Let’s just imagine the scene. If you are of a delicate nature, you may not want to listen this tonight. The scene is gruesome.
Betrayed by his friends, arrested, falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, kept awake all night, whipped, spat at, forced to walk 2.5 miles and stripped naked, Jesus is nailed to a cross. During his prayer time the previous day Jesus had been sweating blood which meant that his skin was left tender and bruised. And then the flesh on his back had been shredded as he was whipped, all designed to bring him close to the point of death. And then, as he is secured to the cross the nails driven into his wrists had severed major nerves causing terrible pains to shoot up his arms. Then this cross is pitched upwards, wobbled about a bit until it is jolted into a hole in the ground. Perhaps it is wobbled some more as chocks are added to keep the cross in place.
Breathing took a huge effort and to speak, Jesus would have to push up and put weight on his feet which of course also had nails in them. And that is just what Jesus did in order to pray.
There are also two criminals nailed to crosses, one either side of Jesus. One of whom is angrily hurling insults at him. As is the crowd that has gathered to watch. Those that shouted ‘crucify,’ those that falsely accused Jesus have come to make sure the job is done. And now that Jesus is restrained they freely call out, jeering that he should prove that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one foretold who would save and restore Israel.
Below, a team of four solders are guarding the crosses. Perhaps this is their everyday role, perhaps they have crucified many men before, perhaps even in the few days leading up to this day. They have become immune to the horrors of crucifixion. This is simply their job and they get it done well. And one of the perks is claiming the last possessions of the deceased, so they roll dice to see who will claim which item. They too join in the insults.
And in the midst of this, Jesus pushes up on those nails in his feet and braces himself on his elbows in order to fill his lungs. And he prays aloud, not for himself, but for everyone who has contributed to his execution. His only concern is for others. He has every right to be angry, to hold a grudge, to pray for revenge but he asks that God forgive them because of their ignorance.
If you can remember back to a few days ago, when we looked at the Lord’s prayer, one of the lines in there is ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ Jesus had no sins to forgive but he did what he taught us to do and he forgave those who sinned against him. He doesn’t tell them that what they are doing is ok. He says that he will not hold on to any resentment towards them. He sees beyond their actions and he expresses love.
And let’s not forget that it is in our nature to be sinful and every sin we have committed has contributed to Jesus death. This prayer is for us too.
Over the next few hours God does something remarkable. He placed all of our sins, yours and mine on the shoulders of Jesus.
Other Gospels tell us that Jesus cried out ‘My God, my God, Why have you abandoned me?’ As excruciating as the crucifixion was (and crucifixion is actually where we get that word excruciating from), it was this moment, when God turned away from the sin that Jesus now carried that Jesus had been dreading. This abandonment, this separation from God was more painful than the betrayal, the insults, the whipping and the nails.
The sky turns dark. A Roman historian recorded that the stars could be seen and that there was an earthquake. All of creation is in agony with Jesus. It is such a powerful moment that nature is reflecting what is happening on the cross.
At the same time, the curtain in the temple is torn in two. This curtain was 60 ft (18 m) high, 30 ft (9 m) wide and 4 inches (10 cm) think. It was huge! Behind the curtain was the holiest part of the temple. It was the place where God lived. It was so holy that men could only go in on rare occasions and they would have a rope tied around their waist in case they were so overcome with the presence of God that they died, and needed to be pulled out.
In this moment God tears the curtain from top to bottom, from Heaven to Earth. God exits the temple. With all of our sin now placed on Jesus, God no longer sees our sins, that which previously kept us apart from him. He now sees us as pure, holy and without sin.
With his last breath Jesus commits himself into his Father’s hands. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus also proclaimed that ‘It is finished.’ The word he said is ‘tetelestai’ It was often stamped on official documents and means ‘completed’ or ‘paid in full’. Jesus declared that the debt for our sins had been paid!
Wow! Even the centurion guarding the cross saw what a momentous moment this was. He may not have understood it fully, but he believed that Jesus was the Son of God.
And of course the story doesn’t end there. We read in the next few pages that after Jesus died, and let’s not have any ideas about Jesus not really being dead because the Roman soldiers knew how to execute someone, Jesus was buried and three days later he came back to life.
How do we respond to that?
I cannot imagine what it was like for Jesus on the cross. I get scared just going to the dentist!
Personally, I cannot thank Jesus enough for what he has done. My whole life and all that I have I give back to Him. I don’t always get it right. I sometimes take it for granted. And I don’t find it easy to forgive others, but, because of what Jesus did on the cross I have committed to spend all my days trying to honour God, not because I want to earn any special favour, not because I think I can pay back what Jesus has done but as a token expression of my gratitude.
Tonight, spend some time thinking about what you have read and heard today. How will you respond? If you already know that Jesus is the Son of God you might want to spend some time in prayer or worship.
If you are like the centurion and have just begun to understand what Jesus and the cross means talk to your youth leader, church leader or contact me about what you can do next.
Is there someone that you need to forgive? If the innocent Jesus can forgive those, and us, that caused his death, then we have no excuse for not forgiving others. If you need help with this talk to your youth leader, church leader or someone safe that you trust. Remember that forgiveness doesn’t make the wrong right, instead we pay forward the forgiveness that we have received and free our spirit from holding on to damaging anger, hurt and resentment.