Luke 23:32-49

In the last sermon in this series, I read and commented on vv. 32-43. I will read those verses again but without comment. I will offer some comment on vv. 44-49 which we are reading for the first time.

Text Comment

The sixth hour was noon. The crucifixion, it seems, began in the mid-morning, at the third hour, as we read in Mark 15:25. Unlike the Jews, the Romans began the day at dawn. The ninth hour would then be 3 in the afternoon, though times were more approximate in a world without clocks.
The darkness at mid-day was clearly a divinely ordered comment on the event unfolding at Calvary as was the tearing of the curtain that separated the most holy place from the holy place. Darkness is a symbol of divine judgment in a number of texts in the Old Testament. Not only was Christ bearing that judgment in our place, but those involved in his crucifixion were threatened by that judgment, as some seemed to appreciate, as we will see. We do not know what caused the darkness. It was not an eclipse because an eclipse cannot take place at full moon and Passover was always at full moon. But many factors can darken the sun and the Lord God controls them all.

The significance of the tearing of the temple curtain, an event that may be attested in Jewish materials as well, is not explained in the Gospels or the rest of the NT. It is usually taken to mean that the sinners’ way to God has been opened by the death of Christ. But it is also possible that it presages the end of the temple as an instrument of God’s presence among his people. [cf. Bock, ii, 1860-1861]

This is the last of the so-called seven sayings of the Lord on the cross. It is a statement of pure faith, made all the more remarkable and powerful following as it did the Lord’s earlier anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” That he uttered these words with a loud voice is an eyewitness touch. It was surprising perhaps that he had the energy to speak so loudly at the very end of his life. Such things stick in the memory. My sister, her lungs filled with fluid, unable to speak for some time, somehow found her voice and spoke her faith clearly and firmly just before she died. It is a time, obviously, when we want real faith to be in evidence and can’t help notice it when it is. Jesus was a man of faith from the beginning to the very end.

We tend to forget this, but the Lord’s final words are in fact a quotation of Psalm 31:5. He had so digested Holy Scripture that in virtually any circumstance he had ready to use some expression of the Bible. Whatever else this statement means it is the Lord’s powerful, unmistakable confession of the certainty of life after death.

As the heavens were bearing their witness to the world-changing significance of what was happening, a Roman centurion, a hard-bitten army man, a Gentile, not a Jew, a man who had seen many others die by crucifixion, realized by intuition that Jesus was no criminal and that his death was extraordinary. The word translated “innocent” in the ESV is the ordinary word for “righteous.” This centurion is thus the last of a number of men in the narrative of Jesus’ trial and execution who pronounced Jesus innocent. But he also realized that Jesus was someone very special. Why else would he praise God in such a moment? Matthew adds that the centurion also said, “Truly this man was the son of God.” The man had been observing, listening and by a God-given intuition, realized at least something of what was happening here.
The crowd — however large a group it was — also went away moved and impressed with what they had seen, perhaps deeply worried that they had in some way been complicit in the death of a man they now realized should never have been executed. Luke is surely also interested in the fact that there were many witnesses to what had occurred. Many could give an account of what had happened. Everyone seemed to grasp that God had been present and at work as Jesus hung on the cross and they worried about what would befall them as the result of what had been done. Perhaps this is part of the preparation for the great ingathering of believers on and after Pentecost. Seven weeks later, that is, there were still many Jews who were pondering the death of Jesus because of what they had seen or heard of his death from others. [Morris, 348] In any case their reaction bears powerful witness to the historical accuracy of Luke’s account of the crucifixion. There were signs that convinced even unbelievers that something terrible had happened and that God was at work in it.
“Those who had followed him from Galilee” is apparently an oblique reference to the disciples and others in the Lord’s permanent entourage. The women are mentioned separately, perhaps because they will be mentioned next in connection with the account of the resurrection.

To a certain extent all seems simple and straightforward. Jesus of Nazareth, having run afoul of the Jewish and Roman authorities, was put to death by crucifixion. Lots of men were put to death by crucifixion in those days. There were many witnesses who observed the crucifixion and were present at the moment of his death. Remarkable events accompanied the crucifixion, though, to be sure, only some would have made the connection between Calvary and the unusual condition of the sky or the tearing of the temple curtain about which people must have been speaking in the days to follow. But, in fact, what can be seen here, remarkable and awe-inspiring as it was, is in some respects even for the believer the least remarkable and least important aspects of the death of Jesus Christ. The lowering, threatening sky and the torn curtain point our attention to what can’t be seen, what was not observed, what no one, even the Lord’s disciples, understood at the time. It is the unseen dimensions of this event that make the cross so infinitely and eternally significant for every human being in the world.

There is some evidence of this in the fact that the biblical narrative of the crucifixion in all four Gospels is so chaste, so unembellished. The most dramatic event, the most important few hours in the history of the world, the crisis around which the entire world and all of human life turns, and in all four Gospels just a few verses suffice to give us the salient facts. So much more might have been said. We might expect that much more would have been said. After all, crucifixion was a ghastly form of execution. It would have surprised no one, I think, if the Gospel writers had given us a much more detailed description of the Lord’s suffering.

Roman writers themselves speak of crucifixion as the most cruel and gruesome and disgusting of all possible fates [Cicero] and, even more revealing, the more humane of them mentioned crucifixion hardly at all in their writings. They wanted to have nothing to do with it. It was a form of barbarism they found embarrassing. Romans, they thought, should have been above such torture; but they weren’t. Isn’t it remarkable that, though put to death 2,000 years ago, our Savior could not have been subjected to a crueler or more humiliating death had he been executed in any other day or time. Even the Nazis, who executed vast numbers of people and who relished the humiliation of their victims, did not employ crucifixion. Perhaps it is one reason why Jesus came into human history when he did and died when he did: so that he might die by crucifixion, a form of hanging on the tree which was not only a biblical symbol of a man being cursed of God but was as vicious a form of death as human beings have ever contrived.

It was a punishment in which the victim was stripped and exposed before the crowds that would gather to watch — humiliated both by his nakedness in public and by his being made to suffer in the sight of others the intense pain that was created by the nailing of spikes through the hands the feet and then, for hours on end, by the weight of his body hanging on those spikes. Death ordinarily came by suffocation, itself a terrifying and painful way to die.  It was a form of punishment in which the sadism of the executioners was given full rein and in which the physical and mental agony was increased by the jests, the derision, and the insults both of the executioners and the passers-by.  Death sometimes took days to come as the poor wretches fought for air and tried as best they could to relieve the excruciating pain in one part of the body or the other. In fact, often bones would have to be broken and the body speared if death were too long in coming, or if the cross being occupied were needed for the next victim. One form of physical agony suffered by almost all those hung up on crosses was raging thirst. Hence the Lord’s sole comment from the cross about his physical misery: “I thirst.” [John 19:28] 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 cross a scandal and could not believe that anyone who suffered that ignominy could possibly be the Son of God.  And if you and I had seen a crucifixion we would be more understanding of the Jews!

Suffering such as this could easily be described at some length and in lurid detail. But we find nothing of that in the four Gospels. The account of the crucifixion is remarkably restrained. But isn’t that itself some proof of the fact that the Gospel writers understood that it was not what people could see that was the true significance of the cross, but what they could not see. To give us great detail about the Lord’s physical misery would place the emphasis and our attention on the wrong thing. After all, no suffering ever endured by a human being was greater than that endured by the Lord Jesus, but he certainly didn’t suffer physically as much as many others did and have. As I said, some men who were crucified hung alive for days on end and had to have their bones broken to end it all. Imagine the excruciating pain of days of searing pain, of muscle cramps, of thirst that made it painful to swallow and even to breathe! But the Lord Jesus died in just some six hours. Indeed we read in the Gospel of Mark (15:44) that Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus had died so quickly when Joseph of Arimathea came to ask permission to bury his body. The measure of Christ’s suffering was not to be found in how excruciating was the physical pain that he endured.

The hymn-writer expressed this in moving and profoundly insightful lines:

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.

No wonder then that the entire matter of the Lord’s execution is reduced by Luke to four simple words in v. 33:  “…there they crucified him.”  The form of words is now so familiar that we skim over it with hardly a thought to what a world of humiliation and agony crucifixion was. But then, the physical torment was not the real meaning of the crucifixion. As the centurion realized, it was the one on the cross that made this death unlike and infinitely worse than any other. 

Surely it is that fact that also explains the amazing, the astonishing fact that over the centuries Christ has cast such a halo around that disgustingly inhumane instrument of torture. Churches have been built in the shape of crosses; the cross has been emblazoned on the flag of many nations; poets and hymn writers sing of “the wondrous cross” and “the blessed or dear cross”; it became the symbol of our Christian faith.

We wear the cross around our necks in gold and silver. How is it that such a revolting instrument of man’s inhumanity to man can have become a symbol for us of all that is pure and good and holy and everlasting?  Imagine wearing today a small executioner’s ax, or a small gold electric chair, or a hangman’s noose, or a miniature Auschwitz crematorium from a chain around your neck! Such is the grace of Jesus Christ and such was the meaning of his crucifixion that he should turn an instrument of torture into the most sacred symbol in the world. But only because more was happening on that cross, much, much more than the eye could see.

Alexander Moody Stuart was for 44 years in the mid-19th century the pastor of Free St. Luke’s Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, and was widely regarded as the most deeply spiritual of that galaxy of great Scottish preachers in that most remarkable age of preaching. You hear me often enough refer to Alexander Whyte. Whyte as a young divinity student was what we would call nowadays an intern under Moody Stuart. He would later speak of his incomparable preaching and of “so many sermons of grace and genius and scholarship” that he had heard from St. Luke’s pastor. [Barbour, Life, 113, 470]  In an address Moody Stuart delivered to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in 1873, the year he was the moderator of the General Assembly, he recalled some advice about preaching which a wise old elder had given him long before, while he was still an apprentice preacher, still a divinity student under the great Thomas Chalmers.

“You ministers should have more of the infinite in your sermons.”  Showing me two family portraits by eminent painters, he said, “That is by an artist; this by a genius. In the one you have the whole before you but nothing beyond; in the other the lines run off into infinity. You will never reach the people by teaching us as if you knew it all, and giving us our lesson as if we were children. If you wish to move us, you must make us feel that you see more than you are able to express, and that you think and know that there is an infinite height and depth beyond what you see. But you go to the brim of the great ocean, you dip your tumbler into it, you set it down before us, and you tell us ‘that’s the Ocean.'”

Well if it is true in general that a minister must first himself go to the ocean and then seek to lead his congregation to the same great deep, how much more in particular must this be true when both minister and congregation are face to face with the crucifixion of the Son of God.

Stop and think with me for a moment. Jesus Christ was God, the eternal second person of the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth, every moment that he was also a true and authentic human being in every respect except sin. While Jesus hung on the cross, when he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” He was in one respect praying to himself. It was his own wrath, his own justice, not only that of the Father and the Spirit, that he was enduring in his suffering and death. How is that possible? Where was the omnipotent God the Son when that same Son of God was breathing his last on that Roman gibbet outside Jerusalem that Friday afternoon?

Or consider this. We also know that the human nature and the divine nature exist together in the single person of the Son of God. There are not two Jesus Christs, there is always only but one! The two natures are distinct but inseparable in the person of the Lord. So how is it that Christ the man could die while the divine and eternal person all the while continued his deathless life? The entire impenetrable mystery of the person of Jesus Christ – the whole mystery of the incarnation of God the Son, his becoming God and man at once – encounters us here at the cross. But that mystery, so deep that we can hardly put our questions into words, is fundamental to the power of the cross to save us from our sins. A man must die, God cannot die; but his death must be of infinite value, to cover the infinite disvalue of the sins of untold numbers of human beings.

But we are just beginning. We know how great was the Father’s love for his son. We hear the echo of it in Paul’s great affirmation: “He who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all…” and again in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…” The unspoken premise in both statements is that the Father’s love for his son is so great that his willingness to send him to die for sinners is the indisputable proof of how great his love for us must be. But loving him as he did and having sent him to die, in precisely what way was the Father’s beloved Son abandoned by the Father? How could the son have thought himself abandoned by such a father? Especially when the divine person of the Son was not dying on the cross? Luther is supposed to have spent an hour at one sitting trying to work out an answer to that question and gave up baffled.

Or ponder this. Many have stumbled at this point. This one life given up in cruel death was sufficient to satisfy the debt of hundreds of millions, of billions of human beings! How is the weight of this death calculated that such could be true; indeed that it should be true, as Samuel Rutherford put it, there were there 10,000 worlds as full of sinners as this one, Christ’s death would still be sufficient to redeem them all. Who can tell us how the weight of sin is calculated, or the value of the blood of Jesus Christ? Nobody could see that as they witnessed the crucifixion.

We are hardly scratching the surface of the mystery of the cross. We have yet to ponder the fact that the Lord on the cross was not only suffering our penalty in our place, but he was obeying God’s law on our behalf – living to the very end that life of perfect obedience that not only qualified him as the eternal sacrifice, but gave us the righteousness in which eventually we would stand before God. Had he but once failed under the temptations that kept coming thick and fast while he hung on the cross; had he, in the private agony of his soul — an agony we know only was far, far greater than we have any true understanding of — I say, had he but once failed to think of others as more important than himself, had he once given vent to feelings of revenge toward those who were so terribly mistreating him, had he once resented the assignment his father had given him, he would have ceased to be the lamb without blemish and without spot and would not have that perfect righteous which becomes ours when we trust in him.

You might have thought that after all the years of suffering every conceivable manner of temptation to sin, and having to endure every one of those temptations to the bitter end; you might have thought that having for so long been the paramount interest of the Tempter himself, having borne the brunt of the full fury of Satan and the full force of his wiles, having to protect himself and steel himself every day and every night against Satan’s best efforts to unman him and destroy the work for which he came into the world; I say we might have thought that after a lifetime of this brutal, agonizing, wearying, spiritual resistance, this every second vigilance, the Lord might have at least been spared having to resist still more temptation while hanging in agony on the cross.

But, no; the temptations still come.  We are alerted to that fact in vv. 35-36 by Luke’s report of the challenges hurled at him first by the rulers and then by the detail of soldiers supervising the execution.  “If you are the Christ of God…”

Does that remind you of anything?  “If you are the Christ of God…; if you are the king of the Jews…”  That was the very challenge the Devil had hurled at the Lord during the forty days of his temptation in the wilderness at the very beginning of his public ministry three years before. Here is the Devil once more, denying, in the most sneering and abusive tone, the very truth for which the Lord had lived his life, the truth for which he had so cruelly suffered; the truth that alone made meaningful his own existence and now his cruel death.  “Satan is an acute theologian” said Calvin.  He knows exactly where to apply the pressure. “If you really are the Christ of God…”  And he could do nothing; say nothing…  He had to let the challenge go unmet, unanswered, though all around would draw from his silence a conclusion that was not only utterly false, but the ultimate humiliation of one who was the Christ of God though no one would believe it.

Don’t make Christ a stone.  He was a man hanging on that cross and he had to resist every temptation taken him with nothing other than those spiritual weapons common to man, to you and to me.  His name and his Father’s name were being dragged through the mud, his whole life and work were being made a joke while he hung naked and in agonizing pain on that Roman gibbet.  And he answered not a word. He resisted the Devil these few more times and resisted him to the end.  What concentration of mind and will, what unbelievable spiritual strength, what reservoirs of faith must be there below the surface that he could summon up obedience to his calling then and there with the wracking pain in his body distracting him as it must have distracted him, to meet still another temptation coming suddenly, unexpectedly, from out of the blue.

I am reading Dr. Allen Guelzo’s sparkling new account of the battle of Gettysburg. He includes lots of things other historians leave out perhaps particularly because Alan is a thoughtful, reformed Christian. In one part of the book he describes what happens in battle and how even very circumspect, godly men; men who never cursed, who never swore, who never used profane language, would in the heat of battle cut loose with a stream of profanity because they were scared to death and then would deny that they had done any such thing, deny that is until others told them that they had. And here is the Lord, in the midst of the greatest battle, the most terrifying struggle that ever occurred in the history of human life, resisting perfectly as he always had before. And not only to resisting, but conquering as he always had before.

“If thou’rt the Son of God,
(Oh, what an IF was there!)
These stones here, speak them into food,
And make that sonship clear.”

And so to the bitter end of his life, the Lord had to say to the Devil, over and over again, “it is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone…” “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God…” “Get behind me, Satan.” He had his chances to retire from the fight, even on the cross itself he was offered strong drink to dull his pain. He refused, not only because a priest must not take strong drink when ministering in the sanctuary [Lev. 10:9-10], but had he taken the drink we would have lost the seven utterances from the cross, the last gift he gave us, the last piece of that example he left for us to emulate. Words that have comforted and strengthened and consoled God’s people ever since.

There is an ocean here and no tumbler, no million tumblers, can begin to contain the deep that is the Son of God upon the cross for the salvation of the world. We hardly begin to know how, but there the world was delivered from doom to eternal life, from eternal misery to endless joy, from a world bereft of God to one bathed in the glory of his shining presence.

Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! Heart! Heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills;
For you the bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! Dear father!
This arm beneath your head
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse or will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and Done
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Some of you are older, many of you are young.  But your last day in this world will come alike to every one of you and sooner than anyone of you thinks. And all that you have worked for in this world and all that you have counted important and precious will fall away from your sight.  You will feel the whole world giving way under you. And, in your heart and mind, to the extent that you are in possession of your mental and spiritual powers, you will grasp at anything, anybody: the bedclothes, your wife’s hand, your son’s arm, the very air sometimes. What will there be then for you to hold on to?

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