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Our Lord's Humility (15) - The Cross (2)
(Bible Study - April 2001)

Our previous study (Tidings, 3/01) concluded with the reminder our minds need to dwell constantly on our Lord’s example, especially during the period of his crucifixion. Reference has already been made to Matthew 16:24 in this connection ("If any man would come after me, let him deny himself…" RV as all quotes). However, the Lord had earlier declared to his disciples: "And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:38).

Those six hours on the cross, so brief, so apparently insignificant when viewed against the background of cosmic time, nevertheless occupy an all-important place in the divine purpose. Our redemption was achieved by the total surrender to the divine will by a member of the human race: where Adam failed, our Lord overcame and thus became the firstborn of a new family (Rom. 8:29).

As for the Lord himself, in making the Father’s will the law of his being, he did not merely ensure his resurrection: he was granted the supreme place, at his Father’s right hand, "having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him" (I Pet. 3:22; Eph. 1:17-23). Any exaltation God, in His grace, may bestow upon us is subject to our following the principles expressed in the life and death of our Lord. No one understood this fundamental truth more completely than the great Apostle, who said of himself to live was Christ, and therefore (as in the case of his Lord) to die would be gain (Phil. 1:21).

A fullness of grace
But the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was something more than putting the flesh to death. This was unquestionably true, for what conceivable satisfaction could the circumstances of the Lord’s crucifixion be to him or to us? Yet the Lord did more than endure the pain and the taunts: he revealed grace in its most sublime form.

Brief reference has already been made to that truly wonderful prayer, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). How easy it is to read those words and not pause to allow the mind to dwell upon the wonder of forgiveness they contain. It would appear, and this suggestion has already been made, the words were uttered early in the period of crucifixion. If the Lord had been preoccupied with his own condition, we would surely understand. But we are shown by him that redemption is not merely a theological concept: the one who put himself forward in the garden so that he alone would be arrested, and his followers go free (Jn. 18:4-9) is the one who can pray for the persecutors who are inflicting upon him so unjust and cruel a death. Redemption, while in the primary sense it is God’s work in and through His Son, becomes effective in ourselves only if we consciously endeavor to conform ourselves to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

Probably, if not certainly, the hardest part of the Sermon on the Mount to put into practice is the end of Matthew 5: "Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you" (v. 44), for in the process we are endeavouring to achieve the perfection of God Himself (v. 48). This can appear so completely idealistic as to be beyond our reach. But the Lord shows that this is not so: the victim of malice and venom of the most flagrant injustice, subjected to a barbarous form of execution, he can still pray for his persecutors.

He prayed for Jewish leaders
Some have difficulty in accepting the Lord is here praying for the Jewish leaders. As far as the soldiers were concerned who impaled him on the cross, they were merely carrying out their duty.

"For they know not what they do" -- these words give us a clue. There is no evidence Saul of Tarsus was an active party in the crucifixion but we can safely conclude he would have supported the Jewish leaders in their actions. Looking back on his career as a persecutor, Paul says, he did it "ignorantly and in unbelief" (I Tim. 1:13). In the early days of the gospel, Peter declared: "And now, brethren, I wot that in ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3:17).

Was the Lord’s prayer answered? Clearl, ignorance, with its fearful consequences, can be forgiven only if it is recognized and disowned by the guilty. Even so, if the offended party is not prepared to forgive, the one, or those who have offended have no opportunity to repair what they have done even if they repent. The Lord Jesus was graciously willing to do his part. But, alas, there were few among the Jewish leaders prepared to acknowledge their sin. However, the Lord’s plea for forgiveness was answered in the case of Saul of Tarsus. This ardent Pharisee was forgiven although he had to be deprived of his sight for three days in order to bring him finally to his senses (Acts 9:9).

Nevertheless, as a blasphemer and persecutor and injurious, he declared, "I obtained mercy…and the grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus." Then, again, as we consider the effect of the Lord’s prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors we need to take note of Acts 6:7: "And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." One wonders how many of these had earlier given their support to the persecution and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.

Stephen follows his Lord
We may well feel the Lord’s example of forgiveness is beyond us. But Luke, who alone preserves the Lord’s prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors, provides the unimpeachable evidence that one disciple consciously followed his Lord’s example. It is Luke who records the death of that beautiful character, Stephen, the first martyr. Brutally stoned, as he died, he prayed: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60).

One cannot but reflect: if the Lord’s example of forgiveness had been faithfully followed in our ecclesial and domestic history, how much strife would have been avoided, how many marriages saved. It is for each of us to see the challenge of the Lord’s example in our own case. Dwelling upon the faults, or failures of others, is the surest way of ensuring we are blind to our own.

Continued concern for others
A consideration of the exchanges between the Lord and the penitent thief has already occupied us: it is a moving example of forgiveness and redemption being carried out on the cross itself. Before we look at our Lord’s final words as recorded by Luke, we need to turn to the other gospels. Going first to John, we have seen precious details relating especially to the Lord’s trial are exclusively reported by the beloved disciple, because he was an eyewitness of what he reports (cf. I John 1:3).

It is John alone who recounts how the Lord on the cross feels compassion for his grieving mother, and entrusts her to John’s loving care. As ever, Jesus does not invite any pity for himself, but makes provision for Mary in her distress: "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 19:26,27).

While we are considering John’s record, we take note of the fact he alone mentions the Lord’s words: "I thirst" (v. 28), although Matthew and Mark also mention the incident (Matt. 27:48; Mk. 15:36). The Lord’s throat was parched and his thirst is a reminder of his human condition. At the well, he had asked the Samaritan woman to give him to drink (John 4:7). Now, he calls aloud, "I thirst."

My God, My God
One of the surprising features of Matthew and Mark’s records is they alone report the Lord’s cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). Moreover, these are the only words from the cross they report, although both refer to the final loud cry which accompanied the Lord’s death (Matt. 27:50; Mk. 15:37). Here we can appreciate the complementary character of the gospels: the additional details in Luke and John enable us to form a more complete picture of our Lord’s behaviour on the cross.

Yet what of the cry which appears to express the feeling of abandonment by his Father? What are we to say about this? It is a subject to be treated with the greatest sensitivity. We take note first of this: the cry was uttered near to the moment of death: "about the ninth hour" (Matt. 27:46). Mark is more precise, "at the ninth hour" (Mk. 15:34).

If the Lord, when we take full account of all that had happened to him, felt for the moment forsaken by his Father, who would marvel? Had he not revealed his full humanity in Gethsemane when, momentarily, he recoiled before the prospect of the cross? That is indisputable. If now in the actual experience of the cross, there is a feeling of abandonment, who could wonder? But it could not be anything more than a passing feeling.

Luke and John yet once more give us precious information which enables us to see the cry in a true perspective. The first tells us: "…when Jesus had cried with a loud voice [note the agreement with Matthew and Mark], he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Lk. 23:46). These words express no sense of abandonment: rather the contrary for the Lord knows he dies in the safekeeping of his Father. The occurrence of "Father" must not be missed: the Lord uses it in the first prayer ("Father forgive them") preserved by Luke and it recurs in Luke 23:46. As for John, who doubtless heard the Lord’s voice, he records: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit." There can be no kind of doubt: in his final moments, the Lord is in the most intimate communion with his Father.

It is finished
The work of redemption, of reconciliation, of submission and obedience to his Father’s will, all was finished. How there is full justification for the Lord’s claim: "I glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work thou has given me to do" (John 17:4).

It has not escaped the attention of any commentator that the words of dereliction from the beginning of Psalm 22, which foretells so many details of the crucifixion, constitutes a whole subject in itself. The Psalm, despite its opening (vv. 1,2) becomes a song of triumph, and proclaims at its conclusion that "a seed shall serve him…They shall come and declare his righteousness, unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this." By God’s grace, which never fails, we can be counted among this "seed."

We hope to offer some final reflections upon our Lord’s crucifixion in our next study.

Tom Barling

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