2 The Central Role Of The Crucifixion In The Gospels
It has been noted that Matthew, Mark and Luke include a large body of material which appears to be common to all three writers. This has led to the suggestion that there was a common source, 'Q', which they drew from. However, that reconstructed body of material doesn't include the material about the crucifixion. I find that significant, in that this fact reveals how each writer so personally describes the cross; they were each uniquely, personally impacted by it, just as we are. The textual emphasis upon the crucifixion is surely evidence that we are intended to dwell upon it. M.R. Vincent has correctly stated that " There is no day in all Bible history narrated with the fullness of that day. If we possessed the whole life of Christ, written with the same detail, the record would occupy one hundred and eighty volumes as large as the whole Bible" (1). It could also be pointed out that the intensity of textual attention to the Lord's ministry increases, overall; the final six months have far more detail recorded about them than the three previous years of ministry, the final week has more detail than any other week, and then the final hours have far more attention than any other incident in Scripture. Anyone who has read any amount of biography, or description of events in others’ lives, will realize the inevitable gap which there is between the reader and the person being described. Somehow the inspired Gospels bridge this gap. We see Jesus very real before us. The characters in human novels / accounts / biographies are as nothing compared to the immense stature which is given to the man Jesus in the crucifixion accounts, let alone to the central role of the crucifixion in the Gospel records. Somehow those records urgently transmit to us the essence of His personality. Without effort, without self-assertion, almost without direct claim, we are left awed with the reality that this man, through his death, demands my total response. All the Gospels present the crucifixion and resurrection as the climax of their presentation of the Gospel. Luke’s record is studded with references to the Lord’s progress on that final journey up to Jerusalem; events took place “as they went in the way" (Lk. 9:57-62), as if they were incidental to the main aim of the record, which was to describe the final coming of the Lord to Jerusalem and death (Lk. 13:22). It has been observed, truly enough: “Of the biographies I have read, few devote more than ten percent of their pages to the subject’s death- including biographies of men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, who died violent and politically significant deaths. The Gospels, though, devote nearly a third of their length to the climactic last week of Jesus’ life" (2) . “The cross is central in the structure of all four Gospels. They have well been described as ‘Passion narratives with extended introductions’. They are not biographies. In each one the death and resurrection of Jesus take up such a disproportionate amount of space that it is quite clear that the author has no intention of giving an account of the life of our Lord. Everything is arranged to lead up to the climax- the cross"(3). It is a quite mistaken view of the teaching of the Lord Jesus that it centred around brotherly love and the sermon on the mount. His most oft repeated image and demand was to carry His cross.
The following graphs attempt to express the centrality of the crucifixion record:
The Acts record likewise goes on to emphasize the apostolic preaching of the cross of Christ; and the Epistles centre around the meaning of this great act of atonement. The two sacraments of the ecclesia, baptism and the breaking of bread, both focus upon the believer’s appropriation to himself of the Lord’s cross. It is plain enough that we each have a solemn responsibility before the Lord Jesus Christ to use these records to attempt to re-live and appreciate the physical reality of His sacrifice. For He paid dearly for you, and for me: and so we must come to appreciate that price. The records are in fact written in such a way as to encourage us to re-live the crucifixion process as it were in slow motion. The record of the trials likewise is written in a way which encourages us to imagine it and live it out in our imaginations in slow motion. Donald Senior has pointed out how John's account of the trial scenes alternate between what is happening " inside" and " outside" (4):
(1) " Outside" - The Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate, Jn. 18:28-32
(2) " Inside" - Pilate interrogates Jesus, 18:33-38
(3) " Outside" - Pilate declares Jesus innocent, 18:38-40
(4) " Inside" - The Roman soldiers scourge and mock Jesus, 19:1-3
(5) " Outside" - Pliate again declares Jesus not guilty, 19:4-8
(6) " Inside" - Pilate interrogates Jesus, 19:9-12
(7) " Outside" - Pilate delivers Jesus to crucifixion, 19:13-16.
Tragically He so often sought to explain to the disciples about the cross; and yet always they met His efforts either with silence, or with irrelevant changing of the subject, or even protest, in Peter’s case. The tragic mismatch between the Lord’s cross and the mind of the disciples is brought out in Mk. 10:32-40. Having set His face to go up to Jerusalem, the Lord “went before them: and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid". The words imply that He took the lead and walked forcefully a few paces ahead of them in a startling manner. “If anything in the Gospels has the stamp of real and live recollection upon it, it is this"(5). His mind was evidently dwelling in His forthcoming death, in which He may well have foreseen that He would be crucified with sinners on His right and left. But then two of the disciples respond to His prediction of the cross by asking that they should sit on His right and left hand in glory over the others. Here we see, on the Gospel writers own admission, the paucity of their effort to grasp the real message of the cross. May it not be so with us. May we at least strive to enter into His struggle, and be moved to a true and unpretended humility by it.
The events of the crucifixion are an epitome of who the Lord most essentially was and is. His soul was made ‘sin’ in that He “poured out His soul unto death" (Is. 53:12). The Hebrew for “poured out" also means to make naked, to stretch out. The Lord bared His soul, who He essentially was, was displayed there for all to see; the wine was His blood which was Him, in the sense that the cross is who the son of God essentially was and is and shall ever be. “This is Jesus" was and is the title over the cross. There, for our redemption, He died (Heb. 9:15), He gave us Himself (1 Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14), His life (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45), His blood (1 Pet. 1:18,19; Eph. 1:7). His death, His life, His blood, these are all essentially Himself. The blood of Jesus speaks to us as if He personally speaks to us; He is personified as His blood (Heb. 12:24,25). This is the preaching (Gk. the word) of the cross. Paul makes the connection between the voice of Christ’s blood and the earthquake that shook all things at the time of the Old Covenant's inauguration. The voice of that blood can shake all things with the exception of the Kingdom, which cannot be shaken. This is the power of the cross. Human words, platform speaking, magazine articles- all these are so limited, although our communal life is inevitably built around them. People just don’t remember sermons. I doubt you can remember much of what you heard at the last ecclesial meeting you attended, let alone the meeting before that, and before that... This isn’t a sin; it’s just part of being human. But the point is, we need something to shake us, and this earth-shaking force is the voice of the cross. The link between the Lord’s death and the true word / voice of God is again made in Jn. 6:51 cp. 63: the words of the Lord give life, whereas also His flesh “which I will give for the life of the world" on the cross would also be the source of life. The giving of His flesh was in essence His word to man; the word made flesh. This phrase, we have suggested elsewhere, also refers to the Lord’s death rather than His birth.
Far back in Mosaic ritual, the voice of command was associated with the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat; the blood of the lamb was a command to respond (Ex. 25:22). Heb. 9:20 RV speaks of “te blood of the covenant which God commanded"; the book of the law was sprinkled with that blood to show the connection between the blood and the book. To eat His flesh and blood (in evident anticipation of His coming sacrifice and the memorial meeting) was to eat Him and His words (Jn. 6:53,54,63). His words were all epitomized in His offered flesh and blood. In His death and sacrifice (which " the blood of Jesus" represent), we see His very essence: He Himself. On the stake He poured out His soul unto death (Is. 53:12), and yet in His life He poured out His soul too (Ps. 42:4). The cross was an epitome of who He really had been for those 33 years. To know Christ is to know His cross (Is. 53:11). Paul spoke of knowing His sufferings, knowing Him [an ellipsis for ‘His cross’?] and His resurrection (Phil. 3:10). He poured out the wine, broke the bread, and told His men to do it in memory of Him- as if the life they then could remember was the essence of the cross which was to come.
The risen and exalted Lord is spoken of as being shamed, being crucified afresh, as agonizing in prayer for us just as He did on the cross (Rom. 8:24 cp. Heb. 5:7-9). On the cross, He made intercession for us (Is. 53:11,12); but now He ever liveth to make such intercession (Heb. 7:25). There He bore our sins; and yet now He still bears our sins (Is. 53:4-6. 11). Somehow, the cross is still there, just as the signs and wonders which God did in Egypt are there “even unto this day" (Jer. 32:20). The blood of Jesus cleanses us, in the present tense, from all our sins; the Lord Jesus loves us and frees us from our sins by His blood (1 Jn. 1:7; Rev. 1:5). We are cleansed by an ever 'freshly slain' sacrifice (Heb. 10:20 Gk.). We are to go forth unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach, his ‘having it cast in the teeth’ (Gk.; Heb. 13:13). It's as if He is still there, outside the city gates, and we shoulder our crosses and His reproach as He walked the Via Dolorosa, and go out to be crucified next to Him, as we endure being fools for Christ’s sake in our worldly decisions. It's a rather strange idea, at first consideration. But His sufferings are ongoing. The cross is still there- wherever we go, and however far we fall away from Him. We are bidden carry His cross (Mt. 20:23; Gal. 6:12), and yet also our own cross (Mt. 10:38). In our cross-experiences, those times when there is no other Christian option but to shoulder it... then we know something of the cross of the Lord, and then He is actively aware of that small kindred between His cross and ours.
The Lord's teaching concerning the cross was frequently misunderstood. This man who healed children, who taught wonderful lessons from birds and flowers about the love of God, kept interjecting into His conversation this talk about the 'last walk' of a crucifixion victim. It just seemed so out of place, and the people feared to ask Him. I can dimly liken it to our listening to someone speak a language which we only partly know. We get the gist of the sentences, but every now and again, they may speak about a theme which uses language totally foreign to us. They may keep repeating a word which we don't know, and yet evidently the sense of the sentence hinges upon it. And we are afraid to ask, we think we more or less get the general direction of what they are saying. But we may find that we don't; that we have quite misunderstood the real theme of their words. And so it must have been with the disciples, when the Lord spoke about His cross and theirs.
When He spoke of the cross and His sacrifice, His followers either changed the subject or turned away. They were even against the idea of crucifixion (Mk. 8:32; 9:32-4; 10:35-40). They failed to see the centrality of the cross. And these reactions can characterize our response to the cross, both in terms of turning away from considering its physicalities, and also in our own cross-carrying. And yet there is a sense of inevitability about the cross. We must face these things. Circle all the times in John 19 words like " therefore" occur (and cp. Acts 2:23). Consider how Luke records the indefatigable determination in the Lord's face during the final journey up to Jerusalem. There is the same inevitability about our cross carrying; even if we flunk it all the way through our lives, we eventually come to death. My name chiselled by some disinterested artist on a gravestone, with the radio playing in the background as he sits hunched up in his workshop.
There is a connection between the fact that we would rather not dwell on the literal realities of the cross, and the fact that when we are faced with a choice between the easy and the difficult forms of serving Christ, we will take the easy way. We will lay down the cross. It is no excuse to say that we get too emotionally choked up to think about the cross. The women weeping for the man from Nazareth would later disobey His word, and therefore be condemned in the destruction of Jerusalem. The Lord was telling them not to excuse their lack of real faith and response to Him by the fact that they were so distraught at the physicality of His sufferings.
I have given these studies several times. Each time, I am tempted half way through to put my notes away in almost mid sentence, change the topic entirely, talk about something else. This reaction, which I think we all identify with, is not simply because of the emotion and gruesomeness of it all. It is because we realize that the cross implies a deep, painful response from us. This may also be why 'the central object of our meeting' at the breaking of bread usually gets relegated to at the most a minute or so; we must ensure that our preparation, our exhorting of ourselves, doesn't just amount to listening to a Bible study; it must be a personal facing up to some aspects of the Lord's sacrifice. The Lord told the twelve that they must pick up their crosses and follow Him. When He said He was going up to Jerusalem to die, Peter asked him not. “Get behind me, Satan" was not the Lord wishing temptation to get behind him. He was telling Peter, whom He here calls ‘Satan’, to get behind Him and follow Him up there to Jerusalem, carrying His cross with Him (Mt. 16:23). Peter didn’t want the Lord to go up there, to die like that, because he knew that this meant that he too must carry the cross. Here lies the reason for our recoiling at the cross. We realize that it implies all too much for us, if this is truly what the Lord went through.
If we really think of the Lord's passion seriously, our thoughts will be punctuated with the realization: " I would not have done that. I would simply not have held on" . But in that He died for us all in Him, it is reckoned that we all died with Him the death of the cross (2 Cor. 5:14). We are graciously counted as having died with Him in baptism (Rom. 6:3-5), and now we try to live this out in practice. And in appreciating this, inevitably our patience with our brethren will be the more thorough-going. Appreciation of the cross will create unity between us; a common sense of failure, and yet also a common appreciation of the utter grace which we have been invited to behold and actually taste of. " All the people that came together to that sight" (Lk. 23:48) uses a word which really means to bond together in close association. This is the effect of the cross. Those who stared in wonder, yearning for a deeper appreciation, were somehow bound together by their experience of the cross.
When Paul faced Corinth, the ecclesia whom he had loved and brought into being with great labour pains, yet now riven with carnality, fabricating the most malicious rumours against him, bitter at his spirituality...he determined to know nothing among them, saving Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The antidote to ecclesial problems and selfishness is reflection upon the cross. By insisting on our rights, Paul says, we will make the weak brother stumble, " for whom Christ died" . 'Think of His cross and sacrifice', Paul is saying, 'and the sacrifice of self restraint you are asked to make is nothing at all'. And when he turned to the Galatians, turning away as they were to the flesh and to the doctrines of the world around them, he reminded them that it was impossible to turn away from the Truth with Jesus Christ evidently set forth, crucified among them (Gal. 3:1 NIV). It seems that Paul had gone through the process of crucifixion with them so realistically, that it was as if Christ had suffered before their eyes. If you have seen that, Paul says, and the vision remains with you, how can you turn away? And this is a powerful motivator for us too. The man who sees, really sees, something of the Lord's agony, simply won't turn away, doctrinally or practically. But if we turn away from the consideration, the motivation will not be there to keep on responding. In this sense the crucifixion record almost has a mystical power in it, if it is properly apprehended. The Lord foresaw that if He were lifted up, He would thereby draw all men [men of all types, of all nations and languages] unto Him in truth (Jn. 12:32). And a brief reflection upon the effect of the cross in human lives will reveal that this has indeed been the case. The cross was an instrument of torture; yet it inspires men to write hymns of praise about it [e.g. “When I behold the wondrous cross…"]. Men have never written hymns of praise to the guillotine or hangman’s rope. Nor have men made small relics of an electric chair and glanced towards them for inspiration at hard times.
The centrality of the cross is reflected in the way in which to live a life crucified with Jesus is set up as the ultimate aim of the Christian life. We are “becoming conformed [coming towards His morphe, His form and appearance] unto his death" (Phil. 3:10 RV). Slowly, our lives are working out towards that end; this is intended by God to be the final position we all reach by the time of our death or the Lord’s return; that we will in some vague, feint way, have become conformed to the mind of Jesus as He was at His death. And then, our body will be “conformed" (same Greek word) to His at His coming in a phsyical sense (Phil. 3:21). And this is why we should count all things loss in order to come to know Christ (Phil. 3:8)- which the context suggests we are to read as knowing the spirit of His death. This is why this study of the cross is so vital and central to our lives.
The cross elicits a purely individual response in each reader or listener who encounters it. I find this a simple observable fact; and a powerful one. But we find this feature confirmed when we compare the records of the cross against the rest of the Gospel accounts. In the records of the miracles, parables, ethical teachings of Jesus etc., we find a certain continuity and similarity between the descriptions. It has been postulated by many scholars that there was some currently unknown 'source' of sayings, which they call 'Q' [quelle- source], from which Matthew and Luke drew their material (6). Whether that is the case or not doesn't affect my point- for the lay reader of the Gospels can simply compare them and observe a great similarity in phrasing between Matthew, Mark and Luke. But- and this is the issue in our context- the accounts of the crucifixion are all markedly different from each other. Not that they contradict- but each writer stressed different things. Thus each of them records a different aspect of what was written on the signboard over the Lord's body. Each of the Gospel writers was impressed by the crucifixion quite differently; and it is the same for us today.
(1) M.R. Vincent, Word Studies In The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946).
(2) Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995) p. 185.
(3) Leon Morris, The Cross Of Jesus (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994 ed) p. 2.
(4) Donald Senior, The Passion Of Jesus In The Gospel Of John (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 1991) p. 69.
(5) James Denney, The Death Of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997 ed.) p. 25.
(6) See J.M. Robinson, Paul Hoffmann and John S. Kloppenborg., eds., The Critical Edition of Q (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000); C.M. Tuckett, Q And The History Of Early Christianity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996).