THE CRUELTY OF THE CROSS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Pierre VanPaasen once had an interview with Marshal Lyauty, but the former procounsul of the French Republic in Morocco. VanPassen asked him what he would have done had he been in Pilate's place. Lyauty, after describing what a trouble maker Jesus had been, endorsed Pilate's action. "You mean your excellency is of the opinion that Pilate was justified in putting Jesus to death?" he asked. "Positively," was his reply. In fact, he said he would not have waited until Jesus had infected the crowds in the capital, but would have had him put before a firing squad in his home province up North in Galilee.
This may sound like a cruel attitude, and it is, but it would have been far less cruel than what Jesus actually did have to endure. Marshal Lyauty's plan would have been swift and merciful, but the way Pilate bungled things Jesus had to go through intense torture that was totally unnecessary. A close look at what Jesus went through is so horrible, revolting, and pathetic, that many feel that this aspect of the cross should be skipped over. After all, if we are opposed to violence on TV, why promote it from the pulpit?
Nothing could be more violent than the scenes of Christ's suffering. The cruelty of what He endured if shown in its stark reality would horrify people, and give them nightmares. People are not interested in being disturbed, and so the cruelty of the cross is played down. People want things more pleasant when they come to worship. The beauty of the cross is fine, but the cruelty of the cross is taboo. It forces people to face up to the undesirable fact of their own sin and depravity. It gets rather distasteful for the sophisticated person when he confronted by the truth that it was his sin that helped produce the cruelty of the cross. Every person is partly responsible for the cruelest crime that ever took place on this planet. We are all accomplices.
People like to cover up the pit of their evil nature and be entertained with trivial pleasantries, and not be made to look at the awful cost God had to pay to save them. There is truth in this little limerick:
There was a clergyman out in Dumont
Who kept tropical fish in his font.
Although it surprises
The babes he baptizes,
It seems to be just what they want.
If we get just what we want, we will certainly not be looking at the cruelty of the cross. If we get what we want, we will take all the benefits of Calvary, and leave the burdens to Christ. C. T. Studd put this attitude in poetry.
Mine be the pomp and glory
And Thine be Calvary!
Give me the ease of living-
The scourge, the thorns for Thee!
Ah, how we prate of threading
The path the Master trod-
Laurel and gold our portion;
Thorns were the crown of God!
Mine the respectful gester;
Thine be the bloody thong!
Mine be the titled leisure-
And Thine the jeering throng!
Here, and we call Him "Master"!
Our hands are pale and fine,
Too good for blood and wounding-
His blood ran down like wine!
Mine be the chant and candle;
Thine be the pain and loss;
I am too good for trial!-
Thine, judgment and a cross!
Subconsciously all of feel this way to some degree. We hate to face up to the fact that our sin is partly responsible for what Jesus endured. We hate to look at the price we made Him pay. We feel guilty because we not only have not resisted unto blood, but we have hardly entered the battle at all. We enjoy being at ease in Zion, and this may be disturbed if we look too closely at the suffering Jesus endured. Taking up the cross and following Him will no longer be an invitation to a pleasant afternoon hike in the beauties of God's creation. It will be a command to face the fury of the forces of hell, and if need be, die for righteousness. It is easy to understand why people get squeamish when you approach the horrors of Christ's sufferings, but God certainly expected us to face this scene squarely. The Gospels devote more space to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ than to any other event of His life.
The picture is gruesome, and the language is brutal, but there is no way to be faithful to the Scripture and bypass the cruelty of the cross. When we say the cross we are including all that Jesus went through in his trial that led to the cross. Jesus was half dead before he ever reached Calvary. In Luke 23:27-28 we read that he was followed by women who wailed and lamented. Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children." He went on to tell of the judgment that would fall on the Jews because of their rejection of him.
It is of interest to note that nowhere in the Gospels is a women ever an enemy of Christ. Nowhere does a woman ever add to the cruelty Jesus suffered. Women are always in a positive relation to Jesus. Even Pilate's wife warned him about condemning Jesus. Masculine brutality is responsible for the suffering of Jesus, while the feminine heart is always sympathetic to him. Nevertheless, Jesus was not pleased or helped by their tears, and he told them so. He told them to direct their tears to their own judgment, and not his.
We need to keep this in mind lest as we examine the cruelty of the cross we think we are accomplishing anything if we become emotional and shed tears over the suffering of Christ. Studdart Kennedy said in his own stinging way, "The last thing in the world that Christ was or wanted to be was pathetic. The last thing He wanted to do was set souls sailing on a sea of tears to no where in particular. Emotions are like shadows passing over corn fields; they come and go, and come again, and leave no trace behind. Christ wants more than our tears. He wants our very selves, and the very fibre of our beings yielded up to Him."
If we feel anything as we look at the cruelty of the cross it ought to be the feeling of repentance for our sin, and a feeling that we are unworthy servants unfit to untie His shoelace let alone be a joint-heir with Him of the unsearchable riches of God. We cannot look at every detail of the sufferings of Christ, but we want to look at some major causes of His pain under two categories. We want to look first at-
I. THE CRUELTY OF HIS PRIVATE TORTURE.
In verse 1 Pilate had Jesus scourged in private. This was a whipping with what the Romans called the "horrible flagellum," or the horrible whip. It was made of long leather thongs studded with pellets of lead and sharp pieces of bone. It literally tore a man's back to strips. Roman law prescribed no maximum number of strokes as Jewish law did, and the result was that many died from this torture alone.
Josephus tells of how he had some of his opponents scourged until their insides was visible. How bad Jesus looked we do not know for sure, but we know it was no mere matter of red welts. Pilate's motive for having Jesus whipped was to appeal to the pity of the crowd. He brought Jesus out and said, "Behold the man." He was saying that they should behold this poor bleeding, bruised, and wretched man. "Can you look at such a pathetic sight and still persist in demanding His crucifixion?" If Jesus had not been severely beaten, this appeal would have no weight. Luke 23:16, 22 clearly reveal Pilate's plan. He said, twice with determination, "I will chastise Him and let Him go." But the Jewish leaders, like blood thirsty hyenas ruined his plan, and refused to moved by pity. They cried out, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"
This meant that the beating of Jesus was for nothing. His back was torn to shreds as a part of Pilate's plot to outwit the Jews, and it failed. Jesus would have been better off if Pilate would have yielded to the Jews without a fight. His persistent efforts to resist their will only led to more suffering for Christ. So terrible was the sight of a man who had been scourged that for the first five centuries Christian artists refused to paint this scene in the life of Christ.
In verse 2 we read that the soldiers put a crown of thorns on His head. This was not primarily for torture, but for mockery, but the pain of it would be intense. It was mere sport for the soldiers. They mocked Him as King of the Jews. They would not have dared to do so in front of the angry crowd of waiting Jews, but in privacy they released their anti-Semitic hatred upon Jesus. The private torture of Jesus was mostly all the doing of Gentiles. The Jews were not interested in beatings and thorns. They just wanted Jesus to be dead. The Gentiles were not anxious to see Him die, but they enjoyed the sport of sadistic torture. So we see that the Gentiles were responsible for His torture, and the Jews were responsible for His death.
The crown of thorns was the work of Gentiles. Even if they were gentle, which is highly unlikely, the thorns would pierce His skin. One thorn in the finger could be painful, and so you can imagine the pain of dozens of them pressed into your head. The only thing beautiful that could come out of such a scene as this is the beauty of the legend concerning the robin. The robin seeing the agony of Christ sought to ease His pain by plucking a thorn from His head. In so doing, she died her breast red in the blood of Christ. An unknown poet records the legend in poetry.
Bearing His cross while Christ passed forlorn,
His God-like forehead by the mock crown torn,
A little bird took from that crown one thorn
To soothe the dear Redeemer's throbbing head;
The bird did what she could; His blood it's said,
Down-dropping, dyed her tender bosom red,
Since then no wanton boy disturbs her nest,
Weasel, nor wild cat, will her young molest,
All sacred deem that bird of ruddy breast.
Such legends as this develop, no doubt, to try and offset the cruelty of the biblical scene. They can be of value, for example, if every time you see a robin you think of the crown of thorns and what Jesus suffered, and then give thanks. There is a painting in Milan which represents a little cherub trying to feel one of the thorns with his finger. There is a look of wonder in his face, for he has been told it means agony, but he cannot feel it. He belongs to a different world, and sin and suffering are incomprehensible to him. Even for us who experience pain it is difficult to imagine what Jesus suffered. For all eternity He had been adored by all the hosts of heaven, and now He stands bleeding and bruised, and being mocked by brutal man. This was the coronation of the King of sorrows. The crown of thorns symbolized His bearing the curse of sin, for thorns were the result of man's fall, and all through the Old Testament they symbolized the curse of sin. Verse 3 says they also struck Jesus with their hands as they mocked them, and the other Gospels indicate other strikes against Him also. But now we move into the second category which is-
II. THE CRUELTY OF HIS PUBLIC TORTURE.
We are familiar with the nail pierced hands, and the spear wound in the side, but these physical pains may not have been as cruel as the psychological pains Jesus had to bear. The mockery would be more bitter to one who loved as Jesus did, and who knew the value of every eternal soul. That is why he told the women to weep for themselves and their children. The really sad thing as Jesus saw it was the folly and cruelty of men. They cried out "Let his blood be upon us and our children." They demanded his crucifixion with passionate hatred and mockery, and certainly this was a bitterness for Jesus beyond our comprehension.
How bitter that cup
No heart can conceive,
Which Jesus drank up
That sinners might live.
If we put all the mockery together we see Jesus was constantly abused. The Scripture says that the chief priests mocked him, with the scribes and elders. The soldiers mocked him, and those who passed by reviled him, and even the thieves crucified with him railed on him, and cast the same abuse in his teeth. The cruelty of the tongue was at its worst at the cross. We say that sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, but the fact is, it is easier to bear the pain of sticks and stones than it is the deep cuts of the mocking tongue. All the pain of the human tongue was poured into the cup Jesus had to drink.
Then in verse 23 we read of another cruelty that we seldom think of, but which was the depth of disgrace and humiliation. The soldiers took his garments and divided them. All of the Roman writers on the method of crucifixion agree that the victims were stripped naked.
All rights denied,
Naked, Christ died.
The Gentiles at his cradle brought him gifts, but now at his cross they take away the last of his possessions. Jesus was stripped of the last shred of dignity he had left, and he was exposed that he might bear the full shame of our sin.
His scared limbs they stretch, they tear
With nails they fasten to the wood;
His sacred limbs exposed and bare,
Or only covered with His blood.
The shame of nakedness was one of the first results of sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. All men must face the judgment of God naked with all their shame exposed, and, therefore, when Jesus died for all men He took upon himself their nakedness and shame also. He did so that we might be clothed in the garments of his righteousness, and be able to stand before God clothed and unashamed. Clothing was the first gift of God to sinful man. Clothing represents grace, and all grace was removed from Christ in the cruelty of the cross. K. Schilder in his famous book Christ Crucified writes, "He was made a public spectacle in His nakedness on the accursed cross. He could not forget that He had fewer rights than Adam. Adam's was still the right to conceal himself, and Christ's awareness of His own shame in part prompted the plaint: My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
There are other cruelties He suffered also, such as the contempt shown in those spitting on Him, but we do not have the time to look at everything. What we have seen is sufficient to demonstrate that the cross Jesus bore for us was the most cruel and painful experience ever endured. Others have been tortured as much, and more, but none ever suffered as much for no one else ever suffered so innocently, and with such love and sensitivity, and for the sins of all mankind.
Richard Jefferies tells of a boy who stood before a painting of the crucifixion. His feelings were hurt as he looked at the cruel nails and the unfeeling spear. He looked at the picture for a long time and then turned and said, "If God had been there, He would not have let them do it." But the paradox of it all is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. God was not only there and letting it happen, but He was suffering with the Son for our benefit. Isa. 53:4-5 says, "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows....But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed."
God took all that physical pain, mental misery, and soul suffering, and turned it into a blessing for every person who accepts Jesus as Savior. This great paradox of Jesus using the world's worst act of cruelty for the world's greatest blessing assures us that no matter how much we suffer in life that which is unjust, senseless, and meaningless, God will turn it into ultimate blessing. If God turned the cruelty of the cross into a universal blessing, we need never doubt that verse of Paul in Rom. 8:28 that says, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Even the cruelty of the cross was made to lead to the ultimate beauty of redemption of the lost out of every tribe, tongue and nation who will praise Jesus for ever as King of Kings. God always has the last word, and no evil of men can prevent His final victory. Therefore, do not add to the cruelty of the cross by refusing the salvation Jesus purchased there for us. Receive Him as your Savior and enjoy His victor forever.