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Around the Cross

Category Articles
Date October 3, 2008

The child in the manger in Bethlehem, for whom there was no room in the inn, may have seemed powerless, but he was the Son of God. The angel had told Mary, his mother: ‘That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). Thus, while he was then altogether helpless in his human nature, he was in his divine nature exerting unlimited power; he was upholding the whole universe.

Apart from revelation, we could have no understanding of why the Son of God came into this world of sin and sorrow – especially when he was to be ‘a man of sorrows’ and subject to so many of the other consequences of sin, including death. But it is revealed in Scripture that he came as the sin-bearer, that the Father laid on him the iniquity of all whom he came to save. ‘The wages of sin is death’; so if sinners are not to receive these wages, the divine substitute must receive them instead. He must become ‘an offering for sin’; he must die as the substitute for sinners.

The divine purpose for the salvation of sinners was fulfilled in his sufferings and death, but human hands were involved. The soldiers in their unbelief took the infinitely holy one and crucified him. Then, we are told, ‘sitting down, they watched him there’ (Matt. 27:36). Their work, as they saw it, was over – except, perhaps, to keep a watchful eye over the scene.

The two men on either side of Jesus were common criminals; one of them confessed that they deserved to die. And on the cross in the centre, Jesus was indeed experiencing what the others suffered in their bodies, but he suffered also in his soul, and his sufferings and death had far greater significance. Guilt had been imputed to him, and his Father was inflicting on him that fearful extent of punishment which was necessary in order that he might atone for the sins of all his people. Yet the soldiers sat there, giving every appearance of being completely uninvolved, totally detached from what was taking place. The holy angels were no doubt worshipfully focused on the sufferings of the Son of God and the glory that was to follow, but these men showed no interest in these things. They had treated him with extreme callousness, and they felt no need to benefit from the redemption he was working out.

Many people over the centuries have come very near the cross of Christ – as they read about it in Scripture or heard it proclaimed in the preaching they were listening to – assuming they were actually listening. But they were more or less uninvolved; these things seemed no concern of theirs; they had no sense of sin, no consciousness that they would appear at last before a holy God; they did not recognise that the cross of Christ was more relevant to their needs than anything else they would ever hear about. And if sinners persist in their carelessness, they will perish for ever; if they go on despising Christ, they will be eternally lost.

There were others who mocked, as they passed the cross. ‘If thou be the Son of God,’ they cried, ‘come down from the cross.’ As he hung on the cross, apparently so helpless, it was easy for unbelieving minds to ignore all the evidence of his life which pointed so conclusively to the fact that he was indeed the Son of God. But this unbelief was nonetheless sinful. Here was one who, over a period of more than three years, had by his own power wrought many miracles – all pointing to the fact that he was divine. If now he hung in weakness on the cross, there must have been an explanation. And that explanation was accessible to them all; it was to be found in their Scriptures. For instance, Isaiah had spoken of Immanuel – God with us – who was to be born of a virgin, and this same person was to be esteemed ‘smitten of God, and afflicted’. ‘He was’, the prophet continues, ‘wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’ (53:5). He was smitten of God because he was the sin-bearer. The one named Immanuel was indeed the Son of God, and he had come into the world to save sinners.

The mass of detail with which Psalm 22 records the sufferings of Christ is altogether remarkable. For instance, Matthew 27:43 tells us that those passing by said, ‘He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if He will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God’. And Psalm 22:8 declares their words prophetically: ‘He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him’. But for the suffering Saviour to trust in God was to trust in the covenant promises of the Father. This he did; he trusted that he would be taken through his whole work of suffering for man’s redemption, and that he would be brought out on the other side of death. There was no possibility of him coming down from the cross, though nothing could have prevented him doing so if that had been his will. But he had committed himself to completing the work that had been entrusted to him, and he must therefore remain on the cross until he had drunk the whole cup of suffering, to the very dregs – until as the sinner’s substitute he had suffered all that was necessary to satisfy divine justice.

Today the Saviour is still mocked; his divinity is often rejected. He may be given the status of a good man, but to deny that he is more than a good man is to reject him in his most fundamental claims, for he most certainly is the Son of God in our nature. To ignore these claims is to reject the efficacy of the salvation he has provided. Unless he was the Son of God, his sufferings could have no merit. So those who will not submit to him as the Son of God are evidently still in their sins, and at last they will have to appear before him whom they now despise, to give an account of themselves and how they lived in this world.

Even while Christ hung on the cross, it was evident that his sufferings had merit – even for the sins of one who mocked. At first, both thieves crucified with Christ joined in the mockery. But while one of them continued to mock, the Holy Spirit began to work in the heart of the other. This man consequently turned to rebuke the first. ‘Dost not thou fear God,’ he asked, ‘seeing thou art in the same condemnation?’ (Luke 23:40). But he went on to confess the contrast with themselves: ‘We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds’. And he began to show clear signs of a spiritual understanding of the Saviour as ‘holy, harmless, and undefiled’, when he added: ‘But this man hath done nothing amiss’.

He was given grace to see that there was truth in the cynical wording of the notice placed on the cross of Jesus; the one in the midst was indeed a King, and he had a kingdom. The newly-reborn thief, in the springing up of spiritual desire, was seeking a place in that kingdom. He asked Jesus: ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom’. Such a desire will never be refused; it was evidence of genuine submission on the part of the thief, wrought in his heart by the Holy Spirit. ‘And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.’ He was already justified, and he would be received into heaven by his Saviour when his short period of walking in the narrow way was completed that very day.

It was a remarkable example of Christ’s power to save, even when ‘he was crucified through weakness’. That power has not changed. No doubt the devil assumed he had great freedom to tempt sinners around the cross, in the face of the weakness of the humanity of him who is the Son of God. Those who mocked him were fearfully guilty, but Satan was using them in his effort to triumph over the Saviour. Satan failed then, and he failed also in his attempt to bring down to a lost eternity the thief who did believe, for that man’s salvation was in the divine purpose. And in our time also, nothing can prevent the salvation of those whom the Lord wills to save. They may go far astray from what is right; they may oppose the truth; they may mock; they may do great wickedness; the devil may have a powerful hold over them. But the authority of the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are such that everyone whom the Father gave to the Son in the everlasting covenant will most certainly be saved; Christ’s word is sure: ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me’ – spiritually and savingly.

Did the centurion in charge of the soldiers at the cross so come to Christ? He and those that were with him made a remarkable confession after they saw the earthquake. They said: ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ (Matt. 27:54). Was this a merely-intellectual conviction forced on them by the terrifying circumstances in which they found themselves? Or was this a believing reaction of the same kind as was divinely wrought in the heart and mind of the saved thief? And the great fear they experienced, does it describe the holy response of a renewed heart to the law of God? Perhaps we cannot tell, for Christ himself warned: ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 7:21); there is more to true religion than using appropriate words. But Luke’s description of the centurion’s response is encouraging: ‘He glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man’ (23:47).

There was one final group about the cross whom we shall notice: the women. And when we read of ‘Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre’, we are not to think of them as uninvolved in what had happened. They were sincere believers; when even the disciples forsook their Master and fled, they did not. Certainly their respect for God’s law kept them away from the grave on the Sabbath, but early the next day they returned to the sepulchre where the Saviour had been buried. And they had their reward. The angel told them: ‘Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified’ (Matt. 28:5). They had come to where the Saviour was to be found, and they obtained a manifest blessing.

Many another has come in search of Christ, not to the grave, for it is now empty, but where they had good reason to believe they might meet him – to the Scriptures, for instance, to the preaching of the gospel and the throne of grace. There they have received an encouraging message from God himself, through these means of grace, assuring them that they need not fear. Because of the evidence of grace the Most High sees in their hearts – that they go on seeking the one who, as Peter had confessed, has ‘the words of eternal life’ – he assures them that he will never leave them. ‘We believe and are sure’, Peter had gone on to say, ‘that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God’ (John 6:69). That was the sincere expression of Peter’s regenerated heart. So, whatever weakness he showed before Christ was crucified, Peter soon rejoined the women in following the One who, he was more convinced than ever, is the Son of God. And to us also the Saviour says, ‘Follow me’.

Rev Kenneth D Macleod is pastor of a Free Presbyterian Church on the Isle of Harris, Scotland. He edits The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the July 2008 issue of which this Editorial is taken, with kind permission.

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