As we continue in our studies in John’s Gospel, we have come to the very centre-point of history, the death of Jesus on the cross. The gospel writers do not go into all the horrific details of this unspeakably cruel form of death; in fact, the description is understated: ‘There they crucified him, and with him two others — one on each side and Jesus in the middle.’ (John 19:18)
But we know that this kind of death was designed to totally humiliate the victim, and to prolong the suffering for as long as possible. Jesus has already been scourged, mocked, dressed up and beaten, spat upon and now he is stretched out naked on a cross, in a highly public place.
Picture the scene – a criminal on each side of Jesus. There is something totally incongruous about Jesus being in this company. Jesus has never rebelled against Rome. Jesus has committed no crime. In fact, he is the only perfect human to have ever lived. And yet, here he is, in the middle of a row of condemned men. Shouldn’t have Barabbas been there? But he had been set free.
Jesus’ ministry on earth ends as it had begun. Right at the start, at his baptism, Jesus had identified with sinners, by going down the banks of the Jordan and allowing John the Baptist to baptise him. (See Matthew 3:14) Now, on the cross, Jesus not only identifies with sinners, he becomes one, bearing not his own sins, but those of his people. Just as the prophet Isaiah had predicted, the Messiah would be ‘numbered with the transgressors’.
So, as we picture the scene, we should never lose the wonder of what is going on at Calvary, that the Son of God, who had been in the glory of Heaven from all eternity, left this high and glorious place, and came down into our world, to the lowest place possible, becoming a curse for us. This is our God. This is the love of God. It really is astonishing. Jesus is cursed so that we might be blessed. He is separated from the Father, so that we might never be separated from the love of God.
As we home-in on this passage, I would like us to see one warning and two encouragements.
A warning from the soldiers
For the soldiers – they are just doing their job. Jesus is just another man to be made an example of. It was common practice for the soldiers to divide up the goods of a condemned man, but undergarments were seamless and so would lose their value if ripped up. The soldiers cast lots to see who gets lucky. Their minds are totally fixed on material things. They want extra things, perhaps to sell for extra money, money which won’t last long (it never does). They are so near to the cross physically, and yet so far from understanding what is really going on there.
It is tragic that many people today are just like the soldiers- they hear about the cross, but it does not seem relevant or impressive. This is because they have not come to realise that each of us owes God an enormous moral debt, which we cannot ever pay off ourselves. Those who are self-righteous, thinking that they are good people, don’t realise they need forgiveness. They don’t realise Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is exactly what they need.
Many people ignore the wonderful riches of the cross and instead, focus their lives on material possessions, having a nicer house, better clothes, better phones, physical appearance, things which won’t last and ultimately don’t matter. What we all really need from God is forgiveness from our sin (Matthew 16 v26). Don’t be like the soldiers and miss what is truly and lastingly of value.
Encouragement 1. Jesus’ matchless compassion
When in times of difficulty or pain, we know what it is like to have blinkers on- we are so caught up in our own circumstances that we can be oblivious to the needs of others. Not so with Jesus. It’s staggering that, at the height of his own pain, Jesus remains sensitive to the needs of others.
‘When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.’ (John 19:26-27)
Jesus is facing huge physical pain, humiliation, isolation, and even worse, is enduring the wrath of God for human sin. Yet still, his love and concern for his mother shine through. Why is this such an encouragement for us today? Because Jesus’ heart is still matchless in compassion and love. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
If Jesus displayed such compassion on Mary whilst at his weakest, how much more will he not have compassion on us, the sheep of his flock. After all, aren’t we part of Jesus family? (See Mark 3:34-35 and 1 Peter 5:7)
Sometimes, family and friends are too preoccupied with their own lives and lack compassion. Jesus is never too preoccupied. He’s never too busy. He’s never too caught up in important matters to care. His ears are always listening to our prayers, and he always answers them according to what is best for us! Is this your view of God? A God of matchless compassion. One who is deeply concerned for each and every one of his sheep. What an encouragement to pray!
Encouragement 2. Jesus’ cry of Victory
Just before Jesus gives up his spirit and dies, he says ‘It is finished.’ The obvious question to ask is: what was finished? The word for ‘it is finished’ (tetelesti) was often used when something difficult had been completed, and accomplished, and it had come to an end leaving us with a real sense of satisfaction. The most obvious example in the ancient world was when the last payment of a mortgage is given, and the house is now yours, with nothing left to pay, and ‘tetelesti’ is stamped on the paperwork. A few weeks ago I had that feeling having climbed Ben Nevis, making it back to the car, and being able to pull off my walking boots, and thinking – it is finished! Job done.
Jesus has finished something much more significant than a tough hill-walk. It’s also more significant than a mortgage, but like a mortgage it does involve a debt – a moral one. Jesus’ cry from the cross is his declaration that he has finished all the work need to save us. It doesn’t get more important than that. It is finished = I have completed my mission – my mission to die for the sins of my people.
Jesus does not say ‘I am finished’ and then die – as if he is totally spent. He says it is finished.
We see from Matthew and Mark that Jesus cries out his last words in a loud voice. It is a victory cry.
As Christians, this sacrifice is what we rely on. Christianity is first and foremost about what God has done for us to pardon our debt, and not what we can do for God for pardon- we can do nothing. All God requires of us is to turn from sin to God, and receive Jesus’ free gift of pardon. Jesus said, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ (John 6:29)
This means that my sin has been dealt with once and for all.