s love, of all loves, must conquer all at the last. That is the argument. That’s the only argument and it has been made countless times. Rob Bell made that argument again recently.

Well, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is a very real sense in which we all can say, we all would say, and must say that such is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.” There is no part of the Bible’s teaching that I would rather change than the eternal punishment of sin and the bleak future that awaits those who have not found forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that God himself wishes it were otherwise! He does not desire the death of the wicked but that all would come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. But that gloomy reality is everywhere in the Bible, everywhere! The story of judgment fills its pages. And no one taught it more relentlessly than the Lord Jesus himself. It is not too much to say that the doctrine of judgment and the prospect and nature of hell were among the Lord’s most noteworthy contributions to the theology of the Christian faith. You find this doctrine in the writings of the apostles, but nowhere near as often or as explicitly as you find it in the teaching of Jesus.

Clearly he did not think that the reality of divine judgment was somehow inconsistent with the reality of divine love. Surely not. The Bible may refer to his judgment of sin, as Isaiah did, as the Lord’s strange work, but no one can read the Bible and think that it is not the Lord’s work. It is, in fact, the prospect of the punishment of sin that is the presupposition of virtually everything else in the teaching of the Bible. Without that prospect the cross loses its meaning and so does the appeal to believe in Jesus so as to be saved from sin and death.

But perhaps nowhere do we find the divine love and the divine wrath juxtaposed, set side by side, so powerfully as we do here, on the via dolorosa. Here is the Prince of Life, the Savior of the world, the king of love on his way to death for us, pausing in the midst of his own personal agony, to warn the weeping women around him of the doom yet to befall those who are still in their sins. No one can believe that love and judgment, that grace and stern divine justice are incompatible; no one can believe that God cannot express both at once who reads here of Jesus on his way to bear that wrath on our behalf, warning people of the wrath to come. Not all will be besieged in a city about to become a ruin, but we read in the Gospel of John, a Gospel often called “the Gospel of love” that “the wrath of God abides on the one who does not have faith in Jesus Christ.” [3:36]

Jesus was going to cross precisely because there is such a thing as God’s wrath against sinners, punishment due them for their sins against God and man; it was precisely to bear that wrath on their behalf that he gave himself over to that horrible death and all that it entailed.

You may remember C.S. Lewis’ famous remark to the effect that we ought to remember, when we consider our fellow Christians in the church, particularly the ones that annoy us, that could we but now see them as they will someday be, when made perfect in heaven, we would be strongly tempted to bow down and worship them. But that insight has a flip side. If you could somehow but get a glimpse of what all those normal, ordinary people you rub shoulders with every day, I say, if you could get only a momentary glimpse of what they will become when the wrath of God descends upon them, you would recoil from them in a fear, in disgust, and in revulsion. They would strike you as the sort of people you would expect to encounter only in a nightmare. Think of that woman, so hungry that she couldn’t think straight, but still in a madness to live, who killed, cooked, and ate her own baby. How does a person do that? What do people become when all the restraints are removed? What evil lies hidden within human beings waiting to be discovered?

A friend of mine told me not so long ago about an African-American friend of his when he was a teenager in Newark, N.J. during the terrible summer of riots in the late 1960s. This friend of mine happened to be in the church and he noticed that a bed had been placed in one of the downstairs rooms and he asked what it was there for. He was told that it was for his friend. He had been kicked out of his house for refusing to loot when the riot began. He was a new Christian. He wouldn’t loot and even his parents wanted him out. What will people do when the restraints are removed? They will do anything! What evil lies hidden within them waiting to be discovered? You don’t want to know.

There are many in our culture who find the very idea of divine judgment preposterous, absurd, ridiculous. But remember, the world rings with the anticipation of that judgment. We see it everywhere we look. We see people suffering for their sins, including even those sins our culture no longer wants to call a sin. Judgment is woven into the very fabric of human life. So much so that we cannot imagine life without it; cannot imagine that it does not finally matter whether one is good or evil, whether one blesses or harms the people around him. No one, no philosopher, no social commentator of our modern world, has been able yet to explain why anything should be thought to mean anything if there is not a final reckoning of human life and if there is not reward or punishment as a result of that reckoning.

Our planet and everyone on it who does not have faith in Jesus Christ is hurtling at breakneck speed toward to an encounter with divine justice and so with the punishment that God will visit upon those who have lived in defiance of his will. Like the women bewailing the death of Jesus Christ as they walked behind him toward the cross, people have no idea of what is to come. It was a notable kindness, an extraordinary kindness on our Savior’s part, on his part, to pause in the midst of his own pain and fear, to warn these women of the wrath to come.

The great English Puritan of the 17th century, Richard Baxter, once wrote

“Seriousness is the very thing wherein consists our sincerity. If thou art not serious, thou art not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity, but the very life and essence of it. As fencers upon a stage differ from soldiers fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians.”

Jesus was nothing if he was not serious and in large part he was so because he knew and he could see what was to come, how desperately in need of salvation the world was, yet how petulantly unwilling to receive it when offered. Hardly anyone in our modern western world worries about the wrath of God. We worry about our jobs and our income, so we worry about the economy. We worry about finding or keeping love and about our future prosperity. We worry about our health and about retirement or about finding a career in the first place. If we have a broader outlook, we may be worrying about this crisis or that impending trouble elsewhere in the world. But few worry about what will happen when the wood is dry, which finally is the only thing anyone should worry about.

Compared to the prospect of the divine wrath our other concerns, our ordinary worries are insignificant distractions. And if we are ever tempted to doubt that, then look again at Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, bruised, bloody, staggering along the street toward Calvary, pulling up, turning toward these women, and saying to them,

“No, dear ladies; save your pity for yourselves and the multitudes like you, whose future is so terribly bleak that, were you to see it, you would forget all about me and about my suffering.”

Such is the deliverance of those who believe in him; such is the destiny of those who do not.