The Sufferings of Christ
By Mrs. E. G. White
In order to realize the value of redemption, it is necessary to understand what it cost. We should take broader and deeper views of the life, sufferings, and death of God's dear Son. A limited idea of the sacrifice made in our behalf leads many to place a low estimate upon the great work of the atonement.
The glorious plan of man's salvation is a manifestation of the infinite love of God the Father. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The love of God in giving his Son to die for a fallen race, amazed the holy angels. The Saviour was the brightness of his Father's glory, and the express image of his person. He possessed divine majesty and perfection. "It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell." "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."
Christ consented to die in the sinner's stead that man, by a life of obedience, might escape the penalty of the law of God. The death of Christ did not slay the law, lessen its holy claims, or detract from its sacred dignity. He himself declared that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill. While the system of sacrificial offerings which prefigured the death of Christ was to expire with him, the moral law remained unchanged. Jesus proclaimed the justice of God in punishing the transgressors of his law, in that he took the penalty upon himself, in order to shield fallen man from its curse. Only by the sacrifice of Christ could man be redeemed, and the authority of the Divine law be maintained. The death of God's dear Son shows the immutability of his Father's law.
In Christ were united the Divine and the human. The Son of God took upon himself man's nature, that with his human arm he might encircle the children of Adam in a firm embrace, while with his Divine arm he grasped the throne of the Infinite, thus uniting earth to heaven, and man to God. Angels who were unacquainted with sin, could not sympathize with man in his peculiar trials; but by taking upon himself human nature, Christ was prepared to understand our temptations and our sorrows. Our Redeemer "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin;" and "in that he himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted." Oh, matchless condescension! The King of glory subjects himself to man's infirmities, and takes upon himself the burden of man's sins, that he may open the door of hope to a ruined race. Here, indeed, is love that "passeth knowledge."
Let those who would, in some faint degree, appreciate the price paid for our redemption, follow the Son of God in the crowning acts of his great sacrifice.
In The Garden
Often had Jesus, with the twelve, resorted to Gethsemane for meditation and prayer, but never had he visited the spot with a heart so full of sorrow as upon the night of his betrayal. He had been earnestly conversing with his disciples; but as he neared the garden he became strangely silent. The disciples were perplexed, and anxiously regarded his countenance, hoping there to read an explanation of the change that had come over their Master. They had frequently seen him depressed, but never before so utterly sad and silent. As he proceeded, this strange sadness increased; yet they dared not question him as to the cause. His form swayed as if he was about to fall. The disciples looked anxiously for his usual place of retirement, that their Master might rest.
Upon entering the garden, he said to his companions, "Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder." Selecting Peter, James, and John to accompany him, he proceeded farther into the recesses of the garden. He had been accustomed to brace his spirit for trial and duty by fervent prayer in this retreat, and had frequently spent the entire night thus. On these occasions his disciples, after a little season of watching and prayer, would sleep undisturbed at a little distance from their Master until he awoke them in the morning to go forth and labor anew. So this act of Jesus called forth no remark from his companions.
Every step that the Saviour now took was with labored effort. He groaned aloud as though suffering under the pressure of a terrible burden; yet he refrained from startling his three chosen disciples by a full explanation of the agony which he was to suffer. Twice they prevented him from falling to the ground. Jesus felt that he must be still more alone, and he said to the favored three, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; tarry ye here, and watch with me." His disciples had never before heard him utter such mournful tones. His frame was convulsed with anguish, and his pale countenance expressed a sorrow past all description.
He went a short distance from his companions, not so far but that they could both see and hear him, and fell prostrate with his face upon the earth. He was overpowered by a terrible fear that God was removing his presence from him. He felt himself being separated from his Father by a gulf of sin, so broad, so black and deep, that his spirit shuddered before it. He clung convulsively to the cold, unfeeling ground, as if to prevent himself from being drawn still farther from God. The chilling dews of night fell upon his prostrate form, but the Redeemer heeded it not. From his pale lips wailed the bitter cry, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt."
It was not a dread of the physical suffering he was soon to endure that brought this agony upon the Son of God. He was bearing the penalty of man's transgression, and shuddering beneath the Father's frown. He must not exert his Divine power to escape this agony, but, as a man, he must bear the consequences of man's sin and the Creator's displeasure toward his disobedient subjects, and he feared that in his human nature he would be unable to endure the coming conflict with the prince of the power of darkness; in that case the human race would be hopelessly lost, Satan would be victor, and the earth would be his kingdom. The sins of the world weighed heavily upon the Saviour, and bowed him to the earth; and the wrath of God in consequence of sin seemed crushing out his life.
In the conflict of Christ with Satan in the wilderness of temptation, the destiny of the human race had been at stake. But the Son of God had conquered, and the tempter left him for a season. He had now returned for the last fearful conflict. During the three years of Christ's ministry, Satan had been preparing for this final trial. Everything was at stake with him. If he failed here, his hope of mastery was lost; the kingdoms of the earth would finally become Christ's, who would "bind the strong man", Satan, and cast him out.
During this scene of the Saviour's anguish, the disciples were at first much troubled to see their Master, usually so calm and dignified, wrestling with a sorrow that exceeded all utterance; but they were very weary, and finally dropped asleep, leaving him to agonize alone. At the end of an hour, Jesus, feeling the need of human sympathy, rose with painful effort, and staggered to the place where he had left his companions. But no sympathizing countenance greeted him after his long struggle; the disciples were fast asleep. Ah! if they had realized that this was their last night with their beloved Master while he lived a man upon earth, if they had known what the morrow would bring him, they would not thus have yielded to the power of slumber.
The voice of Jesus partially aroused them. They discerned his form bending over them, his expression and attitude indicating extreme exhaustion. They hardly recognized in his changed countenance the usually serene face of their Master. Singling out Simon Peter, he addressed him: "Simon, sleepest thou? couldst thou not watch one hour? O Simon, where is now thy boasted devotion? Thou who didst but lately declare thou couldst go with thy Lord to prison or to death, hast left him in the hour of his agony and temptation, and sought repose in sleep!"
John, the loving disciple who had leaned on the breast of Jesus, was also sleeping. Surely the love of John for his Master should have kept him awake. His earnest prayers should have mingled with those of his Saviour in the time of his supreme sorrow. The self-sacrificing Redeemer had passed entire nights in the cold mountains or in the groves, praying for his disciples that their faith might not fail them in the hour of their temptation. Should Jesus now put to James and John the question he had once asked them, "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" they would not have ventured to answer, "We can."
This important night-watch should have been spent by the disciples in noble mental struggles and prayers, which would have brought them strength to witness the terrible agony of the Son of God. It would have prepared them, as they should behold his sufferings upon the cross, to understand in some degree the nature of the overpowering anguish which he endured. They would then have been better able to recall the words he had spoken to them in reference to his sufferings, death, and resurrection; and amid the gloom of that trying hour, some rays of hope would have lighted up the darkness, and sustained their faith. Christ had told them before that these things would take place. He knew the power which the prince of darkness would use to paralyze the senses of the disciples, and he therefore admonished them to watch.
But at the most critical moment, when Jesus was most in need of their sympathy and heartfelt prayers, his chosen companions had given themselves up to slumber. They lost much by thus sleeping. The Saviour's trial and crucifixion was to be a fiery ordeal to his disciples. Their faith needed to be sustained by more than human strength as they should witness the triumph of the powers of darkness. Christ designed to fortify them for this severe test. Had those hours in the garden been spent in watching with the dear Saviour and in prayer to God, the disciples would not have forsaken Jesus in his hour of trial, and Peter would not have been left to his own feeble strength, to deny his Master.
The evidence of the weakness of his disciples excited the pity and sympathy of the Son of God. He questioned their strength to endure the test they must undergo in witnessing his betrayal and death. He did not sternly upbraid them for their weakness, but, in view of their coming trial, exhorted them, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." Then, his spirit moving in sympathy with their frailty, he framed an excuse for their failure in duty toward him: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Again Jesus was seized with superhuman agony, and fainting and exhausted, staggered back to the place of his former struggle. Again he was prostrated to the earth. His suffering was even greater than before. The cypress and palm trees were the silent witnesses of his anguish. From their leafy branches dropped heavy dew upon his stricken form, as if nature wept over its Author wrestling alone with the powers of darkness.
A short time before he had stood like a mighty cedar, withstanding the storm of opposition that spent its fury upon him. Stubborn wills, and hearts filled with malice and subtlety, strove in vain to confuse and overpower him. He stood forth in divine majesty as the Son of God. But now he was like a bruised reed beaten and bent by the angry storm. A few hours before, he had poured out his soul to his disciples in noble utterances, claiming unity with the Father, and giving his elect church into his arms in the language of one who had divine authority. Now his voice uttered suppressed wails of anguish, and he clung to the cold ground as if for relief.
The words of the Saviour were borne to the ears of the drowsy disciples: "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done." The anguish of God's dear Son forced drops of blood from his pores. Again he staggered to his feet, his human heart yearning for the sympathy of his companions, and he repaired to where they were sleeping. His presence roused them, and they looked upon his face with fear, for it was stained with blood, and expressed an agony of mind which was to them unaccountable.
He did not now address them, but, turning away, sought again his retreat and fell prostrate, overcome by the horror of great darkness. The humanity of the Son of God trembled in that trying hour. The awful moment had arrived which was to decide the destiny of the world. The heavenly hosts waited the issue with intense interest. The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even then refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty men. He might wipe the bloody sweat from his brow, and leave men to perish in their iniquity. Will the Son of the Infinite God drink the bitter potion of humiliation and agony? Will the innocent suffer the consequence of God's curse, to save the guilty? The words fall tremblingly from the pale lips of Jesus: "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done."
Three times has he uttered that prayer. Three times has humanity shrunk from the last crowning sacrifice. But now the history of the human race comes up before the world's Redeemer. He sees that the transgressors of the law, if left to themselves, must perish under the Father's displeasure. He sees the power of sin, and the utter helplessness of man to save himself. The woes and lamentations of a doomed world rise before him. He beholds its impending fate, and his decision is made. He will save man at any cost to himself. He accepts his baptism of blood, that perishing millions may through him gain everlasting life. He left the courts of heaven, where all was purity, happiness, and glory, to save the one lost sheep, the one world that had fallen by transgression, and he will not turn from the mission he has chosen. Having made the decision and reached the final crisis, he fell in a dying condition to the earth, from which he had partially risen. Where now were his disciples, to place their hands tenderly beneath the head of their fainting Master, and bathe that brow, marred indeed more than the sons of men? The Saviour trod the wine-press alone, and of all the people there was none with him. And yet he was not alone. He had said, "I and my Father are one." God suffered with his Son. Man cannot comprehend the sacrifice made by the Infinite God in giving up his Son to reproach, agony, and death.
The angels who had done Christ's will in heaven were anxious to comfort him; but it was beyond their power to alleviate his sorrow. They had never felt the sins of a ruined world, and they beheld with astonishment the object of their adoration subject to a grief beyond all expression. Though the disciples had failed to sympathize with their Lord in the trying hour of his conflict, all heaven was full of sympathy and waiting the result with painful interest. When it was finally determined, an angel was sent from the throne of God to minister unto the stricken Redeemer.
The disciples were suddenly aroused from their slumber by a bright light shining upon and around the Son of God. They started up in amazement, and beheld a heavenly being, clothed in garments of light, bending over their prostrate Master. With one hand he lifted the head of the Divine sufferer upon his bosom, and with the other he pointed toward heaven. His voice was like the sweetest music, as he uttered soothing words presenting to the mind of Christ the grand results of the victory he had gained over the strong and wily foe. Christ was victor over Satan; and, as the result of his triumph, millions were to be victors with him in his kingdom.
The glorious vision of the angel dazzled the eyes of the disciples. They remembered the mount of transfiguration, the glory that encircled Jesus in the temple, and the voice of God issuing from the cloud. They saw the same glory here revealed, and had no further fear for their Master, since God had taken him in charge, and an angel was present to protect him from his foes. They were weary and heavy with sleep, and again they dropped into unconsciousness.
The Saviour arose and sought his disciples, and, for the third time, found them fast asleep. His words, however, aroused them: "Sleep on now, and take your rest; behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Even while these words were upon his lips, the footsteps of the mob that was in search of him were heard. Judas took the lead, and was closely followed by the high priest. Jesus turned to his disciples, as his enemies approached, and said, "Rise, let us be going; behold, he is at hand that doth betray me." The countenance of the Saviour wore an expression of calm dignity; no traces of his recent agony were visible as he stepped forth to meet his betrayer.
He stood in advance of his disciples, and inquired, "Whom seek ye?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." As these words were uttered, the mob staggered back; and priests, elders, soldiers, and even Judas, dropped powerless to the ground. This gave Christ ample opportunity to escape from them if he had chosen to do so. But he stood as one glorified amid that coarse and hardened band. When he answered, "I am he," the angel who had lately ministered to him moved between him and the murderous mob, who saw a divine light illuminating the Saviour's face, and a dove-like form overshadowing him. Their wicked hearts were filled with terror. They could not for a moment stand upon their feet in the presence of this Divine glory, and they fell as dead men to the ground.
The angel withdrew; the light faded away; Jesus was left standing, calm and self-possessed, with the bright beams of the moon upon his pale face, and still surrounded by prostrate, helpless men, while the disciples were too much amazed to utter a word. When the angel departed, the Roman soldiers started to their feet, and, with the priests and Judas, gathered about Christ as though ashamed of their weakness, and fearful that he would yet escape from their hands. Again the question was asked by the Redeemer, "Whom seek ye?" Again they answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." The Saviour then said, "I have told you that I am he. If, therefore, ye seek me, let these go their way"—pointing to the disciples. In this hour of humiliation, Christ's thoughts were not for himself, but for his beloved disciples. He wished to save them from any further trial of their strength.
Judas, the betrayer, did not forget his part, but came close to Jesus, and took his hand as a familiar friend, and bestowed upon him the traitor's kiss. Jesus said to him, "Friend, wherefore art thou come?" His voice trembled with sorrow as he addressed the deluded Judas: "Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?" This most touching appeal should have roused the conscience of the betrayer, and softened his stubborn heart; but honor, fidelity, and human tenderness had utterly forsaken him. He stood bold and defiant, showing no disposition to relent. He had given himself up to the control of Satan, and he had no power to resist him. Jesus did not reject the traitor's kiss. In this he gives us an example of forbearance, love, and pity, that is without a parallel.
Though the murderous throng were surprised and awed by what they had seen and felt, their assurance and hardihood returned as they saw the boldness of Judas in touching the person of Him whom they had so recently seen glorified. They now laid hold upon Jesus, and proceeded to bind those precious hands that had ever been employed in doing good.
When the disciples saw that band of strong men lying prostrate and helpless on the ground, they thought surely their Master would not suffer himself to be taken; for the same power that prostrated that hireling mob could cause them to remain in a state of helplessness until Jesus and his companions should pass unharmed beyond their reach. They were disappointed and indignant as they saw the cords brought forward to bind the hands of Him whom they loved. Peter, in his vehement anger, rashly cut off, with his sword, an ear of the servant of the high priest.
When Jesus saw what Peter had done, he released his hands, though held firmly by the Roman soldiers, and saying, "Suffer ye thus far," he touched the wounded ear, and it was instantly made whole. He then said to Peter, "Put up again thy sword into his place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" "The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" Jesus then turned to the chief priests, and captains of the temple, who helped compose that murderous throng, and said, "Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me? I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and ye took me not; but the Scriptures must be fulfilled."
When the disciples saw that Jesus did not deliver himself from his enemies, but permitted himself to be taken and bound, they were offended that he should suffer this humiliation to himself and them. They had just witnessed an exhibition of his power in prostrating to the ground those who came to take him, and in healing the servant's ear which Peter had cut off, and they knew that if he chose he could deliver himself from that murderous throng. They blamed him for not doing so, and, mortified and terror-stricken by his unaccountable conduct, they forsook him and fled. Alone, in the hands of the hooting mob, the Saviour was hurried from the garden.
At the Cross
The Son of God was led to the judgment-hall of an earthly court to be derided and condemned to death by sinful men. "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities." The Majesty of Heaven submitted to insult, mockery, and shameful abuse, "as a reproach of men, and despised of the people." He "gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He hid not his face from shame and spitting."
Satan instigated the cruel abuse of the debased mob led on by the priests and rulers, to provoke, if possible, retaliation from the world's Redeemer, or to drive him to deliver himself by a miracle from the hands of his persecutors, and thus break up the plan of salvation. One stain upon his human life, one failure of his humanity to bear the terrible test imposed upon it, would make the Lamb of God an imperfect offering, and the redemption of man would be a failure. But He who could command the heavenly hosts, and in an instant call to his aid legions of holy angels, one of whom could have immediately overpowered that cruel mob,—He who could have stricken down his tormentors by the flashing forth of his Divine majesty,—submitted with dignified composure to the coarsest insult and outrage.
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth." It was in the plan of redemption that he should suffer the scorn and abuse of wicked men, and he consented to all this when he became the Redeemer of man. In the character of humanity he was meekly to endure taunts and stripes, leaving to the children of men an example of patient forbearance.
Angels of God faithfully recorded every insulting look, word, and act directed against their beloved Commander; and the base men who scorned and spit upon the calm, pale face of Christ, were one day to look upon it in its glory, shining brighter than the sun. In that awful time they would pray to the rocks and the mountains: "Hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb."
Satan's rage was great as he saw that all the cruelty which he had led the Jews to inflict upon Jesus had not forced from his lips the slightest murmur. Although he had taken upon himself the nature of man, he manifested a Godlike fortitude, and departed in no particular from the will of his Father.
Wonder, O Heavens! and be astonished, O Earth! Behold the oppressor and the oppressed! A vast multitude inclose the Saviour of the world. Mocking and jeering are mingled with the coarse oaths of blasphemy. His lowly birth and his humble life are commented upon by unfeeling wretches. His claim to be the Son of God is ridiculed by the chief priests and elders, and the vulgar jest and insulting sneer are passed from lip to lip. Satan has full control of the minds of his servants. In order to do this effectually, he commenced with the Jewish leaders, and imbued them with religious frenzy. This they communicated to the rude and uncultivated mob, until there was a corrupt harmony in the feelings of all, from the hypocritical priests and elders down to the most debased outcast in the throng.
Jesus, the Son of God, was delivered to the people to be crucified. With shouts of triumph they led the Saviour away toward Calvary. The news of his condemnation had spread through all Jerusalem, striking terror and anguish to thousands of hearts, but bringing a malicious joy to many who had been reproved by his teachings. The priests had been bound by a promise not to molest any of his disciples if Jesus were delivered up to them; so all classes of people flocked to the scene of the outrage, and Jerusalem was left almost empty.
The disciples and believers from the region round about joined the throng that followed Jesus. His mother was also there, her heart stricken with unutterable anguish; yet she, with the disciples, hoped that the painful scene would change, and that Jesus would assert his power, and appear before his enemies as the Son of God. Then again her mother's heart would sink as she remembered words in which he had briefly referred to the things which were that day being enacted.
Jesus had hardly passed the gate of Pilate's house when the cross which had been prepared for Barabbas was brought out and laid upon his bruised and bleeding shoulders. Crosses were also placed upon the companions of Barabbas, who were to suffer death at the same time with Jesus. The Saviour had borne his burden but a few rods, when, from loss of blood and excessive weariness and pain, he fell fainting to the ground. As he lay beneath the heavy burden of the cross, how the heart of his mother longed to place a supporting hand beneath his wounded head, and bathe that brow that had once been pillowed upon her bosom. But, alas! that mournful privilege was denied her.
When Jesus revived, the cross was again placed upon his shoulders, and he was forced forward. He staggered on for a few steps, bearing his heavy load, then fell as one lifeless to the ground. The priests and rulers felt no compassion for their suffering victim; but they saw that it was impossible for him to carry the instrument of torture farther. They were puzzled to find any one who would humiliate himself to bear the cross to the place of execution.
While they were considering what to do, Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from an opposite direction, met the crowd, was seized at the instigation of the priests, and compelled to carry the cross of Christ. The sons of Simon were disciples of Jesus, but he himself had never been connected with him. This occasion was a profitable one for him. The cross he was forced to bear became the means of his conversion. His sympathies were deeply stirred in favor of Jesus; and the events of Calvary, and the words uttered by the Saviour caused him to acknowledge that he was the Son of God. Simon ever after felt grateful to God for the providence which placed him in a position to receive evidence for himself that Jesus was the world's Redeemer.
A great multitude followed the Saviour to Calvary; many were mocking and deriding, but some were weeping and recounting his praise. Those whom he had healed of various infirmities, and those whom he had raised from the dead, declared his marvellous works with earnest voice, and demanded to know what Jesus had done that he should be treated as a malefactor. Only a few days before, they had attended him with joyful hosannas and the waving of palm-branches, as he rode triumphantly to Jerusalem. But many who had then shouted his praise, because it was popular to do so, now swelled the cry of "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
Upon the occasion of Christ's riding into Jerusalem, the disciples had been raised to the highest pitch of expectation. They had pressed close about their Master, and had felt that they were highly honoured to be connected with him. Now they followed him in his humiliation at a distance. They were filled with inexpressible grief and disappointed hopes. How were the words of Jesus verified: "All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for it is written, I will smite the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad." Yet the disciples still had faint hope that their Master would manifest his power at the last moment, and deliver himself from his enemies.
Upon arriving at the place of execution, the condemned were bound to the instruments of torture. While the two thieves wrestled in the hands of those who stretched them upon the cross, Jesus made no resistance. His mother looked on with agonizing suspense, hoping that he would work a miracle to save himself. Surely He who had given life to the dead would not suffer himself to be crucified. What torture wrung her heart as she witnessed the shame and suffering of her son, yet was not able to minister to him in his distress! How bitter her grief and disappointment! Must she give up her faith that he was the true Messiah? Would the Son of God allow himself to be cruelly slain? She saw his hands stretched upon the cross. And now the hammer and the nails were brought, and as the spikes were driven through the tender flesh and fastened to the cross, the heart-stricken disciples bore away from the cruel scene the fainting form of the mother of Christ.
Jesus made no murmur of complaint; his face remained pale and serene, but great drops of sweat stood upon his brow. There was no pitying hand to wipe the death-dew from his face, nor words of sympathy and unchanging fidelity to stay his human heart. He was treading the wine-press alone; and of all the people there was none with him. While the soldiers were doing their fearful work, and he was enduring the most acute agony, Jesus prayed for his enemies—"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." His mind was borne from his own suffering to the crime of his persecutors and the terrible but just retribution that would be theirs. He pitied them in their ignorance and guilt. No curses were called down upon the soldiers who were handling him so roughly, no vengeance was invoked upon the priests and rulers who were the cause of all his suffering, and were then gloating over the accomplishment of their purpose; the Saviour uttered only a plea for their forgiveness—"for they know not what they do."
Had they realized that they were putting to torture one who had come to save the sinful race from eternal ruin, they would have been overwhelmed with horror and remorse. But their ignorance did not remove their guilt; for it was their privilege to know and accept Jesus as their Saviour. They rejected all evidence, and not only sinned against Heaven in crucifying the King of glory, but against the commonest feelings of humanity in putting to death an innocent man. Jesus was earning the right to become the Advocate for man in the Father's presence. That prayer of Christ for his enemies embraced the world, taking in every sinner who should live, until the end of time.
After Jesus was nailed to the cross, it was lifted by several powerful men, and thrust with great violence into the place prepared for it, causing him the most excruciating agony. And now a terrible scene was enacted. Priests, scribes, and rulers forgot the dignity of their sacred office, and joined with the rabble in mocking and jeering the dying Son of God, saying, "If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself." And some deridingly repeated among themselves: "He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him; for he said, I am the Son of God." "And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself and come down from the cross."
These men, who professed to be the expounders of prophecy, were themselves repeating the very words which Inspiration had foretold they would utter upon this occasion; yet in their blindness they did not perceive that they were fulfilling prophecy. The dignitaries of the temple, the hardened soldiers, the vile thief upon the cross, and the base and cruel among the multitude, all united in their abuse of Christ.
The thieves who were crucified with Jesus suffered like physical torture with him; but one was only hardened and rendered desperate and defiant by his pain. He took up the mocking of the priests, and railed upon Jesus, saying, "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." The other malefactor was not a hardened criminal; his morals had been corrupted by association with the base, but his crimes were not so great as were those of many who stood beneath the cross reviling the Saviour.
In common with his nation, he had believed that Messiah was soon to come. He had heard Jesus, and been convicted by his teachings; but through the influence of the priests and rulers he had turned away from him. He had sought to drown his convictions in the fascinations of pleasure. Corrupt associations had led him farther and farther into wickedness, until he was arrested for open crime, and condemned to die upon the cross. During that day of trial he had been in company with Jesus in the judgment-hall and on the way to Calvary. He had heard Pilate declare him to be a just man; he had marked his god-like deportment and his pitying forgiveness of his tormentors. In his heart he acknowledged Jesus to be the Son of God.
When he heard the sneering words of his companion in crime, he "rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss." Then, as his heart went out to Christ, heavenly illumination flooded his mind. In Jesus, bruised, mocked, and hanging upon the cross, he saw his Redeemer, his only hope, and appealed to him in humble faith: "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
Jesus did not promise the penitent thief that he should go with him, upon the day of their crucifixion, to Paradise; for he himself did not ascend to his Father until three days afterward. See John 20:17. But he declared unto him, "I say unto thee today," meaning to impress the fact upon his mind, that at that time, while enduring ignominy and persecution, he had the power to save sinners. He was man's Advocate with the Father, having the same power as when he healed the sick and raised the dead to life; it was his Divine right to promise that day to the repentant, believing sinner, "Thou shalt be with me in Paradise."
The Saviour, lifted upon the cross, enduring pain and mockery, is sought by a guilty, dying soul with a faith discerning the world's Redeemer in him who is crucified as a malefactor. While the leading Jews deny him, and even the disciples doubt his Divinity, the poor thief, upon the brink of eternity, at the close of his probation, calls Jesus his Lord! Many were ready to call him Lord when he wrought miracles, and also after he had risen from the grave; but none called him Lord as he hung dying upon the cross, save the penitent thief. Never during his entire ministry were words more grateful to the Saviour's ears, than was the utterance of faith from the lips of the dying malefactor, amid the taunts and blasphemy of the mob.
The enemies of Jesus awaited his death with impatient hope. That event they imagined would forever hush the rumours of his Divine power and the wonders of his miracles. They flattered themselves that they would then no longer tremble because of his influence. The unfeeling soldiers who had stretched the body of Jesus upon the cross, divided his clothing among themselves, contending over one garment, which was woven without seam. They finally decided the matter by casting lots for it. The pen of Inspiration had accurately described this scene hundreds of years before it took place: "Dogs have compassed me; the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me; they pierced my hands and my feet." "They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."
The mission of Christ's earthly life was now nearly accomplished. His tongue was parched, and he said, "I thirst." They saturated a sponge with vinegar and gall, and offered it him to drink; but when he had tasted it, he refused it. The Lord of life and glory was dying, a ransom for the race.
It was not the dread of death which caused the inexpressible agony of Jesus. To believe this would be to place him beneath the martyrs in courage and endurance; for many of those who have died for their faith, yielded to torture and death, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer for Christ's sake. Christ was the prince of sufferers; but it was not bodily anguish that filled him with horror and despair; it was a sense of the malignity of sin, a knowledge that man had become so familiar with sin that he did not realize its enormity, that it was so deeply rooted in the human heart as to be well-nigh impossible to eradicate. It was the guilt of sin, bringing the Father's wrath upon him as man's substitute, that broke the heart of the Son of God. Every pang that he endured upon the cross, the blood-drops that flowed from his head, his hands, and feet, the agony that racked his frame, and the unutterable anguish that filled his soul at the hiding of his Father's face, speak to man, saying, It is for love of thee that the Son of God consents to have these heinous crimes laid upon him; for thee he spoils the domain of death, and opens the gates of Paradise and immortal life. He who stilled the angry waves by his word, and walked the foam-capped billows, who made devils tremble, and disease flee from his touch, who opened the eyes of the blind, and raised the dead to life,—offers himself upon the cross as the all-sufficient sacrifice for man.
Satan, with his fierce temptations, wrung the heart of Jesus. Sin, so hateful to his sight, was heaped upon him till he groaned beneath its weight. No wonder that his humanity trembled in that fearful hour. Angels witnessed with amazement the despairing agony of the Son of God, so much greater than his physical pain that the latter was hardly felt by him. The hosts of heaven veiled their faces from the fearful sight.
Inanimate nature expressed sympathy with its insulted and dying Author. The sun refused to look upon the awful scene. Its full, bright rays were illuminating the earth at midday, when suddenly it seemed to be blotted out. Complete darkness, like a funeral pall, enveloped the cross and all the vicinity. There was no eclipse or other natural cause for this darkness, which was deep as midnight without moon or stars. It lasted three full hours. No eye could pierce the gloom that enshrouded the cross, and none could penetrate the deeper gloom that flooded the suffering soul of Christ. A nameless terror took possession of all who were collected about the cross. The silence of the grave seemed to have fallen upon Calvary. The cursing and reviling ceased in the midst of half-uttered sentences. Men, women, and children prostrated themselves upon the earth in abject terror. Vivid lightnings, unaccompanied by thunder, occasionally flashed forth from the cloud, and revealed the cross and the crucified Redeemer.
Priests, rulers, scribes, executioners, and the mob, all thought their time of retribution had come. After a while, some whispered to others that Jesus would now come down from the cross. Some attempted to grope their way back to the city, beating their breasts and wailing in fear.
At the ninth hour the terrible darkness lifted from the people, but still wrapt the Saviour as in a mantle. The angry lightnings seemed to be hurled at him as he hung upon the cross. Then "Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" As the outer gloom settled about Christ, many voices exclaimed, The vengeance of God is upon him! The bolts of God's wrath are hurled upon him because he claimed to be the Son of God! When the Saviour's despairing cry rang out, many who had believed on him were filled with terror; hope left them; if God had forsaken Jesus, what was to become of his followers, and the doctrine they had cherished?
There, upon the cross, hung the spotless Lamb of God, his flesh lacerated with stripes and wounds; those loving hands, that had ever been ready to relieve the oppressed and suffering, extended upon the cross, and fastened by the cruel nails; those patient feet, that had traversed weary leagues in the dispensing of blessings and in teaching the doctrine of salvation to the world, bruised and spiked to the cross; that royal head wounded by a crown of thorns; those pale and quivering lips, that had ever been ready to respond to the plea of suffering humanity, shaped to the mournful words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
In silence the people watch for the end of this fearful scene. Priests and rulers look toward Jerusalem, and lo, the dense cloud has settled upon the city, and over Judah's plains, and the fierce lightnings of God's wrath are directed against the fated city. Suddenly the gloom is lifted from the cross, and in clear, trumpet tones, that seem to resound throughout creation, Jesus cries, "It is finished," "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." A light encircled the cross, and the face of the Saviour shone with a glory like unto the sun. He then bowed his head upon his breast, and died.
The spectators stood paralyzed, and with bated breath gazed upon the Saviour. Again darkness settled upon the face of the earth, and a hoarse rumbling, like heavy thunder, was heard. This was accompanied by a violent quaking of the earth. The multitude were shaken together in heaps, and the wildest confusion and consternation ensued. In the surrounding mountains, rocks burst asunder with loud crashing, and many of them came tumbling down the heights to the plains below. The sepulchres were broken open, and the dead were cast out of their tombs. Creation seemed to be shivering to atoms. Priests, rulers, soldiers, and executioners were mute with terror, and prostrate upon the ground.
The darkness still hung like a pall over Jerusalem. At the moment in which Christ died, there were priests ministering in the temple before the vail which separated the holy from the most holy place. Suddenly they felt the earth tremble beneath them, and the veil of the temple, a strong, rich drapery that had been renewed yearly, was rent in twain from top to bottom by the same bloodless hand that wrote the words of doom upon the walls of Belshazzar's palace. The most holy place, that had been entered by human feet only once a year, was revealed to the common gaze. God had even before protected his temple in a wonderful manner; but now its sacred mysteries were exposed to curious eyes. No longer would the presence of God overshadow the earthly mercy-seat. No longer would the light of his glory flash forth upon, or the cloud of his disapproval shadow, the precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest.
When Christ died upon the cross of Calvary, a new and living way was opened to both Jew and Gentile. The Saviour was henceforth to officiate as Priest and Advocate in the heaven of heavens. Henceforth the blood of beasts offered for sin was valueless; for the Lamb of God had died for the sins of the world. The darkness upon the face of nature expressed her sympathy with Christ in his expiring agony. It evidenced to humanity that the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the world, was withdrawing his beams from the once favoured city of Jerusalem. It was a miraculous testimony given of God, that the faith of after-generations might be confirmed.
Jesus did not yield up his life until he had accomplished the work which he came to do. The great plan of redemption was triumphantly carried out. Through a life of obedience the fallen sons of Adam could finally be exalted to the presence of God. When the Christian comprehends the magnitude of the great sacrifice made by the Majesty of Heaven, then will the plan of salvation be magnified before him, and to meditate upon Calvary will awaken the deepest and most sacred emotions of his heart. Contemplation of the Saviour's matchless love should absorb the mind, touch and melt the heart, refine and elevate the affections, and completely transform the whole character. The language of Paul the apostle is, "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." And we may look toward Calvary and exclaim, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."
The Conflict Ended
When Jesus cried out, "It is finished," all Heaven triumphed. The controversy between Christ and Satan in regard to the execution of the plan of salvation, was ended. Satan had fully manifested his enmity against the Son of God. It was the cruel cunning of the fallen foe that planned the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Christ. His diabolical hatred, carried out in the death of Jesus, placed Satan where his true character was revealed to all created intelligences that had not fallen by sin. The angels were horror-stricken that one who had been of their number could fall so low as to be capable of such cruelty. Every sentiment of sympathy or pity which they had ever felt for Satan in his exile was quenched in their hearts.
Satan had put forth the strongest efforts against Christ from the time when he appeared as a babe in Bethlehem. He had sought in every possible manner to prevent him from developing an unblemished childhood, a true manhood, a holy ministry, and a perfect sacrifice in yielding up his life, without a murmur, for the sins of men. But Satan had been unable to discourage him, or to drive him from the work which he had come on earth to do. The storm of Satan's wrath beat upon him from the desert to Calvary; but the more mercilessly it fell, the more firmly did the Son of God cling to the hand of his Father, and press on in the blood-stained path before him. All the efforts of this mighty foe to oppress and overwhelm him, only brought out in a purer light the spotless character of Christ.
The justice of God was now fully vindicated in his act of banishing from heaven the fallen angel who had once been exalted next to Christ. All Heaven, and the worlds that had not fallen by sin, had been witnesses to the controversy between Christ and Satan. With intense interest had they followed the closing scenes of the conflict. They had beheld the Saviour enter the garden of Gethsemane, his soul bowed down by a horror of darkness that he had never before experienced. An overmastering agony had wrenched from his lips the bitter cry for that cup, if possible, to pass from him. A terrible amazement had filled his Divine spirit with shuddering dread, as he felt his Father's presence removed from him. He was sorrowful, with a bitterness of sorrow exceeding that of the last great struggle with death; the sweat of blood was forced from his pores, and fell in drops upon the ground. Thrice the prayer for deliverance had been wrung from his lips. Heaven had been unable to longer endure the sight, and had sent a messenger of consolation to the prostrate Son of God, fainting and dying under the accumulated guilt of the world.
Heaven had beheld the victim betrayed and hurried, with mockery and violence, from one earthly tribunal to another. It had heard the sneers of his persecutors because of his lowly birth, and the denial with cursing and swearing by one of his best-loved disciples. It had seen the frenzied work of Satan, and his power over the hearts of men. Oh, fearful scene! the Saviour seized at midnight in Gethsemane as a criminal, dragged to and fro from palace to judgment hall, arraigned twice before the Sanhedrim, twice before Pilate, and once before Herod, mocked, scourged, and condemned, led out to be crucified, bearing the heavy burden of the cross amid the wailing of the daughters of Jerusalem and the jeering of the crowd!
Heaven had viewed with grief and horror Christ hanging upon the cross, blood flowing from his wounded temples, and sweat tinged with blood standing upon his brow. From his hands and feet the blood had fallen, drop by drop, upon the rock drilled for the foot of the cross. The wounds made by the nails had gaped as the weight of his body dragged upon his hands. His laboured breath had grown quick and deep, as his soul panted under the burden of the sins of the world. All Heaven had been filled with amazement when the prayer of Christ was offered in the midst of his terrible suffering,—"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
Christ was the embodiment of God himself. The plan and execution of man's salvation was a demonstration of Divine wisdom and power. The unfathomable love of God for the human race in giving his Son to die for them, was made manifest. Christ was revealed in all his self-sacrificing love and purity. When the justice of God was expressed in judicial sentence, declaring the final disposition of Satan, that he should be utterly consumed with all those who ranked under his banner, all heaven rang with hallelujahs.
In the death of Christ upon the cross, angels had seen the pledge of final victory over the powers of darkness. In the slain Saviour sleeping in Joseph's tomb, angels beheld the mighty Conqueror. Angels guarded the sepulchre of Christ, and acted a part in his resurrection. While Roman sentinels were keeping their watch beside the Saviour's tomb, an angel of the most exalted order was sent from heaven. His countenance was like the lightning, and his garments white as snow. He parted the darkness from his track, and the whole heavens were lit with his resplendent glory. The earth trembled and heaved; soldiers, officers, and sentinels, all fell as dead men prostrate upon the earth. The evil angels, who had triumphantly claimed the body of Christ, fled in terror from the place. Then the mighty angel, with a voice that caused the earth to quake, was heard: Jesus thou Son of God, thy Father calls thee! And He who had earned the power to conquer death and the grave came forth, with the tread of a conqueror, from the sepulchre, amid the reeling of the earth, the flashing of lightning, and the roaring of thunder.
Jesus was the first-fruits of them that slept. When he came forth from the tomb, he called a multitude from the dead, thus settling forever the long-disputed question of the resurrection. In raising this multitude of captives from the dead, he gave evidence that there will be a final resurrection of those who sleep in Jesus.
Satan was bitterly incensed that his angels had fled from the presence of the heavenly angels, and that Christ had conquered death, and shown by this act what his future power was to be. All the triumph that the tempter had experienced in witnessing his own power over men, which had urged them on to insult and murder the Son of God, vanished before this exhibition of the Divine power of Christ. He had dared to hope that Jesus would not take up his life again; but his courage failed him when the Saviour came forth, having paid the full ransom of man, thus enabling him to overcome Satan in his own behalf in the name of Christ, the Conqueror. The archenemy now knew that he must eventually die, and that his kingdom would have an end.
At the death of Jesus the earth was wrapped in profound darkness at midday; but at the resurrection the brightness of the angels illuminates the night, and the inhabitants of heaven sing with great joy and triumph: Thou hast vanquished Satan and the powers of darkness! Thou hast swallowed up death in victory! "And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ; for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God, day and night."
With joy unutterable, all Heaven welcomed the hour when the Saviour, at the close of his earthly mission, ascended to the celestial courts. As a mighty Conqueror he led the way upward, and the multitude of captives whom he had raised from the dead at the time when he came forth from the tomb, followed him. With songs of joy and triumph, the heavenly host escorted him upward. At the portals of the city of God an innumerable company of angels awaited his coming. As they approached the gates of the city, the angels who were escorting the Majesty of Heaven, in triumphant tones addressed the company at the portals: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in!"
The waiting angels at the gates of the city inquire in rapturous strains, "Who is this King of glory?" The escorting angels joyously reply in songs of triumph, "The Lord, strong and mighty! The Lord, mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, O ye gates, even lift them up ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in!" Again the waiting angels ask, "Who is this King of glory?" and the escorting angels respond in melodious strains. "The Lord of hosts! He is the King of glory!" Then the portals of the city of God are widely opened, and the heavenly train pass in amid a burst of angelic music. All the heavenly host surround their majestic Commander as he takes his position upon the throne of the Father.
The Saviour presents the captives he has rescued from the bonds of death, at the price of his own life. His hands place immortal crowns upon their brows; for they are the representatives and samples of those who shall be redeemed by the blood of Christ from all nations, tongues, and people, and come forth from the dead, when he shall call the just from their graves at his second coming. Then shall they see the marks of Calvary in the glorified body of the Son of God. Their greatest joy will be found in the presence of Him who sitteth on the throne; and the enraptured saints will exclaim, My beloved is mine, and I am his! He is the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely!
With the deepest joy and adoration, the hosts of angels bow before him, while the glad shout rings through the courts of heaven: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour and glory, and blessing!" Songs of triumph mingle with music from angelic harps, till heaven seems to overflow with joy and praise. The Son of God has triumphed over the prince of darkness, and conquered death and the grave. Heaven rings with voices proclaiming in lofty strains, "Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever!"