For the soldiers at Calvary, the crucifixion appeared to be business as usual. The sign above Jesus listed the charge: “the King of the Jews.” Alistair Begg explains, however, that this “criminal” was far more significant than they realized. He was God incarnate, the true Messiah and King; He was our sacrifice for sin, our substitute, and our Savior.
We’re going to read in the Gospel of John and the nineteenth chapter. And we have over the last few Sunday evenings been moving towards the verses that we read together now. And we’ll begin reading at John 19:16:
“Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
“So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
“Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, ‘Do not write “The King of the Jews,” but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.’
“Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’
“When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
“‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it.’
“This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said,
‘They divided my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.’
“So this is what the soldiers did.
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
“Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
“Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken,’ and, as another scripture says, ‘They will look on the one they have pierced.’
“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of his Word.
What we have read there is, of course, the record of John concerning the events of the crucifixion. That record can be supplemented and complimented by considering what you find in both Matthew and Mark, and in Luke. And the variations that we discover are the kind of variations that you would find in three different newspapers. A number of days this week, I took three newspapers in the morning: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and some newspaper in Dallas (I don’t know the name of it). And while I read the same article of the same incidents, I discovered that the way it was nuanced by each of the newspapers often had a distinctive quality of its own. This, of course, is the mark—the very discrepancies, the idiosyncrasies of the record—is a mark not of collusion, but is a mark of integrity, as we’ve been seeing through our studies in the evening. And for some who may be even here this evening, and it is with a measure of agnosticism and skepticism that you come, I encourage you to take time over the next couple of days and simply take a Bible and consider what is written for you there.
Before we gather around the Lord’s Table, I want simply to walk you through the events concerning which we have just read, and not at any particular length, and not with any overarching structure.
The scene that is described, while quite striking to us, was a familiar scene within the framework of the Roman jurisdiction. The soldiers were carrying out their business as usual. What made it so significant was that the man who was hanging in this center cross was none other than God incarnate , and that the great event which was being carried out here was far more significant than these four soldiers—and there would be four soldiers attached to every cross and everyone who was to be crucified—far more significant than they ever would have realized. Indeed, eternity, as it were, was closing its eyes to the scene as darkness descends over the whole event. It’s almost as though, as in the time of the Passover in the book of Exodus where God turned the lights out, so he turns the lights out again. And the hymn writer says,
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut its glories in,
When Christ the sinless Savior died
For man the rebel’s sin.
Ordinarily the procession that would have led to this event would have begun in the relatively early hours of the morning, before it became oppressively hot. Four soldiers were assigned to the one who was to be crucified—in other words, there would have been twelve of them involved in the three who were to be crucified on this day—and ordinarily a centurion led the procession. He, or someone designated to, would carry a sign on which was written the crime of the individual about to be crucified. They would routinely go through the longest route possible to get to the site of the crucifixion, thereby prolonging the agony for the individuals involved and increasing the sense of morbid and cruel expectation on the part of the crowds that began to throng in their wake.
Those of us who this week have pondered just how we might feel if we were amongst those who had lost loved ones in the bombing in Oklahoma City—those of us who have pondered that—I’m sure will have a variety of reactions to the demands on the part of some of the family members to witness the death penalty being carried out. For myself, I find it an abhorrent idea, but I guess, perhaps, if I had been deeply wounded as some have, I may have a different perspective. I’ve never been interested in watching the death penalty, fictitiously or in any other way; as much as I understand its place in the economy of God, it is a dreadful thing to watch another die. And some who would not be able to take their dogs to the vet to have them put down somehow or another can find it in themselves to sit on the other side of a glass and watch a man’s life be taken from him.
But, of course, there’s no surprise in that, because it wasn’t simply a handful that would have been involved on this day, but a great crowd. It would seem that the ordinary processes were in some measure bypassed—that when you put the pieces together, you discover that this scene would have emerged first of all from the palace of Herod; they would have come down from Herod’s palace; they would have entered through the first gate in the wall from there, a gate that has been known by a variety of names through the years—at one point, the Gate of St. Thomas—into the dense business quarter of the town, the people standing on the streets watching and wondering at this strange sign that was carried by the one who went ahead of the group. And finally, they would get to the place of crucifixion, as John records it here, this place that was referred to, “the place of the skull,” and there they crucified him.
It’s interesting—and I’ve pointed this out to you before—that there is no great emphasis given to the actual physicality of the sufferings of Christ. It is, as one commentator has said, that the soul of Christ’s sufferings were really in the sufferings of his soul . That is not to say, of course, that his physical sufferings were in any way mitigated, because they were not. When you read the correlative material, you discover that the taste that was given to him on the end of this reed was sufficient for him to realize that it contained an anesthetic dimension to it, and as a result of that he pushes it back and chooses not to take it, so that all of the pain and all of the agony which was to be meted out to him, both physical and mental and spiritual, Christ would really experience; so that he died homeless and largely friendless, racked by pain and the most cruel of deaths. And men and women tonight in the suburbs of Cleveland find themselves saying, “I find myself in a situation where there is perhaps no one in the world that really understands me. I don’t think anyone could really ponder the extent of the pain that I have known.” Well, when you read this record you discover that, of all people, Jesus certainly does.
Now, what is being described for us here is something that is understandable. The crucifixion, although you see it in art, whereby the people are looking up to the cross, and it would seem as though there is some great distance between them, in point of fact, when the center piece—when the vertical piece—of the cross was lowered into the ground and the feet were fastened eventually to it, the feet would only be some eighteen or twenty-four inches from ground level. So rather than seeing these men hanging way up there, to whom they would have to shout, they are actually in great proximity to the people on ground level—hence the ability for the communication to take place with the intimacy that it did, the words of Jesus to be so clearly heard.
And the people looked at the sign, and as we saw, the Jews were annoyed by it. They said, “We don’t want it to say, ‘The King of the Jews.’ We want it to say that he claimed to be the king of the Jews.” And Pilate said, “We’ll just leave it to say what it says. What I have written, I have written.” And in the middle of it all, the soldiers continue their work.
The sign, written in Aramaic, that which was spoken by the Jews of Palestine; written in Latin, the official language of the Roman government; and written in Greek, for that was the language of commerce and culture throughout the Roman world. So, if you like, the whole world was able to read this, pointing to the fact that he who was purported to be the king of the Jews was actually the king of a spiritual kingdom —a kingdom into which one of the men on his side determined that he would like to be a part. And he said, “Lord, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” And how staggered he must have been when Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise”! The man presumably knew enough to say that if this man was a king and if he had a kingdom, whenever it was going to happen, it surely wasn’t going to happen soon, but whenever it did happen, “Lord, will you remember when that kingdom gets going?” And Jesus said, “Well, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The soldiers did what they normally did: added to their wardrobes, either to keep or to sell. Within a matter of hours, there would be people on the Jerusalem streets wearing the clothes that Jesus had worn in this procession to Golgotha. Someone may have said to his friend, “Those are nice sandals. Where did you get them?” and he would have said, “I got them from the scene that took place yesterday.” The writer is careful to tell us that they did not deal with this undergarment in the same way as they did with the other pieces: “Don’t tear it,” they said to one another. “This is a nice piece. Let’s decide by lot who will get it,” not realizing for a moment that they were fulfilling the Old Testament scriptures where in the prophecy of the psalmist it said, “They divide[d] my garments among them and [they] cast lots for my clothing.”
Now, you think for a moment about this, and you say to yourself, “Well, these are different days now. It wouldn’t have been like this if it had happened in our day. We’re a far more humane society. We would’ve stepped back from this kind of thing.” Studdert Kennedy’s popular poem, which I love to quote at this time of year, I think aptly puts it where it needs to be when he says,
When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They [drove] great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
But when Jesus came to [Cleveland] they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain.
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
And whether the response of the human heart is that of callous, vehement hatred or is the response of casual, cruel indifference, each of us finds our face in the crowd described for us in the record by John.
So there is a sign there, and it hangs, and it’s significant. And there is a love that is displayed, and it’s powerful. Four soldiers—hence they divided it into four shares, right?—and then four women: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his [aunt], Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” You know, when you look at this, gentlemen, it’s a reminder to us of the way in which God in his amazing providence has chosen to weave into his purposes the strength of character that ladies have shown. The baptismal rate in our church, without really counting it, is approximately three women to every one man, and it may be five women to every one man. So whatever this “weaker sex” is, it doesn’t look so weak before the cross. In fact, it looks incredibly strong.
This lady, the sister of Jesus’ mother, is Salome the wife of Zebedee; she’s the mother of James and John. You may remember her if you know your Bible. Her life had been changed as a result of Jesus: she’d lost her boys to Jesus. She’d followed them around a little bit, and it was she who had made the request of Jesus on behalf of her sons to see if, when he came into his kingdom, her two boys could sit on either side of him when he established the seats at that point. She had on that occasion received a rebuke from Jesus, and necessarily so. But she had seen the love and the rightness in it, and so here she is at the cross. Mary Magdalene, or Mary from Magadala, in whose life there had been seven demons—she of all women knew that this man was not simply a man; he was a Savior and a friend.
Mary the mother of Jesus was there, and “the disciple whom he loved” standing nearby. She who had borne him, worried over him, watched him, loved him, cared for him, now stood to see him die. And surely the very designation that he uses from the cross, “Woman, here is your son,” perhaps was simply to lessen the pain of calling down to her, “Mother” or “Mum.” But now she, as the others, must learn that the right response for her is not that of compassion, ultimately, but it is of adoration—that the real significance in relationship to Mary the mother of Jesus is not emotional, but it is theological; that the love of the Lord Jesus for her is the love of Savior for sinner .
So there is a sign, and it’s there with significance: “Here he is, the King of the Jews.” The scene itself is touched with bitterness and with pain. The soldiers’ indifference is as a result of the very routineness of the act. And two thousand years later we pause to remember it again.
Let me give you three words as I draw this to a close. Why would it ever be significant for us to think on these things? Well, because the one hanging on the cross there is a sacrifice for sin—a sacrifice for sin. Throughout the Old Testament, when you read it, you discover that the basis of the sacrificial system was propitiation. It’s a big word which simply means that one was dying in the place of another and was bearing the wrath of God that is rightly meted out against sin. And God’s wrath was averted by the paying of a price and the bearing of the guilt. When you look upon that cross, when in a moment or two you take this cup and you drink it, when you take this bread and you think about it, say to yourself,
Wounded for me, wounded for me,
There on the cross He was wounded for me;
[And] gone my [transgression], and now I am free,
All because Jesus was wounded for me.
The man on the cross is a sacrifice; the man on the cross hangs there as a substitute. When in the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, you read of the way in which this was enacted, there was a scapegoat upon the head of which the high priest set his hands and then drove it out into the wilderness as a symbol of the fact that the sin was being transferred to this creature and was being borne away. And Jesus dies on the cross for us. Hell comes to Calvary, and Jesus enters into it. And bearing all of my shame, and bearing all of my scoffing, and bearing all of my rebellion, he takes my place.
Sacrifice, substitute—Savior. What Matthew tells us at the very beginning of it all is that they gave him the name Jesus “because he [would] save his people from their sins.” The question tonight is not “Was he a sacrifice?” or “Was he a substitute?” or “Did he die as Savior?” But the question is, “Is he your Savior? Is he my Savior?” You say, “Well, I think he is, because I have been very concerned about this of late, and I have pondered the fact of Christ, and I’ve been reading my Bible a little, and I do believe that he is the person that he claimed to be.” Well, this, of course, is a wonderful advance if you’ve been in doubt about that. But it is possible to be orthodox in our understanding and yet still not know him as our friend and Savior.
When the lady at the well encountered him and Jesus asked her for a drink of water, she was surprised, and remember he said to her, “If you asked me for water, or if you knew who it was who asked you, you would ask him for water, and you’d never need water again in your life.” And she took it in physical terms, as if somehow or another Jesus was suggesting that she would no longer need to drink water or would no longer need to come to the well. But Jesus said, “No, I’m actually talking about spiritual water that will be a well inside you, welling up to eternal life.” And of course, when she discovered the wonder of what that meant, she hurried back into the city, and she said, “I want you to come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Isn’t this the Messiah?” She tasted and she learned that the Lord is good.
That’s the significance of taking this bread and this cup. Because in taking the bread and in taking the cup, what we’re saying is, “Here is an emblem of what Jesus has done on my behalf, and as I have received Christ as my Lord and Savior, so I receive this bread and I receive this cup as an expression of my gratitude to him and of my looking for him.” It wouldn’t be the first occasion when, on a service such as this, somebody who had come in wondering about it all said, “Finally, I think I understand. He came as Savior. He came as substitute. He came as sacrifice. And that ‘sacred head, sore wounded’ was wounded for me.”
Well, let’s ponder these things as we proceed in a moment or two to gather around the table.
Let us pray just for a moment:
O God our Father, we pray that the truth of your Word, as we read it and think on it, as it is now dramatized for us in the symbols that you have left to us, may confront us again with the nature of our sin and the wonder of your salvation. Help us to think upon your cross, for we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Isaac Watts, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” (1707). Paraphrased.
 George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, vol. 1 of The Works of George Swinnock, M.A. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), 194.
 See Mark 15:23.
 Luke 23:42 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:43 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 22:18 (NIV 1984).
 G. A. Studdert Kennedy, “Indifference,” in Rhymes (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929), 43.
 Matthew 20:21 (paraphrased).
 W. G. Ovens, “Wounded for Me.”
 See Leviticus 16:10.
 Matthew 1:21 (NIV 1984).
 John 4:10 (paraphrased).
 John 4:14 (paraphrased).
 John 4:29 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 34:8 (paraphrased).
 Bernard of Clairvaux, “Salve Caput Cruentatum” (1153). Translated by Robert Seymour Bridges as “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.”