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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross

By James Stalker


      In the last chapter we saw the Son of Man nailed to the cursed tree. There He hung for hours, exposed, helpless, but conscious, looking out on the sea of faces assembled to behold His end. On the occasion of an execution a crowd gathers outside our jails merely to see the black flag run up which signals that the deed is done; and in the old days of public executions such an event always attracted an enormous crowd. No doubt it was the same in Jerusalem. When Jesus was put to death, it was Passover time, and the city was filled with multitudes of strangers, to whom any excitement was welcome. Besides, the case of Jesus had stirred both the capital and the entire country.[1]

      The sight which the crowd had come to see was, we now know, the greatest ever witnessed in the universe. Angels and archangels were absorbed in it; millions of men and women are looking back to it to-day and every day. But what impressions did it make on those who saw it at the time? To ascertain this, let us look at three characteristic groups near the cross, whose feelings were shared in varying degrees by many around them.

      I.

      Look, first, at the group nearest the cross--that of the Roman soldiers.

      In the Roman army it seems to have been a rule that, when executions were carried out by soldiers, the effects of the criminals fell as perquisites to those who did the work. Though many more soldiers were probably present on this occasion, the actual details of fixing the beam, handling the hammer and nails, hoisting the apparatus, and so forth, in the case of Jesus, fell to a quaternion of them. To these four, therefore, belonged all that was on Him; and they could at once proceed to divide the spoil, because in crucifixion the victim was stripped before being affixed to the cross--a trait of revolting shame.[2] A large, loose upper garment, a head-dress perhaps, a girdle and a pair of sandals, and, last of all, an under garment, such as Galilean peasants were wont to wear, which was all of a piece and had perhaps been knitted for Him by the loving fingers of His mother--these articles became the booty of the soldiers. They formed the entire property which Jesus had to leave, and the four soldiers were His heirs. Yet this was He who bequeathed the vastest legacy that ever has been left by any human being--a legacy ample enough to enrich the whole world. Only it was a spiritual legacy--of wisdom, of influence, of example.

      The soldiers, their ghastly task over, sat down at the foot of the cross to divide their booty. They obtained from it not only profit but amusement; for, after dividing the articles as well as they could, they had to cast lots about the last, which they could not divide. One of them fetched some dice out of his pocket--gambling was a favourite pastime of Roman soldiers--and they settled the difficulty by a game. Look at them--chaffering, chattering, laughing; and, above their heads, not a yard away, that Figure. What a picture! The Son of God atoning for the sins of the world, whilst angels and glorified spirits crowd the walls of the celestial city to look down at the spectacle; and, within a yard of His sacred Person, the soldiers, in absolute apathy, gambling for these poor shreds of clothing! So much, and no more, did they perceive of the stupendous drama they were within touch of. For it is not only necessary to have a great sight to make an impression; quite as necessary is the seeing eye. There are those to whom this earth is sacred because Jesus Christ has trodden it; the sky is sacred because it has bent above Him; history is sacred because His name is inscribed on it; the daily tasks of life are all sacred because they can be done in His name. But are there not multitudes, even in Christian lands, who live as if Christ had never lived, and to whom the question has never occurred, What difference does it make to us that Jesus died in this world of which we are inhabitants?

      II.

      Look now at a second group, much more numerous than the first, consisting of the members of the Sanhedrim.

      After condemning Jesus in their own court, they had accompanied Him through stage after stage of His civil trial, until at last they secured His condemnation at the tribunal of Pilate. When at last He was handed over to the executioners, it might have been expected that they would have been tired of the lengthy proceedings and glad to escape from the scene. But their passions had been thoroughly aroused, and their thirst for revenge was so deep that they could not allow the soldiers to do their own work, but, forgetful of dignity, accompanied the crowd to the place of execution and stayed to glut their eyes with the spectacle of their Victim's sufferings. Even after He was lifted up on the tree, they could not keep their tongues off Him or give Him the dying man's privilege of peace; but, losing all sense of propriety, they made insulting gestures and poured on Him insulting cries. Naturally the crowd followed their example, till not only the soldiers took it up, but even the thieves who were crucified with Him joined in. So that the crowd under His eyes became a sea of scorn, whose angry waves dashed up about His cross.

      The line taken was to recall all the great names which He had claimed, or which had been applied to Him, and to contrast them with the position in which He now was. "The Son of God," "The Chosen of God," "The King of Israel," "The Christ," "The King of the Jews," "Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days"--with these epithets they pelted Him in every tone of mockery. They challenged Him to come down from the cross and they would believe Him. This was their most persistent cry--He had saved others, but Himself He could not save. They had always maintained that it was by the power of devils He wrought His miracles; but these evil powers are dangerous to palter with; they may lend their virtue for a time, but at last they appear to demand their price; at the most critical moment they leave him who has trusted them in the lurch. This was what had happened to Jesus; now at last the wizard's wand was broken and He could charm no more.

      As they thus poured out the gall which had long been accumulating in their hearts, they did not notice that, in the multitude of their words, they were using the very terms attributed in the twenty-second Psalm to the enemies of the holy Sufferer: "He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him; for He said, I am the Son of God." Cold-blooded historians have doubted whether they could have made such a slip without noticing it; but, strange to say, there is an exact modern parallel. When one of the Swiss reformers was pleading before the papal court, the president interrupted him with the very words of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrim: "He hath spoken blasphemy: what further need have we of witnesses? What think ye?" and they all answered, "He is worthy of death"; without noticing, till he reminded them, that they were quoting Scripture.[3]

      Jesus might have answered the cries of His enemies; because to one hanging on the cross it was possible not only to hear and see, but also to speak. However, He answered never a word--"when He was reviled, He reviled not again," "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth." This was not, however, because He did not feel. More painful than the nails which pierced His body were these missiles of malice shot at His mind. The human heart laid bare its basest and blackest depths under His very eyes; and all its foul scum was poured over Him.

      Was it a temptation to Him, one wonders, when so often from every side the invitation was given Him to come down from the cross? This was substantially the same temptation as was addressed to Him at the opening of His career, when Satan urged Him to cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple. It had haunted Him in various forms all His life through. And now it assails Him once more at the crisis of His fate. They thought His patience was impotence and His silence a confession of defeat. Why should He not let His glory blaze forth and confound them? How easily He could have done it! Yet no; He could not. They were quite right when they said, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save." Had He saved Himself, He would not have been the Saviour. Yet the power that kept Him on the cross was a far mightier one than would have been necessary to leave it. It was not by the nails through His hands and feet that He was held, nor by the ropes with which His arms were bound, nor by the soldiers watching Him; no, but by invisible bands--by the cords of redeeming love and by the constraint of a Divine design.

      Of this, however, His enemies had no inkling. They were judging Him by the most heathenish standard. They had no idea of power but a material one, or of glory but a selfish one. The Saviour of their fancy was a political deliverer, not One who could save from sin. And to this day Christ hears the cry from more sides than one, "Come down from the cross, and we will believe Thee." It comes from the spiritually shallow, who have no sense of their own unworthiness or of the majesty and the rights of a holy God. They do not understand a theology of sin and punishment, of atonement and redemption; and all the deep significance of His death has to be taken out of Christianity before they will believe it. It comes, too, from the morally cowardly and the worldly-minded, who desire a religion without the cross. If Christianity were only a creed to believe, or a worship in whose celebration the aesthetic faculty might take delight, or a private path by which a man might pilgrim to heaven unnoticed, they would be delighted to believe it; but, because it means confessing Christ and bearing His reproach, mingling with His despised people and supporting His cause, they will have none of it. None can honour the cross of Christ who have not felt the humiliation of guilt and entered into the secret of humility.

      III.

      Let our attention now be directed to a third group. And again it is a comparatively small one.

      As the eyes of Jesus wandered to and fro over the sea of faces upturned to His own--faces charged with every form and degree of hatred and contempt--was there no point on which they could linger with satisfaction? Yes, among the thorns there was one lily. On the outskirts of the crowd there stood a group of His acquaintances and of the women who followed Him from Galilee and ministered unto Him. Let us enumerate their honoured names, as far as they have been preserved--"Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses [Transcriber's note: Joseph?], and the mother of Zebedee's children."

      Their position, "afar off," probably indicates that they were in a state of fear. It was not safe to be too closely identified with One against whom the authorities cherished such implacable feelings; and they may have been quite right not to make themselves too conspicuous. Apart from the danger to which they might be exposed, they had a whole tempest of trouble in their hearts. As yet they knew not the Scriptures that He must rise again from the dead; and this collapse of the cause in which they had embarked their all for time and for eternity was a bewildering calamity. They had trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel, and that He would live and reign over the redeemed race forever. And there He was, perishing before their eyes in defeat and shame. Their faith was at the very last ebb. Or say, rather, it survived only in the form of love. Bewildered as were their ideas, He had as firm a hold as ever on their hearts. They loved Him; they suffered with Him; they could have died for Him.

      May we not believe that the eyes of Jesus, as long as they were able to see, turned often away from the brutal soldiers beneath His feet, and from the sea of distorted faces, to this distant group? In some respects, indeed, their aspect might be more trying to Him than even the hateful faces of His enemies; for sympathy will sometimes break down a strong heart that is proof against opposition. Yet this neighbourly sympathy and womanly love must, on the whole, have been a profound comfort and support. He was sustained all through His sufferings by the thought of the multitudes without number who would benefit from what He was enduring; but here before His eyes was an earnest of His reward; and in them He saw of the travail of His soul and was satisfied.

      In these three groups, then, we see three predominant states of mind--in the soldiers apathy, in the Sanhedrim antipathy, in the Galileans sympathy.

      Has it ever occurred to you to ask in which group you would have been had you been there? This is a searching question. Of course it is easy now to say which were right and which were wrong. It is always easy to admire the heroes and the causes of bygone days; but it is possible to do so and yet be apathetic or antipathetic to those of our own. Even the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross admired Romulus and Cincinnatus and Brutus, though they had no feeling for One at their side greater than these. The Jews who were mocking Christ admired Moses and Samuel and Isaiah. Christ is still bearing His cross through the streets of the world, and is hanging exposed to contempt and ill-treatment; and it is possible to admire the Christ of the Bible and yet be persecuting and opposing the Christ of our own century. The Christ of to-day signifies the truth, the cause, the principles of Christ, and the men and women in whom these are embodied. We are either helping or hindering those movements on which Christ has set His heart; often, without being aware of it, men choose their sides and plan and speak and act either for or against Christ. This is the Passion of our own day, the Golgotha of our own city.

      But it comes nearer than this. The living Christ Himself is still in the world: He comes to every door; His Spirit strives with every soul. And He still meets with these three kinds of treatment--apathy, antipathy, sympathy. As a magnet, passing over a heap of objects, causes those to move and spring out of the heap which are akin to itself, so redeeming love, as revealed in Christ, passing over the surface of mankind century after century, has the power so to move human hearts to the very depths that, kindling with admiration and desire, they spring up and attach themselves to Him. This response may be called faith, or love, or spirituality, or what you please; but it is the very test and touchstone of eternity, for it is separating men and women from the mass and making them one for ever with the life and the love of God.

      [1] Keim strangely surmises that there was no great crowd; but this is impossible.

      [2] As, however, the Jews would have objected to this, Edersheim argues--but not convincingly--that there must have been at least a slight covering.

      [3] Sueskind, Passionsschule, in loc.

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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