By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the most diabolical criminals of his day, and the first big time American gangster, was also a very impressive pulpit orator. John Murrell as a youth was caught for horse stealing, and after a public whipping he was sent to prison. He declared eternal vengeance upon society for this, and while he was in prison he studied theology. When he was released he assumed the garb of an evangelist and began to preach. His eloquence gained him quick popularity, and soon he had an unique racket going with a highly organized gang. One of his schemes was to greet people in front of the church and compliment them on their beautiful horse. This was a signal to his helpers as to which ones he wanted stolen during the service. Before his career ended he added counterfeiting and murder to his list of crimes, and all the while he was preaching the Word of God.
He was an obvious example of the great contrast that can exist between what a man professes and what he practices. Profession is the easy part. The real test comes in practice. We need not limit this failure of practicing what is preached to sham clergyman, however. Leon C. Prince has recorded the experience of others. He writes, "A New England navigator who had charted the dangerous reefs of the Massachusetts coast who wrecked his own vessel on a sunken rock which he himself had described and of which he warned others. A surgeon on one of the Arctic expeditions of the last century who earnestly and repeatedly cautioned his fellow voyages against the peril of yielding to the almost overwhelming impulse to sleep, but the surgeon himself fell asleep and perished."
History is filled with such glaring inconsistencies, and we need look at further than our own lives to add to the evidence that man is far more able to learn the truth than to live it. It is so much easier to proclaim than to practice. Shakespeare has Portia say, "I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."
In the light of this fact of human nature it is with great assurance and satisfaction that we turn our eyes upon Jesus in whom we find perfect consistency. No one ever made such startling statements as Jesus. No one ever set such high standards of character and conduct. If we could not look at his life as an example of what He taught, we would have to dismiss His teaching as dreamy idealism and sentimental nonsense totally irrelevant to the real world in which we live.
How could we honestly bother to consider Christ twice once we heard Him say, "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," if we say that he could not practice what He preached? No can make such radical statements and hold anyone's respect whose life does not back them up. Thank God for the cross and the record we have of it, for not only is our salvation dependent upon it, but the reality of all Jesus taught is dependent upon what we see and hear at the cross.
We want to focus our attention on the first word of Christ that He spoke on the cross, for here we see the idealism of Christ made real, and His life conform to His lips. If all we had was the record of His life, and not His death, men might dare to doubt the sincerity of His teaching. They might point out that it is easy to say love your enemies when you are walking from village to village with crowds of eager listeners. It is nothing to set on a mount with friends and disciples all around, and talk about praying for those who hate you. But the record of the cross leaves critics facing a scene that removes all doubt.
The first word on the cross demonstrates in a manner unsurpassed love's response to hate. It proves dogmatically that Jesus meant every word He preached, and those who claim Him as Lord need to take everyone of them seriously. Only the blind and deaf could stand at the cross and hear this word of Christ and not respond with the Roman Centurion who said, "Truly, this was the Son of God."
This word of Christ is composed of two parts. First is His intercession for His enemies, and second is His interpretation of His conduct. We have then His response and the reason for that response in this word. We want to focus our attention on the first part only, which is His response of-
INTERCESSION. "Father forgive them."
Jesus began His ministry as an interceding high priest even while on the cross. J. C. Ryle put it this way, "As soon as the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede." It is generally agreed that Jesus spoke this word of intercession as the nails were being driven into His hands, or immediately after. To respond to hate and cruelty with love and forgiveness is paradoxical enough in itself, but the paradox of this prayer is unique and unrepeatable. Here was the Lamb of God being sacrificed for the sins of the world, and at the same time He is the High Priest offering the sacrifice, for He is voluntarily laying down His life for us.
This prayer gives us a God's-eye view of the cross. A man's eye view would give you the impression that the man on the cross is the guilty criminal and those mocking were the judges and jury. But this is not the real picture at all. This word of Christ pictures God as the judge, and those mockers as the guilty criminals on trial. This one on the cross is the advocate, that is their lawyer, who is pleading their defense. What a paradox! Jesus Christ the Lamb nailed to a cross interceding as a lawyer for the guilty sinners who nailed Him there. Imagine having a lawyer pleading for you in the very act of crime when He is the victim of the crime. This is love's response to hate.
It is of great importance that we recognize that Jesus began His painful experience on the cross in perfect fellowship with the father, and that He also ended the cross experience in that same relationship. His last word was, "Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit." The cross is a picture of the superiority of love over hate from beginning to end. In the 3 hours of darkness on the cross, where Jesus became sin for us, which was the cup He so much dreaded to drink because He knew it meant separation from the Father, He again came forth victorious, and we cannot underestimate the importance of this first word in preparation for that victory.
Jesus had to face and experience the hate of man at its worst before He bore the sin of the world. This was the great test of His love. Could it take cruel injustice, mockery, pain, and finally the most horrible and humiliating form of execution known, and still respond in love? Could even divine love refrain from wrath in the face of such overwhelming hate? This word is our answer, "Father forgive them." Here is commentary on the "So" in John 3:16 where we read, "God so loved the world."
Jesus never held a grudge, for He never permitted one to gain entrance into His heart. This word of forgiveness, in which he demonstrated the final superiority of love over hate, was a necessary victory before He bore the sins of the world. The total victory of the cross depended upon His response to hate at this point. If Jesus had responded with anger and an unforgiving spirit, He would not have the perfect, spotless, and flawless Lamb required for the sacrifice for sin. Jesus had to bare our sin as one who was perfect and innocent. Here was Satan's last chance to halt the plan of redemption by getting Jesus to sin.
Satan and all the demons of hell would have broken forth in delight beyond measure if Jesus would have cursed and spit back, and cried out to God to destroy them. If Jesus would have met their cruelty and hate with a cry for revenge, the cross would have spelled defeat rather than victory. But like a Lamb going to the slaughter He opened not His mouth. We see then that this word of intercession is not just an incidental remark. The redemption of the whole world hung upon this response to hate. Jesus could not bare the sins of the whole world for all time if He could not bare the sins of His contemporaries .
What a contrast we see between this response and the response of Samson in his last prayer. Samson had also suffered at the hands of his enemies, and he had to endure the mockery and laughter of hate. In Judges 16:28 we get his reaction: "O Lord, God, remember me I pray Thee, and strengthen me, I pray Thee, only this once, O God, that I may be avenged upon the Philistines for one of my two eyes." From this response to hate let us turn to Acts 7 where we see Stephen the first Christian martyr being unjustly stoned to death by an angry mob. In 7:60 we read of his response to hate: "Lord do not hold this sin against them."
Here were two men of God with opposite responses to their enemies and hate. One cried out for revenge and the other for forgiveness. What made the difference? The answer to this is the answer to the question, what is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament? The answer is the cross of Christ, or more accurately, the Christ of the cross. The cross is the central theme of Christianity because it is the basis for the salvation of all people, and is the basis for the transformation of all people. The cross and the Christ of the cross is our standard by which we measure all attitudes and actions. Whatever is not consistent with the cross is not consistent with God's highest revelation. To be satisfied with any response to hate that is less than, or inconsistent, with this response of Christ is to be pre or sub-Christian. We cannot follow two examples. It is either Samson or the Savior.
If Christ is our Savior and Lord, He must be our example. He is the ultimate and final revelation of what God expects each of us to be. In the light of this first word from the cross we see that God expects believers to take seriously what Jesus taught about love's response to hate.
How hardly man this lesson learns;
To smile, and bless the hand that spurns,
To see the blow, to feel the pain,
And render only love again!
Dreamy idealism and sentimental nonsense? No! It is the very essence of the Gospel. It the good news that God so loved the world that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. This is love's response to hate, and this is what we see in this first word of intercession.
Jesus in thy dying woes,
Even while thy life-blood flows,
Craving pardon for thy foes.
Here was love that hate could not defeat. Gaius Glenn Attkins said, "When love is lost, all is lost-and the last banner which love maintains over its beleaguered strong hold is the power and the willingness to forgive." Let us never forget that the shedding of Christ's blood would not have atoned for sin if Christ did not have this heart of love and spirit of forgiveness. His spirit is the foundation for the effectiveness of His sacrifice. To have fulfilled the letter of the law without the spirit could not have atoned for sin. He could not truly forgive all sin if He was not willing to forgive the sin of crucifying Him. Charles Wesley wrote-
Five bleeding wounds He bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly plead for me.
Forgive Him, O forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransomed sinner die!
Let us remember that we only know of this message of His wounds because of the message of His words, "Father forgive them." Where sin abounded grace did much more over flow. At the cross where we see the greatest example of hate we also see the greatest example of love. Love's response to hate at the cross not only defeated hate, but used it for good. If it was not for the open hatred and violent injustice around the cross we would lose this most magnificent lesson of love.
O love of God! O sin of man!
` In this dread act your strength is tried,
And victory remains with love:
Jesus, our Lord, is crucified.
Booker T. Washington once said, "I will not let any man reduce my soul to hatred." Jesus would not let the most unjust act of hatred in human history reduce His soul to hatred, or even to anger. Jesus was victor on the cross from beginning to end. There is no way to fight love and win. May God open our eyes to see this, and begin to apply this supreme and superior weapon in our lives. If you are one who has never trusted Christ to be your Savior, may God open your eyes to recognize that He stands willing to forgive you and to receive you into the family of God, for His response to all who come to Him is always the response of love.