At the Cross

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What was it like for Mary Magdalene when Jesus was betrayed and crucified? What about the apostle John? Or Nicodemus? These figures in Jesus' life help us understand more deeply the wonderful mystery and gift of what Jesus accomplished on our behalf.

The crucifixion of our Lord and Savior is central to the Christian faith. We put together these brief sketches of some of the people who were in attendance that good Friday, in hopes that it would help you ponder more deeply the wonderful mystery, and gift, of what Jesus accomplished on our behalf.

The Religious Leaders

In this time of outsourcing, downsizing, and forced early retirement, many people have encountered fear and identity crisis that comes with losing a job. The chief priests, elders, and scribes would have related. That unsettling prospect had loomed for three and a half years as Jesus taught, not only “as one having authority” but also contrasting His message with theirs (Matt. 5:20, 7:29).

Distressed about the change they saw coming, the religious leaders concluded, “If we let [Jesus] go on like this, all men will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). They liked their life. A new regime could mean loss of position—or at least a less prestigious one.

We often think of the religious leaders ?as rejecters of Christ, yet many of them actually believed in Him. They just feared taking a stand for the Lord (John 12:42-43). So, though often at odds with each other over religious philosophy, the Pharisees and Sadducees united in their mutual desire to preserve the status quo. Their solution? Get rid of Jesus.

At the cross, the religious leaders assumed their cherished positions were now safe. They failed to recognize that they shared the same spiritual position as everyone else—sinners in need of a Savior. They needed only to relinquish their treasured human status to receive a standing far greater: as heirs of God and partakers of his glory (1 Peter 5:1).

The Crowd

The Lord had become ?well known for the many good works he performed among the people—healing the sick, exorcising demons, and teaching with power and authority (Luke 23:8). But the people also considered some of his comments shocking, such as his claim to be God’s Son and the words they misconstrued as a threat to destroy the temple (John 2:19-21; 10:30-31).

Because so many in the multitude approved of Christ’s miracles and teachings, the religious leaders—who felt he was a threat to their authority—plotted his death secretly so as not to arouse suspicion (Luke 22:2). Later, the chief priests “stirred up the crowd to ask [Pilate] to release Barabbas for them” instead of Jesus. And the vacillating mob complied.

Yet despite their influence, the power was not with the people. It was with the ultimate Judge, who allowed a weak and unworthy jury to crucify not just a famous man, but the only Person who had the power to release them from the bonds? of sin and death.

The Soldiers

First they scourged Jesus. Then they mocked him as “King of the Jews,” crowning him with jagged thorns and clothing him in purple, the color of royalty. And finally they nailed him to a cross alongside two criminals. As Jesus hung before them, the soldiers engaged in a crass display of greed: Who would get to keep his clothes?

They divided up his outer garments but decided the Lord’s tunic was too valuable to do the same (John 19:23-24). In casting lots for his clothing, their actions reveal hearts that had grown cold to human life and hardened to the divine.

Attending to Christ with no more effort than their duties required, they made sport of his death by gambling for his belongings—a momentary distraction from? their work, with the dying Jesus merely a backdrop to frivolous entertainment. Untouched by the profound suffering in their midst, the soldiers unwittingly demonstrated their need for a Savior to once again make them truly human: Christ was the only one who could restore the image of the merciful, life-giving God within them.

The Centurion

Executing outlaws in Palestine was all in a day’s work for the Roman officer presiding over Jesus’ crucifixion. The breastplate that covered his heart bore the seal of his master—Caesar, Emperor of Rome. There was honor in being a centurion, a mighty warrior in charge of 100 brave soldiers trained to defend the Roman Empire. Innumerable sentences had been carried out on crosses such as the ones before him, for the purpose of protecting the peace.

But Jesus was like no other criminal he’d ever seen. Stripped naked, whipped, and bleeding, this man didn’t fight as others had. Nor did he beg or curse. Even after the soldiers had cast lots for his clothes and dripped vinegar on his dry tongue, he didn’t plead for mercy.

When the Lord eventually cried out with the last of his breath (Luke 23:46) and the earth began to quake, something seemed? to change in the centurion. He could utter only one thing: “truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

Mary Magdalene

She watched the crucifixion from afar. What would it mean for her now that Jesus was gone?

Before meeting Christ, Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons. It’s hard to imagine a worse spiritual condition than imprisonment within your own body: to be so utterly misunderstood that you must live as a complete outcast.

Jesus had given Mary a new life, not only by casting out the demons but also by welcoming her into the fold. She went from the sidelines of society to Christ’s entourage, traveling with him as he taught and healed others (Luke 8:1-2).

To certain onlookers at the cross, it might have seemed as if Mary had fallen for the words of a fellow lunatic, a man who thought he was God. But at that moment, Jesus was actually proving himself to be God by taking on and defeating man’s worst enemies: sin and death. And in just three days, he would return and ask Mary Magdalene to join him once more in sharing the miracle of new life, free from Satan’s grasp (John 20:17).

The Women Who Followed Jesus

Among Jesus’ many followers, there was a group of faithful women, some of whom gave financial support to the Lord’s ministry. Read more about them in this month’s Strong in Spirit feature, “A Sacred Sorrow,” on page 34.

Mary, The Mother of Our Lord

A mother’s first concern is to protect her child. That realization makes it difficult to imagine how excruciating the crucifixion was for Mary to endure. With others at the foot of the cross, she looked on as her child hung upon the Romans’ cruel instrument of shame and torture. However, unlike those there for the spectacle of His death, or even those who had loved Him as teacher, Mary had carried Him in her womb and had experienced the delight of rocking Him to sleep. She’d soothed His hurts and watched Him grow in wisdom—pondering and treasuring it all in her heart (Luke 2:19, 47-51). For 30 years, they had shared the simple comforts of home and enjoyed one another’s love and companionship. As she cared for His physical needs, He provided for her by working as a carpenter, the trade He’d learned from His earthly father, Joseph. Perhaps these memories sustained her as, recalling her infant Son wrapped in swaddling cloths, she would now face the sight of Him in burial linens. More importantly, however, she could rely upon promises of the Almighty. For she knew even as?a young woman that His “mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear him” (Luke 1:50).

The Disciple John

Jesus’ last command before the resurrection was directed to Mary and his cherished disciple. The two-fold decree, “Woman, behold your son! . . . [and to John] Behold your mother!” was one that spoke of the Lord’s compassion and love. In this, even as He hung from the wooden beams of ?the cross, Jesus was providing for His beloved mother, just as He’d done through carpentry. But also, by commanding the disciple to assume His role as Mary’s son and caretaker, the Lord suggested a kind of kinship between John and himself—that John was called to be a son of God, a “little Christ” to the world. Master and disciple were one, just as the Father and the Son are one. And so it is with all who call upon the name of Jesus.

The declaration was also one of forgiveness and compassion. John, like the other disciples, had abandoned his Master at Gethsemane, but he alone returned to witness Christ’s sacrifice. In this moment, the implication was that Jesus not only forgave John’s lapse in conviction but also entrusted him with His cherished mother. Imagine it—even atop Golgotha, while experiencing a misery none can comprehend, Jesus extended mercy and grace. He continues to do so for all who come to Calvary. Those willing to lay themselves down at the foot of the cross and accept His will for their lives can, like John, experience untold blessings freely given from the Master’s nail-scarred hands.

The Thief

Having witnessed Jesus’ death march up Golgotha and the frenzied mob behind him, the thief at first joined in with the crowd as they derided Jesus: “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Matt. 27:44; Mark 15:29-30).

But somehow, deep within this nameless criminal something shifted, perhaps as he heard Jesus pray (Luke 23:34). “Father,” the Lord said between labored breaths, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

In the midst of the world’s blindness, revelation came to a criminal hanging on a cross: This man really was the Messiah, the King, the Savior, the Lord. The thief was moved by Christ, and his eyes were opened. His final request was full of humility and hope, even as it boldly named God the Son with sudden familiarity. “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” (v. 42).

Even as Jesus’ disciples despaired, failing to understand his mission, this common criminal grasped that His kingdom wasn’t of this world—and His death would some- how become part of His triumph. This helpless sinner, who was so aware of his inability to save himself, demonstrated the path for us all: he was the first to be carried out of darkness by Jesus the victor, into glorious light.

Wherever we find ourselves, there is hope—in drawing nearer to the One who is able to do abundantly more than we could ever ask or think.

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea

Quite often, lifelong friends are those who share a past of similar mistakes and? a testimony of common redemption. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were possibly two such men. When each had listened to Jesus teach, something deep within bore testimony to his heavenly origin. He spoke as one with authority, full of grace and truth, satisfying a deep-seated thirst within them. At the same time, a dilemma remained. Other influential friends criticized the miracle worker and demonized those following him. So apparently, the two decided to “tone it down” and default to the safety of peer approval (John 19:38-39).

But in light of the cross, where redemption always begins, their hearts must have become less afraid. While they had feared the loss of social standing, the one hanging there never feared the loss of life. They had dodged criticism, but the one bloodied beyond recognition embraced it, and much more, for them. After Jesus had been removed from the cross, Nicodemus and Joseph, moved by love, acquired His body. And as is sometimes true to a funeral’s irony, these men drew closer to their Lord in death than they had while He was living, and buried Him—their devotion no longer hesitant, but full, fulfilled.

A final thought

As you reflect on the people present at Golgotha on the day our Lord was crucified, consider how at different times of our lives, we may see ourselves in each of them, for better or worse. Though the dispositions? of some are more desirable than others, we may find that our hearts are not always in their proper place regarding the Savior. Will we stay near to Him, devoted, regardless of the consequences? Or will we allow our circumstances to distort our hearts?and taint our affections? Wherever we find ourselves, there is hope—in drawing nearer to the One who is able to do abundantly more than we could ever ask or think? (EPH 3:20), as we repent of our sins, take ?up our crosses, and follow Him.

 

The article was selected from In Touch magazine.

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