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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 12 - Calvary

By James Stalker


      Anyone writing on the life of our Lord must many a time pause in secret and exclaim to himself, "It is high as heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know?" But we have now arrived at the point where this sense of inadequacy falls most oppressively on the heart. To-day we are to see Christ crucified. But who is worthy to look at this sight? Who is able to speak of it? "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain unto it." In the presence of such a subject one feels one's mind to be like some tiny creature at the bottom of the sea--as incapable of comprehending it all as is the crustacean of scooping up the Atlantic in its shell.

      This spot to which we have come is the centre of all things. Here two eternities meet. The streams of ancient history converge here, and here the river of modern history takes its rise. The eyes of patriarchs and prophets strained forward to Calvary, and now the eyes of all generations and of all races look back to it. This is the end of all roads. The seeker after truth, who has explored the realms of knowledge, comes to Calvary and finds at last that he has reached the centre. The weary heart of man, that has wandered the world over in search of perfect sympathy and love, at last arrives here and finds rest. Think how many souls every Lord's Day, assembled in church and chapel and meeting-house, are thinking of Golgotha! how many eyes are turned thither every day from beds of sickness and chambers of death! "Lord, to whom can we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

      Though, therefore, the theme is too high for us, yet we will venture forward. It is too high for human thought; yet nowhere else is the mind so exalted and ennobled. At Calvary poets have sung their sweetest strains, and artists seen their sublimest visions, and thinkers excogitated their noblest ideas. The crustacean lies at the bottom of the ocean, and the world of waters rolls above it; it cannot in its tiny shell comprehend these leagues upon leagues of solid translucent vastness; and yet the ocean fills its shell and causes its little body to throb with perfect happiness. And so, though we cannot take in all the meaning of the scene before which we stand, yet we can fill mind and heart with it to the brim, and, as it sends through our being the pulsations of a life divine, rejoice that it has a breadth and length, a height and depth, which pass understanding.

      I.

      The long journey through the streets to the place of execution was at length ended, and thereby the weary journeyings of the Sufferer came to a close. The soldiers set about their preparations for the last act. But meanwhile a little incident occurred which the behaviour of Jesus filled with significance.

      The wealthy ladies of Jerusalem had the practice of providing for those condemned to the awful punishment of crucifixion a soporific draught, composed of wine mixed with some narcotic like gall or myrrh,[1] to dull the senses and deaden the pain. It was a benevolent custom; and the cup was offered to all criminals, irrespective of their crimes. It was administered immediately before the frightful work of nailing the culprit to the tree commenced. This draught was handed to Jesus on His arrival at Golgotha. Exhausted with fatigue and burning with thirst, He grasped the cup eagerly and lifted it without suspicion to His lips. But, as soon as He tasted it and felt the fumes of the stupefying ingredient, He laid it down and would not drink.

      It was a simple act, yet full of heroism. He was in that extremity of thirst when a person will drink almost anything; and He was face to face with outrageous torture. In subsequent times many of His own faithful martyrs, on their way to execution, gladly availed themselves of this merciful provision. But He would not allow His intellect to be clouded. His obedience was not yet complete; His plan was not fully wrought out; He would keep His taste for death pure. I have heard of a woman dying of a frightful malady, who, when she was pressed by those witnessing her agony to take an intoxicating draught, refused, saying, "No, I want to die sober." She had caught, I think, the spirit of Christ.

      This is a very strange place in which to alight on the problem of the use and abuse of those products of nature or art which induce intoxication or stupefaction. Roots or juices with such properties have been known to nearly all races, the savage as well as the civilised; and they have played a great part in the life of mankind. Their history is one of the most curious. They are associated with the mysteries of false religions and with the phenomena of heathen prophecy and witchcraft; acting on the mind through the senses, they open up in it a region of mystery, horror and gloomy magnificence of which the normal man is unconscious. They have always been a favourite resource of the medical art, and in modern times, in such forms as opium and other better-known intoxicants, they have created some of the gravest moral problems.

      On the wide question of the use of such substances as stimulants we need not at present enter; it is to their use for the opposite purpose of lowering consciousness that this incident draws attention. That in some cases this use is both merciful and permissible will not be denied. The discovery in our own day, by one of our own countrymen, of the use of chloroform is justly regarded as among the greatest benefits ever conferred on the human race. When the unconsciousness thus produced enables the surgeon to perform an operation which might not be possible at all without it, or when in the crisis of a fever the sleep induced by a narcotic gives the exhausted system power to continue the combat and saves the life, we can only be thankful that the science of to-day has such resources in its treasury.

      On the other hand, however, there are grave offsets to these advantages. Millions of men and women resort to such substances in order to dull the nerves and cloud the brain during pain and sorrow which God intended them to face and bear with sober courage, as Jesus endured His on the cross. On the medical profession rests the responsibility of so using the power placed in their hands as not to destroy the dignity of the most solemn passages of life.[2] It will for ever remain true that pain and trial are the discipline of the soul; but to reel through these crises in the drowsy forgetfulness of intoxication is to miss the best chances of moral and spiritual development. Men and women are made perfect through suffering; but that suffering may do its work it must be felt. There is no greater misfortune than to bear too easily the strokes of God. A bereavement, for example, is sent to sanctify a home; but it may fail of its mission because the household is too busy, or because too many are coming and going, or because tongues, mistakenly kind and garrulous, chatter God's messenger out of doors. It is natural that physicians and kind friends should try to make sufferers forget their grief. But they may be too successful. Though the practice of the ladies of Jerusalem was a benevolent one, the gift mixed by their charitable hands appeared to our Lord a cup of temptation, and He resolutely put it aside.

      II

      All was now ready for the last act, and the soldiers started their ghastly work.

      It is not my intention to harrow up the feelings of my readers with minute descriptions of the horrors of crucifixion.[3] Nothing would be easier, for it was an unspeakably awful form of death. Cicero, who was well acquainted with it, says: "It was the most cruel and shameful of all punishments." "Let it never," he adds, "come near the body of a Roman citizen; nay, not even near his thoughts or eyes or ears." It was the punishment reserved for slaves and for revolutionaries, whose end was intended to be marked by special infamy.

      The cross was most probably of the form in which it is usually represented--an upright post crossed by a bar near the top. There were other two forms--that of the letter T and that of the letter X--but, as the accusation of Jesus is said to have been put up over His head, there must have been a projection above the bar on which His arms were outstretched. The arms were probably bound to the cross-beam, as without this the hands would have been torn through by the weight. And for a similar reason there was a piece of wood projecting from the middle of the upright beam, on which the body sat. The feet were either nailed separately or crossed the one over the other, with a nail through both. It is doubtful whether the body was affixed before or after the cross was elevated and planted in the ground. The head hung free, so that the dying man could both see and speak to those about the cross.

      In modern executions the greatest pains are taken to make death as nearly as possible instantaneous, and any bungling which prolongs the agony excites indignation and horror in the public mind. But the most revolting feature of death by crucifixion was that the torture was deliberately prolonged. The victim usually lingered a whole day, sometimes two or three days, still retaining consciousness; while the burning of the wounds in the hands and feet, the uneasiness of the unnatural position, the oppression of overcharged veins and, above all, the intolerable thirst were constantly increasing. Jesus did not suffer so long; but He lingered for four or five hours.

      I will not, however, proceed further in describing the sickening details. How far all these horrors may have been essential elements in His sufferings it would be difficult to say. Apart from the prophecies going before which had to be fulfilled, was it a matter of indifference what death He died? Would it have served equally well if He had been hanged or beheaded or stoned? We cannot tell. Only, when we know the secret of what His soul suffered, we can discern the fitness of the choice of the most shameful and painful of all forms of death for His body.[4]

      The true sufferings of Christ were not physical, but internal. Looking on that Face, we see the shadow of a deeper woe than smarting wounds and raging thirst and a racking frame--the woe of slighted love, of a heart longing for fellowship but overwhelmed with hatred; the woe of insult and wrong, and of unspeakable sorrow for the fate of those who would not be saved. Nor is even this the deepest shadow. There was then in the heart of the Redeemer a woe to which no human words are adequate. He was dying for the sin of the world. He had taken on Himself the guilt of mankind, and was now engaged in the final struggle to put it away and annihilate it. On the cross was hanging not only the body of flesh and blood of the Man Christ Jesus, but at the same time His mystical body--that body of which He is the head and His people are the members. Through this body also the nails were driven, and on it death took its revenge. His people died with Him unto sin, that they might live for evermore.

      This is the mystery, but it is also the glory of the scene. Till He hung on it, the cross was the symbol of slavery and vulgar wickedness; but He converted it into the symbol of heroism, self-sacrifice and salvation. It was only a wretched framework of coarse and blood-clotted beams, which it was a shame to touch; but since then the world has gloried in it; it has been carved in every form of beauty and every substance of price; it has been emblazoned on the flags of nations and engraved on the sceptres and diadems of kings.[5] The cross was planted on Golgotha a dry, dead tree; but lo! it has blossomed like Aaron's rod; it has struck its roots deep down to the heart of the world, and sent its branches upwards, till to-day it fills the earth, and the nations rest beneath its shadow and eat of its pleasant fruits.[6]

      III.

      At length the ghastly preparations were completed; and in the greedy eyes of Jewish hatred the Saviour, whom they had hunted to death with the ferocity of bloodhounds, was exposed to full view. But the first triumphant glance of priests, Pharisees and populace met with a violent check; for above the Victim's head they saw something which cut them to the heart.

      The practice of affixing to the apparatus of execution a description of the crime prevails in some countries to this day. In the Life of Gilmour of Mongolia there is a description of an execution which he witnessed in China; and in the cart which conveyed the condemned man to the scene of death a board was exhibited describing his misdeeds. The custom was a Roman one; and, besides, there was generally an official who walked in front of the procession of death and proclaimed the crimes of the condemned. No mention, however, of such a functionary appears in the Gospels; nor does the inscription appear to have been visible to all till it was affixed to the cross. It was fastened to the top of the upright beam; and Pilate made use of this opportunity to pay out the Jews for the annoyance they had caused him. He had parted from them in anger, for they had humiliated him; but he sent after them that which should be a drop of bitterness in their cup of triumph. When they were still at his judgment-seat, his last blow in his encounter with them had been to pretend to be convinced that Jesus really was their king. This insult he now prolonged by wording the inscription thus: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." It was as much as to say, This is what becomes of a Jewish king; this is what the Romans do with him; the king of this nation is a slave, a crucified criminal; and, if such be the king, what must the nation be whose king he is?

      So enraged were the Jews that they sent a deputation to the governor to entreat him to alter the words. No doubt he was delighted to see them; for their coming proved how thoroughly his sarcasm had gone home. He only laughed at their petition and, assuming the grand air of authority which became no man so well as a Roman, dismissed them with the words, "What I have written I have written."

      This looked like strength of will and character; but it was in reality only a covering for weakness. He had his will about the inscription--a trifle; but they had their will about the crucifixion. He was strong enough to browbeat them, but he was not strong enough to deny himself.

      Yet, though the inscription of Pilate was in his own mind little more than a revengeful jest, there was in it a Divine purpose. "What I have written I have written," he said; but, had he known, he might almost have said, "What I have written God has written." Sometimes and at some places the atmosphere is so charged and electric with the Divine that inspiration alights and burns on everything; and never was this more true than at the cross. Pilate had already unconsciously been almost a prophet when, pointing to Jesus, he said, "Behold the Man"--a word which still preaches to the centuries. And now, after being a speaking prophet, he becomes, as has been quaintly remarked, a writing one too; for his pen was guided by a supernatural hand to indite the words, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."

      It added greatly to the significance of the inscription that it was written in Hebrew and Greek and Latin. What Pilate intended thereby was to heighten the insult; he wished all the strangers present at the Passover to be able to read the inscription; for all of them who could read at all would know one of these three languages. But Providence intended something else. These are the three great languages of the ancient world--the representative languages. Hebrew is the tongue of religion, Greek that of culture, Latin the language of law and government; and Christ was declared King in them all. On His head are many crowns. He is King in the religious sphere--the King of salvation, holiness and love; He is King in the realm of culture--the treasures of art, of song, of literature, of philosophy belong to Him, and shall yet be all poured at His feet; He is King in the political sphere--King of kings and Lord of lords, entitled to rule in the social relationships, in trade and commerce, in all the activities of men. We see not yet, indeed, all things put under Him; but every day we see them more and more in the process of being put under Him. The name of Jesus is travelling everywhere over the earth; thousands are learning to pronounce it; millions are ready to die for it. And thus is the unconscious prophecy of Pilate still being fulfilled.

      [1] One Evangelist says gall, another myrrh, and on this difference harmonists and their antagonists have spent their time; but surely it is not worth while.

      [2] The distinction between the legitimate and the illegitimate use is not very easy to draw; but there is an obvious difference between destroying pain for an ulterior purpose and destroying it merely to save the feeling of the sufferer.

      [3] On the details of crucifixion there is an extremely interesting and learned excursus in Zoeckler's Das Kreus Christi (Beilage III.). Cicero's Verrine Orations contain a good deal that is valuable to a student of the Passion, especially in regard to scourging and crucifixion. Crucifixion was an extremely common form of punishment in the ancient world; but "the cross of the God-Man has put an end to the punishment of the crow."

      [4] Zoeckler maintains that crucifixion, while the most shameful, was not absolutely the most painful form of death.

      [5] The appreciation of the significance of the Cross has gone on in two lines--the Artistic and the Doctrinal--both of which arc followed out with varied learning in Zoeckler's Kreus Christi.

      The English reader may with great satisfaction trace the artistic development in Mrs. Jameson's History of our Lord as exemplified in Works of Art, where the following scheme is given of the varieties of treatment:--

      "Symbolical, when the abstract personifications of the sun and moon, earth and ocean, are present.

      "Sacrificially symbolical, when the Eucharistic cup is seen below the Cross, or the pelican feeding her young is placed above it.

      "Simply doctrinal, when the Virgin and St. John stand on each side, as solemn witnesses; or our Lord is drinking the cup, sometimes literally so represented, given Him of the Father, while the lance opens the sacramental font.

      "Historically ideal, as when the thieves are joined to the scene, and sorrowing angels throng the air.

      "Historically devotional, as when the real features of the scene are preserved, and saints and devotees are introduced.

      "Legendary, as when we see the Virgin fainting.

      "Allegorical and fantastic, as when the tree is made the principal object, with its branches terminating in patriarchs and prophets, virtues and graces.

      "Realistic, as when the mere event is rendered as through the eyes of an unenlightened looker-on.

      "These and many other modes of conception account for the great diversity in the treatment of this subject; a further variety being given by the combination of two or more of these modes of treatment together; for instance, the pelican may be seen above the Cross giving her life's blood for her offspring; angels in attitudes of despair, bewailing the Second Person of the Trinity; or, in an ideal sacramental sense, catching the blood from His wounds--the Jews below looking on, as they really did, with contemptuous gestures and hardened hearts; the centurion acknowledging that this was really the Son of God, while the group of the fainting Virgin, supported by the Marys and St. John, adds legend to symbolism, ideality, and history."

      In the study of the doctrinal development nothing is so important as the exegesis of the New Testament statements about the Cross; and this has been done in a masterly way by Dr. Dale in his work on the Atonement. What may be called the Philosophy of the Cross (to borrow a happy phrase of McCheyne Edgar's) came late. It is usually reckoned to have commenced with Anselm; and since the Reformation every great theologian has added his contribution. Yet the work is by no means completed. Indeed, at the present day there is no greater desideratum in theology than a philosophy of the Cross which would thoroughly satisfy the religious mind. Shallow theories abound; but the Church of Christ will never be able to rest in any theory which does not do justice, on the one hand, to the tremendously strong statements of Scripture on the subject and, on the other, to her own consciousness of unique and infinite obligation to the dying Saviour. Perhaps the most satisfactory expression of the Christian consciousness on the subject is to be found in the hymns of the Church, from the Te Deum down through Scotua Erigena and Fulbert of Chartres to Gerhardt and Toplady. See Schaff's Christ in Song.

      A third line of development might be traced--the Practical--in martyrology, the history of missions, asceticism, and the like; and the spokesman of this branch of the truth is a Kempis, who, as Zoeckler says, teaches his disciples to know poverty and humility as the roots of the tree of the Cross, labour and penitence as its bark, righteousness and mercy as its two principal branches, truth and doctrine as its precious leaves, chastity and obedience as its blossoms, temperance and discipline as its fragrance, and salvation and eternal life as its glorious fruit.

      [6] When the Northern nations became Christian they transferred to the Cross the nobler ideas embodied in the mystic tree Igdrasil; and one of the commonest ideas of the mystical writers of the Middle Ages is the identification of the Cross as both the true tree of life and the true tree of knowledge.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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