The Man on the Cross

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Luke 23:26-56 60 Hours That Changed the World: The Man on the Cross

Pretty Crosses
This week had Jean do a Google image search for “pretty crosses.” Here’s some of what she found:

This is a stained glass window in a cathedral in Europe. We couldn’t figure out where exactly, but it’s beautiful isn’t it?

If you’ve ever driven interstate 35 through Oklahoma, here’s a cross you might have noticed. This is a huge cross at Lifechurch in Edmond, OK. They light it up at night and you can see it for miles before you actually get to it.

Here’s a little piece of history. This is the Muirdach High Cross, from the ruins of a 9th Century monastery at Monastarboice, Ireland. This is considered one of Medieval Ireland’s greatest sculptures, and it is a great example of the Celtic cross.

And then, this comes from Shoreview Presbyterian Church in Shoreview, Minnesota. I don’t know anything about the church, but it is certainly a beautiful cross.

The cross has become a major symbol of Christianity. We put them outside church buildings and inside our sanctuaries. We hang them as decoration on our walls and wear them as jewelry around our neck and in our ears. In certain contexts—such as a natural disaster or a war—a red cross represents safety, healing and hope.

But here’s the thing, the cross did not start out as a beautiful thing. In the days of Jesus, the cross represented torture, pain, cursing and shame. It was a Roman invention, designed to humiliate and terrify their worst enemies. The cross represented “a protracted, bloody, public spectacle of extreme pain that usually ended in a horrible death by shock or asphyxiation.” (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, p. 198)

The cross was an execution device. The ancient equivalent of an electric chair or a gas chamber.

Let me invite you to do a little thought experiment. Most of you consider Hope Church to be your church. You like our worship, our programs, and the people you meet here. And to a certain extent, I take that to mean you like me. Or, at least, you can tolerate me. Or, at the very least you’re o.k. with the idea that I’m your pastor.

But now, here’s the thought experiment. Suppose something happened and I ended up in jail. Suppose there was trial and I was sentenced to die. Suppose they executed me in the electric chair.

Now, regardless of what I was convicted of, and regardless of your beliefs concerning my guilt or innocence, imagine how you would think of me after this. Imagine how, if you did speak about me, it would be in hushed tones. Imagine how it would feel if people came to you and said: “Hey, don’t you go to that church with the pastor who got the electric chair?” I imagine it would be a bit embarrassing. I imagine there would be a stigma.

Well, that’s what the cross represented in the days of Jesus. If anything, the sense of shame was even worse. There’s an Old Testament verse that says “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (Deut. 21:23) Anyone who ended up dying on a tree—whether with a noose around the neck or with arms nailed to a crossbeam—was considered to be beyond redemption. If you got to that point, the thinking was, you must have been pretty bad.

And yet, here we are 2,000 years later with crosses on our walls and around our necks and on the back bumpers of our cars. What happened?

It’s not because of the cross, obviously. Pretty it up as much as we want, the cross is still a terrible thing. Rather, it’s because of the man on the cross.

They Crucified Him
We are in a series called “60 Hours That Changed the World.” In the season of Lent, we’ve been following the passion story from Luke. We’ve been looking at the events that started with the Passover meal on Thursday night and run through the resurrection on Sunday morning. Just 60 hours in all. But 60 hours that changed the world.

And today, we’re going to look at what happened while Jesus was on the cross. We’re going to look at who Jesus is, even as He was dying.

Luke doesn’t give us a time marker for when Jesus was first hung on the cross, but Mark does. Mark 15:25 says: “It was the third hour when they crucified him.” That means it would have been 9am. “Third hour” means three hours after sunrise. So, 9:00.

Then Luke tells us, in our passage for today, that it was about the sixth hour—that is, noon--when darkness came over the land and it lasted until the ninth hour—which would be about 3pm. Again, 9 hours after sunrise equals about 3:00. Traditionally, scholars have said it was 3:00 that Jesus died. So that’s why our clock is set to 3 this morning.

So, all in all, Jesus was on the cross for about 6 hours. And I have 6 things—from our text—that we can learn about who Jesus is while He was on the cross. 6 things we must know about the man on the cross.

Should Jesus Have Saved Himself
First, the man on the cross is the forgiver of sin. Even as Jesus is being manhandled and pierced, we see that He was on a mission of forgiveness.

Let’s look at our text. Luke 23, starting at verse 32:

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The actual account of Jesus’ crucifixion—the description of it—is limited to just three words. “They crucified him.” If you want a sense of what Jesus’ physically endured, you’ll have to find ancient Roman accounts of crucifixion.

Luke’s concern is not so much how Jesus suffered, but how He responded to His suffering. He begins by praying for the forgiveness of those who are killing Him.

This is remarkable. The ancient accounts of crucifixion often mention cursing. Those who are dying usually do a lot of cursing. They curse the soldiers who are executing them. They curse the other criminals they fell in with. The curse their own mother and father. They curse God.

But Jesus doesn’t curse. He prays. And His prayer is that God will have mercy on those who are killing Him. It’s remarkable.

In the next verse, the people watching begin to mock Jesus. Verse 35:

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers, likewise, say: "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." (v. 37) And even one of the criminals dying next to him says: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (v. 39)

All of these people are saying basically the same thing: If Jesus is really who He claims to be, He ought to be able to snap His fingers and walk right off that cross. He saved others, why doesn't He save Himself?

And, if you’re familiar with the rest of Jesus’ story, maybe you’re asking the same thing. We know that He raised people like Lazarus back from the dead. We know that He has the ability to walk on water. We know He turned a handful of bread and fish into the world's largest buffet. Why doesn't He just take Himself off of the cross? It doesn't seem like it would be that hard for someone like Him.

The rulers and the soldiers and the thief thought the fact that Jesus did not save Himself proved that He couldn't. But we know better. We know that He could have. What we must conclude, then, is that Jesus did not save Himself because He did not want to.

He wasn’t there to save Himself, He was there to save us. He was there to forgive.

A Written Notice
The second thing we notice about the man on the cross is that He is the King of the Jews. Even as Jesus is being publicly humiliated, we find that the cross was actually His coronation throne. Verses 36-38:

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS

The heart of the charge against Jesus—remember—was that He was stirring up Israel against Rome. The Jewish authorities couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God. The Roman governor, Pilate, couldn’t allow anyone to threaten the power of Caesar.

And so, now that Jesus is dying, a written notice of His crime is placed on His cross as a warning to others.

The gospel writers, however, want us to catch the irony. For, even as the notice is meant to mock Jesus, it actually points to the truth. For this man now hanging bloody and battered on the cross…the one against whom the Jewish rulers and their angry followers are pouring out such venom and hatred…the one who looks so pathetic and helpless…IS in fact their rightful King. He is the one who created them. The one who sustains them. And the one who holds their ultimate destiny in their hands.

The gospel of John even gives us an additional detail. When the rulers read that the sign says “The King of the Jews” they object to Pilate and ask him to change it to say “This man claimed to be the king of the Jews”. Pilate’s answer is to say “What I have written, I have written.” Which tells us a couple things. One, Pilate was kind of a jerk. And, two, the sign is actually true.

The cross that appears to be the humiliation and destruction of Jesus is actually His coronation as King. It is even as He hangs dying that Jesus’ Kingdom is being ushered in.

A Last Minute Pardon
Third,** the man on the cross is the Promiser of Paradise**. Even as Jesus is being strangled to death, we see that He holds the keys to heaven. Verses 39-41:

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

The two thieves are a fascinating contrast. The first thief acts the way a crucified man would be expected to act. He’s cursing everybody. So he figures he might as well curse Jesus too.

But not the second thief. Somehow, he gets it. Somehow, he sees that there is something different about Jesus. So, right here on a torture device, just moments before his death, he comes to faith. He fears God. He admits his guilt. He agrees that he has no merit whatsoever. He recognizes that he deserves to die.

And then, he recognizes Jesus as the giver of life. Verse 42:

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus is no ordinary man. The book of Revelation tells us that He holds the keys to death and Hades. (Rev. 1:18) He’s the one who has the ability to grant entrance into heaven or deny it. Part of what is happening on the cross is that this is being made clear to everyone.

Well Might the Sun in Darkness Hide
Fourth, the man on the cross is the Lord of Creation. Even as Jesus’ body is breaking down, all of nature hides its face from its Maker’s destruction. Verse 44:

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.

For the final three hours of Jesus’ life, the world goes dark.

And, the thing is, this was no ordinary darkness. Luke tells us that "the sun stopped shining." We don’t get a lot of detail. But there’s no natural explanation for this. Solar eclipses do not last 3 hours. The fact that Passover occurs during the wet season makes a dust storm unlikely. And the fact that this happens at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion leaves no doubt that this is not coincidence.

The question, then, is why? Why did the sun go dark? Why, as Matthew tells us, did the earth shake?

I think that it was because the very hands that had made them were even then nailed to a cross. I think that it was because their architect was dying. It is my contention that the sun went dark because it was mourning the death of its creator.

At the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is called the Word, and we’re told that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:4) Jesus is the agent of creation. He’s the sustainer of the universe. And now He was dying.

In the hymn Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed? Isaac Watts writes;

"Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut his glories in, 
When Christ, the great Redeemer died for man the creature's sin."

I don't think it is an accident, or a coincidence. Darkness covered the whole land as Jesus died so that we would see that the Man on the cross is none other than the One who rules the sun, the star, and the skies.

Through the Curtain
There’s another strange occurrence at this time, and it leads to our fifth point. The Man on the Cross is the Go-Between. Even as Jesus is accursed, He is opening a new way to God. Verse 45:

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

Old Testament worship took place in a structure with two rooms—it was the same for both the tabernacle and the temple. The first room was called the Holy Place and was a room the priests could enter and burn the incense for prayers. But the second room—the Holy of Holies—was off limits. That was where the Ark was kept and God’s presence was said to reside. It was only entered once a year, by the High Priest, and even then he went in with a rope tied around his waist—just in case something went wrong.

In between the two rooms hung a heavy curtain.

Israel's entire history had been dominated by that curtain. They believed that God was in their midst, but they also knew they were separated from Him. The curtain was a constant reminder that they needed sacrifices and priests in order to draw near to God. Without the go-between of the priests and the sacrifices and the temple, there was no way to worship.

But now, as Jesus is dying, the curtain is torn in two. The other gospel writers tell us that it was ripped from the top to the bottom. Again, no mere coincidence. And not the work of pranksters. This is God Himself tearing away the veil that has always separated Him from His people.

As Jesus died, anyone who wanted to could peer into the Holy of Holies. Suddenly there was no separation between the people and the presence of God. And what this meant symbolically is also what was happening in reality.

Jesus is the new go-between. Through him we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place. We don’t need priests. We don’t need temples. In Jesus, because of the cross, we all have access to God.

Pagans Praising God
Then, sixth, the Man on the Cross is the Righteous Man. Even as Jesus takes His final breath, it is a pagan soldier who recognizes who He really is. Verses 46-48:

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.

The climactic moment in the story of Jesus' death is reserved for a non-believing pagan.

As you know, it was a group of Roman Soldiers--under Pontius Pilate's authority--who carried out the crucifixion. The officer in charge would have held the rank of Centurion. In all likelihood this was a man who was a veteran of several wars and who had probably participated in his fair share of crucifixions. He would have been an irreligious man--perhaps a believer in the Roman gods but without any real knowledge of the God of Israel or the Old Testament law. His job was to kill people, and by all accounts that was something Roman soldiers were very good at.

But now, towards the end of what should have been a rather routine execution, something strange happens. This grizzled, calloused soldier standing at the foot of Jesus' cross watches Him die and begins to praise God and exclaim "Surely this was a righteous man" and (according to Matthew and Mark) "Truly this man was the Son of God!"

Maybe it was the darkening of the sun, maybe it was the way Jesus reacted to the people who were mocking Him, maybe it was what He said to the thief on the cross next to Him, maybe it was the way He so confidently entrusted His spirit into His Father's care, maybe it was something else; but whatever it was, what this soldier saw was enough to convince him that Jesus was innocent.

As I said, this is the climactic moment in the story of Jesus' death. For Luke it is the final piece in the puzzle that proves that Jesus did not deserve to die. Remember, Pilate did not want to condemn Jesus. He found no basis for the charges against Him. Neither did Herod Antipas. They recognized Jesus' innocence. So did the thief on the cross next to Him. Now even this godless, cruel soldier sees it. Jesus was a righteous man. He did not deserve to die.

Even the crowds watching the crucifixion must have come to this conclusion. Why would they beat their breasts unless they realized they had just seen an innocent man die?

Clearly, it was not for His own sins that Jesus died on the cross. He could have saved Himself, but He had another purpose. He was there for people like the thief on the cross, and for this soldier. He was there for people like you, and for me. This man—the Lord of Creation and the rightful King of not only the Jews, but the entire universe, died on the cross so that He could create a new access to God for us. He died to forgive us. To open the door to paradise.

What Does the Cross Look Like to You?
So, the question now is: What does the cross look like to you?

On the one hand, we should see a cruel instrument of torture.

In the 2000 years since Jesus we've sanitized the cross quite a bit. We gussy up crosses for our sanctuary. We make them out of fine wood and we varnish them and set them up with lights. We fashion them out of gold and wear them around our necks. We make them very large and set them on top of church steeples.

And that's fine. There isn't anything wrong with that. But we must not forget what the cross really is. We must not forget what our Lord went through. We must not forget how horrible His death really was.

On the other hand, we should see Christ's love when we look at the cross.

This is why we wear the cross as jewelry, this is why we put it on top of our church steeples, this is why we sing songs about it. The cross represents Jesus' love for the world. It represents forgiveness. It represents an open door to paradise.

Even with His last, dying breaths Jesus was more concerned about others than He was about Himself. He didn't just snap His fingers and walk off the cross because He had come to save others.

So the question is: Is that what you see when you look at the cross? Do you see Jesus' love for you? Do you see His sacrifice on your behalf?

The season of Easter is a time for making decisions about Jesus Christ. He suffered and died, He made forgiveness possible, He opened the door to eternity, and--as we'll talk about next week--He came back to life. He invites us to put our faith in Him. He invites us to come to Him and trust Him for salvation.

If you have never done that before, I urge you to give your life to Him today. 2000 years ago, He gave His life for you. Now is your chance to return the favor. Surrender to Him. Accept the gift He is offering.

And if you do already believe in Jesus, I invite you to thank Him again for what He has done for you. The cross represents the greatest love you will ever experience. Not because of the cross itself, but because of the man who died upon it.