Two things are seen at the Cross. On the one hand, God’s great love is displayed, and how far it was prepared to go on the sinner’s behalf. On the other, we also see there the true state of man, as demonstrated in his treatment of God’s Son.
That the heathen, who were without God, should, in their ignorance, persecute God’s son, is not surprising. To learn, however, that He appeared on earth among His own people and found there His bitterest enemies and most determined opponents only serves to demonstrate to us the utter corruption of man’s heart (however richly he may be blessed on earth, or highly favoured with divine revelation). Mere knowledge, even of the word of God, cannot change man’s heart, and nor can temporal blessings subdue his enmity to what is of God. The rulers of the Jews knew that the Messiah was coming, and one of their number had admitted that they recognised that the Lord Jesus was “a teacher from God” (John 3: 2). They also could not deny that He went about doing good, as no man had ever done before, and yet despite all this, they constantly sought to kill Him. In Pilate’s judgment hall, it was the chief priests and the elders who “persuaded the crowds that they should beg for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.” (Matt. 27: 20) Had Pilate hearkened to the entreaties of his wife or acted in accordance with his conscience, he would have saved the Lord from death, for “he knew that they had delivered him up through envy” (v18).
Having been scourged, and unable to carry His cross alone (see Luke 23: 26) it might have been supposed that the sight of the Lord’s sufferings might cause man’s enmity to give way to pity. Yet though three people were crucified together, it is only to the one that the railings and taunts were addressed. Had they taunted the thieves, it would not have been surprising since they had offended against society, but He had only gone around “doing good, and healing all that were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10: 38). If men had reviled them all indiscriminately it might have been put down to popular ignorance, but the fact is, it was only the Son of God who was thus treated. Furthermore, none of the chief priests who witnessed what took place interfered to check the malice of the people, or to lift up a voice on Christ’s behalf. Man, there unrestrained by God’s hand, showed what he was capable of.
Listen to the jibes of those that passed by: “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou art Son of God, descend from the cross” (Matt. 27: 40). A display of power would, in their eyes, be proof of His divine sonship. To their taunt He gave no reply, but remained on the cross. Why? Not because He wasn’t God’s Son, but because He was. They associated power with sonship, but He showed that there is more to sonship than power––that the relationship was one of obedience. Thus the Lord demonstrated His perfect submission to the will of His Father by staying on the cross. Those reviling Him did not realise the stupidity of what they had said. How could the Son have acted in contravention of the Father’s will? If He was “Son of God” how could He save Himself? They spoke of a relationship which implied subjection to the Father, and yet at the same time demanded that He act in the interests of Himself. Such language revealed that self and not the Father’s will was the guiding principle in their thoughts.
Another class of people in Israel also witnessed Christ offering up Himself, and mocked Him as He suffered. It was the chief priests, with the scribes, and elders, who said “He saved others, himself he cannot save. He is King of Israel: let him descend now from the cross, and we will believe on Him” (v42). They acknowledged His works of kindness done on the behalf of others, yet they refused to acknowledge the claims which those same works substantiated. Those acts testified that He was God’s servant––the Christ–– as men charged to expound God’s word should have known. Yet despite all they had seen and heard, they demanded that His claim to be the Messiah should be settled by His immediate descent from the cross! Power exerted for the benefit of others was a proof of His Messiahship (see Is. 53: 4; Matt. 8: 17), but power put forth to save Himself from death was never predicted as a proof that the King of Israel was on earth. They rejected what the word of God would have led them to look for, and asked for a sign which no prophet had authorised them to expect. It was right to connect the presence of the King with the display of power, but it was wrong to connect it with the exercise of that power to save Himself. If the passers–by had proved their ignorance of the subjection due from the Son to the Father, the chief priests here showed their ignorance of the Scriptures, and, stranger than all, they unwittingly fulfilled the Psalms as they taunted Him with being forsaken by God (Comp. Ps. 22: 1 and Matt. 27: 43). If such was the conduct of the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, can we wonder at what follows? “And the robbers also who had been crucified with him cast the same reproaches on him” (v44).
What an exhibition we have then of man in his real colours! The Lord had been crucified between two thieves, but it was the Jewish leaders who were the truer companions of such. Man’s trial of four thousand years was ended. He had acted as the tool of the enemy, and driven out God’s Son from the world He had created. What would God do in response to these atrocities? That he should immediately act in power would surprise no one, but the direction of the power was not as we might expect: “And lo, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom, and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were rent” (v51). Despite the extreme provocation God did not act in power against man. Why? Because He had acted in judgment against His own well–beloved Son instead! If man’s heart is displayed at the cross, so is God’s. For your blessing and mine, God laid upon Christ His righteous anger against “the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53: 6). Through Christ’s offering of Himself for sin, the ground was laid on which God could publicly deal in grace with those who deserved His ever–lasting wrath.
“The veil of the temple was rent” (v51). By God’s command it had been erected, and by His power it was now rent in two. Thus as soon as the Lord had died, there was manifested in the temple what had taken place on Calvary. The righteous basis had been laid by which God could come out in blessing to man, for the man that died there “is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2: 2). Yet this was not all for “the tombs were opened” (Matt. 27: 52). The existence of graves bore witness to man’s sin, and its temporal consequences––death. But if “by man [came] death”, now by man comes “also resurrection of [those that are] dead” (1 Cor. 15: 21). The graves, opened by divine power on that day, illustrated this truth––although none of the saints went out of the tombs until “after his arising” (Matt. 27: 53). Thus before the Lord’s body was removed from the cross, God had given manifest tokens that propitiation had been effected, and death vanquished.
On that day of days, man, by the cruel utterances of his mouth, had testified what was in his heart, and stood self–condemned. God, by contrast, utters not a word, but demonstrates by the exercise of power, what the death of Christ was in His sight, and how man could be blessed. Great was the convulsion of nature, and yet there was no disaster. No house engulfed its inhabitants, and no tottering wall fell on a passer–by. Power was displayed––not to make man suffer according to his just deserts––but to display openly and immediately the blessed results for man of the death of God’s beloved Son.