The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ - A Devotional History of our Lord's Passion
by James Stalker
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Yet now it turns out that He has touched the heart of one section at least even of this community: "There followed Him a great company of people and of women, which[1] also bewailed and lamented Him." Some have considered this so extraordinary that they have held these women to be Galileans; but Jesus addressed them as "daughters of Jerusalem." The Galilean men who had surrounded Him in His hour of triumph put in no appearance now in His hour of despair; but the women of Jerusalem broke away from the example of the men and paid the tribute of tears to His youth, character and sufferings. It is said that there was a Jewish law forbidding the showing of any sympathy to a condemned man; but, if so, this demonstration was all the more creditable to those who took part in it. The upwelling of their emotion was too sincere to be dammed back by barriers of law and custom.

It is said there is no instance in the Gospels of a woman being an enemy of Jesus. No woman deserted or betrayed, persecuted or opposed Him. But women followed Him, they ministered to Him of their substance, they washed His feet with tears, they anointed His head with spikenard; and now, when their husbands and brothers were hounding Him to death, they accompanied Him with weeping and wailing to the scene of martyrdom.[2]

It is a great testimony to the character of Christ on the one hand and to that of woman on the other. Woman's instinct told her, however dimly she at first apprehended the truth, that this was the Deliverer for her. Because, while Christ is the Saviour of all, He has been specially the Saviour of woman. At His advent, her degradation being far deeper than that of men, she needed Him more; and, wherever His gospel has travelled since then, it has been the signal for her emancipation and redemption. His presence evokes all the tender and beautiful qualities which are latent in her nature; and under His influence her character experiences a transfiguration.[3]

It has, indeed, been contended that there was no great depth in the emotion of the daughters of Jerusalem; and we need not deny the fact. Their emotion was no outburst of faith and repentance, carrying with it revolutionary effects, as tears may sometimes be. It was an overflow of natural feeling, such as might have been caused by any pathetic instance of misfortune. It was not unlike the tears which may be still made to flow from the eyes of the tender-hearted by a moving account of the sufferings of Christ; and we know that such emotions are sometimes far from lasting. Our nature consists of several strata, of which emotion is the most superficial; and it is not enough that religion should operate in this uppermost region; it must be thrust down, through emotion, into the deeper regions, such as the conscience and the will, and catch hold and kindle there, before it can achieve the mastery of the entire being.

But this response of womanhood to Christ was a beginning; and therein lay its significance. It was to Him a foretaste of the splendid devotion which He was yet to receive from the womanhood of the world. It was as welcome to Him in that hour of desertion and reproach as is the sight of a tuft of grass to the thirsty traveller in the desert. The sounds of sympathy flowed over His soul as gratefully as the gift of Mary's love enveloped His senses when the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

Thus in the Via Dolorosa Jesus experienced two alleviations of His suffering: the strength of a man relieved His body of the burden of the cross, and the pain of His soul was cooled by the sympathy of women. Is it not a parable—a parable of what men and women can do for Him still? Christ needs the strength of men—the strong arm, the vigorous hand, the shoulders that can bear the burden of His cause; He seeks from men the mind whose originality can plan what needs to be done, the resolute will that pushes the work on in spite of opposition, the liberal hand that gives ungrudgingly what is required for the progress and success of the Christian enterprise. From women he seeks sympathy and tears. They can give the sensibility which keeps the heart of the world from hardening; the secret knowledge which finds out the objects of Christian compassion and wins their confidence; the enthusiasm which burns like a fire at the heart of religious work. The influence of women is subtle and remote; but it is on this account all the more powerful; for they sit at the very fountains, where the river of human life is springing, and where a touch may determine its entire subsequent course.


It has been allowed to condemned men in all ages to speak to the crowds assembled to witness their death. The dying speech used in this country to be a regular feature of executions. Even in ages of persecution the martyrs were usually allowed, as they ascended the ladder, to address the multitude; and these testimonies, some of which were of singular power and beauty, were treasured by the religious section of the community. It is nothing surprising, therefore, that Jesus should have addressed those who followed Him or should have been permitted to do so. No doubt He was at the last point of exhaustion, but, when He was relieved of the weight of the cross, He was able to rally strength sufficient for this effort. Pausing in the road and turning to the women, whose weeping and wailing were filling His ears, He addressed Himself to them.

His words are, in the first place, a revelation of Himself. They show what was demonstrated again and again during the crucifixion—how completely He could forget His own sufferings in care and anxiety for others. His sufferings had already been extreme; His soul had been filled with injustice and insult; at this very moment His body was quivering with pain and His mind darkened with the approach of still more atrocious agonies. Yet, when He heard behind Him the sobs of the daughters of Jerusalem, there rushed over His soul a wave of compassion in which for the moment His own troubles were submerged.

We see in His words, too, the depth and fervour of His patriotism. When He saw the tears of the women, the spectacle raised in His mind an image of the doom impending over the city whose daughters they were. Jerusalem, as has been already said, had always been extremely unresponsive to Him; she had played to Him an unmotherly part. None the less, however, did He feel for her the love of a loyal son. He had shown this a few days before, when, in the midst of His triumph, He paused on the brow of Olivet, where the city came into view, and burst into a flood of tears, accompanied with such a lyric cry of affection as has never been addressed to any other city on earth. Subsequently, sitting with His disciples over against the temple, He showed how well He foreknew the terrible fate which hung over the capital of His country, and how poignantly He felt it. The city's doom was nigh at hand: less than half a century distant: and it was to be unparalleled in its horror. The secular historian of it, himself a Jew, says in his narrative: "There has never been a race on earth, and there never will be one, whose sufferings can be matched with those of Jerusalem in the days of the siege." It was the foresight of this which made Jesus now say, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children."

His words, still further, reveal His consideration for women and children. The tears of the women displayed an appreciation and sympathy for Him such as the men were incapable of; but well did He deserve them, for His words show that He had a comprehension of women and a sympathy with them such as had never before existed in the world. With the force of the imagination and the heart He realised how, in the approaching siege, the heaviest end of the misery would fall on the female portion of the population, and how the mothers would be wounded through their children. In that country, where children were regarded as the crown and glory of womanhood, the currents of nature would be so completely reversed by the madness of hunger and pain that barrenness would be esteemed fortunate; and in a country where length of days had been considered the supreme blessing of life they would long and cry for sudden and early death.

So it actually turned out. An outstanding feature of the siege of Jerusalem, according to the secular historian, was the suffering of the women and children. Besides using every other device of warfare, the Romans deliberately resorted to starvation, and the inhabitants endured the uttermost extremities of hunger. So frenzied did the men become at last that every extra mouth requiring to be filled became an object of delirious suspicion, and the last morsels were snatched from the lips of the women and children. One is tempted to quote some of the stories of Josephus about this, but they are so awful that it would be scarcely decent to repeat them.

This was what the quick sympathy of Jesus enabled Him to divine; and His compassion gushed forth towards those who were to be the chief sufferers. Women and children—how irreverently they have been thought of, how callously and brutally treated, since history began! Yet they are always the majority of the human race. Praise be to Him who lifted them, and is still lifting them, out of the dust of degradation and ill-usage, and who put in on their behalf the plea of justice and mercy!

Finally, there was in the words addressed to the daughters of Jerusalem an exhortation to repentance. When Jesus said, "Weep for yourselves and for your children," He was referring not merely to the approaching calamities of the city, but to its guilt. This was indicated most clearly in the closing words of His address to them—"For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"

He could speak of Himself as a green tree. He was young and He was innocent; to this the tears of the women testified; there was no reason why He should die; yet God permitted all these things to happen to Him. The Jewish nation ought also to have been a green tree. God had planted and tended it; it had enjoyed every advantage; but, when He came seeking fruit on it, He found none. It was withered; the sap of virtue and godliness had gone out of it; it was dry and ready for the burning; and, when the enemy came to apply the firebrand, why should God interpose? Thus did Jesus attempt once more to awaken repentance. He wished to thrust the impressions of the daughters of Jerusalem down from the region of feeling into a deeper place. They had given Him tears of emotion; He desired, besides these, tears of contrition; for in religion nothing is accomplished till impression touches the conscience.

Whether any of them responded in earnest we cannot tell. Not many, it is to be feared. Nor can we tell whether by repentance the destruction of the Jewish state might still have been averted. At all events, the fire of invasion soon fell on the dry tree, and it was burnt up. And since then those who would not weep for their sins before the stroke of punishment fell have had to weep without ceasing. Visitors to Jerusalem at the present day are conducted to a spot called the Place of Wailing, where every Friday representatives of the race weep for the destruction of their city and temple.[4] This has gone on for centuries; and it is only a symbol of the cup of astonishment, filled to the brim, which has during many centuries been held to the lips of Israel. Sin must be wept for some time—if not before punishment has fallen, then after; if not in time, then in eternity. This is a lesson for all. And has not that final word of Jesus a meaning for us even more solemn than it had for those to whom it was first addressed—"If these things be done in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" If woe and anguish fell, as they did, even on the Son of God, when He was bearing the sins of the world, what will be the portion of those who have to bear their own?

[1] The participle refers to the women alone.

[2] "How slow we have been to ask our sister members to help us!—although we read of deaconesses in the early Church, and although we do not read of a single woman who was unkind and unfaithful to the Saviour while here upon earth. Men were diabolic in their cruelty to Him, but never did a woman betray Him, mock Him, desert Him, nor spit in His face. Many of them cheered Him on His way to the Cross, washing His feet with tears before men pierced them with nails, anointing His head with precious perfume in anticipation of the thorns with which men crowned Him. They wept with Him on the way to Calvary, and were true to Him to the very end. And are they not devoted and true to Him still? Why, then, have we been so long in calling for their services?"—E. HERBERT EVANS, D.D.

[3] Brace, Gesta Christi.

[4] Striking description in Baring-Gould, The Passion of Jesus, p. 75.



Anyone writing on the life of our Lord must many a time pause in secret and exclaim to himself, "It is high as heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know?" But we have now arrived at the point where this sense of inadequacy falls most oppressively on the heart. To-day we are to see Christ crucified. But who is worthy to look at this sight? Who is able to speak of it? "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain unto it." In the presence of such a subject one feels one's mind to be like some tiny creature at the bottom of the sea—as incapable of comprehending it all as is the crustacean of scooping up the Atlantic in its shell.

This spot to which we have come is the centre of all things. Here two eternities meet. The streams of ancient history converge here, and here the river of modern history takes its rise. The eyes of patriarchs and prophets strained forward to Calvary, and now the eyes of all generations and of all races look back to it. This is the end of all roads. The seeker after truth, who has explored the realms of knowledge, comes to Calvary and finds at last that he has reached the centre. The weary heart of man, that has wandered the world over in search of perfect sympathy and love, at last arrives here and finds rest. Think how many souls every Lord's Day, assembled in church and chapel and meeting-house, are thinking of Golgotha! how many eyes are turned thither every day from beds of sickness and chambers of death! "Lord, to whom can we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

Though, therefore, the theme is too high for us, yet we will venture forward. It is too high for human thought; yet nowhere else is the mind so exalted and ennobled. At Calvary poets have sung their sweetest strains, and artists seen their sublimest visions, and thinkers excogitated their noblest ideas. The crustacean lies at the bottom of the ocean, and the world of waters rolls above it; it cannot in its tiny shell comprehend these leagues upon leagues of solid translucent vastness; and yet the ocean fills its shell and causes its little body to throb with perfect happiness. And so, though we cannot take in all the meaning of the scene before which we stand, yet we can fill mind and heart with it to the brim, and, as it sends through our being the pulsations of a life divine, rejoice that it has a breadth and length, a height and depth, which pass understanding.


The long journey through the streets to the place of execution was at length ended, and thereby the weary journeyings of the Sufferer came to a close. The soldiers set about their preparations for the last act. But meanwhile a little incident occurred which the behaviour of Jesus filled with significance.

The wealthy ladies of Jerusalem had the practice of providing for those condemned to the awful punishment of crucifixion a soporific draught, composed of wine mixed with some narcotic like gall or myrrh,[1] to dull the senses and deaden the pain. It was a benevolent custom; and the cup was offered to all criminals, irrespective of their crimes. It was administered immediately before the frightful work of nailing the culprit to the tree commenced. This draught was handed to Jesus on His arrival at Golgotha. Exhausted with fatigue and burning with thirst, He grasped the cup eagerly and lifted it without suspicion to His lips. But, as soon as He tasted it and felt the fumes of the stupefying ingredient, He laid it down and would not drink.

It was a simple act, yet full of heroism. He was in that extremity of thirst when a person will drink almost anything; and He was face to face with outrageous torture. In subsequent times many of His own faithful martyrs, on their way to execution, gladly availed themselves of this merciful provision. But He would not allow His intellect to be clouded. His obedience was not yet complete; His plan was not fully wrought out; He would keep His taste for death pure. I have heard of a woman dying of a frightful malady, who, when she was pressed by those witnessing her agony to take an intoxicating draught, refused, saying, "No, I want to die sober." She had caught, I think, the spirit of Christ.

This is a very strange place in which to alight on the problem of the use and abuse of those products of nature or art which induce intoxication or stupefaction. Roots or juices with such properties have been known to nearly all races, the savage as well as the civilised; and they have played a great part in the life of mankind. Their history is one of the most curious. They are associated with the mysteries of false religions and with the phenomena of heathen prophecy and witchcraft; acting on the mind through the senses, they open up in it a region of mystery, horror and gloomy magnificence of which the normal man is unconscious. They have always been a favourite resource of the medical art, and in modern times, in such forms as opium and other better-known intoxicants, they have created some of the gravest moral problems.

On the wide question of the use of such substances as stimulants we need not at present enter; it is to their use for the opposite purpose of lowering consciousness that this incident draws attention. That in some cases this use is both merciful and permissible will not be denied. The discovery in our own day, by one of our own countrymen, of the use of chloroform is justly regarded as among the greatest benefits ever conferred on the human race. When the unconsciousness thus produced enables the surgeon to perform an operation which might not be possible at all without it, or when in the crisis of a fever the sleep induced by a narcotic gives the exhausted system power to continue the combat and saves the life, we can only be thankful that the science of to-day has such resources in its treasury.

On the other hand, however, there are grave offsets to these advantages. Millions of men and women resort to such substances in order to dull the nerves and cloud the brain during pain and sorrow which God intended them to face and bear with sober courage, as Jesus endured His on the cross. On the medical profession rests the responsibility of so using the power placed in their hands as not to destroy the dignity of the most solemn passages of life.[2] It will for ever remain true that pain and trial are the discipline of the soul; but to reel through these crises in the drowsy forgetfulness of intoxication is to miss the best chances of moral and spiritual development. Men and women are made perfect through suffering; but that suffering may do its work it must be felt. There is no greater misfortune than to bear too easily the strokes of God. A bereavement, for example, is sent to sanctify a home; but it may fail of its mission because the household is too busy, or because too many are coming and going, or because tongues, mistakenly kind and garrulous, chatter God's messenger out of doors. It is natural that physicians and kind friends should try to make sufferers forget their grief. But they may be too successful. Though the practice of the ladies of Jerusalem was a benevolent one, the gift mixed by their charitable hands appeared to our Lord a cup of temptation, and He resolutely put it aside.


All was now ready for the last act, and the soldiers started their ghastly work.

It is not my intention to harrow up the feelings of my readers with minute descriptions of the horrors of crucifixion.[3] Nothing would be easier, for it was an unspeakably awful form of death. Cicero, who was well acquainted with it, says: "It was the most cruel and shameful of all punishments." "Let it never," he adds, "come near the body of a Roman citizen; nay, not even near his thoughts or eyes or ears." It was the punishment reserved for slaves and for revolutionaries, whose end was intended to be marked by special infamy.

The cross was most probably of the form in which it is usually represented—an upright post crossed by a bar near the top. There were other two forms—that of the letter T and that of the letter X—but, as the accusation of Jesus is said to have been put up over His head, there must have been a projection above the bar on which His arms were outstretched. The arms were probably bound to the cross-beam, as without this the hands would have been torn through by the weight. And for a similar reason there was a piece of wood projecting from the middle of the upright beam, on which the body sat. The feet were either nailed separately or crossed the one over the other, with a nail through both. It is doubtful whether the body was affixed before or after the cross was elevated and planted in the ground. The head hung free, so that the dying man could both see and speak to those about the cross.

In modern executions the greatest pains are taken to make death as nearly as possible instantaneous, and any bungling which prolongs the agony excites indignation and horror in the public mind. But the most revolting feature of death by crucifixion was that the torture was deliberately prolonged. The victim usually lingered a whole day, sometimes two or three days, still retaining consciousness; while the burning of the wounds in the hands and feet, the uneasiness of the unnatural position, the oppression of overcharged veins and, above all, the intolerable thirst were constantly increasing. Jesus did not suffer so long; but He lingered for four or five hours.

I will not, however, proceed further in describing the sickening details. How far all these horrors may have been essential elements in His sufferings it would be difficult to say. Apart from the prophecies going before which had to be fulfilled, was it a matter of indifference what death He died? Would it have served equally well if He had been hanged or beheaded or stoned? We cannot tell. Only, when we know the secret of what His soul suffered, we can discern the fitness of the choice of the most shameful and painful of all forms of death for His body.[4]

The true sufferings of Christ were not physical, but internal. Looking on that Face, we see the shadow of a deeper woe than smarting wounds and raging thirst and a racking frame—the woe of slighted love, of a heart longing for fellowship but overwhelmed with hatred; the woe of insult and wrong, and of unspeakable sorrow for the fate of those who would not be saved. Nor is even this the deepest shadow. There was then in the heart of the Redeemer a woe to which no human words are adequate. He was dying for the sin of the world. He had taken on Himself the guilt of mankind, and was now engaged in the final struggle to put it away and annihilate it. On the cross was hanging not only the body of flesh and blood of the Man Christ Jesus, but at the same time His mystical body—that body of which He is the head and His people are the members. Through this body also the nails were driven, and on it death took its revenge. His people died with Him unto sin, that they might live for evermore.

This is the mystery, but it is also the glory of the scene. Till He hung on it, the cross was the symbol of slavery and vulgar wickedness; but He converted it into the symbol of heroism, self-sacrifice and salvation. It was only a wretched framework of coarse and blood-clotted beams, which it was a shame to touch; but since then the world has gloried in it; it has been carved in every form of beauty and every substance of price; it has been emblazoned on the flags of nations and engraved on the sceptres and diadems of kings.[5] The cross was planted on Golgotha a dry, dead tree; but lo! it has blossomed like Aaron's rod; it has struck its roots deep down to the heart of the world, and sent its branches upwards, till to-day it fills the earth, and the nations rest beneath its shadow and eat of its pleasant fruits.[6]


At length the ghastly preparations were completed; and in the greedy eyes of Jewish hatred the Saviour, whom they had hunted to death with the ferocity of bloodhounds, was exposed to full view. But the first triumphant glance of priests, Pharisees and populace met with a violent check; for above the Victim's head they saw something which cut them to the heart.

The practice of affixing to the apparatus of execution a description of the crime prevails in some countries to this day. In the Life of Gilmour of Mongolia there is a description of an execution which he witnessed in China; and in the cart which conveyed the condemned man to the scene of death a board was exhibited describing his misdeeds. The custom was a Roman one; and, besides, there was generally an official who walked in front of the procession of death and proclaimed the crimes of the condemned. No mention, however, of such a functionary appears in the Gospels; nor does the inscription appear to have been visible to all till it was affixed to the cross. It was fastened to the top of the upright beam; and Pilate made use of this opportunity to pay out the Jews for the annoyance they had caused him. He had parted from them in anger, for they had humiliated him; but he sent after them that which should be a drop of bitterness in their cup of triumph. When they were still at his judgment-seat, his last blow in his encounter with them had been to pretend to be convinced that Jesus really was their king. This insult he now prolonged by wording the inscription thus: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." It was as much as to say, This is what becomes of a Jewish king; this is what the Romans do with him; the king of this nation is a slave, a crucified criminal; and, if such be the king, what must the nation be whose king he is?

So enraged were the Jews that they sent a deputation to the governor to entreat him to alter the words. No doubt he was delighted to see them; for their coming proved how thoroughly his sarcasm had gone home. He only laughed at their petition and, assuming the grand air of authority which became no man so well as a Roman, dismissed them with the words, "What I have written I have written."

This looked like strength of will and character; but it was in reality only a covering for weakness. He had his will about the inscription—a trifle; but they had their will about the crucifixion. He was strong enough to browbeat them, but he was not strong enough to deny himself.

Yet, though the inscription of Pilate was in his own mind little more than a revengeful jest, there was in it a Divine purpose. "What I have written I have written," he said; but, had he known, he might almost have said, "What I have written God has written." Sometimes and at some places the atmosphere is so charged and electric with the Divine that inspiration alights and burns on everything; and never was this more true than at the cross. Pilate had already unconsciously been almost a prophet when, pointing to Jesus, he said, "Behold the Man"—a word which still preaches to the centuries. And now, after being a speaking prophet, he becomes, as has been quaintly remarked, a writing one too; for his pen was guided by a supernatural hand to indite the words, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."

It added greatly to the significance of the inscription that it was written in Hebrew and Greek and Latin. What Pilate intended thereby was to heighten the insult; he wished all the strangers present at the Passover to be able to read the inscription; for all of them who could read at all would know one of these three languages. But Providence intended something else. These are the three great languages of the ancient world—the representative languages. Hebrew is the tongue of religion, Greek that of culture, Latin the language of law and government; and Christ was declared King in them all. On His head are many crowns. He is King in the religious sphere—the King of salvation, holiness and love; He is King in the realm of culture—the treasures of art, of song, of literature, of philosophy belong to Him, and shall yet be all poured at His feet; He is King in the political sphere—King of kings and Lord of lords, entitled to rule in the social relationships, in trade and commerce, in all the activities of men. We see not yet, indeed, all things put under Him; but every day we see them more and more in the process of being put under Him. The name of Jesus is travelling everywhere over the earth; thousands are learning to pronounce it; millions are ready to die for it. And thus is the unconscious prophecy of Pilate still being fulfilled.

[1] One Evangelist says gall, another myrrh, and on this difference harmonists and their antagonists have spent their time; but surely it is not worth while.

[2] The distinction between the legitimate and the illegitimate use is not very easy to draw; but there is an obvious difference between destroying pain for an ulterior purpose and destroying it merely to save the feeling of the sufferer.

[3] On the details of crucifixion there is an extremely interesting and learned excursus in Zoeckler's Das Kreus Christi (Beilage III.). Cicero's Verrine Orations contain a good deal that is valuable to a student of the Passion, especially in regard to scourging and crucifixion. Crucifixion was an extremely common form of punishment in the ancient world; but "the cross of the God-Man has put an end to the punishment of the crow."

[4] Zoeckler maintains that crucifixion, while the most shameful, was not absolutely the most painful form of death.

[5] The appreciation of the significance of the Cross has gone on in two lines—the Artistic and the Doctrinal—both of which arc followed out with varied learning in Zoeckler's Kreus Christi.

The English reader may with great satisfaction trace the artistic development in Mrs. Jameson's History of our Lord as exemplified in Works of Art, where the following scheme is given of the varieties of treatment:—

"Symbolical, when the abstract personifications of the sun and moon, earth and ocean, are present.

"Sacrificially symbolical, when the Eucharistic cup is seen below the Cross, or the pelican feeding her young is placed above it.

"Simply doctrinal, when the Virgin and St. John stand on each side, as solemn witnesses; or our Lord is drinking the cup, sometimes literally so represented, given Him of the Father, while the lance opens the sacramental font.

"Historically ideal, as when the thieves are joined to the scene, and sorrowing angels throng the air.

"Historically devotional, as when the real features of the scene are preserved, and saints and devotees are introduced.

"Legendary, as when we see the Virgin fainting.

"Allegorical and fantastic, as when the tree is made the principal object, with its branches terminating in patriarchs and prophets, virtues and graces.

"Realistic, as when the mere event is rendered as through the eyes of an unenlightened looker-on.

"These and many other modes of conception account for the great diversity in the treatment of this subject; a further variety being given by the combination of two or more of these modes of treatment together; for instance, the pelican may be seen above the Cross giving her life's blood for her offspring; angels in attitudes of despair, bewailing the Second Person of the Trinity; or, in an ideal sacramental sense, catching the blood from His wounds—the Jews below looking on, as they really did, with contemptuous gestures and hardened hearts; the centurion acknowledging that this was really the Son of God, while the group of the fainting Virgin, supported by the Marys and St. John, adds legend to symbolism, ideality, and history."

In the study of the doctrinal development nothing is so important as the exegesis of the New Testament statements about the Cross; and this has been done in a masterly way by Dr. Dale in his work on the Atonement. What may be called the Philosophy of the Cross (to borrow a happy phrase of McCheyne Edgar's) came late. It is usually reckoned to have commenced with Anselm; and since the Reformation every great theologian has added his contribution. Yet the work is by no means completed. Indeed, at the present day there is no greater desideratum in theology than a philosophy of the Cross which would thoroughly satisfy the religious mind. Shallow theories abound; but the Church of Christ will never be able to rest in any theory which does not do justice, on the one hand, to the tremendously strong statements of Scripture on the subject and, on the other, to her own consciousness of unique and infinite obligation to the dying Saviour. Perhaps the most satisfactory expression of the Christian consciousness on the subject is to be found in the hymns of the Church, from the Te Deum down through Scotua Erigena and Fulbert of Chartres to Gerhardt and Toplady. See Schaff's Christ in Song.

A third line of development might be traced—the Practical—in martyrology, the history of missions, asceticism, and the like; and the spokesman of this branch of the truth is a Kempis, who, as Zoeckler says, teaches his disciples to know poverty and humility as the roots of the tree of the Cross, labour and penitence as its bark, righteousness and mercy as its two principal branches, truth and doctrine as its precious leaves, chastity and obedience as its blossoms, temperance and discipline as its fragrance, and salvation and eternal life as its glorious fruit.

[6] When the Northern nations became Christian they transferred to the Cross the nobler ideas embodied in the mystic tree Igdrasil; and one of the commonest ideas of the mystical writers of the Middle Ages is the identification of the Cross as both the true tree of life and the true tree of knowledge.



In the last chapter we saw the Son of Man nailed to the cursed tree. There He hung for hours, exposed, helpless, but conscious, looking out on the sea of faces assembled to behold His end. On the occasion of an execution a crowd gathers outside our jails merely to see the black flag run up which signals that the deed is done; and in the old days of public executions such an event always attracted an enormous crowd. No doubt it was the same in Jerusalem. When Jesus was put to death, it was Passover time, and the city was filled with multitudes of strangers, to whom any excitement was welcome. Besides, the case of Jesus had stirred both the capital and the entire country.[1]

The sight which the crowd had come to see was, we now know, the greatest ever witnessed in the universe. Angels and archangels were absorbed in it; millions of men and women are looking back to it to-day and every day. But what impressions did it make on those who saw it at the time? To ascertain this, let us look at three characteristic groups near the cross, whose feelings were shared in varying degrees by many around them.


Look, first, at the group nearest the cross—that of the Roman soldiers.

In the Roman army it seems to have been a rule that, when executions were carried out by soldiers, the effects of the criminals fell as perquisites to those who did the work. Though many more soldiers were probably present on this occasion, the actual details of fixing the beam, handling the hammer and nails, hoisting the apparatus, and so forth, in the case of Jesus, fell to a quaternion of them. To these four, therefore, belonged all that was on Him; and they could at once proceed to divide the spoil, because in crucifixion the victim was stripped before being affixed to the cross—a trait of revolting shame.[2] A large, loose upper garment, a head-dress perhaps, a girdle and a pair of sandals, and, last of all, an under garment, such as Galilean peasants were wont to wear, which was all of a piece and had perhaps been knitted for Him by the loving fingers of His mother—these articles became the booty of the soldiers. They formed the entire property which Jesus had to leave, and the four soldiers were His heirs. Yet this was He who bequeathed the vastest legacy that ever has been left by any human being—a legacy ample enough to enrich the whole world. Only it was a spiritual legacy—of wisdom, of influence, of example.

The soldiers, their ghastly task over, sat down at the foot of the cross to divide their booty. They obtained from it not only profit but amusement; for, after dividing the articles as well as they could, they had to cast lots about the last, which they could not divide. One of them fetched some dice out of his pocket—gambling was a favourite pastime of Roman soldiers—and they settled the difficulty by a game. Look at them—chaffering, chattering, laughing; and, above their heads, not a yard away, that Figure. What a picture! The Son of God atoning for the sins of the world, whilst angels and glorified spirits crowd the walls of the celestial city to look down at the spectacle; and, within a yard of His sacred Person, the soldiers, in absolute apathy, gambling for these poor shreds of clothing! So much, and no more, did they perceive of the stupendous drama they were within touch of. For it is not only necessary to have a great sight to make an impression; quite as necessary is the seeing eye. There are those to whom this earth is sacred because Jesus Christ has trodden it; the sky is sacred because it has bent above Him; history is sacred because His name is inscribed on it; the daily tasks of life are all sacred because they can be done in His name. But are there not multitudes, even in Christian lands, who live as if Christ had never lived, and to whom the question has never occurred, What difference does it make to us that Jesus died in this world of which we are inhabitants?


Look now at a second group, much more numerous than the first, consisting of the members of the Sanhedrim.

After condemning Jesus in their own court, they had accompanied Him through stage after stage of His civil trial, until at last they secured His condemnation at the tribunal of Pilate. When at last He was handed over to the executioners, it might have been expected that they would have been tired of the lengthy proceedings and glad to escape from the scene. But their passions had been thoroughly aroused, and their thirst for revenge was so deep that they could not allow the soldiers to do their own work, but, forgetful of dignity, accompanied the crowd to the place of execution and stayed to glut their eyes with the spectacle of their Victim's sufferings. Even after He was lifted up on the tree, they could not keep their tongues off Him or give Him the dying man's privilege of peace; but, losing all sense of propriety, they made insulting gestures and poured on Him insulting cries. Naturally the crowd followed their example, till not only the soldiers took it up, but even the thieves who were crucified with Him joined in. So that the crowd under His eyes became a sea of scorn, whose angry waves dashed up about His cross.

The line taken was to recall all the great names which He had claimed, or which had been applied to Him, and to contrast them with the position in which He now was. "The Son of God," "The Chosen of God," "The King of Israel," "The Christ," "The King of the Jews," "Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days"—with these epithets they pelted Him in every tone of mockery. They challenged Him to come down from the cross and they would believe Him. This was their most persistent cry—He had saved others, but Himself He could not save. They had always maintained that it was by the power of devils He wrought His miracles; but these evil powers are dangerous to palter with; they may lend their virtue for a time, but at last they appear to demand their price; at the most critical moment they leave him who has trusted them in the lurch. This was what had happened to Jesus; now at last the wizard's wand was broken and He could charm no more.

As they thus poured out the gall which had long been accumulating in their hearts, they did not notice that, in the multitude of their words, they were using the very terms attributed in the twenty-second Psalm to the enemies of the holy Sufferer: "He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him; for He said, I am the Son of God." Cold-blooded historians have doubted whether they could have made such a slip without noticing it; but, strange to say, there is an exact modern parallel. When one of the Swiss reformers was pleading before the papal court, the president interrupted him with the very words of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrim: "He hath spoken blasphemy: what further need have we of witnesses? What think ye?" and they all answered, "He is worthy of death"; without noticing, till he reminded them, that they were quoting Scripture.[3]

Jesus might have answered the cries of His enemies; because to one hanging on the cross it was possible not only to hear and see, but also to speak. However, He answered never a word—"when He was reviled, He reviled not again," "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth." This was not, however, because He did not feel. More painful than the nails which pierced His body were these missiles of malice shot at His mind. The human heart laid bare its basest and blackest depths under His very eyes; and all its foul scum was poured over Him.

Was it a temptation to Him, one wonders, when so often from every side the invitation was given Him to come down from the cross? This was substantially the same temptation as was addressed to Him at the opening of His career, when Satan urged Him to cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple. It had haunted Him in various forms all His life through. And now it assails Him once more at the crisis of His fate. They thought His patience was impotence and His silence a confession of defeat. Why should He not let His glory blaze forth and confound them? How easily He could have done it! Yet no; He could not. They were quite right when they said, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save." Had He saved Himself, He would not have been the Saviour. Yet the power that kept Him on the cross was a far mightier one than would have been necessary to leave it. It was not by the nails through His hands and feet that He was held, nor by the ropes with which His arms were bound, nor by the soldiers watching Him; no, but by invisible bands—by the cords of redeeming love and by the constraint of a Divine design.

Of this, however, His enemies had no inkling. They were judging Him by the most heathenish standard. They had no idea of power but a material one, or of glory but a selfish one. The Saviour of their fancy was a political deliverer, not One who could save from sin. And to this day Christ hears the cry from more sides than one, "Come down from the cross, and we will believe Thee." It comes from the spiritually shallow, who have no sense of their own unworthiness or of the majesty and the rights of a holy God. They do not understand a theology of sin and punishment, of atonement and redemption; and all the deep significance of His death has to be taken out of Christianity before they will believe it. It comes, too, from the morally cowardly and the worldly-minded, who desire a religion without the cross. If Christianity were only a creed to believe, or a worship in whose celebration the aesthetic faculty might take delight, or a private path by which a man might pilgrim to heaven unnoticed, they would be delighted to believe it; but, because it means confessing Christ and bearing His reproach, mingling with His despised people and supporting His cause, they will have none of it. None can honour the cross of Christ who have not felt the humiliation of guilt and entered into the secret of humility.


Let our attention now be directed to a third group. And again it is a comparatively small one.

As the eyes of Jesus wandered to and fro over the sea of faces upturned to His own—faces charged with every form and degree of hatred and contempt—was there no point on which they could linger with satisfaction? Yes, among the thorns there was one lily. On the outskirts of the crowd there stood a group of His acquaintances and of the women who followed Him from Galilee and ministered unto Him. Let us enumerate their honoured names, as far as they have been preserved—"Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses [Transcriber's note: Joseph?], and the mother of Zebedee's children."

Their position, "afar off," probably indicates that they were in a state of fear. It was not safe to be too closely identified with One against whom the authorities cherished such implacable feelings; and they may have been quite right not to make themselves too conspicuous. Apart from the danger to which they might be exposed, they had a whole tempest of trouble in their hearts. As yet they knew not the Scriptures that He must rise again from the dead; and this collapse of the cause in which they had embarked their all for time and for eternity was a bewildering calamity. They had trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel, and that He would live and reign over the redeemed race forever. And there He was, perishing before their eyes in defeat and shame. Their faith was at the very last ebb. Or say, rather, it survived only in the form of love. Bewildered as were their ideas, He had as firm a hold as ever on their hearts. They loved Him; they suffered with Him; they could have died for Him.

May we not believe that the eyes of Jesus, as long as they were able to see, turned often away from the brutal soldiers beneath His feet, and from the sea of distorted faces, to this distant group? In some respects, indeed, their aspect might be more trying to Him than even the hateful faces of His enemies; for sympathy will sometimes break down a strong heart that is proof against opposition. Yet this neighbourly sympathy and womanly love must, on the whole, have been a profound comfort and support. He was sustained all through His sufferings by the thought of the multitudes without number who would benefit from what He was enduring; but here before His eyes was an earnest of His reward; and in them He saw of the travail of His soul and was satisfied.

In these three groups, then, we see three predominant states of mind—in the soldiers apathy, in the Sanhedrim antipathy, in the Galileans sympathy.

Has it ever occurred to you to ask in which group you would have been had you been there? This is a searching question. Of course it is easy now to say which were right and which were wrong. It is always easy to admire the heroes and the causes of bygone days; but it is possible to do so and yet be apathetic or antipathetic to those of our own. Even the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross admired Romulus and Cincinnatus and Brutus, though they had no feeling for One at their side greater than these. The Jews who were mocking Christ admired Moses and Samuel and Isaiah. Christ is still bearing His cross through the streets of the world, and is hanging exposed to contempt and ill-treatment; and it is possible to admire the Christ of the Bible and yet be persecuting and opposing the Christ of our own century. The Christ of to-day signifies the truth, the cause, the principles of Christ, and the men and women in whom these are embodied. We are either helping or hindering those movements on which Christ has set His heart; often, without being aware of it, men choose their sides and plan and speak and act either for or against Christ. This is the Passion of our own day, the Golgotha of our own city.

But it comes nearer than this. The living Christ Himself is still in the world: He comes to every door; His Spirit strives with every soul. And He still meets with these three kinds of treatment—apathy, antipathy, sympathy. As a magnet, passing over a heap of objects, causes those to move and spring out of the heap which are akin to itself, so redeeming love, as revealed in Christ, passing over the surface of mankind century after century, has the power so to move human hearts to the very depths that, kindling with admiration and desire, they spring up and attach themselves to Him. This response may be called faith, or love, or spirituality, or what you please; but it is the very test and touchstone of eternity, for it is separating men and women from the mass and making them one for ever with the life and the love of God.

[1] Keim strangely surmises that there was no great crowd; but this is impossible.

[2] As, however, the Jews would have objected to this, Edersheim argues—but not convincingly—that there must have been at least a slight covering.

[3] Sueskind, Passionsschule, in loc.



In the last chapter we saw the impressions made by the crucifixion on the different groups round the cross. On the soldiers, who did the deed, it made no impression at all; they were absolutely blind to the wonder and glory of the scene in which they were taking part. On the members of the Sanhedrim, and the others who thought with them, it had an extraordinary effect: the perfect revelation of goodness and spiritual beauty threw them into convulsions of angry opposition. Even the group of the friends of Jesus, standing afar off, saw only a very little way into the meaning of what was taking place before their eyes: the victory of their Master over sin, death and the world appeared to them a tragic defeat. So true is it, as I said, that, when something grand is to be seen, there is required not only the object but the seeing eye. The image in a mirror depends not only on the object reflected but on the quality and the configuration of the glass.

We wish, however, to see the scene enacted on Calvary in its true shape; and where shall we look? There was one mind there in which it was mirrored with perfect fidelity. If we could see the image of the crucifixion in the mind of Jesus Himself, this would reveal its true meaning.

But in what way can we ascertain how it appeared to Him, as from His painful station He looked forth upon the scene? The answer is to be found in the sentences which he uttered, as He hung, before His senses were stifled by the mists of death. These are like windows through which we can see what was passing in His mind. They are mere fragments, of course; yet they are charged with eternal significance. Words are always photographs, more or less true, of the mind which utters them; these were the truest words ever uttered, and He who uttered them stamped on them the image of Himself.

They are seven in number, and it will be to our advantage to linger on them; they are too precious to be taken summarily. The sayings of the dying are always impressive. We never forget the deathbed utterances of a parent or a bosom friend; the last words of famous men are treasured for ever. In Scripture Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and other patriarchal men are represented as having risen on their deathbeds far above themselves and spoken in the tones of a higher world; and in all nations a prophetic importance has been attached to the words of the dying. Now, these are the dying words of Christ; and, as all His words are like gold to silver in comparison with those of other men, so these, in comparison with the rest of His words, are as diamonds to gold.

In the First Word three things are noticeable—the Invocation, the Petition, and the Argument.


It was not unusual for crucified persons to speak on the cross; but their words usually consisted of wild expressions of pain or bootless entreaties for release, curses against God or imprecations on those who had inflicted their sufferings. When Jesus had recovered from the swooning shock occasioned by the driving of the nails into His hands and feet, His first utterance was a prayer, and His first word "Father."

Was it not an unintentional condemnation of those who had affixed Him there? It was in the name of religion they had acted and in the name of God; but which of them was thus impregnated through and through with religion? which of them could pretend to a communion with God so close and habitual? Evidently it was because prayer was the natural language of Jesus that at this moment it leapt to His lips. It is a suspicious case when in any trial, especially an ecclesiastical one, the condemned is obviously a better man than the judges.

The word "Father," further, proved that the faith of Jesus was unshaken by all through which He had passed and by that which He was now enduring. When righteousness is trampled underfoot and wrong is triumphant, faith is tempted to ask if there is really a God, loving and wise, seated on the throne of the universe, or whether, on the contrary, all is the play of chance. When prosperity is turned suddenly into adversity and the structure of the plans and hopes of a life is tumbled in confusion to the ground, even the child of God is apt to kick against the Divine will. Great saints have been driven, by the pressure of pain and disappointment, to challenge God's righteousness in words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. But, when the fortunes of Jesus were at the blackest, when He was baited by a raging pack of wolf-like enemies, and when He was sinking into unplumbed abysses of pain and desertion, He still said "Father."

It was the apotheosis of faith, and to all time it will serve as an example; because it was gloriously vindicated. If ever the hand of the Creator seemed to be withdrawn from the rudder of the universe, and the course of human affairs to be driving down headlong into the gulf of confusion, it was when He who was the embodiment of moral beauty and worth had to die a shameful death as a malefactor. Could good by any possibility rise out of such an abyss of wrong? The salvation of the world came out of it; all that is noblest in history came out of it. This is the supreme lesson to God's children never to despair. All may be dark; everything may seem going to rack and ruin; evil may seem to be enthroned on the seat of God; yet God liveth; He sits above the tumult of the present; and He will bring forth the dawn from the womb of the darkness.


The prayer which followed this invocation was still more remarkable: it was a prayer for the pardon of His enemies.

In the foregoing pages we have seen to what kind of treatment He was subjected from the arrest onwards—how the minions of authority struck and insulted Him, how the high priests twisted the forms of law to ensnare Him, how Herod disdained Him, how Pilate played fast and loose with His interests, how the mob howled at Him. Our hearts have burned with indignation as one depth of baseness has opened beneath another; and we have been unable to refrain from using hard language. The comment of Jesus on it all was, "Father, forgive them."

Long ago, indeed, He had taught men, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." But this morality of the Sermon on the Mount had been considered, as the world still inclines to consider it, a beautiful dream. There have been many teachers who have said such beautiful things; but what a difference there is between preaching and practice! When you have been delighted with the sentiments of an author, it is frequently well that you know no more about him; because, if you chance to become acquainted with the facts of his own life, you experience a painful disillusionment. Have not students even of our own English literature in very recent times learned to be afraid to read the biographies of literary men, lest the beautiful structure of sentiments which they have gathered from their writings should be shattered by the truth about themselves? But Jesus practised what He taught. He is the one teacher of mankind in whom the sentiment and the act completely coincide. His doctrine was the very highest: too high it often seems for this world. But how much more practical it appears when we see it in action. He proved that it can be realised on earth when on the cross He prayed, "Father, forgive them."

Few of us, perhaps, know what it is to forgive. We have never been deeply wronged; very likely many of us have not a single enemy in the world. But those who have are aware how difficult it is; perhaps nothing else is more difficult. Revenge is one of the sweetest satisfactions to the natural heart. The law of the ancient world was, at least in practice, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy." Even saints, in the Old Testament, curse those who have persecuted and wronged them in terms of uncompromising severity. Had Jesus followed these and, as soon as He was able to speak, uttered to His Father a complaint in which the conduct of His enemies was branded in the terms it deserved, who would have ventured to find fault with Him? Even in that there might have been a revelation of God; because in the Divine nature there is a fire of wrath against sin. But how poor would such a revelation have been in comparison with the one which He now made. All His life He was revealing God; but now His time was short; and it was the very highest in God He had to make known.

In this word Christ revealed Himself; but at the same time He revealed the Father. All His life long the Father was in Him, but on the cross the divine life and character flamed in His human nature like the fire in the burning bush. It uttered itself in the word; "Father, forgive them"; and what did it tell? It told that God is love.


The expiring Saviour backed up His prayer for the forgiveness of His enemies with the argument—"For they know not what they do."

This allows us to see further still into the divine depths of His love. The injured are generally alive only to their own side of the case; and they see only those circumstances which tend to place the conduct of the opposite party in the worst light. But at the moment when the pain inflicted by His enemies was at the worst Jesus was seeking excuses for their conduct.

The question has been raised how far the excuse which He made on their behalf applied. Could it be said of them all that they knew not what they were doing? Did not Judas know? did not the high priests know? did not Herod know? Apparently it was primarily to the soldiers who did the actual work of crucifixion that Jesus referred; because it was in the very midst of their work that the words were uttered, as may be seen in the narrative of St. Luke. The soldiers, the rude uninstructed instruments of the government, were the least guilty among the assailants of Jesus. Next to them, perhaps, came Pilate; and there were different stages and degrees down, through Herod and the Sanhedrim, to the unspeakable baseness of Judas. But St. Peter, in the beginning of Acts, expressly extends the plea of ignorance so far as to cover even the Sanhedrists—"And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers"—and who will believe that the heart of the Saviour was less comprehensive than that of the disciple?

Let us not be putting limits to the divine mercy. It is true of every sinner, in some measure, that he knows not what he does. And to a true penitent, as he approaches the throne of mercy, it is a great consolation to be assured that this plea will be allowed. Penitent St. Paul was comforted with it: "God had mercy on me, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." God knows all our weakness and blindness; men will not make allowance for it or even understand it; but He will understand it all, if we come to hide our guilty head in His bosom.

Of course this blessed truth may be perverted by an impenitent heart to its own undoing. There is no falser notion than that expressed in the French proverb, Tout comprendre est tout pardonner (To understand everything is to pardon everything), for it means that man is the mere creature of circumstances and has no real responsibility for his actions. How far our Lord was from this way of thinking is shown by the fact that He said, "Forgive them." He knew that they needed forgiveness; which implies that they were guilty. Indeed, it was His vivid apprehension of the danger to which their guilt exposed them that made Him forget His own sufferings and fling Himself between them and their fate.

It has been asked, Was this prayer answered? were the crucifiers of Jesus forgiven? To this it may be replied that a prayer for forgiveness cannot be answered without the co-operation of those prayed for. Unless they repent and seek pardon for themselves, how can God forgive them? The prayer of Jesus, therefore, meant that time should be granted them for repentance, and that they should be plied with providences and with preaching, to awaken their consciences. To punish so appalling a crime as the crucifixion of His Son, God might have caused the earth to open on the spot and swallow the sinners up. But no judgment of the kind took place. As Jesus had predicted, Jerusalem perished in indescribable throes of agony; but not till forty years after His death; and in this interval the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost took place, and the apostles began their preaching of the kingdom at Jerusalem, urgently calling the nation to repentance. Nor was their work in vain; for thousands believed. Even before the scene of the crucifixion terminated, one of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus, who had taken part in reviling Him, was converted; and the centurion who superintended the execution confessed Him as the Son of God. After all was over, multitudes who had beheld the sight went away smiting their breasts.[2] We have no reason to doubt, therefore, that even in this direct sense the prayer received an abundant answer.

But this was a prayer of a kind which may also be answered indirectly. Besides the effect which prayer has in procuring specific petitions, it acts reflexly on the spirit of the person who offers it, calming, sweetening, invigorating. Although some erroneously regard this as the only real answer that prayer can receive, denying that God can be moved by our petitions, yet we, who believe that more things are wrought by prayer, ought not to overlook this. By praying that His enemies might be forgiven, Jesus was enabled to drive back the spirits of anger and revenge which tried to force their way into His bosom, and preserved undisturbed the serenity of His soul. To ask God to forgive them was the triumphant ending of His own effort to forgive; and it is impossible to forgive without a delicious sense of deliverance and peace being shed abroad in the forgiving heart.

May we not add that part of the answer to this prayer has been its repetition age after age by the persecuted and wronged? St. Stephen led the way, in the article of death praying meekly after the fashion of his Master, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Hundreds have followed. And day by day this prayer is diminishing the sum of bitterness and increasing the amount of love in the world.

[1] "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

[2] Luke xxiii. 48.




It is not said by whose arrangement it was that Jesus was hung between the two thieves. It may have been done by order of Pilate, who wished in this way to add point to the witticism which he had put into the inscription above the cross; or the arrangement may have been due to the Jewish officials, who followed their Victim to Golgotha and may have persuaded the soldiers to give Him this place, as an additional insult; or the soldiers may have done it of their own accord, simply because He was obviously the most notable of their prisoners.

The likelihood is that there was malice in it. Yet there was a divine purpose behind the wrath of man. Again and again one has to remark how, in these last scenes, every shred of action and every random word aimed at Jesus for the purpose of injuring and dishonouring Him so turned, instead, to honour, that in our eyes, now looking back, it shines on Him like a star. As a fire catches the lump of dirty coal or clot of filth that is flung into it, and converts it into a mass of light, so at this time there was that about Christ which transmuted the very insults hurled at Him into honours and charged even the incidents of His crucifixion which were most trivial in themselves with unspeakable meaning. The crown of thorns, the purple robe, Pilate's Ecce Homo, the inscription on the cross, the savage cries of the passers-by and other similar incidents, full at the time of malice, are now memories treasured by all who love the Saviour.

So His position between the thieves was ordained by God as well as by men. It was His right position. They had called Him long before "a friend of publicans and sinners;" and now, by crucifying Him between the thieves, they put the same idea into action. As, however, that nickname has become a title of everlasting honour, so has this insulting deed. Jesus came to the world to identify Himself with sinners; their cause was His, and He wrapped up His fate with theirs; He had lived among them, and it was meet that He should die among them. To this day He is in the midst of them; and the strange behaviour of the two between whom He hung that day was a prefigurement of what has been happening every day since: some sinners have believed on Him and been saved, while others have believed not: to the one His gospel is a savour of life unto life, to the other it is a savour of death unto death. So it is to be till the end; and on the great day when the whole history of this world shall be wound up He will still be in the midst; and the penitent will be on the one hand and the impenitent on the other.

But it was not in one way only that the divine wisdom overruled for high ends of its own the humiliating circumstance that Jesus was thus reckoned with the transgressors. It gave Him an opportunity of illustrating, at the very last moment, both the magnanimity of His own character and the nature of His mission; and at the moment when He needed it most it supplied Him with a cup of what had always been to Him the supreme joy of living—the bliss of doing good. As the parable of the Prodigal Son is an epitome of the whole teaching of Christ, so is the salvation of the thief on the cross the life of Christ in miniature.


Both thieves appear to have joined in taunting Jesus, in imitation of the Sanhedrists. This has, indeed, been doubted or denied by those, of whom there have been many, who have experienced difficulty in understanding how so complete a revolution as the conversion of the penitent thief could take place in so short a time. Two of the Evangelists say that those crucified with Him reviled Him; but it is just possible grammatically to explain this as referring only to one of them; because sometimes an action is attributed to a class, though only one person of the class has done it.[2] The natural interpretation, however, is that both did it. It is likely enough, indeed, that the one who did not repent began it, and that the other joined in, less of his own accord than in imitation of his reckless associate. Very probably this was not the first time that he had been dragged into sin by the same attraction. His companion may have been his evil genius, who had ruined his life and brought him at last to this shameful end.

It was an awful extreme of wickedness to be engaged, so near their own end, in hurling opprobrious words at a fellow-sufferer. Of course, the very excess of pain made crucified persons reckless; and to be engaged doing anything, especially anything violent, helped to make them forget their agony. It mattered not who or what was the object of attack; they were reduced to the condition of tortured animals; and the trapped brute bites at anything which approaches it. This was the state of the impenitent thief. But the other drew back from his companion with horror. The very excess of sin overleaped itself; and for the first time he saw how vile a wretch he was. This was brought home to him by the contrast of the patience and peace of Jesus. His brutal companion had hitherto been his ideal; but now he perceives how base is his ferocious courage in comparison with the strength of Christ's serene endurance.

The desire to explain away the suddenness of the conversion has led to all sorts of conjectures as to the possibility of previous meetings between the thief and Christ. It is quite legitimate to dwell on what he had seen of the behaviour of Jesus from the moment when they were brought into contact in the crucifixion. He had heard Him pray for the forgiveness of His enemies; he had witnessed His demeanour on the way to Calvary and heard His words to the daughters of Jerusalem; the very cries of His enemies round the cross, when they cast in His teeth the titles which He had claimed or which had been attributed to Him, informed him what were the pretensions of Jesus; perhaps he may have witnessed and heard the trial before Pilate. But, when we attempt to go further back, we have nothing solid to found upon. Had he ever heard Jesus preach? Had he witnessed any of His miracles? How much did he know of the nature of His Kingdom, of which he spoke? Guesses may be made in answer to such questions, but they cannot be authenticated. I should be inclined with more confidence to look further back still. He may have come out of a pious home; he may have been a prodigal led astray by companions, and especially by the strong companion with whom he was now associated. As there was a weeping mother at the foot of the cross of Jesus, there may have been a heart-broken parent at the foot of that other cross also, whose prayers were yet going to be answered in a way surpassing her wildest hopes.

The question of the possibility of sudden conversion is generally argued with too much excitement on both sides to allow the facts to be recognised. Among us there may, in one sense, be said to be no such thing. Suppose anyone reading this page, who may know that he has not yet with his whole heart and soul turned to God, were to do so before turning the next leaf, would this be a sudden conversion? Why, the preparation for it has been going on for years. What has been the intention of all the religious instruction which you have received from your childhood, of the prayers offered on your behalf of the appeals which have moved you, of the strivings of God's Spirit, but to lead up to this result? Though your conversion were to take place this very hour, it would only be the last moment of a process which has gone on for years. Yet in a sense it would be sudden. And why should it not? What reason is there why your return to God should be further postponed? There are two experiences in religion which require to be carefully distinguished: there is the making of religious impressions on us by others from the outside—through instruction, example, appeal and the like; and there is the rise of religion within ourselves, when we turn round upon our impressions and make them our own. The former experience is long and slow, but the latter may be very sudden; and a very little thing may bring it about.

Another way in which it is possible to minimise the greatness of this conversion is by questioning the guilt of the man.[3] When he is called a thief, the name suggests a very common and degraded sinner; but it is pointed out that "robber" would be the correct name, and that probably he and his companion may have been revolutionaries, whose opposition to the Roman rule had driven them outside the pale of society, where, to win a subsistence, they had to resort to the trade of highwaymen; but in that country, tyrannised over by a despotic foreign power, those who attempted to raise the standard of revolt were sometimes far from ignoble characters, though the necessities of their position betrayed them into acts of violence. There is truth in this; and the penitent thief may not have been a sinner above all men. But his own words to his companion, "We receive the due reward of our deeds," point the other way. His memory was stained with acts for which he acknowledged that death was the lawful penalty. In short, there is no reason to doubt either that he was a great sinner or that he was suddenly changed. And therefore his example will always be an encouragement to the worst of sinners when they repent. It is common for penitents to be afraid to come to God, because their sins have been too great to be forgiven; but those who are encouraging them can point to cases like Manasseh, and Mary Magdalene, and the thief on the cross, and assure them that the mercy which sufficed for these is sufficient for all: "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us from all sin."

The fear of those who endeavour to minimise the wonderfulness of this conversion is lest, if it be allowed that a man of the worst character could undergo so complete a change in so short a time on the very verge of the other world, men may be induced to put off their own salvation in the hope of availing themselves of a death-bed repentance. This is a just fear; and the grace of God has undoubtedly been sometimes thus abused. But it is an utter abuse. Those who allow themselves to be deceived with this reasoning believe that they can at any moment command penitence and faith, and that all the other feelings of religion will come to them whenever they choose to summon them. But does experience lead us to believe this? Are not the occasions, on the contrary, very rare when religion really moves irreligious men

"We cannot kindle when we will The fire that in the soul resides: The spirit breatheth and is still— In mystery the soul abides."

Nor is it by any means a uniform experience that the approach of death awakens religious anxiety. The other thief is a solemn warning. Though face to face with death and in such close proximity to Jesus, he was only hardened and rendered more reckless than ever. And this is far more likely to be the fate of anyone who deliberately quenches the Spirit because he is trusting to a death-bed repentance.

Yet we will not allow the possible abuse of the truth to rob us of the glorious testimony contained in this incident to the grace of God. We set no limits to the invitation of the Saviour, "Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out." However late a sinner may be in coming, and however little time he may have in which to come, let him only come and he will not be cast out. There is no more critical test of theologies and theologians than the question what message they have to a dying person whose sins are unforgiven. If the salvation which a preacher has to offer is only a course of moral improvement, what can he have to say in such a place? We may be sure that our gospel is not the gospel of Him who comforted the penitent thief, unless we are able to offer even to a dying sinner a salvation immediate, joyful and complete.

How complete the revolution was in the penitent thief is shown by his own words. St. Paul in one place sums up Christianity in two things—repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And both of these we see in this penitent's words. His repentance towards God is brought out by what he said to his companion. "Dost thou not fear God?" he asked. He had himself forgotten God, no doubt, and put Him far away in the sinful past. But now God was near, and in the light of God he saw his own sinfulness. He confessed it, doing so not only in his secret mind but audibly. Thus he separated himself from it, as he did also from the companion who had led him astray, when he would not come with him on the path of penitence. Not less distinctly do His words to the Saviour manifest his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are simple and humble: all he dared to expect was that, when Christ came into His kingdom, He would remember him. But they recognised the glory of Christ and expressed trust in Him. At the moment when the religious teachers of the nations thought that they had for ever destroyed Christ's claims, and even His own disciples had forsaken Him, this poor dying sinner believed in Him. "How clear," exclaims Calvin, "was the vision of the eyes which could thus see in death life, in ruin majesty, in shame glory, in defeat victory, in slavery royalty. I question if ever since the world began there has been so bright an example of faith." Luther is no less laudatory. "This," says he, "was for Christ a comfort like that supplied to Him by the angel in the garden. God could not allow His Son to be destitute of subjects, and now His Church survived in this one man. Where the faith of St. Peter broke off, the faith of the penitent thief commenced." And another[4] asks, "Did ever the new birth take place in so strange a cradle?"


It is worth noting that it was not by words that Jesus converted this man. He did not address the penitent thief at all till the thief spoke to Him. The work of conviction was done before He uttered a word. Yet it was His work; and how did He do it? As St. Peter exhorted godly wives to convert their heathen husbands, when he wrote to them, "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, that, if any obey not the Word, they also may, without the Word, be won by the conversation (i.e., behaviour) of the wives, while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear." It was by the impression of His patience, His innocence, His peace, and His magnanimity, that Jesus converted the man; and herein He has left us an example that we should follow in His steps.

But His words, when He did speak, added immensely to the impression. They were few, but every one of them expressed the Saviour.

The robber was thinking of some date far off when Christ might intervene in his behalf, but Christ says, "To-day." This was a prophecy that he would die that day, and not be allowed to linger for days, as crucified persons often were; and this was fulfilled. But it was, besides, a promise that as soon as death launched him out of time into eternity, Christ would be waiting there to receive him. "To-day thou shalt be with Me." All heaven is in these two last words. What do we really know of heaven, what do we wish to know, except that it is to be "with Christ"? Yet a little more was added—"in Paradise." Some have thought that in this phrase Christ was stooping to the conceptions of the penitent thief by using a popular expression for some happy place in the other world.[5] At least the word, which means a garden or park and was applied to the abode of our first parents in Eden, could not but call up in the consciousness of the dying man a scene of beauty, innocence and peace, where, washed clean from the defilement of his past errors, he would begin to exist again as a new creature. Even Christians have believed that the utmost that can be expected in the next world by a soul with a history like the robber's is, at least to begin with, to be consigned to the fires of purgatory. But far different is the grace of Christ: great and perfect is His work, and therefore ours is a full salvation.

This second word from the cross affords a rare glimpse into the divine glory of the Saviour; and it is all the more impressive that it is indirect. The thief, in the most solemn circumstances, spoke to Him as to a King and prayed to Him as to a God.[6] And how did He respond? Did He say, "Pray not to Me; I am a man like yourself, and I know as little of the unknown country into which we are both about to enter as you do"? This is what He ought to have answered, if He was no more than some make Him out to be. But He accepted the homage of His petitioner; He spoke of the world unseen as of a place native and familiar. He gave him to understand that He possessed as much influence there as he attributed to Him. This great sinner laid on Christ the weight of his soul, the weight of his sins, the weight of his eternity; and Christ accepted the burden.

[1] "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."

[2] So Augustin and many.

[3] Schleiermacher makes much of this; and, indeed, does everything in his power to minimise the moral miracle. The whole sermon is a specimen of his worst manner, when he rides away on some side issue and fails to expound the great central lessons of a subject.

[4] Tholuck.

[5] "In Biblical Hebrew the word is used for a choice garden but in the LXX. and the Apocalypse it is already used in our sense of Paradise."—EDERSHEIM.

[6] The word "Lord" in the robber's speech is, however, unauthentic.



In the life of our Lord from first to last there is a strange blending of the majestic and the lowly. When a beam of His divine dignity is allowed to shine out and dazzle us, it is never long before there ensues some incident which reminds us that He is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; and, contrariwise, when He does anything which impressively brings home to us His humanity, there always follows something to remind us that He was greater than the sons of men. Thus at His birth He was laid in a manger; yet out on the pastures of Bethlehem angels sang His praise. Long afterwards He was asleep in the end of the boat, and so overcome with fatigue that He needed to be awakened to realise His danger; but immediately He rebuked the winds and the waves, and there was a great calm. When He saw the grief of Martha and Mary, "Jesus wept"; but only a few minutes afterwards He cried, "Lazarus, come forth," and He was obeyed. So it was to the very last. In studying the Second Word from the cross we saw Him opening the gates of Paradise to the penitent thief; to-day the Third Word will show Him to us as the Son of a woman, concerned in His dying hour for her bodily sustenance.


The eye of Jesus, roving over the multitude whose component parts have been already described, lighted on His mother standing at the foot of the cross. In the words of the great mediaeval hymn, which is known to all by its opening words, Stabat mater, and from the fact that it has been set to music by such masters as Palestrina, Haydn and Rossini,

"Beside the cross in tears The woeful mother stood, Bent 'neath the weight of years, And viewed His flowing blood; Her mind with grief was torn, Her strength was ebbing fast, And through her heart forlorn The sword of anguish passed."

When she carried her Infant into the temple in the pride of young motherhood, the venerable Simeon foretold that a sword would pierce through her own soul also. Often perhaps had she wondered, in happy days, what this mysterious prediction might mean. But now she knew, for the sword was smiting her, stab after stab.

It is always hard for a mother to see her son die. She naturally expects him to lay her head in the grave. Especially is this the case with the first-born, the son of her strength. Jesus was only thirty-three, and Mary must have reached the age when a mother most of all leans for support on a strong and loving son.

Far worse, however, was the death He was dying—the death of a criminal. Many mothers have had to suffer from the kind of death their children have died, when it has been in great agony or in otherwise distressing circumstances. But what mother's sufferings were ever equal to Mary's? There He hung before her eyes; but she was helpless. His wounds bled, but she dared not stanch them; His mouth was parched, but she could not moisten it. These outstretched arms used to clasp her neck; she used to fondle these pierced hands and feet. Ah! the nails pierced her as well as Him; the thorns round His brow were a circle of flame about her heart; the taunts flung at Him wounded her likewise.

But there was worse still—the sword cut deeper. Had not the angel told her before His birth, "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David; and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end"? This greatness, this throne, this crown, this kingdom—where were they? Once she had believed that she really was what the angel had called her—the most blessed of women—when she saw Him lying in her lap in His beautiful infancy, when the Shepherds and the Magi came to adore Him, and when Simeon and Anna recognised Him as the Messiah. After that ensued the long period of His obscurity in Nazareth. He was only the village carpenter; but she did not weary, for He was with her in their home; and she was confident that the greatness, the throne, the crown, the kingdom would all come in good time. At last His hour struck; and, casting down His tools and bidding her farewell, He went forth out of the little valley into the great world. It is all coming now, she said. Soon the news arrived of the words of grace and power He was speaking, of the multitudes following Him, of the nation being roused, and of the blind, the lame, the diseased, the bereaved who blessed Him for giving joy back to their lives, and blessed her who had borne Him. It is all coming to pass, she said. But then followed other news—of reaction, of opposition, of persecution. Her heart sank within her. She could not stay where she was. She left Nazareth and went away trembling to see what had happened. And now she stands at the foot of His cross. He is dying; and the greatness, the glory, and the kingdom have never come.

What could it mean? Had the angel been a deceiver, and God's word a lie, and all the wonders of His childhood a dream? We know the explanation now: Jesus was about to climb a far loftier throne than Mary had ever imagined, and the cross was the only road to it. Before many weeks were over Mary was to understand this too; but meantime it must have been dark as Egypt to her, and her heart must have been sorrowful even unto death. The sword had pierced very deep.


There were other women with Mary beneath the cross—two of them Marys, like herself.[2] As an ancient father[3] has said, the weaker sex on this occasion proved itself the stronger. When the apostles had forsaken their Master and fled, these women were true to the last. Perhaps, indeed, their sex protected them. Women can venture into some places where men dare not go; and this is a talent which many women have used for rendering services to the Saviour which men could not have performed.

But there was one there who had not this protection, and who in venturing so near must have taken his life in his hand. St. John, I suppose, is included with the rest of the apostles in the sad statement that they all forsook their Master and fled. But, if so, his panic can only have lasted a moment. He was present at the very commencement of the trial; and here he still is with his Master at the last—the only one of all the Twelve. Perhaps, indeed, the acquaintance with the high-priest, which availed him to get into the palace where the trial took place, may still have operated in his favour. But it was most of all his greater devotion that brought him to his Master's side. He who had leaned on His breast could not stay away, whatever might be the danger. And he had his reward; for he was permitted to render a last service to Jesus amidst His agony, and he received from Him a token of confidence which by a heart like his must have been felt to be an unspeakable privilege and honour.


It is most of all, however, with the impression made by the situation on Jesus Himself that we wish to acquaint ourselves.

He looked on His mother; and it was with an unpreoccupied eye, that was able to disengage its attention from every other object by which it was solicited. He was suffering at the time an extremity of pain which might have made Him insensible to everything beyond Himself. Or, if He had composure enough to think, a dying man has many things to reflect upon within his own mind. Christ, we know, had a whole world of interests to attend to; for now He was engaged in a final wrestle with the problem to which His whole life had been devoted. The prayer on behalf of His enemies does not surprise us so much, for it may be said to have been part of His office to intercede for sinners; nor His address to the penitent thief, for this also was quite in harmony with His work as the Saviour. But we do wonder that in such an hour He had leisure to attend to a domestic detail of ordinary life. Men who have been engaged in philanthropic and reformatory schemes have not infrequently been unmindful of the claims of their own families; and they have excused themselves, or excuse has been made for them, on the ground that the public interest predominated over the rights of their relatives. Now and then Jesus Himself spoke as if He took this view: He would not allow His plans to be interfered with even by His mother. But now He showed that, though He could not but refuse her unjust interference, He had never for a moment forgotten her just claims or her true interests. In spite of His greatness and in spite of His work, He still remained Mary's Son and bore to her an undying affection.

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