By James Stalker
In the last chapter we saw the impressions made by the crucifixion on the different groups round the cross. On the soldiers, who did the deed, it made no impression at all; they were absolutely blind to the wonder and glory of the scene in which they were taking part. On the members of the Sanhedrim, and the others who thought with them, it had an extraordinary effect: the perfect revelation of goodness and spiritual beauty threw them into convulsions of angry opposition. Even the group of the friends of Jesus, standing afar off, saw only a very little way into the meaning of what was taking place before their eyes: the victory of their Master over sin, death and the world appeared to them a tragic defeat. So true is it, as I said, that, when something grand is to be seen, there is required not only the object but the seeing eye. The image in a mirror depends not only on the object reflected but on the quality and the configuration of the glass.
We wish, however, to see the scene enacted on Calvary in its true shape; and where shall we look? There was one mind there in which it was mirrored with perfect fidelity. If we could see the image of the crucifixion in the mind of Jesus Himself, this would reveal its true meaning.
But in what way can we ascertain how it appeared to Him, as from His painful station He looked forth upon the scene? The answer is to be found in the sentences which he uttered, as He hung, before His senses were stifled by the mists of death. These are like windows through which we can see what was passing in His mind. They are mere fragments, of course; yet they are charged with eternal significance. Words are always photographs, more or less true, of the mind which utters them; these were the truest words ever uttered, and He who uttered them stamped on them the image of Himself.
They are seven in number, and it will be to our advantage to linger on them; they are too precious to be taken summarily. The sayings of the dying are always impressive. We never forget the deathbed utterances of a parent or a bosom friend; the last words of famous men are treasured for ever. In Scripture Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and other patriarchal men are represented as having risen on their deathbeds far above themselves and spoken in the tones of a higher world; and in all nations a prophetic importance has been attached to the words of the dying. Now, these are the dying words of Christ; and, as all His words are like gold to silver in comparison with those of other men, so these, in comparison with the rest of His words, are as diamonds to gold.
In the First Word three things are noticeable--the Invocation, the Petition, and the Argument.
It was not unusual for crucified persons to speak on the cross; but their words usually consisted of wild expressions of pain or bootless entreaties for release, curses against God or imprecations on those who had inflicted their sufferings. When Jesus had recovered from the swooning shock occasioned by the driving of the nails into His hands and feet, His first utterance was a prayer, and His first word "Father."
Was it not an unintentional condemnation of those who had affixed Him there? It was in the name of religion they had acted and in the name of God; but which of them was thus impregnated through and through with religion? which of them could pretend to a communion with God so close and habitual? Evidently it was because prayer was the natural language of Jesus that at this moment it leapt to His lips. It is a suspicious case when in any trial, especially an ecclesiastical one, the condemned is obviously a better man than the judges.
The word "Father," further, proved that the faith of Jesus was unshaken by all through which He had passed and by that which He was now enduring. When righteousness is trampled underfoot and wrong is triumphant, faith is tempted to ask if there is really a God, loving and wise, seated on the throne of the universe, or whether, on the contrary, all is the play of chance. When prosperity is turned suddenly into adversity and the structure of the plans and hopes of a life is tumbled in confusion to the ground, even the child of God is apt to kick against the Divine will. Great saints have been driven, by the pressure of pain and disappointment, to challenge God's righteousness in words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. But, when the fortunes of Jesus were at the blackest, when He was baited by a raging pack of wolf-like enemies, and when He was sinking into unplumbed abysses of pain and desertion, He still said "Father."
It was the apotheosis of faith, and to all time it will serve as an example; because it was gloriously vindicated. If ever the hand of the Creator seemed to be withdrawn from the rudder of the universe, and the course of human affairs to be driving down headlong into the gulf of confusion, it was when He who was the embodiment of moral beauty and worth had to die a shameful death as a malefactor. Could good by any possibility rise out of such an abyss of wrong? The salvation of the world came out of it; all that is noblest in history came out of it. This is the supreme lesson to God's children never to despair. All may be dark; everything may seem going to rack and ruin; evil may seem to be enthroned on the seat of God; yet God liveth; He sits above the tumult of the present; and He will bring forth the dawn from the womb of the darkness.
The prayer which followed this invocation was still more remarkable: it was a prayer for the pardon of His enemies.
In the foregoing pages we have seen to what kind of treatment He was subjected from the arrest onwards--how the minions of authority struck and insulted Him, how the high priests twisted the forms of law to ensnare Him, how Herod disdained Him, how Pilate played fast and loose with His interests, how the mob howled at Him. Our hearts have burned with indignation as one depth of baseness has opened beneath another; and we have been unable to refrain from using hard language. The comment of Jesus on it all was, "Father, forgive them."
Long ago, indeed, He had taught men, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." But this morality of the Sermon on the Mount had been considered, as the world still inclines to consider it, a beautiful dream. There have been many teachers who have said such beautiful things; but what a difference there is between preaching and practice! When you have been delighted with the sentiments of an author, it is frequently well that you know no more about him; because, if you chance to become acquainted with the facts of his own life, you experience a painful disillusionment. Have not students even of our own English literature in very recent times learned to be afraid to read the biographies of literary men, lest the beautiful structure of sentiments which they have gathered from their writings should be shattered by the truth about themselves? But Jesus practised what He taught. He is the one teacher of mankind in whom the sentiment and the act completely coincide. His doctrine was the very highest: too high it often seems for this world. But how much more practical it appears when we see it in action. He proved that it can be realised on earth when on the cross He prayed, "Father, forgive them."
Few of us, perhaps, know what it is to forgive. We have never been deeply wronged; very likely many of us have not a single enemy in the world. But those who have are aware how difficult it is; perhaps nothing else is more difficult. Revenge is one of the sweetest satisfactions to the natural heart. The law of the ancient world was, at least in practice, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy." Even saints, in the Old Testament, curse those who have persecuted and wronged them in terms of uncompromising severity. Had Jesus followed these and, as soon as He was able to speak, uttered to His Father a complaint in which the conduct of His enemies was branded in the terms it deserved, who would have ventured to find fault with Him? Even in that there might have been a revelation of God; because in the Divine nature there is a fire of wrath against sin. But how poor would such a revelation have been in comparison with the one which He now made. All His life He was revealing God; but now His time was short; and it was the very highest in God He had to make known.
In this word Christ revealed Himself; but at the same time He revealed the Father. All His life long the Father was in Him, but on the cross the divine life and character flamed in His human nature like the fire in the burning bush. It uttered itself in the word; "Father, forgive them"; and what did it tell? It told that God is love.
The expiring Saviour backed up His prayer for the forgiveness of His enemies with the argument--"For they know not what they do."
This allows us to see further still into the divine depths of His love. The injured are generally alive only to their own side of the case; and they see only those circumstances which tend to place the conduct of the opposite party in the worst light. But at the moment when the pain inflicted by His enemies was at the worst Jesus was seeking excuses for their conduct.
The question has been raised how far the excuse which He made on their behalf applied. Could it be said of them all that they knew not what they were doing? Did not Judas know? did not the high priests know? did not Herod know? Apparently it was primarily to the soldiers who did the actual work of crucifixion that Jesus referred; because it was in the very midst of their work that the words were uttered, as may be seen in the narrative of St. Luke. The soldiers, the rude uninstructed instruments of the government, were the least guilty among the assailants of Jesus. Next to them, perhaps, came Pilate; and there were different stages and degrees down, through Herod and the Sanhedrim, to the unspeakable baseness of Judas. But St. Peter, in the beginning of Acts, expressly extends the plea of ignorance so far as to cover even the Sanhedrists--"And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers"--and who will believe that the heart of the Saviour was less comprehensive than that of the disciple?
Let us not be putting limits to the divine mercy. It is true of every sinner, in some measure, that he knows not what he does. And to a true penitent, as he approaches the throne of mercy, it is a great consolation to be assured that this plea will be allowed. Penitent St. Paul was comforted with it: "God had mercy on me, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." God knows all our weakness and blindness; men will not make allowance for it or even understand it; but He will understand it all, if we come to hide our guilty head in His bosom.
Of course this blessed truth may be perverted by an impenitent heart to its own undoing. There is no falser notion than that expressed in the French proverb, Tout comprendre est tout pardonner (To understand everything is to pardon everything), for it means that man is the mere creature of circumstances and has no real responsibility for his actions. How far our Lord was from this way of thinking is shown by the fact that He said, "Forgive them." He knew that they needed forgiveness; which implies that they were guilty. Indeed, it was His vivid apprehension of the danger to which their guilt exposed them that made Him forget His own sufferings and fling Himself between them and their fate.
It has been asked, Was this prayer answered? were the crucifiers of Jesus forgiven? To this it may be replied that a prayer for forgiveness cannot be answered without the co-operation of those prayed for. Unless they repent and seek pardon for themselves, how can God forgive them? The prayer of Jesus, therefore, meant that time should be granted them for repentance, and that they should be plied with providences and with preaching, to awaken their consciences. To punish so appalling a crime as the crucifixion of His Son, God might have caused the earth to open on the spot and swallow the sinners up. But no judgment of the kind took place. As Jesus had predicted, Jerusalem perished in indescribable throes of agony; but not till forty years after His death; and in this interval the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost took place, and the apostles began their preaching of the kingdom at Jerusalem, urgently calling the nation to repentance. Nor was their work in vain; for thousands believed. Even before the scene of the crucifixion terminated, one of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus, who had taken part in reviling Him, was converted; and the centurion who superintended the execution confessed Him as the Son of God. After all was over, multitudes who had beheld the sight went away smiting their breasts. We have no reason to doubt, therefore, that even in this direct sense the prayer received an abundant answer.
But this was a prayer of a kind which may also be answered indirectly. Besides the effect which prayer has in procuring specific petitions, it acts reflexly on the spirit of the person who offers it, calming, sweetening, invigorating. Although some erroneously regard this as the only real answer that prayer can receive, denying that God can be moved by our petitions, yet we, who believe that more things are wrought by prayer, ought not to overlook this. By praying that His enemies might be forgiven, Jesus was enabled to drive back the spirits of anger and revenge which tried to force their way into His bosom, and preserved undisturbed the serenity of His soul. To ask God to forgive them was the triumphant ending of His own effort to forgive; and it is impossible to forgive without a delicious sense of deliverance and peace being shed abroad in the forgiving heart.
May we not add that part of the answer to this prayer has been its repetition age after age by the persecuted and wronged? St. Stephen led the way, in the article of death praying meekly after the fashion of his Master, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Hundreds have followed. And day by day this prayer is diminishing the sum of bitterness and increasing the amount of love in the world.
 "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
 Luke xxiii. 48.